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A new site by Melbourne digital designer Lee Wong (The Mighty Wonton) and myself for RealTime: Australia’s critical guide to national and international contemporary arts. As a place to visit it’s easy to move through and explore, with lots of functionality and a massive archive.

Artforms:
Theatre
Contemporary Performance & Live Art
Dance
Film
Media Arts
Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art
Visual Art
Sound Art
Contemporary Classical & Experimental Music
Festivals
Art Politics
Editorials

Features:
RealTime Audio
RealTime Video
RealTime Traveller
RealTime Dance
Media Art Archive
Deep Archive

Among the compliments, this one from the Australian Dance Theatre: ‘Love the new site — very cool in a kind of organised distortion.’

 

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For words lost

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I have heard it in Australian newsreels from the 1930s and 40s; in the recorded voices of twentieth century Australian politicians; in oral histories from the local library; and in Australian movies, particularly feature films from the 1970s: Walkabout, Sunday Too Far Away, Wake in Fright. Especially Wake in Fright, a film directed by a Canadian that captures this uncertain, often unsettling relationship that many white, mainly Anglo Australians have had with the landscape.

It’s not just the visual depiction of the landscape — the look — that I find fascinating, it’s also its depiction through sound. Specifically, the sound of voices.

In Wake in Fright the visual depiction is particularly intense; unforgettable. The opening sequence is a slow 360 degree pan over an almost treeless desert. Shot high from a cherry picker, it begins on a single building (the pub), set in a vast, red-ochre plain under a pale blue sky. A dead straight rail line disappears into the pale blue. Running parallel, an above ground water pipeline, a row of electricity poles, and two roads, all converging at the same point on a flat horizon. Just visible, two ghostly spiralling willy-willies. The pan ends after 60 or so seconds above the rail line — on the left, a tiny schoolhouse, on the right, the pub. The look is hot, dusty, empty, and somehow oppressive. ‘I always loved this shot,’ says director Ted Kotcheff in an audio commentary version of the film, ‘You saw the endless space that doesn’t liberate you but it’s claustrophobic and traps you.’

This is one of the most affecting depictions of the outback landscape I have seen in an Australian film (and there have been many affecting depictions of the outback in Australian films) but it is the recorded sound throughout the film that affects me too, that I find equally as moving, that represents a distinct time in the history of white settlement / occupation / cultural development (however you prefer to label it) when the film, and the other twentieth century recordings mentioned, were made. Regardless of where any of the recordings were made — Sydney, Broken Hill, Pimba, Canberra, Milparinka — something of this relationship with the landscape seems to permeate the voices.

In these recordings — in the voices and the recorded air that surrounds them — there is an odd sense of flatness and aridity, as if each voice, an entity in itself and disassociated from its speaker, is surrounded by the continent’s vast emptiness. The fragile words, having left the lips of the speaker, dissipate into the thinnest air, captured only in part as a type of residual artefact by the limiting technologies of the day. The sound is the sound of isolation. The feeling is one of desolation. The effect is atmospheric.

This is how I read it. I have no doubt that these undertones of isolation and desolation —apart from those peculiarities somehow being transmitted by default, in the earliest twentieth century recordings, through the distant-and-removed sound quality of low-fi equipment — exist only as a sort of poetic interpretation in my mind. However, although I have only sensed that a particular perception of landscape has affected the way someone sounds the effect as an atmospheric artefact is real. It results from an exchange between two realms: place and imagination.

In Kotcheff’s words, ‘[Wake in Fright] is a study in the corrosive loneliness of all the characters.’ This corrosive loneliness holds a strange attraction, along with its uneasiness and its uncanny connection to place. A fuller (or emptier) spatial sense of place comes across through things besides the purely visual or narrative: the quality of melancholy in the warped and morphing English of the accents (echoes of older conversations in other places), the atmosphere of lostness and not quite knowing how to deal (except through male aggression, anti-intellectual bluster and a peculiar brusqueness of manner) with the emptiness, the sense of peripherality, of being removed from history even, forgotten, banished, or not having a clear future, and the palpable emptiness of the air.

