Category Archives: Culture Notes

Art Precincts

“A media release is not a creative precinct,” said the Minister for creative industries, Martin Foley, when he announced plans to spend millions to create the Collingwood Art Precinct centred around the refurbished old Collingwood TAFE building. Arts precincts are a popular idea in urban planning. But is there anything more to a precinct than an official artwash announcement designating an area of a city and repurposing old buildings into studios or performance spaces? How sustainable are arts precincts? And what is their impact on grassroots creative precincts?

Keith Haring mural at the Collingwood arts precinct

In the past local city councils often ambitiously declared an area “an arts precinct” and hoped for the best. The City of Yarra once proclaimed the “Smith St art precinct” on one side of a block with one art gallery, a couple of designers and a community radio station.

If we were to count the Collingwood Art Precinct, then Melbourne currently has several arts precincts, the main one in Southbank centred around the NGV, State Theatre, Concert Hall, ACCA, Buxton Contemporary. Melbourne also has a Sports and Entertainment Precinct around the Tennis Centre and MCG. And there is the Brunswick Design Precinct with the TAFE design faculty and Siteworks in a converted old school building and heritage house. These different precincts raise the distinction between the arts, entertainment and design in the collective consciousness as reflected by city planners and politicians and built into the city’s structure.

The Southbank arts precinct has changed from swampland to an area for popular entertainment. Wirth’s Circus and others used to pitch their tents where the Arts Centre now stands. It was a decaying area of warehouses in the 1980s; the old police horse stables are now part of the College of the Arts, and a brewery has become the Malthouse Theatre.

Southbank only has training facilities and high-end exhibition and concert halls, cutting out the mid-level entirely. There is very little street art, no artist-run spaces, and no commercial galleries. It is a high-end attraction for the urban tourist, full of institutions exhibiting highly finished art and expensive cafes beyond the budget of the arts and music students who study there and must walk twenty minutes to find an affordable place to eat.

Performance artists in ACCA forecourt 2016

Compare this to grassroots locations that spontaneously emerge in the inner city. One such area is around the Brunswick Tram Depot, between Moreland Road and Albion Street. It did not occur due to media releases but available and affordable space. It is light industrial on the edge of inner-city suburbs with lots of warehouse space, some of which have been converted into artist studios and a gallery. Neon Park is the kind of high-end commercial gallery with a stall at the Melbourne International Art Fair. There is no public space, and the closest thing to a park is a planter box. Still, it does have bluestone laneways that are regularly covered in fresh graffiti. And there is live music and cheap cocktails at Red Betty’s in Houdini Lane.

In spooky synchronicity, an artist working in that area sends me this SMS message as I write this. “You should get really topical and investigate how the local council funding of studios in Moreland, such as Schoolhouse and Pentridge, have adversely impacted the homegrown grassroots economies of all the independent studios in the region.”

So much for the guff from the Minister for creative industries. The point of arts precincts does seem to be the media opportunity for the politician. Generally to announce funding to convert the old building (or build new ones) rather than to support the arts where it already exists.


Looking at Urban Design

When I started this blog, I used to write posts like a diary, snapshots of Melbourne’s exhibitions and culture. I would write what galleries I went to, what I saw and what I thought. Now I try to have better-structured posts, but sometimes I miss being able to string together a whole heap of stuff together, like recently when I have been to several events about city planning, urban design and a garden show.

Mike Makatron and Conrad Bizjak’s wall at the Flower and Garden Show

Two weeks ago, I went on a picnic walk and talk led by Professor Alison Young about public space and the arts precinct. This was not a walking tour but an interdisciplinary conversation (music, architecture, criminology and art) about Melbourne University’s VCA and Conservatory as a park-like place with a pedestrian permeable campus. It is a high-end attraction for the urban tourist, with institutions showing highly finished art and expensive cafes. Cafes beyond the budget of the art and music students who study there and must walk twenty minutes to find an affordable place to eat. There are no artist-run spaces or commercial art galleries in the precinct, where even graffiti and street art are rare.

Then, last Saturday, I went to “Can parklets be reclaimed as a form of tactical urbanism?” A live podcast recording by artist Troy Innocent, urban design researcher Quentin Stevens, urban geographer Rachel Iampolski and event facilitator Kiri Delly. It was at Twosixty, a temporary public space on Sydney Road in Brunswick, with a large mural by Mike Makatron of a kangaroo bounding up an overgrown Sydney Road as the wilderness returned.

