Caminando vias de agua – 12th Havana Bienale

During the 12th Havana Bienale 2015 I walked a lost river in Havana, Cuba. The walk took me through an impoverished part of Havana that was not far from the center but somehow well concealed. I discovered colorful shanty houses, a stark contrast to the colonial architecture that characterizes most of Havana, odd sacrificial objects nailed to trees, offerings to the pantheon of Santeria gods and the old port area, yet to be revitalized by the influx of foreign investment pouring into Cuba. A characteristic of this type of work is the unpredictable discoveries made as one walks a route not available on any contemporary map. This work, Caminando vias de agua (Walking Waterways), was my contribution to a group exhibition organised by curator, Claudio Sotolongo Menendez whom I had met many years previously. Other artists involved included: Alessandro Celante (Brazil), Heather Freeman (USA), Herve Constant (France) and Mariana Branco (Brazil).

It has been my experience that much of the reclaimed land where waterways once existed is prone to flooding, and is used for public facilities such as car parks, sports grounds and parks but in some cases housing for poorer communities. As I neared the location where the waterway would have drained into the sea, I was informed that the flooding in this part of Havana can reach 2 meters.

Caminando vias de agua involves identifying waterways in urban settings that have all but disappeared from view, usually having been subsumed by the urban infrastructure, rendered invisible. Despite this erasure, traces remain: the shape of the land, the propensity for flooding and the way that the reclaimed land itself is used. These traces when paid attention too, can reveal what was once there.

The process involves the utilisation of maps from the 19th Century in order to identify the location of the waterways and then embedding this information in a contemporary map so that the waterway can be walked. A mobile phone with a camera and the ability to send an MMS is used to document the walk. This documentation is transmitted during the walk and appears in close to real time on a representation in the gallery space, through the website http://peripato.net.
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In 2003 I had visited Cuba for the first time to exhibit and present a paper at the V Salon Y Coloquio Internacional de Arte Digital. Little did I know that this was the beginning of a long engagement with Cuba, its music, culture and most importantly, its people. I participated in the subsequent VI Coloquio and maintained contact with the organisers for many years, culminating in being invited to participate in the 12th Havana Bienale.

The curatorial theme of “the Biennial intends to involve architecture, design, the communicational phenomena, science and the forms in which the habitat is constructed”[1] to which my work was a good fit. This iteration of the ongoing series of walks grouped under the project heading Peripato Telematikos[2], was one of many that had taken place in many parts of the world, including Sao Paulo, Brazil and Istanbul, Turkey.

The curatorial team wanted the Bienale to spread out into public space, and it did this successfully except for one major hiccup. Tania Bruguera, a Cuban national, artist and activist tested the limits of the curatorial premise by re-staging a participatory performance piece in a prominent public space, Plaza de la Revolución, despite not being granted permission to do so. This landed her in jail and months of house arrest. Many locals supported her, whilst others felt that she had stolen attention away from the biennale itself. Whilst under house arrest, she performed a public reading of Hannah Arendt’s ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism’.

At the time Cuba was in the midst of renewed negotiations with the US and the lifting of decades long restrictions. Bruguera’s incursion was intentionally testing the waters. Was the renewed negotiations with the US an indicator of a loosening of the strict control by which the Cuban government had reigned for decades? Not so, in that particular case. Some of my own experiences reflected this. I had been held up at customs for 4 hours because I needed to bring a wi-fi modem into the country. I had a letter from the Minister previously organized by the curator, but even this was not going to smooth my entry. I later discovered that this was because many Cubans were creating unauthorized internet access points and this was illegal in a country where the internet is very restricted and censored. I had also been warned about the photographic content of my work. There were unsettling times when soldiers would come running towards me, blowing a whistle, for photographing a building or landmark. The curator had conveyed to me warnings he had received from Bienale organisers, regarding the photographic component of my work. As he argued, thousands of tourists traipse through Havana every day taking many photographs that no one seems to worry about. But these warnings were not to be taken lightly so some anxiety prevailed.

On my way home, I received a message from a curator I had worked with in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where I had staged a waterways work in 2009 at the Museum of Image and Sound. He informed me that since about 2010, there was a large interest[3] in the hidden waterways of Sao Paulo. Apparently, this was triggered by a water crisis in Sao Paulo, but the curator wanted to acknowledge my work that preceded. I suspect it was simply coincidence but it is humbling to think that I may have had a tiny influence.

Upon returning to Melbourne, I discovered that a friend was walking the whole length of the Murray River[4]. I accompanied him for a day. The walking continues.

