Writing on photography

Capital Realism: Art, Photography and Gentrification

Two decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, the late cultural critic Mark Fisher noted that it had become far easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine an end to capitalism. For Fisher, not only had all viable alternatives been systematically discredited, but populations had also been conditioned to not even countenance the possibility of alternatives. To describe this profoundly depressing world view, Fisher employed the term Capitalist Realism, a neat embodiment of an economic cynicism that has direct parallels in the political cynicism of the Soviet Union. However, as an idea Capitalist Realism can also be understood and applied in another sense, one which holds a clearer resonance with the Soviet Socialist Realist art movement to which its name seems to allude, and one with a more direct connection to the state of cities today, as places colonised and transformed by global flows of capital.

Art was an important and often overlooked front in the Cold War. In the East, state sponsored Socialist Realism eulogised Stalinism and its political descendants, while managing to be almost completely divorced from the grim realities of living under such systems. Joseph Stalin, hardly someone sympathetic to the arts, at least acknowledged the usefulness of artists and writers as ‘engineers of the human soul’. This form and function persists today to some degree in a sort of post-Soviet Neo-Socialist Realism which can be seen in more than a few former Soviet satellite states. In the West, it is harder to pin the term ‘Capitalist Realism’ on a specific artistic movement, but the Central Intelligence Agency’s active promotion of Abstract Expressionism, combined with that movement’s disinterest in the differently grim realities of living under capitalism, would make it a strong contender for the title.

That powerful state sponsorship, and the public interest in Abstract Expressionism has waned since 1989 however, and Francis Fukyama’s ‘End of History’ and the triumph of free markets have given rise to a new visual form which is its logical replacement. Our contemporary Capitalist Realism I would suggest, has shifted more clearly from the sphere of the arts, into that of advertising. In it finds form in a genre of aggressively pro-capital advertising, which in the tradition of Fisher’s Capitalist Realism has no accounting for alternative views. If you wanted to see examples of this there are many places you could visit, but there is one sub-genre in particular for which London must be the prime destination.

London is currently undergoing an explosive ‘redevelopment’ fuelled by the international branding of the city as a high return, politically stable, investment opportunity. As a result, large parts of the metropolis have become sprawling warrens of construction sites, with armies of orange clad workers swarming around the exposed concrete shells that reach skyward. These construction projects are so numerous and occur at such a staggering speed, that it is not uncommon to visit parts of the city and find a once familiar landscape unrecognisably altered. My near centenarian grandmother, who has lived virtually her entire life in the city, likened the experience to her memories of the Blitz, the indiscriminate aerial bombardment of the city during the Second World War. Emerging from the underground after a night’s air raids, people would find the landscape transformed by high explosives. The Blitz was aimed at breaking the morale of civilians, as much as it was about damaging the urban fabric and the ability to wage war. Contemporary development is having similar, if perhaps unintended consequences on the morale of London’s population.

Like the bombsites of yore, London’s construction sites are rapidly ringed with hoardings to keep the curious at bay. Yet developers are rarely people to pass up an opportunity for self-promotion, and rather than leaving these hoardings bare they plaster them with computer rendered imagery visualising what the structures taking form behind them might eventually become. These images are easily dismissed by someone steaming past as simply another part of the artless visual muzak that makes up the background of any large city. But like other parts of that banal patchwork, the imagined images which ring London’s development sites reward a closer reading, as an example of Capitalist Realism which perhaps says much about the way developers and the assorted architects, engineers, town planners and contractors who are their adjutants, want us to believe (and perhaps even want to believe themselves) about the developments they are building.

Aesthetically something that often strikes me is that in spite of the entirely artificial, simulated nature of these images, their makers go to great lengths to make them seem photographic. This quest extends even to the insertion of anachronistic photographic elements into these simulated scenes as if to underline their authenticity. Things that photographers would normally avoid, or spend hours painstakingly removing from their photographs, like dust and lens flare, are here instead painstakingly reintroduced, as in the renders of the spatially (and controversially) massive Earls Court development underway in West London. Likewise simulated long exposures blur traffic and people as they pass by ultra-prime developments like One Hyde Park. It is visual shorthand perhaps for the frenetic pace of urban living, or perhaps for the bedrock of stability that these apartments promise to offer those investors who choose to park their money in one of these apartments, often via the reassuringly anonymous route of a shell company in the British Virgin Islands.

