Intu The Abyss

I arrived in Manchester in July 2001; my first week was spent in a cheap hotel not far from work. After my first day, I headed into town and treated myself to dinner at an Italian restaurant. The starter was beautiful, the main course a disappointment. And they sat me beneath the air-con, so I ended up with a cold neck.

A week later I began moving my possessions – four trips in a Toyota Avensis estate, books and records and odd bits of small furniture.
I began to explore the nearby shops; the local mall closed early each night except Thursday, so I would stock up on food – it became routine to have a steak pie and a bottle of red on Thursday nights.
Then, one evening, I spotted the glowing blue dome a few miles distant, and asked my workmates what it was. ‘The Trafford Centre’, they said, ‘A temple to shopping.’

So I went one night to explore this place, and came away dizzy with excitement after seeing the palm trees and fountains and fake-Egyptian walls and murals and statues.

Over the following years I spent a great deal of time there, wandering round, buying magazines or records, sitting with a coffee, going to the cinema. It was always busy, always cheerful, with hordes of well-dressed shoppers carrying bags and enjoying lunch.
One end of the shopping centre had been given over to small independent market-stall type shops; joss-sticks, greetings cards, a community space used by the RNID. But a few years later, these traders were expelled and replaced by John Lewis.

My manager had sent me across to Vienna for a technical liaison meeting with one of our sister companies; the trip had gone well, and I had been treated with remarkable courtesy. I decided it might be appropriate to send my hosts a thank-you card, and went to Smith’s in the Trafford Centre to look for something elegant and artistic. But they had nothing remotely suitable – this enormous store, the shelves full of trite merchandise gearing up for Christmas.

One evening we went to see a film; to kill the time we sat in the food court, a mock-up of the deck of a cruise ship with a swimming pool and  blue-and-white painted sky in which there twinkled random stars. As we waited, a section of wall descended slowly to block the entrance to the retail areas; the design matched perfectly, giving no indication that there was a corridor of shops just behind.

In November each year the Salvation Army would organise a bike run – hundreds of motorbikes (Harleys, streetfighters, scooter mods, all sorts) would assemble at the Sally Army hostel and then ride in a huge convoy to the Trafford Centre to donate toys and money for the Christmas appeal. On one occasion the event took place on 11 November, and we all fell silent for two minutes – an eerie experience, with no sound except the distant traffic.

We would arrive at the centre where the Salvation Army band would be holding a carol service; despite the fact this event took place each year, horrified shoppers would ask ‘But what are all these bikes doing here?’

In 2020 the UK retail sector was paralysed by the Covid-19 pandemic and all non-essential shops (although for some habitués of the TC, Omega watches and Jaeger jackets are completely vital) were forced to close; the Trafford centre suffered badly during lockdown, and it was announced in June that the owners, Intu group, were in discussion with KPMG about the possibility of going into administration.

As usual with these immense civil engineering projects, a time capsule lies buried in the foundations of the Trafford Centre, probably designed to be dug up in 2098; however, the future of the UK economy now looks so shaky that the centre itself may end up being demolished sometime in the next ten years to make room for emergency housing or a quarantine detention camp…

When your life story becomes long and complicated, it makes sense to rely on charming fragments of the tale instead of trying to deliver a comprehensive, orderly sequence of events. The Trafford Centre; I recall sitting in a café reading ‘Empire’ film review magazine and admiring my new purchase, a one-man tent which I was planning to use that weekend on a trip to Buxton.

I set off to the campsite and met up with a few friends. Instead of putting my tent up right away, I decided to join them for a drink, and by the time I went back to my pitch the evening had become dark. I unpacked the tent and tried to work out where all the various components were meant to go; eventually I managed to get the thing to stay approximately in place and settled down for an uncomfortable night’s sleep.

The following day, recovering with the aid of polystyrene coffee, I examined my camping equipment and discovered that one of the eyelets was missing, so that the lower tent pole had nowhere to go.
Still, I survived the weekend, and returned the tent to the supplier so that they could install the missing eyelet. Moral: never go camping without checking your equipment first.

