It is sweeter to wander with the wretched and outcasts than to sit crowned with roses at the banquets of the rich
Elisee Reclus

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

‘Trail of The Spider’: Speculating on Despair

”This is where I was born. I’ve seen the changes going around. People have come in a taken over everything and local people are moving out…If all of us had got together in the first place this would never have happened. If you don’t like what’s happening around you have to stand up and be counted. It’s been nice to see those responsible having to look over their shoulders as everyday people take over”
Floyd, during the Broadway Market campaign.

I am old enough to know better than to head off to some art institution in search of what is missing from my life. Despite it all however, this is what I foolishly did.

There are really two parts to this story. Part One is the Hope. Part Two is the Despair. Along the way there are necessary personal digressions.


As is usual with me, I forget to do the things I want to do, so it was no surprise that I missed a showing of the film ‘Trail of the Spider’ by Anja Kirschner and David Panos at the Tate Modern on 1st June 2008. I had seen this event listed in the Tate Modern brochure almost two months earlier. Sounding good from the description, I penciled round the text and forgot all about it.

“This is the premiere of acclaimed artist Anja Kirschner’s newest film, an unsettling trans-historical vision of the Wild West. In a vanishing frontier swarming with calculating surveyors, corrupt lawmen and hired thugs, a lone gunfighter must avenge the dispossessed or else remain trapped in a state of limbo, haunted by the past and pitted against the future.”

Quite by accident I found out that a free showing was happening at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) the very next day. So fortune had stepped in and I cycled up there and caught the movie after all.

What had interested me in the movie was the promise of something political being said about events in our Capital City. Something not exclusively a London problem but something that comes out of recent London events and the perversely trumpeted future of increasing erosion of rights and privacy, common spaces and communal political action. It is not only these collective domains that appear to be fading out but the very discourse around them too.

By accident, I had heard of both artists from my own uncovering of things. Both people are (or were) involved in the excellent band Antifamily. The song ‘Work Cheap’ is a recent favourite of mine, it’s deadpan lyrics describing the ascendancy of profit over people. David Panos, I remembered, was part of the duo called The London Particular who published and made short films on the ravages called down upon the poor as part of the on-going ‘regeneration’ of Hackney. With some other recollected rumours in my mind I also associated the artists with involvement in the Save Broadway Market campaign where a long existing local café sold off under the nose of the owner was squatted twice to highlight local corruption, inequality and gentrification amongst other things. I stress again however that this memory was merely a mish-mash of possible connections in my mind.

What these facts, ideas and memories spun in my brain was that ‘Trail of the Spider’ would be worth catching. It didn’t seem to take too much effort to connect these dots and come up with a correct preconception of the site and theme of the film: the upheaval and enclosure of land around the 2012 Olympic sites, in and around Lea Valley in East London.

First the film. Well, it’s a mish-mash of well-known frontier themes and characters. A Spaghetti Western filmed on Hackney Marshes, Rainham and other places. That the film is all over the place is probably stylistic. Poorly acted by actors and local people, although this is not much of a criticism, it becomes annoying after a while for various reasons. One of which is the striving for something real and authentic within a series of pastiches, clichés and copies of other genres. Another reason is simply that it’s irritating. Characters come and go, interesting types – the lawmen, the surveyor, the renegades and the gold rushers - but in the end the lack of acting ability interrupts the process of characterization, and our possible empathy with them. I’m sure that the lack of acting talent is entirely an artistic choice, preferring the homegrown and local over the famous or other but in the end it takes away more than it adds.

