The Physical Impossibility of British Art

London lay drowned beneath an ocean. A deep, dark ocean navigated by monied corporate leviathans, the City quailing beneath. Pulled in their wake were the hackers, hook-ups and the vacant. Criss-crossing London, invisibly, was all this – information. People, things and sex, all matter and action alike reduced to drops of data. An unseen sea, one that had no end, of money, services, and the surveilled.

From the depths of this ocean, 0 rose. An artist, of sorts. From nowhere in particular, other than the depths. All the exchanges in the dark waters of London had pulled them to the surface. And they had brought with them strange artifacts. Remnants of Crypto-Atlantis, transported to Britain like modern-day imperial plunder for exhibition in galleries. They had no name, no face, no discernible gender. They were 0. No one.

That was the specific tone of the exhibition prospectus circulated by 0 and their marketing team. And Robert Shakely, writer/journalist/near unemployable wreck of a human beached on the shores of a failed career, snorted at the allusionist excesses of the piece. A work of pure purple prose, ironic reappraisals of Britishness, classical allusions and nods to the work of Sadie Plant. It was so gauche and 1994 (all cyborgs and Deleuzian asides), but it was also steeped in money. Stinking of it. Enough to make an oligarch choke on imported caviar in their football club box.

0 was initially assumed to be a Charles Saatchi art world stunt, until the dark master of advertising’s open frustration at this anarcho-artist’s capturing of the market became clear. The press releases and prospectuses, without a trace of corporate branding (again the millions in play were signified by the absence of any visible backers), spoke of an ‘event’.

A takeover of London. Something that would be remembered forever.

Typical marketing hype, the pseuds scoffed.

A vanity project by some art student turned wunderkind-manqué, opined Shakely’s journo friends at Kings Place.

Meanwhile the majority of London sidestepped by the chatter said nothing at all. The noise from high-end pubs, social media feeds or the member’s clubs inhabited by gossiping ghouls from the House of Lords had zero impact on them. Londoners carried on with their lives, worked to pay bills and mortgages, and maybe enjoyed a drink or a curry as a treat.

They were as ignorant of the dark waters of data that inspired 0 as they were the concerns of their social betters in the Establishment.

Then the installations invaded the city, and they could not ignore 0 anymore.

‘Installations’ does not do justice to 0’s accomplishment. Over a quiet Sunday night on 9 April, five large monoliths, secured beneath canvas, appeared at points around the centre of the city: Kings Cross, Trafalgar Square, Oxford Street, Leicester Square and South Bank. A dedicated, and armed, security force was present around each site.

Projected on to the black canvas sheathe was a simple message.

From below.


10 May 2017

London, finally united in the face of – of all the opponents this city had endured, contemporary art(!) – panicked en masse.

At first the complaints were understandable to anyone already familiar with the capital. Traffic simply ground to a halt. The curious passersby and tourists gathering around the canvas-covered installations created a massive backlog of cars and public buses. The Underground was overwhelmed. The hooting of horns and swearing in angry Estuary accents formed an unholy cacophony, an orchestra of damned Yahoos around each site.

But any public sympathy for the televised reports of ordinary Londoners just trying to get home was quickly undermined by viral tune that sampled the sounds of protest, with footage of angry faces of every hue yelling abuse overlaid on top. Social media users took the video and sent it around the world – which only increased the interest in the installations. The trap remix alone (the anonymous wag behind track titled it ‘London Failing’ – Shakely felt furious on Joe Strummer’s behalf) charted, leaving some to assume this was yet another feint by 0.

And there was every chance it was. 0 moved invisibly through London, a presence that was felt everywhere at once, but unseen, afeared, a sunken thing that was rising no one knew where – speculation as to what 0 would do filled columns in papers and ministerial memos in Westminster.

One rumour online insisted 0 had been seen out dancing to the song in a club in Atlanta. No physical characteristics for the artist/memeplex-given-flesh were provided.