Before I went to the talk, I had no idea how small parklets are. They are the size of a couple of car park spaces, or during the pandemic, they became a common part of Melbourne’s coffee and dining experience. After the talk, we went to the demonstration parklet in Saxon Street just outside Siteworks. Young people were using it for parkour practice, and then a bunch of urban designers turned up. Good times.

And then, yesterday I went to the Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show. Amongst the many exhibits and displays, I wasn’t expecting a wall of painted foliage by Mike Makatron and Conrad Bizjak. Still, given that they have painted so many murals in Melbourne, I shouldn’t have been surprised.

I wasn’t surprised to see the Association of Sculptors of Victoria. They have been exhibiting regularly at the Flower and Garden Show for many years now. Several stands were selling sculptural garden decor, but some of the association of sculptors exhibitors were trying to do more. Even if they were carving a Dali inspired giraffe (Peter Saville, Wild Life) or creating a Claus Oldenburg inspired trio of giant blue paperclips (Madi Whyte, Rule of Three). No matter how impressive and popular a kangaroo made from a tractor chain might be, I wonder what these machine parts mean when welded into the shape of an animal or a dragon playing guitar. 

For sculptural elements in gardens looking at the shop window floral designs or RMIT fashion’s display was more aesthetically grounded than any of the garden ornaments. I continue to think about private garden sculptures (see my earlier post). My advice is to go large at home.


Memorials to a murderer

To make it clear about the moral character of John Batman, his neighbour, the colonial landscape painter John Glover, described him as “a rogue, thief, cheat and liar, a murderer of blacks and the vilest man I have ever known”. Even Batman’s wife did not stand by the evil, syphilitic, alcoholic man who claimed to have bought the land where Melbourne now stands for a few axes and bags of flour.

John Batman Memorial at Fawkner Cemetery

So how many statues and memorials does Melbourne need to this awful man? How many places, parks and railway stations need to be named after him? Melbourne had over half a dozen, but fortunately, that number has been lowered. A statue of Batman on Collins Street was removed for construction purposes in 2016. Batman Park in Northcote has been renamed Gumbri Park, but there is still a Batman Park in the CBD. The Australian Electoral Commission renamed the inner-city federal seat of Batman in honour of Indigenous rights campaigner William Cooper. Batman train station and two obelisks, one at Fawkner Cemetery and another at Queen Victoria Market, remains.

In 2020 I made a formal complaint about having a memorial to a genocidal criminal in the City of Melbourne. I was informed that: “it is currently being considered in the context of the Queen Victoria Market site. The memorial is an existing feature of the space, and its future will be considered as part of the overall design process. Close consultation with the relevant Traditional Owner groups and descendants of the Batman family is currently being undertaken.” The ongoing consultations have gone nowhere. The inadequate explanation of Batman on the memorial is barely an acknowledgement. The City of Melbourne should return this lump of stone to an Indigenous artist Mandy Nicholson, who carves impressive petroglyphs. 

Thanks to Jo Waite for pointing out the historic photograph of the Batman memorial at Fawkner Cemetery. Melbourne City Councillors in top hats and frock coats standing next to a new obelisk. I rode my bicycle north along the Upfield railway line to see for myself. I found it easily enough, it stands several metres tall in the flat lawn cemetery. It is amongst the old gravestones removed from the old Melbourne cemetery to make way for the Melbourne market (“money before decency” is the Australian motto). The isolated memorial in the lawn cemetery is the most recent of memorials to Batman. It was constructed in 1922, about the same time as many of the Confederate monuments in the USA. A time of international uncertainty, where monuments were designed to cement traditional views in the civic infrastructure.

As few cars were around and the weather was pleasant, I decided to bicycle back on a different route. It was then that I became lost in the vast cemetery, and some panic set in. Why was I putting in this energy to trace the surface archeology of Australian colonialism? Speaking ill of the dead in a place created to commemorate them. Eventually, I found another exit from the graveyard. Like the cemetery map, the network of institutional racism needs to be recognised from the colonial origins to the present. As the Batman memorial at Queen Victoria Market says circumspice, Latin meaning “You must look around”.


Art in the age of digital reproduction

Most of the art I consumes, music, movies, text, and images, comes in a digital format. A virtually unlimited digital feast for the mind and senses. And with this, the aura of exclusive access to the original that once gave cultic status to art has disappeared.

Recently I’ve been re-reading Walter Benjamin The Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. This short book by an eclectic Berlin philosopher written in 1935 continues to resonate. Benjamin examines how the aura of originality is devalued with photographic reproduction. Some his arguments still work even as we debate his conclusions.

