Category Archives: Culture Notes

Melbourne’s Weather

On Thursday, taking advantage of one of the last sunny days of autumn, I bicycled along the Merri Creek to the old Kodak Bridge on Edgar’s Creek. I didn’t expect to find street art in the wilds of North Coburg but the pillars underneath this unused bridge is an excellent location. There above a couple of superb graffiti pieces with gold paint splatter highlights was a whole set of paste-ups by Phoenix.

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The graffiti writers below had carefully buffed their undercoat around Phoenix’s skull.

The remains of a camp fire under the bridge reminded me that although there are still pleasant days like this, the nights are getting colder. I’ve been resisting commenting on this for over a year now. I heard about Elmor Leonard’s rules for writing a novel – never start with the weather. Weather is dull conversation. However, Melbourne’s weather is part of its psychogeography, it influences the way that we move about the city, and it influences the writing of this blog.

Terry, the postman had a story for me about delivering mail in the city. “Looked out the back of the building it was all sunny, looked out the front of the building the city looked all sunny. Went outside and it was raining, directly above. Typical Melbourne weather.” That night we had the strongest winds in thirty years.

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Looking through my notes from January: “Street artists painting in the heat of the day. Too hot for me to attend; there is a heat health alert in the city with a maximum of 36 degrees is predicted. I feel like I have become a vampire living in perpetual twilight – the sun, it burns! It burns!)” This extreme weather does effect the culture, artists living in rural areas have to prepare their art collections for bush fires.

Melbourne’s weather influences when I choose to go out. September and October’s uncertain weather are Melbourne’s choice for arts festivals. You roll the dice, you take your chances, it could be good, it could be fantastic, it could be horrible. Melbourne’s population are tired of the bleak wet and cold winter weather (now for my Canadian cousins when I say cold I’m not talking about freezing, sub-zero Celsius temperatures that you would call cold – Melbourne’s cold is a freezing wind coming off the antartic ocean with or without rain).

Then the are the heat waves of extreme baking heat, days above 40 degrees and nights where the temperature does not get below 30. There is no humidity, the sun bakes the leaves on trees and bushes to a brown crisp. After a sever heat wave lasting for days there is a feeling like jet lag as your body deprived of adequate sleep catches up with the rhythm of the day.

Although Melbourne’s weather is a major topic of conversation there is very little contemporary art about the weather. It is not as if there isn’t modern and contemporary art about the weather; consider Duchamp’s Unhappy Readymade exposed to the Parisian elements or Joseph Beuys’s claim of artistic responsibility for any snowfall in Dussseldorf during February 1970. The artists who do comment on Melbourne’s weather are the paste-up artists, including Phoenix whose street art paste-ups warn about global warming are exposed to the elements.

Phoenix Kyoto t-shirt


Prolegomena to Australian Culture

The terrible “Australian” identity debate continues to stumbles around like a drunken bogan. I feel forced to comment because of the subtitle of this blog (the “cultural critic” part) and because of the pathetic nationalist culture statement made by the imbeciles and criminals based in Canberra.

I don’t want to dignify anything that they have said by even commenting on it. Instead this will be a partial prolegomena (I don’t believe the spell checker knew that word – “you know, prolegomena, the clarification of the ground in preparation for further discussion, as in Kant’s Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics” – thanks to Richard Meltzer’s Aesthetics of Rock for clarifying that). So before anyone says anything more there are a few things that need to be clarified.

Recently the word “culture” has been applied to many things from the “work culture of Systems Administrators” to “deaf culture”. Discussion of “Australian culture” assumes that culture is a singular noun and this may be a grammatical error. The word “culture” may be a collective noun like “water”, “wool” or “dust” so that you have “some culture” or a “lots of culture” and not “a culture” anymore than “a water”, or “a wool”. A quantitative examination is a better foundation for discussion of culture rather than an examination identifying a unit.

