Left-of-Red-Centre

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I’ve been at the centre. Not any old centre, but THE centre. Now you may ask – as our esteemed leader, shouldn’t you always be at the centre? Of course, and with my history of pinkish-red politics, I’m usually a little left-of-centre, but recently, I’ve been in the centre of the New Academic Street.

That’s me in the picture above. For those with colour tellies, you’ll see I’m in a rather fetching hi-viz tabard and hard hat. My steel-toe-capped boots were about two sizes too large, which left me shuffling around the immense building site like an extra in that zombie film shot in Brunswick. What a treat though: a 90 minute guided tour by the inestimable architect Carey Lyons and his team, who pointed out all the impressive innovations, the vast and cavernous voids that would soon be a-filled with studious students, the new roof gardens that will reach out to ‘greenify’ Bowen Street, and all the mod-cons of the media precinct. To my unfettered joy, dramatic and chasmic diagonal slices have been made through the existing building, cut by a gigantic blade at 27 degrees through floor upon floor. Light will pour into the gunnels of the building, illuminating the grey cliffs off Swanston Street, bringing new life to the basements and backwaters. Goodness me, it was like something from the Old Testament.

Talking of bringing new life to the gunnels, I’ve also been in another centre, the Red Centre. I took a few days leave to steer a chunky 4WD land rover across the MacDonnell Ranges west of Alice Springs and down to Uluru-Kata Tjuta. Camping under the stars, cooking over an open fire, and listening to the distant dingoes by night (at least I bloody hope they were distant) made for a remarkable adventure – by my British standards anyway.

How could you not fall for this deeply spiritual and colour saturated landscape? Rocks rusty red by day, crimson in the evening; sacred boulders the pale buff colour of sandpaper; ironbark, dogwood, witchetty grubs a calcified and sombre grey and black. Outwardly it appears a stilled, static, even dead landscape, but it’s not. Everything moves – from the infinite columns of ants at your feet to the shifting shadows ‘as sharp as knife blades’. It is a terrain, says Elspeth Huxley, ‘of no compromise’.

It was hard to come back to chilly Melbourne but return I did, and glad I was. For we are in the season of student shows, runways, graduate exhibitions, prize-giving and partying. More of that in my next blog, meanwhile I revel in being at the heart of so much student-centred creative energy.

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Breaking Banksy!

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I’ve been overseas of late – at graduation ceremonies, drinking green tea, caught up in great grinning crowds of gowned graduands – but mostly, these last few weeks, I’ve been shouted at.

It all started at the close of the ceremonies in Hong Kong, during the official photographs. I stood – begowned, bewigged and bewildered – while a very energetic lady with a microphone repeatedly tried to make all 300 staff and students smile at the same time. ‘One Two Three. Cheese!’  I didn’t catch what she muttered to herself in Cantonese, but judging by the way she winced, it could be assumed we lacked in the synchronisation department. We tried a few more times, to no avail, forcing her to choose another tack: ‘OK, OK. One Two Three. Money!’  This brought out the Gordon Gecko in the graduates and at last we managed one gurning grin that appeased the throngs of flashing photographers filling my frame (I couldn’t resist taking a snap of them).

Yesterday, still jet-lagged from flying back to Melbourne, I found myself being shouted at by the stall-holders of the splendid Victoria Market. I guess they were once a form of ‘Fairground Barkers’, hollering out their earnest and honest trade, but in today’s uproarious retail world, their beckoning has taken on quite another dimension and intensity. Of late the hollering readily fuses random numbers, nouns, and exclamation marks and tosses them at unsuspecting customers, who only came for a punnet of strawberries and a peck of black pepper! Invariably it reaches fever pitch around 3pm as the day’s trade trails away, the new cry of ‘Dollar Dollar Dollar’  rising up, which merits from concision even if it lacks aural variety.

And lastly I was shouted at for nearly touching an artwork. Or should I say the artwork shouted back at me. It was one of those gratuitously gruesome kinetic pieces attached to a sound loop that chooses to interact with the unsuspecting viewer even though you’ve decided that you’d really prefer the art that stay politely in its frame. It’s one thing for a portrait’s eyes to follow you around the room, quite another for its vocal chords to bark at you when least you wish it.

