Choosing to remember: deciding to forget

I’m sorry for the long absence from your screens. It’s been weeks. Nay, longer. A month or more. It’s not as if I’ve been that busy, but I have been finishing a book: I’ve coloured in every page and didn’t go over the lines once. More about that later. My puny excuse: I have been taking part in a succession of events connected to the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One, the ‘Great War’ as it was known in the 1920s and 30s, before the next one came along and made everyone realise the pause between 1919 and 1939 had just been a moment to draw breath, recover and re-arm.

Last week many of us joined the remarkable team of Kirsten Haydon (from School of Art) and Neal Haslam (School of Design) and Elizabeth Turrell from the UK, to launch a quite stunning artwork marking the commemoration. A four-metre wide wreath made of over 400 finely enamelled and etched leaves, petals, flowers and fronds, lit up in a unique space under the vast Shrine of Remembrance. The impact is awesome, quite literally. Moving and monumental. Marked by a speech I was invited to give about the value of flowers in remembering.

We adopt the poppy as an emblem of remembering. And yet, how ironic. The poppy is from the opiate family. A drug more associated with amnesia, forgetting, the sleep or reason. Do we remember so that we can more readily forget, or do we simply forget once the intensity of commemoration is over? Cenotaphs and monuments are invisible for so much of the year, just another item in our over-furnished cluttered cities, props for the pigeons. And yet once a day every year, like the puya raimondii, they spring to short life, a floral aneurysm that bursts bloodily into our streets and into our consciousness.

Then we move on; we compartmentalise the memory and forget. In fact, talking of moving on, over the past few years I’ve been invited to speak at Great War centenary conferences, in UK in 2014, in the Dardanelles 2015, in Melbourne and Te Papa Wellington, 1916 and 1917; and in Macedonia and then Ypres in Belgium this big one-hundredth year. Some organisers asked me to be a bit provocative, to raise the stakes about why we choose to remember. Hence the draft titles of my papers: ‘Let me forget’, or even ‘Best we forget’. I argue that if war is about fracturing, destruction, the dis-membering of the whole, then recovery, recollection is about ‘re-membering’, the gathering and ordering of shattered parts into new shape and meanings.

And the new book. A team effort with the wonderful students from Tracy O’Shaughnessy’s fine post-grad program in professional writing and editing. They’ve done all the proofing, the editing, the pictures, the design, even an index God Bless them. It has a snazzy title called ‘Dead Ground’ and a new word in the sub-title – ‘MemoryScapes’. Out soon, 208 pages, lots of colour pictures, and I haven’t gone over the lines once, well not often anyway.

Back on the Ground

Greetings! I’ve been on the road again, then up in the air, then sky to ground. In Belgium delivering a paper at a 100-year reflection on the commemoration of the Great War. The inspirational organisers invited a ‘provocative paper’. So they got one: ‘Best we Forget?’ was expected to irritate and inspire in equal measure. Which it did; well, they let me out the country anyway. Then north to Finland. Flew with the national airline. Literally, we vanished into Finnair. I was invited as one of 40 international experts to assess research output, impact, and innovation in the universities. It was wonderful: Helskinki is heavenly when the sun is shining at least. On Day One, Session One the President’s Address (a perfectly poised presentation packed with pie charts, data diagrams, moving parts, etc) was dramatically interrupted when a student Silver Band burst in bugles a-bugling and drums a-drumming. President remarkably unfazed. Stood to one side; told us later that this was very Finnish, very innovative, and evidence that ‘we do ‘ave a sense of Yuma, here in Finn Land’. Later that week President Macron pitched up (though I think that was pre-planned) and guess what, the Silver Band popped up again and disrupted him and his endless entourage. I hope he had the same sense of yuma.

Then flew far south to Saigon and Hanoi to meet and greet the fabulous folk in RMIT Vietnam, in the School of Design & Communication (the ampersand is critical, apparently) which now formally joins the College. What a place. The students seem so happy, singing and smiling; must be because their chances of getting or creating jobs after graduating is so impressive, pushing 95%. Most memorably, I was driven by scooter – at speed – through the Friday evening rush hour traffic. That’s one for the bucket list. Basket case actually. It was really refreshing, indeed riveting. I’m still picking the dead flies from my teeth. In a future blog, I’ll share with you the poncho I was wearing. Wouldn’t quite cut it down Collins Street.

