Thursday, June 16, 2011

The bookish type – Harland Miller

By Paul Cochrane for Aishti magazine

British artist Harland Miller is that relatively rare thing, an artist in the all encompassing definition of the word, being both an acclaimed author and a renowned painter.

Surging through the art world in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Miller published his debut novel Slow down Arthur, Stick to Thirty in 2000. Being an artist, Miller wanted to design the cover to his novel.

“In my experience in the publishing world, which is different as an artist, I worked out that publishers think the book should do the work and people should not be seduced by the cover. When it came to the cover of my book I thought, no worries, I can do it,” says Miller.

“But the publishers said what I came up with looked ‘too second hand.’ We hit on a compromise, with the artistic team giving their input. But I ended up with the worst cover in the world. I definitely think this experience influenced my paintings and going for classic covers.”

The paintings Miller developed took a page out of Andy Warhol’s and Larry Rivers’ pop art book.

He artistically played around with a modern icon, the covers of Penguin books during their heyday, when the publisher democratized the British book market in the ‘30s by bringing out quality literature in cheap paperback form.

“I like pop art in that it can be appropriated,” says Miller. “And book cover design is not really a developed art form.”

Spinning this on its head, Miller took the remarkably simple covers of Penguin books – classics of graphic design that lack any artwork by emphasizing typography – and turned them into a form of art known as text- based art.

Painted on wall-filling canvases, Miller uses subtle – and not so subtle – titles to make a statement, like “Incurable Romantic – Seeks Dirty Filthy Whore,” “International Lonely Guy – My Story,” “Blonde, But Not Forgotten,” “Too Cool to Die” and “You Can Rely on Me – I’ll Always Let You Down.”

Miller also played with the dust jackets of classic works of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Evelyn Waugh. An Edgar Allan Poe cover reads “Murder – We’ve All Done It.”

Miller followed this series with the Pelican book cover series, which he calls “the bad weather pictures.”

He’s currently working on a new series of paintings based on obituaries he reads in the newspapers. “The obituary paintings are always portraits in miniature of somebody. I started the series ages ago in Paris, when [British politician] Stephen Milligan died [of autoerotic asphyxiation] and I always wanted to do more. I’ve been collecting obituaries since then, choosing people I feel sorry for or ones that go un-noticed,” says Miller.

With his book cover series around for a decade, few are left for collectors to buy, but some nine were on sale during Miller’s first exhibit in Lebanon, “Have You Ever Stopped to Wonder Why You’re Not Here,” held last May in Downtown Beirut.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Boon time for mercenaries

Nervous and embattled Arab regimes look abroad for help

Commentary - Executive magazine

Blackwater’s Erik Prince testifies on Washington’s Capitol Hill. Business appears to be booming for Prinz, despite high profile lawsuits against his company

Erik Prince holds up a photo during a hearing in the US

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are supposedly winding down, Osama Bin Laden is dead, and the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ is eroding the iron-fisted regimes that have for so long held sway over the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). For private military contractors (PMCs) — a polite name for professional mercenaries — such developments might be considered a harbinger of tough times. But business is better than ever in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the suppression of internal revolts throughout the MENA is presenting new opportunities for this multi-billion dollar industry.

Last month details emerged that the infamous founder of Blackwater, Erik Prince, was forming an 800-strong secret army for the United Arab Emirates, for a price tag of $529 million. Prince moved to the UAE after Blackwater, later renamed Xe Services, faced legal problems in the United States, notably in a case against four Blackwater operatives accused of killing 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad in 2007, which has recently been reopened.

Reflex Responses, Prince’s new venture in conjunction with a 51 percent Emirati stake, features South African and Latin American mercenaries, the latter brought into the UAE disguised as construction workers, according to the New York Times, hired to protect under-construction nuclear power plants and oil infrastructure from terrorist attacks, and to “put down internal revolts” and “unrest in crowded labor camps.”

What is curious is the UAE’s need for Prince’s firm, as the country already ranked 16th worldwide in 2010 for military expenditure, at $15.74 billion, or 7.3 percent of gross domestic product, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. If such a high cost for the conventional military cannot guarantee security, but a half billion dollar private force can, it puts into question the rationale for such a high defense budget. Furthermore, it sheds doubt on the UAE’s belief in the Gulf Cooperation Council — dominated by Saudi Arabia — to come to its aid to squash an uprising, as happened when GCC forces rolled into Bahrain this year.

The UAE is clearly worried about instability amid uprisings nearby and has taken a page out of other government manuals by resorting to guns for hire. In March, it was reported that up to 1,000 Pakistani troops had been recruited to serve in the Bahrain National Guard to put down the uprising, as local troops could not be relied upon. In Saudi Arabia, which recently signed a $60 billion arms deal with the US, Associated Press reported that a top secret project is underway with the US Central Command supervising and training a 35,000-strong Saudi force to protect oil infrastructure and, presumably, to crush any unrest. Reports also abound of Muammar al-Qadhafi using mercenaries in his ongoing war against the rebels in Libya.

Last year in Iraq, security was the second most common service provided by contractors to the US government, accounting for approximately 13,000 personnel, or 18 percent of all contractors, according to a recent report by the Congressional Research Service. But while US troop levels have dropped in Iraq since 2008, along with support service contracts as a result, PMCs actually increased by 39 percent, or 3,500 personnel, by the end of last year.

The US Department of Defense does not give a breakdown of contractor services in Afghanistan, but contracts have soared over the past five years, from $2 billion in 2005, to $11.8 billion for some 87,000 contractors in 2010. It appears as though demand for PMCs will remain high so long as governments carry out policies unpopular in the eyes of the public. After all, mercenaries are useful assets to perform tasks that might strain the loyalty of a country’s regular armed forces. Indeed, Reflex Responses will reportedly not hire Muslim mercenaries given that, in the words of Prince, “They could not be counted on to kill fellow Muslims.”

The regional spike in demand for mercenaries and private armies speaks volumes about the insecurities of the UAE and Saudi Arabia. More chillingly, it raises concerns about the destiny of the ‘Arab Spring’ when governments resort to such forces to quell revolt.