Another fragment – an extension to the Trafford Centre was opened a few years back, called Barton Village; instead of clothes and consumer goods, this section was devoted to furniture. A long, elevated corridor connected the village to the main shopping centre, but no provision had been made for any climate control in this walkway, so you would be faced with a three-minute walk in the cold.
The corridor was decorated in keeping with the rest of the Trafford centre; fake marble nymphs and urns and archways, but the original sense of proportion had been abandoned, so that the new ornaments looked like a random pastiche of classical design.

And Christmas offers the Trafford Centre a chance to become even camper than usual, with sparkling reindeer suspended from the roof and perched on the traffic islands.

Subject Access: Pandemic

Covid-19 Update:

16 June 2020
UK cases: 298,000 – UK deaths: 41,969
US cases: 2,179,000 – US deaths: 118, 710

19 June 2020:
UK cases: 301,000 – UK deaths: 42,461
US cases: 2,297,000 – US deaths: 121,400
These figures don’t reflect all the people who may have died from the disease; and they may also include some individuals who were ill, and who would have died a few months later anyway.

From the i newspaper, 20 June 2020: “An ‘R’ value higher than 1 would mean that the spread of the coronavirus is starting to increase, as each infected person would be infecting more than one other person, forcing the government to take further measures  to limit the spread.” (Jane Merrick)

From the i newspaper, 01 Feb 2020: “Two members of the same family have tested positive for the coronavirus in England, it was confirmed yesterday (…) Ian Jones, a professor of virology at the University of Reading, said that the possibility of transmission in the UK was ‘minimal’ because the cases had been caught early.” (Paul Gallagher)

So, the lockdown is being lifted: in England, groups of six or more can meet out-of-doors provided they come from no more than two households, while in Scotland, groups of eight adults can meet out-of-doors from any number of households. British travellers can now fly to Spain for a holiday, but will be required to self-isolate for two weeks on their return; however, Spanish tourists arriving in Britain will be allowed to go anywhere and do anything during their stay. And in Wales, groups of twelve adults from three households can meet out-of-doors.

In England, children from years one, three and six will be able to return to school but will be required to maintain 2-metre social distancing; in Wales, children from years two and five will be able to return to school but will only have to observe 1-metre distancing. And in Scotland, children from years two and six will be able to return to school but will have to observe a social distancing (2n-3m) plus 3p squared minus (k/2 + f), where n is the number of children in the class, m (inches) is the average height of the children, p is the floor area (square yards) of the classroom, k is the number of children living in the same household and f is the average distance (miles) from home to school.

In Oklahoma, US President Donald Trump (!) has held a campaign rally to speak to his supporters ahead of the forthcoming election. He boasted that there would be at least a million devoted fans clamouring to see him, and huge barriers and a temporary stage were erected outside the arena to keep everybody safe. In the end, the arena was only partly full, and only a handful of people wanted to see the outdoor meeting. It appears that large numbers of people applied for multiple tickets which they had no intention of using, but it may also be that several of his supporters were still anxious about the prospect of being exposed to Covid-19 and decided to stay home.

An intriguing observation; I submitted a ‘subject access request’ to a credit check agency and after two weeks received a reply saying that “As the reference was conducted in 2015 we no longer hold the records in line with our obligations under GDPR 2018”

Strange; I was puzzled by the evasive tone of this answer, and sent another message, asking for confirmation that the records had been deleted. They offered to look into this for me, and I waited a further four weeks before sending a reminder. The message came back saying that their system automatically deleted records after 8 months and so no copies of my enquiry were available.

So why didn’t the original reply mention this? And why choose 8 months, rather than 6 or 12? And why did the agency in question believe that I was going to be employed sixty miles away from the property for which I had arrange to take up a rental agreement?

In the news: three men have been murdered by a knife attacker at a public park in Reading. Joe Ritchie-Bennett, David Wails, and James Furlong were killed when Khairi Saadallah launched a random assault as they sat drinking in Forbury Gardens on Saturday. Saadallah is described as a Libyan asylum-seeker who was undergoing treatment for mental health disorders.

