Category Archives: Culture Notes

The Fox and the Many Cities

On my way to Fitzroy one night, I saw confused a fox looking out over the back fence of Parliament at all the traffic on MacArthur Street. I understood why the fox looked confused it was just after a daylight saving started and the fox had not adjusted its clock.

guerilla territory - baby guerilla

Wandering the city, the feeling of knowing the city, the sense of familiarity leads to ideas of possession. It is not my city, I am aware that I share it. There are many cities within the city, the urban foxes and all the other animals in the urban environment live in a different city. Different inhabitants have different paths through the city and different uses for the spaces in it.

As Alison Young in her book Street Art, Public City points out that there are multiple cities: the tangible, the “kaleidoscope of images, which jointly and singly communicate the identity of the space as ‘urban’” (p.41), the city as site of cultural production and the legal architecture. “Legal architecture produces a certain conceptualisation of urban space: the ‘legislated city” as space in which a particular kind of experience is encapsulated and produced through the regulation of space, temporalities and behaviours. Within the legislated city, citizens experiences are framed by discourses of cartography, planning, criminal law, municipal regulations and civility. The legislated city has mappability, it has aspirational qualities expressed through social policies, statutes, local laws and strategic plans.” (p.41)

There are of course gaps in the map of legislated city; temporary autonomous zones as described by Hakim Bay The Temporary Autonomous Zone, from large areas like Christiania in Copenhagen to smaller anarchic areas. The CCTV, the police and the state cannot control all the areas. And there are always gaps in timing of the patrol, time for the urban foxes and other unofficial inhabitants.

A modern city requires an after hours city whatever the business hours. The after hours city reminds us that there are different forms of life. The Waiter’s Restaurant in Meyers Place, started as a place for Italian waiters and other hospitality workers to have somewhere to eat after hours.

At the end of nineteenth centuryMelbourne had trams running up St. Kilda Road twenty-four hours a day. There are plans for a return to twenty-four hour public transport after a century of limited hours.

For the inhabitants the city, including the fox, their city is made of routes, hubs, landmarks and other esoteric and eccentric features. Esoteric features are known only to the insiders, vinyl record fans will have a mental map of the stores that still stock them and what routes to take to get there.

Platform Degraves St Underpass

Routes are paths that are common to a number of people but it only takes as few as 15 people to make a recognisable path.  I find myself falling into familiar routes around the city and forgetting that the artist run space, Platform is no more and there is just empty vitrines in the Degraves Street underpass to Flinders Street Station.  When I started blogging I would often write about the exhibitions at Platform and I have neglected to note the end of this unusual artist run space.

The fox listened politely to my advice about the dangers of cross the road at this time and changing it clock for daylight saving. It then retreated behind the fence and disappeared from my view.


Evolving Scene 2015

Hosier Lane continues to subtly change, even though the major development has been stopped by the new government, and the smell of aerosol paint still lingers in the air. Hosier Lane was once part of Melbourne’s garment district and Melbourne’s Communist Party Headquarters was at 3 Hosier Lane from 1936 to 1939. Old school graffiti writers and old lefties, like Jeff Sparrow bemoan the changes but I enjoy the vitality of the lane.

Hosier Lane

Now the sound of a busker is now common in the lane, not surprising given the amount of foot traffic in the area.

You can get a take-away coffee in the lane from Good to Go, a social enterprise cafe providing barista experience to long term unemployed, definitely a good improvement.

Guerrilla gardening has started in the lane; the sticker suggests that it is a project by Signal.

Guerrilla Garden, Hosier Lane

Looking at the art in lane is now like seeing an exhibition opening. It is hard to see the art for all the people, mostly taking photographs.

Hosier Lane must now be the most photographed place in Melbourne, there are so many people with all kinds of cameras taking photographs every day. You can hardly move without stepping in front of someone’s shot. Wedding photographs, selfies, tourist snap shots, videos, creating a hyperreal digital version of the lane for Facebook, Instagram and other social media. Street art is now influence on commercial photography.

Camera stencil

It is not surprising, the lane is spectacular and centrally located and other municipalities in Melbourne are starting to realise the potential for street art as a tourist attraction. This week the City of Yarra is calling for street art tours of the area. The City of Yarra has had this potential for years, I went on a short tour given by Makatron a couple of years ago and back in 2007 the Melbourne Stencil Festival was running booked out tours of Collingwood and Fitzroy.

