Nil-Nil: Drawing a Blanksy

It is said to be easier to draft 8,000 words than 800.  Brevity is a virtue, concision in writing a skill enjoyed by too few. So what was I to do when the ‘phone rang and a rather fetching Spanish voice urged me to write a short [a mere 750 words – a snip!] but entertaining piece [oh dear, a little less easy] that combined three rather disparate topics. Yes, you guessed them: Soccer, Copyright Law, and Banksy.  Really? How could I said no? Or ‘nada’. Or whatever the word is in my broken Espanol.

The invitation came from the editor of a well-known Spanish Soccer Fanzine. Well known in the stands of the Nou Camp, anyway. The editor had obtained a terrific image.

A classic Banksy: street urchin, foot on a copyright icon instead of a ball, the print framed behind a sheet of [printed] broken glass. Priceless.  They had even secured the permission of Banksy’s office. Yes indeed, Banksy does have an office run by some impressively business-like people.

With some effort I was able to weave a tale that united the world’s most famous unknown artist with the world of soccer (‘Banksy once played in goal for the Easton Cowboys’) and the strict laws of licensing images and text (Banksy once wryly commented, ‘Copyright is for losers…’). I penned a few wise words of witty reflection, some throwaway lines about the essentials of stencilling and the basics of the offside rule, and voila [or ‘ola’ actually] ‘twas done. Slam dunk. Into the back of the net. One-nil.

Despite the editor’s eager assurances, a glossy copy of the fanzine never did arrive. By accident, I found it online. The image looked terrific as I knew it would; the text was a melange of me and my sporty Spanish amigo.  The online translation tool produced the usual array of hilarities: IPR was mistaken for QPR [an abbreviation for Queen’s Park Rangers, an English soccer team]. The ‘street scene’ became ‘alley art’, or was it allez-oo? But best of all was the misspelling of my name.

While it was nice to be described as ‘El Professor’, the misspelt appellation ‘Paul Glough’ was a new one on me. Perhaps it was an homage to the Nottingham Forest supremo of the 80s ‘Brian Clough’? Who knows.

And despite the many entreaties, despite the permissions from the street artist’s office, despite the clamour, I still won’t reveal the true identity of the artist.  Indeed, in this instance, it’s most definitely a ‘Blanksy’.

https://revistalibero.com/blogs/contenidos/un-portero-de-bristol-llamado-bansky

 

Never mind the Research Statement: read the lyrics

The sleeve notes for a 12 inch vinyl record – or the ‘liner’ as it’s known in the US – comprise on average 700 words, roughly the same as this blog entry, and thrice that of the ‘textual descriptor’ – the Research Statement – which is all that’s allowed when describing the content of a non-traditional research output [the NTRO] for the forthcoming research assessment exercise, habitually known, but in a different acronymic order, as ERA.

Unlike Research Statements, which many of us will have been crafting and drafting in recent months, sleeve notes are rather a dying format. They belong to the era of the pre-gatefold long-playing vinyl record: the ‘LP’ as it was lovingly called, or ‘Album’ if you were brought up in the 1970s.

Scratch any vinyl LP and you’ll rue the day forever. Scratch any practicing academic and you’ll discover the agony aroused by having to draft an ERA-ready ‘research statement’. As a guaranteed way of bringing a practitioner out in a rash, it shares much in common with its distant cousin, the ‘Artist’s Statement’, and ranks only a little behind ‘The Impact Case Study’ for arousing deep and lasting consternation. Cue the sound of foreheads being clutched and pencils chewed.

So, can the art of ‘sleeve noting’ may lend some succour to stressed practitioner-academics as they agonise over their statement? Are sleeve notes best prepared in advance or better ‘off the cuff’ [excuse the pun]

Once regarded as the cherished way into the world of popular music, many of you will recall poring over every precious word of the sleeve: learning the lyrics and dedications, the potted biographies and the name of the 3rd trombonist. Not forgetting the standard advice on how often to change your stylus. Unlike ERA, however, I don’t recall many occasions when I was ever in doubt and had to ‘consult my dealer’.

In the USA (where there is no such thing as a national research assessment exercise) the sleeve note ‘liner’ has long been celebrated. Indeed there’s even a Grammy Award for ‘Best Notes’. Awarded to the words that offer the judges an impeccably researched, definitive statement about the creative content – where it was made, its field of interest, its origins and intentions, perhaps even its contribution to originality. Beginning to sound familiar?