Rampant Microphobia

Lowry organic decay

At the Whitworth Gallery, along with the guns and the machine tools and the print of ‘Melencolia I’ they had the ‘Industrial Landscape’ picture by Lowry, a composite nightmare of smoking chimneys. In one corner we can make out the faint shapes of squat cooling-towers.

Are there any fragments of Lowry trapped in the fibres of the canvas, or the joints of the frame, ready to degrade the paint over time and render the image hideous and corrupted like Wilde’s changing picture of Dorian Gray?

We need to harvest organic matter from elderly books and try to cultivate any dormant life-forms lurking in the forgotten dust. There are impressive tomes in the Rylands Library, bound in crimson leather, dating back to the 1780s. Somewhere in the basement of the Rutherford building there will be laboratory notebooks and abandoned labcoats, covered in microbes and fragments of radioactive isotopes.

Some artists have been exploring the idea of decay and corruption, with catalogues of forgotten photographs damaged by damp, or printed texts obscured by cultured mould obtained from their own surfaces. Or they have collected dust from the couch used by Sigmund Freud’s patients:

Broomberg & Chanarin hired a police forensic team to scrutinise Sigmund Freud’s iconic couch, gathering DNA samples, strands of hair and a multitude of dust particles left by his home’s many visitors. These may include traces of Freud’s early patients such as ‘Dora’, the ‘Wolf Man’ and others, as well as those of more mundane visitors, mainly tourists, who have travelled from around the world to visit this legendary item of furniture.

Laura Splan, Turning fear to wonder

In 2004, soon after the SARS epidemic, Splan brought out a series of works called Doilies. Traditionally used to protect surfaces of furniture or flatware, their designs are inspired from nature. Splan’s doilies were inspired from the structure of viruses such as SARS, HIV, Influenza, Herpes and Hepadna.

The situation back then was similar to what it is now; though the number of people infected by Covid 19 today has far surpassed that by SARS. Photos of people wearing protective masks and microbial imagery consumed the media, bringing with them a sense of fear, she recalls. “Conflating the traditional radial doily form with a deadly virus was an attempt to create a situation in which the viewer could transpose a state of wonder on to the very structure of the virus which they feared,” she says.

David Goodsell, Putting a face on foes

“My goal with this painting, and with previous portraits of life-threatening viruses, is to demystify and put a face on these submicroscopic foes,” says Goodsell. His illustrations are so aesthetically pleasing that, despite depicting deadly viruses, they are used in fabric designs and are part of private collections and exhibitions. Recently, a colouring book version of his coronavirus painting was made available for free to download, on RCSB PDB (a member of World Wide Protein Data Bank) website.

A scientist who does research on structural molecular biology, Goodsell’s inclination towards applying artwork to science began when he was in graduate school in the 80s, developing computer graphics methods to display and analyse the results of his experiments. He began the paintings because the cellular scenes were “too complex to be done with computer graphics [back then]”.

Josie Lewis isn’t the first person to grow art in a petri dish, but she claims to be the first to use resin to produce colorful petri dish creations reminiscent of an exploding supernova.

Based in Minnesota, Lewis tells Mental Floss that she’s been using resin in her work for over a decade. Last year, she started experimenting with adding different chemicals to uncured resin. “I used all sorts of paints and inks and solvents like a science lab to see what would happen,” she says. “At some point I discovered that when I used certain inks with resin in a certain sequence, strange, colorful forms and growths would develop.”

After mixing the ink and resin together in a petri dish, she seals the container, flips it upside down, and leaves it to bloom over 12 hours. That means Lewis has no idea what the piece looks like until she flips it over and removes the disc from the mold the next day.

Ken Rinaldo, an established artist in the field of Bio and Postmedia art, develops hybrid human-nonhuman ecologies. Borderless Bacteria / Colonialist Cash explores the hidden microbiome of money within a critical framework that also sheds light on exchange and power. Do Chinese Yuan and American Dollars share bacterial and fungal communities?

