Anna Aslanyan

7 April 2022

Mary Wollstonecraft Returns

A stencil portrait by Stewy, first painted on the wall of Newington Green Meeting House in 2013, was removed a few years ago during renovations. This week the artist returned to put it back.

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11 March 2022

Facing Total Isolation

Spreading ‘false’ information about Russia’s military, according to a law passed by the Kremlin last week, can put you in prison for fifteen years. For taking part in an unauthorised protest, you are likely to get fifteen days the first time; repeat offenders face up to five years behind bars. Many of the Russians taking to the streets in protest against the invasion of Ukraine have risked their freedom before. A decade ago, thousands were arrested at large-scale anti-government demonstrations. Some got two weeks; others, two years.

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28 May 2020

Inflammable Films

The 1909 Cinematograph Act used the term ‘inflammable films’ in a literal sense – cellulose nitrate catches fire easily – but some local authorities interpreted it to mean ‘morally dangerous’, and it led to censorship. Still, the act wasn’t as confusing as the latest flurry of communication from the British government. One of its requirements was that exhibitors provide fire exits, which led to the emergence of purpose-built picture houses. Many of the buildings are still standing, though few of them are still cinemas.

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2 April 2020

‘Can I go to work today?’

One of the routine questions asked of detainees at police stations is: ‘Are you fit and well?’ It has acquired new force in recent weeks. A homeless man I interpreted for a few days ago said he was, though he looked exhausted. He had recently been placed in a hotel in central London as part of an initiative reminiscent of O. Henry’s ‘Two Thanksgiving Day Gentlemen’, a story about the perils of ‘the yearly hunger which, as the philanthropists seem to think, afflicts the poor at such extended intervals’.

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27 December 2019

Ghostly Steeples

The Whitechapel Bell Foundry, the maker of Big Ben and the Liberty Bell, was established in 1570. In 2017 it closed its premises on the corner of Whitechapel Road and Plumbers Row, where it had been since the mid-1740s. The site was bought by Raycliff, an American private investment group, whose other assets include a stake in the hotel chain Soho House. Raycliff wants to convert the Whitechapel site – the original Grade II*-listed building and a number of later extensions – into a ‘boutique hotel’ with a roof pool, some shared workspace and a café with a small workshop tucked into a corner.

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19 November 2019

At the White Hotel

The entrance to the White Hotel, decorated with barbed wire, Union Jack bunting and toilet paper, resembled a border checkpoint. To get in you had to fill in a landing card. The guards were dressed in coveralls, anti-pollution masks and flak jackets with Sooty and Sweep puppets peeking out. We were separated into two quarantine pens. (‘It’s just as well,’ one man said as his companion was led away.) After about an hour the pens were opened and we were ushered into another waiting area. At last a whistle blew. A Morrissey lookalike appeared and sang ‘Everyday is like Sunday’.

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16 September 2019

At the ICA

Sergei Loznitsa’s film The Trial is composed from the original footage of one the first Stalinist show trials. The only additions are intertitles, which reveal at the end, for anyone who didn’t already know, that the ‘Industrial Party’ never existed. Some of the footage was used in a 1931 propaganda film directed by Yakov Poselsky (and, as Loznitsa joked in his introduction at the ICA, by Joseph Stalin). A team of investigators worked on producing the show trial for more than a year, drafting the script and coaching the actors. It isn’t clear if the public filling the hall are aware of their role: some listen to the proceedings intently, others fall asleep, some take notes, others shield their eyes when the lights are on them.

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20 July 2019

On and around the Moon

‘Why had we come to the moon?’ the narrator of H.G. Wells’s The First Men in the Moon (1901) asks. ‘The thing presented itself to me as a perplexing problem.’ The novel features in The Moon exhibition at the National Maritime Museum, alongside other books that anticipated the space age: Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon (1865) and Lucian of Samosata’s True Story, written in the second century AD. It begins with a ship blown to the moon by a whirlwind; a war between Phaethon and Endymion ensues, enabled by giant spiders. Aubrey Beardsley was one of the illustrators of an 1894 English edition.

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3 July 2019

Salmon Fishing in London

The Tyburn Angling Society purports to have been established by a royal charter issued by King Edgar the Peaceable in 959 AD, though there are no records of its existing before the 21st century. The River Tyburn, culverted in 1750, still flows underground from Hampstead to Westminster. The society claims to want to ‘daylight’ the river, bringing it back up to the surface. It commissioned a map in the early 2000s showing the proposed course, which would cut a swathe through ‘£1 billion worth of property’. The buildings marked for demolition included Buckingham Palace and the offices of Westminster City Council, which promptly rejected the proposal.

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19 April 2019

On Waterloo Bridge

‘Where the fuck is the government?’ posters on Waterloo Bridge said. A road sign at the northern end flashed: ‘Global warming at work.’ 

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