Category Archives: reviews

On failures of communication

 

jbraine/flickr

jbraine/flickr

If you’re following along on this blog, you’ll know that last week I went to a function in town, got the shits with one small aspect of it, and wrote this blog post. The innocent victims of this then fought back in the comments. In the grand scheme of things this was all very tiny, but it was my teacup, my storm. I went on about it to my partner and friends. What did it all mean? Was I being mean? Were they being mean?

I kept trying to say, “I’m looking for the meaning, I’m not trying to be mean,” and they kept saying, “You’ve got the wrong meaning, and you are being mean.” Communication failure!

We live in a world of intentional and unintentional meanings. On one level, I have been a racist person today. I have not left the house; I’ve barely spoken to anyone. So how can I be racist? Well, I’m in a house on a plot of land that my partner and I own. We’ve got the key to the door. If a stranger wanders in off the street I have every right to shout at them or call the cops. All this is normal and ordinary. This natural ordinariness is the sort of truth I need to live in, today, for practical reasons.

But there’s another truth about what I’m doing here, on this bit of land. A couple of hundred years ago this block belonged to the Wiradyuri nation, or, to put it the way they often put it – they belonged to this piece of land. Today, there are Wiradyuri people who live in rented houses in Kelso; some are homeless. But because of our racist history I’m the one who owns this block, not them. I get to say who comes in and out. I didn’t personally create this situation. I’m also not going to give up my privilege. I’m going to keep living here, keep locking the door, keeping treating the place as if I own it.

My intention for today is to hang out inside the house, working from home. But another, extra layer of meaning (out of many) is that I’m living the privilege of a white person in Australia. Perhaps it’s a bit much to say I’m “being racist” but I think it’s true to say that I’m benefiting from, and perhaps in some way perpetuating, the racism in our culture.

The British decided to declare the land terra nullius – belonging to no-one – so that they could seize land without feeling like criminals.  If “nobody” owned it, then it was there for the taking. Finders keepers. The downside of this is that Aboriginal people were made to feel like nobodies. Racism comes in to support the threadbare logic of occupation and theft.

It’s not nice to think about this. It’s much easier to forget about history and just live in each day as it comes. But Aboriginal people – just by being here, just by walking down the street, passing me as I do my shopping – remind me that there are other layers of meaning embedded in my ordinary day. And they’re not just trivial layers of meaning. They’re about who we are and what we are striving to be. This is what I was trying to say about the marital arts demonstration. There’s intention, and there’s meaning. They’re different things. There are always lots of possible meanings, depending on your perspective.

After a day agonising over my martial arts storm in a tea cup, I decided to forget the lot of it and just watch Brad Pitt’s zombie film, World War Z. But my brain wouldn’t shut down that easily. Brad says goodbye to his family when he goes off to fight the zombies. He cuddles the little girl and says words along the lines of she’s a precious thing. He high-fives the little boy and says, “Look after the women.” This includes the adult woman who is twice the boy’s size. He’s nine, but he’s the man of the house! Arrgh! Somebody please EAT MY BRAINS.

Culture chases me wherever I go. I can’t not see. I’m constantly mulling over how we are all part of a culture that perpetuates racism and sexism and environmental destruction – even when we’re just doing our thing, even when we’re just trying to fight the zombies or spend the day in the house. We perpetuate racism and sexism not because we’re bad, or because we mean to, but because we’re caught up in history and culture. By becoming more aware of this, we might be able to change how we do things in the future. That’s my hope, anyway.

So, back to communication, to failures of communication. My commenters thought I was being unjustly mean; I felt they were failing to get my point. It was a disagreement about the meaning of an event and we all had feelings about it. I can’t “unfeel” what I felt at the time; they can’t “unfeel” their response to my feeling.

This brings me to the interesting question of audience.

Who is this blog for? Who is reading it? My audience is mostly family and friends – people who know me personally. (Average readership is in the dozens.) But it’s not a secret or protected blog; it’s public. In its own way, it’s also part of “the media”. With that, comes all sorts of other responsibilities. When I wrote my post last week, I was not imagining – or perhaps I was forgetting – that the young people in the demonstration might also read it. If I’d been addressing them directly, I might have expressed myself differently. Instead, I was addressing my “usual” audience …  which is what, exactly? You. You reading this, whoever you are. Sometimes I think I know you; sometimes you’re a mystery.

