Category Archives: Culture Notes

Melbourne Tea

I am currently drinking a special blend of tea that is intended to represent Melbourne. Most people in Melbourne are into coffee but I prefer tea but if Melbourne was a tea blend what would it taste like? Aside from the synesthesia implied in the question and ignoring the obvious Melbourne coffee connection.

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Philippa Thacker explaining the ingredients for the Melbourne tea blend as Stephen Twining watches.

At a media call at Little Mule Cafe, in Somerset Place, Melbourne to promote a new tea blend created for Australian palates to be launched next year. In attendance is Stephen Twining of Twinings Tea, a descendant from the company founder, Thomas Twining who established a tea and coffee shop in London in 1717, almost 300 years ago. And master tea blender, Philippa Thacker who is blending some tea that she thinks will suit Melbourne. There are no plans to market the Melbourne blend of tea, and the team from Twinings will be repeating this event, creating a blend for Sydney, Adelaide, Perth and Brisbane.

How to represent Melbourne? Obviously, it has to be a black tea.

There has been some debate about the colour of Melbourne; not the football colours of a particular sporting team, but the symbolic colour of the city. Is it yellow or is it black? Yellow is the colour of Ron Robertson-Swann’s Vault, that is repeated in the architecture of Denton Corker and Marshall and the 2013 Melbourne Now exhibition. Black is the colour of Inge King’s sculptures and the fashion of many of Melbourne’s inhabitants, including myself. Perhaps it is both, yellow and black, nature’s warning sign for a venomous animal, a warning that this city is poisonous to some extent.

In the 1980s Barry Humphries proposed that Melbourne be called “the big Orange” like New York is called the ‘the big Apple’. To be fair to Humphries orange was all the rage at the time, Melbourne’s trams were painted orange, and Humphries did have a taste for the kitsch elements of Australian culture. And there is some orange in the tea as “orange pekeo” is a term that refers to the highest grade of tea leaf.

Back at the Little Mule Cafe, Philippa Thacker is gentling blending the various teas together, for the tea leaf can break down easily. In the mix there is a Darjeeling, the champagne of teas with its muscatel, floral notes and two different Ceylon teas. One is of the Ceylon teas is gown at low at low altitude and has a thick liquor whereas the high grown has a dry taste with citrus notes. Added to this is added rose petals and strawberry pieces, a fruity note to compliment the Darjeeling, like strawberries and champagne at the Australia Open.

I’m not sure if Melbourne can or should be summed up with tennis but the result is an enjoyable tea. The floral and fruity notes from the rose petals and strawberry pieces are hardly noticeable but do create a full and wide flavour. “Refreshment” is a key word, identified through some arcane market research. Beer is also refreshing; but it does suggest the psychological question why does Melbourne need to become fresh again? Do we feel regularly feel stale, wilted and faded?

The tea blend is not the same as Twinings Australian Afternoon with an orange and brown outback design complete with a kangaroo on the box. Australian Afternoon is a stronger flavoured tea than English Breakfast but not dramatically different. Outside, in Sommerset Place it is grey and raining with no kangaroos or sweeping plains in sight. The dead end laneway, off Lt Burke Street has a bit of street art, along with new bollards and squares of concrete seating and gardens is typically Melbourne and a hostile environment for any kangaroo.


Medieval Graffiti

Matthew Champion, Medieval Graffiti – The Lost Voices of England’s Churches (Ebury Press, 2015)

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The justification for the study not just medieval of graffiti, but all graffiti, is the same. The need to understand the ordinary people through their mark making culture and not just the official version created by the church or civil authorities. In the medieval world this includes marks by merchants, marks by stone masons, and marks by women. Although there was graffiti on all kinds of medieval buildings it is in churches where most of the medieval graffiti can still be found, there are over 5,000 inscription in Norwich Cathedral.

The book shows that the study of graffiti started in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as various antiquarians started to study the marks on the walls of their local churches. The problem with an antiquarian examination and speculation about graffiti in their local church is there isn’t enough evidence to understand the marks, or the church itself might just be an odd example. This book is based on a very broad geographic survey, conducted by teams of volunteers, of medieval graffiti in churches around England.

Medieval graffiti in churches exists in limbo, clearly tolerated, as it was not painted over, but not official. The graffiti was cut into the paint that once covered all the interior walls of pre-Reformation English churches and would have stood out as pale lines on a coloured surface. It now survives as scratches on the stone.

Predictably for there are chapters on heraldic graffiti, pictures of knights and plagues but the medieval world is a very strange place. Along with graffiti in churches medieval Christianity had strange beliefs about demons in churches, curses, witch marks and pentangles (yes, all you neo-pagans it is a Christian symbol).

