Studying Mosaic and being part of its Renaissance

One of the intriguing consequences of being in the first cohort of students to take a diploma/degree in Mosaic Studies will be when you graduate you will be at the forefront of knowledge about the subject.

Although I generally disagree with Hobbes the 17th century philosopher and writer of Leviathan, on this point and in terms of our mosaic programme, he was right (I paraphrase) when he suggested the new generation are more knowledgeable than their elders, because they learn from their parents’ generation and then share and add their own experience as well.

In a too-long neglected subject such as Mosaic Studies, this distance between received wisdom and its potential efflorescence is immense. 

Students taking Mosaic Studies are likely to be thought leaders and practitioners in the renaissance of an art form, whose name from the Greek means “muse of art”. Mosaic making originated in ancient times and then peaked in medieval culture, from the Byzantines through the Umayyads as far as the Forbidden City in Beijing. There was also a flowering in Aztec and Inca civilisations.

In our contemporary context with much material concrete in urban developments, we need mosaicists who can add the colour, detail and character to building that will attract travellers of the future. One of the reasons we go somewhere is to see. If there is little of interest other than similar concrete buildings everywhere to see, there is much less reason to travel. Yes, we also go for music, theatre and food, but the way a place looks is significant.

Through durable and interesting mosaic art we can encourage architecture’s most expressive surface to create the opulence and splendour which in previous generations we placed in our sacred structures: churches, mosques, temples and palaces.

Our highly constructive times, where engineering and science have allowed rapid and expansive projects, are crying out for a medium that is distinctive and original. The student who learns mosaic art will be building on the techniques and materials of the past, while being aware of an incredible potential to innovate and broaden the scope for this medium. For example, the scope of mosaic includes using natural stones within a region, as well as linking places to their history, while creating the heritage of the future.

In the 19th century the Arts & Crafts movement changed domestic interiors for good bringing gothic and decorative elements into previously drab interiors; now in the 21st century Mosaic Artisans are preparing to transform public spaces and the exterior of our built environment.

Thailand Rescue Points the Way Towards New Role for the Military

The problem for the military is existential.  They desperately need a new role. There are so many generals who need to be cleared out for a start. “Lions led by donkeys” is the phrase handed down from history. Perhaps there were glory days in the past when some people believed the role of the warrior was to fight another warrior and the elite believed in the creed of might is right. But these days are long gone and they are part of the myth of history.

The honest truth is that most people in most places did not fight for most of time. It was only a minority of “gangster-types” who literally murdered and stole – crimes, which the rule of law has rolled back. No amount of cover-up or glorification can get away from the basic criminality of war lords throughout history. Today it is even worse - the suicide of so many soldiers coming back from war reminds us that in despite of our newspaper and TV white wash, something is hideously wrong. The propaganda has always been similar: god is on our side, we are fighting to educate and civilise barbarians, we do this for king and country, or the enemy are part of an evil empire – it is one-sided. Today military experience is worse, because we know that 80% of casualties are civilians, an inverse of previous ages when 80% of casualties were soldiers. Today the soldier can be guaranteed that he is part of a machine that mutilates and liquidates grannies and babies – he is the monster of all time.

Do you really believe our nearest neighbours are going to invade us? That Denmark, Holland or France is itching to bite off a chunk of Kent, Norfolk or Northumberland? It is inconceivable that they will waste their time on such idiocy. Or that Poland, Germany and Austria will first invade those buffer states and then seek to come to us? Complete madness! The biggest fantasy of the generals which has the full backing of our biased media is that Russia will seek to invade us (presumably after first going through a dozen other countries). Russia really wants our water and railways perhaps – except our patriotic politicians already sold them off? Fact - Russia has never invaded Western Europe except as a defence following French or German invasion of their territory. They have enough problems in keeping their own land in shape and the nation of Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky and Kandinsky hardly needs lessons in culture from us.