Greg Giannis <giannis.greg [at] gmail.com>

[1] http://www.biennialfoundation.org/2014/05/havana-biennial-2015-curatorial-concept/

[2] http://www.peripato.net

[3] https://www.facebook.com/rioseruas

[4] http://mildurapalimpsestbiennale.com/blog/

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The Great Australian Lie

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unknown, stencil, Brunswick

“Australian history does not read like history, but the most beautiful lies.” Mark Twain wrote and he knew how to stretch the truth.

There are so many lies; Australians aren’t racist but yet have managed to commit genocide and have racism in it constitution. The bullshit piles up so fast you’d be buried alive if you only listened to Australians.

Remembering that the The Commonwealth of Australia exists as nothing but words. The country that calls itself The Commonwealth of Australia is built on the lie of terra nullius; everyone knows that the Aboriginals were the true owners of the land. The only things that is definitely Australian is the word ‘Australian’; everything else is disputed territory.

“Indeed, what we think of as Australia is a species of fiction – as, in essence, is any nation. Hoaxes lie at the foundation of the European discovery and settlement of the Australian continent and familiar myths like that of the Anzacs, Bodyline and the Kelly Gang all have a substantial, if often overlooked, hoax component.” (Simon Caterson Hoax Nation (Arcade Publishing, 2009, Melbourne, p.15)

Australia does have not much history, instead it has lots of ‘legends’; sporting legends like Phar Lap, folk legends like Ned Kelly, ANZAC diggers, lots of legends. The word ‘legend’ is widely used in Aussie slang to denote a superlative. No truth implied in the use of the word ‘legend’; the story is better than the facts, better than history. Nobody expects a legend to spawn imitators, who could expect to repeat to legendary achievements? A legend quarantines the subject whereas history has effects that are felt today.

“I said at the time, if only half of what is written about Australia is true, it must be lovely there; but all these reports are lies and deception. My advice is: stay at home and provide for yourself in an honourable way.” Carl Traugott Hoehne, 1851 (The Birth of Melbourne ed. Tim Flannery, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2002, Australia)

When I first arrived in Australia I’d never encountered so many people so keen to lie to a stranger before in all my travels around the world, I had already lived in three other countries and had visited half a dozen more. I remember thinking how stupid all these Australians liars must be to think that I’ll believe this stuff. And I am not the only one Rudyard Kipling was amused the quantity of lies that he was told on his visit to Australia. (The Birth of Melbourne p.358)

Australians enjoy lying to foreigners but more numerous were the lies told by new arrivals to Australia about their own pasts. Coming to a new country is a process of re-inventing the self and the self is just a story that we tell ourselves. The great Australian lie that masks the deep Australian insecurity. The great Australian lie fosters anti-intellectualism and other aggressive responses to feelings of inadequacy.

Too often art is supporting this fiction but there are artists producing great art that attacks the Australian fiction. “Fictional beauty & beautiful lies” by Gemma Weston (Art & Australia v49 no1 2011) discusses the art of Tarryn Gill and Pilar Mata Dupont. Tarryn Gill and Pilar Mata Dupont’s video Gymnasium, that won the Basil Seller’s Art Prize in 2010, beautifully and knowingly recreates an example of the fascist lies of white Australia (see my blog post). There needs to be more art exposing, exploring and explaining the dishonesty of the Australian fiction. There is also a need for art to tell a better story.

 

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Graffiti dialogue in Brunswick

I have accepted the call from Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance for #7DaysOfResistance, Jan 20th-27th in the lead up to #InvasionDay. This post is part of the resistance.

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Confined 8, Indigenous Prison Art Exhibition

Confined 8 is a large exhibition of art by hundreds of Indigenous artists who are currently in, or recently released from a prison in Victoria. There are about two hundred paintings and other works of art are packed into the St Kilda Town Hall Gallery.

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It is impossible to sum up all this art in a few words. There is a lot of variety from traditional to contemporary art and all kinds of mixes in between by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders from across the continent. The art, often painted in prison cells on small canvases, are such careful, delicate and considered works; the quality is often very high for amateur painters basically because of the time taken on them.

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Waridub’s painted football is a great mix of tradition and contemporary life: I’ve never seen a painted football before. “Legends of the Game” depicts Michael Long and Adam Goodes. (There should be a series of these balls; what about Mal Meniga?)

Ray Traplin of Kuku Yalandji people painted an impressive and colourful scene in “Cape York Hunting Grounds”. Traplin and many of the other artists depict animals, birds, fish, lizards, insects in meticulous dots or cross-hatching work however few can combine so many images as Traplin does into one spectacular painting.

The exhibition was organised by The Torch. The Torch runs the Indigenous Arts in Prisons & Community program. It uses art as a forum for cultural exploration to provide indigenous men and women in custody and on release with a new way forward. This has been enhanced by new legislation in 2015 that allows Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners to keep any money that they make from art sales. The Torch does not take any commission on the sales and the money from art sales is held in trust by Corrections Victoria until the prisoner’s release. Having money to fund a new life on release from prison is important.