Champion doesn’t think that we can understand the medieval minds that created the graffiti and is cautious about all interpretations. With chapter headings that include “Swastika and the Virgin Mary” to entice you, the cautious approach of the author is warranted. The evidence is carefully considered. Interpretations are never certain and explanation after explanation is debunked often until none are left. Even with this approach it is still a lively read, and even as Champion debunks another theory, it expands my understanding, not just of medieval graffiti, but of the rest of medieval world.

The final chapter goes from the Reformation through to the end of graffiti in churches in the late 19th Century. It is here where something familiar to contemporary graffiti writers emerges in the form of tags and RIP pieces.

The book includes a list of “Selected Sites to Visit”, giving details on the best churches in England to see medieval graffiti.

I read this as an ebook on a Kindle, it was the first time that I have read a whole book in that format. I’m not so sure how helpful having an appendix of terms is in that format.

For more on this book see Jessica Hope “Medieval graffiti: the lost voices of England’s churches in the Middle Ages”.


Zombie Suburbia

Legend has it that the suburbs are full of zombies. They must be somewhere because the suburbs look so dead. Is it quiet because the rampaging zombie hordes has already passed by? It looks dead because it is so quiet and there is all this stuff around that is never used. The suburbs are so quiet that Melbourne psychogeographer, Nick Gadd, in his blog post “The real and the fake in Abbotsford”, had to asks himself: “where is everybody?”

Zombie in Hosier Lane

Two zombies in Hosier Lane

The suburban zombie might look like ordinary people but they lack a life. Suburban zombies are often employed; zombies make good workers for menial labour, but they are not living their own life.

How to live your own life is the most important cultural questions of all time. Not to be confused with how to live a life, or the life that others want you to live. Others might value your life for their own reasons – some just want to eat your brain.

The classic post-war consumer dream was sold to millions of zombies: a TV, a car and a house in the suburbs. The payments for this borrowed dream go on for ever. Life in the suburbs is a commercial product and fear is good for business. The suburb continues to sell as a product and it’s nervous. Are the suburbs really full of transitory inhabitants watching the house prices, always ready to sell up and move on if the price is right or if the zombie horde descends on the area? This mix of home life and commerce contributes to fear and further alienates the suburbanite from their home. Even cars are kept largely impersonal to maintain the best resale value.

Examples of suburban paranoia are common. The secrets keep building up in the suburbs, they are so discreet and genteel. Your neighbour might be judging you as criminal, alien or anathema. The paranoia, the susceptibility to fear mongering that such suburbs create. It appears idyllic except that the suburban mentality is paranoid. Isolated in the suburbia, living next to unknown neighbours, fear is an understandable response.

Suburbia was designed to create a homogeneous, assimilated population. The soporific repetition of suburban landscapes creates an unnerving sense of déjà vu. Here and there are the odd flourishes in suburban architecture, gardens or decoration. Small triumphs against conformity or simply demonstrations of eccentricity?

There is an absence of any real landmarks or even hubs in the suburb, means that there is no logical place to rally the population against the ravenous zombie hoards. Transportation designed on a circulatory system of capillary roads feeding into arteries view hubs as undesirable points of congestion. Place where several paths intersect are designed to have no holding qualities.

The only place in the suburb that has any holding power is the home. It is there that the population intends to bunker down. Fear of the zombie hordes have driven people to retreat to fortified zones at the back of their houses only venturing out to their front yards for the daily commute.

Design responds to both the realities of life and the unrealities of desires. The mass experience of suburban life tried to create a middle ground between the inner city, cosmopolitan life and the country life for the middle class. The suburbs are a reactionary location, rejecting the urban environment rather than trying to improve it. The problem with suburbs is not simply a question of design any more than it is a choice of what weapons to use in the zombie apocalypse. It is a problem of how to live and it will require both changes in the mind set of the population and bricks, concrete and steel of the city.

 


Taggers Target Supreme Court

It is hard being the press benches in Court 3 of the Supreme Court on William Street in Melbourne. You are made of wood and you are used by journalists and semi-respectable writers, like myself. Even worse as some of these journalists, like naughty school children, will carve their name into the wood.

The benches date back to the construction of the court in 1884. The older marks are dark with layers of furniture polish/varnish whereas the recent marks are pale. This is old school tagging in block capital letters (I will spare your eyes and have altered all the text to include lower case):

“Wayne Flower 14.15”

“Flower 15”

Wayne Flower is a Herald Sun journalist who, along with his colleague Anthony Dowsley, won the 2012 Quill Award for Best Coverage of an Issue or Event for their series of articles about Jill Meagher. Wayne Flower has also written about the street artist Lush, who Flowers described as a “masked vandal” who “has been terrorising the western suburbs for years”.