In a previous life, I was part of the academy (in the UK) that agonised over research engagement and impact.  We looked to Australia for a best working practice – namely the ‘Research Quality Framework’ in 2009 – when this fair continent had nearly grasped the nettle of impact and then stepped away at the last minute. Along with my leadership peers in the UK we agonised, we argued, then we accepted that ‘Impact’, just like ‘Research Statements’ was a lived reality. We simply had to fully prepare and future-proof our institutions in the lingo of translational research, B to B, and the ‘Pathways to Impact’ that the research councils promptly (and in retrospect quite wisely) added into every pro forma for grant funding.

In truth, sleeve notes were pretty variable. The venerable US music writer Dan Morganstone, who wrote 500 covers, amongst them Grammy Winners, advised that writing ‘should not be unmusical, it must not be poorly and clumsily expressed; a bad liner would be one that indulges in exaggeration and puffery’.

It’s a valuable lesson for those charged with writing any form of statement for ERA, whether it be 2 digits, 4 digit, impact case study, or statement.  Hyperbole, rhetoric, mild exaggeration for effect is a no-no. If Cicero were around today he’d find it tough in academia. He would have to adjust his demagoguery to create a language that is categoric (but not deadpan), factual (without being soulless) and informative (but not exhaustive, or exhausting).

It’s easy to get it wrong, though our sector has radically improved on those clumsy early days. Many years ago I recall one respondent had answered the question in the pro forma about the ‘location of the work’ (meaning ‘Where was it exhibited, displayed, screened?’) and had replied ‘Still in my studio’.

So take heart in your writing. Think of the factual creativity of the best sleeve notes. Some institutions hire journalists to help draft them; some employ journal editors. Perhaps we ought to work with poets, just as Paul Weller did recently with Simon Armitage. Or other musicians? Bill Evans wrote insightfully about Miles Davis. And Johnny Cash wrote wonderful sleeve notes about his own music and others, including a fine poem for Bob Dylan’s ‘Nashville Skyline’ album. As the music writer, Laura Barton, notes he had to convince ‘the farmers, felons, and folkies’ who idolised Country but were suspicious of Dylan’s shape shifting, that here indeed was another musician worth their cautious attention. In 1969 Cash won a Grammy for his notes on the Folsom Prison concert album, with the memorable words – which may resonate with those of us still agonising over a  pile of draft ‘Impact Statements’ – “The culture of a 1000 years is shattered by the clanging of the jail door behind you….”

Note: a version of this article was commissioned in February 2018 for NiTRO, the online journal of the DDCA, Council of Deans and Directors of Creative Arts across Australia. See https://nitro.edu.au/articles/never-mind-the-research-statement-read-the-lyrics

Note: The DDCA magazine is not the same as a journal of a similar title– Nitro Hot Rods – which features customised, collision and colourful sports cars along with such mysterious titles as ‘Built Ford Tough with Nitro Chevy Stuff’. This is definitely and definitively different from anything in NiTRO. Most of the time anyway.

 

A sad passing ….

In my northern mind, February begins to mark the passing from one season to another. It is so, so gradual, incremental, barely perceived, sensed in the shift in the lightness of a morning, an almost imperceptible degree of coolness that only sensitive skin can detect.

How shocking then to have had the sudden passing of two greatly loved colleagues in a single school in the same 24 hours. Shocking, sad and deeply tragic. Dr Ed Montano was a greatly respected lecturer who taught in music production and had been gravely ill for many months, yet he was in work on the Friday before the semester began, attending to timetables, creating content for his courses, and doing the myriad tasks that is the lot of every Program Manager. Spend time with your family his colleagues urged, there is so little time left. But I do that too, said Ed, after work, on holidays and at weekends, that’s all fine, but remember that the school, my students, my colleagues, these are also my family. It was so very typical of Ed – generous, caring, and professional. He was so deeply valued. He died in the first week of February.