The recent deal for ship building in Australia highlights another myth of the generals – that war is good for business. Sure, it is good for some private companies and individuals – but we are the mugs paying taxes for these greedy accomplices of international criminality.  The buck for your pound is absolutely minimal – one bomb on Syria would keep our art school going for three years, employing twenty people - where the outcome would be more public places made attractive. Whereas making a bomb takes a couple of weeks and employs about 10 people. Its best use would be no use (useless). Appalling profligacy of the public purse and the consequence of arms sales is legitimation for those who argue against us – your weapons have murdered our family, so we have the right to respond in kind. War breeds revenge. The wealthiest countries in the world: Singapore, Japan, Germany and Switzerland do not fight – in some instances are not allowed to fight. The USA pays for its war machine with increasing debt - $20 trillion and still counting. At some point it will crash, when the Chinese tire of American bullying.

War is very bad for morality, the rule of law and for business. It is excellent for thugs, gangsters, war lords and corrupt oligarchs. Its historic practitioners are plummeting down the scale of remembrance and are likely to drift into obscurity.

The great teachers of history, who still have large followings, were Confucius,  inventor of the Golden Rule – “do unto others as you would have them do to you”; Buddha who advocated meditation and inner peace; Jesus called the Prince of Peace; and Mohammed whose catch phrase was “Peace be with you.” These are the ones with billions of followers. Scarcely a thought is now wasted on pariahs of war. The Alexanders, the Caesars and the Bin Laden’s of criminality:  common murderers and thieves are studied in university history departments, but their credit is tending towards “studies in obscurity” and their modern counter-parts end up facing war crimes in the Hague.

So where can we channel our energy? How can we transform this belligerent strand of history? Just like the search for cures has led us through leeches and poisons towards exercise and a health service;  so  enquiry into the nature of humanity and using our strength can lift us away from death and destruction, towards creativity and exploration of the universe. If we persist with our destructive habits then we do not deserve to travel into outer space. Imagine if we were at war on the space craft Mir, the notion is absurd!

One clear place where we can channel our energy is into sport. What a great spectacle the World Cup has proved. Many people paid to watch Wimbledon or visit the route of Tour de France. Thousands of athletes train for the Olympics every four years. They have physios and doctors on hand if they have an accident or injury. How much better is all this international effort than wasting energy on war?

The new role for our armed forces is to become Rescue Services. Sure, our armed forces will retain capability to defend Britain, if Denmark or some other nation led by a maverick chose to attack us. But aside from this unlikely eventuality, there is plenty to do in terms of supporting those in need. Look at the kids stuck in a cave near Chiang Rai in Thailand. Wan’t it great that British cavers found them alive and supported the efforts to free them? There is much credit to our compatriots’ skills and bravery in finding them. This is the news we should aim for, here is a new role for our armed forces.

Where fires have raged on Saddleworth Moor and around Bolton – now there’s a genuine task for the army. A quick response to fires whether they are here or in California, Portugal or Australia. Let’s develop the equipment and skills to tackle blazes. And next year it could be floods in Somerset or in the Thames Valley, or South Wales or Cornwall  – perhaps another consequence of us selling off our environment to those interested in making money. Let’s find new tasks fit for heroes! Helping those in Guatemala after the volcano erupts, or re-building Nepal after the earthquake, or rescuing the Haitians after a tornado, or the fishing villages of Sri Lanka after a Tsunami, or those in the environs of Fukushima after the nuclear power station blew up. These are all major missions that our military should be re-calibrated to engage.

Clear out the generals with their outdated and dangerous opinions and double the squaddies pay. It may mean our defence budget has to rise to 3% of government expenditure, but the added value will generate a positive view of the UK in the world; whereas now our defence strategy leads to greater insecurity, more risk to citizens, economic depression and dragging the name of Britain through mire.

Welcome for Artificial Intelligence (AI): Bring it on

I have the impression that those who are pessimistic about AI believe that human nature is essentially bad. Perhaps we are more likely to be explorers and creators. If you think Artificial Intelligence (AI) is bad for you, perhaps you read the press? Perhaps you live in a war zone, called your front room where the TV is showing you snippets of war every hour on the news? Perhaps you have financial interests in maintaining our current culture and fear its transformation into something more rational and fair?

