Category Archives: Culture Notes

Rename this place – Guerrilla Geography II

Australia, unlike other countries, has not removed any statues dedicated to racist colonials. Still, Calla Wahlquist’s powerful article “‘The right thing to do’ Drive to rename places exposes a ruthless past” reminded me that changing place names is also important. For names are not trivial, in Australia are racist. “In 2017, Queensland renamed seven places that included the word “nigger”.”

New street signs, new names for places rewrite the old city for its inhabitants. Geography is as much about the way space is remembered, recorded, mapped and navigated as it is about areas on this or other planets. Desire lines are created by people repeatedly wanting to walk from one spot to another, ignoring the paving. Guerrilla geography maps of those paths, giving names to them, making them places. It is creative, as well as investigative. And although officially a place might be called something that is a matter of politics and language rather than how people to it. Anarchic acts can, given time, be officially recognised.

In Melbourne, many of the city’s service lanes have never been named. And new names are embraced as more detail means better directions for emergency vehicles. Thus, Blender Lane has now been officially designated by the City of Melbourne, complete with a street sign. This is years after Adrian Doyle gave it that name because it was the lane next to Blender Studios. How many art punks get to name streets? I suspect there are several now. In Bendigo, Dimples Lane is officially named after the street artist, Mr Dimples, whose work is there.

So, we can all play our part in this project to end colonial place names. Mail art projects from the past tell me that Australia Post will deliver to a street name and number and postcode. After that, you could put Bulleke-bek instead of Brunswick or Ngár-go instead of Fitzroy. (For more, see Ben Tyers in Melbourne List.)

We navigate the city by different means: I see it as a mental map of memories. Others see it on Google as a network of roads, train, tram lines. In the inner city suburbs, people would navigate by the pub on the corner. Others, landlords, bureaucrats, and lawyers, see it as a ‘laws-cape’ of regulations and title deeds. Dogs navigate by smell and sight, possums by the trees, telephone lines and eves of buildings, the pigeons, crows, magpies and seagulls see it from above. (Understanding that others see things differently was one of the most important things that my father, a zoologist, taught me.) But only humans use names to navigate.

Place names like statues are honours but without explanative notes they are malleable. So can DC comics help save the name of Batman Station by changing the image from a villain to a hero?

See my earlier post on Guerrilla Geography.


Burn your money

This week Doosie Morris wrote about NFT and Melbourne’s most boring urban artists GT Sewell, Rone and Lushsux, in The Guardian. Morris implied that NFT is in the same league as Yves Klein. Without mentioning that Klein’s immaterial art, like the K Foundation burning a million pounds as an art, are acts where the artist/s removed monetary value from the system. So this might be a subtle suggestion that you could invest in NTF or just burn your money.

According to Morris’s article NFT is Sewell, Rone and Lushsux current business ventures. Sewell has been spruiking cryptocurrency for years on social media, and Lushsux has been positing similar stuff, including income tax avoidance on NFT sales. 

These are boring artists because they are focused on money; there is no other objective to their art. For them, even popularity is just another revenue source. Remember that Rone received $1.86 million from the Federal Government’s Restart Investment to Sustain and Expand (RISE) for a project that won’t be seen until 2022. Rone does decor for a coffee shop at Melbourne Airport, decorating walls on construction sites, modelling clothes for a high street clothes shop, that kind of thing.

But aside from the dodgy economics, the environmental impact of blockchain technology, two problems aren’t being discussed with NFT; provenance and digital art preservation.

Anonymous churn is even more a problem for provenance than it is for trust in the market. No institutional art gallery will buy or even accept gifts of art with a secret origin because of stolen art, fraud, and forgery. After the artist’s death, how would you prove that it was their work?

Digital art preservation is an even more complex issue because substantial parts of the technology will eventually change. For example, the online links may become broken. And in 30 years, when you can’t see the art on an LED screen because that technology is now redundant, the art will not look the same. So now your expensive work is the equivalent of a photograph of a Monet oil painting or just unreadable code.