But the air was not empty. It was a woven thing, interlaced with mysteries, chants, songs, histories — all of them reassurances of continuity and the presence of the eternal.

A complete universe of vivid spatial experience ran parallel to this idea of the empty land, alongside its still lingering taint of terra nullius, the tacit knowing perhaps that there were genocidal crimes yet to be faced, and the not-quite-over thought of being abandoned on the underside of the planet. This is not to say that this mid twentieth century reading of landscape — an exquisite sense of melancholy, a sense of dread, this uncanny notion of a vast emptiness and the perennial attraction it has, the myths and non-myths in the idea of an inhospitable land, the shifting Australian accents and shifts in language and narrative style, the comparative historical density of the concept of Europe and other far-off places, the yearning — has not been or is not valuable. The artistic expression it has generated has been moving and profoundly beautiful.

Running next to all of this, however, there is an equally beautiful, eternal reading of landscape — a cosmology to be seduced by for its poetic connections to place and its collective wisdom; also as a powerful atmospheric reading that is being lost with Australia’s Indigenous languages and as the world’s culturally grounded atmospheres become displaced by the placelessness of globalism.

Finnish architect, Juhani Pallasmaa, has written much about the importance of atmosphere as a multi-sensory experience of spaces:
‘Atmosphere is the overarching perceptual, sensory, and emotive impression of a space, setting or social situation. It provides a unifying coherence and character for a room, space, place, and landscape, or a social encounter. It is the ‘common denominator’, the ‘colouring’ or ‘the feel’ of the experiential situation. Atmosphere is a mental ‘thing’, an experiential property or characteristic that is suspended between the object and the subject.’
‘Our innate capacity to grasp comprehensive atmospheres and moods is akin to our capacity to project imaginatively the emotively suggestive settings of an entire novel as we read it. We live simultaneously in material and mental worlds that are constantly fused.’*

Something happens between a person and a landscape: when a person enters a place, the place enters that person, or as Pallasmaa states, it is a mental, experiential property that is suspended between them. Both types of exchange or fusion with landscape that I have touched upon are attractive to me — one an exchange with a vast, unknown emptiness and the other an exchange woven through with thousands of stories.

No such fusion, exchange or suspended characteristic happens within the placelessness of the global market. Instead of the oddness of a voice set in the vastness of an empty land: sound bites and tweets; instead of a mythological ancestor from the Dreaming or a character shaped by loneliness and isolation: vacuous celebrities and character assassination; instead of air woven with mysteries, chants and songs: fake news; instead of becoming enfolded and embraced (or even rejected) by landscape: habitat detachment.

In 1971 a Canadian film director made a disturbing film about lonely self-destructive males in a ‘desolate’ landscape. It’s also an atmospheric historical reference point: a poetic reading of a place called the outback that rang true then and probably still does a little (if not a lot) in 2017.


Notes:

‘For Words Lost’.
Initially I wanted to say something more specifically about just that. About lost Indigenous Australian languages and the understandings that disappear with them, about accents being echoes of lost conversations, and about the way languages as palimpsests reveal traces of lost ways of viewing the world. Also a disappearing sense of melancholy (I think) in the morphed English of various Australian accents.

Wake in Fright, 1971
Director, Ted Kotcheff
Digitally restored print,
National Film & Sound Archive, Australia

Wake in Fright audio commentary
with Ted Kotcheff, Director
and Anthony Buckley, Editor
National Film & Sound Archive, Australia

‘The outback and the Canadian north are identical. Same kind of vast landscapes where it’s not freedom you’re trapped in, it’s empty space. And the same kind of people are attracted to going to these empty spaces and being imprisoned by them.’
Ted Kotcheff, interview
National Film & Sound Archive, Australia