Makatron Fitzroy

Melbourne’s street art is now part of Australia’s foreign policy. Most recently with notable street artists Adnate, Civil, HaHa, Vexta, Makatron and others painting murals in Singapore for the Australian government to celebrate 50 years of diplomatic relations with Singapore.

All of this is what could be called an organic development; it has not been directed or controlled, it has even and continues to be resisted on some levels. Back in 2008 I would hear street art insiders saying that the scene had peaked years before; what ever they meant by ‘peaked’ maybe just when they and their mates did their best stuff. Melbourne’s street art and graffiti scene continues to change and evolve (I don’t want to write for the better or worse) to take advantage of new walls, spaces, ideas and opportunities.


Hot Metal in Reservoir

On Saturday I went to the opening of Mal Woods Foundry in Reservoir. Sculptors, foundry workers, friends and interested people gathering to watch bronze being poured along with nibbles and drinks.

The weather was great, a pleasant sunny day, I bicycled to the foundry from Coburg. “This must be the place.” I thought as I cycled along Kurnai Ave. The factory and even its carpark was an oasis of tasteful design in the industrial area.

Mal Woods Foundry

The professionals were talking about their work including another Boer War Memorial with one and half sized equestrian statues. I can see why the sculptor, Louis Laumen and the foundry workers are keen on the project, more work for them. I can also see why the people behind the project might be having difficulty raising funds for it. Why does Australia need more Boer War Memorials?

There were amateur backyard foundry enthusiasts talking about their hair dryer or vacuum cleaner fanned furnaces. I didn’t know that there were amateur backyard foundries casting small objects in plaster moulds.

DSC00311

At the back of Mal Woods Foundry the moulds that had been drying out in a kiln and were then placed in a large metal trough and secured in place with sand.

Mal Wood added an ingot of tin and two large ingots of copper to the furnace, the tin first and then the copper. These two soft metals when combined produce an alloy that is harder than either of them.

Removing crucible from furnace

The roar of furnace dies away and in front of the assembled crowd the crucible was removed. The temperature of the bronze tested and then the bronze was poured into the moulds. I didn’t see the results of these castings, you couldn’t tell from the moulds, not with all the venting pipes. When I left the bronze was turning from florescent pink to dark purple in the moulds, still hot enough to warm a person standing nearby.

Bronze pouring into cast

Sculpture moulds cooling

For more on foundries read my 2012 post Casting Sculpture in Melbourne.


Free Identity

“Hello, My Name Is…” the excess conference stickers were long ago colonised by the taggers, to the point where it is now a commercial standard and Martha Cooper has a whole book focused on it, Name Tagging (Mark Batty, 2010).

Mini Graff

I want to look more closely at taggers and identity. Identity is not a trivial nor a simple issue. Is it enough to live, consume, work and die? The right to an identity comes with the right to express your identity? How do you have an identity if you don’t have the right to express your identity through any media? Not secretly in a diary like Winston Smith but on a public wall. What is the point in having an identity if you can’t live and express it?

The common desire for fame is a desire for an identity, to be a somebody rather than a nobody for to be famous is to be known. The right to an identity not only belongs to those who can financially afford to, or are politically allowed, or happen to become famous to express their identity but to all. These rights cannot be expressed in dollar terms.

Does the right to an identity also imply a right to anonymity? For if an identity cannot be set aside then it is not a right but a burden and an imposition. An identity is different from being an identifier of a data set about an individual. The right to an identity implies the freedom to rewrite the autobiographical fiction of the self; to have multiple identities, personalities, different costumes; to adopt an open identities, like that of the Neo-Dadaist, Luther Blisset.

Hello My Name Is

Superheroes all have secret identities; by day a mild mannered clerk but at night…

Outing the secret identity of graffiti and street artists is an inevitable plot line, like someone about to discover the identity of Spiderman. The media is waiting for Banksy’s real identity to be discovered because it is a story that they know.

Outing graffiti and street artists aside there are other complex moral issues around identity and street art. There is the moral right of an artist to be identified with their work presents a conundrum with uncommissioned work and the secret identities of graffiti and street artists. It is a problem for me too when writing about them or photographing them, endless shots of the backs of artists at work, and thinking about when to use what name to use when. There are a contrary rights in the case of a juvenile graffiti artist where there legal right for the juvenile not to continue to be identified with their crimes in their adult life and the moral right of an artist to be identified with their work. At this point the legal and moral rights diverge along with the legal and artistic identity of the work.