0 was on our streets, in our feeds, (in our sheets – the porn parodies alone, thought Shakely) and all over our online playlists. 0 was God. Or as close to a god as this disaffected and disappointed generation could afford to believe in.

“F— it. Just f— it.”

Shakely had been stuck in traffic for half an hour and there was no sign he would be making it further down the road in the next half.

And it was the fault of these braying mobs of lookie-loos, protesters and armed thugs up ahead at the crux of Oxford street. He was late. The interview subject he had been pursuing for a wasted set of coffee-fumed mornings would have stomped off by now, disgusted at his tardiness.

Or maybe they were gawping alongside the mob at a black blob of rough material on a raised stage.

Anyway. Shakely was a tired and angry man. He was just trying to scrape together something of interest to the coked-up commissioning editors he relied on for rent. Art with an unnaturally high financial capital backing was the last thing he’d expected from this new century of white noise.

DeLillo reference, he made a note of that. There was a literary quality to the 0 farrago that had struck him early on. The constant references to Atlantis, something rising from beneath London, the city itself sinking in a counter-movement – whoever was responsible was dropping references like breadcrumbs on a forest path.

Shakely had dismissed Lovecraft as a source of inspiration early on. The tenor was all wrong, less cosmically nihilistic and racially hateful, more specifically targeting a sense of Britishness. Cthuloid faddishness aside, 0’s language also had not a single trace of tell-tale Americanisms. Shakely suspected it was an adventure serial of some kind that had inspired the artist, or an Erskine Childers-style parable of the Edwardian-era ‘dark arts’.

That said he was not convinced the hidden installations themselves were what 0 represented. Shakely suspected the snail trail of cars was the piece, not whatever was signified by the oversized objects squatting at the five points around London.

He was no cultural correspondent – some frustrating years in the noughties working for the city’s ‘pink press’ had well and truly killed that interest for him. Simply mentioning Vincent Gallo was enough to give him hives. Recently Shakely had come to the bitter realization he was still little more than the fey boy who had read too many books in his childhood.

But he knew what art was. And it wasn’t just a nuisance designed to frustrate and anger Londoners.

On the passenger seat beside him lay an open notepad with six lines of chicken scrawl representing the entirety of Shakely’s research for the interview that would never happen.

Who was he kidding? Art was art, or maybe it wasn’t, but who was he to say either way. He could barely string a sentence together without a rage attack at the sheer mediocrity of everything he did.

To Shakely this traffic jam symbolized in sublime form a journalist going nowhere.

The idea was appealing to Shakely, and even though it wasn’t his beat and the young mascaraed influencers had the 0 narrative all sewn up, he began to ponder a personal piece on the ‘time of nothing special’, an aeon of what’s on the telly, as represented by this monetised anti-Weltanschauung. He reached for the notepad and the 0 marketing material.

Then the bullets rang out.

How can a journalist be first on the scene in the time of the smartphone? The concept itself is redundant. Before Shakely had exited the car – in fact before the echoes of the shots had faded – footage was making its way around the world of the heavy set black-clad installation security team firing at a protest group who rushed the raised platform. The protesters were later identified as local business owners, tradespeople and wait staff, forming an unlikely union that had sprung up in the wake of 0’s disruption. The security team had aimed and fired short bursts over their heads, forcing these angry Londoners to the ground. The entire incident was captured on dozens of camera phones. The initial rush, the team armed with M5 submachine guns (hey if the old Maschinenpistole was good enough for the Vatican, it was good enough for 0), taking aim and firing, and the immediate surrender of the protesters.

Shakely missed the whole thing.

But he arrived in time for the laughter.

As he ran panting up to the crowd of onlookers – even larger now thanks to the display of mercenary violence – the sound of laughter grew and broke likes waves on a rock. The protesters were trussed up, their hands and feet tied with plastic cord restraints. They were crying and footage of the men and women sobbing cut to a Muzak cover of Everybody Wants To Rule The World was uploaded that evening (it proved very popular with teens and unemployed Millennials, and was the number one trending video on Youtube). The guns were holstered, the security team took their positions around the installation once more, waiting for the police to arrive.