‘One could say that the Dreaming is a spiritual realm which saturates the visible world with meaning; that is the matrix of being; that it was the time of creation; that it is a parallel universe which may be contacted via the ritual performance of song, dance and painting; that it is a network of stories of mythological heroes…’
Robyn Davidson
No Fixed Address (29, 30)

Indigenous languages, Australia.
Spoken at time of European arrival, 1788: 250
No longer spoken, 2017: 100
Currently spoken, 2017, but majority endangered: 150
Numbers are approximate.
Source: Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies

*
Architectural Atmospheres
(20, 27)
Christian Borch (Ed.)
2014 Birkhäuser Verlag
Space, Place, and Atmosphere: Peripheral Perception in Existential Experience
(essay)
Juhani Pallasmaa

Willy-willy
Aust. whirlwind

Drawing

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There are many ways to reflect on the act of drawing: the pleasure it can give, for example, or the shifts in thinking it may bring about. One of the most pleasing things about drawing is its ability to de-interpret. This runs contrary to the idea that a drawing is an interpretation of the subject by the maker, and it is not easy (impossible really, unless you have a medical condition) to forget what a fruit basket means, or a pair of scissors: all that fruit basket and scissor history; all those fruit basket and scissor incidents over a lifetime. But the act of drawing goes some way towards this satisfying way of undoing. What would a pair of scissors be if we could forget what they do, how they are made, what its name implies? Drawing gives you a sense of this other life of objects — an affinity with the object detached (never fully) from its accretions of meaning.


Notes:
A more elegant reflection on drawing by John Berger —

‘A line, an area of tone, is important not really because it records what you have seen, but because it will lead you to see. Following up its logic in order to check its accuracy, you find confirmation or denial in the object itself or in your memory of it. Each confirmation or denial brings you closer to the object, until you are, as it were, inside it: the contours you have drawn no longer marking the edge of what you have seen, but the edge of what you have become.’

John Berger
Permanent Red: Essays in Seeing (1960)
Republished in Landscapes: John Berger on Art (2016)

Drawings: GS.

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Gates

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SPP_Gate_5931A couple of (quite a lot of) gates I pass or sometimes go through every day. I like pretty much everything about them: their simplicity, elegance, function, post-fixings, colour, history, reliability, resilience, individuality, the need to find a rock or a stick or a bump in the ground to hold them open when you’re driving solo, not having to find a rock when you have a passenger, the way they punctuate fence lines.

The Other Life of Objects

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I have just finished reading The White Album — a book of mainly 70s essays by the US writer Joan Didion — and I’m feeling inadequate, or more to the point, pointless. Didion seems to get to her own point by the sparest means, and with language that is, as The New York Times Book Review says, “subtly musical in its phrasing and exact”.

In one essay, At the Dam, she recounts a second visit to the Hoover Dam where her guide from the Bureau of Reclamation invites her to touch one of the turbines.

We watched a hundred-ton steel shaft plunging down to that place where the water was. And finally we got down to that place where the water was, where the water sucked out of Lake Mead roared through thirty-foot penstocks and then into thirteen-foot penstocks and finally into the turbines themselves. “Touch it,” the Reclamation said, and I did, and for a long time I just stood there with my hands on the turbine. It was a peculiar moment, but so explicit as to suggest nothing beyond itself.*

Didion became fixated on the idea of the dam after her first visit in 1967, seeing images of its concrete face and transmission towers, spillways and tailraces through her inner eye in the most unlikely places, and wondering why the place was so affecting. Affecting, beyond the usual emotions that these vast monuments to achievement and lost lives have provoked; that have led to stock phrases (they made the desert bloom) or heroic artworks (bronzes of muscular citizens clutching sheaves of wheat). On the second visit the Reclamation man explains a marble star map, then afterwards, out in the desert towards sunset, Didion begins to understand the cause of her fixation.