I did contact Flower for comment but he has not replied to my email. I would like to know if he thinks that there is a difference in the kind of graffiti/scraffiti that you do in the Supreme Court and the kind that Lush does on the street?

Other journalists have also added their names and place of work. A couple of Flower’s colleagues at the Herald Sun, “Ando” and “E. Portelli” have also added their names. After tracking down street artists based on their tags this is playing on easy level. These are at least a bit more obscure than writing your first and last names. E. Portelli is a bit more obscure but @emilyportelli is the Twitter handle of Emily Purcell former Herald Sun court reporter and currently a news writer for Mamamia.

“Steve O5 The Age” is possibly Steve Butcher, Senior Court Reporter for The Age. Other tags on the press bench include “Colin Dale Herald ’85”, “G.T.” and “K.Osborn”.

I have singled out the Herald Sun because it has often condemned the actions of graffiti writers and street artists for years, so this post has the wonderful flavour of irony sauce on revenge fried hypocrite. Most graffiti and street artists do not tag private homes, religious centres and historic buildings, like the Supreme Court.

I am not able to report on what was occurring in Court 3 of the Supreme Court as that would be a contempt of court as it could, or any of the comments could, prejudice a jury. Nor am I able to present any photographic evidence of the scraffiti on the press bench because cameras are not permitted in the court.


Courtroom Artists

Courtroom sketch artists go back to nineteenth century in an on again, off again relationship with printing technology and the courts permitting cameras. In Australia cameras are generally banned from the courts, so in order to have a picture of a defendant appearing in a trial courtroom sketch artists are employed by the media.

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One of Wendy Black’s courtroom sketches

Melbourne painter and silk screen artist, Wendy Black has worked as a courtroom sketch artist for Network Ten and other media outlets. I interviewed her about this intersection of art and crime.

Black explained the job. “It is a bit like extras work, you stand around and wait and wait for hours and then you have three minutes of intense action. It is the same with this. You are just given one name and there could be thirty people going through the court that day and you just have to listen for that name. So you are looking very intently at everyone. When that name comes up you have to intensely draw for three minutes and remember what colour eyes, ties and shirts if you haven’t drawn enough in three minutes.”

There are a small band of court artists in Melbourne, about half a dozen courtroom sketch artists working on a freelance basis. Black started working for newspapers and moved to television when in 2005 she rang Network Ten to tell them she had just drawn the accused in a high profile murder at the time, Joe Korp, the husband of the women in the boot story.

In the UK courtroom sketch artists cannot draw in court but must work from memory and notes to produce their drawings outside the courtroom. In Australia and the USA artists are permitted to sketch in the courtroom. There is no restriction on the media that courtroom sketch artists can use. Black had a lot of time to explore different media. “I got very fond of coloured pencil, I must admit.” But there is a limit to what you can bring into court because of security. “I really had to change from Stanley knifes for sharpening very fine points on pencils to going to the dreaded pencil sharpener which I couldn’t bare but now I’ve sort of come back to liking it.”

After the sketches have gone through the media cycle, the artist can keep them or sell them. People and institutions collect these sketches; the National Museum of Australia that has 182 courtroom drawings by Veronica O’Leary of the 1982 trial of Lindy and Michael Chamberlain.

In 2007 Black had an exhibition of her sketches in Langs Lane, part of the Laneway Commission “Three Minute Attention Span”. The exhibition involved her drawing in the Magistrates court for sixteen weeks everyday.

She prepared for this with lots of life drawing. To be a courtroom artist you need to stay in practice with life drawing to keeping your hand in. For budding courtroom sketch artists Black recommends the life drawing sessions where you do the one minute, three minute, five minute drawings before you get into a longer pose.


Dada Centennial 1916-2016

“Where is the monument to the folk who took a stand against the war rather than those who capitulated to its madness?” Robert Nelson asked in The Age on Remembrance Day, 11 November, 2015

Dear Robert Nelson, the monument exists but it is not in the architecture of state power, the column, the triumphant arch or faux tomb of imperial power dominating territory. It is a single word “Dada”.

Dada, a little word that means everything and nothing. A word like a Buddhist mantra capable of destroying all illusions by using it as a substitute for all other words. Instead of patriotism, dada; instead of reason, dada.

Not that the word works like magic but the question that Dada posed still remains as potent as ever. What is art and culture doing other than making various governments look like a humane and decent society, masking and distracting from the genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes? If this is how much of an improvement the best of art and culture can do then why continue with it?

This is not a joke, this is a serious point.