Elin Thomas creates petri dishes filled with mold, but she’s not using any week-old peanut butter sandwiches. The fiber artist builds her science experiments using a felted wool base, and then carefully crafts individual growths using crochet and embroidery techniques. Most of her creations are set in authentic 8cm borosilicate glass petri dishes, although she also makes free-form brooches and other accessories in a similar style.

Thomas has an MA in Visual Culture from Bath Spa University College, and she is based in the UK and Wales. The artist sells her work, including custom orders, on her website and Etsy store.

For all 94 days of 2013 thus far, Klari Reis has kept to her resolution. The San Francisco-based artist has posted a new petri dish painting—eye candy for any sci-art lover—to her blog, The Daily Dish.

Reis’ circular art pieces are explosions of color. The yellows, pinks, purples, greens, oranges, reds and blues in the paintings take on a smattering of different shapes, including amorphous blobs, radiating fireworks and wavy veins that resemble, quite intentionally on Reis’ part, what a scientist might see when gazing through a microscope. The artist gives her creations playful names, little quips, really, that spring to mind when she looks at the designs.

Craig Ward heard an urban legend that “using the handrails on the subway is like shaking hands with 100 people.” He decided to test that theory by sampling the bacteria on subway lines around New York City and photographing his findings. The results were striking and unconventional “portraits” of NYC commuters. Produced by Emily V. Driscoll. Filmed by Jeff Nash. Music by Audio Network Additional Photography © Tasha Sturm, The Mason Lab The Wall Street Journal and Martin Burch, Chris Canipe, Madeline Farbman, Rachel Feierman and Robert Lee Hotz

Lowry, Background Image Not Discerned

Embroidered high with luminous grey clouds
The neutral sky picks out the sturdy contours
Of terracotta chimney-stacks arranged above
The jagged factories and mills. Far away, off-white
Against off-white, a cooling tower rests its vague geometry.

Perhaps we could behold the virus, let it sweep
Across the land, and simply take it on the chin. I know
That Winston’s day would start with brandy; but
I think I prefer a gin-and-tonic. This tiny organism

Manages to jaunt from town to distant town
With supersonic grace. Don’t worry though;
However fast you drive or where you go,
This thing will always somehow track you down.

BLM Protests, UK 2020

This piece by Mathilda Mallinson (Evening Standard, 5 June 2020) perfectly sums up the background to the current situation in the UK:
“Since the death of George Floyd, who died in police custody in Minneapolis last week, protests decrying systematic racism have spread across the US and around the globe.

Mr Floyd, a 46-year-old black man from Minnesota, died after an incident on May 25 in which a police officer was caught on camera kneeling on his neck for almost nine minutes. He was arrested for allegedly using a counterfeit $20 bill.
Former officer Derek Chauvin has since been charged with second-degree murder, while the three other officers involved – Thomas Lane, J. Kueng and Tou Thao – have been charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.

In disturbing video footage that went viral after his death, Mr Floyd repeatedly said “I can’t breathe.” These three words have now been used in protest graffiti and banners wielded by BlackLivesMatter demonstrators, who began protesting in the US last week.

The unrest has since grown violent, as US riot police fire tear gas canisters and bean-bag rounds at the activists. Looters have joined the crowds, several officers have been disciplined for excessive use of force, and journalists including CNN’s Omar Jimenez have been arrested while attempting to cover events.
The campaign has been picked up around the world, reaching London and the rest of the UK.”

Journal entry, 6 June 2020

Although the country is still under partial lockdown due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, huge crowds gathered in London to demonstrate outside the American Embassy as well as to protest about police brutality in Britain. This behaviour was condemned by some as being likely to hasten the spread of the virus, cases of which have been steadily declining.

Every day we see news footage of the victims of Covid-19, a disease which has an disproportionate impact on members of BAME communities – this is attributed to various factors including housing quality, nutrition, social exclusion policy and being employed in high-risk sectors.

