We hear again and again that Canberra is a ‘cultural capital’, that it’s ‘vibrant’, ‘artistic’, ‘unique’. Come for a holiday! We say. Come here to live! Go to our universities! Unfortunately for us, no city ever became a vibrant cultural capital because of its fire regulation adherence, because of its perfect egress, because the ceilings were the correct height or the treads on the stairs the right depth. No one fell over themselves to visit a city to see how perfectly undamaged the tiles were, how un-slippery the floor, how ample the parking. Look at all these empty buildings! they will say; at least nothing can go wrong when they’ve got nothing in them.
Of course no one, not anyone, wants to put the lives of their staff, artists/performers, patrons/audience at risk. No one wants to do anything that will cause people injury or illness. We are all doing our best. Entrepreneurs and small business people who choose to stay in this city (who choose us) and pour their life savings, their incredible ideas, intellectual property and energy into it deserve to be treated with utmost respect and given the utmost support. They are the clients. These are the fucking experts.
If the vision for Canberra really is what the government spouts, then trust and goodwill needs to be placed with people who work with arts and culture, all of it, on all levels. The vision for Canberra DOES NOT BELONG IN THE HANDS OF ACTPLA or any other bureaucratic organisation. Do you know how to make a hole-in-the-wall café that lights up a whole street? No, so calm down. Do you know how to run an artist space that curators from Biennales will visit to recruit artists? No, so shut up. Do you know how to produce a festival that performers from overseas will travel to participate in? No. Do you know how to set up a venue for the best music, graf and street art this city has, and fill a gaping hole in the community that you didn’t even know existed? No, so step back. Ask them what they need for their venture to be a success. Ask them how we can carry this thing off together.
It’s another whole tragedy that art spaces, music venues and independent businesses are becoming relegated to pop-up industry. Ie: not so important we need them for long Ie: a bit of a luxurious accessory to the city Ie: a sometimes food. But that’s another thing.
I know that I’ve given up on plenty of things because of red tape. I know that mostly I’ve been to tired or lazy to fight things through. I know how infuriating it is when you’re just trying to play it right, and fill out your forms, check the boxes, pay your fees, get your inspections – when you get told five different things by five different people within the same department. When the dude at the office of regulatory services has never even heard of a thing like an exhibition opening, where people might have a complimentary glass of wine (‘for free?’ He says. Yes, for free) and doesn’t know whether or not you need a permit.
Those ultimately calling the shots may know a whole lot about buildings, and access, and ventilation and fire and disaster and insurance and insurance and insurance, but they seem to know bog all about what’s actually going on on the inside. And that’s a problem.
It’s the little red hen story again and again. It’s all shit up a hill now but once the Chop Shop puts Canberra back in the pages of the New York Times or whatever other popularity test is passed the government will put them on a pedestal faster than you can say #CBR, will parade through the street waving newspaper flags like it was in the master plan all along.
For more about The Chop Shop go HERE, and to follow the story read this: http://www.canberratimes.com.au/act-news/the-chop-shop-faces-the-axe-as-stopwork-notice-issued-20140723-zw30q.html
A few things are up and about at the moment. First of all, some poetry. This year marks the first time I’ve shared my poetry publicly, or in fact with anyone. Terrifying.
Thank you to Verity La for publishing my first tiny piece 8am
and to Grapple for publishing Four Days in the lead up to the release of the Grapple Annual.
In other writing, it was great to be invited to contribute to new journal Feminartsy, where I am in great company. Lyrebird and a leap of faith was published online yesterday and I’ll be doing a reading (doubly terrifying) next Friday at The Front here in Canberra – check here for details and come along!
I haven’t written about a film before. Partly because I don’t see a great many, and many of those I do can be the kind so ridiculous they leave my mind at the exit of the cinema, if not earlier. Empty calories for the brain. But here we are, and here I go.
Thursday I went to the hometown premiere of Galore, a feature written and directed by Rhys Graham. I confess my interest was piqued in part by my familiarity with Graham’s documentary work but largely by the fact the film is set and filmed entirely in Canberra. I’ve thought and written about this town so frequently I was hungry for another perspective on what is apparently a topic I cannot get over. The film will the interest countless others based on the C factor also – few locals can resist the very novelty of seeing this city fed back at us– a noxious combination of narcissism, self-conciousness and need for attention. Reviews and write-ups of Galore are already much concerned with the shock of it all.
The thing is, the fact that the film is set in Canberra is in no way the most interesting thing about it, but it certainly isn’t the least, either. I thought it would be interesting to write about Galore without referencing Canberra at all, but I have failed so much already.
Forget about that now.