Ultimately does it really matter the exact identity of all these street artists? Aside from the moral right of the artist to have their work correctly attributed and issues of attribution for art historians. Sometimes attribution feels like bird watching with my father or a game for the insiders. There are plenty of proto-Renaissance artists who are simply known as “The Master of” X. We know nothing of their life and only a couple of their works survive.

My Name Is Subre1


Neighbourhood

On Sunday morning I was painting my new bullnose verandah. Standing on the scaffolding at the front of the house I had a view of my neighbourhood. As I paint I talk with my neighbours as they come and go.

Anstey Village Street Party

Anstey Village Street Party

When I finish with the painting Catherine and I go to a neighbourhood picnic at McCleery Reserve. This was part of Neighbour Day 2015 an annual celebration of community by Relationships Australia. There was a lot of talk about traffic problems on Munroe Street, too many cars and no pedestrian crossing.

Later in the afternoon I went to the Anstey Village Street Party and Zine Fair in Florence Street. For some people Anstey is just another small station on the Upfield Line but for other people it is home. Brunswick is made up of small districts each with their own character and Anstey is its creative heart. It had some of the first legal wall of graffiti (see my posts Coffee with Jamit and Legal Street Art in Brunswick), two art galleries, lots of artist studios in the area and recently, a lot of new multi-storey apartments, (see my post Graffiti at The Commons).

The street party was a strange mix between an art event, like an exhibition opening, a trendy market and a garage sale. Free face painting for adults by kids. There were a few bicycle carts, Soul System providing music and The Good Brew Co. selling some kind of brew.

Be Free on Florence Street Warehouse

Be Free on Florence Street Warehouse

Some of the good citizens of the street art scene, Phoenix and Civil had been at work in Florence Street. The beautifully simple design of the street painting was clearly the work of Civil. I didn’t see Civil but I did talk with Phoenix.

In the Florence Street warehouse space, along with the Zine Fair there was Imprint, a non­-profit student organisation from Melbourne Uni that “develops community ­based projects to drive social change”. The big map of Brunswick had been moved from the Desire Lines exhibition at Brunswick Arts Space (see my post Desire Lines @ Brunswick Arts).

How to be part of the community in the suburbs of a big city? Don’t drive your car, walk or ride a bicycle. Don’t live isolated in your house or in your backyard, but spend more time in your front yard. Talk to people. It is both simple and a very complex cultural problem because it needs to be supported by infrastructure, safe bicycle and pedestrian paths, better urban design along with cultural changes.

At both community events I saw the transport system failing; at the first a car reverse into a roundabout sign and, at Anstey the long neglected railway infrastructure breaking down and causing traffic jams at several intersecting roads. No bicycle or pedestrian fails were observed during my day in the neighbourhood.

A collection of old signs on a fence near the Anstey train station

A collection of old signs on a fence near the Anstey train station


Misunderstood Art

Polonius: (To Hamlet) What do you read, my lord?

Hamlet: Words, words, words.

(Hamlet II, ii, 192-3)

Nobody mistakes a game of football for anything else; there is never the question that it might not be a game of football or that it might be about something other than football. There are rare exceptions, the 1956 Russian Hungarian Olympic Water Polo match was about more than a sport. Generally the quality of the playing is tested and the results displayed on a scoreboard. Debate about sport is possible but eventually resolvable, the best team is the one that wins the most games.

Art is not like that; nothing will ever be resolved, it can be tested but not definitively. New interpretations and assessments are always possible for art but, short of revelations of cheating, nothing reverses sports results.

With all art there is always the possibility that it will be fundamentally misunderstood, not just in meaning or quality but also in its very category. It could be interpreted in a number of ways, or in post-modern speak, there are multiple readings. It is this possibility of being misunderstood that brings a special kind of quality to art. Not that all misunderstood things are of art, nor that ambiguity should be the objective of art, but that without the possibility of being misunderstood, that ambiguous quality, that makes art more than the sum of it constituent parts.

According to Mary Douglas’s theory expounded in her book, Purity and Danger (1966) the ambiguous category of art should make it taboo, a pollution that should be expelled. Or, because it does not fit into any category, that it should be sacred. Art is seen as both sacred and a pollution in society.

This ambiguous quality means that art can be about something else. Art has a relationship to a subject that cannot be reciprocated. For example, art can be about football but football can never be about art; as football is always about football. For art is a sign and signs also have a non-reciprocal relationship with what they signify.