As the host of this blog, I can go under the hood and have a look at my statistics. I can see how many subscribers I’ve got, how many people read a particular post. I can see which posts get read over and over again and which barely get a look-in. I can see the search terms people use before they stumble upon my blog (I love this one, for example: “what to do with galah when it has tumour in its bottom”). I know who some of you are but many of you are a complete mystery.

That’s how this Internet and social media thing works. Something can go from a semi-private discussion to global controversy in two seconds flat. Context goes out the window. It’s like sitting in a booth in a cafe having a deep and meaningful conversation, forgetting that the people at the next table can hear everything you say. And might be tweeting it.

Was my blog post capable of doing actual harm to a group of teenagers innocently doing their thing? Are hurt feelings harm? In the end, I decided not to delete my post. It was a review of a public performance; it was not a positive review, but that’s in the nature of review. I reviewed it from my own perspective, which was not the same as their perspective. But they had space to reply to me and to defend themselves in the comments. So I decided to let it all stand: my original post, my update after a personal discussion over the phone; the comments. People can make of it what they will.

Perhaps it’s not about failure of communication so much as about what happens when different types of communication bump up against each other. It’s sometimes frustrating, sometimes painful, but always enlightening.

 

Leave Matt Damon on Mars

tiny_orchid_chris_marshall

A tiny lily from Peel, near Bathurst. Pic: Chris Marshall.

There’s an awful lot going on, and all of it’s good, all of it’s about participating in Life with a capital L.

A couple of hours ago I got a text message from a nurse at Prof Harnett’s clinic. The entire text message was just two digits: a one and a zero. Ten. Ten! Brilliant! My lucky number relates to my CA125 level, an indicator of possible ovarian cancer activity. High numbers bad, low numbers good. Ten is a lovely low number.
In the run-up to this blood test I kept myself pantingly busy working on the 200 Plants and Animals exhibition which opened last Friday night. We had about 50 people at the launch. The exhibition, whipped into aesthetic line by Cate McCarthy, looked fabulous at about 4pm on Friday evening. Two hours to spare! I even had time to go home and have a shower and put a skirt on.

The exhibition is all about paying attention to where we live. Which is in a planetary system that appears robust but is actually caving, crumbling, subsiding, declining, getting warmer, losing bits of itself. The exhibition (which continues until 5pm next Sunday) explores the bit of the system that we’re inhabiting right here, right now – focusing on non-human living things. A hundred local plants, a hundred local animals all feature in the exhibition. The largest thing is the skull of a horse; the smallest is a tiny, tiny dead beetle. It includes my own bit of amateur biologising: a pressed dandelion from the back yard, and crocheted human brains (humans are included but only as the “one hundreth animal”). There’s a spotted marsh frog painting by the Hazzards; Mum’s pobblebonk; my friend Kirsty Lewin’s black cockatoo mask; lots of photos by Tim Bergen; bright pastels by Johannes Bauer who is both ecologist and artist; Ray Mjadwesch’s specimens including the dried remains of a sugar glider that died after being snarled in barbed wire; our old dog Taro; a glass-art cat with a chain saw. Mostly native animals and plants, but a few introduced species that share this habitat.

Working on this exhibition with the BCCAN committee and others in the team, my sense of this planet as a teeming, rich-in-every-corner thing has grown. I got angry with an ad for Mortein on television the other night. It seemed incredible to me that wholesale scorched-earth policies in private homes are allowed, willy nilly, along with anti-bacterial hand washes. Good to have in hospitals, but the idea of daily life in disinfected spaces now seems a lesser life.
Which brings me to Matt Damon on Mars with his potato plants fertilised by human dung. There he is in a superhuman struggle against the basic facts of life: our bodies were created and are supported by our one and only planet, with its air and water and animals and plants and seasons and sea and earth. And he wins. He works out how to “science the shit out of” his dire situation. The movie brims with an eager love of science, of figuring things out, trying things out, failing and trying again. I enjoyed that. It was also a long paean to NASA. I’m as much a fan of NASA as the next person, or maybe even more, having grown up next to one of the tracking stations that tracked the Gemini and Apollo missions.