Bubble art to rival Millais. NFT art, along with most of the art market, is divorced from any significant culture but still living on alimony and hasn’t changed its name back. And if you don’t want to burn your money but want to give it to artists there are plenty of more better hands to put it in.


Edgelords of Art

‘Edgelord’ is a mock honorific of penultimate edginess, typically given to a Nazi fanboy on Reddit, 4chan, or Tumblr. For more about Edgelords, see this definition. Another thing that screams Edgelord is owning a subterranean art gallery full of art with dark, controversial and morbid themes. Unlike buying a black trench coat, few people can afford to do this — one person who can is David Walsh.

The gambler from Tasmania who collects edgy art is a clear example of an Edgelord. Even though he doesn’t, as far as I know, have an online presence on Reddit or 4chan. Art and antiquities with themes of death are the domain of the Edgelord. I have long had my reservations about MONA (Museum of Old and New Art); see my blog post for my initial impressions.

What drew attention to this was the controversy over the now cancelled Union Flag by Spanish artist Santiago Sierra. It was to be part of the Dark Mofo festival at MONA. Asking Indigenous people to donate their blood so that a flag can be soaked in it to serve as a festival attraction might have raised some warning flags but didn’t because Dark Mofo was focused on being edgy. More than enough Indigenous blood has already been spilt. So, no one should be surprised that some Indigenous people are calling for MONA’s Edgelord and his crew to have cultural sensitivity training. See ABC news report on the subject.

Blood and flag are conservative symbols; by creating controversies, Edgelords foster conservatism because it emphasises their edgy qualities. After all, what makes things edgy is the strictures that define their perimeter.

At this point, I would like to acknowledge how close I am to being an Edgelord. The name Black Mark does suggest that, as does my habit of dressing in black and painting neo-Baroque still life. And having explored this territory, I can point out differences in its geography.

Consider the stratigraphy defining Dada and Surrealism. Both are nihilistic, utopian and progressive. Yet, there is a marked increase of sexism and homophobia in the Surrealist layer almost absent in Dada. Surrealism is advertising’s wet dream; it is so commercial and exploitable. The corresponding increase of Edgelords in Surrealism exposes one cause of this increase.

Not all controversies or nihilists are edgy; Dada’s nihilism comes with a smile, a laugh, and liberation. It celebrated and enjoyed the random, meaningless nature of the world. For if all things mean nothing to you, then you are free to enjoy the world.

This world does not need more Edgelords; it requires fewer Batmen, lone wolves, and brooding übermensch hanging around in the dark hoarsely whispering edgy things. It does not need another treasure horde of antiquities and high priced art. What the art world needs instead is to show others the possibilities in this world.


After another lockdown

After yet another lockdown, after the other two lockdowns, not going out for what felt like half a year, after a heatwave, I am standing in the light rain on the steps of Parliament. Police and some protest march are approaching.

What am I doing?

Kerrie Poliness Parliament Steps Walking Drawing

I am photographing and looking at the public art project by Kerrie Poliness. Parliament Steps Walking Drawing is part of ACCA’s current exhibition. A large-scale participatory, geometric chalk drawing by Poliness and volunteers done at the start of the month is now being washed away in the rain.

I’m putting in the leg work. So much has changed; what was once familiar streets are strange. I’m trying to find something to write a blog post. But now, with the demonstration approaching Parliament, it is time to take some photographs.

Is this an anti-lockdown protest? There aren’t many people and they are all wearing white. It turns out to be Zero Suicide Victoria, people who want the government to pay more attention to the issue. I listen to them for a bit. The first speaker wants a Minister for Men because suicide is mostly a mens’ problem in Australia.

I think that if we want to bring the suicide rate down we need to make deeper changes to the way we live and think. We are in many ways a suicidal culture destroying the planet, poisoning ourselves, and driving our speices to extinction in a new four wheel drive.