This film has stuck with me, and has come to mind each day since last week. I’ve had a hard time giving shape as to why. I think it might be because Graham captures something masterfully. A certain something about young people, wherever they live. Something to do with the tense, glowering of time, that innumerable glut of days at the end of one school year before another, blissful yet terrifying in its slow crawl. It’s the rightfully set scene for so many life changes, in so many lives. Definitely in mine, maybe yours too, tucked away in everyone, I suspect.
Throughout Galore, days come up and days go down, dragging mesmeric. The sun burns lazily and the cicadas drone and bushfires haze every movement with anxiety.
To be a teenager is to live minute to minute boredom in day to day chaos. To be constantly on edge yet nonplussed, watched closely and easily dismissed. Perhaps at no other time is life so out of control yet seemingly your own invention. Unbearable, delicious. A ricochet of occurrences that you pretend to understand.
Maybe only in films such as Graham’s do we take the time to acknowledge the at times seemingly insurmountable task of living that is set before our young people, and to remember, grimacing, it was a task we faced too. The years when life is experienced so directly, abrasively, and close to the surface. Where the present is all-important and fully inhabited, in a way we eventually forget how. When you fall in love so hard because you don’t do things by halves. ‘Eyes wide,’ the main character narrates ‘unblinking, heart full’.
Galore is a close-to-home take on what I can only suppose is a universal experience, unerringly real, neatly sidestepping pastiche and a minefield of clichés to be delivered with conviction.
This is a film to see to remember yourself, and to remind you what it’s like to be young. And yeah, it’s got to be said, Canberra looks crazy beautiful.
Usually this time of year I am over-caffienated, harried, hardly sleeping and excited to the point of nausea. Usually this time of the year I am producing a festival.
In 2011, 2012 and 2013 I co-produced Canberra’s You Are Here festival. Now the festival continues, but with a new team of producers and new funding sources (the original iterations being commissioned by Robyn Archer for the Centenary of Canberra) and I’ve made the transition to other things. It’s been strange letting go. I always felt the festival was special and of value to Canberra, which is why we worked so hard, but for the first time I am seeing the whole thing from the outside, perhaps a little bit like the general punter might.
This year I held off finding out anything about the program until the thing was printed and box fresh. I went along to the program launch and grabbed the first copy I could. And holy hell does it look good. For the first time I am realising how great it actually is to have ten days of once-in-a-lifetime events to go to, all costing nothing, all within easy reach. To be home delivered incredible artists from the bigger cities. To be given license to break away from the art I would regularly see, the venues I would normally haunt and stretch myself; get uncomfortable even. I think people fall in love at festivals like this. With cities, art works, art makers and each other, or in the least get to know one another better.
The things I have seen in three years! Strangers touching fingertips, synchronised moves, santa claus, babies dancing, painted snails, cooking wrestlers, bearded divas, bread bartering, mass jogging, a funereal march, theatre in flippers, theatre in lab coats, theatre in the bath, theatre in a car, hipsters, anarchists, grandparents, bands and bands and bands and bands, basketball, chips and gravy, secret doorways, treasure maps, palm trees, taxi rides, cardboard cities, concerned citizens, five eulogies and more mashups than most people will ever hear in one lifetime. Approximately 215 other things, and hundreds more to come from hereon in.
Congratulations on your forth year You Are Here festival. You have made me love and understand Canberra like nothing else ever could.
You Are Here 2014 runs from March 13-23 in and around the Canberra CBD. There are no reasons not to go, other than the misfortune of not being in Canberra.
While I was studying at the ANU School of Art in the early 2000s the photomedia department was going from strength to strength. And many of the graduates are still going strong. I Heart Television gets some of the band back together to kick off the year with a killer show at M16 Artspace. Belle Charter, Clinton Hayden, Erica Hurrell, Tess Stewart-Moore, Aki Nishiumi and Sam Townsend are on board and I’ve come along for the ride – take a read of my accompanying essay below. I’ve also gotta insist you read Sam’s own words on the matter, because that, my friends, is real <3.
Television saturates our lives, our homes, our most private spaces; Living rooms and bedrooms, in the background of lovemaking and family dinners, looming over hospital beds. It gives us something to love, something to hate, or at least something to talk about. Whether we espouse or rail against it, our individual relationships to television are diverse and complex. The six artists of ‘I Heart Television’ give us a window onto their own, revealing the multitude of associations possible.
Belle Charter has carefully extracted and dissected frames from TV news programming, in a freeze-frame antithesis of our usual viewing experience. In the age of 24-hour news, click-bait and crowd-sourced journalism there is little by way of sensitive editing or censorship. With the plethora of video imagery available, real lives are being used as pawns in a ratings game as our hunger for content grows without end. Any story will do – the more horrifying, heart-wrenching or unbelievable the better. By removing the sensationalised detail and tragedy from her cutaways Charter deconstructs television, reminding us of the humanity behind what we look at.