Shakely felt like he was in an alternate world. Some of the protesters were trying to chant something, or shout, but the laughter drowned them out. The spectacle had overtaken the consequences of violence. A woman, her back arched, hands red raw, was yelling, her mouth bloodied. Someone beside Shakely livestreamed the moment of her screaming. The scene was Ballardian in the cruelty and ugliness of the hyper-connected mob.

‘The city’s gone insane’, he muttered and went back to his car. Shakely finally had something to write about.

What followed was like a torture porn simulacrum that somehow made the grade to be aired during breakfast television. The video uploads by witnesses to the attempted protest were curated by 0 and projected on top of the installations. Google waved any requirement for a copyright notice. Again, a sign of the money backing this art movement that had captured London like an occupying army.

Scenes of violence were intercut with slogans like ‘Art is life, art is destruction, art is rebirth’.

Somehow that translated to rapturous reviews in the Guardian arts section. 0 was a prophet of the imminent failure of the mob. They represented the idea of individual action in its purest form, a free actor. It was all terribly Ayn Rand.

Shakely wrote through the night, popping pills like the old days and pissing in a breakfast bowl. The result was as angry a piece of writing as he’d ever produced. London *had* fallen, he declared. London had been bought by this unknowable corporate force named 0, the confirmation of what people who had to pay rent in the city had long suspected – that their hometown was someone else’s, continually being sold on from one unaccountable owner to another. Shakely had already reached out to colleagues on the Westminster beat to find out if there was any paper trail behind the installations, public permits, street clearance orders and the like. The answer came with a suggestion of familiar resignation. Anyone who asked was given the run-around by aides and middlemen. The decisions had been made. The events had unfolded from the moment representatives of 0 made a financial contribution to some election war chest and assurances were given no tangible information would be made public.

This was a form of terrorism mandated and backed by cultural elites for their own personal profit. Shakely proposed in his piece a theory that shareholdings in video software and social media platforms were going to skyrocket. Yet another facet of whatever lay behind this fiasco. But his ultimate argument was that 0 had revealed the nature of an atrophied cultural space. All world events, all political decisions, all crises and yes, even a brutal beating in the street, had been reduced to spectacle. Entertainment. It had been coming a long time, but 0 had revealed the world to itself with this Art of a London trapped.

Shakely’s editor hated it. The piece was rejected. So, he posted it online under his own name, cobbling together a basic website using crumbs of HTML knowledge he’d picked up. Less Than 0 was the title, because he was an old Bret Easton Ellis fan and not about to give up on that literary provocateur.

That very day 0 got in touch.

The Guido Fawkes post was titled WHO IS ROBERT SHAKELY, and what followed could best be paraphrased as ‘and why the f— should I care?’ The comments on the post were, to say the least, unkind.

That was when Shakely became aware something was up. He was now a known quantity to 0. Friends messaged and asked what the stats on his site were. Shakely honestly did not know. In a drunken fugue (a bottle of Laphroaig had been polished off, Philip K. Dick’s favourite) he had forgotten the password and from past experience had just let it be. There was a very likely possibility that he’d somehow manage to delete the DNS record. The memory of that professional whoopsie, and immediate firing, still gave him a cold sweat.

As 0 was not someone who deigned to email, they had instead decided to project Shakely’s invective across each of the installations and litter Camden with flyers printing out his writing.

To their credit, his website and professional details were listed prominently. His information was accompanied by a more flattering than he deserved photo from his younger days.

But the message was clear – they knew who he was. They knew where he was. They wanted to talk.

Shakely found the whole situation weird and while there was an opportunity to make some money here, he instead took the approach of dropping his phone into a Kensington park bin and deleting his email.

Being stalked by a MeMeGod was too existentially baffling for him. He considered running away to Port Merrion to recreate scenes from The Prisoner, an appropriately mad response to the situation.