But in these days of climate change and environmental destruction, such enthusiasm over humanity’s ability to shuck off the demands of our slow-evolving nature just makes me a little sad for us and for the planet we’re buggering up in the process. There we are, soiling our own nest, just waiting to take flight, get off into outer space, colonise distant planets, all in close-fitting Star Trek suits.

On television a few days later, there was the lame Revenge of the Sith, in which the vibrant world of the original Star Wars movie was oddly reduced to a cross between daytime soap and a computer game for kids. It was all smooth surfaces and whizzing things. Where were these beings growing their food, disposing of their waste? Where was biology in all this? (Okay, just Googled it. Star Wars does have its own biological objects and rules, according to Wookieepedia.) When James Cameron’s Avatar came out, I thought it might have been the beginning of a different type of futurism, one that explored the idea of living sustainably within an ecosystem. But Avatar was a one-off. The future, as imagined by Hollywood, still has a Jetsons quality (it’s the future, and you never see the Earth’s surface, let alone a single tree).I love science as much as the next person, or even more, having so far been saved by modern medical knowledge. But the idea that we can “science the shit out of” our environmental problems, including climate change, will not work on its own. I think it needs to be united with a profound acceptance of – and interest in – the limitations and workings of our own bodies and our own planet.

Dubbo is better than Paris

Giraffes at Dubbo's Western Plains zoo.

Giraffes at Dubbo’s Western Plains zoo.

Is Dubbo better than Paris? It depends.

A few years ago I was sitting on a bus on the way to Cobar, a red-dirt outback place a few hundred kilometres west of here, when I overheard a discussion between two schoolboys about places they’d been. One of them, about ten or eleven years old, delivered a line I’ve remembered ever since: “Dubbo is better than Paris.”

For my international reader*, Dubbo is not well known for the arts, history, romance, food or architecture, although all of these things exist there. It is known for a zoo just outside town that has giraffes, rhinos, zebras and other charismatic animals. These animals have large open spaces to run in rather than the small allotments offered by city zoos. If they squint their eyes and try to ignore the fences, they might be able to imagine themselves on the plains of Africa: the flat, dry landscape is similar. I’m assuming the boy who had been to both Paris and Dubbo had this in mind when he made his surprising pronouncement. In Dubbo, he would’ve been able to get quite near a majestic giraffe, close enough perhaps to smell its flanks, to see it breathe. At the Louvre, by contrast, he would’ve been herded about with dozens of other children by cranky worn-out adults. He might have looked through gaps between the backs of other people’s heads at the small framed Mona Lisa and thought: “Whatever”.

For him, Dubbo was better than Paris.

This ran through my mind the other night when I went along to a discussion panel at the local regional art gallery. All of the people on the panel were, metaphorically, Paris. We in the audience were, metaphorically, Dubbo. Or that’s how it felt, to me.

***

I just got up and started cooking dinner. I can feel the weight and mass of the chip on my shoulder.

***

Okay, to continue. Three of the artists on the panel had work in the gallery’s current exhibition. Juz Kitson works with shapes that are like bodily organs or appendages, drooping, hanging, bulbous, hairy. The hair looks like real hair, growing out of synthetic skin that looks like real skin. It’s all bundled together in ways that are both beautiful and uncomfortably intimate. The sparse, coarse hair, reminiscent of pubic hair, flows down over pendulous bodily shapes to touch the floor. It’s exquisite.

In the next room there was a small house suggested by a bare timber framework. Sandra Nyberg’s work is open and airy. It is generous toward its surroundings because you can see the surroundings through it. In the gallery, at the moment, it frames jewelry made of shells and other sea-things and other bits of found nature. There’s a gleaming necklace made of king green maireener shells. These pieces by Lola Greeno are beautiful, an engagement with the biology of her Tasmanian home.

In the last rooms at the back were the joined PVC elbow pipes by Mark Booth. This plastic looked plastic, unlike the skin-plastic of Juz Kitson’s assemblages. After the tactile, overtly biological pieces in the other spaces, these things seemed hard and remote to me. It took a moment to recalibrate before I could enjoy them.

Juz Kitson, Sandra Nyberg and Mark Booth were all on the panel discussion which was hosted by Alex Wisser from Cementa 15. Juz, Sandra and Mark were introduced as artists who “live and practice in a regional setting”.  Juz lives between the Yarramalong Valley and China; Sandra went to art school in Sydney before returning to a tiny island off the coast of Finland; Mark Booth has worked and exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney but now has a studio in Hill End, an old gold mining town that is now partly an artists’ colony.

The topic under discussion was the “advancements, challenges and future of contemporary practice in a regional context”. The main preoccupation was how contemporary artists located outside of big cities might stay in touch with the main game. Networking is essential to a career in the arts; if you’re not showing up in all the right places, you risk being forgotten. Thankfully, said everyone, there’s the Internet. Now, you can have the best of both worlds:  splendid isolation plus Facebook. This is a win-win in all directions: artists can now spread themselves around. They can rent cheap studios in little towns.

The downsides were expressed with disarming honesty by Alex Wisser, the host of the discussion: Out of your window, there’s this unchanging landscape. Whereas a city has a “nowness” about it, the countryside has a timelessness about it. The art world, the main game, is all about the now. If you’re not careful, the landscape might soften your edge. And the locals think you’re crazy. As a rule, the people you run into don’t understand what you’re doing, or don’t like it, or don’t care. That small, daily, lack of recognition can grind you down. (These are not exactly Alex’s words. It’s a week later and my notes are not that good. But this is the gist of it.)

“You need an audience,” said Alex (I wrote this bit down). “I mean in people who, in an affectionate way, come to understand what you’re doing.”

Alex, his artist partner and their daughter and some other artists have moved from Sydney to Kandos, a small town next to a giant cement works that has closed down. The rent is cheap. The post-industrial setting against the drama of sandstone cliffs is inspiring. Cementa 15 is coming up just after Easter.

Sandra Nyberg spoke about her experience on the island of Korppoo in Finland, accessible only by ferry. Every year there’s a contemporary art festival on the island, in which artists respond to the local environment. She said artists work closely with the locals, and they feel “part of it”.

So far, the discussion was all about what happens when artists go “out” to live and work beyond the major cities.

In question time, Vianne Tourle, who grew up on a farm near Dubbo and now lives in Bathurst, asked if it might be possible to conceive of a contemporary art practice born, maturing and continuing to exist outside of the city. She wasn’t being mischievous, or perhaps only a little bit.

Anyway, as they say in the Sesame Street song, it’s all relative. The big becomes the little when you take it back a bit. There are probably only a handful of artists in the world who truly think of themselves – and are thought of – as being in the centre, whatever the hell that is. The closer you get to it, the further it moves away. The chip on my shoulder – resentment over the city’s sense of superiority just because of its address – is a bad old habit, weighing me down. In any case, a lot of people would look at me and see some sort of insider, or at least someone closer to the inner bands of the circle than them. And there’s the fact that between my remote and regional days, there were years in Newtown, which is the centre of the entire universe.

Afterwards, I headed over to Russell Street and the opening of the latest t.arts gallery exhibition. In that tiny artists’ co-operative gallery you find a heterogeneous mix of traditional and contemporary arts. The new exhibition includes the luminous landscapes of David Lake – evocations of that seeming timelessness that Alex Wisser was talking about. David and fellow artist Tim Miller had been out to White Cliffs – the remote beyond remote – to paint in the extremes of light and heat. Music for the opening was supplied by a trio called String Theories, who had written a piece inspired by David’s painting, Moon rise Hobby’s Yards.  Someone brought the painting out and put it on a chair next to the band so we could listen and look.

Another artist in the exhibition, Margaret Ling, fires her pots in a hole in the ground on a friend’s property out of town. She likes slow-burning hardwood. She arranges the layers of fuel in such a way that the fire burns down slowly towards the pots. It’s work that emerges, quite literally, out of this landscape.

So, at one gallery we had a self-conscious discussion about who we all are and what it all means, while at the other, it was just people getting on with doing their home-grown thing. All very interesting. All part of being out and about in a regional city on a Friday evening.

The moral of the story is that Dubbo is better than Paris for giraffes; Paris is better than Dubbo for croissants. But there are also giraffes in Paris and croissants in Dubbo and pictures of all of the above are available, right now, on the Internet. And I do love this song.


* Her name is Jane.