I walked across the marble star map that traces a sidereal revolution of the equinox and fixes forever, the Reclamation man told me, for all time and for all people who can read the stars, the date the dam was dedicated. The star map was, he had said, for when we were all gone and the dam was left. I had not thought much of it when he had said it, but I thought of it then, with the wind whining and the sun dropping behind a mesa with the finality of a sunset in space. Of course that was the image I had seen always, seen it without quite realising what I saw, a dynamo finally free of man, splendid at last in its absolute isolation, transmitting power and releasing water to a world where no one is.

It is possible but not always easy to sense this other life of objects; a condition of things that is beyond metaphor and message, and in peculiar moments — perhaps as a type of disengagement with their accretions of meaning — sense them as things at least partly free of human points of reference and symbolism. Can objects be disinterpreted? I think never. Only by the annihilation of the thinkers. The object needs our absence to bring its other life to fullness.

Didion’s massive, roaring dynamo, still transmitting power and releasing water to a world empty of humans is a thought, in its vastness and finality, sublime. In the absence of people this thing will become nameless, unthought of, unthinkable, and finally being (no longer suggesting) nothing beyond itself.

 

Notes

Joan Didion *
The White Album
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009
Essay: The Dam, 1970

The Other Life of Objects is taken from Undefinable Places In-between — a series of short essays I have written and continue to write under that title.

No Runtime

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What we think of as the present, is no more than that: a thought, an idea; or a formless, timeless, undefinable, unfixed, unfilled state of in-betweenness. A point of transition. A flick-switch between past and future.

It may seem like a small movie—each spectral frame a memory from the immediate past or an imagining for the immediate future, providing an illusion of sequential time passing, but the present has no start, no finish, no runtime. The runtime version of the present is an imaginary construction; a narrative, because memory is a narrative — a visit to the past through imagination — not a recording, not a movie.

The present contains no story. Nothing happens in the present because there is no ‘in’. The present can only be inadequately placed through stories that will never fit: the present is me pouring a cup of tea: the present is a glimpse of a red letterbox as I turn a corner in the street. All of these perceptions of the present are really constructions through which the instant of the present has been extended by adding a past and future to either side of the point of transition.

As elusive as the present may be, there are instances when this point of unfilled in-betweenness may be experienced in itself — or for itself. Suddenly you’re not looking at the movie. You’re inside the experience and outside time. The present is still a point of transition —no longer, however, between past and future, but between a viewer and an image, a listener and a piece of music, a stroller and a landscape, a reader and a text.

A haiku can do this: pluck the reader from the flow of time and dissolve this narrative view of the present. This is a point of stillness where past and future fall away, narrative time disappears, the reader and the words vanish, and there is only the present — an in-between place of absolute nowness.

 

Notes

Picture: If We Never Meet Again,
Two channel video, Noam Toran, (2010).

No Runtime is taken from Undefinable Places In-between — a series of short essays I have written and continue to write under that title.

Right to Shop

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There are many explanations for why we shop. That is, shopping for reasons beyond satisfying fundamental requirements like the need stay out of the rain or postpone death by eating.

In the better funded phases of my life I often took comfort from this one: I shop because it’s something I can get right.

Over one lifetime we take on all manner of tasks. We try to be more attractive to certain people, we go through agonies of self doubt, begin countless dead-end ventures, fret about our careers, become anxious about what we think we can and can’t achieve—and we often fail.

But shopping is easy. All it takes is desire and money. So long as we have the wish and the wherewithal we can achieve success—guaranteed—in minutes or seconds. No brick walls. No self doubt or agonising over consequences or worrying whether or not we have the talent or genetic raw material for it.

It is difficult to fail when shopping.

 

Notes



“It’s a hard place to run in to for a pair of stockings,” a friend complained to me recently of Ala Moana, and I knew that she was not yet ready to surrender her ego to the idea of the center. The last time I went to Ala Moana it was to buy The New York Times. Because The New York Times was not in, I sat on the mall for a while and ate caramel corn. In the end I bought not The New York Times at all but two straw hats at Liberty House, four bottles of nail enamel at Woolworth’s, and a toaster, on sale at Sears. In the literature of shopping centers these would be described as impulse purchases, but the impulse here was obscure. I do not wear hats, nor do I like caramel corn. I do not use nail enamel. Yet flying back across the Pacific I regretted only the toaster.