British culture has a background of prevailing whiteness – castaways to the Desert Island on Radio Four’s fantasy music programme are given the Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare for literary solace. There must be some individuals for whom these compendia are of marginal significance, and who might prefer a different religious tract; but I have never heard of this idea being raised. Perhaps the format of the show is registered as a legal entity, and permits of no alteration; indeed, by using a uniform structure, it frees the celebrity to discuss their musical choices (and how these reflect their lives and careers) without having to explain everything.

There are numerous instances of police brutality directed against black individuals, as well as the more insidious discrimination: when two senior academics gave on-screen contributions to BBC Question Time, the white male (Hugh Pennington) was afforded the title of Professor. The black female participant was tagged as ‘Donna Kinnair’, overlooking the fact that she is also a Professor. And a Dame of the British Empire. It would have taken the programme researcher about thirty seconds to locate her academic profile and give a more accurate picture of the discussion.
And one caller to Radio 4 pointed out that the umbrella term ‘BAME’ lumps together groups with different racial or cultural origins, thus leaving diminished their individual identities.

Update, 7 June 2020:

Well, fancy that. I was listening to Desert Island Discs – the socially-isolated game show for all the family – featuring popular finance guru Martin Lewis as the castaway.

Near the beginning of the show, he admitted to presenter Lauren Laverne that he didn’t have much interest in music and had never collected records. Oh dear, I thought, this doesn’t promise to be a riveting show. But then he picked Adam and the Ants ‘Stand and Deliver’ which seems remarkably apt for a financial campaigner. And then he related the story of how he interviewed Mick Jagger backstage at Wembley Stadium (before enjoying the show and VIP hospitality afterwards).

And, since he’s Jewish, Laverne asked him what book he would choose: ‘You will get the complete works of Shakespeare and The Bible, or the Torah if you’d prefer’ – which is the first time I have ever heard this kind of concession mentioned.

Journal entry, 9 June 2020:

The coronavirus pandemic drama carries on in the UK. It has now been decided that, contrary to earlier announcements, Primary schools will not be able to open before September. Non-essential retail stores, closed for about twelve weeks, will be allowed to resume trading next week. Leisure facilities such as theme parks and pubs with beer gardens are also expected to get the green light. The virus is in retreat, so we can all relax and start having a normal social life again.

In late May, various regions of the US began lifting their quarantine restrictions and were warned that this risked a flare-up of the virus.

Arizona, North Carolina and California have all reported an increase of over 1000 new cases per day, and these numbers will probably rise sharply over the coming weeks following the mass demonstrations following the murder of George Floyd.

The death toll in the US now stands at 110,000. Meanwhile, in the UK, there have been 40,800 official deaths – but it is generally accepted that the true figure is at least 51,000 based on the excess death count. And in an attempt to protect British citizens, it has been announced that all new arrivals from abroad will have to self-isolate for two weeks – except for travellers from Ireland.

Across the UK, huge protest marches have taken place in support of the Black Lives Matter equality movement; angry demonstrators pulled down the statue of Edward Colston and dumped it in Bristol harbour. Colston was born in 1636 and became enormously wealthy from trading in commodities and slaves, building schools and hospitals and churches. The citizens of Bristol have campaigned for years to have his statue removed or amended with a slightly less fulsome, cloying tribute.

In October 2019, the Evening Standard announced that the University of Bristol had appointed a professor of slavery history to examine its links to colonialism.
Professor Olivette Otele will begin the role in January and will carry out two years of research into Bristol’s involvement in the slave trade.

The university says it will then decide how to acknowledge its past links with colonialism, which could include making a public apology. But the professor seems to have had her thunder stolen by the decisive action of an angry mob. Our prime minister – not the most conspicuous supporter of race equality – eventually broke cover to condemn the protest marches as being ‘subverted by thuggery’. He probably felt a pang of nostalgia, harking back to those halcyon days when the wealthy chaps of Bullingdon could swagger through Oxford, smashing up restaurants and leaving a trail of broken glass in the streets.