And back here to more exciting events: interviewing Donna McColm at the NGV, one of our College’s leading partnerships, about the future of her industry. Just look at the setting: the Salon Gallery, simply divine. Not sure what I’m about to do with my left hand (weigh an egg perhaps) but Donna had the right answer for everything. And then the opportunity to introduce the estimable Australian journalist Peter Greste, a champion of press freedom and investigative reporting second to none. His talk about the battlefields of truth captivated a huge audience in Lower Storey Hall. He spoke movingly about the plight of one of our adjunct professors Dr Shahidul Alam currently under arrest in Bangladesh. Following staunch work by staff in Art, Photography and Journalism, our Academic Board passed a resolution of support, which we all hope will add to the barrage of protest to release him.

So, with that, I’m back in the office, with my wonderful team, ready for the clamorous creativity and endless energy as we head into the final furlongs of this academic year….

Remaining Really Relevant; an affection for alliteration

How good is this? ‘Collide’: a six-day six-camera shoot with several hundred VE students in screen, media, comms ; they’re working with a dozen live bands in our simply fabulous Media Precinct, managing everything from cameras, sound, photography, vision and sound mixing, even presenting and interviewing. As you’d expect it’s also pretty loud, not quite enough to uproot your fillings, but enough to wake up the neighbours – in Canberra that is.

This is what the college does best: we are relevant, engaged, fit for purpose and contemporary. In fact, it’s what RMIT does best. It’s what gives our graduates the edge over others; it’s what transforms our research into impact. It keeps us sharp and edgy.

Indeed, that’s the message I’ve just broadcast to all the Associate Deans as they design ‘Road Maps’ for the 24 academic disciplines across DSC. And you know well my affection about alliteration, indeed my affliction with alliterative accomplishment… So I’ve termed the message Remaining Relevant. And here it is:

The greatest risk that faces any college with our range of academic disciplines is for our graduates, our research, our practice to be dismissed as ‘irrelevant’. 

DSC prides itself on a pedagogy built on contemporary praxis; we build and maintain deep effective partnerships with industry; we create opportunities for our students in real-world settings so that they are ready for the world of work. That’s what gives us our edge. We’re not yet achieving it everywhere but that’s our aim.

Your Discipline Road Maps must remain really relevant to the worlds of work that exist today – and also tomorrow – in this city, country and overseas. It’s not enough to create Road Maps that talk just to other academics, to subject conferences or other HE organisations.

Governments will strike hard bargains with universities in the future; they will want to see a real return on investment; to see how public money translates into graduate employability, and to see how research makes a difference to the economy and society. Bank on it. The conditions are going to become harder, especially for those areas that are not considered as STEM.

That may sound unfair, but staying relevant, engaged, fit for purpose and contemporary is what RMIT does best, it’s what DSC as a partnership college does really well; it’s what gives our graduates the edge over others; it’s what transforms our research into impact. It keeps us sharp, edgy, relevant.

Collide does just that; our student sound producers, vision mixers and camera operators will be ready to walk from our media Precinct straight into a professional studio anywhere in the world. Isn’t that great? The staff are so proud.

And the band; they were great. Can’t recall the name I’m afraid. But they were definitely not a tribute band. And most definitely not Proxy Music.

STOP PRESS: dispute resolved!

Thank you to those who contacted me last month with this astonishing news. After 12 years of deadlock, stalemate and impasse the two Macedonias have struck a deal; one will be called ‘North Macedonia’ and the other one won’t. I doubt it had much to do with my timely blog posting of early June, but you never know; stranger things have happened, I mean England might even reach the semi-finals of the World Cup?

And thanks to the many of you who sent in their own pronunciation of  ‘Loughborough’. The winning entry was Lugger-burr-Ugger. I once saw a movie made in the countryside around that fine town, deep in the fox-hunting domain of Leicestershire [pronounced Lestershiyah]. It was bad beyond belief. It’s now widely considered the worst film ever made that doesn’t feature Madonna.