Humans naturally want certainty but art requires a sophisticated, civilised approach that is, in this aspect, against nature. Art requires a degree of uncertainly, ambiguity or cognitive indeterminacy; to not know if you are looking at an image or paint, a story or words, Hamlet or an actor. Art requires possibility of multiple correct readings and even misunderstanding.

The unsophisticated mistake fiction for fact: a character for a real person, an actor for the character played, etc. They are apt to mistake art as pornography, sedition, blasphemy or some other prohibited or offensive category. These are unsophisticated views because they are forgetting that art is ambiguous, that they are looking at nothing but a creation of ink, or paint, or lights on a screen.

When a government’s claims to be able to make unambiguous distinction between what is permitted and what is censored the government case will always appears unsophisticated. How an unambiguous distinction can make about ambiguous material is never explained. It is simply assumed that the government is acting in a reasonable and rational manner. That agencies like the Australian Classification Board represent community values in their decisions. That it’s arbitrary interpretations of ambiguous material are certain and definite even when they very from year to year.

Sport is uncensored and more approved of than art because sport can be legislated. It can be legislated and controlled because it is unambiguous.


Love/City II

On Friday night I went to see Love/City II: of Time and Country, an artist run festival at Testing Ground. On the train I sat next to the Doritos Space Warrior, covered in orange triangles scale armour, illuminati triangle shield and cardboard laser rifle. He said that he was on his way to a costume party. There were a lot of people in strange costumes on missions in the city that night.

Mira Oosterwegel, Negotiating Stasis at Testing Ground

Mira Oosterwegel, Negotiating Stasis at Testing Ground

Testing Ground is an empty corner lot behind the Art Centre, all around it there are multi-story apartment buildings, hotels, the new ballet school. The empty lot has several converted containers that formed the bar and the gallery. Palette islands are the main architectural form creating towers, benches and platforms. It is a bit of urban acupuncture providing a temporary fix to an urban problem area.

Three food vans were there; food vans are now typical of festivals in Melbourne. I get some samosas from the African food van; yes samosas are African, I first had samosas when I was a primary schoolboy in Kenya.

I had a drink with photographer, Fiona Blandford, who had installed a photographic series of light boxes in one of palette islands, We Are Our Landscape: Butchers Creek, East Gippsland. Little viewers provided a magified view of the small photographs, this close up examination felt like looking for evidence in crime scene photographs, which it was, in a way. Butchers Creek was named after a 1841 massacre when Angus McMillian and his men killed an unknown number of Gunaikurnai.

In the gallery there interactive digital art works, Clark Beaumont’s Waiting for Barcelona, three channel video installation and Lyndal Irons, Goodbye Oxford Tavern, a series of photographs exploring the bright lights and tired world of strippers. There was a lot of photography and projected video art work but really worked for both the space and made me think about art was the live art. On stage was In My Hetroroclitic Body doing a hardcore electro-acoustic sonic performance with great costumes.

In My Hetroroclitic Body

In My Hetroroclitic Body

Mira Oosterwegel’s Negotiating Stasis was impressive with the perspex vitrine and florescent lights. The male performer, Lachlan Tetlow-Stuart was perfectly still. He was “relaxed and comfortable” to echo John Howard’s words about his ambition for the Australian public. The performer’s head was resting on an Australian flag beach towel, with his sunglasses he was isolated from the world in the perspex box.

Fitting perfectly with the location was Amy-Jo Jory, Listening to Stones II, an extremely physical endurance performance artwork using nineteenth century cut bluestone blocks, an archetype of Melbourne’s construction and a sledgehammer. Watching Jory smashing the granite blocks I was reminded me that Melbourne’s unemployed also broke these stones for ‘sustenance’ work during the Great Depression and the precarious financial position of performance artists.

Amy-Jo Jory, Listening to Stones II at Testing Ground

Amy-Jo Jory, Listening to Stones II at Testing Ground

On the way home to Coburg on the number 19 tram I saw a mass of people on the oval in costume and waving weird weapons. Over a hundred people were in a massive melee but by the time I got off the tram and across the road the battle was over. I thought that I might see the Doritos Space Warrior but these were more conventional fantasy warriors with foam swords and shields. Every Friday night at Crawford Oval, Princes Park south in Parkville, there is Swordcraft, a live action role-playing game.


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