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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Cut & Thrust: the delicate demands of debating

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When debating, it’s always a neat idea to namedrop Chomsky, even if you can’t quite recall or even pronounce his first name*:

 ‘The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.’

Unfortunately the audience at NGV’s Art & Activism Debate last week were not that passive, nor that obedient, but my, were they lively! Armed with green and red voting cards, they had to decide which of the two teams made the best case. The topic: should artists have a social responsibility? I’d been cajoled into being on the ‘against’ side, which was not an easy gig. But we took to the task with gusto, and slugged it out in front of an attentive crowd of 100 potential voters.

Perhaps we should debate more often at RMIT – I mean serious debate – not just ‘we need to correct this semi-colon in Minute 2.3.’. Academic Board is livelier now than it’s ever been, even in the acoustically challenged debating Chamber, and I’ve had the mixed fortune of participating in some rather animated Town Hall meetings of late, including one address to 270 careers officers from across the state. I was sandwiched between two extraordinary students: a prize-winning bio-health scientist who when he didn’t have the crowd in uproar, had them in stitches, and a youthful games technologist who’d created his own company at about the age of 7. I was the rather (unful)filling meat in the sandwich.

A few hours later I was on another panel for a very special Golden Key Gathering of RMIT alumnus, talking about the keys of success. Drawing on my vast reservoir of brainiac one-liners, I was glad to remind the very large crowd that the only place you’d find ‘success’ before ‘work’ was in the dictionary. Boom Boom. How they laughed.

Meanwhile back at the NGV, I eschewed Chomsky and quoted Theodor W. Adorno, for slightly more kudos. I admonished my debating adversaries for being hand-wringing pinko liberals, or something equally rude, which was a tad unfair even if one of them was a lawyer. Ever a lover of alliteration I opened by declaring that, ‘the proposition is preposterous – it would reduce artists to lackeys of the state, handmaidens of mediocrity, and vassals to venality,’ and so forth.

However, according to the venerable Desmond Tutu, the art of debating relies on this dictum: ‘Don’t raise your voice, improve your argument.’ It’ll be broadcast on ABC at some point, so you can hear for yourself whether I achieved either. All you really need to know is that when the votes were cast, the ballot boxes opened, and the hanging chads discarded, the reds won hands down. Be magnanimous in victory, said Napoleon, and we were just that, if slightly embarrassed by having to argue a case we weren’t quite convinced by. What would Noam or Theodor make of it?

* Noam, pronounced as in ‘Gnome’. Perhaps readers can remind me what the W in Theodor W. Adorno stands for?

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Bookends and Chair Backs: A Busy Few Weeks

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When do you get time to read? I mean really read: novels, poetry, fiction – not just the labels on food products, or the minutes of the last committee meeting that you and I dozed through?

I’d like to say that I’ve finished reading two books in the past fortnight: What the Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing (by Brian Seibert), and The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory (by John Seabrook), but I’ve had only time to skim them. The good news is that even skimming revealed a great deal I never knew.

I learned that songwriters and performers of hit songs often work together on a song from different ends of the globe. They may have never even met, and never will. Writing factories have become the norm: high-pressure pop think tanks where a deep-pocketed rock god or goddess (Beyonce’s name is mentioned in the literature) convenes creative tribes of producers, composers and lyricists in hotels and studios for days on end. Every permutation is tested out; every single beat, chord progression, anthemic chorus, or what the industry calls “track and hook”, is sent out simultaneously to potential collaborators. After the edited material is returned, the producer and the performers choose what they want: a verse from one collaborator, a chorus from another, or an instrumental bridge from a third. It’s the ultimate digital brainstorming, but no different in some ways from the sort of ideas-sharing and intellect-sourcing promoted now by academia.edu.

Years ago I attended a weekend-long workshop at an eminent university in Europe and the convenors set us the rather daring task of co-writing a book by Sunday evening. In pairs we grafted and drafted. It was all a bit mad, a sort of academic boot camp, kept motivated by competitive company, caffeine, and citation count. Never again, even if it was destined to be a best-seller, which it definitely was not.

In the meantime when I’m not skimming the pages of the New York Review of Books stacking up ideas for lectures I don’t have time to give, I’ve had the pleasure of giving speeches of welcome to all our new students and staff. I’ve also had the joy of opening the fabulous exhibition, 100 Chairs in the Design Hub and the richly provocative video work by Richard Bell in the RMIT Gallery. I’ve hosted a great lecture on geodata by a new professor and launched Sustainability Week 2016. You’ll be glad to know the lyrics were different for each speech and I “sang” a different chorus to each event. Although it has to be said my singing is rather like my speeches, invariably done without notes…

Ricky and the Microwaves

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This is one of the best lines in any sitcom I’ve heard: “Hey Mom, me and Dad had a great time this afternoon. We learned to work the microwave oven with the door open!” It’s from a TV programme called Malcolm in The Middle. I only watched it once, when I was struck down by my first dose of “Australian Walking Flu”. It was a grim induction to Melbourne and it left me bleary-eyed with a crashing headache and only a packet of Aldi aspirin for respite.

I was reminded of this line last week when three floors of the College Office, our beautiful jade-coloured building (Building 101, aka 171 La Trobe Street) was plunged into the Middle Ages by a total loss of connectivity with Mainland RMIT. The Internet went down, and so did the copiers, the printers, and even the phones. The lifts also went down, which was a blessing in disguise as they have become incorrigibly intermittent at the best of times, more mittent than inter in fact.

We were stranded. Cut loose from all communications with the Mothership. It did, though, have an upside: I learned to semaphore from my 10th floor office, hoisting coloured flags towards the Chancellery, arms akimbo and ensigns a-waving. It was all very colourful, if a tad incoherent.

And the root cause of this catastrophic failure of modern technology? At first we blamed the crane. The tall white one perched high over Building 14. It was rumoured that it had blocked the signal. So the crane was moved. No easy feat in a strong headwind. But alas, it was not the crane. It was in fact, a component in the satellite dish or the box of gizmos that connect us to the outside world, a modestly sized missing part in the microwave that could not be sourced in Melbourne, not even on eBay. So we had to have the part flown in from some place called Sydney (or perhaps flown in by Sydney from someplace).

It took three days for the part to be procured from some hardware store near the docks, packed and then wrapped in 80 metres of Bunnings bubblewrap, shipped, flown, unwrapped, installed, taken out again, shaken a bit, blown on and then reinstalled. A chap in a hard hat, overalls and a pleasant smile then spent much of Friday wandering around 101 picking up phones and announcing in a theatrical voice: “testing, testing….” And then suddenly, we were back in touch with the rest of humanity, or at least back in touch with the rest of the University.

In those three days I had invites to a fabulous series of RMIT events: a Parliament gig to award a brace of State Literary Prizes; a lovely inaugural professorial lecture all about geodata; a posh “do” at Government House to celebrate RMIT’s part in MPavilion; and a few sets of tennis at the Melbourne Open where I saw Mr N. Djokovic hammer some poor unfortunate into the ground, and Mr A. Murray slog his Scottish guts out for four hours. (Four hours!) I arrived home at one in the morning, way past bedtime. The final was a washout, as dreech as a wet Wednesday in Arbroath, but my week was topped off when – bless him – an RMIT architecture alumnus introduced me over a drink in the President’s Reserve not only to Rod Laver, but the inestimable Ricky Ponting (pictured above). My fanatically loyal English Cricket supporter friends are still not talking to me…