An exhibition of John Kelly’s paintings at Smith & Singer on Collins Street is unlikely to help. More pictures of fake cows for the very wealthy who like their art based around a single anecdote. Maybe writing a review of Madrid-based Colectivo Ayllu’s lithographs on exhibition at the Australian Print Workshop would be better. Their collage aesthetic has an anti-colonial discourse about the savagery of the Spanish exploitation of the Americas.

Maybe I should write about how we now visit galleries. Everyone is wearing masks inside and most people are wearing them outside. The maximum capacity notices at the door. We are checking in with a QR code on our phones or with pre-booked free tickets. QR codes everywhere, some galleries are even using them instead of room sheets to give the titles.

Or maybe I should write more about public art and outdoor exhibitions, like the International Festival of Photography Photo 2021 that I encounter in various locations around the city. Sarah Oscar’s Most Wanted series pasted-up like posters in Hosier Lane juxtaposed with a street artist’s paste-up of standover man, Chopper Read. Other works in the exhibition are five storeys tall, on the side of a building, and more on a billboard in Collingwood. Although sometimes it is hard to work out what is part of the exhibition because there is so much photography in the city.

What will happen to all of this? Washed away like chalk drawings in the rain.


The Birdcage: suburban garden sculptures

Rarely does the sculptural elements of inner-city, suburban front gardens rise above the found object, the cast concrete, or an art student’s effort. I have been looking for examples for many years. After over a decade of looking, I have found a fantastic domestic garden sculpture. (I know nothing about the people who live at this house and I am trying not to intrude on their privacy while commenting on their front garden.)

Like their near relatives, the corporate sculptures in front of office blocks, domestic front garden sculptures are a kind of public sculpture. For while they are privately owned, they are on public display. And like all outdoor sculpture, they must survive the weather which limits the choice of media.

Most garden sculptures are either the corny or kitsch. The kitsch: represented by garden gnomes and other lawn ornaments, commercial sculptures cast in concrete or welded metal creations. And the corny represented by swans made from car tires,  ‘spoonvilles’ and recycled things turned into flower pots. There are also pseudo-sculptural elements of industrial readymade objects, railway sleepers are popular at the moment in Melbourne. Occasionally you will see the relics of what looks like a fine arts student’s sculpture, or that of a brave amateur, retired to the garden; however, these are rarely substantial enough to fill the space.

The importance of sculpture for suburbanites is dubious, for as it is not structural but aesthetic, it is not worthy of investment. Unlike the corporate version, privately owned sculpture on public display has no practical use for a sculpture in a suburban garden, place-making, way-finding, or even seating. Being only decorative is demanding a lot from a sculpture. 

Then there is the big metaphysical birdcage in a front garden of an ordinary house in the inner-city suburb. Like a Magritte painting come to life in a suburban garden, the giant birdcage is different from other domestic garden sculpture. It transforms anyone who sits inside the cage (which has a lockable door), into part of the art. The surreal, infinite regression of birdcages comments on the whole birdcage of suburban existence and existential angst.

It is a remarkable garden sculpture because it provides a private experience that wouldn’t work in a public garden. And, unlike other garden sculptures, the birdcage is almost too large for the small garden space.


Over 2020

At the start of March, I was at a packed exhibition opening at Beinart Art Gallery in Brunswick. At the time COVID-19 was in the news but not in Australia. There were so many people at the exhibition it was like rush hour on a Sydney Road tram. I thought that the crowd was such a potential vector for all kinds of diseases and that this art party would be over.

Unknown local artist, 2020

Along with the weeks of bushfires, and months of lockdown, among the many things that I didn’t expect from the year:

… I didn’t expect that in the whole year I’ve seen about a dozen exhibitions, plus one art fair – Can’t Do Tomorrow. In other years I might see a dozen exhibitions in a single fortnight.