Des_Seraphine

My photo of Kirsty’s guinea pig mashed up with Seraphine Louis’ L’Arbre de vie. Oil on canvas (114×145 cm), 1928. Musée d’Art et d’Archéologie de
Senlis, France. © Musée d’Art et d’Archéologie de Senlis; Christian Schryve, Compiègne; © ADAGP. Retrieved from http://www.medicographia.com/2010/10/art-and-psychosis/ on 9/3/13.

Séraphine de Senlis reminds me of Des, the blind synesthesic guinea pig. They are of a feather. Neither has feathers, of course. Séraphine wears an old crocheted shawl and Des has infinitely soft fur. Séraphine was a real person; Des is only imaginary. Both have a life on the Internet. So, who are these creatures?

Séraphine de Senlis was an early 20th century French painter, an uneducated, working class orphan who grew up in a convent. She had a passion for painting as strong as a Labrador’s passion for water or a Kelpie’s passion for rounding up sheep. According to the beautiful movie about her life that I saw on SBS TV last night, she made pigments out of animal blood, roadside weeds and stolen church wax. She worked all night, ardently, on her paintings. During the day she was a cleaner, mopping the floors of bourgeois families; the sort of person who is of invisible service. Her talent was discovered by a German art collector and suddenly she was someone of note. It all ended in tears at a madhouse. For me the most moving scenes were the stealing of the animal blood (from a big pot in a butcher’s shop), the decanting of church wax from lit candles, the grabbing at weeds. All this work and experimentation was carried out alone, on the floor of her tiny apartment. As she neared the end of a painting she’d start singing. It was a humble life, full of art and ecstasy.

I started watching this movie accidentally. I was washing up, making a lot of noise. I was half-glancing at the screen, noticing that it was a French movie, beautiful cinematography. I started standing behind the sofa to watch it, tea-towel in hand. Then I moved around to sit in the sofa properly, and committed. The blessed relief in watching a movie about a woman who was neither young nor beautiful, holding centre stage, scene after scene. And not in a patronising, comic, overdetermined, Educating Rita sort of way. This was a movie prepared to look at this woman from inside. That in itself was wondrous. And then to see she was an artist, grinding her pigments with a mortar and pestle, dabbing paint on her board with her fingers, lying down to sleep with her paintings … even better. It suddenly made the last film I loved – Ang Lee’s Life of Pi – plummet down the floors like a broken lift.

Séraphine also made me think of Félicité, the servant who loved a parrot in Flaubert’s A Simple Heart. Again, the outward image of a “nobody”; the rich interior life.

And so we come to Des, the blind synesthesic guinea pig. Who is he? Just a guinea pig in a hutch in someone’s back yard. The hutch is moved from place to place in the back yard. He munches through grass like any other guinea pig. Nobody even realises that he is blind; his blindness doesn’t stop him performing any of his normal pet guinea pig functions. Like Séraphine and Félicité, he has a rich, ecstatic inner life. As a synesthete, he hears colours and feels sounds. He has deep wisdom about the world beyond the hutch but no particular need or desire to move beyond it. He is happy to be picked up and cuddled – an explosion of colour, sound and sensation – and happy to munch on grass. He can taste music in the grass. (No, not that sort of grass. This is buffalo grass, mixed with couch and clover and the odd dandelion.)

I got to know Des by tweeting about him. I’d been playing the competitive Twitter word of the day game on Artwiculate for some time, when he quietly appeared in one of my tweets. This has happened to other Artwiculate players: a character arises spontaneously out of their tweets and demands to be included, here and there, in other tweets down the line. The Des tweets were automatically indexed by the Artwiculate site so from time to time I could go back and look at them, like opening a book on a shelf. Then disaster struck, in the form of a resentful hacker (someone who wasn’t winning as often as he thought he should). Mortally wounded, Artwiculate was put into an induced coma. When it came out of this coma, its archive – and the voting system itself – had been removed. All gone. It was as if Des had never existed. It’s true that I could search back on my own Twitter timeline but this wasn’t quite the same as being indexed by Artwiculate. (Only a veteran Artwiculate player can understand the emotional importance of being indexed.) This would not bother Des in the slightest, but it was bothering me. I tried to be philosophical about it (as did other Artwiculate players, many of whom realised they were grieving out all proportion) and remind myself that Twitter is just a branch on a tree with birds on it. These birds might fly at any time. The whole branch might come down in the next storm. It’s a babbling (sometimes shrieking) brook into which you can’t dip your toe twice; it’s a shaft of light moving across a room. This desire to archive, to pin things down, violates the very nature of Twitter and even of Artwiculate itself.

