September 19th, 2005

operesque

The pathos of monopoly

Yesterday Hisae and I went to the Hamburger Bahnhof and saw a rather wonderful photography show, Typologies of Industrial Buildings by Bernd and Hilla Becher. (Click here for a better view.) "The exhibition presents blast furnaces, winding towers, water towers, cooling towers, gas tanks and coal bunkers in all their diversity," said the catalogue. Of course I'd seen the Bechers' work before, but never so much of it in one place, arranged so schematically in "typologies" (grids of 12 or 15 pictures showing variants on the same industrial building type). Room after room of the stuff.

These austere photos contain some lovely contradictions. On the one hand they're photographed with frigid detachment and icy objectivity, on the other hand you can't help entertaining intense personal fantasies of living in them, or opening clubs, lofts or museums there (the Hamburger Bahnhof itself is a repurposed industrial space, formerly housing the main Berlin-Hamburg railway line). The buildings are freakishly different from the kind of structures we see on our daily paths through cities, yet, arranged typologically, they draw our attention to their conformities, making us focus on small variations between different examples (always photographed against a flat grey sky).

Thinking about yesterday's entry about diversicide and monopoly, I began to scribble down notes. "The pathos of monopoly", read the first one. These buildings, once proud cathedrals of industrial might, are now frail and ghostly, remnants of a bygone era. Many have already been demolished, and are preserved only in these photographs (and the memories of the generations of workers who toiled there, making ceramics and paint, mining coal, smelting iron, bolting steel...) I imagined myself in frock coats, a hundred years ago, pointing to the structures and blaming them for erasing diversity (displacing villages, flattening forests, scarring the landscape). And yet here they are now, in these photographs, arranged in typologies of structural strangeness, advertising diversity. It's ironic.

I thought of a John Harris article in the Guardian I quoted with approval last year. "In 2004, there are but a handful of international musical superstars," it lamented, "Beyoncé, 50 Cent, Justin Timberlake, Eminem, Norah Jones, Coldplay." Already that list reeks of "the pathos of monopoly". Some of these artists are struggling to maintain their dominance. It's not that monoculture doesn't exist, it's that it's never quite clear which culture gets to play in mono, and for how long. Even Microsoft's massive dominance is by no means guaranteed. Five years, in the computing world, is time enough for the Roman Empire to decline and fall.

The dominant and the diverse, the one and the many, the "it" and the "others", these can all change places at the drop of a hat — that's the message the Becher pictures seemed to convey. They also prompted the thought that these relationships don't just change over time, they change according to the way you type, group and classify the relationships between things. Diversity can be present or absent depending on how close you get to the thing you're studying. For instance, jeans might all look the same from a certain distance, but get closer and you begin to see all sorts of distinguishing features (stitching, cut, texture and colour, weight, style allusion) — features which can have big meanings vested in them, like the difference between one class affiliation and another. You can zoom and crop the picture so that similarity fills the frame, or so that difference does. Uniformity just forces the play of difference down to ever-smaller and more subtle details; the kind of tricks I used to play when I customised my school uniform, wearing the V-neck backwards or fattening the tie. Little details took on a lot of importance, became the symbolic repositories of all individuality, all diversity.

It's always difficult to say exactly what people and things represent monoculture this year, and for how long they'll be doing it. Traditional Korean court music may seem like "diversity" when it's performed in today's Germany, but once, back home, it may well have been a dominant, erasing monoculture. The bully out of context is free to pose as a victim. Sure, monoculture does exist, but when it comes to specifying it all we can say is that we know it when we see it.