Dada Zurich

Mark outside the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich

One hundred years ago on the 5th of February 1916 in Zurich three “oriental gentlemen,” as Hugo Ball described them in his diary arrived at the newly formed Cabaret Voltaire. The Cabaret Voltaire was a music and poetry night that Hugo Ball was running at the Holländische Meierei tavern in Zurich. Hugo Ball had had left Germany for neutral Switzerland, he had been an idealistic German patriot before he saw the horror war for himself.

The “oriental gentlemen” were certainly from the east as they were Romanian. They were the architecture student and artist, Marcel Janco, his brother George and a 19 year old poet who was calling himself, Tristan Tzara.

The reason why they were there was because Romania had ended its neutrality in 1916 and joined the war on the Allied side. It was one of the stupidest decisions of the war; outstanding even considering the extraordinary stiff competition of stupid decisions made in World War One. The Romanian army was obliterated.

The three young men kept on saying “da da”, “yes yes” in Romanian. The word “Dada” was invented later that year, around 11 April 1916, the first Dada periodical appeared over a year later in July 1917. There is a long standing debate about who invented this word but it has to be remembered that they were all very drunk at the time (or using other drugs, yes, I’m looking at you Herr Huelsenbeck and your cocaine).

Historical debates about dates aside, on Friday night in Clifton Hill DADA lives! 1916-2016 celebrated a century of Dada. Over a hundred people packed into the narrow space of the shopfront bar with its tiny stage at the back with of poetry and performance. Sjaak de Jong was the MC for the evening. Most of the performances were of original material but Santo Cazzati did read a historic Tristan Tzara Dada manifesto and perform a recognisably accurate version of Raoul Haussmann’s poem, phonème bbbb.

People try to laugh Dada off but that is just a desperate tactic to hold onto the certainties of dictatorships. Attempts have been made to quarantine Dada in art galleries and libraries around the world but it keeps on breaking out with nihilistic force. For it is nothing, it is ridiculous and is better than any god/country/insert reason here that you can dream up as nobody has ever killed or died for it.


Psychogeographical Walk: shoes and artists

A small group of determined psychogeographers set off heading south from the corner of Illan Lane and Tinning Street. We were examining the transition zone between Sydney Road and the Upfield railway line, exploring some of the streets that running parallel to the railway, before doubling back along Sydney Road for a drink at Edinburgh Castle.

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We stopped at Tinning Street presents, the only art gallery that we actually visited on the walk. Michael Thomas’s photographs, Night Works looked as if they had come from Thomas’s nocturnal psychogeographical walks. The huge Duratran colour print photographs mounted in Tasmanian oak light boxes made the suburban look impressive.

Some of us were very familiar with the area but there are always something new to see when you feel like exploring. As well we had several fortuitous accidental encounters with local artists. The first was with Julian di Martino on his bicycle. I think Julian mentioned that he’d been to Soma Gallery, a shop front gallery on Sydney Road. Next we ran into Jon Beinart who was busy preparing to open a pop-surrealism gallery in Sparta Place, it is a great location for a gallery.

Brunswick Kind.. 8:13

Then, and we had just been looking at Brunswick Kind on the Victoria St carpark wall when Trevor ‘Turbo’ Brown came along carrying two paintings. Turbo is a Latje Latje man from Mildura and the winner of the 2012 Victorian Deadly Art Award. He was hoping to raise some money by selling paintings on the street, a tough gig with colourful bold paintings. We gave him some money to pose for a couple of photos.

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The larger painting is Turbo Brown Dingo Man, about his spirit animal. The smaller is about a story of hiding in the bush with his son to jump out and scare, “just to scare, not kill” Turbo explained, two white men who are running away.

The area that we were walking through is a place of shoe factories, new appartments, warehouses, art galleries and studios; this included the iconic Australian footwear of an Ugg Boot factory. The industrial machinery in the carport at the back was an interesting mystery until I noticed the shoe sizes and word “heel”.

Several shoe related warehouses and the Middle Eastern Bakery are still surviving. Other places aren’t doing so well.

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Maybe the shoe businesses are the last hold-outs of Brunswick’s industrial past. There are new empty blocks and new buildings. The entrance of The Wilkinson shows the poetic spirit of real estate developers is at its best when singing the praise of one of their own.

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We were an interesting mix of psychogeographers talking of such things as industrial graffiti, ghost-signs, graffiti, the surface archeology of architectural accretion in the urban environment. I am such a romantic that I have to take a photograph of love paste-ups.

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I wanted to do something to celebrate my 1000th blog post, something that wouldn’t matter if there was three or twenty people and that would require almost no preparation, so a walk fitted that description perfectly. I had requested gifts, drinks and I was rewarded with both including the latest issue of the Clan McGillicuddy magazine Th’Noo, from New Zealand.


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