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Category Archives: Culture Notes

We Protest!

Benny Zable’s Greedozer costume, the full face gas-mask with the red radioactive sign on the end of the filter canister, was a regular feature at many demonstrations in the 1980s. He was a living sculpture with a message.

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Zable’s gas-mask along with other the ephemera of mass protest demonstrations has been curated at the City Gallery in the Melbourne Town Hall in an exhibition curated by Malcolm McKinnon. The small exhibition traces the history of protests in Melbourne from 1962 Women’s Day marches through to recent anti-fascist protests. There is a “wreck the draft poster” from the Students for a Democratic Society printed on National Service Registration forms. And an improvised cardboard sign from the taxi driver protests that block Flinders Street in 2008.

John Ellis, Challenging Captain Cook, 1976

There is no denying the cultural importance of these events and images; protests are part of the spectacle of a democratic society. A photograph of a young Aboriginal protester from the 1976 in front of the Captain Cook Cottage still resonates with the current statue wars. Along with photographs and posters, there are protest signs in the exhibition but no banners; there wasn’t enough space in the small gallery and, maybe all the good old trade union banners are at the Potter Museum of Art’s exhibition State of the Union (I don’t know I haven’t seen it yet). The photographs of banners makes me wonder if protest marches are reconfigured religious processions, mass displays of passionate faith.

The exhibition attempts to give a balance between the government/police and other views. But can there ever be a balanced when the police using batons against peaceful protestors or driving over them with a police car at the S11 protests? The pretence that there is a tolerance of protests is one of the foundations of the illusion of a liberal democracy.

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Peak Books, Free Libraries and Art

We live at a time of peak stuff and consequently it is also the time of peak books. What once was rare and valued is now a glut. Collecting printed matter used to be a virtue and now it is the vice of a hoarder. Perhaps, we can only understand everything about books is when there is an excess of books.

Nicolas Jones, Holman Hunt book

My own book shelves are overflowing, packed two deep with books. More books are stacked in various strategic positions. Are they simply trophies of previous reads? How many of them will I ever read again or repeatedly consult?

Now, e-books might be an alternative to having physical books. I have read only one e-book, Medieval Graffiti, but I no longer have a dictionary or thesaurus or an encyclopaedia takin up space on my shelves. I no longer keep newspaper clipping or photocopy of articles as they are available online or in PDF files.

Peak books is a disturbing concept to bibliophiles and bookshop workers especially second-hand bookshops because peak books means more free libraries. I have been taking some of my excess books to the free libraries. There are free libraries at Coburg and Moreland stations, more around the streets and even one at Barkley Square shopping centre. I first noticed a free library in my neighbourhood in 2014 but the recent growth in them is a sure indicator of peak books.

Peak books means that there will be art made from the excess books, as art is made from excesses in a society. Art from books has been happening since before I started this blog and is on the increase. There are Melbourne based artists who used books as their primary media, for example Nicolas Jones. In Collected Odysseys, 2018, by Malcolm Angelucci, Chris Caines and Majella Thomas, a two metre cairn of books blackened with ink in the middle of the Counihan Gallery in Brunswick.


Vampire killing at the Police Museum

Sometimes a small focused museum can be a wonderful thing, at other times, not. The Melbourne’s Police Museum is a small museum on the mezzanine level of the World Trade Centre on Flinders Street. You probably didn’t know that Melbourne had a police museum and this is possibly intentional as the museum, and the gift shop, are really for members of the force only, except that it open to everyone with a gold coin donation.

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Caricature of Sir Thomas Blamey by Leonard Frank Reynolds 1926

Aside from one suit of armour from the Kelly gang, the managed carcass of the car from the Russell Street bombings is the centrepiece of the museum. When I visited there was a temporary exhibition about members of the force who died in World War One which tells more about Australian nationalism than policing. These memorials to dead members of the force gets in the way of any other narratives that the museum could present. There is no display showing the development of handcuffs, uniforms or police radios. Technology, such as bomb disposal is presented in isolation rather than as part of a progression. This is because conservative history and museums are about memorialising the past rather than examining or explaining developments.

The Police Museum acknowledges that its former Chief Commissioner Blamey was a fascist in displaying a caricature of him. However, there is no examination on how that effected the Victoria Police (whose motto of ‘uphold the right’ has to be viewed differently in light of this association).