This past week I’ve mostly been making speeches. Sometimes I even write them myself. Tuesday I was surrounded by a throng of real academics and even more real HDR students at an ARC-funded international workshop on ‘Art and Conflict’ (so I had to brush up on my Baudrillard); then I introduced a conference crowd to the new MOMA show at the NGV  (so I had to freshen up on my Braque and Brancusi); next night I introduced a speaker at the remarkable ‘About my Monster’ show at our very own RMIT Gallery [no time to mug up on anything: they were queuing 200 metres down Swanston street for goodness sake], and the next day I presented at a panel session on ‘The Value of Art’, as part of a global conference full of cultural economists. I’ve never encountered that particular tribe before. They were an analytic and exacting crowd. Quote of the day from one of them: ”You think we’re a tough gig; it’s a good job we’re not econometrists’. Indeed. If only I really knew the difference.

And talking of the World Cup, I’ve been reading about the fitness and dietary regimes of some of the soccer squads. They are so healthy, so well-balanced, so green! I mean I remember the days when most footballers thought Broccoli was the name of an attacking forward from AC Milan…

Having trouble with place-names: the challenge of phonetics (fonetix)

I’ve been on the road, Well, in the air actually. Then plenty of road. I’ve been travelling around parts of Europe on university business and carrying out some field work and presentations as part of a recent ARC grant. You may be amazed but Google Maps doesn’t seem to work in some of the places I’ve been. So, it’s a good job my geography is pretty up to date; after all, I can name the longest river in the world (easy: Amazon); the largest bookseller in the world (too easy: Amazon), and the name of the mythical warrior women who were the archenemies of the ancient Greeks (hold on, I sense a product placement conspiracy here…].

But my secondary school geography failed me abysmally when I tried to ask directions to some of the towns en route. I mean who would have thought that Cholmondeley is pronounced ‘Chumlee’ and Featherstonehaugh is actually ‘Fanshore’. How embarrassing was it to ask directions from a local who looked at me as if I was from another part of the world, like I was from Frome (‘Froom!), or even Scone (Skoon!!) and let’s not even go to Gloucester (Glooster, Glostah or possibly even GlowSester).

For even those skilled in the vernacular of English topographics the most tricky destination has to be the fair university town of Loughborough, which I visited in late May. The name of this modest town is really quite unique, it is the only place name in the entire English world where ‘ough’ appears twice and each syllable must be pronounced differently. Terrific! So, for options you have: Luffboruff, Loobaruff, Luffboroo, and even ‘Looboroo’, which I’m told is twinned with the Australian town of Wallamaloo. (That is according to the notorious sketch by the Monty Python team, which open with the lines: ‘I hear you’re from Australia – my name’s Bruce too…]

So, I managed eventually to find – then promptly leave – Loughborough, and all its fiddly phonetic figurations and ended up in Macedonia. Now there’s another place with a complicated nomenclature. You see there are actually two regions called Macedonia. One is the vast and beautiful region of northern Greece, the ancient Greek Kingdom of Macedon; the other to the north is the equally beautiful ‘Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’ or FYROM to its friends. Since 1991 not even the United Nations has been able to resolve ownership of the name. In the general assembly, Greece objected to seating the Republic’s representative under ‘M’ (as in Macedonia) and the Republic rejected sitting under ‘F’ (as in Former Yugoslav…]. Instead, it was seated under ‘T’ (as in ‘The Former…) right next to Thailand (pronounced not Thigh, but Tye]. Let’s hope a compromise can be found.

My pictures show yours truly with two of the remarkable historians who graced the conference in Macedonia. On the left Sir Hew Strachan (pronounced ‘Strawn’) and on the right Sir Michael Llewellyn-Smith (just have a go at that yourself). Sadly, I failed to take a photograph of the inquisitive and inspiring British Ambassador who accompanied us throughout the conference and tour.  I know I’m name dropping: but I think you’ll agree it’s easier than place-name dropping. And the beauty of it is: Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the Hellenic Republic was none other than the divinely simple Kate Smith. Even I can pronounce that.

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.