The tale begins to unfold after initial shots of a wild frontierland that is in the process of being ‘tamed’ by speculators. Our hero, the taciturn Man With No Name (played by Floyd whose quote begins this text) wanders the landscape, taking aim at the colonists but never going as far as to fire on them.
Going over the plot quite quickly, The Man With No Name wanders about trying to find some freedom in the marshes but soon finds that the previously freer wild lands have now been colonized and the local population have surrendered their Wild West-style autonomy for a small slice of the pie and some security. Here The Man With No Name meets an old friend, Marnie, a bar owner who utters perhaps the only moving lines in the whole film. As has been the case from day one of capitalist austerity imposed upon the poor, some sectors of the needy take what they can get from an alliance with the merchants, the lords, the new landowners. When there are few choices, anything can be better than nothing. Giving up the small communal freedoms of their once more autonomous community near the swamps, these locals, overseen by a surly self-appointed leader, are rebuilding a proper town under the gaze of lawyers, agents of a law that been imposed from above but also embraced by all. Throwing in their collective lot to receive ‘just a little something more’ is more or less how the Marnie puts it.

To cut a not very complicated story short, The Man With No Name is persuaded to act as hired gun for the new community but is double-crossed, as is the town leader, Marnie being the only character that manages to rise above the misery and sinking feeling of defeat. Not only that but she is done some justice onscreen by Claudette Bonney, the actress, storyteller and singer who plays her. The final scene is a double cross where the mercenaries brutalise those they have tricked whilst The Surveyor cackles in delight at the ease of just how much suckers the poor are. Finally, Marnie pitches up with a gun to try and impose some class justice, something the other two now seem incapable of enacting, or even remembering. She is defeated and it’s left to our hero The Man With No Name to rouse himself and fire into The Surveyor finally. The final scene is a land race sale where a mob, with pound signs in their eyes, rush at plots in the newly ‘opened’ up land to claim them for purchase. The Surveyor who has somehow survived the shooting and is alive and well, oversees the race and this next round of profits for his bosses.

Ok, so that’s the film as I, more or less, remember it. It’s pretty depressing stuff. Not the kind film that offers solutions to contemporary collective atomization, local processes of enclosure, working class delusion and knowing your place and so on. The one character that seems to offer some rebel spirit is a semi-tracksuit clad feral young girl who desires to know something of the possible freedoms and liberties of the old days. This is what Man With No Name seems to represent to her but she appears then disappears without any development. That’s a shame.
I can’t say the script, production and direction rises qualitively above more than a few things: an initial cuteness of the hybrid ragged cowboy/modern day clothes the characters wear; a poignant moment of class agony – Marnie’s desire for some security from the daily grind of poverty; maybe the idea to land an earlier history from another landgrab and to overlay this on the current site of accumulation and speculation.
When the end titles rolled, the whole thing had more or less left me cold.

There is always more than a simple artwork and an audience. The context that surrounds my viewing of the film is as important as any message the film tries to give up. What I bring to this film screening will always collide with whatever is projected back at me. Seated there, expectant, my head makes political and cultural connections for this art work but also bubbles along with the other factors from my day to day. Let’s call the factors I include here 1,2,3 and 4:

(1) My job - where I feel the pressure to pass along an standard bourgeois approach to art and creativity to the children that I am teaching. This temporary well-paid job is merely doing grunt work for a layer of arts admin types who get to choose how to spend corporate sponsors’ money on local education projects. Neither coming from the local area nor having much of a clue of what likely conditions, mentalities and subtleties might be found in such an area, these ‘types’ oversee workshops that are masked as ‘strategies’ for social inclusion but in reality are box-ticking exercises where other donations will be received on the basis of the galleries excellent educational programme. The real business is to keep the gallery world functioning, a world of curators, reviewers, directors, patrons and artists. Local children will never be ‘included’ in this world (although some of them may end up as security guards or cleaners there) and this much is obvious from the unconscious classism that pervades the place. As a precarious worker I am however subject to the whims and mentalities of these joyless arts admin types over each renewing of my contract and so cannot stray too far into ‘Art By All or None At All’ rants although I try.
But it can be good too. I am often thrown when a parent speaks of how good it is that their child can be exposed to ‘art’. It’s confusing because my own exposure to books about art came from my Dad too. Despite being quite ‘creative’ at school it was certainly not seen as the proper way for him to earn a living. An intersection of reading bits of his hard–earned and precious books about art and the arrival of punk set me on a happy course of living my life beyond the 9 to 5 prole job that was expected of me. When parents appreciate my workshops, I hope it comes from a sense that their own kids horizons can be widened in a way that theirs was not allowed to be. This space to live a little more however has to be separated out from a purely bourgeois experience of art and culture. There has to be some critique that helps you, the auto-didact, grow and that helps you avoid straying into individual artistic pretensions or liberal facades that mask very real class interests. I always try to break down art for the children as something that is a free process of their hands, heart and brain co-ordination. Art is not some out of reach club or some bourgeois occulture that has a meaning that you have to ‘get’ before you are part of that club. It’s obvious though that many artists (from the ‘lower’ classes) get caught up with their own hype of belonging on having arrived in that contradictory space.