By comparison, The Art of Banksy exhibition in the tent behind Fed Square was positively mute. Like all things linked to Banksy, it was hidden in some obscure corner backed up by railway sidings and under the arches of a concrete bridge… all just to remind us of the urbanity of the art, although the presentation was so slick it was a tad more urbane than urban. Mr B. is not the world’s greatest unknown-known painter for nothing and the acerbic one-liners resonate with each and every one of us. I especially liked the vast painting of Winston Churchill sporting a green Mohican, though I was less impressed by the fridge magnets, printed mugs and other gratuitous gifts on sale in the shop, which took the idea of irony a step too far… right into the cash drawer. But at least no one – apart from a polemical poster – was shouting at me.

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Still Talking: Still Listening!

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Many thanks to many, many of you for your insightful and enthusiastic engagement during the last 7 weeks of Shape DSC.  As always your passion and enthusiasm has shone through. I have been consistently impressed with the thoughtfulness of the input and the deep sense of purpose across the College.

So far, we have had:

–       over 19,000 words of response against the 4 headings in Shape DSC

–       131 responses in writing, with over 200 ‘Likes’

–       23 separate email contributions, directly to me

–       5 Round Tables with 68 participants

–       47 attendees and contributors at the College Office Forum

–       discussions at School level and through other committees

  •       51 participants in the extended leadership forum and workshop at the State Library

I’m working with my colleagues to put together a report and a set of follow-up actions, which will be ready by the end of the month.

Thank you so much for enriching the conversation.

Strolling Through the Studios

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In addition to the delights and demands of the day job, I’ve been getting out and about. One highlight of the last fortnight was meeting Vincent Fantauzzo in his studio. Vincent occupies an entire floor of an office block in South Melbourne – the light is good and even, the walls spacious, and the labyrinth of rooms allow him sufficient walls to paint on, enough offices to maintain his business, and some storage space for his finished work, though he invariably sells before a piece is completed.

Artists meeting artists have curious conversations. Always stimulating, but often circumventing the issues. In my experience when two painters meet for the first time they don’t ever talk about the ‘why’ but always the ‘how’. ‘How did you get that glazed effect there?’ ‘How did you manage that scumbling on that passage of colour there?’ And so on. I guess ‘the why’ is a given – you rarely question another artist’s motivation, ambition, or compulsion. It’s best left silent – a shared bond. Vincent’s recent work is absolutely gripping – ambitious, bold and adventurous in its urge to collaborate across generations and cultures. He’s also an extraordinary case study in how a university experience – happily in this case RMIT – can radically transform a life. I’ll leave you to seek out his story, it’s rather special and it’s easily accessible online.

I was with another painter this week too. Ella Whateley is putting her toe in the water of the Melbourne art scene with a major show of recent works at fortyfivedownstairs on Flinders Lane. What splendid spaces for showing art this country has! Ella’s work looked stunning in the lengthy volume of the basement. Her colours seem to throb and glow on the walls. It’s a good job I took this photograph – her other half, who is a very senior colleague at RMIT, was so carried away with the marvellous occasion he nearly failed in his photographic duties.

Lastly, hats off to my Fashion and Textiles colleagues at Brunswick. Not only did they successfully stage a massive colloquium in Saigon last month and then an equally successful smart textiles conference here in Melbourne a few days later, but they’ve arrived at the best title for any blog yet crafted: The Houndstooth Wrap. However, my first choice (which they discarded – so spoilt they were with literary riches) was, of course, Ripping Yarns. Their blog is just awesome – to use one of the many subverted words that now litter the 21st century vernacular.

And very finally, thanks to those readers who read my ‘rant’ on Brexit in the last blog and responded in full over the past few weeks. One reader asked – rather teasingly – if I was actually paid by the word…

From spaces to studios, from showcases to symposiums, I never fail to be impressed by my RMIT associates. All this visual stimulation is making my usual paperwork look decidedly colourless. Perhaps I’ll trade it in for my sketchbook this weekend?

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No Bregrets, No Baguettes: the Debacle of Brexit

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So what happens next? It now appears that Australia has stronger ties with Europe than the United Kingdom. I mean Australia came Second, yes 2nd, in the Eurovision Song Contest, while Grande Bretagne was awarded the customary ‘nul pointes’. And last week, after months of gutter politics, inept leadership and wildly dangerous rumour-mongering, the English voted for Brexit. Not Bremain. Not Brussels either.