The purpose of the museum can be summed up by the strangest of all the museum’s exhibits is a vampire killing kit. Vampire killing kits are a thing and this isn’t a great version. They are about as real as religious relics, almost as common and like many religious relics vampire killing kits are confections concocted out of antiques. The kit contributes nothing to anyone’s knowledge of the police. The simple reason that it is on display in the Police Museum is that it is a curiosity that the police posses after confiscating it from a criminal.

The museum is hardly worth visiting but I did as part of my research into Melbourne’s art and crime. I was disappointed because I learnt almost nothing from the my visit, however, in examining my disappointment I have learnt the difference between a conservative and a progressive museum. Conservative museums are about memorials rather than explanation, events rather than developments, and satisfying curiosity rather than gaining knowledge. And the police museum is a very conservative museum.


Synthesizers at Grainger Museum

I am a synthesizer nerd, I once was in Clan Analogue and recently I had to go into a music shop just to look at an ARP synth. Synthesizers inspired synesthesia generated new images in my head. So I had to see and hear “Synthesizers: Sound of the Future” at the Grainger Museum.

I went to the exhibition opening where David Chesworth, ex-Essendon Airport (the band), made a speech. In it he described the institutional and scientific machismo associated with the limited access to the early synthesizers.

Although Chesworth describes synths as “freedom machines” and associates this with Percy Grainger’s “free music”. The location for the exhibition and Grainger are additional point in the strange connection between the right wing and synthesizers. From the Italian Futurist Luigi Russolo’s Art of Noise to Gary Numan’s support for Margaret Thatcher this strange connection persisted until access to synths changed and synths for the consumer market became widely available.

After the speeches there was a performance by Lauren Squire and Matthew Wilson of OK EG using one of the old synths from the collection of the Melbourne Electronic Sound Studio. The exhibition has a public program of events; for more go to https://grainger.unimelb.edu.au/whats-on

The exhibition has some of the first analogue synthesizers that were used in Melbourne’s electronic scene in the late 60s, including the EMS VCS-3, a classic black box instrument, that was used by Pink Floyd, Brian Eno and Jean-Michel Jarre, and an EMS Spectre video synthesizer, which will explain all the graphics that you would see in an early 80s music clip. All of the synths on exhibition are working and can be used, to a limited extent, by visitors to the gallery.

There are more interactive exhibits at the Grainger Museum including some experimental electronic instruments of Grainger’s designs. You can even play on a Moog Theremin signed by Bob Moog. The Grainger Museum remains one of Melbourne’s most curious and thought provoking places. The examples of magnetic tape loops, that were used in the Grainger Electronic Music Studio in the 1960s, hanging in the display case look like some of the masochistic Grainger’s leather whips that are also on display a few vitrines further on. 


Competitive psychogeography, preliminary rules

Introducing a new competitive form of walking combining a scavenger hunt with aspects of psychogeography. Walks would be scored not on speed but on what the what the walker, sees, photographs and collects on the walk. Judges, or social media, used to award bonus points. These rules still need to be tested, fine tuned and agreed to by a federation of competitive psychogeographers.

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Points are awarded for:

Spotting cats, first person to see and say: ‘cat’ wins one point. Photographing and reviewing random cats on Twitter for bonus points. Twitchy bird watchers may not approve but the birds are also trying to spot cats.

Playing cards, collecting found playing cards on walks with the objective is to make a full deck. The highest poker hand collected on the walk wins extra points.

Pavement stars are the junction of five or more divisions in the pavement. Avoid stepping on cracks in the pavement, although there is no penalty point for this.

Paper planes; the beat artist Harry Smith picked up every paper airplane he saw on the streets of Manhattan from 1961 to 1983 and his collection of paper planes is now with the Getty Research Institute.

Bonus points are awarded for:

Classic psychogeographical exercises in imagining new or clandestine uses for buildings. Consider what a building or area could be used for in a movie, here are some examples.

Paintspotting graffiti, street art and ghost-signs; again bonus points awarded for online posting.

Gleaming and foraging for edible weeds, fruit hanging over fences, hard rubbish collecting, dumpster diving and other locally sourced resources. This could be scored by weight, per kilo.

Saying ‘Snap’ when you spot someone with a matching item of clothing etc. to what you or your companions are currently wearing or carrying. I’m not sure how to score this but it should be higher than the single point awarded for simply spotting cats.

These rules are still in development and further suggestions for rules or point scoring are welcomed.


