I encountered the turd on Arachovis Street, about one and a half blocks north-west of Asklipiou. I didn’t actually step into it: my peripheral vision had registered it moments previously, and I’d probably subconsciously classified it as geological feature best given wide berth. It really was an extraordinarily large turd: polymerous in structure, in fact, making it more of a turd-complex, or a compound-turd. A nobbled trunk of tremendous girth, poking upwards, adjacent to a slick of peaty, viscous gloop, which looked as though it had been troweled onto the pavement with great force.
For two more blocks I speculated about the turd’s origin. Sure, there was something vaguely anthropogenic about it, but the squalid chain of events leading up to its being excreted onto the middle of a pavement in Athens’ Exarcheia district was too unseemly to be plausible. On the other hand, I couldn’t image any other mammal capable of producing such a monument to its pitiable existence either, let alone one indigenous to this city’s streets. Surely no domestic dog could have produced that monstrosity. A large hyena, perhaps, or, hell – who knows? – a small rhinoceros.
The local organic wholefood shop is called The Hopsack, after the loose-weave untreated fibrous material that gives the shopper a sense of the dietary worthiness within.
The Hopsack has temporarily relocated from another location in the same shopping mall. The new site is smaller, so the sitting-around-drinking-coffee-area has been moved to the outside.
The contours of the marble tiles display a non-pattern created by the random distribution of ancient sea life, further randomized by the mining process, randomized once again by manufacturing processes of cutting, polishing and finishing, and one more time by the distribution, storage and laying of the tiles.
And yet, somehow, the marble just doesn’t say ‘organic’ the way astroturf does.
This piece was commissioned by Andrew Thomas Parry, a British artist living and working in Berlin. Parry approached me in May 2016 after his own research into foam insulating panels led him, inexorably, to Slab. The text accompanied an installation entitled “Let ’em Kuchen essen”, which was exhibited in the Platform art-space, a vitrine in the Kleistpark metro station. Parry’s installation is a social critique of Germany’s ongoing federal subsidisation of façade insulation, which is often used by property owners as a mechanism to increase rents prices.
Andrew Thomas Parry’s installation Let ’em Kuchen essen at Platform. Photo: Timo Ohler
The author with Slab’s Daniel Schwaag. Photo: Leah Peschel
In the urban imaginary, foam proffers itself as an allegorical narrative of social mobility. Foam is a useful metaphor for a specific expression of material wealth typified by a fetishistic appreciation of reductive aesthetics, as well as a tangible substance inherent to the fabric of our built environment and our culinary conventions.
In the multi-scaled system of foam we find the bubble as its smallest unit. Intrinsic to the lifespan of a bubble are gentle inflation and rapid collapse. In bubble economies, asset price inflation combined with unbridled credit expansion precede the crash. A single bubble might burst violently, but the steady depletion of foam soothes us with the promise of a soft landing. Foam’s abundance is a structural antidote laced with our desires.
The proliferation of the latte macchiato as a ritualistic medium through which to celebrate modest luxury permeates the urban econoculinary landscape. The rise of the neoliberal market economy – overlapping the second and third-wave coffee movements – was ushered in by the two-decade, bugle-call, background howl of the espresso-machine steam-wand. The latte macchiato’s emblematic ascent coincides with the exponential growth of Starbucks following the end of the Thatcher-Reagan era. When company stock began trading on Nasdaq in 1992, the chain had 195 stores. Twenty years later, there were over 17,000.
Writing in 1998, New York Times food columnist Molly O’Neill described late Michelin 3-stared chef Alain Chapel’s foamy mushroom cappuccino as “legendary”. Significantly – for analogies with late-capitalism – she frames the frothing of soups as a “subversive act, a way of blurring the distinction between the light and the heavy, the austere and the indulgent.” More recently, molecular gastronomist Adrià Ferran inadvertently helped to whip foam into the mainstream where it has since sagged into an aspirational cliché of more pedestrian eateries.
The pièces montées of Marie-Antoine Carême
It is in the soufflé, however, that we find the embodiment of mastery over the inflation and collapse of textured hydrocolloids. First recorded in the early 1700s, the soufflé was developed and popularised by Marie-Antoine Carême 100 years later. Abandoned by his parents during the French Revolution, Carême apprenticed as a pâtissier close to the Palais-Royal neighbourhood in Paris, where post-revolutionary high-society congregated. He rose to fame after opening his own pâtisserie, where he regularly astonished the public with spectacular pièces montées in the shop window. These creations, made entirely of marzipan, sugar and pastry, were towering structures which mimicked architectural motifs: tiered pyramids, arches, turrets, domes and porticos.
Contemporary domestic architectures (another kind of pâtissier’s confection), with their smeared surface layers of coagulated polymer goos, are complicit in the swindle of the light masquerading as the heavy. Historical buildings, meanwhile, are coerced into the opposite: the seductive idea of indulgent austerity, heaviness rendered light by effervescent financial mechanisms. Subsidised foam cladding ostensibly addresses environmental concerns, but is also the driver of asset price inflation by passing on the remaining costs to those already ascendent on the socio-economic soufflé, and forcing aside those who are not. Profits swell on the back of a bubble.
As a sign of a certain kind of spirituality, foam, noted semiotician Roland Barthes, “has the reputation of being able to make something out of nothing, a large surface of effects out of a small volume of causes”.
With thanks to: Andrew Thomas Parry, Leah Peschel, Lucy Olivia Smith and Timo Ohler.