Still.

This morning, as I was thinking about Séraphine, Félicité and Des, it occurred to me to Google him. Perhaps it’s really true, this thing we tell high school students – if you put something on the Internet, it never goes away. I entered “Des, the blind synesthesic guinea pig” and there he was. A whole page! A page of references that were just about Des, the Des of Artwiculate. Des de Artwiculate. Seraphine de Senlis. Félicité du perroquet. Here’s the screen grab:

Des on Google search

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier – but why?

Just got back from seeing Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy at the Metro Cinema, Bathurst. For me this was a visual and aural feast. That beautiful, liquid music. That mid-century aesthetic. The stirring burst of the Soviet anthem. The art department’s amazing attention to detail. The scuffedness of things. The wallpaper, the corridors, the types of shoes and socks.  I had a pure nostalgia hit just looking at the swirl of colour on the balloons at the spies’ Christmas party. There’s a photo of me as a tiny child holding a balloon just like that. Do they still make them?

It was nice to be back in the Cold War again – so much more attractive and comprehensible than whatever we’re doing in Iraq or Afghanistan. And nobody ever did a particular type of mid-century aesthetic better than the Soviet sphere of influence.

I loved the slowness. I lapped it up. Nothing like a bit of slowness as an antidote to Hollywood’s blaring cues and cuts. The actors were so instantly inside their characters – all intriguing, deftly differentiated characters – that you forgot all about the acting and went back to enjoying the experience. I loved the frankness about people being old or ugly – Smiley getting his eyes tested, an older woman spy making zero attempt at attractiveness – without making more of it than necessary.

This is a gorgeous, stylish, film and I never stopped enjoying it – in fact I’d happily see it again, listen to that soundtrack again. But there is a problem with it, which is that below its flawless skin, is there actually a beating heart? It feels like there’s a beating heart, but that’s not the same. I watched, knowing that at some point we’d find out which one of these interesting, haunted Englishmen was working for the Other Side. The problem was – it was hard to care or even wonder too much about which one. Maybe that’s the difference between making the film back in the 1970s, when it still all meant something, and doing it now, when it’s about a good wallow in the beauty of another time – because another time always becomes beautiful; nostalgia works like that; the hipster aesthetic works like that. (And I’m as sucked in as the next person.) Or maybe it’s because the art department was ultimately allowed to trump storytelling.

One of the characters actually says this, more or less. Explaining why he became a traitor to his country, he said it was an aesthetic choice, as much as anything. Really? Is an aesthetic sensibility really enough to live or die for? Maybe it is, but if it is, maybe we could have heard more about it.

Speaking of one of the characters speaking – another thing that bothered me was that nobody had a decent conversation in the whole film. What we’d get is a beautiful location, a beautiful set of stairs to go up, a perfect bit of spy-going-upstairs music, the arrival, two words exchanged and then on to the next scene and repeat. There were some exceptions to this rule but I found myself longing for a bit more time at the destination. Arrgh. Why don’t you let people speak once they’ve gone to all that trouble to get up the stairs? And if you’ve gone to so much trouble to evoke a past time, right down to the smoke-fug in every room, why not evoke a little of the conversation of that past time?

I came of age in the last years of the Cold War, when it seemed to stretch back forever and forwards forever. It was a time when you’d arrive on campus straight after high school and be surrounded by people who wanted to talk until three in the morning about socialism, capitalism, feminism, sexuality, utopianism, whether Judaism was a race or a religion, and you read the books and had the discussions and then tried to go out and live according to whatever bracing principles you’d just adopted, because it actually felt like it mattered. And people are still doing similar things today – note the Occupy movement, raving on to each other all night, in tents. Some are even hipsters.

But Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is too stylish to get bogged down in ideas, and too stylish to do more than lightly suggest a story of betrayal and terrifying choice.

Anyway, it’s a beautiful film, worth seeing and hearing – but don’t get fooled into believing it’s more than it actually is.