Only hours later Associate Professor Adrian Miles, until recently the Deputy Dean for Learning and Teaching in Ed’s School of Media and Communications, passed away suddenly and without warning, leaving behind distraught friends, relatives and college colleagues. Ten days later we gathered for a deeply moving memorial service in the Storey Hall, many hundreds of us, standing room only, the place filled with flowers, trees, foliage. The ambience of the bush, which Adrian so loved, filling our senses. One of Adrian’s colleagues talked of how irreplaceable he was, no one would ever fill his boots, just as no one could ever quite match the colourful exuberance of his richly patterned shirts. A well-published academic, an innovative leader of learning and teaching, an inspirational and deeply fair-minded individual, Adrian was an extraordinary asset to the university. He was 57 when he left us, and like Ed, his loss is being deeply mourned.

‘Tit fer Tat’: What I’ll mostly be wearing at the wedding of the year….

 

As you can see I’ve bought my hat. It’s a little bit too flash really, more of a summer bonnet for keeping the flies off but it’ll be perfect. I’m nearly ready. I’ll dust down my old Jack London two-tone whistle and flute (‘suit’ to those of you not familiar with Cockney rhyming slang); clip on the stripy regimental tie with a louche Windsor knot, and polish my Savile Row brown brogues (the artfully faded ones from an Op Shop in Smith Street). Very nice. Very fitting. All I need now is the embossed card from the Palace with the hand-written invitation, the crisp stationery, the generous calligraphy customary on such posh occasions.

I’m sure it’s in the post. I can afford to wait. After all, it’s a fair distance from St James to St Kilda. I’m not over-concerned. You see, I do meet all the criteria: father served for decades in a Royal military corps, uncle was a warrant officer in the Royal Artillery; I studied at the Royal College of Art, am an elected member of the Royal West of England Academy, commissioned by the Royal Marines; I shook hands (twice) with the grand Old Duke of York on his recent visit to RMIT, and I’ve even got a loyalty card with the RACV. What further credentials might one possibly need? In fact, I’ve probably more claim to royal lineage than Megan M. her good self! And what of the potential marriage – an American divorcee marrying an English heir to the throne – what could possibly go wrong?

I pondered this prospect while wandering with family the vast sun-bleached beaches of Southern Australia last month. Christmas in 30 plus degrees is, and will remain, a novelty for anyone born north of the Tropic of Cancer. Beaches at Christmas are normally rain-sodden, wind-lashed dispiriting places under skies the colour of unpolished pewter. Not always, however. They can be places of unexpected surprise and delight, especially when strewn with unusual treasure trove. In 1997 a container filled with millions of Lego pieces was swept off a cargo vessel in heavy seas twenty miles from Land’s End on the far SW tip of England. 4.8 million pieces of the plastic building brick bound for New York ended up in beaches and coves. In a quirk of maritime fate all the pieces had a nautical theme: divers, aquanauts, fish of all shapes, and vast numbers of scuba kit, spear guns, life preservers, and flippers. There were also 33, 941 dragons – in black and green, please note – and 353,264 ‘Daisy Flowers in packs of four coloured white, red and yellow’ (You have to give it to the stock control folk at Lego; their data management is refreshingly specific).

Despite many hours of earnest rooting around on all fours, despite sifting through tonnes of sand I’ve yet to find one piece, not even a bloody ‘Daisy Flower’ in white, red or yellow. For some odd reason the most sought after piece is the black octopus: of the 4,200 that were swallowed by the waves only three have emerged from the sea after 18 years. Surely that’s some sort of conspiracy? Incredibly, a Melbourne local is reputed to have stumbled across a flipper that came from the same spillage! Nautical drifts of 100,000 km are not unknown. The mind simply boggles.

What’s worse than not dredging up a single piece, is that the entire episode is an environmental disaster. On land Lego may be fun (if you’re keen on that kind of ‘break and build-build and break’ play); in the ocean it’s a deadly poison for wildlife. The plastic does not decompose easily and merely adds to the grotesque gyres of marine debris that are clogging up and contaminating vast tracts of our oceans.

So, should my crisply embossed invitation card fail to make it from the Palace of St James I will dedicate the occasion to a spot of beach cleaning. However, I’m staying hopeful.

Even better I’ve made a cake, a fine upstanding vanilla-coloured creamy concoction modelled on a magnificent mound in Mungo National Park, which I had the unique pleasure of visiting last month. And as you can see my fine Titfer did its job of keeping the southern sun from bleaching my Barnet – there’s more cockney slang for you: ‘Barnet fair’ = hair.