A few paintings are NFS (not for sale) meaning that they had already been given to a relative. It is sad that it might be the only time that they will get a painting is when one of their relatives is locked up.

Prison art is a much neglected part of Aboriginal art history. It is an important aspect due to the over representation of Aboriginals in Australian prisons; “The world’s worst levels of detention of Indigenous people” according to Gillian Triggs, President of the Human Rights Commission. So you can look at Confined 8 as either rehabilitation or resistance, survival in the face of genocidal policies and cultural destruction.


2016: Dada, Punk, Parties

Last Friday night I was at the Blender Xmas Show; it is a longstanding tradition, a blended mix of exhibition, party and open studios. Maybe not for much longer for there is talk about Blender closing, nobody knows anything definite. Has the whole area around the Melbourne market has been rezoned? Research is required but after the Sky Vodka mixers, basically ethanol was mixed with filtered and deionised water marketed in cobalt blue bottles that might have been fashionable in the 1990s and standing around in the warehouse for a couple of hours research is the last thing on my mind.

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What is on my mind is wrapping this blog up for the year and other anniversaries. It is a century after the summer of 1916 when Dada bloomed in Switzerland but who cares, it is history. To commemorate this centennial I wrote some posts about Dada this year; posts about the various historic forces that had aligned to bring the original Dadaists together in Zurich and the small celebrations for the centennial amongst poets in a bar in Clifton Hill.

I re-read my post about the success and failure of Dada after Joe Corre, the son of Malcolm McLaren and Vivian Westwood burnt his Sex Pistols memorabilia. Remember that Dada could not be properly understood until after punk. Ending up in the hands of rich collectors or in museums is not the problem, it is not an indication of success or failure, nor a cause of ossification. Thinking that the success and failure of a movement is dependent on the location of holy relics is as nostalgic as a collector’s desire. Corre was forgetting his father’s three word manifesto: “cash from chaos.”

I am also think what I will do next year with this blog? My first WordPress blog post, Faster Pussycat, was on February 16 in 2008, so early next year in February it will be the tenth anniversary since the start of this blog. This year was a time for big round number milestones for this blog: 1000th posts and 500,000th views. I celebrated my 1000th blog post with a psychogeographical walk. It was not a tour, it was like this blog, a psychogeographical walk, with no plan and no destination. People did give me a presents and bought me drinks, thank you.

I have written some diverse blog this year from a gallery crawl around Chelsea in NYC, to graffiti piecing in Burnside on the far west of Melbourne, to the VR experience of Sean Gladwell’s studio. But the most unusual experience was watching the forgery trial in the Supreme Court.

If you are reading this blog for the first time or for the thousandth time, thank you for reading in 2016.

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Recent Public Sculptures in Melbourne

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Alex Goad, Tethya, 2015

Alex Goad’s biomorphic Tethya on the corner of Fitzroy and Jackson streets in St. Kilda is a recent public sculpture. Since my history of Melbourne’s public sculpture was published last year there are a few new public sculptures around the city. Not that Sculptures of Melbourne was intended as an index of all the sculptures in greater Melbourne, that would be insane as I included street art sculptures.

Two ballet dancers, Les Belle Hélène by David Maughan, were installed on the lawn at the Arts Centre. And John Olsen’s Frog was installed in a pond in Queen Victoria Gardens. As if either location needed any more sculptures.

Further out of town and in a better, some might even say “site specific” location, John Kelly’s Man Lifting Cow was installed in Sunshine marking a return to his home suburb for Kelly. Brimbank Council really milked the cow with associated events: the 1000 cow project, an art prize, a John Kelly exhibition and an education program at the Brimbank Civic Centre.

Most of the recent public sculpture has been temporary sculptures or pieces put up by street artists. Local street artist, Kranky and other were reviving Presgrave Place. Ironically there were several street sculpture homes this year including several by MOW from the USA. MOW was in Melbourne sticking up a few tiny doors and windows.

The campaign this year to save Chris Booth’s Strata had a happy ending with MONA agreeing to take the sculpture and pay for it to be reassembled. Melbourne’s loss will be Hobart’s gain.

There was no campaign to save Peter Corlett’s sculptures of John Farnham, Dame Nellie Melba, Dame Edna Everage and Graham Kennedy in the Docklands. There were many reasons for this chiefly because they had very little artistic quality, few people in Melbourne want to remember that these entertainers came from Melbourne and no-one ever saw them in the Docklands.


