Behind the cubes of black and white,
black and white,
black and white
'Cubes' Langston Hughes, 1934.
We return to Cubism as did Langston Hughes in his 1934 poem Cubes tracing his flâneur’s footsteps back to West Africa, through to Europe and on to Harlem. We pick up in South-East London, another accent obscuring, modifying, altering the route, Modernism’s ‘spectral blueprints’ full of ‘stabs at description…crossings- out and redundancies’ (Clarke, 1999 p175), Hughes’ broken cubes of Picasso providing us with markings, a grid, a plane to follow.
Socialism, Alexandra Kollontai once declared, will ‘make way for winged Eros’ in a way that Capitalism never could (1923). Eros House, the South Circular; Modernism’s unlikely, but adequately fitting, concrete tomb. Here, the once iconic Modernist tower block waits; it’s steel construction rods like roots, laid bare under crumbling concrete, reaching up to an unwilling sky. The Greek God of love, fertility, production, seems to have never taken flight, or at the very least, lost his way. Instead, Thanatos is called forth, the collective death drive of society weighing on the residents of the now emergency housing block as they urge the local council to not forget Grenfell. Eros mobilizes their will to live where others perished. Who wins this battle is yet to be seen.
Within these uninhabitable ‘cells’, once seen as ‘the model of utopia’ from which the ‘greater whole could be constructed’ (Overy, p129 1997) we are reminded of the legacy of Cubism; its grids, repetitions and planes developing out of the revolutionary way of seeing. For those of us growing up in and around the cells of the city, stacked estates and towering blocks, cubes of black and white, one doesn’t need to question the relevance of Cubism today; its shapes so deeply embedded in the modernist ruins surrounding us. Picasso’s Maisons á Horta (1909) or Braque’s at l’Estaques (1908) are not alien views from a top floor window, Léger’s cranes cut through the landscape as we encounter a new form of production. These ‘little cubes’, pregnant
with revolutionary potential, stillborn into hands unable to revive; instruments lost. How do we reclaim its promise? Can we? Do we want to? Who are ‘we’?
Primitive accumulation, primitiv-ist appropriation, stolen. The old game of the boss and the bossed, boss and the bossed. As the original sin of Capital returns to haunt us, we are also reminded of the original sin of Cubism and the thread of Colonialism quietly, violently, binding the two. Can we hold ghosts accountable? Returning is thus politicised and problematized. However, to return is also to acknowledge that our current mode of resistance, dispersed by the vagaries of postmodernism and the internet, where little cubes multiply and dissolve into pixels on an abstract screen, out of our grasp and impossible to pin down; is not working. Accumulation by dispossession, little cubes of repossession, Balfron. The old game of the boss and the bossed, boss and the bossed. In Eros House, whilst residents fight for their lives upstairs, downstairs, a gallery opens, a white cube. These crumbling cells, clinging on to their working residents, will soon be sought after real estate with a resident of another kind. Art and life converge again.
In South-East London old brutalist beasts lay dormant but not empty, front rooms waiting to meet blank canvases. Their surfaces can no longer reflect back the depthless mirage of Late Capital; mickey mouse simulacrum has had its day. It amused the popular-tion for a while whilst they evicted yet another Balfron and then hung it on their walls. If we cannot see ourselves on solid ground when confronted with the wall of mirrors, the Canary-Wharf-scape of make-believe finance with real-world-savagery, then our flâneur will smash its windows and force a totality out of the pieces. We will unveil the clearing of docks past, illuminate the precariat of present and organize the fragments into the future. We being those who look and see; Orpheus’ who dared to glimpse back because we no longer believe in dead Greek Gods. Harnessing Cubism’s inherent dialectic, we will pin down it’s material form and weaponize the cube against itself. This, an art of construction, and therefore de- and re-construction, a ‘means of understanding, and thereby resisting’ (Moglen, 2002 p1198). We have the grid, full of rubbings out; our task to decipher what lies beneath, retrace the faded indentation clinging on to tired, white paper; rewrite it. The pen in the hand of another. But we return to the cubic form because that is what we, of Eros House, of the old Balfron, know. We are the cubes of black and white. We are multiple, mutating, conflicting, fragmented and from this form we will create something new. The cube then, our battle cry.
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