Photo-bombing and the instagramization of the world

Apologies for my absence. 40 days (and 40 nights) without a posting. Inexcusable. But as Vincent Van Gogh once said ‘Absinthe makes the heart grow stronger’. Actually, I met a chap once who was convinced that Van Gogh was a red wine from Bordeaux. So, what would the venerable Vincent have made of the picture that accompanies this blog:

I think he’d have appreciated a good selfie. After all, in a hyper-productive stint between 1886-1889, the Dutchman painted and drew himself no fewer than 43 times.  There are though no known photos of the man, just one frustrating snap of the back of his head.

Yet, for all his inexhaustible energy, Vincent was way off the pace. Today, the average millennial is expected to take 25,700 selfies during a lifetime. At least one every 24 hours. Ninety-three million selfies are loaded every day. Not sure who’s counting, but Instagram now has 800 million users, that’s a tenth of the world population. Most cunningly, shops and stores, restaurants and retail are creating whimsical furniture, cut-out clothing, and fetching silhouettes to attract would-be self-snappers as incentives to push their spaces and their products on to social media. According to an article in the Smithsonian, we are seeing the  ‘Instagramization’ of the world or at least clever commercial positioning which contests the idea that social media is killing retail; in fact, they seem to be doing all they can to harness its power. We are perhaps seeing a virtual version of product placement.

And what of Van Gogh? There is now a hand-painted animation feature film, which is quite an extraordinary blend of the digital and the painterly. And I hear there are now so many books about his self-portraiture that good bookshops have set aside an entire display of them. Apparently, it’s called a shelfy….

A Rendezvous with Red

What’s your favourite Movie one-liner? Quickly now. Always be prepared. I threw this question at two staff colleagues a few weeks ago. I knew they were out there somewhere. Chewing on popcorn in the darkness of the front stalls of the Capitol Theatre.  They were expecting a show on the stage. Instead, there was I – and the entertainingly estimable Andrew Mac – asking THEM questions. Lisa was first to respond: a fabulous gutsy line from The Dressmaker. Kate Winslet steps gracefully from the carriage, turns to the ramshackle town she’d left years ago, and utters the memorable line: ”I’m back. [Pause for maximum effect] You bastards.” Need I say that the film came from the book written by fabulous RMIT alumnae Rosalie Ham, and the producer was none other than the equally fabulous RMIT alumnae Sue Maslin, who was one of my guests as I found myself a few Monday’s ago hosting a live RMITV show for Channel 31.

RMIT Alive is created, contrived, and produced almost entirely by our students. Dozens of them. Behind cameras, in front of cameras. Directing, messaging, editing, streaming, vision mixing, making tea, and the myriad technical trickery that’s needed in this modern age. ‘Have you ever done live television?’ I enquired, slightly incredulously, of the small team of final year Media and Comms students who sat in my office oozing youthful confidence a few days earlier. ‘A bit’, said one. ‘Enough’, said the other. ‘It’ll be fine’ assured yet another, ‘We’ve heard you’ve done plenty of telly in the past.’  Dear reader, should you have time spare you can watch it. The students were just brilliant. The floor manager was a legend. Without him, I’d still be there squinting at the autocue and doing my best to follow the talkback being whispered so expertly and firmly down my earpiece: “I repeat ‘Turn to Camera Two’. Please!’

From RMIT Live to Red Symons. An old adversary [and yet another RMIT alumnus!] whom I’ve encountered three times in the past 18 months. Somewhat surprisingly I’ve escape unscathed.  This time face to face in the studio, talking about the Founder’s Day gig in New Academic Street. I was up before the roosters. Live on air at some unearthly hour around dawn. Who listens to this stuff? Just before my turn, some guy from Sunbury rang in with a joke about the difference between a trampoline and a ukulele (though it might have been a banjo). So, who listens? Well, lo and behold, hundreds of you do, nay, thousands. People rang me up, sent me texts, stopped me in the street (well, not quite) to marvel at how I’d mentioned – in one 5 minute 11 seconds interview – ‘RMIT’ 21 times, ‘130th birthday party’ 18 times, and ‘our wonderful students’ at least 13 times. Red is famous for going off-piste, and sometimes taking it as well. His favourite line with me, once he’d stopped scoffing at my endlessly long official title, is ‘So tell me. Professor. Why is RMIT called RMIT and RMIT University? Why both. Isn’t one good enough?’ I employ the same reply I did last time; we’re so good we mention it twice. By this time though he’d moved on: ‘library, founder’s day, new academic street, yeah, yeah, keep going, you’re doing a good job …’. My briefing notes were perfect. My cues word perfect. Then I stuffed up the ending. I invited him along to the party. Even tried to sell him a ticket. Then in a slip of the tongue, I think I invited the entire population of the CBD. I said something garbled about ‘Sure, you can all join in. Come and have a Hot dog!’ A hot dog. Please. Rather retro? I know I’m getting on a bit, but a ‘Hot Dog’?. Not one of my best one-liners.