The master/slave relationship which underpinned all empires (and all of them have fallen) is making a come-back by reviving slavery through debt bondage. Dressed up as “financial services” the tentacles of debt are strangling our imaginations and poisoning opportunities. Finance is the cancerous core of our productivity dilemma – there are people filching off the hard work most of us do. Almost everything is being financialised and free services withdrawn. Soon they’ll even charge you for education, or for living in a house built by your Nan! Hang on a minute, they already do! Basic human needs such as using a toilet, or having a drink of water, or playing in a park or on a beach – everywhere you look it’s become another excuse for the monetisers to stick on a price. Even taxation is seen as an excuse to add another cost: to make a phone call, talk to a government advisor (whose wage we already pay), to submit your tax return. We pay government to make us pay even more: bonkers!! No wonder subjects/citizens are at best cynical.

Slavery is creeping back and AI can halt this. Swathes of unnecessary economy can be liberated with a few algorithms. Bring them on.

The cruellest case of slavery’s return is with student nurses, who spend most of their time on the job and are now being charged to work! Their nurses’ homes sold off to make millions for private developers. Here the utter banality of our current muddled thinking is laid bare. One can imagine how many rich people, plagued by their own inhumanity, must hang out contemplating suicide.

The housing market is riddled with slavery’s smear. Rigging and hiking rents to exorbitant amounts, with landlords and agents allowing properties to decay, taking money out and putting nothing back, while forcing tenants to organise and make repairs, or interview new tenants, who are charged a joining fee when the work was actually done by an existing slave (otherwise called a tenant).

It is no wonder that criminal slavery is on the increase when government and property owners who are already the beneficiaries of our oh-so-limited democracy, have their itchy hands rummaging through our pockets.

Bring on the day when artificial intelligence and a couple of rigorously ethical algorithms can free us from the bondage of these impiously perverted markets: banking and property, more aptly named bonking popinjays. Their strands need a haircut and nit-combing to free us from lice. We do this in their interests, because many of them hate their jobs. They should be disgusted by their own lifestyle, which pollutes our planet, inspiring everyone else’s dismay.

Let’s look at one city – Swansea, where there are many examples of government corruption from all sides of the political spectrum. No doubt this paradigm is echoed in towns and cities throughout the country, especially where people have amassed legal ownership of multiple properties. Firstly: the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon could provide the city with one hundred years of energy, and be a world leading pilot for other home grown energy sources to free us from our addiction to oil. You just watch how the same people who bailed out the banks to the tune of £750 billion won’t spend even £1 billion on backing our greenest and cleanest. Secondly, the Bloodhound Supersonic Car is waiting to be test run – it could literally start its attempts at the world speed record within a month. But our government and the bonkers lack the guts, will and moral fibre to invest in our brightest and best. Why not sell them all off to the highest bidder! Like we did with our motor and rail industries.

Perhaps we should replace greed in our culture, through artificial intelligence, with an algorithm that logs each financial transaction and takes off an agreed fair percentage to fund our health, defence, education and building services.

Oh and our defence services should be in Guatemala today (June 2018), helping victims of the volcano there, and never ever bombing grannies and babies in Syria (in despite of the generals' denials). Why don’t we clear out the generals and double the squaddies pay? Let’s re-invent our armed forces, and turn them into Rescue Services, to fight forest fires in Australia and California, re-build homes for earthquake victims in Nepal; support the stranded from Tsunamis in Japan, rescue those drowning from the floods in Somerset, help the homeless from hurricanes in Haiti – now there’s some jobs fit for heroes.

Grenfell Tower Legacy

Sometimes it feels as if there is a contagion spreading through our culture and it’s only a matter of time before we have another accident and emergency.  It seems as if wherever possible those with resource and power are winkling away for a little bit more money, so that even the law is for sale. Did you know you have to pay a premium now to phone the Home Office for advice? What do we pay taxes for if government has become a business? Anyone wanting to innovate or find a foothold has to jump through concocted hoops. The concoctions may have origins in alleged good practice, but monetising good practice is wrong. Good practice should be given as a standard for free.