Planning a city

“Between the Street and the Sky” describes itself as a “provocation for Melbourne” rather than an exhibition about urban planning. It is at the City Gallery in Melbourne Town Hall. The elegant little display is certainly provocative in putting the gigantic growth of central Melbourne into perspective. More people are living in tall buildings with an ever smaller footprint. However, increases in population have not been met with an equivalent investment by either the city council or businesses.

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“Between the street and the sky”, model by Christopher White/Bates Smart

Planning is currently a hot topic in Melbourne, maybe in the rest of Australia too. This is because the quality of planning in Australia is catastrophic. Consider another example not covered in the “Between the Street and the Sky” exhibition. A major tourist attraction damaged for the benefit of a short term commercial interest. It could be  the impact of the Culture Kings shop on Hosier Lane, it could be the Apple store in Federation Square or Adani coal mine in Queensland potential to destroy the Great Barrier Reef. Take your pick they are all examples of Australia’s lack of planning. It is not just tourism that is threatened but the environment, to culture, to being able to live a good life.

Rather than focusing on one issue I want to know why Australians repeatedly makes these kind of decisions. I will not be blaming one political party for it because that is simply false and the people who do that are part of the problem, as they are trying to get a short term political advantage while damaging Australia in the long term through entrenched partisanship. I am happy acknowledge that this kind of decision making is not unique to Australia if the Australian demanding this will acknowledge that Australia is amongst the best in the world at doing irreparable damage to its own long term interests.

It is a problem of poor planning, avoiding planning and not planning. It is as if many people living in Australia never intended for Australia to be a permanent residence. Even if they never did, most of Australia’s population arrived planning to exploit the natural resources, become rich and return to their home country. This is especially true of the British colonial immigrants who became Australia’s ruling class. Australians often don’t want any other people in the area because this would additional people who will just reduce the amount that they can exploit. This paranoid and greedy reaction to the limited resources drives both Australia’s abuse of refugees and a local defence of the status quo in suburban infrastructure and planning.

Instead of avoiding the difficult issues Australia needs plans.


Art or arts?

‘Art’, as in ‘contemporary art’ or ‘modern art’, is different from ‘the visual arts.’ This subtle distinction confuses many people including some professional artists and has been the cause of many and repeated disputes. If it weren’t for this confusion and disputes arising from it the distinction would hardly worth mentioning.

‘Art’ is a singular noun that describes a collective idea. What exactly art is never become specific, it is an opened set, like games. It does not have the definite article ‘the’ nor the indefinite article ‘an’ because ‘the arts’ and ‘an art’ are entirely different to ‘art’. ‘The arts’ is the vaguest of the variants as it can mean everything from the humanities, logic, rhetoric to juggling and dance. ‘An art’ is at least referring to some specific skill. Whereas ‘the visual arts’ or ‘the fine arts’ are plural nouns with a definite article that means architecture, painting, drawing and sculpture.

The differences between the Dulwich Picture Gallery and the Musée du Louvre explains distinction between the fine arts and art. Both are the result of a royal collection, in the case of Dulwich the King of Poland-Lithuania, a country that ceased to be before the collection of fine arts could be delivered to its king. Opened to the public in 1817, it was opened to students of the Royal Academy two years earlier. Dulwich collection contained works of fine arts for students to study whereas the Louvre contained works of art.

The Louvre had opened twenty years earlier, in 1793, but had already made a revolutionary decision that would make a major difference The revolutionary difference is that the Louvre, along with a royal collection, included confiscated church property as a way of conserving them. The church altarpieces in the Louvre, decontextualised with their religious function removed, became art when displayed to be looked at as if they were paintings or sculptures.

‘Art’ emerged from the discourse about looking at things, like altarpieces in the Louvre, as if they were something like a painting or sculpture. To look at something as if it were a work visual art is the metaphoric relationship that the philosopher, Arthur Danto argues for in his institutional theory of art. It is this idea of art rather than a conspiratorial or consensus driven act of an actual institution that determines what art is.

For about a century the distinction between ‘the visual arts’ and ‘art’ was invisible, an imperceptible semantic distinction. The trajectory that started with confiscated church property continued with the items from other cultures similarly removed from their context. This was quickly followed with products of new technology, like photography and readymade found objects. It was Marcel Duchamp’s readymades that defined and illustrated the already widening schism between art and the visual arts.

Art may involve shopping, confiscating and appropriating images whereas the visual arts don’t highlight these activities. An artist may be making art or painting, sculpting and drawing or doing both.


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