(2) My life history as a working class self-taught radical follows on from that insight. This is a never-ending struggle against all the odds of how much self-respect and difficult-to-find self-confidence you need to keep your head up in middle class scenes. In the end you can crack it by just being yourself – neither up your arse nor up anyone else’s.

(3) My housing situation where I feel the greyness of my communal landing with its cracks, stains and dirty windows. The real dispirit of the once-Utopian tower block is the total failure of the ‘street in the sky’ idea. This is little more than a system of cells with a slight parole in the shared lift but not much. Phantoms haunt me in this Estate. It makes me tired, anonymous, a perfunctory neighbour and hungry for real communal space.

(4) Politically, the recent Tube train party that celebrates/denigrates the pathetic new policy of an alcohol ban had my head reeling. I had seen images of City bankers drinking to excess and barging the police about on the Circle Line in the name of some vague notion of something about something. Here was what passes these days as a communal politics: a spectacle of self-activity, an easy-to-digest but gone-off morsel of opposition (maybe?). It was enough to keep me hiding under the bed for a few days. A final good reason to keep yourself away from the Internet.

Was it for these four (amongst other) reasons that I had tried once again to find critique in the realm of art? Really I just needed to be out and about while my temporary misery rose, crashed and fell. Like all those other times, I had sought some escape in art or artists, looking for the simple reality of finding someone who had something finally to say on the state of things and thus plant some seed of hopefulness against the monoculture of banality we are currently supposed to want to reap.

Well, once again, I failed and this defeat pretty much began the moment I sat my arse on the free seat of the ICA gallery where the movie was being shown. Here we must dwell a little while on what we will call ‘Types’ of people, for I speak, of course, with blatant generalization and stereotyping typical of one such as I.
From a possible twenty or so people in the audience, I report approximately 10 who watched the whole film with some sense of interest, determination or will for something else. We were the types who sit still and watch what is on screen from start to end. We concentrate and try to make sense of what we are watching. The rest of those assembled consisted of people who shuffle back and forth in their seat, send and receive text messages, get up and leave, arrive half-way through and buzz around for a few minutes before buzzing off etc. That the film was shown in one of the ICA’s open galleries and not in the Cinema meant that the art crowd in the next-door gallery could be heard whooping, chattering, laughing all the way through our activity. Occasionally some of them would loudly come in and suck on their wine, screech chairs on the stone floor, sound bored very loudly or sigh as if they were at least trying to watch the film with some interest as it unfolded before their very eyes. In the end, the noises off, the parakeet-like chatter, sonorous welcomes and “ha-ha-ha” would pull them away and they would sidle past the screen, free again from difficulty.

Now it sounds like I am making a case for strict adherence to some film goers’ code of ethics and have a problem with parties of middle class art party goers. This is not true. Well, actually it is. But only for the latter.

Remember I am looking for something being said. This entails something being said to me but also more importantly being said to us as a crowd. When the film ended, I wished I had the guts to just ask anyone there what they thought of it. Instead of some collective dialogue and argument, I slunk away through a crowd of jolly types who were blocking the stairs. Polite as I regrettably am, I just made a cautious way through and left to cycle back home in despair.