… I didn’t expect to be writing obituaries for Melbourne artists, Janet Beckhouse and Adrian Mauriks. I realised that they needed to be written as the newspapers wouldn’t be covering it.

… I didn’t expect that people would be so interested in public art this year. Part of this was due to people walking more as exercise during lockdowns and consequently seeing more public sculpture. It was also due to a post-colonial interest in public statues became a mainstream political issue this year, and I am so glad that it did. Statues that celebrate colonialists and other racists were removed in Belgium, Canada, NZ, South Africa, UK, US, Martinique, Cameroon, as well as, in other places. No statues or memorials have been removed in Australia. It is one of the many disgraceful and disgusting features of Australia and symptomatic of this conservative country’s many deep-rooted problems. (See my post on the Statue Wars 2020.)

And amongst everything that I didn’t expect, the least surprising events of the year was that the arts and tertiary education in Australia were being abandoned in the COVID-19 crisis. Gambling and Pascal’s wager (religions) are more important, for they were given more support and exemptions during lockdown; a position contrary to all medical evidence. And the state premier, Daniel Andrews cutting down more trees, including one of the Djab Wurrung Trees, in an egregious act of cultural vandalism. Giving less reason for optimism than a Leonard Cohen song. 

Now that I almost at the end of the year I have no plans to write any more blog posts until the new year. So, finally here are a few photos to sum up the year.


Once there were poets

Once there were poets, not there aren’t poets now, but now it hardly matters. The decline of poetry is remarkable, in the ancient past, everything was written in verse from religious teachings to philosophical tracts. Zurich Dada was one of the points in history when you can see the shift from poetry to music and art. Another place where you can see this shift is in China; Ai Wei Wei’s father was a poet whereas his son is an artist.

Once there were great poets whose poems changed the world. The last poets who made poetry that changed the world were The Last Poets. That was back in the early 1970s – The Last Poets were the progenitors of hip-hop. Where would Leonard Cohen be today if he had remained a poet rather than a songwriter?

This is not about what is hot and what is not, nor about the qualities of poetry compared to visual arts but rather the way that a society makes a particular art form powerful. Changes in culture are not random; new cultural forms emerge as others will wither due to a multitude of influences from the technology used to the psychosocial environment. For a poetry renaissance to occur, there would have to be profound changes in the social structures.

Some people want a revival of poetry, a return to Homeric epic poetry that could be recited by heart by every educated person. Some people want a resurrection of the circus, and sure, every now and then something comes along with something that looks like it might be the next wave in poetry or circuses. However these dreams are futile optimism because of the social structures, the forces of human social dynamics (economics, transportation, architecture, communication recording technology, etc.) that gave them power are no longer in place.

The desire to preserve art forms creates anachronisms. History re-enactors are not confined to those people who dress up in Civil War or Napoleonic uniforms. Whole sections of the arts are basically re-enactors with varying degrees of authenticity. Consider the repertoire of many orchestras, ballet and opera companies. Re-enactors desperate to detach from the contemporary to devoting their time to a period of the past. In Australia, massive state subsidies preserve opera, ballet and classical music at the cost of funding to other arts.

Old cultural forms decline because they no longer fit the world. Young women today would not tolerate the cloistered conditions that the corp de ballet in the Ballet Russe or the prostitution that came before it.

New cultural forms survive because they are better adapted to the social conditions. Even under stress, like slander or censorship, some newly evolved cultural forms still manages to thrive and out-compete an older, established rival because they are a better fit for the environment.

Rather than living in denial about the passing of art forms, or providing them with artificial life support with history re-enactors. I am advocating that it would be better to examine why there are declines and revivals of art forms. There is too much faith that the art forms are eternal and too little examination of the social forces that give them power.

Once there were rock musicians; it was all over in the 1990s with the rise of the DJ and cover bands. Once there were art critics… so many of these art forms have very long tails, and there are still plenty of woodcarvers.


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