Witness Littering or Witless Twittering?

What’s not to enjoy about driving along the arrow-straight roads of rural Victoria. There may not be much to look at but there’s so much to read. Indeed, some of the signage is rather helpful, even instructional – ‘Drinking. Driving. They’re better a part!’ (D’you think they got the letter spacing wrong there?) Other signs are a little more puzzling – ‘Water Over Road!’ or ‘Animal Help Line’. On the other hand some are handily topical, if somewhat time-limited: ‘Don’t Drive and Pokemon!’ But my favourite is a paradigm of concision, indeed Trumpian in its double-barrelled impact: ‘Witness Littering?’ it exclaimed, followed by a long mobile number that I singularly failed to hold in my memory as I tossed another coke can out of the car window. (Not really, I only said that for dramatic effect).

On the other hand, it may indeed have been Trumpian. Perhaps it really said: ‘Witless Twittering?’ Who knows. Should we care? Reality has gone make-believe. Life, as Woody Allen once said, doesn’t just imitate art, it now imitates bad television. And bad daytime television at that. The novelist Lionel Shriver recently confessed that the new Resident President could never appear in one of her novels, as he would read as too far-fetched, a farce. She agreed with the writer Malcolm Gladwell that we are locked in an era of the lowest common denominator, a time of broken language, senseless repetition, (I said senseless repetition!), and stuttering incomplete phrases that makes previous incumbents such as Dubya Bush seem, by comparison, almost Shakespearian.

Gladwell offers another angle by suggesting that not only should one retain a sense of humour amidst the slow car crash meant to resemble emerging US policy, but trust the future. Play the long game, he suggests. Surely the Chinese will do so. Indeed, he compares the feverish pace and frenzied excitement around the White House today with the McCarthy anti-Communist Witch Hunts of the 1950s. Sure, there will be crazy short-term followers, zealots and addicts but – like McCarthyism – the whole artifice will be rumbled, exposed and then roundly ridiculed. Trump’s rhetorical strategy (if it can be termed such), argues double Pulitzer prize-winner Marilynne Robinson, has a limited lifespan. Best to let its inherent contradictions, its off-the-cuff, on-the-hoof ‘thinking’, spiral out of control and be revealed for what it really is.

Meanwhile, we can just stare agog at the witless twittering, or perhaps that’s twitless wittering:

Donald J.Trump @realDonaldTrump
Chinese total losers! Who’d name their country after a dinner service?

Donald J.Trump @realDonaldTrump
Just tried watching Sound of Music. Weak! Julie Andrews doesn’t do it for me. Sack that hair stylist, fashion adviser!

Donald J.Trump @realDonaldTrump
Of course that goatherd is lonely! Quit that horrid yodelling! Total loser! Get a  life!” *

(Note: I am grateful for various quotes and ideas borrowed here with appreciation from Marilynne Robinson, Lionel Shriver, Robert McCrum, Craig Brown*, and I’d like to give a call out to the student representatives, and to M&C colleague Alex Wake, whose statements at Academic Board were an important contribution in the first of two timely debates about academic freedom. She argues for openness, civility and a shared awareness of the welfare of others especially our students and fellow staff. Well said Alex! Firm leadership!)

In Praise of Mortar Boards and Muttonbirds

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There are few more life-affirming events than the graduation ceremonies at Etihad Stadium. Colourful, brash, bizarre… but that’s enough about my academic gown… the event itself was tumultuous at times, but always joyous, with a touch of the necessary solemnity and dignity.

At the December 2016 event in Melbourne, there was some seriously impressive indigenous dancing, plenty of drumming, and even a rather rollocking rock band. It was on a par with our spectacular Saigon ceremony, although this event was punctuated by a very loud and unexpected bang. At first, we thought it was an almighty firecracker ignited by an exuberant graduand. Alas, it was nothing so bold. More prosaically, it was a massive power outage across the entire of District 9. The bang was impressive though and startled us all. It was rather astonishing to see a grown man leaping  into the arms of his wife. Oh yes, nothing as impressive as a gowned graduation ceremony.

Actually, another impressive sight springs to mind. On Philip Island last Saturday evening, twenty minutes after a tepid sunset over Pinnacle Rocks, I watched a skyfull of Muttonbirds (aka Short Tailed Shearwaters, also known as the Slender Billed Shearwaters, or sometimes the Yolla, or indeed the Moonbird, and even Puffinus Tenuirostris to any ornithological readers who might still be tuned in) circle above me.

If these fine creatures have an identity issue borne of their uncertain name, they certainly don’t show it. Each and every dusk they circle lower and lower, then bomb dive into their sandy burrows. It must be one of the most spectacular natural events on the planet. Who needs cute waddling penguins when you have half a million birds just a few feet over your head performing elegant arabesques punctuated by sandy thuds, as they drill nervelessly into the soft ground.

And as the Muttonbirds circulated wildly overhead, I was reminded of the delirious moment at graduation when several hundred mortar boards are tossed into the air.

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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

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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