Smith and Gertrude Street Galleries

On Thursday I was walking around the galleries around Smith and Gertrude Streets when I saw lots of men in suits out the front of the artist-run-gallery, 69 Smith Street. They were real estate agents packing up from the auction, the old building and small block of land had just sold for $2 million. The gallery was still open with their second last exhibitions; still life paintings by Martin Tighe and a exhibition of graduating regional artists from GOTAFE.

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As an artist-run-gallery 69 Smith Street survived for many years offering some of the cheapest exhibition space in Fitzroy and Collingwood. Consequently there were many exhibitions by students, amateur artists and a few others. Its final years as an organisation was notable only by an ugly year long dispute about who ran the gallery.

Sometimes I wonder what is the value of my practice of going around as many galleries as I can in a day. Sometimes I do this in different locations (Chelsea Gallery Crawl) but most often it the same familiar galleries. What am I doing exploring often the same territory? Why am I bothering with going to some rental space or small ARI?

I am observing the opening and closing of art galleries, the changes in the street, the graffiti and street art? I observe that a few galleries have closed in the area in the last couple of years. Finally I spotted a piece by Utah and Ether, graffiti’s Bonnie and Clyde, that will help with the book I’m writing about art crime.

In the past I used to write regular reports of these walks, I still do them but now I use the exercise to find a particular art work or artist that I am will write about or just for the exercise of the walk.

I have a late lunch at the Beach Burrito Company on Gertrude Street. It is the only Mexican restaurant I’ve seen with an empty in-ground swimming pool, presumably for skateboards. As I eat my tacos I look at my notes:

Backwoods had its end of year stockroom show featuring art by the usual street art suspects including Deams, Shida, Roa, Reka, Twoone, and Lush.

Collingwood Gallery, “Nepo Rab” new paintings by Eric Henshall, a whole series of acrylic paintings on canvas depicting colourful scenes in American bars. Why American bars in Collingwood?

Gertrude Contemporary, there was too much to read at the “Gertrude Studios 2016” exhibitions. Pages and pages of notes for a single art work, more pages for another one, along with a room sheet in 10pt font. What ever it is, contemporary art appears to be a form of literature.

This Is No Fantasy, Neil Haddon, “New Works” are lush paintings that fracturing, in several ways, including between sort of landscapes and silly portraits with two round eyes.

Seventh Gallery, several strong contemporary art exhibitions at this ARI, including an upstairs space (shows how long it has been since I was last at Seventh) where Elizabeth Presa “In Playland” depicts the frozen memory of playtime in plaster. Downstairs in the front gallery Freÿa Black “Umbilicus in Flux” is an impressive, expanding weaving of donated clothing, fabric and yarn that grew during the exhibition.

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Elizabeth Presa, In Playland

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Freÿa Black “Umbilicus in Flux”


Re-Vault

Four people wearing yellow chemical coveralls are slowly moving in the City Square in Melbourne. It is Re-vault a performance about Vault, Ron Robertson-Swan’s ill fated sculpture that once stood in the City Square, hence all the yellow. It is one of EPA’s performances, part of Melbourne 47 “senses of the city” paid for though Melbourne’s Arts Grant Program and Monash University.

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Two of the performers are manipulating planes of steel grids for concrete reinforcing. These modernist grids refer to the angles of the steel planes of Vault. The other two people are tied together with yellow and black barrier tape. They act as pedestrian control and a human safety barrier creating a space between the shallow pools and the Christmas kitsch that is under construction in most of the square.

Jonathan Sinatra’s performance piece comes 35 years after Vault’s removal. The Christmas construction means that the performance could not be anywhere near the original location of Vault, in the northwestern part of the square. Not that it mattered as very few people passing by would have any idea of Robertson-Swann’s sculpture that now located in the forecourt of ACCA.

Although the limited audience of passing school groups, tourists and locals had no idea of the original sculpture the performance did. Aside from the obvious yellow there were a couple of other references. Vault was intended as a grand interlocking sculpture and Re-vault’s body-sculpture also acts as an interlocking sculpture, although less grand.

I take a seat at the Caboose Canteen order a pulled pork slider and a cider and watch the performance unfold. It is a beautiful day, the first day in Melbourne over 30 degrees since March. It was the perfect seat until the performers move one bridge up. It reminds me that these band of shallow water and the very shallow water pouring down the surface of the John Mockridge Fountain are the vestigial remains of the all important ‘water feature’ found in the original architectural brief for the square. In the original city square water the smell of chlorine filled the air as water poured over an enormous multi-stepped fountain. There was so much chlorine in the air that it pitted the bronze sculpture of Burke and Wills. Fortunately water is being used more wisely now.

Re: Vault my review of Geoffrey Joseph Wallis, Peril in the square: the sculpture that challenged a city (Indra Publishing, 2004)


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