In terms of their actual content, another striking thing about these images is how even across different developments, developers and illustrators, the tropes remain remarkably constant in them. In these imagined views high rise towers glisten in the morning or evening light, as if to underline that this carnage is in fact a new dawn for the city. In this regard I often can’t help but often be reminded of Paul Nash’s 1918 painting We are Making a New World, where the sun rises morosely over a shattered battlefield. More seldom developments are shown at night, and when they do these are often business rather than residential developments, as if to underline the always awake culture of modern capitalism so eloquently dismembered by Jonathan Crary as a ‘deathliness of accumulation, financialization and waste’.

Rarely these night time views show residential developments, and when they do the darkness becomes an opportunity for voyeurism, allowing us to peer through the glass walls into the luxury homes within, an unfortunate anticipation of the crowds who now visit the new Tate Modern viewing platform at least partially for the opportunity to observe the inhabitants of the nearby NEO Bankside luxury development which in rare reversal of fortunes has become an edifying luxury zoo. Regardless of day or night, business or residential, the weather in these visualisations is always clement, with sunlight radiating from severe-clear blue skies, perhaps softened and filtered through a wispy trace of cloud. The light always has a cold touch of winter about it, even where the leaves of deciduous trees and clothing of bystanders incongruously suggest that image depicts a scene in the steamiest depths of summer.

Speaking of bystanders, the ones who feature in and around these imaginary developments are also remarkable for their consistency. No one shows any sign of being bored, stressed, upset, overly elderly, ill, homeless, or in any other way afflicted by anything but an abundance of free time and disposable income. They studiously ignore the very buildings that we are being invited to consider, as if to say that these structures, presently glaring glass eyesores so uncharacteristic of a low-lying brick city like London will one day be such a familiar part of the landscape as to be hardly worthy of note. This modesty rings entirely false, but perhaps we should accept it as the closest that contemporary developers will ever get to the modesty of the architects of old, who would sometimes commission drawings of their construction in ruins, a sort of momento mori for buildings which quite often still exist today. The developers and architects of present day London lack such humility, and their developments mostly lack any hope of such longevity, intentionally engineered I am told, to need replacement in due course. Why build for the future when we are already at the end of history?

The bystanders in these images are also often ethnically uniform, predominantly white with perhaps a handful of other ethnicities scattered in, these exceptions look mostly designed to play the part of wealthy foreign investors, rather than indigenous Londoners. This of course stands in glaring contrast to the reality of the areas where these developments are usually built; multi-cultural, working-class regions of the city where land has traditionally been cheap, and well-to-do once thankfully feared to tread. Alas no more, as the ragged sound of supercars and marauding bands of Friday night city boys on the high streets of south London are a reminder. In Elephant and Castle a particularly glaring contrast existed for a time between the hoardings of the many developments in the area, and the community murals painted in the pedestrian subways which once linked the different corners of the roundabout. Alas these subways and murals are now unfortunately interned under several feet of aggregate, waiting like cave paintings to perhaps be rediscovered in the future.

These computer-generated images in short attempt to present a very particular image of developments and the phenomena of redevelopment as whole, but it is one which jars with the reality on the ground. I often wonder who exactly these images are for, given few investors will actually pass them, and many of the people who will see them will know from bitter experience the falsity of the future being promised. The developer’s imagined world of retail units occupied by quirky independent businesses and public spaces where ‘everyone loves to belong’ often become in reality yet more multi-national chain stores and windswept squares where any activity other than quiet consumption requires a permit from the land owners. The buildings themselves, rather than much loved landmarks on the horizons, often become empty totems to greed, social cleansing, a creeping global monoculture, and an utterly illusory performance of transparency, which ends in the complex off-shore tax structures employed by so many developers in order to avoid paying even minimal taxes in the jurisdiction where they make their profits.

Returning finally to Soviet Socialist Realism, one of the things that made it noteworthy was its utter lack of criticality, and the same of course can be said for our contemporary Capitalist Realism. There is simply no space for doubt in these images, even when doubt in the form of financial speculation, is precisely what they are intended to sell. Before Socialist Realism however, there was also another art movement, a Social Realism which exhibited a far greater criticality, and attempted to engage audiences with the essential issues of its time, economic depression, racial strife and rise of totalitarian systems like Stalinism. Perhaps what we need now, in the response to this pervasive Capitalist Realism and the prevalent sense that there is no possible resistance or alternative to capitalism, is an artistic Capital Realism predicated not on a trendy critique intended as much for the market as for actual audiences, but on a genuine, aggressive critique, a-no-holes barred assault on everything that Capitalism Realism proclaims.

This essay was originally written to accompany the exhibition Capital City, held at London College of Communication in summer 2018.

Metropole photobook available here.

About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is acting course leader of MA photojournalism and documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2020 he will be an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.

Writing on photography