Culture is more than the arts; it includes language, education, science, ethics, etc. It is the way that people behave in business, in medicine, in government etc. The limited understanding in Australian major political parties culture policy reduces culture to the arts. This is a narrow, limited understanding of culture and it is typical of the lack of depth to most Australian politicians understanding. Artists are culture workers, that is people working directly on their culture and not as a by-product of a culture.

A culture has material expressions, e.g. fashion, food, figures of speech, activities that identifies and defines the culture to both it members and others. That is cultures have identifiable clothes, food, dance, customs and practices. Vague claims about “mateship” or “ANZAC spirit” are not evidence of a culture. Furthermore, while I am stating the obvious, neither are national constitution (flag, etc.) nor geography evidence of a culture.

A language, in and of itself, does not constitute a culture. There are many languages that have no culture: trade languages do not belong to any one culture but facilitates communication across cultures. Likewise computer languages facilitate operations and communication without belonging to a culture. English is a language that has become free, in the processes of attempting to global dominance, of its original culture. As a language, English, does not necessarily signify any culture but particular expressions can identify the culture of the speaker. Slang, in itself, is not evidence of a culture; a person speaking Singlish is no more authentically Singaporean than a person speaking standard English.

There is so much that could and should be noted: Why have a culture? How do cultures develop? Are all cultures equal? This will have to be part one of this prolegomena.


Tram Conductor Performance

At the anti-EastWest Tunnel rally in Brunswick on Sunday there was a man in a Melbourne tram conductors uniform giving living-history performances with a political edge. The dream of better public transport in Melbourne was the positive agenda for the rally.

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Melbourne tram drivers no longer ride the trams selling tickets and helping passengers. They have been replaced by machines that are of little assistance to passengers, especially if they are tourists, the elderly, parents with small children, people unfamiliar with the route… grumble, grumble…

The tram conductor’s political street theatre engaged people in conversation about local history and politics. He even was of interest to small children. The tram conductor was from a performance group called The Connies, that is made up of former tram conductors. They advocate, amongst other environmental causes, the reintroduction of tram conductors.

Dressed up in the old uniform of a tram conductor complete with the leather ticket bag with its brass fittings, ticket punch and tickets (remember when a purple city section ticket was only 30c?). The ticket bag was complete with collectable cards of famous tram conductors: Joyce Barry, the first women tram driver in 1975 and Armand “Frenchie” Lefebvre, the performing tram conductor. Hole punched for authentication.

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The tangible element of the street theatre; the cards about the famous tram conductors and the old tickets made it a very genuine and engaging performance. Really attractive playing-card sized cards.

I walk home from the rally, thinking/dreaming about better public transport. On the subject of transport I find an automatic email that about my blog being quoted in Free Walks of Melbourne using our Trams.  Apparently my post provides a “The following link is a balanced overview of the village” (Pentridge Rehabilitated).


Boycott the Sydney Biennale

Examining ethics of the boycotting the Sydney Biennale and the reply from the Board of the Sydney Biennale to the calls for a boycott. If you need a background on the issue see the links on Leg of Lamb.

“The Biennale’s ability to effectively contribute to the cessation of bipartisan government policy is far from black and white. The only certainty is that without our founding partner, the Biennale will no longer exist,” the letter in reply to the artists stated. “Consequently, we unanimously believe that our loyalty to the Belgiorno-Nettis family – and the hundreds of thousands of people who benefit from the Biennale – must override claims over which there is ambiguity.” (Quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald 21/2/14.)

Attempting a utilitarian argument the Biennale’s board believe that their show is more important than the lives of refugees fleeing persecution only to be persecuted by the Australian regime. They can’t admit that the Australian government and Transfield have and will continue to commit crimes against humanity. They claim ambiguity when they are participating in distorting the facts about their association with criminals. It when they used the word “loyalty” exposing that their sense of duty is based on patronage rather than morality; loyalty, like patriotism, is the last refuge of the scoundrel.

According to the Sydney Biennale it is better to do nothing other than talk because the outcome of further pressure on the government is uncertain and unlikely. The makers of SodaStream could use the same argument as not buying their product and Oxfam dumping Scarlett Johansson as its good will ambassador is unlikely to get Israel to withdraw from the occupied West Bank. (See Ryan Gilbey’s article in The Guardian 16/2/14)

The threat of the Biennale ending is an empty threat and only threatens their status. It is the equivalent of saying that if you don’t buy SodaStream then you and your friends won’t enjoy sugary carbonated water. If the Biennale ceases to exist then another biennale will take its place in a few years, if a biennale was really needed by the hundreds and thousands of people, as the Biennale’s board claims.

When in 2003 Nelson Mandela refused to have dinner with George Bush and spoke out against him it was a symbolic action. It was not because Mandela thought that it would stop the invasion of Iraq but because he did not want to associate with an evil person. I would urge all Australian artists to follow the moral example of Nelson Mandela to avoid and speak out crimes against humanity rather than the amoral example of board of the Sydney Biennale.

Just as Mandela condemned George Bush’s invasion plans Australia’s treatment of refugees is something that we should also condemn without reservation. We should condemn both the Liberal Party and ALP and hope that one day that all members of these parties serve time for their crimes in slightly more humane conditions than they hold refugees indefinitely in. We should condemn Transfield and the Biennale chairman Luca Belgiorno-Nettis without reservation and all people should avoid any kind of association with them even if this is only a symbolic action. Artist, above all people, should understand the power and importance of symbolic actions for art is a symbolic action.

Artists and the public should boycott the Sydney Biennale. Not only should artists and the public boycott the Sydney Biennale but they should picket it. I have to give credit to the artist Van Thanh Rudd for being the first artist to protest about Transfield’s links to the Biennale in 2012. Visitors to the Sydney Biennale need to be aware that they are giving aid and comfort to people who commit crimes against humanity. Who, besides its board and Transfield, really cares more about the Sydney Biennele than people’s lives and dignity?

For further reading on the issue see: The Biennale Boycott and Diversity of Tactics


Sydney Road Coburg

The psychogeography of Sydney Road part 2; continuing my tram stop survey from my survey of the Brunswick end of Sydney Road in part 1.

Moreland Road the division marks the division between Brunswick and Coburg. Coburg was once the breadbasket of colonial Melbourne with its rich fertile volcanic soil. Originally called Pentridge Coburg changed its name to disassociate itself from the prison that originally was its major landmark. Across Moreland Road and to the west is Moreland Station. The micro suburb of Moreland is no longer much of a feature.

29. Mores Street, there is a vacant patch in this area the old “Hygienic Diary” is a reminder of Coburg’s past and the 7/11 the contemporary.

30. The Avenue, Kangan Institute’s Coburg Campus. The posh area of Coburg is in the roads off to the east. This division between the wealthy eastern side and poorer western side; a typical social organisation of Melbourne by compass directions. Woodlands Hotel that used to have its own horse racing track out the back.

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31. Reynard Street corner with the Post Office Hotel, the hotel is a lot older than its art deco facade. On the east side of the road there are is a new office block with an ALP Senator’s office on the west there is an Indian grocery, framers, Italian tailors making handmade suits and fish and chip shop.

32. With Harding Street going east and Munro Street going west. This is the start of the main Coburg shopping, transport and local government hub. The corner also sums up the whole of the Sydney Road shopping experience with bridal, Indian clothing stores, Islamic fashion and a few good places to eat.

Victoria Street Mall Coburg

33. Victoria Street mall and the Coburg Market. Coburg Station is through the mall and across multiple car parks. The facades in the shopping strip date from the 1960s and the modern style is now looking old fashioned. The very thin silk fabric shop that has been there forever is closing down. Lots of banks and take-away food shops.

34. Bell Street is the division between Coburg and Coburg North, another psychogeographical division in the rings around inner Melbourne. Bell Street is now a transport hub with bus stops and an entrance to the train station. On the opposite corner is a park with the Federation bicentenary pond in front of the church. Following the park there is line of churches next to the prison is a remanent of local council compromises with the multi-sectarian population that could not sustain all of them.This area creates a psychic barrier for the North of Coburg’s shopping centre. This area has schizophrenic relationship between sides of the road; the western side looks like a slum with demolition work, whereas the eastern side looks more like Parkville however over the following tram stops this process alternates back and forth. There is a lot of guerrilla gardening on the side streets to the west, the bike path is lined with flower gardens.

35.Champ Street is a city only stop; the entrance of Pentridge Prison is down Champ Street. (See my post on the rehabilitation of Pentridge Prison). This is the historic heart of Coburg is on the eastern side whereas the western side now looks like a typical main road in a light industrial suburb.

36. Rogers Street and the Drum Hotel, after this suburban houses start to appear along Sydney Road.

37. Gaffney Street; to the west is Batman Station and to the east the Coburg Lake Reserve. On the east side are shops selling blinds, catering equipment and on the west side there is an empty lot with flashing signs, tyre shop, the old Coburg Fire Station now sells auto parts.

38. Carr Street and Renown Street; on the east side is Lake Park Kindergarten, Budget Motel and Car rental and on there are west side substantial two story brick houses.

39. Mercy College on the east side and the brick houses continue on the west side. Next there is pedestrian overpass followed by a Funneral Services next to the Aged Care home.

40. Bakers Road where the tramline ends with a new centre road, terminus stop. On the east side is a business selling blinds and the Salvation Army Divisional HQ. On the west side there is a vacant lot being turned into a garden, a bench has been installed and trees planted. The houses are weatherboard now. North of this the road continues with a motel and other auto related businesses a clear indication that you are now entering car territory.

End of tram line Coburg


Piano Piano

There are pianos everywhere in Melbourne from the City Square to the Palm Plaza in Dandenong. There are 24 pianos on Melbourne’s streets this January, most of them are in the CBD especially around the Arts Centre. All the pianos have been donated and then decorated by various artists and arts groups. They are part of Play Me, I’m Yours by British artist Luke Jerram. You can play on them any time that the small boys have stopped making big noises on them.

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I stop to look at the painted piano in the City Square and Yarn Corner’s yarn-bombing. The now annual yarn-bombing of the City Square looks great this year. A great deal of thought, knitting and crocheting has gone into it with the patterns and the co-ordinated colours are a real step up from last year.

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Luke Jerram has an very impressive CV with many diverse projects from his glass microbiology models to his interactive waterfall in Bristol. His Play Me, I’m Yours project has been installed in many cities around the world. (Have a look at his website.)

Play Me, I’m Yours, was made possible by the Betty Amsden Participation Program, a four year program of large scale “art for all” participation events. Betty Amsdem OAM is a major sponsor of the arts in Melbourne (as well as,  3MBS, the RSPCA and Guide Dogs Victoria) and a vocal advocate for philanthropy.

Ultimately both the pianos and the yarn-bombing are radical gestures that empower the community to create for themselves rather than simply being spectators in this event and festival driven city. It is something that the Revolutionary Dadaist Council of Berlin would have approved.

There has always been a piano for people to play on the mezzanine floor of the City Library where their exhibition space is located. I was looking at “A Celebration of Co-Mix: an exhibition of past entrants from the Lord Mayor’s Creative Writing Award Graphic Short Stories. (Comics have come along way in my life from the subject of moral panic to the Lord Mayor’s award.) As I was looking and reading the exhibition an old woman slowly moved her walker towards the piano. At first I thought that she was just looking for a place to sit down but then she started to play. I could hear why she had made the effort; for a woman who was barely able to walk she played with a smooth ageless grace.

I had less grace when I played some 8 bar blues on the piano in the Victoria Mall in Coburg. The upright piano sounds soft when played outdoors.


Sydney Road Brunswick

The psychogeography of Sydney Road part 1.

Sydney Road is long straight road; it is the golden lay-line of the road leading to the gold fields. Originally constructed by convict labour so that prisoners could be transported to Pentridge Prison. The convicts then had to build the prison at the end of the road. Later in the Great Depression sustenance pay workers (work for the dole) cut much of the granite bluestone for the curbs and gutters.