Here’s an example of one of today’s conundrums. You can fly on a safe flight for 4500 miles from Lagos to London for £400; but if you wanted to cross the 290 miles from Libya to safety in Italy you might pay thousands of pounds for an extremely dangerous journey. Who is responsible for bringing the inequality that drives this chaos in travel?

The toil of everyday life is such that we often forget how fortunate we are to live in a time of peace and plenty. It wasn’t always like this and in a few places around the world it still is very tough.

So the Grenfell Tower catastrophe shows us what happens when things go wrong and how we respond. The system we have developed has become supremely adept at shifting the blame, when all we need to understand is why vast sums of money were spent making life worse and more dangerous? What culture have we cultivated to make such inflammation?

This is an opportunity for us to find a way to free local authoritarians, whether in business or government, from their sense of knowing best and change their stance to being public facing and acting in public interest. This private greed, insane competition, with the coining it by lazy landlords and oligarchs has gone too far! We need to free those who hold the reins from this out of control cartel.

And the accounting must be more than at a general election, because that is too occasional and the politicians have just become the fall-guys for a rotten system, backed up by fake news and corrupt money. The news is awful: murderer + terror plot + terrible accident + gaff by government + miracle cure by big pharma + royal story + sporting triumph or loss. Who gives a toss anymore?

Officials are defensive because they often have to put up with abusive language and negative perceptions. The powerless public imitate the puppet politicians. There is an impasse. One side feeling defensive and knee-jerking they know best, while the other side feels like mugs being conned for tax or fees by people who serve themselves before serving the community. If we can salvage something from Grenfell Tower in terms of identifying a series of negative premises and move forward towards more genuine local control over local affairs, building on the many good aspects of our system, then that would be a step forward.

The rise of local authoritarians is not necessarily a normal character trait; rather it is how people react in a pointlessly stressful environment, when they have unnecessary tasks to fulfil without the resources to do them. “We don’t have any money” is the mantra of those who are paid a decent salary to work for public good. It also masks the reality they have plenty of money although it is being misspent. Many people who have become local authoritarians started out with idealistic aims to do a good job. Unfortunately the diversion of funds (austerity) from the poor to the rich (£750 billion given to the banks who caused the 2007 economic crisis) means that while a few random greedy folk are becoming exceptionally rich, most people see their income stagnating or dwindling. In the end local authoritarians are stripped of the means to do their job and they resort to obfuscation, evasion and ensuring that no one can make them responsible for any action.

Local residents hold the real power, except we let others take it away from us. Our so-called democratic system is better than the monarchy which preceded it (because we don’t have to kill the king to change him), but we shouldn’t kid ourselves by thinking we are much different from other forms of oligarchy in Russia, China or America. Yes, we may have this quirk or that Black Rod to protect our liberties, but people elsewhere also get by and build on the legacy of Tchaikovsky, Ming ceramics and Martin Luther King to understand and celebrate their culture. Yes, we do have a nominal break clause, an election every five years, but this is often circumvented through media’s self-preserving propaganda and control, corrupt party systems which openly insult and lie about their opponents, and the requirement to amass a fortune or have a stroke of immense luck to be in the right place at the right time with an attitude that relishes standing in an abusive process.

Where are we now? Immeasurably better than one hundred years ago when we were still slugging it out in the trenches of the first world war. But how is it that the housing situation in those days was so much better? That the houses being built would last for at least one hundred years and more. That you could be given a council house when you wanted to start a family, or could buy a home for a few hundred pounds? That you could trust that those who built your home weren’t trying to fiddle a buck! Somehow or other we have lost our way and turned ourselves from a making and producing culture into sitting at desks tapping into computers, like carrion vultures.

What happens on the front line for council officers?

·         Incredible pressure is put on front-line staff who have to face a disgruntled public

·         Line management systems with many meetings where blame is absolved by ensuring the matter has been dealt with, by an unfortunate front-line member of staff being given another nominal task. An email is sent and a record kept as evidence that the matter has been referred on.

·         Telling residents their concerns are being mulled over by experts/senior people

·         Telling residents there are medium term plans to knock down their residence

·         Telling residents there are exciting plans for an indeterminate future, where their dreams can be realised with far better facilities to come, apart from the decade when their community will be dispersed (and cleansed).