Back in the extraordinary interior of The Capitol Theatre, Andrew Mac had the best one-liners. He often does. ‘Why don’t you take off those wet clothes and slip into a dry martini’ is from an obscure Mae West film, and has been repeated by lesser starlets ad nauseam ever since. Mine was plucked from a list of the best 100 one-liners from the inimitable Woody Allen: ‘I don’t want to achieve immortality through my films, I want to achieve immortality through not dying’. A classic – rather like Red Symons really.

PS : For those of an enquiring mind, the following link may offer some escape from the everyday. Not for long though.

 

 

Yeah, Green and Purple got me going in circles….

Salutations from Strategy Week! I’m guaranteed to go stir crazy by all this time spent in the Storey Hall and the Green Brain. Getting from level 3 to level 7 I’m like a ferret up a drainpipe, up and down those strange stairs that run diagonally up the middle of the building. You know those stairs? A vertical corridor of emerald green: it’s like gliding up a runner bean. As you puff to the top, it dawns on you that the escape door may not actually open from your side. You realise this just as the door at the foot of the vast stairwell slams closed and you resign yourself to a life trapped in the dimmed heart of a shapeless space. Unheard, unreachable, unmissed. Like living in Canberra. Strategy Week passing by, and nothing but a flaky canapé between you and oblivion.

 

I think my sensory system can only cope with a certain amount of green and purple, purple and green. Don’t get me wrong; the architecture is remarkable, it leaves a lasting impression, like a lingering bruise. It puts the Radical in RMIT. But I’ve always found the combo of green and purple, purple and green a tad confronting. One of my creative colleagues described it as like living inside a pancreas, which I found a harsh if somewhat obscure reference. But certainly one to remember.

It must be the fine artist in me but you’ll not find the two colours side by side in many memorable paintings. Mondrian loathed the colour green, never used it. Not once. Heavy on primaries was Piet. Edgar Degas was equally disdainful. Apparently nurtured a habit of turning his back on trees. Had a reputation for closing the curtains in train carriages so as not to upset his equilibrium by the sight of fields, forests, and the occasional passing Storey Hall. Sensitive souls these post-impressionists. Quite what our Edgar would make of the Green Brain glimpsed from the Number 2 tram is anyone’s guess.

So yes, Strategy Week. Off to a flying start in a benighted debating hall, which nicely muted the green and purple, purple and green. Followed by some inspirational sessions with people in armchairs, people on coloured stools, people sitting in circles, people sat in long lines, many of them awake. Who could not have been deeply touched by Ian’s guest speaker Omar, a refugee with an astonishing past. He reminded us about what is truly important in life and work. He reminded us not to be distracted by trivialities. It was a privilege to hear him speak.

And who could not have been knocked out by the selective use of pink Boa’s by Gael and Rachel in a lively session on ‘passion’. Purple and pink: a bit like my graduation robes.

 

Meanwhile, I’m kept busy delving into the pile of stationery that is supplied with such liberal abandon at these events – coloured biros, felt tips, great globules of blu-tack, paper by the ream load, reams by the paper load, and, glory be, crates of those funny little sticky note pads. Who’d ever have thought that you could create a global brand with sticky squares of paper that don’t actually stick? And the colour range available to young people today! My, when I was a lad there were nowt but a pale yellow if you were lucky: now they come in every colour invented by humankind, including an uncanny jade hue which the cognoscenti amongst us described as ‘tint of teal’. More green you see. More serious stuff tomorrow.

Meanwhile, here’s a recent picture of me, back in the Storey Hall with some very clever and happy award-winning students. A fine figure composition in green and purple, purple and green.