Joan Didion,
On the Mall, 1975. 


Picture: Westfield, Sydney.
Photo: GS

Right to Shop is taken from Undefinable Places In-between — a series of short essays I have written and continue to write under that title.

All is Rosy

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Commercial messages work on us on various levels.

Regarding one level, we have grown up with advertising and we understand that rosy claims are crafted by people who get paid for it—whether they believe it or not. The rosy claim is a given. People understand the idea of shades of truth and truths (or lies) in context.

On another level, on some mysterious other-plane of consciousness, the rosy claim is assimilated and believed. There is a belief that the purchase will magically change our lives.

Of course the magic can be explained away as messages that appeal to deep needs and fears—the need to be loved or found attractive, the need to at least appear to be successful, the need to fulfil powerful obligations, the need to be part of something greater—but there is also an element operating here that is more aligned to a type of enchantment than psychological drives.

One presumes that if enchantment is happening then some type of entity is doing the enchanting — casting the spell. But it is not just the advertiser, or an ad agency creative team or a marketing strategist or a brand influencing blogger who creates the allure through well crafted messages and imagery, but also the products themselves. Even if the spin were somehow subtracted from the equation, the shiny car, the artfully prepared restaurant meal, the jacket, the jeans, the table, the chair, the kitchen blender, radiate some type of primal, fetishistic “come hither” that goes beyond being an aid to self image.

The enchantment can also be explained away as effective product design: the curves and colours, textures, weight, whatever—that makes a thing with a price tag sexy or must-have. The entity creating the enchantment could be, say, an industrial designer, or a product designer or a fashion designer. But this still doesn’t completely account for the allure. This type of product design is also part of the marketing message; the spin.

Something even beyond all of this is operating here.

With the same innocence and sense of wonder as a small kid holding up a string of plastic rubies to the sky and being charmed by the way the pink and crimson light is refracted so beautifully through its facets, we look at the car or the chair or the blender and we “get it”; that what we now have is a talisman with the transformative power to renew life—not by driving it or sitting on it or blending with it or looking at it or showing it to the world but merely by having it in our presence.

Back home from a day’s spending at the shopping precinct, you take the new jacket; drape it over the sofa. Place the new shoes nearby, still in the unlidded box with its crisp tissue paper. Next to the box, an exquisitely designed perfume bottle. Stand back and admire the arrangement. The coat. The shoes. The perfume. It looks like a magazine shoot. Sure. What you see is going to make you look more attractive and successful; and they are, in themselves, beautiful objects; but something else is happening. All three items are beaming their magic into some unfathomable place in your soul.

How else could we juggle the two states of mind simultaneously? Not believing and believing at the same time.

 

Notes



Picture: Watch advertisement. 

Photo: GS.

All is Rosy is taken from Undefinable Places In-between — a series of short essays I have written and continue to write under that title.

Stillness

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While light space is eliminated by the materiality of objects, darkness is ‘filled’, it touches the individual directly, envelopes him, penetrates him, and even passes through him: hence ‘the ego is permeable for darkness while it is not so for light’; the feeling of mystery that one experiences at night would not come from anything else.
Jacky Bowring, A Field Guide to Melancholy

The river in winter is a poetic transmitter. Particularly at nightfall — as a liminal place of melancholic beauty and stillness as much as a time of transition. Bowring talks about sites of spirited sadness that have the ability to slow things down, defamiliarise, allow for percolation, and facilitate ‘solitude and solice for imagination.’

Photography, GS, Snowy River at Dalgety, New South Wales

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Bridge

SPP_Winter_2_5389The elegant lines of Dalgety Bridge, Snowy River, New South Wales.

Photograph, GS

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