Ewan Morrison: The Mall Project

Ewan Morrison

For Walter Benjamin

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File G48- slash 4. 23rd October 2011.
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Olympia. Good Name –  home of the Gods. It’s been hard to locate – almost invisible from the road, surrounded by elevated car park on one side – overpass on other. No pillars, towers, or vertical signs with brand names as with Silverhill, Riverdale, Parkhead etc. Poor branding, poor passing driver-friendliness. Almost totally inaccessible by foot. Pedestrian flyover empty. Underpasses – graffiti’d concrete, refuse.
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         On roundabout now.
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              East Kilbride is a new town, now old, built in the 60’s according to the then utopian model. International style. Homes for the future. Roundabouts everywhere with public art. Metal sculptures of modern humans, almost Stalinist in style, men in overalls with tools, a sign of the area’s once industrial past. Passing local housing consists of mixed council and 80’s nouveau private, type C9-D12. Several high rises but largely suburban/scheme sprawl. Sprawling subtopia. Car country. American feel. Compare to Hall Green – Birmingham, Crosby, Merseyside, Stretford – Greater Manchester, Cumbernauld. Semis, white pebble-dash now grey. Aporias of town planning. Olympia is not on the fringes of the town but at it’s very centre. Did not take over an original town centre, as with Buchanan Galleries or EastVale. The new town was built around the mall. Interesting, unusual paradox of socialist planning. A commercial centre at its heart. Parking the car now.
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In June 1935 at the Frankfurt School Walter Benjamin submitted a thesis proposal to his then academic superior, and latterly friend, Theodore Adorno. Benjamin believed he had found a new methodology for aesthetic, textual and historical analysis; his Arcades Project as he conceived of it, was to be a Marxian retelling of a fairy-tale, in which the Sleeping Beauty is awoken from the nightmare-dream sleep of capitalism’s commodity phantasmagoria. Benjamin wrote to Adorno to ask if he knew of any psychoanalytic study of awakening. Adorno, for his part, thought that Benjamin’s project did not reach the point of awakening and that Benjamin’s fragmented methods of investigation and assemblage lacked a coherent ideological critique, that Benjamin had fallen under the ‘spell of bourgeois psychology’ which maintains a dream-like state of alienation.
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            But still you are confused. Why?
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              Because there is no point on the map that says YOU ARE HERE.
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              You have come to expect such signs – the little black dot with the arrow next to it. You
have seen this on mall maps, city centre and airport maps, everywhere around the world. It is unbelievably unsettling to not know where you are when you stand before a map which lacks a YOU ARE HERE. It is even more confusing because the mall itself is not one single structure: it is six different shopping centres cobbled together, all built at different times for different reasons. The six malls are called: Centre West, The Olympia, The Plaza, Prince’s Mall, Prince’s Square and Southgate. The very first was socialist in plan and contained a dole office and a post office; the newest area caters to the upper middle classes and nouveau riche, it has coffee shops with Italian names and free wi-fi.
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              A man coughs behind you. You turn and a security guard is there. Can I help you? he asks.
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              It’s embarrassing to have to answer this most basic question with another question, to admit defeat, to point to the map and shrug your shoulders to ask WHERE AM I?
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              He laughs, Aye, he says, folk say that all the time. I don’t know why they forgot to put that on. HERE YOU ARE he says and puts his finger onto the map; he says THIS IS YOU.
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World of particular secret affinities: Palm tree and feather duster, hairdryer and Venus de Milo, champagne Bottle, prosthesis, and letter writing manuals…Organic world  and inorganic, abject poverty and insolent luxury enter into the most contradictory communication; the commodity intermingles and interbreeds as promiscuously as the most tangled of dreams….There is no mystery in the fact that whores feel spontaneously drawn here.
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A moment of laughter between two strangers
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The mother and daughter much older holding hands, mother sixties, shopping together
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Three Chinese kids goofing around with phones, photographing themselves sagainst the escalators as if they were standing before the grand canyon.
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Faces of people gazing into space but not troubled. Dazed, the same dazed, same reverie.
The woman in the window with the mannequin dressing it’s form in her hands almost dancing with it as if it were her lover.
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We are well into February now but the January sales continue.
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Food is impossible. Am too hungry to face the smell of food let alone the taste of it. The choices.
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WHSmith is Closed. Bank of Scotland – Closed, Reid’s Shoes – Closed, HMV – Closed. 2.17 pm. Limited consumer traffic. Types E 27. F32,
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Entering the main thoroughfare.
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In Benjamin’s Das Passegen Werk (The Arcades Project – begun in 1927 and left incomplete at the time of his death in 1940), Benjamin moved further from Adorno’s notion of overview and continued with his method of quotation, juxtaposition and montage, mixing historical facts quoted from other sources, with observations made on walks through the arcades, noting the things and the people he saw, in the style of ‘the Flâneur’: Wandering from a random starting point, without a map. This was a method of self-loss first conceived by romantic poets, and latterly adopted by the Situationists in their dérives. Psychogeography has its roots within this tradition. There are parallels also with the methods of modern covert market researchers.