I spent all weekend under a very dark cloud, poring over the online debate, devouring radio and media, shedding my disbelief on social media. It’s not just the outcome of the narrow-minded, short-term-ism protest-vote that hurts, it’s the stark realization of the searing divisions that cut deeply into the small country that is now ‘Inger-land’.  Divisions are now palpable – the huge sociological disconnect between London and the rest of the UK, the very different mind-sets of the under 30s and the over 50s, the rural economies who have benefitted from billions of Euros on infrastructure, but who now realise that hand-outs don’t necessarily lead to gratitude. Those who voted for Brexit did not vote for a better future, it was a grotesque act of self-harm which (as Will Davies tellingly wrote) taps into a broader malaise which has driven the rise of Donald Trump.

There are wise heads around us. One of my RMIT colleagues wrote of ‘…the parlous lack of leadership exercised by David Cameron et al., the depraved bigotry of Farage and the naked self interest of Boris Johnston…’, ending rather gloomily with ‘I fear for civil society and democracy in all of this’. Crikey, and I thought the darkest day was last week’s Solstice.

On to brighter days… Authors love to meet readers, or so I’m told. It doesn’t happen to me that often, but last week, two people (Yes. Two. Different. People) hailed me from across a busy road and beckoned me over. Worried that I might have owed them money, I was relieved that they merely wanted to comment on my last blog. One wanted to check out my Hanoi Haircut – we agreed that the level of meticulousness I received for 85 cents was more than equal to what I might get in Melbourne for a hefty $70.  The other beckoning reader wished to regale me with yet more witty names for Tribute Bands. I thought I’d done this to death but was delighted to hear of a British tribute band called, wait for it, ‘Proxy Music’. Inspirational!

Before Brexit broke my brain up, I’d had a wonderfully international week, truly global in the way that only RMIT can be. I spent an evening with Rafael Cilau Valadez, a visiting Huichol yarn painter from Mexico, who is working in the School of Art, on a month-long residency funded by DFAT. Cilau is a fifth generation Master Yarn artist who has exhibited all over the world. Each piece of work can take over 120 hours. Cilau is also in the process of becoming recognised as a traditional Wixarika medicine man and was terrific company. Next evening we hosted a visit by the honorary German Consul at the launch of a project called SkypeLab. The German dignitary was not as colourfully dressed as our Mexican visitor, but he spoke equally as fervently about creativity, education and RMIT’s outstanding reputation on an international level. He was very tactful and we didn’t discuss the UK EU vote, nor the likelihood of losing … and lo and behold a soccer defeat against Iceland was still 10 days away.

The pictures show me and the Honorary German Consul (top), me and the Mexican artists (LHS), and me with Professor Bruce Wilson standing firm in the RMIT EU Centre (RHS).

Lost in Translation

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Clearly I have too much time on my hands: I spend all my time lying by the pool conjuring up names for new rock ‘n’ roll tribute bands – Fake That, Not the Hoople, AD:BC, You Too, and so on. My very favourite is one I heard from a UK comedian expressing her undying devotion to a Welsh Boy Band with strong eco-credentials called Boy-o-Zone. Do you think I can convince the Chair of the University Sustainability Committee to get them to open next year’s Sustainable Living Festival?

When I’m not being so wickedly creative as a wordsmith, I’m busy travelling. I’ve been in Singapore and Vietnam visiting our fabulous offshore campuses, though much of the time I spent rooted on the kerbside in Ho Chi Minh City, gathering enough nerve to step into the multi-directional mayhem that passes as a traffic system in that crazy city. It’s an act of utter daring combined with blind faith and robust fatalism – rather like being a PVC.

We left Hanoi just as the US President landed. It was not that I was keeping the bed warm for him, but that the city was strewn with leagues of secret service security men and their sniffer dogs. I even found one lurking in the wardrobe of my hotel room – I don’t know how long he’d been there, but he could have had the decency to iron my shirts.

I encountered only one street demonstration while I was there – hundreds of serenely cycling protesters chanting a phrase that I struggled to interpret – the effect was impressive, despite their message being lost on me.

So, in the meantime here’s a picture of me with the inestimable Gretchen Wilkins, a member of staff from the School of Architecture and Design who has been ‘embedded’ in the Saigon South campus in Vietnam to develop a new Masters program. She’s making great progress and her recent presentation to a very senior team of visitors was described as one of the clearest presentations of program design ever heard. Nice one Gretchen, not a word lost in translation.

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