·         Telling residents that the new schemes are great value for money and will improve the quality of their life

Residents then

·         Feel demoralised

·         Do not want to invest time, effort or money in their current situation

·         Are utterly bored by meetings where nothing is resolved and no action follows

·         Feel threatened by events and let down by the “system”

·         Keep their head down and accept whatever happens in a curmudgeonly way

·         Occasionally dream of the swimming pool that is never built

Surely we can do better than this! For all the data we amass and all the hands which could be put to better use, couldn’t we build enough homes for our people to live in? Couldn’t we provide the education people need to lead a fulfilled life? Couldn’t we release the 70% of people who dislike their job into something more purposeful and worthwhile? Couldn’t we move away from insult and diatribe, towards discussion and problem solving? Couldn’t we turn our money from a debt based system into credit, where credit is due?

For a thousand years and more we have put up buildings that have become our villages, towns and cities. Every building was put up by our forbearers who worked in groups to achieve what we now have as their legacy. I would be surprised if there was any building in the whole land ever put up by one man or woman. Why can’t we share the credit for what our forbearers gave to us? Why have we so distorted our property system that the builders who construct our buildings are paid once and much less than those who work in financial services who seem to be paid on and on for work that has already been done, just because we have concocted the notion they own a property. Something is wrong when the highly rigged market is systematically working against our young people who cannot even imagine ever owning a home. Something is wrong when we’ve organised a process where we pay people who never laid a brick, instead of training and paying the home builders we need working for us today.

We have to find a way out of this rip-off culture and instead take practical steps for a stronger and more sensible future where villages, towns and cities are there for people and communities, and where markets sell products we can hold onto or at least eat, instead of being in hoc to a financial system which siphons off money from the many for the few. We need to face the truth that although the city employs people, it creates jobs for people who hate their job. Let’s welcome artificial intelligence which will enable us to put fairness into financial algorithms which will then lead financiers into worthwhile jobs.

Reflections on Visiting Rome and Florence in Spring 2018

Founded around 750 BC, the Romans have had long practice of learning to live together. Here cosmopolitanism is at ease with itself.

The way shops are on the ground floor and people live on the floors above, usually up to three, four or five storeys is a good model for practical mingling.

Beneath the first impressions on the surface, things are more complex. The ruins of Rome are a warning that empires come and go, hierarchies provoke revolt. Few organisations or political structures will remain in place, unless like the Roman Catholic Church, they are at least nominally based on a vision of justice and peace.

Today’s republican spirit is still befuddled by the wily mendacities of the Berlusconi’s of this world, a gnome who is still promoting himself as leader in despite of more than 60 legal cases against him. Here is a mountebank who used modern media and false witness to make others’ lives a misery while promoting his own pointless sway. Masquerading in the clothes of freedom, he wastes everyone’s time by hogging the limelight.

At the heart of our limited, oh so limited democracy, is “oligarchy”. The ruling elite in nations around the world whose privileges bring them little joy, seem to hang on to power to primarily avoid the consequences of their mendacious machinations.

Science through social Darwinism has deluded them that meritocracy is the truth of existence, that the elite have always and will always rule. Doesn’t the way history is currently written show us that the world is ruled by great men?

The ruins of Rome remind us that in the end this way of thinking leads to collapse.

There were two sculptural friezes I noticed in a lounge at Rome’s Ciampino’s Airport, made from marble with power tools – post-modern pieces of corporate expression, monotonous and yet an effort of sorts to decorate a panorama of captured nervousness, as punters waited for flights.

It was marginally better than a blank wall and much better than an advertisement selling junk values. But it cried out to our time to energise and instil meaning into what we make and do.

The food being sold in the eateries at the airport was made without love, to feed the cooped mass with something to fill their stomach at an inflated price, because the corporate gravy train has strangulated economic relations – presumably through rip-off rents by the powerful, fleecing even their own allies as well as the passengers.