The audience for this ICA bash, and one assumes a similar crowd for the preview at The Tate Modern, is probably the least likely to be affected by the massive ‘regenerative’ changes currently alive and rampant in London at this time. Not only that, these types seem as an audience to be the least likely to actually do anything about it either. What is the point of this film then? Is it an artwork? The most common description of Kirschner and Panos I have found is as ‘artists’ although the sacred Internet also throws up the self-description ‘activist’ for Panos. Or, then, is the film something else? Something more politicized than expressly political but still a social contribution. Is it to develop new strategies of resistance, new ideas to invigorate or adhere existing local struggles? On the one hand it features what you could assume were local people who might know something of the gentrification and economic warfare directed at their communities. Do these people have a say in the artwork, the film? Do these people attend screenings or hold their own screenings in the East End? Do they have any collective sense of ownership of the finished product or does it belong only to Kirschner and Panos?

On the other hand, the film itself and the surrounding patronage (funding from the Arts Council, Film London Artist’s Moving Image Network and The Elephant Trust plus Kirschner’s own representation by Hollybush Gardens Gallery), prestigious venues for screenings (Tate Modern, ICA, Art Basel, Zagreb) and its attendant cultural capital and knowingness, suggests a dynamic contraction of well-meaning desires to confront the very state of affairs the film portrays.
To me it seems like such a move, showing a film with these themes in these places, is locking something down more than opening something up. Has this film been shown in the East End at all? It’s worth remembering that the Tate Modern played an early role in the continuing gentrification of the surrounding Bankside area and the cleaning out/ nice-ifying of local parks for a more middle class type of person. Marketed as one of the most visited Art Theme Parks in the world, the Tate has a pitiful record on wages and conditions and also runs a half-assed community outreach programme. Having ‘Tate’ on your C.V is a sure-fire way to ascend in the art jobs racket (unless you were selling espressos or cleaning the bogs there). I presume that these will also be the jobs available to local people in the East End during the Olympics and then forever after as the site is turned into expensive housing and crap café chains.

It also felt like the free 8-page Trail of The Spider Reader was something that added to this feeling of political and cultural enclosure. The Reader (and that title irks me) is ‘Compiled by Anna Kirschner and David Panos’ and is simple digest of all the themes that are used in the film. This is short introduction to lifted histories of black cowboys and outlaw female bandits, other radical narratives such as The Spider as trickster figure and real time speculation on the effects of the London 2012 Olympics on low-cost housing availability in the East End.

A Reader that accompanies a film seems a little heavy handed on behalf of the film makers. There may be something honest and giving in wanting to explore as a side piece much of where the film comes from but when things become this obvious it seems to move from using things from all over to taking things from all over and using them up. This seems to be a locking down for me because it’s either really obvious where their influences come from or because the film is not good enough to stand up to the revelation of these superlative pasts and events. These potted histories of defiance, of famous cowboys, revolutionary message Spaghetti Westerns, anarchist dynamiters and runaway slave struggles are, if stood alone in the text, more inspiring and dynamic than the dismal message of the film where liberated interzones have not resisted the economic plagues of the times and where formerly communal acting characters have become individualized. In fact there is local community political and artistic resistance to local regenerations scams and, of course, the meisterscam of scams, the gigantic State-funded private sector rip-off of 2012. The Reader does have a nice lengthy quote from ex-Angry Brigade ‘member’ and Trail of The Spider cast-member John Barker about various Hackney pubs that functioned a little as semi-freed up islands of (sub)cultural sanity in better times before succumbing to their inevitable yuppiefication as bars, flats or restaurants. Despite this new Blitz, resistance in the form of squatted centres and temporary spaces, allotment open days, group networking, information sharing and gatherings, micro artistic statement and propaganda, free events and intervening protests are still very much alive. There are people who are trying to say and do something local against what is being portrayed as being for the benefit of all, even if the resistance remains more invisible than say Ken, Boris or Seb Coe. Floyd’s off-screen quote above is sharper and more dynamic than anything in the film. Sadly, on-screen, Floyd as The Man With No Name remains silent throughout.

