Mark McGowan is a performance artist who decided to take on the persona of the Artist Taxi Driver around five years ago as a way to channel his protests against the government and the general establishment in a more productive way than his previous Chunky Mark persona. As the Artist Taxi Driver, he interviews a staggering range of people in his taxi from people like Frankie Boyle, Russell Brand and Leanne Wood, to people trying to save their homes in London housing estates. This isn’t some celebrity ego trip, but a man genuinely protesting against the system as can be seen from the almost daily videos and interviews he uploads to Youtube.
His magnum opus is Westmonster, a 3 hour, 26 minute film about the British political system that takes bits and bobs of previous videos plus some I’ve not seen before, so may be totally new, to form something else. What that something else is remains in the eye of the beholder as this is at the same time as being a highly political piece of activism, is also a piece of performance art. It doesn’t have a narrative drive, so the flow of the film is scattergun which makes it at times in it’s nearly three and a half hour running time, sometimes a chore as it’s disjointed structure makes it hard to follow even if you’re totally aware of the situations being discussed, or just who McGowan is speaking to or about.
The running time doesn’t help as it drifts in and out of making a clear point, but there’s a lot McGowan is cramming in here but when it works it does so well, such as the coverage of the various grass roots campaigns across the UK be it the women fighting to avoid eviction from their homes in London, to campaigners trying to be heard in regards institutional cover up of child abuse to independence campaigners in Scotland, something McGowan in particular had drawn real inspiration from and indeed he’s dedicated the film to the people of Scotland for that reason. Indeed the name of the film comes from the term Scottish independence campaigners use for Westminster.
Stripping the film down to say, two hours and removing much of the stream of consciousness narrative would help the flaws in Westmonster, but when it hits home it does so in spectacular fashion as for example the scene where McGowan speaks to an incredibly articulate young girl about the stuff she’s putting up with in regards evictions while trying to get an education, or the protesters pointing out the flaws in the entire myth of austerity. Even the scenes with some of the celebrities are worth watching, especially an informed discussion between McGowan and Frankie Boyle which includes the bizarre detail that Ed Milliband and George Osborne’s wives are best friends and go on holidays together. Russel Brand plays his part in the film spouting his usual stuff, but it’s good to see that McGowan includes the opinions of grass roots campaigners who can see through Brand’s often misleading rhetoric.
McGowan isn’t afraid to go for the jugular and take on sacred cows of the left, especially some on the the English left who McGowan seems to see as being led astray or foolishly think Labour are going to support people on the fight against austerity. He understands that the old establishment has to be brought down and new grass roots movements have to form in order to fight the neoliberal consensus and right now that seems to be forming across the UK, and is also the subject of his next big project.
Westmonster is a flawed, overlong, often far too hyperbolic film that sometimes dives headfirst into conspiracy theory tinhattery, though some of the stories that sound fantastic are true. It is however a film that should be seen because of the masses of information (and it’s a lot of information to take in at times) in here is important, but it’s the unique voices of people on the front line of the cuts, or of austerity, or of the very reshaping of our society as it moves into an authoritarian country ruled by an elite for an even richer elite that is important.
The idea that the UK is run by a succession of increasingly corrupt governments controlled by corrupt institutions and corporations sounds like a dystopian fantasy from a Philip K. Dick novel, but in the rawest, truest sense, this is what the UK is. Both Tory and Labour governments of the last 40 or so years have performed a sort of baton race passing laws to reshape the country from the post war consensus where people from all sides of the political spectrum agreed on things like the welfare state and human rights, to one now where the welfare state and human rights are under threat. McGowan is a crucial voice in exposing the stories the establishment don’t want you to hear, not to mention he gives the people behind these stories a voice using his relatively high profile.
One of these voices is heard in the epilogue to the film discussing the Daniel Morgan murder.
There’s a lot to take from Westmonster, I’d recommend getting stuck in and take from it what you can as in the coming months there’s going to be a clear fight to keep what we have and stop it falling into the hands of the few.