It has always been a busy road, leading north out of Melbourne and that was before cars and bicycles, now it’s a nightmare. Sydney Road varies wildly between upmarket, fancy and then in the next block or next door it is a run down building selling something cheap. There are pockets of different kinds of activities along the road, clusters of shops or restaurants and all along the road are all the wedding boutiques and Islamic fashion boutiques.

I’ve been researching Sydney Road by foot, tram and bicycle. Riding my bicycle as it makes it easier to check down the lane ways looking for interesting street art.

Franco Cozzo

The sight of the Franco Cozzo furniture shop with its pseudo-rocco bedroom sets instantly brings to mind seeing his trilingual adverts on late night TV in the 1980s (I’ve been told that his Greek was as bad as his English). Now there is the smell of the shisha (or hookahs, Turkish tobacco pipes) bubbling along the footpath on warm Friday night.

I’ve recently read Robyn Annear’s A City Lost & Found, Whelan the Wrecker’s Melbourne (Black Inc, 2005, Melbourne), a kind of reverse history of Melbourne by demolition archaeology, recording the destruction and what was discovered, through the history of an iconic wrecking business. The business closed in the 1991 but Whelan’s sign is still up on Sydney Road classified as a heritage feature and the permit for new development at 605 Sydney Road required preservation and restoration of the sign.

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Sydney Road is so complex and I needed a more systematic approach. I travelled by tram north taking note of the landmarks between stop 19 at Brunwick Road in Brunswick and Stop 40 at Bakers Road in North Coburg.

19. Leaving the parkland of Parkville I enter Brunswick at Brunswick Road. This stop is in a kind of no-man’s-land, a traffic island in a place that once was a colonial hub complete a drinking fountain, a Boar War memorial and a brick clock tower from the nationalist, ANA (Australian Native’s Association). Parkville washes up with the last of the motels and guesthouses. On the corner of Sydney Road there is a fake Irish pub (I used to have a weekly gig there when it was the Sarah Sands) on the other side of road a medical clinic, after this the fashion boutiques start.

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20. The shopping hub of Barkly Square. Down Little Gold Street is Jewell Station. Discount warehouses and, on the corner of Weston Street on the other side of the road is the Brunswick Hotel, a fine music venue where I’ve enjoyed a few gigs.

21. Glenlyon Road and Dawson Street are the same road except that Glenlyon goes east and Dawson west; Melbourne is full of such street name anomalies. This is the official cultural centre of Brunswick: the Brunswick Town Hall with public library, hall and the Counihan Gallery, the Mechanics Institute with another hall for performances. The town hall is an impressive 19th Century building from when every Melbourne suburb had its own city council. Further down Dawson Street there is the Brunswick Campus of RMIT.

22. On the western side Albert Street leads to Brunswick Station.

23. In a painfully sweet Victorian manner, Albert Street is followed by Victoria Street, Brunswick Station where the shopping is less refined with a Mitre 10 and a discount warehouse.

24. Blyth Street, bridal shop and a church

25. Stewart Street, there is a steep hill between stops 24 and 25. At stop 25 there is a bridal and children’s wear shop.

Bronze gold nugget Brunswick 1

26. Albion Street an unofficial cultural centre on Brunswick with 696 Ink, the laundromat and Edinburgh Castle Hotel creating an underground arts hub. There is the bronze “Gold Nugget” at the entrance of the parking lot. It is one of the worst public sculptures in the world; this sculpture is both badly conceived and located. Didn’t anyone in the process of making this memorial that a gold nugget modelled in bronze would look like a lump of bronze? Anstly Station is to the west.

27. Brunswick Tram Depot, Donald Street. There are several empty lots where demolished between stops 26 and 27 – this is an area of transition. The demolition of the old funeral business.

28. Moreland Road, Moreland Station is across the street and further west down Moreland Road. At the tram stop there is pawnbroker and a pub. Moreland Road marks the division between Brunswick and Coburg.

Part 2: Sydney Road Coburg.


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