Category Archives: Culture Notes

More Microparks

Microparks, or how local city councils in greater Melbourne are learning to practice the art of urban acupuncture trying to hit the magical lay lines of psychogeography. Melbourne is well known for its parks; Victoria’s car license plates once sported the slogan “the garden state.” Large parks surround the city but beyond that parkland in the inner city can be sparse. Local councils are finding vacant land between two buildings, at a corner or on an under-used section of road to rejuvenate an area with a park.

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The City of Yarra wants to create new open spaces in Collingwood as the area was originally overbuilt. Wandering the Collingwood gallery district I find a new park on Oxford Street with lots of decking, a drinking fountain and contained patches of grass. It looks as if it is primarily intended for sitting and eating lunch. There is another new small park only a few blocks away on Peel Street with its curved red seating and piles of concrete blocks, as if that part of it was designed using Minecraft.

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Compared to the earlier micro park on the corner of Gertrude and Smith Streets, where two benches and a hippy looking garden bed is dominated by the billboard advertising, these new parks are masterpieces in urban architecture and design. Novelty seats by artists are out, now seating has to have design features. (See my post Crazy City Comforts) and, basically be a comfortable place to put your bum. The architecture of discipline is out for these parks; the anti-sleeping, anti-skateboarding bumps are not visible but rather subtly understood in the design. Design is the key feature of these parks, not an anonymous utilitarian effort nor a naive hope that the community will do the rest.

In Brunswick off Sydney Road there is Wilson Avenue existing pop-up park from last year is now to be made permanent. Wilson Avenue in Brunswick, off Sydney Road. An urban bouldering wall allowing people to do more than just sit in the park.

Temporary or permanent these spaces are mostly about rejecting the dominate car culture to provide more space for pedestrians. It takes more than a few seats and a little bit of vegetation to make a successful urban micro park or pedestrian space. If you build it will they use it?

On the subject of sitting, with the television full of documentaries about Tony Robinson, Will Self or Alan Cummings going for a walk, I have decided that sitting is going to be the next big thing. Sitting is what is required for style and comfort. My cat does a lot of sitting; for her there are seats of power, seats of comfort and seats to explore. In the 21st century everything is extreme and there is the extreme sitting of Maria Abranivich sitting in MOMA for day after day. Public seating is a civic necessity for the aged, the sick, the tired. Having public seating reduces isolation. The Guardian reports on the City of Dijon in France introduced public armchairs, as it is easier for the elderly to get up from a seat with armrests.


Drinking & Melbourne’s Culture

Over drinks at an exhibition opening last year I mentioned to someone that I should write about buying alcohol and the arts. Specifically the effects of liquor licensing laws in Victoria on Melbourne’s culture. Now, this sounds like the title for a thesis rather than a blog post, so I’m only going to sketch out a bit of background and look at some legislation that has had recent impact.

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From the colonial domination of Melbourne City Council by publicans to the power of the Temperance movement at the turn of the twentieth century liquor licensing laws has had a major impact on Melbourne’s culture. The six o’clock swill creating a dull centre of the city Melbourne’s culture has been influenced by liquor licensing legislation. Melbourne Little Band scene of the late 70s and early 80s were the result of a legacy of large inner city licensed venues with decreasing patronage due to a population shift to the suburbs. More recent changes to liquor laws, gaming laws and security laws have drastically curtailed Melbourne’s little live music scene.

Changes in the late-nineteen nineties opened up opportunities for new art galleries partially funded with their bar at exhibition openings. Many small art galleries, like the one that I was drinking at that night, use their openings to create a pop-up bar. It also influenced the creation of Melbourne’s now iconic inner city lane ways

Alan Davies, in his blog The Urbanist, argues that these changes were due to the implementation of changes recommended in the 1995 Nieuwenhuysen Report on the Liquor Control Act. The Nieuwenhuysen Report recommended a more European approach to the sale of alcohol as opposed to the monopolistic approach of earlier Australian governments that charged high license fees that restricted competition.

Davis reports that: “There were 571 on-premises (restaurant) licences in Victoria in 1986, but by 2004 there were 5,136.”

In Broadsheet Craig Allchin architect, urban designer and director of Six Degrees Architecture told Timothy Moore in “How Melbourne Found Its Laneways” that: “The Victorian state premier at the time, Jeff Kennett, was amending the laws to coincide with the opening of Melbourne’s first casino, which was designed to have a range of bars and restaurants along its river frontage. The casino’s owners didn’t want to take the risk of operating under a single liquor license, which could have been revoked if there was an incident of bad behaviour. They wanted to spread the risk. The state government created a new “small bar” license that suited the casino’s needs, providing it with several small-bar licenses. The unintentional result of the reform, however, was that it allowed lots of other small bars to set up all over the city.”

Ending the requirement of a bar to serve food made it possible for the many bars to open up in Melbourne’s laneways that transformed the centre of the city. Not that these effects were intended or foreseen but it is a good example of the butterfly effect of a small change to legislation on Melbourne’s culture.