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All architecture of the nineteenth century constitutes the house of the dreaming collective.
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Continuous assimilation of the various architectural capsules to forms of the dream house.
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A Strasbourg manufacturer of pianos made the first guillotine.
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In great vogue around 1820: cashmere.
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At what tempo did changes in fashion take place in earlier times?
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Line of men around the woman to whom they are paying court. Train of suitors.
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Collapse of the iron market-hall in 1842.
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There is to speak once more of restaurants, a nearly fallible criterion for determining their rank. This is not as one might readily assume, their price range. We find this unexpected criterion in the colour of the sound that greets us when <broken off>
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In 1876, the derriere disappears; but it comes back again.
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Fashion was never anything other than: provocation of death through the woman.
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There is a direct line from the 19th century Arcade to the department store to the contemporary shopping mall.
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At the very centre, you note that half of the stores are empty. A drunk man walks past with a bunch of flowers singing Billy Jean. Teenagers skipping school cluster in whispering circles checking their smart phones; old people speed by in shopmobility battery powered buggies; an old man reads a tabloid beside a bin shaped like a dolphin and looks up as if asking for company; a young, tattoed, unemployed man wheels a baby buggy. No one is buying anything; the mall, save for these few people, is practically empty, footsteps echoing round mirrored walls.
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              Leaving the central walkway now.
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              No teenagers here, but many single mothers. Two ahead of me drinking frappacinno and chatting, the children fastened in like terrorists in Gauntanamo. Mother one, D34 type sticking a pacifier in its mouth. Horrible word.
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              You must remember to eat today and buy some antacids.
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              Must remember to buy a present for Joe’s birthday. Call the ex.
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A mall is little more, architecturally, than an empty space or court surrounded by retail outlets which are relatively interchangeable. Those who see malls as ‘empty and meaningless’ as ‘missing a heart’ are not only stating the obvious but negatively commenting upon the very essence of its deliberate philosophy in architecture – that it is hollow, that no central institution dominates and oversees from ‘a centre’.
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              Immigrants and visitors from former Soviet countries in the 80’s were often found to react with confusion.
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              But where is the central office, the centre? Who’s in charge?
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              They saw it as an absence of top-down, authoritarian control. No alter, no central podium adorned with the emblems of state to regulate every movement of the populace, to determine the price of every item. Nothing other than a walking area, where people’s paths crossed, perhaps a water fountain slightly to one side, a thing flowing not fixed, and a small map, again guiding people away from, not to, the locus. The people themselves are their own movable centres, and they too are decentred, kept in constant motion.
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The figure of the flâneur. He resembles the hashish eater, takes space up into himself, like the latter. In hashish intoxication, the space starts winking at us: “what do you think may have gone on here?”
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Benjamin’s intention on such walks was to enter into the subjectivity of the emerging bourgeois consumer, to trace the evolution of this rapidly growing way of being. To, attempt to empathise, and in a sense, lose himself. He walked round, notepad in hand, sometimes, simply writing down the things he saw.
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The use of mirrored walls
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The removal of clocks
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The placement of down and up escalators at a great distance form each other.
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The constant shifting of stock on shelves so that shoppers cannot easily find the products they
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The use of loud music.
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              The modern mall contains many architecturally structural devices intended to create a sense of disorientation in the shopper.
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              Market research meets behavioural psychology, yielding empirical data on consumer behaviour, which then results in architectural re-design.
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              If consumers are kept in the mall longer, if they ‘get lost’, there is a 14% percent chance that they will spend more money than they intended. See Impulse Buys.
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Walking again. Endearing though that a woman would want to sit next to me. 30’s alone, attractive in a way although her attire betrayed the possibility that she had just recently woken from a night on the town. Amply displayed cleavage in Dorothy Perkins, the heels that she had taken off, the feet that she was rubbing through her tights or possibly stockings from Victoria’s Secret. Eye make-up bleary, blurred, checking her text messages, but not talking to me, or her phone. The occasional sideways glance, what I was wearing. Her finding me wanting. Must get new twenty pound suit from ASDA. I heard her sigh as she set down her phone. A lover perhaps last night who she expected to text her back, to tell her it was more than just a one night. Yes, there is something about the mall that stimulates or simulates desire; not for gratification but for a kind of endless open flirtation. Women like this come to malls to be eyed. There are certain things I could have said which could have amused and aroused her. A certain way I have of tapping into her demographic, of perhaps guessing where she works and what her favourite album is, and in this she would find someone who really understood her, but it is all weary demographics. I have preyed on such types before and been taken back to their still unmade bed. Have heard apologies and watched as such a woman cleared her room of wine glasses and used condoms and then offered me a drink. Have long since taught myself to stop exploiting such types. They are without fail the C12’s, D4’s and G2’s. And I have a weakness towards such types.