For more on foam, goo, unguents, effluvia and other unpleasant coagulants, you might enjoy the following Slab articles:
We set out from the apartment quite late in the day, after a morning of eating and listening to the radio. Turning left out of the main door, out of Rue Rossini and onto Rue Berlioz, we made for the sea, leaving the Musiciens neighbourhood. It takes five minutes to reach the landmark of the Hotel Negresco, which stands prominently on the Promenade des Anglais.
This will take some time to get through. You are reading a record of the walk that I took with Tom while visiting him in Nice in the south of France at the end of June 2004. The start is when we left the apartment and the end will be when we returned.
The previous night I had started reading a book about the walk as an architectural/cultural activity. It described how the Paris Dadaists went on a city walk, whose purpose and route were deliberately unclear. They photographed themselves at the meeting point, beside a modest church in some Paris neighbourhood. It was the first time that I really understood Dada; through absurdity to reveal the true nature of things. Is something as banal as walking worth recording, worth commenting on? Is a walk an event? These people took what I suppose they would have called a promenade, or at least went through the motions of it, and raised for me the question of why one does such a thing as take a walk. And when one does, why is it sometimes important to have a route and other times not? And why does it seem important to record the event sometimes and other times not?
The Promenade des Anglais is a busy place, especially so on the weekend. It is hemmed in on the landward side by a dual carriageway that is constantly streaming with traffic. On the other side is the sea, several metres below. The beach itself is not really the main attraction in Nice. It is narrow and stony. The sea bed drops sharply away and the waves crash down on your head and the large stones hurt your feet. It is difficult to bathe gracefully there. So those who are on the beach are just lying about, some on the loungers arranged in rows and corralled by little fences that belong to the small bars that huddle against the retaining wall of the promenade. So the thing to do on the promenade is to walk and to watch other people doing the same thing. Some rollerblade, some jog, some cycle, but most walk. We walked east, a little quicker than most. It would be absurd to take a walk along the coast in Nice without going along this custom-built stretch, so we did what seemed logical and walked.
On our left was the beginning of the strip of green that marks where the now diverted river used to run. After that, the promenade is called Quai des Etats Unis. There is an interesting reason behind these French-foreign names for this French-foreign place, and I read about it somewhere at the time. If I had sat down to write this within a few days of the walk itself, I would remember, but I did not and I do not. In fact, many of the details have already started to fade. But that may be no bad thing. This account may not be entirely accurate, but it will probably be faithful.
Most of the ground we covered that day was along the coast and this is an attempt among other things to give the measure of this famous coastline. I can sum things up by saying simply that we walked south to the beach, then east along the sea over the first headland and then on to the next headland, which we ascended and then turned inland, reaching the outskirts of the city, where we took a bus that took us back into the city centre. That is the short of it, and I could leave it at that. But I want to give the long of it.
This indagine lentissimo into lawn-like ground coverings is in no way constrained to the grimey confines of Berlin. And in case a quick peruse of our archives might lead you to believe that Astroturf deployment is limited to workaday eateries unencumbered by an aesthetic education, you would be quite mistaken.
FLFL, Skånegatan, Stockholm
Here in the Katarina-Sofia neighbourhood of Stockholm, we find that Astroturf is predestined for hipster re-appropriation. How can we be sure that hipsterism is a factor? By being mindful of Freud’s narcissism of small differences and how they might apply to consumer culture. An aggressive investment in the specificity of detail in order to assert a superficial sense of uniqueness over the general, is the underlying mechanism behind all hipsterism.
We can see it at work here, at FLFL, where vowels have been cast aside, lest you imagine you’re dealing with some run-of-the-mill falafel joint. And we see it also in the four-step instructions which defy comprehension, on how this particular establishment handles the routine of seating and serving its guests. Salad should be collected first, menus obtained, dishes selected, table numbers noted and orders submitted at the counter. Expect to be ostracized for any deviation. You will be escorted to the door, and ejected into the gutter via the unfurled length of green carpet and black braided rope, reserved for anti-celebrities, it seems, and installed as an insincere debasement of the common by inverting rituals reserved for monarchs.
I recently toppled off the edge of the above ramp, built for wheelchair access to my local drug store. It was one of those anti-heroic moments, where for a split-second I pictured myself caught freeze-frame, arms flailing in an attempt to restore balance as the ground teetered beneath my feet. I stayed upright, but at the expense of my foot, which suffered a nasty inverse strain.
I sought help from an orthopedist whose practice is wedged into the first floor of the Axel Springer Passage, a warren of carpeted offices and small businesses arranged around six cavernous atriums. The complex culminates in the golden, 1960s-era headquarters tower.
Peronœus brevis: ramp challenged (Image: Henry Vandyke Carter – Henry Gray (1918) Anatomy of the Human Body)
“Estragon, sitting on a low mound, is trying to take off his boot. He pulls at it with both hands, panting.”
The orthopedist practice is actually one of many doctor’s surgeries, arranged around the periphery of a glass-roofed garden. It is the waiting room to further waiting rooms: an interior exterior; an inter-terior; an extra-terior, or maybe an infra-terior space designed to resemble a lacklustre park, caught in the never-season of a machine-regulated anti-climate.
The steely clouds of Berlin scud by overhead. People drift here, into Röntgen’s purgatory, as leaves might if there was wind. Like an absurd scenographic reinterpretation of Waiting for Godot, the low mound which accommodated Estragon in Beckett’s play is rendered as red-brick intarsia: a suggestion of topography where there is none. Estragon is preoccupied by his boots. I tighten the velcro of my Aircast® Airgo™ ankle support. A foot seeks contact with the earth. We wait.