Cheers


Shopping Centre Art

What was I doing at a VIP event at Barkly Square shopping centre in Brunswick?

What has happened at Barkly Square is that the service lane that bisected the shopping centre running parallel to Sydney Road has been change from a problem into a feature. The lane has become, according to the media release, “… a new arts and entertainment precinct which will celebrate the artistic and culinary soul of Brunswick.”

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A collaboration between Ghostpatrol and Bonsai fill two sides of the wall of the lane. Kyle Hughes-Odgers, a Perth based artist, has a wall with a brickworks reference as Brunswick once had a brick making industry. On another wall there is a giant owl by Twoone.

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It is not all street art, Tobias Horrocks, a local artist work with a post-minimalist ideas and cardboard. This was his first permanent installation. The basic cardboard form is repeated blocking and filtering the light from the window above the entrance.

Barkly Square is just a small inner-city shopping centre, a bland location for a few chain shops, near the beginning of the Sydney Road shopping strip. It is not the first shopping centre in Melbourne to feature street artists on its walls; QVC and Southbank both invited street artists in years earlier.

Media maker and festival director, Marcus Westbury has, what he describes a “strange obsession” with “he fate of old suburban shopping arcades.” He explains why on his blog. “I am, as far as I can tell, pretty much alone in believing they’re a rich vein of untapped urban and suburban gold. Or, to put it in language that hipsters, planners and local politicians can reflexively and instinctively respond to they’re kind of like lane-ways.”

In this case the it not so much as trying to artificially reproduce the iconic Melbourne lane but assimilating the rest Brunswick into the shopping centre. The usual mall food court has gone from Barkly Square, now there are cafes with outside seating in The Laneway, as it has been prosaically and practically named. The transformation of the area is the usual mix of work by street arts, planters, bollards, bike racks and funky design elements. It is still a working service lane but now is a mix use urban area.

Shopping centres need to reinvent themselves, in the wake of on-line competition, they need cater for more than just shopping. The holy grail of urban design to create a ‘meeting place’.

Samuel Louwrens, the Operations Manager for Barkly Square Centre Management is feeling inspired at the art and developments on the lane. He is enthusiastic about his new lighting for the art and was waiting for more suggestions from the public about what could be done with the lane. He pointed out that there are still more large blank walls at the far ends of the lane.

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At noon on Wednesday there was a launch of the lane in a temporary VIP area outside a cafe in the lane listening to a guitarist, Grey Milton launching Barkly Square’s busking program. Grey finished his set. There were two short speeches from the corporate investment manager of the property group that owns Barkly Square and then the Mayor of Moreland. Then the Melbourne Ukulele Kollective took over by this time there weren’t just invited guests but a small crowd of people enjoying the spectacle. To have about a hundred people in the lane showed that, at least for the moment, the plan was working.DSCF0329

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Erehwyna Enruoblem

There is so much variety in the architecture of Melbourne, from the early colonial basic rectangular bluestone buildings to recent constructions. In one city block you might see half a dozen or more architectural styles. The mix of European and international style architecture means that Melbourne can look like any generic western city.

Something apocalyptic happening at State Parliament when used as a film location

Something apocalyptic happening at State Parliament when used as a film location

Melbourne does this in many b-grade films: Queen of the Damned, Ghost Rider, and I, Frankenstein, to name a few. In Queen of the Damned Melbourne is made to look like London, England, in Ghost Rider it is an American city and in I, Frankenstein it is a generic European city. None of these films are really worth watching unless you are interested in how bits of Melbourne can be cast in different roles; in I, Frankenstein the entrance of National Gallery of Victoria appears as that of the central train station.

The city has been spared major disasters, fires or earthquakes, that destroys the old architecture and consequently Melbourne’s architecture is a fascinating mix of styles from the colonial to the classical with all kinds of revivals, Gothic Revival, Venetian Revival, Spanish Revival, Romanesque Revival, etc. thrown in to this mix. Melbourne is a place where the king tide of the eclectic architectural revivals of the nineteenth century washed up. Moving into the twentieth century there are examples of early modern architectural styles: Arts and Craft, Art Nouveau and Art Deco before the International Modernist style made all cities look the same.

Spanish Revival in Sparta Place, Brunswick

Spanish Revival in Sparta Place, Brunswick

Rudyard Kipling remarked on visiting Melbourne: “This country is American, but remember it is a secondhand American, there is an American tone on the top of things, but it is not real. Dare say, by and bye, you will get a tone of your own. Still I like these American memories playing round your streets…The Americanism of this town with its square blocks and straight streets, strikes me much.” (Tim Flannery ed., The Birth of Melbourne, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2002, p.358)

Late nineteenth century Melbourne was frequently compared to American cities due to its cable car trams and grid of streets. Rudyard Kipling referred to Melbourne streets by their equivalent New York names: referring to Swanston Street as Fourteenth Street. Possibly Kipling made this comparison was also made because Melbourne was the about same age as many American cities like Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Australia has a very odd relationship to America. Australian’s fear their second hand American status, yet Australia loves America as a protector. Australia swapped its loyalties to England in July 1966 for going “all the way with LBJ” as PM Harold Holt remarked at the White House. Melbourne’s own relationship with the USA is even stranger; Terry the postman told me about a letter that he delivered addressed to “Melbourne, Victoria, America”.