I wonder why the film is so resolutely downbeat in trying to portray an actual reality of working class life? Sure there is survival, surrender, compromise, cynicism, parasitism but there is always an actual resistance that survives merely because being poor gives rise to continual thoughts about why you have no money and how you might resist this. Those who do not come from poverty but who right now may not have much will never ever know what it physically and mentally feels like to come from and face a life of mere survival. With this in mind, I wonder if it easier then to see obvious defeats over more subtle histories of communal action and struggle. As I understand it, some main players in the Broadway Market occupations were less able to stand the evictions (and defeat?) of the campaign than other more proletarian elements who had not had the life experience of usually getting what one wants and probably had less illusions about what was possible against the law, a corrupt council and the changing times. I don’t know if those rumoured aspects of that fairly novel and significant local struggle were in the minds of the artists before and during the making the this film? Maybe the film makers just really dug Sergio’s Corbucci’s genre Western Il Grande Silenzio (mentioned in The Reader) where the silent hero and a mass of local renegades are massacred in the end by a bounty killer slightly more wised-up in the possible fortunes to be made in dealing with a proto-petit bourgeoisie that operates outside the clutches of the law despite it’s simultaneous use of legal manoeuvres. Kirschner and Panos’s Man With No Name figure is part-time reworking of Corbucci’s character Silence, a confused out-of-his-time class wanderer, good at shooting, bad at political subtleties. That Corbucci’s film ends in a reactionary slaughter may be a good referential portent to the eventual outcome of the 2012 Olympics as it is felt in the local communities caught in the sights of rapacious developers. This may be so (and paid for by us through that working class tax, the Lottery, amongst other taxes) but it will not have been without some on the ground organizing, initiatives and involvements, experiments and direct actions, as has always been and always win. Best wishes to all.


Anonymous said...

The film played at 'Chat's Palace' in the East End of London free and to a packed house.

Anonymous said...

The film can be played to as many people in a house as it can manage, it doesn't mean that everyone is going to like it! That's making a sweeping assumption that because the film was popular attendance wise, people will go away beliving in what they saw!
I could make a sweeping assumption that the vast majority of the people at Chat's Palace are not going to be affected by gentrification and in fact, have probably benefited by it (would they be in Hackney if it didn't have the cool, trendy, edgy chic tag attached to it?!)


RUINIST said...

You can read a defence of the film by the makers here:


David Panos has said this: 'I disagree strongly with The Ruinist review. There was a sense that he wanted an upbeat portrayal of working class struggle but I feel that doesn’t necessarily correspond to the reality of the moment. I think I am speaking not as a pessimistic romantic ‘speculating on despair’ from the sidelines, but from a more informed position as having been involved with attempts to build new networks and participate in local actions. I do think that the way the characters are drawn definitely has a melancholic side to it but they’re hopefully not drained of all life – rather each of them is trying to work out how to deal with changing times in their own way. The film is not a happy one but I really think, he missed the question that the film is trying to pose – He compares it to Silenzio where the community is brutally massacred at the end of the film. Well, in Trail of the Spider all the protagonists are left standing at the end. As the settlers stake their claims we wanted people to be asking, what happens next? Or how can we avoid this happening again? Strangely enough the quote from Floyd that Chris uses actually sums up the whole point of the film; ‘if we’d been better organised then none of this would have happened’! The question is what do we do? How do we found new politics? The film is meant to be read as a loop – a limbo. The key question is how can we break out of the deadlock. What can emerge from historic defeat?'

The Ruinist spent some time thinking about this one, on and off over the years since this was written. As it's one of the most popular posts on HomeLessHome, it seems reasonable to post David's disagreement here. The Ruinist doesn't feel the need to defend a position really. Just so much defeat everywhere. Sometimes it's just hard to know how to join the dots again.

I'd like to see the film again in better circumstances and appreciate more what David says above.