But there was a journalist still inside him somewhere. And London was where the action was happening. And he had a theory. 0 had to deliver. The canvas had to be dropped soon. All this media spectacle and hype needed to be sustained by something. He was not going to let it be himself, he was not going to be fuel for the media cycle. He suspected 0 was padding for time.

And when given a choice between action and inaction, Shakely always chose the latter. He was too mindful of his own weaknesses and failures as a man. The rules of the genre were against him after all. A gay man was not going to come out on top as the hero in a work of British adventure fiction.

On the morning of 10 May, early morning commuters from London’s boroughs, suburbs and outer regions of England, office workers or schoolchildren, English or recent arrivals, were completely astounded by a sight which met their eyes.

At the five locations of Kings Cross, Trafalgar Square, Oxford Street, Leicester Square and South Bank, giant tanks filled to the brim with water stood revealed. Within were enormous segments of the 70-meters long hull of an underwater vessel. The home, and deadly weapon, of Captain Nemo, pirate, terrorist and Sepoy revolutionary who had extended the British humiliation of the Indian revolt of 1857 by waging a campaign against its navy all around the world.

Of course, no such man existed. He was an invention of Jules Verne, a piece of counter-propaganda designed by the Frenchman to thumb his nose at his country’s colonial rivals, after their brutalities and oppression in India finally bore a violent response. The installations presented sections of the ‘cigar-shaped’ Nautilus, a fictional submarine that would anticipate the application of its design principles to real vessels used in warfare and undersea exploration. Each site presented sections from Edouard Riou and Alphonse Marie de Neuville’s original designs for the first edition of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas, based on the énorme cylindre de tôle of Verne’s fantasy.

The Oxford street installation proved the most popular, as it went so far as to reveal a preserved facsimile of Nemo’s cabin. His charts and designs for the Nautilus itself on display, lit in the gloom of dark water by Verne’s then futuristic electric lamps.

Nemo, the man who was no one, like his mythical forebear Odysseus. 0 the idea made artist non-flesh who blinded cyclops London.

The literati thought it was simply wonderful.

A triumphant reclaiming of dissent against our bloody colonial past, raved the Guardian.

An embrace of Empire 2.0 by the art scene, chortled the Daily Telegraph.

The West London Hindu community newsletter took the opportunity to give account of the 1857 revolution and the loss of life before the Sepoys took the fight to the British. Captain Nemo was a counter-colonial hero and 0 had produced a 21st century tribute to Indian identity.

Shakely stood with the crowd at the Trafalgar Square site and stared at the black water surrounding an artfully constructed bulkhead. The camera flashes lit up the water like anglerfish bioluminescence.

London was strange to Shakely now, a foreign country. He had always felt apart from his fellow Englishmen. The difference that bound them together – Britishness, a union of nations and tribes that had been unevenly forged long before – had continued to weaken throughout his life. Shakely’s bookishness, his queerness, his non-interest in climbing any sort of professional ladder had continually Othered him. What he had never realized was, he was not alone in this. Britain, England, London, his area postcode and ever descending downward – all these strangers were caught just as he was in the dragging wake of the same estrangement.

And 0, whatever 0 was, had made this explicit, a grand unmasking of alienation in the UK by this manifestation of the great enemy of the undersea, suggestive of everything from the prowling Kraken to the Nazi U-Boat, and all the other dark, unseen forces that meant harm. And the keys to the city had been handed to them, as the mob laughed at the suffering of anyone who dissented, the tourists flocked to snap their pictures and phones trilled in choric adulation. Finally, Shakely made the decision to run away to Wales after all.

That afternoon while sitting on the bus crossing the bland English countryside of road stops and petrol stations to Holyhead, Shakely switched on his new phone. The screen lit up and then a new message alert flashed. The number read simply 0. It read ‘I could have made you famous Robert. You could have been the hero of this story. But keep running.

‘These times have left you behind.’

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