Monday, 20 June 2011

Denburn Dérive #00 PROLOGUE

Up and down Ferryhill pushing the clock to make the appointment with my collaborator. London train rumbling overhead - noisy through the alarming crack in the viaduct arch, the strain gauges the filth. Rainshowers patrol the horizons, darkening out to sea and orbiting our basin-bound town. Will we get wet today? But for now, sun breaks through and provokes a little sheen of sweat - sunglasses on I'm in too much of a hurry to be lingering and photographing all these edges, but I can't help myself. The weather is on the same edge as the transformed and re-transforming littoral of these flatlands between re-routed river and the harbour, this mudflat where once the Denburn and Backburn of Ferryhill mingled their braided way to the mightier estuary beyond and the sea.

Palmerston who bought his way into Parliament, and who opposed any extension of the franchise to the urban working class, posthumously awarded his own One Way Street with Rotten Dyke
John Aberdein

Hydroponic supplies and consumables for the cultivators of certain giggly crops snuggle cocking a snook under the slime-filthy arches of Palmerston Road at the site of stalled comprehensive redevelopment on the Denburn estuary flatlands.
Once hailed by the local authority as an exciting, emerging, dynamic new business district south of the city centre, development work here is stalled. Freedom House has been built and occupied, Pilgrim House remains a vacant lot of rubble and estuarine sand. Ready for occupation Summer 2009. The economic crisis made a liar of the developer's billboard - just as on the TV news every weekday we see and hear (and feel) the cognitive dissonant stress of special economic correspondents as they struggle to find a way to tell the tea-time massed prolity: the dawning realisation that a return to growth may not actually be feasible.

Half demolished fish smokehouses remain in a stand-off with the abandoned demolition-man's bulldozer. The anodized aluminium clad high-tech HQ of the local development corporation is gullshit streaked, neighbouring as it does the fish-packers' brick sheds with their robust business model stubborn - no spreadsheet-misdirected finance capital required. No lease-out real-estate capital leverage buy-back vehicle. Just boxed fish from the harbour; finance capital for real-estate bets might have dried up, but we all must still eat. Fishy industry half-here half-away; pencilneck suited and booted spreadsheet wranglers half-arrived. An electric tension discharges in the arc between the now and the then, and between the then and the future. That rapidly receding future juxtaposed with a past that isn't compatible with the new aspiration.


It is morning in Rubislaw Den, Aberdeen's most prosperous neighbourhood. The sumptuous, granite-faced villas erected by the Victorian shipbuilders and mill barons who made this corner of Scotland rich more than a century ago, rise up and down the tree-lined streets. In the surrounding parkland, deer graze and kingfishers swoop. All is quiet, apart from the occasional crunch of tyres on gravel as Bentleys and Lamborghinis bearing personalised number plates slip out of double-gated driveways to convey their owners to work, or ferry spouses to another day of retail therapy in the city centre.

It might stick in the craw of those living elsewhere in the UK to see wealth being so conspicuously flaunted in Aberdeen's West End – battling as they are to cope with a 35 per cent hike in gas bills or the cost of filling a fuel tank – but here, in the backyard of Europe's high-powered oil and gas executives, the latest round of soaring world energy prices are helping the industry reap rewards unseen since the boom days of the 1970s.


Aberdeen - widely thought to be the town the credit crunch forgot - but the now-stalled development tells us otherwise. High oil prices have kept the debt-wolf from the door for a while, but Aberdeen is the dead man walking - and those walking the concourses of its amerimall shopping centres are its zombies.


Fred Magdoff and Michael D Yates
The ABCs of the Economic Crisis

A working person toiling away on an automobile assembly line or in a restaurant kitchen must have found it difficult to understand how the bankers and brokers who have brought the economy to its knees made so much money simply by selling pieces of paper. When workers make cars, houses or meals, and when farmers produce food, they are producing something that people need and can use. But those who sell complex financial instruments don't produce anything tangible at all. Something doesn't seem right about making money without producing a useful good or service. And indeed, no society can survive if the only economic activity - or even the dominant activity - is lending and borrowing money. The same can be said for buying already-made things at one price and selling them at a higher price. If the only economic activity is merchant trade, everyone will soon die because nothing is being produced.

I've arranged to meet my collaborator in Union Square. Thinking that perhaps it would be ironic for us to start our collaberation there, at the sight of consumer capitalism's highest form - on the northern edge of its imperial reach - Aberdeen's newest shopping and leisure destination is, maybe, too big a bite to chew in one.


Unfinished short story

One of the many things which troubled him was the standard of product which was available from many of the retail outlets in The New Centre. It was a kind of inside out transaction, he thought. The appearance of sumptuous luxury and opulent prestige telegraphed by the surroundings was belied by the lack of choice and just-about-OK quality of the goods on offer. He sighed. He knew that this was the way of things; that the act of retail - the consumerist consummation, was now almost entirely about the experience of shopping itself. Products, once purchased, became almost irrelevant as the unsatisfiable shimmering simmering need to buy more grasped the shopper and promptly propelled him or her through the doors of the next shop along. Inside out. Like the centre itself; concrete multi-level carpark and aluminium clad shed from most exterior views but the interior veneered with brass and oak, marble and crystal glass. He understood the need for the constant renewal of businesses - the creative destruction at the heart of capitalism - "all that is solid melts into air". He appreciated the reasons for consumers' constant craving for novelty. At the heart of the human condition was the need to seek out new delights; that was hard-wired into the brains of the nomadic hunter-gatherers which we had been until only ten millenia earlier - a mere eyeblink in the full sweeping arc of human evolution. Biologically and psychologically we remained hunter-gatherers, and that heritage was best and fully both expressed in and exploited by The New Centre.


Past the road-freight loading bay of the new shopping mall which is in the same space as once occupied by a railhead freight terminal which operated fully integrated with the sea-port beyond, I arrive inside the surveillance footprint of the mall's security zone. The cycle racks once trumpeted as evidence of the mall management's committtment to sustainability now exclusively occupied by large-engine-capacity motorbikes. An automatic door and I'm inside the conditioned environment, the mediated experience of the mall. In sharp contrast to the deserted and desolated streets outside, the mall's marble veneered ersatz street is crammed with people. Their contemporary fashion uniforms instantly let me know what sort of people they are - or, more accurately, what their favorite TV programmes are.


She teamed the stripy socks and black gymshoes with the flowery dress because one of the fat girls on that American high-school singalong show did the same - so it's OK to be bigger these days - it must be, or those girls wouldn't be on the TV. It's all about messages, you know. Her whole life is one of messages, her branded possessions are laden with messages. Her car is marque "x" which says "y" about her. She reckons it says "y" about her, 'cos the advert and the carsalesman (her great annual friend - he's so flirty!) implied heavily that it would. It also lets everyone know what her paygrade is. That's very important. By the badges of their cars they keep their scores in the hierarchies.

All these things are signifiers of 'her', but, although she exercised the final and one true freedom of consumer choice, she did not truly choose them - rather they were chosen for her; they chose her. Unheedingly she spins the hamsterwheel on the neverending upgrade cycle. Surely the next upgrade iteration of her chosen phone and car or gamesconsole and kitchen appliance or laptop and holiday package or tv broadcasting standard; whatever will be the one which will make her life complete! She doesn't care that the upgrade cycle has effectively rendered the ownership of her possessions merely short term leases towards planned obsolescence - that's OK! The subscription model embraces and guides her towards a future on the upgrade path, the roadmap to forever, the added functionality, the software/hardware nexus. Mobile phone teleco business models lead the way to the free provision of hardware in return for a monthly subscription fee. The more she pays, the quicker she gets upgraded to newer more functional flashier hardware which she displays visibly to the chagrin of her inferiors in the lounge bar restaurant leisure and retail destination.

Does it trouble her that, seen from the other end of the telescope, she is in fact the product which has been manufactured conditioned moulded and finalised by her own agency; compliant vacuous consumption of advertising media (the adverts are sometimes better than the programmes!). The living room was the factory - the product being manufactured was she. She has been told what to want, told when to want it, but never told why. A pre-indebted fully conditioned compliant producer-consumer, her contract is negotiable. She is the 'installed base' to which the providers must continually 'upsell'. Her eyes are the eyes delivered to the advertisers by her media provider. Her subscription is the unarguably certain future revenue upon which the media providers base their corporate profitability forecasts as they strategise and organise: the world and its minds being theirs to homogenise.

So does it trouble her? Sometimes she wonders - is this all there is? Sometimes the shadow of the beginning of knowledge flits darkening across her consciousness, but usually, she's too distracted, too put upon, too tired to entertain these thoughts. Does it trouble her? No, she's too busy at work: crushed by the unhuman commute, enriching far-off faceless shareholders by her toils. That is when she's not going through the motions with displacement activity and clock-watching till 5 o'clock and the tea-time glass of wine (or two or three) which she's convinced herself that she deserves; digging ever deeper into the easy-credit overdraft of ersatz happiness and good cheer from the bank of Boozy Britain. Then an exhausted evening slumped in front of the plasma, ready-meal in one hand, balloon goblet of pinot grigio in the other; conditioned by advertising-funded broadcasting to be a good consumer - a commercial commodity, bought, sold and delivered gift-wrapped to the corporations; endentured, bonded, enslaved by the upgrade cycle. Then the same again tomorrow.

Ah, but retail therapy on a Saturday morning! "This is the highlight of my week" she can be heard saying to her companions, only just a little too loudly.


Outside the mall I saw the rump of a fishing-industry food sector, clinging on against the tide of valueless vague papershuffling make-work, so inside the mall I'm momentarily disgusted and disorientated by by the food-chain inversion implied by the foot-skin nibbling-fish stall in the centre of the concourse. I look away retching, my consciousness is diverted elsewhere and I percieve a psychogeograpical fault-line. Who else has allowed themselves to notice that two security guards - one of them very short, but with a hollow-eyed "don't fuck with me" look in his hard-life face and a tight-wound flick-knife potential to his bearing - have four or five boys lined up against the hoarding of an unoccupied shop unit? Apart from one, who is clearly much older, the boys look like brothers - they've all got the same haircut and are graded in height. All are wearing similarly hand-down cheap unbranded sportswear and trainers. They know what's next - the best they can hope for is summary ejection from the mall. They just don't fit here, you see.

And now across the crowd, I can see my collaborator - psychogeographer Lewis Dryburgh - man with détournement on his mind. We've arranged to meet today for a dérive up the valley of the Denburn from its outfall into the Upper Dock of the harbour. He's leaning against a pillar and putting his phone back in his pocket. I wave at him as my own phone thrums and toots - a text from Lewis. I'm late - but only by 5 minutes. We greet each other and make a start...

So, in search of an ancient watercourse, we head off towards the Upper Dock, through the new bus and coach terminal which is aesthetically very similar to (but planographically opposite from) the roadfreight loading bay at the other end of the shopping mall. "Welcome to Aberdeen!" But which is the true freight of this mall? In which direction does this building cause value to flow?

1 comment:

uair01 said...

Beautiful BW photographs!