July 29th, 2005


Universal flow

Yesterday Hisae and I went to the Ring Centre at Frankfurter Allee, a big shopping centre. Hisae bought a sack of litter for Baker the rabbit to drop his pellets into, and I bought a cheap DVD player and some contact lenses. I got the DVD machine specifically to watch the Rem Koolhaas Lagos DVD I bought the other day, which refuses to play on computers. It was worth it: the DVD is excellent and, for me personally, endlessly thought-provoking. The criticisms I raised the other day were pretty much dispelled. There is some confusion between Koolhaas' attraction to Lagos as a place of refuge from shopping and his subsequent discovery that Lagos is all about shopping too, and between his initial exhilaration at the lack of planning and a growing conviction that planning is necessary. But these are productive confusions, the inevitable result of looking and learning with rare application and candour. The impression that Koolhaas is flying over Lagos in the president's helicopter, studying ants scuttling on clover leaves, is also offset when you watch the film (it's a whole other film, really) with the "close angle" view selected, and get a much more human, verstehen perspective soundtracked by first-person narratives from Lagos people themselves; the bus driver, the policeman, the marketeer unloading electronics bought from Dubai's free trade zone from the back of a truck.

One of the ways the film changed my perception was its constant attention to logistics — the way goods are moved around the world, and moved around Lagos; the sense of flow. It's tempting to see this as a rather 90s globalist theme because people like Andreas Gursky and Koolhaas himself have focused our attention to it so relentlessly in the last ten years. The Lagos DVD contains a beautifully poetic image of flow: Koolhaas describes being taken to a Lagos restaurant at night during a power cut. The area feels dirty and dangerous; one could easily get lost here and find oneself "prematurely recycled", as Koolhaas puts it. It's so dark in the restaurant that he can't even see the food he's eating. Suddenly a pristine bright white refrigerated truck arrives to restock the kitchen with fresh, cool food. In that place of utter darkness there's a bright white light, a temperature-controlled cube, a sort of rescue spacecraft, a vehicle from the world of flow.

After I watched the film, I looked at my own life in terms of the flow of goods. The DVD player I'd bought, a cheap but sleek and efficient Chinese model stacked high in the huge electronics store where I bought it. The smell of the factory when I tore open the plastic. The rapacious pleasure of throwing away the packaging. The usual problem of finding a free electrical outlet for yet another new appliance, and a free place amongst all the electronic accessories that cluster around the TV. At some level, all this is happiness, a very universal sort of happiness. Just because 90s globalism focused so insistently on flow, it doesn't mean it isn't universal. After all, even animals seem to share the exitement and understand the importance of flow.

Baker has taken to carrying one of Hisae's slippers around the flat with a loping gait, the heavy weight hanging from his teeth making his hind legs kick out like a frisky horse's. There's no practical purpose to the exercise: I suppose it's a kind of practice for carrying rabbit cubs around in times of emergency. But it's certainly a form of flow, of rabbit logistics. Baker is very interested in human movements around the flat, especially movements which are to do with food, waste, and moving things around. Even bowel movements excite him. He follows me into the bathroom and runs around my feet grunting with excitement when I'm sitting to piss or shit. The smells tell him what's happening. He's also very interested in sexual congress. That's flow too, fluid flow, a process to produce, potentially, new goods, new life. Baker sniffs everything, scampers around, investigates crumbs on the floor, eats grass and vegetables, and gets very growly and angry when I sweep up his droppings with a brush, attacking the bristles. What to me is simply waste is to him nutrition (rabbits eat their own scentless pellets, needing two passes to digest everything) and communication (the pellets are also used for territorial marking).

The reason we think of Koolhaas' helicopter shots as "reducing" Lagos to a huge antheap is that we think of ants as inferior creatures, creatures for whom we have little sympathy. But there's a reverse logic implied in the metaphor, a much more sympathetic one which might redeem it: that what we humans do to survive is also what animals do, and insects do. We think we're unique because we have things like language and economics, but logistics—the transportation of goods from place to place, flow—is universal, a result of the basic material contract we have with the world, a contract we must meet with resourcefulness or die. For animals and humans alike, food must grow and goods must flow. We must forage, and stock, and transport, and consume, and discard our waste, and, sometimes, recycle too, like the drum-beaters who work under Lagos flyovers beating the dents out of blue chemical drums, reselling them for 1000 naira apiece. Like the black man I discovered outside the door of my New York gallery at 4.30am, stripped to the waist, sifting through the trash, collecting the plastic containers and putting them into clear plastic bags to recycle them for cash. We all participate in flows of this kind, and even animals have a sort of "economics" based on the way they organize their lives to fulfill the basic material requirements of life in the world.

This sort of idea might seem cold, or distant, or ideological, a kind of projection on a vast scale of the Darwinian free market. But I began to wonder how this might be rendered as a universal understanding, a point of contact. I began to think of ways this materialist conception, this emphasis on connection through flow and goods and logistics, might be tied in with the idea of a universal tenderness. I fitted it with the outline taking shape in my mind of my next album, "The Friendly Album" (working title), which is supposed to be a tender and positive record about feelings of empathy, connectedness and indebtedness. Instead of trying to portray friendship as "higher" or more noble and disinterested than mere material investment, why not see material interest as a real source of connectedness and even virtue? The missing link between humans and dung beetles!

Goods are "good" (the French word, biens, also contains the double meaning). They smell good! Animals, children and even insects seem to understand it when we move goods and foods and waste about. Of course they do! They do it too. It makes them excited, it's passionate and fascinating. They love us when we come home from the supermarket laden with purchases, and they love us when we open the can containing their food. Logistics and love are all tangled up. Animals and children love us because we feed and protect them. They seem to understand that love, like money, is just flow abstracted.