The construct of television is one that Aki Nishiumi knows about firsthand. Working for a TV station at home in Japan, she wrestled daily with the ethics of an industry interested in getting the best story at any cost, questioning the insidious effects of her work on a vulnerable public. Television, as she saw it, was a ‘wrong truth’, and she was complicit. Outside the studio, the naked sky became an escape, free of showmanship and agenda, where you aren’t being told what to think, to want, to buy; Any moment the burden on her conscience became overwhelming, Nishiumi could step outside and turn her face, and lens, skyward.
Of course the sky itself is not entirely freed from television’s influence, dotted as it is by satellites and brushed by transmission towers. A once awe-inspiring technology, television has become part of the fabric of our surroundings, despite its clumsy ugliness. We are only now coming out of a time where to own a television set meant finding space for a lumbering box and cabinet – as deep as it was high – within the most comfortable and intimate areas of our home. Cables upon cables linking from the TV to devices that allowed us to watch films, play games, and more cables still to worm their way up walls and to roofs, to the tangle of aerials and satellite receivers. In Tess Stewart-Moore’s suburban studies the omnipresence of this hardware is front and centre. Everywhere all of the time, yet rarely considered.
For most in generations X and Y, TV has been a part of life from the earliest days. While in later life some forgo a TV set, in childhood and adolescence the television is sacred, and plays a key role in the magic of youth. While the gloss may become worn in adulthood what does remain is the association with television as a device of comfort, company and familiarity, an object of memory and ritual. Through careful documentation of his personal collection Clinton Hayden recognises the power held by the graphics, songs and catchphrases of television from his youth. The associated ephemera stands as ‘a collection of talismans for imagination and wonder’.
The capacity for emotional connection to a television series and to a TV character cannot be overstated. These are familiar friends visiting in your home, you coming to know them over the course of weeks, months and years. Devotion to television is rewarded by real-life connections forged around an on-screen world – something to talk about around the water cooler at work, on Twitter, at dinner parties. In the digital age we are quick to identify our partners, friends and community through what it is they ‘like’, and quick to assert our own identities in the same way. Erica Hurrell notes that some assertions go further than others, documenting TV tattoos with her signature sense of enquiry.
More than the sum of its programs and channels television is a reality we’ve created to mimic life and be mimicked in return. Television is our world reader, lodged within our consciousness. As a way of trying to make sense of the world, it provides easy contextualisation for our daily dramas and life sagas. Samuel Townsend’s portraits hold double meaning by virtue of his titling, demonstrating the universal strength of association and surprising gravity afforded by an apt television reference. What may seem trite is in fact evidence of a thread that binds us together culturally, cross-culturally, forming a terrifyingly accurate roadmap of who we are, what we want, where we’re going, and most of all how we see ourselves.
Day in, day out, I walk and ride my bike past the yellow double-decker bus in Braddon.
I don’t know what it’s doing there. I do know that it’s a Leyland Titan, OPD2. Probably made in the 1940s or 50s. Ex-NSW Department of Government Transport, fleet number 2721. I know that in 1975 it was registered to a G. Kyan Kuang of Downer. I know that G was for George, and that George used it as food van. Burmese food, hence Mandalay.
I don’t know what happened to George, or his business. I never ate at the Mandalay van. My late night eats were at Dollys and The Doghouse – more standard joints in both fare and appearance. I haven’t ever seen the yellow bus anywhere in Canberra other than where it sits now, hulking up one end of a rough hewn park-side car park. I don’t even remember the first time I saw it – it just seems it has always been there, part of the Braddon landscape.
For a long time the yellow and purple bus was the only blip of colour and character in a tired work-hardy part of town, flanked by petrol stations and brick box buildings. Then, as in now, she had a certain eclectic exoticism, being the Burmese themed British built bus that she is. In the fabled eras of free love many Leylands were converted to campervans, and for the more imaginative among us this tired bus, stranded though she is, still wears that potential. She stands for adventure. She stands for late nights and early mornings. She stands for a Canberra where you could actually do something like operate a food van out of a car park. She stands for a time in life when hanging out in a car park with your friends is as good a night out as any.
As Braddon is reinvented the bus has become part of the decor. The sides are plastered with stencils, graffiti, tags and paste-ups, her leviathan-like presence exaggerated by the addition of a singe large and soulful eye. Newcastle artist Trevor Dickinson illustrated her and these additions in his 2012 Canberra series – the yellow bus immortalised as a landmark and cultural object as significant to him as Parliament House or our bizarre rotund bus shelters. Also in 2012 the master plan for Haig Park (the strange and ill-reputed belt of trees that runs through Braddon) made specific reference to the Mandalay bus, using the word ‘unsightly’ and pushing for its removal.