What a contrast to the exquisite pizzas and pastas in Rome’s backstreets where chefs took pride in garnishing morsels of paradise, or the artisan sandwiches of Florence where even the police were standing with their tongues out salivating at cured viands decorated with rocket and marinated aubergine. The artisan food was cheaper, more nutritious, more filling, more interesting, but necessarily freed from the rent-bind, the rip-off pact with mammon, that forces junk food into its obsession with obesity and blandness – its tasteless lack of culture.

But in our post-modern times we should congratulate the warlords of finance for at least trying. These desk junkies, scavenging on their PC’s, paying the front of house staff peanuts, inventing meaningless complications to siphon off funds for their lack of effort or imagination.

Congratulate them on surviving and creating unnecessary inequality, on capturing state power through oligarchic orphanages of representation, spaces where the old leeches can be soothed with NHS Dettol.

In Florence, splendour and beauty combined to create the model of a city state refined with the intricacies of human skill. The republican spirit of the Florentines always revolted against Medici might.

Although the names of palaces have been captured by the elite, we know it was the artisan and not the banker who ultimately gifted beautiful buildings and decorations.

True, there are not enough trees and green spaces for contemporary taste. True there are still homeless mendicants with soiled clothing wandering streets and begging coins. These are the marks of our future endeavours, where we must strive to heal the wounds of wars and discord. Even in a town as insulated and exemplary of glory as Florence, the fissures of our broken system crackle.

The questing spirit of the Renaissance, the striving for equality: before the law, between the genders, races and abilities is revealed in the opulent splendours of murals, in the harmonious contours of architecture, in the calm cloisters for contemplation on the truth of the utter emptiness that would take another human and hurt them, crucify them.

History tells us the cautionary story of how the believers whom the Romans crucified and fed to lions, whom they drove out of the temple and dispersed with wanton violence, ultimately took over the city of Rome, and founded a universal church, because their sense of community, devotion to education and mutual support, was tougher and more useful than the gluttony and sadism of so-called strong leaders.

The art of the Renaissance, the depictions of beauty and harmony remain a counterpoint to the caprice of princes and a rebuke to their petty thuggery.

Culture will be cleansed with the truth that the meek, the poor, the lost and lonely, the despised and rejected will inherit the earth.

Meritocracy is barbarism in disguise. Freedom is our future and we find it when we help a brother or sister along the way.


Santa Barbara Timeline Mosaic and Radio interview

santa barbara timeline mosaic

We are so looking forward travelling to Santa Barbara and meeting with Elizabeth Gallery and Robin Elander as part of a Certificate Design Course we are delivering. What a project and how thoroughly are they researching the many layers of history to be reflected in the Santa Barbara Timeline Mosaic. Building a project made by the people for the people. This fits perfectly with the ethos of London School of Mosaic where we reach out to residents and those who could be uplifted by practising artisan craft, giving themselves time to think about quality of life and reflecting about their local history.

We know Betsy and Robin are delving back into pre-history when the area was part of the ocean; tapping into the oral history of the Chumash: the seashell people who first settled the Santa Barbara area 13,000 years ago; recording the first European contacts and how they moved in to trade and then settle the area. Was it the planting of crops and spread of agriculture that supported a population growth? How did the industrial and technological revolutions affect the area? All these subjects and more will be opened up to research and as we think about how best to design a mosaic to last for several hundred years. It will inevitably be our own interpretation and people of the future who see it will wonder why we chose to highlight some themes?

Mosaic is architecture’s most expressive surface. Betsy Gallery is showing how artists and the community can work with developers to include character and detail into the fabric of her neighbourhood. When what we make will last for so long in the future, we can take time to be inclusive and considerate, to put in many symbols and layers of meaning, to keep a record of what we are doing so future generations can look back and find inspiration from our own efforts. If we leave a legacy then we set the future free to use our skills and expertise, to take off with their own fresh interpretations.

We thank Elizabeth and Robin for their invitation and their interest in what we achieved through Queenhithe Mosaic, on which the Santa Barbara Timeline is modelled. This has been a huge complement of our work and we are enormously pleased how this has inspired their project. We look forward in sharing our experience and skills with them. 

Find out more about the certificate course we delivering in Santa Barbara in December 2017: Designing large-scale Public Mosaics

Listen to our radio interview with Elizabeth Stewart: