Monthly Archives: September 2011

Managing Popularism

I picked up a pamphlet on “Managing Graffiti in Moreland” by Moreland City Council when I was at the council offices paying Dignity’s cat registration. The pamphlet is a strange little publication with a lot of very vague statements about: “What is graffiti and why is it a crime” and “Who does it and why?”  There is information on reporting graffiti, graffiti prevention and removal.

“It (graffiti) can include tags, stencils, pieces and even colourful murals, which have been done without the permission of the person who owns the wall and without Council’s prior permission.” This implies that you need Council permission to paint your own wall and if so who do you contact? There is no information in pamphlet. It is odd considering that the Council is also recommending, in “tips to prevent graffiti” to “consider painting a mural on a targeted wall.” But this is the kind of incoherent nonsense that I’ve come to expect when government’s write about graffiti. However this was not the worst part of the pamphlet.

“Tips to prevent graffiti” includes: “Avoid providing blank or bare walls by planting creepers or vines”. Of course planting creepers or vines are only useful in preventing graffiti as creepers and vines can cause substantial damage to brick walls with old mortar but they will prevent graffiti. The pamphlet promotes other solutions that are potentially worse than the problem: for example, anti-graffiti coatings can be toxic. Fortunately, Moreland Council has an extensive disclaimer that “expressly disclaim any liability, for any loss or damage, whether direct or consequential suffered by any person as a result of or arising from reliance on any information contained in the publication.” Basically, Moreland Council is saying that they are just saying some stuff because they have to say something about graffiti because it is politically popular to say things about it.

There were no council pamphlets available on managing feral pigeons, managing illegal rubbish dumping or managing rats. These are all more serious problems than graffiti that are the responsibility of local councils; graffiti won’t damage your health. Local councils need base their responses to perceived problems on evidence rather than popularism. It is very popular to write about graffiti, whatever opinion you might have about it, and the story can be illustrated with an exciting image. <insert image here>

Illegal graffiti in Coburg - don't worry it's only paint...

Russell Street Sculptures

On awkward location of the wide median strip in the middle of Russell St., between Bourke St. and Lt. Collins St., there are two mysterious sculptures. This wide median strip was originally the location of Melbourne’s first underground toilet (and first public toilet for women) opened 1902 and decommissioned in 1994. The median strip also incorporates the ventilation point for the decommissioned Telstra tunnels that run beneath Melbourne’s CBD.

The sculptures are Chris Reynolds, “A History apparatus – Vessel Craft & Beacon”, 1993 (installed 1994-5) a 24m. long series of aluminum and fiberglass forms, part of which is attached to some steel rails. And Maurie Hughes, “Ceremony and Vehicle for Conveying Spirit”, 1996, made from silicon, bronze, galvanized and mild steel. The two sculptures are separated by centre of the road car parking and some plane trees; so although Maurie Hughes’s sculpture was intended to refer to Reynolds’ sculpture the two do not appear connected. Both of the sculptures are composed of several parts as well as long titles. And they both have a strange functional appearance implied by their liner design along the median strip.

One reason for these odd sculptures can be explained in the process of commissioning the sculptures. Chris Reynolds “A History apparatus” was part of the National Metal Industry Sculpture Project, a sculpture-in-residency program. It was a collaborative effort between the artist and the Australian Metal Workers Union, Aerospace Technology of Australia and the City of Melbourne. Maurie Hughes’ sculpture was linked to the redevelopment of Telstra’s former Russell Street exchange and funded by Telstra and the City of Melbourne’s Urban & Public Art Program. It was commissioned with a brief to “incorporate the functional and visually meaningful elements of the vent”; the vent is part of a decommissioned Telstra tunnel.

Maurie Hughes, "Ceremony and Vehicle for Conveying Spirit", 1996

Maurie Hughes’s “Ceremony and Vehicle for Conveying Spirit” has three elements: totem pillars, the chimney and a gate each with their own plinth. The wheels on the chimney and the smaller wheels on the base of the gate suggest movement but this sculpture is going nowhere. The chimney flue form is presumably above the old Telstra tunnel’s vent.

Chris Reynolds, “A History apparatus - Vessel Craft & Beacon”, 1993

Chris Reynolds’s “A History apparatus – Vessel Craft & Beacon” feels disappointing as a sculpture; given the whole apparatus with the rails and vessels, you expect it to do more. The sculpture leaves me with a sense of disappointment and failure.

I have not been able to find anything more about these two artists. Like other artists who received commissions for public sculptures from the City of Melbourne their careers have not been notable.

The sculptures in the middle of Russell St. do not attract much close examination; their eccentric meanings appear impenetrable. Looking awkward and out of place they fail to give a sense of place, or excite the imagination. The problems with these sculpture stem from their location and commission before the two artists even started work.

Bored @ Blindside

On Thursday morning on the 7th floor of the Nicolas Building a small group of high school kids were waiting outside Blindside for the gallery to be opened. When the gallery attendant arrived about 10 minutes late and unlocked the door the school kids then lined up in the gallery along the path taped on the floor marked “End Zone”. They waited for the video and sound to be turned on and then took one look at Blaine Cooper’s installation “End Zone (Always do the Bad Thang)” and then left.

I was also waiting and watching the jeweler at work, a floor down across the light well at the Nicholas Building. I was hoping to the school kids would engage with the installation; jogging on the treadmill or playing the guitar as Blaine Cooper suggested in his notes on the exhibition. But the video montage of movie explosions and the rock music were not that inspiring or motivating rather they are too familiar and mundane. And neither the Marshal amp nor the treadmill had been turned on yet.

The gallery attendant told me that later that day at the exhibition opening Blaine Cooper would be running on the treadmill with guitarist, Nicholas Lam of The Vaudeville Smash, cranking up the amp.

I don’t know if I want to put that much effort into making some piece of contemporary art work and this not an isolated incident. Too much contemporary art is like a lame performance where audience participation is a demand rather than an option. Maybe I wasn’t in the right mood, not that the demand for participation encourages me to feel generous in my mood. Demanding that an audience participate is a sure way to annoy those who are feeling uncommitted and undecided. An audience may be willing to participate when the artist has already won the audience’s interest, sympathy, respect…

I’m bored now – I’m leaving.

Urban Degeneration or Regeneration?

What is the influence of graffiti on urban degeneration or regeneration? New York in the 1970s was suffering from an economic decline, a heroin epidemic and a massive boom in graffiti/street art. In Melbourne the 1990s urban redevelopment preceded a massive boom in graffiti/street art.

The simple claim that graffiti is an indicator of crime and urban decay has to be challenged. If we compare the experience of graffiti in New York and Melbourne we can’t be sure that graffiti/street art is symptomatic of anything. In Kabul (Afganistan) and Misrata (Libya) street-art is shown as a sign of the city’s regeneration. The University Observer writes about street art’s contribution to Dublin. Sightline Daily has a photo essay about the regeneration of urban lanes in Seattle, Vancouver, San Francisco and Melbourne by Alyse Nelson. Even in law and order Singapore street-art has found an odd place in the city even aiding in the regeneration of Haji Lane, a street with old traditional style shops.  (See my post on Singapore Street Art).

The urban regeneration of Melbourne’s inner city service lanes has opened the areas up to bars, art galleries and other businesses. The street artists and the developers are both looking for the same things: desolate former industrial areas in city centres. Melbourne’s graffiti filled lanes look attractive, or maybe that was because of all the attractive young women hanging out there on a Friday evening taking photographs of each other. “If these wall could talk they’d say ‘Thank You’” read one stencil in Hosier Lane.

Hosier Lane, Melbourne

The anecdotal claims of graffiti being a symptom of crime and urban decline does not account for the contrary evidence. Anti-graffiti politicians use anecdotal claims to point to graffiti as an indicator of crime but this fear campaigns by politicians (and the industry of graffiti removal) only repeat the slanderous claims of an association of graffiti, crime and urban degeneration. Is this a case of blaming what you can change rather than pointlessly blaming the actual but uncontrollable causes?

And what are they proposing as an alternative to the threat of graffiti – more advertising space or more buffing is not going to make a city more attractive. In London I saw a sign warning that this wall has been painted with anti-graffiti paint along with lots of ugly black lumpy anti-graffiti paint. There is lots of grey paint buffing graffiti along the train lines around North Melbourne. The ugly paint does not remind me of urban regeneration. Or is it selling a dream of some ideal utopia that can never be realized?

I am not an expert, an urban planner or criminologist, but it is clear that there is far from conclusive evidence for the claim that graffiti is an indicator of urban decay. A survey with a greater geographic and longitudinal view of street art and graffiti is clearly required to determine anything about the impact of graffiti on the urban environment.

Newspaper Wrecks City

Which is the bigger problem for Melbourne: tagging or the poor quality of reporting in the Herald Sun, one of Melbourne’s two metropolitan daily newspapers? “Space Invaders” at RMIT Galley has attracted negative media coverage before the exhibition even opened: “Government-sponsored graffiti art show angers campaigners” by Jessica Craven (Herald Sun September 01, 2011).

The Herald Sun is owned by the Murdoch media empire and has all the ethical standards associated with that organization. And yet has chosen to attack The Australian National Library and the National Gallery of Australia for collecting and archiving street art. The Herald Sun’s agenda is clear in their article: “The exhibition comes after the Herald Sun revealed the National Library had archived a Melbourne graffiti website glorifying illegal tagging for its social and cultural value.” The Australian National Library and the National Gallery of Australia, unlike News Corporation, have never been accused of any crimes, have never been accused of overt bias and are staffed by highly trained professionals.

The Herald Sun has no interest in the arts and closed down their entire arts section last year. However, the Herald Sun finds it profitable to generate anger and to create controversies where there are none. The ethical standards of Adelaide Now, who reprinted the article, appear hypocritical after publishing a comment that suggests that people go and vandalize the exhibition.

Jessica Craven, the reporter for the Herald Sun, does not regularly cover the arts. She is also known for being one of the two reporters to write about: “Oprah sparking controversy over golliwogs”. (See Crikey for the full details of that stupid piece of reporting by Jessica Craven)And the Independent Media Centre Australia has also accused Jessica Craven of “distorting the news to fuel racism”.

If the Herald Sun had a real arts reporter they might have written something better. The reporter could have attended the exhibition before writing about this important travelling exhibition from the National Gallery of Australia. The story ignores the local angle that the exhibition is a homecoming for the art Melbourne’s major street artists including: HaHa, Rone, James Dodd, Meek, Ghostpatrol, Miso and Civil. A competent reporter would have at least mentioned the range of art in this exhibition: the stencils, posters, paste-ups, zines, artist’s sketchbooks and stickers. Even discussed the themes in the exhibition: the politics, the ad-busting and the return of the hand.

A good reporter would have also included quotes from opening speeches from Rupert Myer, the Chair of National Gallery of Australia, who hoped that the exhibition would provide a safe place for public debate. I’m not that optimistic. The intellectual and cultural vandalism of the Herald Sun is a significant problem for Melbourne, making all the tagging in the city trivial in comparison. In attempting to generate controversies the newspaper creates problems rather than fairly reporting and informing the public.

Grainger Museum

You don’t have to be a fan of Percy Grainger’s music to appreciate the Grainger Museum; you don’t really need to know anything his music. You can look at this remarkable little museum as an exhibition of the life an early 20th century eccentric. It is half a biographical museum and half a music museum specializing in musical invention.

As a music museum the collection of instruments focuses on the eccentric and innovative. Grainger was a great musical inventor and experimenter, late in his life Grainger made a programmable electronic organ powered by vacuum cleaners. Grainger’s great  “Cross-Grainger Kangaroo-pouch Tone-Tool” completed by 1952 is on exhibition (Burnett Cross writes about his experience collaborating with Percy Grainger on this and other experiments). Grainger’s eccentric position isolated his  work from other electronic music pioneers at Melbourne University programming CSIRACto play digital music in 1950 or 1951.

Cross-Grainger Kangaroo-pouch Tone-Tool

There are less of Grainger’s folding suitcase pianos and his collection of European folk instruments on display now. They have been replaced with a whole room of Australian musical inventions and musical instruments. There are new instruments by Garry Greenwood (1943-2005), Colin Offord and Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack (1893-1965), who went from the Bauhaus to Geelong Grammar School. These inventors of musical instruments are also visual artists because musical instruments are also sculptural aesthetic objects and there are paintings by Colin Offord and drawing by Garry Greenwood that compliment the sculptural beauty of their invented instruments.

Instruments created by Garry Greenwood

The biographical part of museum presents an unvarnished biography of Percy Grainger, the way that he would have wanted it. The museum is notorious for its exhibition of Grainger’s collection of whips and other relics of his sadomasochism. Grainger should be more notorious for his proto-fascist attitudes about the Nordic race and anti-Semitism. Other of his eccentricities such as vegetarian and passion for jogging (Grainger was known as the “running pianist”) appear ordinary today.

Grainger’s unbridled creativity and inventiveness is on display throughout the museum. Along with his musical inventions there are his designs for his published edition covers with the free-hand typography and his clothing creations (Grainger may have also invented the sports bra). The remarkable clothes that Grainger made for himself from towelling reminds me of the costume designs of Matisse for Diaghilev ballet.

And there is art from Grainger’s collection, portraits, cartoons, photographs, erotic Norman Lindsey prints and Grainger’s father’s collection of cartoons by Morris & Co. Grainger’s collection of Native American beadwork is on exhibition (beadwork was also one of Grainger’s hobbies).

Fortunately not all of Grainger’s desire for the museum have been carried out; such as, his bequeathing his skeleton “for preservation and possible display in the Grainger Museum” and his stipulation that the museum be lite by “daylight only, and to contain no electric lighting or other lighting (to avoid fire danger)”. It is a remarkable and unique museum; what might have been intended as an egotistical plan to fetishize the relics of Grainger’s life has changed with history to tell a different story.

Percy Grainger was born in Melbourne and left a museum to Melbourne; for most of his life he was in Europe and America. The old brick museum at Melbourne University doesn’t attract much attention; it looks similar to the toilet block/changing rooms at the sports fields further along Royal Parade. The museum has been refurbished since I last visited a decade ago and the exhibits have been rearranged to create a more coherent exhibition, so even if you have seen it before the Grainger Museum is worth another visit.

The Grainger Museum @ Melbourne University

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