Prohibited Signs

Signs prohibiting things from around the world.

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Photography prohibted sign

Various No - Canterbury

No Durians

No's - Munich

No Golfing

No Graffiti - Brugge

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No baby carriagesJPG

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Smoking of any substance


Ghost Signs of Melbourne

New Theatre

On the corner of Flanigan Lane there is the hand painted sign stating: “New Theatre”. Jeff Sparrow and Jill Sparrow give a short history of the New Theatre in their book Radical Melbourne. The sign dates from around 1937 when the New Theatre occupied “an old tin-doffed loft above a dishes garage next to the Duke of Kent Hotel on La Trobe Street.” (Sparrow and Sparrow Radical Melbourne p.28). The New Theatre was established by the Communist Party in 1937 and  continued into the 1990s. The theatre at Flanigan Lane saw the first performance of Bertolt Brecht in Melbourne. In 1939 the theatre was declared unsafe and closed down but the sign remains on the stone wall.

There are plenty of other ghost signs in that small network of lanes but the new theatre was the only one that I researched. The interest in finding and photographing ghost signs grows. My own take on it is less about the hand painted signs and more about the history and culture that the sign represents.

Telephones

The “Do Not Spit” signs at Flinders Street Station tell of a past Melbourne with an expectorating population that had to be told not to. The metal “telephones” sign in the Degraves Street underpass points to a locked door behind which banks of telephone booths once stood before mobile phones made them obsolescent. The boomerang shaped sign from former Brunswick continental supermarket on Lygon Street and Australian identity; for more see Our Fading Past – Our History in Old Signs.  I have not been able to find out anything about the sign for Balkan Club in Melbourne, but there has always been a Balkan Club somewhere around the city.

Loucas & Christororou boomerang

I am suspicious of the ghost signs from around Chinatown like “Commit No Nuisance” Heffernan Lane in Chinatown. These signs looks too good, perhaps they were restored in an earlier revival of interest in ghost signs. I saw them listed as number 4 selfie spots in Melbourne.The aesthetic popularity of ghost signs is leading to some being purposely revealed, restored or rectified.

commit no Nusaince + paste-up

After the collectors, the fans and the academics, comes the photography exhibitions of ghost signs. Stephanie Stead’s “Signs of Our Times” at the City Library in July was the first of these that I’ve seen but I’m sure that there have been others. Stead’s silver gelatine prints are black and white except for the signs that have been hand coloured in oils. This old fashioned technique matches with the old signs producing beautiful nostalgic images.


Scandal Shock!

“… as a protest against the niggardly funding of the fine arts in this hick State and against the clumsy unimaginative stupidity of the administration and distribution of that funding.” Australian Cultural Terrorists claim of responsibility for the theft of Pablo Picasso’s Weeping Woman from the NGV in 1986.

Melbourne love an art scandal. This is assisted by having some top rate scandals, for example, the unsolved theft of the Weeping Woman. Although sometimes these scandals seem to be borrowed from US culture wars, as in the case of the vandalism of Andre Serrano’s Piss Christ in 1997.

Art scandals have been ruined careers and lives, some of them were crimes and art has been destroyed. Melbourne never gave Vault a fair go. Juan Davila sighs at yet another repetition of the cry of ‘obscenity!’ Some of the unfortunate victims of these scandals and some naive realists might be thinking: “what has this got to do with art?” but this discourse is part of what defines art.

In the wake of an art scandal, even people who have not been to an art gallery in decades will express an opinion. The media is full of the story and more comments and from the informed comments to the mad ignorant rants it is this discourse that, in part, defines art. The year of debate about Ron Robertson-Swann’s modernist sculpture Vault in 1980, although driven by local city council politics, inspired the next generation artists to think hard about art and express their ideas not just in their art but in public forums.

This love of art scandals has created its own artists, CDH and Van Rudd for example, who create their own mass media interactive art works by provoking police, politicians or the public. These artists and their art are well known, although not exactly popular. Creating a scandal that goes viral is not the easiest thing to do and not every attempt succeeds in being both a scandal and art.

It has also helped create the environment that fostered Melbourne’s street art and graffiti scene by giving their contentious and audacious actions a wider public eager to discuss them and collect them.

These accidental and deliberate scandals are interesting because they expose the cracks in the facade of our culture and deep divisions in the airbrushed idea of a united society. These scandals raises more questions than they answers prompting further thought, action and creation.


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