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              Head is spinning. Coffee is not enough, must really try to eat before the acid reflux starts. Must continue the project.
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Disco music from Republic. Electronica from the Carphone Warehouse. Beyonce in Mango. Folk Rock in Tie Rack. How do you know from High School Musical playing in Disney. Same song overheard in three stores: ‘Don’t You Wish Your Girlfriend Was Hot Like Me’
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Military style fashions, camouflage gear worn by toddlers.
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Young men in teens pushing baby buggies. Shell suits.
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Army recruitment officers approaching unemployed teens.
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We must ask, surely, how complicit we were, us artists, in the fragmentation of the world – the destruction and deconstruction of language, the breaking up of communities and families into autonomous, disconnected ‘individuals’. We have surely come to a point where we must assess the trail of destruction we have left behind us, and access our role in the development of Capital, which too has followed this same pattern, towards a ‘liberation’ of the self from others.
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The air seems clearer, more spacious, people more attractive, better brands. Gucci. Thinner. Punctual relaxing seats, Bistro, leather seats. Delicatessen and wine shop, hair and beauty parlour. There is under lighting not just top lighting giving every object a surreal glow as if it was highlighting itself. Air and light and space, the music without lyrics, ambient. A thing of beauty here. Three single women walk past together, bangles and heels, past Wells and Co the fine jewellers. Crepes Ole. French Crepes Spanish Tapas. I am in Centre west upper mall. Two mannequins stand alone in H&M, realistic. One in a leopard top, one in a pink top with leopard skin skirt, one with a rose in her hair, wearing almost entirely pink. At first glance I thought them to be staff – two women, not talking to each other, staring in opposite directions.
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The Arcades project, in all of its incompleteness (a box containing many versions, edits, re-edits, notes,  lists of further research, annotations, plans for the future shape of the book and plans for further study) was entrusted before Benjamin fled the Nazis in 1938 to his friend, the pornographer and surrealist writer Georges Bataille, then librarian at the Bibliothèque Nationale. Bataille hid the manuscripts in a closed archive and they were considered lost until their rediscovery after the war.
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              The full text of Benjamin’s unfinished magnum opus was printed in the 1980s after years of difficult and controversial editorial work. The book is hailed as one of the milestones of 20th-century literary criticism, history and critical theory and as a forerunner to postmodernism. A more insightful proposition might be that it partakes in the processes which led to the postmodern, that it is a diagnostic text and a sick text: one that suffers from the very thing it describes.
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Going to the doors now.
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My recommendations:
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Cash incentives for greater diversity of smaller shops (local) in abandoned sites, to stop desertification.
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Expansion of high end global franchises
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Unification of all four wings by refurbishment of dilapidated east wing
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Promotion of Ice rink, possible expansion/development, like winter world at Eastvale. At present it serves only school age children, after school hours. Much could be done to encourage older people to use the ice facilities.
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Note to staff. To try to look more enthusiastic. Ban on mobile phone usage by shop assistants.
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Overview, buy-out possibilities due to demographic, location, easy access to surrounding G areas. 10-15 % market leakage potential.
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MR study G48 slash 4. Olympia.
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Ewan Morrison’s new book “Tales from the Mall” is a mixture of facts fictions , anecdotes, urban myths and  confessions, taken from interviews with consumers and mall workers.
Douglas Coupland (Generation X, Girlfriend in a Coma, Microserfs) said the following about it:
“Morrison continues Ballard’s tradition of locating menace beneath the sleekness and shine of post industrial life. You also learn a lot along the way. A truly interesting book.”
“Tales from the Mall” (Cargo Publishing) is released on May 1st  2012. You can pre-order a copy here from Cargo or from Amazon here
Comments
4 Responses to “Ewan Morrison: The Mall Project”
  1. Michael Stuart Green says:

    More enjoyable than Walter Benjamin, despite the frequent misuse of “it’s” for “its” : predictive text?

  2. NLP says:

    We counted ‘it’s’ twice; twice too many. We blame the editor’s lazy eyes for this. However, despite the vortex of shame we are currently spiralling into, we are glad you enjoyed the text. A successful reimagining of WB, we think.

  3. True swinger says:

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  4. MagdaDH says:

    Possibly a one-track mind here; I read this piece – with its echoes of not just Benjamin (and Sebald I think) but to me also William Gibson at his most recently brand-focused and 1980s Paul Theroux travelling round here with a jaundiced eye – as travel writing. It is searching-for-new-ways-of-seeing way as what is sometimes called ”experimental travel” is searching for new ways of seeing familiar or mundane places. NB I always thought East Kilbride consisted entirely of round-abouts so it’s good to know there is more to it than those.

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