At the start of Section V, Benjamin distinguishes between polarities of the “cultic”, the unseen value of an image and its “display”, value to the perceiver. Having a precious item in a vault is cultic value, part of a cult of exchange value. This is very different from “display value”, which is simply what you most enjoy looking at? These are a different set of values to what art costs to buy or to make: “display value” is the aesthetic separated from the economic.

Benjamin didn’t live long enough to witness the results of digital reproduction on the arts. Where the repetition becomes meaningless and, even torturous, producing overdose reactions (for example, a Barry Manilow song on repeat).

With repeat viewing, everyone can become an expert and a critic.

When there is no original, as the digital is the original, there can only be variations: the director’s cut, the extended version, the remix, the extended dance mix, the unofficial release… the t-shirt, the movie, the game … Market segmentation to sell more. Benjamin expected an increase in commodification. However, in the long term, the only ones who have made massive profits from the arts in the age of digital reproduction have been the warehouse owners and distributors.

As the aura of originality becomes more nebulous in the digital age. The record collections of Baby Boomers gather dust, and their libraries of books are given away. Now creating unique works of art is a political statement; the intention is for them to remain private, or at least constricted and restricted, drawcard attractions for blockbuster exhibitions.

Now the aura of cultic value is an area for grifters to exploit as once priests preyed on their flocks offering unseen values. NFT sellers offer ownership of digital properties, like buying seating in heaven. Will the fetichism of owning something unique become just another kink of appreciation?

Ownership is irrelevant to Owels piece, display value is everything

Psychogeography 2021

The sad trophy of a great white hunter sits on a porch of the Edwardian bungalow propped up on an old armchair — a sad artifact from another continent and another era. The Cape Buffalo, syncerus caffer caffer for all the zoologists, is the least endangered of the big five game hunting animals. It reminded me that both of us spent time in Africa before we ended up in the vast suburbia of Melbourne.   

I avoided writing an end of year blog post for a couple of years, but 2021 needs one because it was a very unusual year. I saw few exhibitions; it seemed like I was always seeing one the night before the city would go into another lockdown, with some of these exhibitions being about art created in the previous lockdown. So I’m not even going to try to name a favourite. Melbourne endured the longest lockdown in the world, which has left deep scars psychic on the city.

Possibly due to the bad craziness fermented during the lockdown, two new sculptures were vandalised and a Discus Thrower from the Melbourne Olympics was stolen from suburban garden.  Some sculptures are vandalised every year with more inefficiency and completeness than the unfinished damage inflicted on a statue of Gandhi and Fallen Fruit.

For me, it was an enforced period of hyperlocal psychogeography, not the psychogeography of Iain Sinclair, based on literature and history, nor the long-distance walking and speculative psychogeography of Will Self, nor the esoteric psychogeography of ley lines and occult architecture. There could be no grand projects circling the city, only a limited circumference of kilometres from your home. It was the basic dérive that Debord wrote about, drifting through suburban streets — wandering to escape the confines of your home. To lose yourself on the walk, the complete opposite of those English celebrity goes somewhere shows. Who was that masked man?

“All space is occupied by the enemy. We are living under a permanent curfew. Not just the cops — the geometry.” Raoul Vaneigem words are pertinent to Melbourne’s experience; the Belgium writer would have been familiar with the curfews based on zero medical evidence, the cops and the occupied space, the shuttered spaces, closed shops and quiet streets. Last year I wrote a post about walking around in lockdown, and this year I wrote one about COVID related street art or graffiti but I didn’t really want to think about it during the lockdown.

It was hard to form memories without events to distinguish them when even the deaths of friends went unobserved — walking, eating and sleeping, day after day like the seemingly endless streets of Melbourne suburbia. Past police investigation, a forensics team digging up and examining the tarmac under a burnt-out car. Past suburban emergencies, a ruptured gas main. Past garden and architectural nightmares; houses with twenty-eight gables, kitsch concrete garden sculpture grottoes, or last-capitalist hordes of wrecked cars.

Should I organise a Melbourne Psychogeographical Association? (Please get in touch with me if anyone is interested in such an association or regular walks). I don’t know if anyone will be willing to engage in psychogeography for a long time. Or have the anti-vaxers, and Qanon conspiracy theorists discovered a kind of mass psychogeography in their repeated meandering protests around the city? Has it become worn out as a revolutionary strategy? The glass taxidermy eyes of the buffalo only give the look of seeing and don’t register images.


And they call them vandals

Walking around Melbourne, looking at street art and graffiti and thinking about the value of art, distinguishing between cultural, monetary and aesthetic values. Thinking about the street art being destroyed in the building boom. While ancient petroglyphs on Burrup Peninsula (Murujuga) are being destroyed in an act of industrial iconoclasm. The rock art gallery in the world means nothing to Woodside Petroleum or the WA Labor government (read the ABC news story). Nor does destroying the climate. 