Recent activity at the bus by men with utes and hi-vis vests makes me think this removal is imminent. I am illogically despondent about this likelihood, and frustrated by my own debilitating nostalgia. Worrying about an old bus is a time and energy consuming preoccupation (see this post), but what is it exactly that I want? For the bus to get a new paint job and carry on where it left off? For it to stand exposed in a car park until the end of time or its shell rusts through, whatever comes first? Perhaps I want to know what makes something ‘unsightly’, who gets to make that call, and why? And maybe I’m confused as to why a much-loved landmark – an object heavy with stories and memories so intrinsically Canberran – can be dismissed as refuse by one hand of government while the other tries to find things to call our own, commissions new objects and creates new sites to wear veils of significance.
Mostly I just want more time with the bus. God I wish I didn’t care about such things.
Photo at top of post is thanks to Andrew at Life In Canberra. Check out the other beautiful images of the bus on his blog.
In my search for more info I’ve also found this image on the ACT Heritage Library of the ‘Dubbl Dekka’ cafe in Civic, taken during the 70s. Could be the same bus perhaps, prior to its accquisition by George. Unless this town is big enough for two Leylands. Please let me know if you have any info.
EDIT: Only a week after I posted this we heard that the bus is now being given a new lease on life – check out this great story from the Canberra Times.
In August 2011 I found myself sitting with Chris Shakallis in the home of Robina Gugler, drinking tea and eating tim tams. Robina had pulled a selection of publications out from her personal stash – early 80s editions of Ripchord and Stilletto magazines/street press – and I was in heaven. Unfolding before me in these yellowed pages was the history of the Canberra I could relate to. My places, my people, just twenty years earlier.
I had discovered the Canberra Punk and Beyond Facebook page earlier that year, losing countless hours as I trawled through the photos and comments. It was the Internet that introduced me to Chris, and brought me to this kitchen table. And it was our meeting that day that heavily influenced design and programming for You Are Here 2012, reintroducing the current independent Canberra to its roots.
Now, Canberra Punk and Beyond has become the catalyst for both an exhibition and a book: Head Full of Flames – Punk in the Nation’s Capital. I wrote the following text for exhibition presenters Canberra Museum and Gallery:
‘A site for anyone who was there’ Chris Shakallis posted, when establishing the Canberra Punk and Beyond Facebook page in May 2011.
‘There’ was the heyday of punk in Canberra, or in Shakallis’ terms: the early days of punk and garage bands in 1977 to Nirvana’s legendary gig at the ANU Bar in 1993. As it turned out, a great many were there. The photos, memories and stories started rolling in. People reconnecting, friends reuniting and lost lives being remembered.
Canberra Punk and Beyond quickly demonstrated how social media can be powerfully employed around a common focus, with the page growing to become a crowd-sourced archival phenomenon that shows no signs of slowing down.
The term ‘shared history’ takes on a new and entirely literal meaning – through Facebook interactions and uploads a formidable collection has been assembled, curated by those who know it firsthand, contributors spanning the continent and reaching across the globe. Images and recollections shared here are the starting point for connections, conversations and further collections off screen. The page has instigated reunions, gigs, a book, and was the starting point for this exhibition. And you don’t necessarily have to have been there – for many, Canberra Punk and Beyond acts as a window onto a Canberra that they may not have known personally but suspect and hope exists.
In reading Head Full of Flames and pouring over the content online I find my own stories weaving seamlessly into those told in these pages. The venues, the band sharehouses, hanging out in Garema Place, gigs at the old Griffin Centre and Civic Youth Café, buying music from Lucy at Impact records, Narrabundah college, hair dye and doc marten boots. We are all more closely connected by these experiences than many of us would realise.
I’m also now adding rapidly to a list of ‘things I had no idea about in Canberra’, like back lane cafes in Civic decades before anyone tried to emulate Melbourne, and a strong case for the fact that 1980 perhaps saw more incredible tours come through this city than ever before or since (The Birthday Party, INXS, Mental As Anything, Midnight Oil, The Saints, The Police and The Ramones JUST FOR STARTS).
So it certainly doesn’t really matter to me that I wasn’t there. What does matter is that the aspects of Canberra that I love the most have always been there, and they still will be when I’m grey(er) or gone.
The exhibition Head Full of Flames is on now at CMAG until November 24. You can purchase the book there while you’re at it. It may not be cheap but it is hefty.