Category Archives: Culture Notes

Against Naive Idealism

Or, why contemporary artists need to study philosophers, such as Foucault. (Yes, this is blog post is written specifically for my most recent subscriber – yes, I do look at your blog when you subscribe – but I know that there are other readers who should think about this.)

There are people who naively think that things are predefined and that a knowledge of English (or whatever language) is sufficient to know what the word means. That the meaning of words is inductively learnt as a child. For example, that they know what ‘art’ is because they speak English. This creates a world where the idea of words exist outside of people’s minds, in which there are true and false things according to how they fit with a predefined definition.

These people have been encouraged to think this way from an early age by conservatives because it helps them to hold onto power. They are told that things are the way that they are and that any attempt to understand why is futile sophistry. They are encouraged to be idealists and Socrates’s story of the cave is endlessly repeated as if Parmenides had never rebutted Socratic idealism. This is for the benefit of conservatives because it discourages any examination that might reduce their power.

The definition of the word ‘art’, like other words (‘men’, ‘women’, ‘marriage’ etc.), is not fixed. Definitions are mutable; the word ‘art’ has changed meaning several times in the last few centuries and will continue to change as society changes. By examining how the words are used and defined the political structure of society can be understood. This is why reading Foucault (or Chomsky or other philosophers) is important; or if you are conservative, why you should dismiss them without examination.

If it is impossible to change the meaning of the word ‘art’ then if you want to be a popular artist then you should make images of girls with big tits (see my post Sexy Girls, Girls, Girls) and refuse to believe that these images have anything to do with the position of women in society. If you want to be a wealthy artist then make images that supports and flatters those in power and refuse to believe that they could do anything wrong. If the meaning of the word ‘art’ cannot change then why do you think that your art can change anything?


Psychogeography

Everyone has their own theory about the methods and purposes of psychogeography, is it magic or unknown science, but the one thing that people are sure about is that it involves walking. Psychogeography may be a form of literary or artistic fiction about a crowd-sourced index and map of various cities. It is not intended for the sole-benefit of the researcher, although it may well be, but for a larger audience. In this it can be distinguished from religious or spiritual walks; pilgrimages, walking meditations or the Aboriginal walkabout as these are done for the spiritual benefit to the walker.

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There are different types of psychogeography.

There is the psychogeography of the Situationalists; the dérive, and all that programatic pseudo-scientific shambolic stuff at the start. Not forgetting all the other wanders of the city that had come before them, especially in those Paris streets.

The psychogeography of Stewart Homes (London Psychogeographical Association and the Manchester Area Psychogeographic) where the Situationalists philosophy is mixed with the magical geomancy of lay lines and architectural conspiracy theories.

The psychogeography of Will Self with his long distance traverses of the urban landscape of London, New York, Los Angeles… As Will Self explains:

 “most of the pychogeographic fraternity (and, dispiritingly, we are a fraternity: middle-aged men in Gore-Tex, armed with notebooks and cameras… ) are really only local historians with an attitude problem. Indeed real, professional local historians view us as insufferably bogus and travelling – if anywhere at all – right up ourselves.” (Will Self Psychogeography Bloomsbury, 2007, p.12)

All this walking may not be as bogus for historian as Will Self implies; Charlie Ward writes on his blog:

“when I finished a Masters Degree and realised that I was a historian, I’ve noticed the foibles that characterise the guild. One of these is the habit of ‘taking the air’ in locations at which past events occurred. While I remain coy about these activities, I was buoyed to read in Mark McKenna’s excellent biography An Eye for Eternity ,that Australia’s pre-eminent historian, Manning Clark, was a committed practitioner of this eccentric science. According to McKenna, Clark spent days driving across the outback on trips punctuated by the historian pacing about like a bush parson, divining the temper of times gone by.”

My own version of psychogeography are predicated on research and strays into both the territory of local historians and even archeologists. When I asked my friend Geoff Irvin, a real, professional archeologist about describing my activities as “a surface archeological survey” was an abuse of term, he scoffed at the much abused idea of surface archeology and told me to abuse away.

My predilection for amateur local history comes from mother’s side of the family; my mother’s main interests are Chinese immigration to Australia and graveyards in Central Victoria. My maternal grandfather, Harold S. Williams wrote a series of history articles, “Shades of the Past” for the Mainichi newspaper during the years 1953 to 1957 along with a couple of books. He was a bit of flâneur, reporting on the local history, observing the coffee shops and other minutia of life in Osaka, sometimes with a revolver in his pocket. So I suppose that I’m carrying on a family tradition.

I have now been writing this blog for six years. Travelling around Melbourne: walking riding my bicycle, taking trains and trams. I am not a pedestrian purist, like Will Self, for me psychogeography can be conducted by other forms of transport, although for accurate observations being on foot (or on a bicycle because it is easy to stop and start) is best.

Perhaps we need another term, other crazy ‘psychogeography’, or perhaps the activity has already divided in specialist areas of interest: ghost signs, paint spotting (looking for graffiti), legend tripping and urban exploration.


Mainstream & Alternative

On Gertrude Street the passing tram displays an advertisement on its side; the image of the street artist, Rone modelling for the fashion label Uniqlo. Now lets talk about mainstream and alternative culture or, at least, read Paul Harrison’s article “We are all sheep: what Uniqlo and H&M tell us about Australian retail”.

Rone advert for Uniqlo

I can’t remember the last time that I wandered around Fitzroy and Collingwood looking at the streets, the street art and the art galleries. It has been over a year since I last reviewed a gallery in Fitzroy.

I used to regard the area around Gertrude Street and Brunswick Street the alternative cultural centre of Melbourne and although never a resident I used to be a frequent visitor. It has definitely been awhile, things have definitely changed but fortunately other things remain reassuringly familiar. I always pass a street artist up a ladder painting a wall on perambulations of Fitzroy or Collingwood.

Fitzroy is such a mix between the discount and the designer, between the socially vulnerable and affluent and between the mundane and the marvellous. A scruffy guy scuffs twice with his foot at a two dollar coin that some prankster had glued to the pavement and then moves on. How many different Fitzroys are there?

Keith Haring

In Collingwood I was glad to see the Haring mural fully restored and complete with information panels for the public (although the little service hatch door is not the original). It is a major change since I first wrote about it on this blog.

On my walk I managed to see exhibitions. Fitzroy and Collingwood’s art scene of little galleries is another world.

Off the Kerb’s group exhibition of creatures provided enough focus for such a disparate group of artists. This was better than BSG ungainly hanging and mix around their group show, creating a something that was less than the sum of its parts. ‘Body Sex’ was the theme of BSG group show but Off the Kerb’s broader theme of ‘Creature’ made a more unified exhibition. Off the Kerb’s exhibition also had the benefit of Dan Dealy who curated the show. (More taxidermy art at Off the Kerb by Lucia Mocnay and Tul Suwannakit, see my earlier post on Contemporary Art and Taxidermy.)

Next door to Off the Kerb, at Fawn Gallery, ’Analogue Re-Mission’ by Tansy McNally is an exhibition of paintings based on digital television distortions that creates random abstract of the image. The translation of this source material into paint actually did work, like post-impressionism for the digital age.

At Seventh there was Travis John’s FaceSplitter Lauren McCartney’s The Hula Hooping Project and  is described as a “composition, performance and installation existing somewhere between destruction and creation”. It looks like something out of Mythbusters. McCartney had used ppaint filled hula hoops. I’ve seen this idea before executed better by No Mi Che’s Oroborus in 2007 as she could really spin a hula hoop and wasn’t afraid of being covered in paint. McCartney’s paint splattered ‘gallery two’ with the prints and impressions of the artists feet reminded me of the work of Japanese art movement, Gutai because of the expression of primal energy.

 


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


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