Manda Lane and Kasper in Hosier Lane

I know that so much of the art world is a massive art wash, tax dodge, looted, exploitation move by the rich and powerful, as it’s been for centuries. I am still interested in art, and art-like activities, because they are, more or less, the best contiguous record of human and pre-human existence. Unauthorised street art and graffiti can be seen as an alternative to this plutocratic view. Like traditional art, it is a practice that doesn’t require wealthy patrons to pay, validate and promote the art.

Melbourne’s street art and graffiti boom occurred when the city was dying and decaying in the centre. Street art flourished because there were plenty of walls, lanes where old buildings were still standing, not because they were worth anything but because nobody had an economic reason to tear them down. The marvellous city, which had boomed in the gold rush, continued to offer ever-expanding suburbs, resulting in fewer demolitions at its core.

Melbourne is changing, new buildings changing the local geography, sometimes I no longer recognise the location anymore. The skyline on the west side that I see coming into Southern Cross Station is full of new glass towers.

“At what point do we say no?” writes Cara Waters in The Age. Now that it is being built over, people (Adrian Doyle) talk about its historical value Of course, everybody wants to rewrite history. It is a nice bit of rhetoric, but it will probably be flooded in twenty years, given the rising sea levels and Australia’s response to climate change. We all knew that it was going to be, more or less, ephemeral. Ars langa, vita brevis (art is long, life is short) – Hippocrates

Like art collecting, art destroying is largely the preserve of governments, mining companies and other plutocrats. And they call street artists and graffiti writers vandals?


Halloween in Australia

The common denial that Halloween is not Australian is incorrect. Although there clearly was a time in the late 20th century when Halloween festivities didn’t happen for a couple of decades in some parts of Australia. However, the reality is that Halloween has been celebrated in Australia since the colonial era.

In 1858 the Mount Alexander Mail advertised a “Select Scottish Ball on the Anniversary of Halloween” at the Red Hill Hotel, Forest Creek (p.8). Colonial Australian newspapers also reported on Queen Victoria celebrating Halloween at Balmoral. Few people now remember Robert Burn poem “Halloween”, but it was often quoted in Australian newspapers in October and on Burn’s birthday in January. For about a decade in the 1860s a ballet based on Burn’s poem touring Australia. And echoing Burns in a manner that not even William McGonagall could muster, a poem titled, “An Australian Halloween” by an ‘Ossian MacPhearson’ was published in the Hamilton Spectator and Grange District Advertiser, Saturday 12 November 1864, (p. 3). So the idea that Halloween is alien to Australia is absurd.

Halloween celebrations continued to be enjoyed in Australia after federation often organised by the local Caledonian Society. But by the 1970s Halloween was not just a Scottish event. In 1970, the Australian Jewish Times wrote about plans for a “halloween party” in “Briefly on youth” p.17. Halloween in Australia was changing from parties for adults to a day for children to dress up. And in 1974, the Canberra Times reported on children in the suburb of Hughes playing trick or treat.

Australia has borrowed most of its holidays from the northern hemisphere and most of its culture that isn’t British, from America. So neither explanations of climate nor anti-Americanism feel satisfactory; otherwise, Easter, Christmas, along with Mother’s Day would also be failing in Australia. Holidays come and go; Guy Fawkes night is no longer celebrated in Australia primarily due to safety restrictions on the sale of fireworks but also because Australian culture is no longer that closely tied to England.

According to market research, Halloween is currently Australia’s least favourite festival. I can’t believe it is less popular than St. Patrick’s Day and the horse racing holiday. One contributing factor for this might be the decline in people identifying as Scottish Australian as there was a corresponding decline in membership of Caledonian Societies, and the Royal Caledonian Society of Melbourne ceased to operate on 21 April 2016. 

Culture is not static but constantly evolving, so claims that Halloween is not Australian are not definitive. Indeed claims that Halloween is not Australian are a recent development in the history of Halloween in Australia.

I proudly bear some responsibility for the introduction of Halloween trick or treating in Coburg. As a bit of a goth with fond memories of a Canadian childhood, Halloween is a celebration I enjoy. It has been enthusiastically taken up by a multi-cultural neighbourhood for unlike any other annual event because it is not religious and is not about the family. I am interested in Halloween because it encourages children to explore memes and their physical neighbourhood. There are problems with Halloween that I would like to change, the amount of plastic, the sugar and the commercialism.

Halloween decorations in a garden in Coburg

%d bloggers like this: