Thursday, March 26, 2009

"Remasculating" Reading

A recent survey of 2,000 adults in the United Kingdom found that 48% of women were "Page Turners", or regular readers, compared with 26% of men. Conversely, 32% of men were "Slow Worms", reading only one or two books a year, compared with 18% of women. Sounds like a literary brouhaha in the making! And the Guardian's bookblog is never shy about weighing into a literary brouhaha. Jean Hannah Edelstein's column reckons that "publishers need to 're-masculate' books if they want to get more men reading."

The battle of the sexes is always good for a laugh, and Edelstein's piece is tongue-in-cheek - she suggests re-packaging chick lit with blokey covers and creating a TV show with a foul-mouthed librarian. But jokes are rarely just jokes, and usually tap into some social anxiety. Edelstein's article is not a million miles away from more familiar arguments about the crisis of boys not reading. Which in turn are not a million miles away from the moral panic that attended the birth of the novel in the late eighteenth century, when a striking majority of readers were female. It's such a problem when women outperform men - even at something as facilely described as "page turning".

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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Beatles 1, Stones 0

Overheard while passing the second-year Printmaking student spaces today:

[young male 1, speaking as if orating] "Waits at the window, wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door"

[young male 2] "What was that, dude?"

[young male 1, slower] "Waits at the window, wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door"

[young male 2] "Woah, cool."

Being a Beatles kinda chick, I did an mental thumbs-up and kept walking. Read more

News/non-native: Arthur C. Clarke Award shortlist announced

The Arthur C. Clarke Award is given to the best sci-fi novel published in the U.K. in a calendar year. The 2008 winner will be announced on April 29. Here's the shortlist:

Song of Time by Ian R. MacLeod (PS Publishing)

The Quiet War by Paul McAuley (Gollancz)

House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds (Gollancz)

Anathem by Neal Stephenson (Atlantic)

The Margarets by Sheri S. Tepper (Gollancz)

Martin Martin’s on the Other Side
by Mark Wernham (Jonathan Cape)

More information here.
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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Google vs Death, Round 2

Google Street View has finally launched in the UK and is already out of date. This is a good thing, as far as I'm concerned. I'm more interested in checking up on where I used to be than where I am now, despite the new pictures looking like they're better quality than the Australian ones (and the taunts about growing up in a tip).
The Google camera car went up my street last summer. In fact, it went up my street twice:

I've talked before about how Street View's illusion of the present masks a preserved version of the recent past, already decaying and proving less and less true to reality. Now we can see street corners that exist simultaneously in two time zones at once.
For most Britons, the illusory, alternate-reality nature of Street View is immediately visible in the high streets. The economic downturn has worsened in the time between the photos being taken and appearing on the web. Google's Britain is a brighter, nostalgic land with fewer boarded-up shopfronts, where Woolworths, MFI, Zavvi, and other chain stores are still in business.

Back in Australia, the emerging anomalies are more poignant. On the main street of the town of Marysville in Victoria, the season abruptly changes from summer to winter for a few metres; then just as suddenly, the sky clears, the ground dries up again, and the trees regain their leaves. Of course, neither version is true: we know the town was all but obliterated by fire last month.

(Crossposted at Boring Like A Drill.)
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Friday, March 20, 2009

2009 Miles Franklin longlist announced

The longlist for this year's $42,000 prize has been recently announced.

It is:

Addition by Toni Jordan (Text Publishing)
A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz (Penguin Books)
Breath by Tim Winton (Hamish Hamilton)
Fugitive Blue by Claire Thomas (Allen & Unwin)
Ice by Louis Nowra (Allen & Unwin)
One Foot Wrong by Sofie Laguna (Allen & Unwin)
The Devil's Eye by Ian Townsend (Harper Collins)
The Pages by Murray Bail (Text Publishing)
The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas (Allen & Unwin)
Wanting by Richard Flanagan (Alfred A Knopf)

It's a big feather in the cap for Allen & Unwin, with five books shortlisted, and a down feather for Text with two. What are Allen & Unwin doing right (if you think making the shortlist is a good thing for authors and books…)?

This year's judges are Professor Robert Dixon, Professor Morag Fraser AM, Lesley McKay, Regina Sutton and Murray Waldren.

The Miles Franklin Award honours the memory of Australian author Miles Franklin by awarding a prize for "the novel of the year which is of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases".

The shortlist will be announced on 16 April 2009.

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Sentimental Education

When I was growing up I walked past this object all the time, for years, without realising what it was. As a small kid I simply thought it was a triangular, walled-off space and never thought about it being a work of art. I just wondered why that area was walled off, why there was no way in, and what was inside (I was too short to see over it).
Later on, I figured out that it was art: I'd found the plaque nearby which said it was 'Untitled' by Donald Judd. It was 'modern art' - minimalist and blank - but it still intrigued me because it was still extremely difficult to see what, if anything, was inside its walls (I was a late bloomer). Its featureless sides frustrated small kids' attempts to climb it.
For a while I thought that was the point of the sculpture: to zone off an area you couldn't see into. Finally attaining normal height put paid to that delusion, although the thickness of the walls still inhibit an easy view into the centre.
In any case, I grew up thinking of it as just one amongst many pieces of ugly public art scattered around Adelaide. It wasn't until much later that I understood the size of Judd's reputation and how unusual it was to have regular contact with a site-specific outdoor work by him. I assumed he had stuff like this scattered all over the world. I still can't see it without thinking it's bigger than it really is.
It doesn't surprise me to hear the work described as "controversial for Adelaide" although I never heard that when living there. Adelaideans tend to be pretty reticent. Unusually, the controversy seems to have been less about the art, and more to do with the artist visiting Don Dunstan's Adelaide being an American:
In the last phases of the Vietnam war, anti-American sentiment ran high and both the exhibition and Judd’s sculpture commission caused a public outcry in Adelaide. Local academics joined with students, political groups and the media to denounce this “American imperialism” and “servility to things foreign” through protests and a debate which continued into 1975.
(Crossposted at Boring Like A Drill.)
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Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Henry Mayer Memorial Lecture: From Dallas to SBS

The Henry Mayer Memorial Lecture is an annual address, hosted by Media International Australia (MIA) and the Centre for Critical and Cultural Studies (CCCS) at the University of Queensland. It seeks to honour the legacy of Henry Mayer the founding editor of MIA, especially his role in establishing media studies as a credible and significant field of research in Australia. The presenter this year, Professor Ien Ang, was asked to offer a personal reflection on her 30 year career as a media and cultural researcher.

Ang approached the lecture by drawing connections between the apparently disparate poles of her first book, Watching Dallas: Soap Opera and the Melodramatic Imagination, and her most recent book, co-authored with Gay Hawkins and Lamia Dabboussy, The SBS Story: The Challenge of Cultural Diversity. While at first glance the US television programme Dallas (1978-91) is emblematic of cultural homogeneity in the form of US cultural imperialism, and SBS has always been committed to its opposite, Ang pointed out that both have their origins in the same era, around 1980, a time when major changes were occurring in broadcast television in Western countries with a public service tradition.

Here, Ang noted that a programme like Dallas offered a kind of defacto cosmopolitanism to populations in those countries where public broadcasters like the ABC in Australia and the BBC in the UK were firmly focused on presenting their interpretation of 'the nation' to their audiences. As a migrant to the Netherlands from Indonesia at the time, Ang related how she experienced Dutch television's articulation of its nation as exclusionary, while Dallas offered a more global perspective to her as a trans-national individual.

Ang argued that her experience as a migrant in a Western country was not an uncommon one at the time and, even now that she lives in Australia, the question of who comprises the imagined nation of both public and commercial broadcasters remains an important one. She made particular mention of Australian television's fairly complacent Anglo-Celtic nationalism, citing the example of the priorities evident in many nightly news broadcasts, where news from overseas is rarely presented as if Australians have much stake in it.

It is this common context of immigration and Western nationalism, combined with a degree of 'luck' and 'happy confluence', to which Malcolm Fraser's government responded in a unique way, by sanctioning the establishment of a public broadcaster which was self-consciously worldly: SBS.

Here, Ang's argument is not one about 'quality' television news; she is not championing an elitist argument about taste. Rather she is taking issue with parochialism . The nuance of her argument is perhaps best illustrated in a distinction she makes about her earlier interest articulated in Watching Dallas.

Ang's interest in writing about the popularity of Dallas arose from her own enjoyment of the programme amid its 'facile dismissal' by 'elitist' commentators at the time. While the popularity of Dallas might have been enough for many to denigrate the programme and belittle those who enjoyed it, for Ang its popularity was precisely its point of interest. In her words she 'took popularity seriously'.

Throughout her study of people who liked to watch Dallas, Ang identified a shift in the reception of US television, specifically an ironic viewing mode characterised by 'cynical knowingness'. This mode offered a way for the 'hip' to relate to popular culture in a way that afforded them Cultural Capital. It is this viewing mode that became the hallmark of the 1990s when one could revel in 'loving great trash', to watch without fear of judgement.

In her presentation, Ang said that it was the ability to enjoy popular culture without fear of judgement that the scholarly discipline of Cultural Studies has both reflected and facilitated. Here, as an aside, she observed that one of the outcomes of revaluing popular culture has been that "high" culture is now the 'problematically ostracised category'. At the time of her research for Watching Dallas, however, Ang viewed the 'facile dismissal' of Dallas as evidence of a 'lack of empathy for difference', a willful 'othering' of others, which as a migrant she was always 'deeply suspicious' of.

Here the common thread linking Watching Dallas to The SBS Story becomes clear: the imperial cosmopolitanism of Dallas and the multi-cultural cosmopolitanism of SBS both offer an anchor, an oasis of inclusion, an extension of empathy, to disparate populations living within nations from any number of origins.

Ang concluded her talk with some more comments about SBS. She discussed the 'debilitating' and often 'bitter controversies' that have raged around the idea of SBS between those from 'grassroots' ethnic communities who are interested in programming in their own language, and the 'Anglo-elite' who have charged SBS with 'dumbing down' its programming, particularly following its recent commercialisation. Amongst other trends at SBS she noted the shift in their mode of address away from one of cosmopolitanism towards prioritising the national.
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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Beautiful Fighting Bodies

We all read a couple of months ago about how Mickey Rourke, star of The Wrestler and 2009 Academy Award nominee, was “lost” to A-list Hollywood for more than ten years. So profound was his fall, so seemingly permanent his failed career, that he has now risen from the dead, and his comeback in this movie was feted by many critics as more of a “resurrection”.

But Rourke was never lost or dead to the cosmetic surgery community. What do I mean by community? Recipients, fans, scholars, researchers, practitioners, voyeurs—all those who are fascinated by cosmetic surgery and have a love, or a hate, or (more often) a love/hate relationship with it. This relationship usually includes knowing and discussing who’s had what “work” done, whether it is considered “good”, “bad”, or “too much”, and whether it has helped or hindered his/her career. It’s a kind of celebrity-spotting meets stand-around-and-stare-at-a-car-crash sort of passion (see

Rourke has been one of the bad boys of the cosmetic surgery world for over a decade. He’s probably had face-lifts, implants, peels, fillers, botox, etc., all in the name of beauty. So to cast him as a broken-down, verging on a heart-attack, ageing pro-wrestler may seem strange, even bizarre. And yet as I watched the movie I felt almost punch-drunk by the absolute appropriateness of it, not merely because Rourke had a former career as a professional boxer, but because he looks like someone who has physically suffered, repeatedly, for a long time. His lips, swollen with silicon or some other filler, his eyes, “lifted” until they are small and closed, his skin, stretched as if contorted by scarring, are utterly believable as the features of someone who has fought and taken blows all his life.

The wrestler’s body might endure contusions, swellings, breaks and bruises. The cosmetic surgery recipient’s body might endure contusions, swellings, breaks and bruises. Both are bodies on display, bodies performing, bodies designed for being in public. And both are bodies subject to vicious, often violent, scrutiny. The parallels between professional fighting and cosmetic surgery are horrifying if you allow the analogies free rein. During the gruesome staple gun scene I kept thinking about abdominoplasty (“tummy tuck”) stapling. And I loved the scenes where Randy attended the tanning and hairdressing salons—ironically making himself beautiful so he could be subjected to attack—the brown skin and white hair made him look like an inflated Donatella Versace.

I think Rourke’s is a face of our times. It’s beautiful, ruined, extreme, hopeful, expensive, and abused. It shows an incredible history. Where will this famous face go from here? I can’t wait to see how he is cast from now on.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Dance Massive

"What a charming amusement for young people this is, Mr. Darcy! - There is nothing like dancing after all. - I consider it as one of the first refinements of polished societies."

"Certainly, Sir; - and it has the advantage also of being in vogue amongst the less polished societies of the world. - Every savage can dance."

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

It's not surprising that Jane Austen's Mr Darcy, a product of a literate, aristocratic and above all language-centred society, should feel discomfort with dancing. In his snooty dismissal of its value to civilised life is an unspoken fear: he quite rightly suspects that there is an innate quality in dance that subverts the realities which language seeks to legislate - the ordered layers of the class system, for example, or the rational syntax of an ordered (colonial) society in which everyone knows his or her place, itself rigidly predetermined by race and birth.

Although we're a long way from 19th century England, dance still holds that subversive possibility. Partly it's the inescapable eroticism of dance, its insistence on the physical reality of the human body. Dance imbricates the certainties of language with its own language of gestural ambiguities. No matter how pure and effortless a movement might seem to be, those watching are still aware of the dancer's weight landing on a stage, the heaviness of a body in tension with its dynamic flight. Even more insistently than in the theatre, the metaphor of dance grounds itself on literal fact: the body on stage performs, and the body off-stage watches, responds, and generates the multiple narratives that individual imagination brings to performance.

This might seem to be the absolute basis of performance, the irreducible earth from which all else grows. But a lot of contemporary dance seems to zero in on even these assumptions, holding up the relationship between performer and audience to relentless and fascinating scrutiny. Inert - a collaboration between dancer /choreographers Simon Ellis and Shannon Bott, designer Scott Mitchell, sound designer David Corbet and videographer Cormac Lally - is a radical example.

Inert is performed by two dancers for an audience of two, which is interesting enough as a proposition. My curiosity was piqued still further when I was asked for my height (why could they possibly need that detail?) I confess to feeling slightly nervous beforehand as I waited in the anteroom with my co-audient at North Melbourne Town Hall, knowing already that this would probably be a uniquely naked experience. After all, when you are part of an audience, you are - or at least, you feel that you are - invisible. As John Berger points out, the gaze is a powerful authority. What happens to that authority, that entitled sense of selfhood, when the artwork looks back, and it can't be looking at anyone except you?

Even so, as the usher led me into the room where the performance took place, there was also an sense of immense privilege. Effectively, a dancer was to dance for me alone. It was like being the Sun King (if you can imagine the North Melbourne Town Hall as a kind of Versailles...oh, never mind...) This mixture of contradictory feelings, disempowerment and privilege, was made more complex still as we were each led to vertical metal slabs, perhaps two metres apart. These looked like nothing so much as operating tables, with footrests on which we were asked to stand. Then we were both given cushions to place behind our heads and headphones to cover our ears. From then on, we were uniquely alone: for the rest of the performance, I was aware of everybody in the room except my co-audience member.

The effect of all this preparation was twofold: I was wholly passive, my arms hanging down, my eyes directed forward. It seemed impossible to move (and there was no desire to, either). It was almost infantalising, like being in hospital. At the same time, I was acutely aware of the weight and shape of my own body, and of the dancer before me (Simon Ellis), who began his dance as an ambient electronic soundscape began to fill my ears. Mainly, as if my gaze was riveted in front of me, I watched Ellis, although I was aware of Shannon Bott dancing the same moves. It was almost as if it was discourteous not to watch "my" dancer all the time, although my gaze flickered across the room. For their part, the dancers performed solely for their chosen audient, except for one moment where each acknowledged the other, glancing across the room.

For the first few minutes I felt very exposed. I was sensitised to the weight of the smallest gesture - my own as well as the dancer's. Should I meet the dancer's eyes? Or was that presuming too far on a relationship that was, after all, between strangers? Was I trying too hard not to look self-conscious, too obviously breathing to relax myself? But after a while, I lost that self-consciousness and found a deeper awareness not mediated by shyness; I became absorbed in the dance itself. My sense of self-presence was subtly alienated and sharpened by the headphones, which provided a kind of privacy; and yet at the same time I was unable to forget the weight of my body, that I took up as much space as the dancers.

Then Ellis approached me, and there was a brief moment of something rather like terror - was he going to touch me? (Why should that be terrifying? Or was it pleasure? Or both?) But no, he grasped the slab and began to push it very slowly backwards, until I was aware that there was a screen above my face, less than a metre above me, and that images were flickering across it.

These were intimate images of Ellis: close-ups of his hands, filmed so you could see the grainy texture of the skin, or of his face, smiling at me (no, not smiling at me, smiling at the camera, at someone else, at some other time). They were accompanied by a voice whispering urgently into my ears, speaking obliquely of a relationship, all of it addressed to a "you", that might have been "me", although I knew it wasn't, it was someone else. But it was said to me all the same. This was, interestingly, the most intimate part of the performance: the filmed images permitted me a proper invisibility and distance, I suppose. And now my body was floating in space, in some other dimension, fully aware, fully relaxed. The words became more insistent, even a little hostile, and then I was looking at an image of feet hanging, two shiny black shoes suspended above a skirting board, and for a moment I thought, oh no, this is death, he has hanged himself; but then I realised it was an extreme slomo shot of Ellis jumping.

Finally, when the monologue had finished, Ellis slowly turned the slab to the vertical again. This time I was wholly aware of my changing centre of gravity, of the heaviness of my feet and the way the organs inside my body shifted. There was a brief dance, and then the lights went out. I wasn't sure if I should clap - one person clapping in an empty room can seem much louder than a whole auditorium - and was led out into the world. During the performance the skies had burst and big fat drops of rain were falling outside the window. I was so disoriented, a feeling that persisted for at least an hour, that I thought at first that the sound of the raindrops was another performance. Which perhaps it was. God's own installation.

What stays with me is the enormous tact of this performance: it was an act of radical destabilisation that was never anything but gentle. It demonstrated that intimacy is, more than anything else, the act of noticing details, of sharpening the gaze from the general to the acutely particular. When I walked out, I ruminated on the final words: This is not real. Of course it was real, in the same ways, and with the same contradictions, that the whole world is real, and the intimacy wasn't wholly false. But of course it was a fiction as well.

It's hard to think of a greater contrast to Inert than Chunky Move's spectacular Mortal Engine. Unusually for Gideon Obarzanek, who has been the among the most restlessly experimental minds attacking the question of spatial relationships between audience and performers, Mortal Engine is a straight proscenium arch show, with the audience front-on to a steeply raked stage, that is itself framed within the darkened space of a theatre. So far, one might think, so conventional.

But of course, Chunky Move is never that straightforward. Mortal Engine is in fact a continuation of Obarzanek's collaboration with the technical magician Frieder WeiƟ, who designed the interactive system that drives the light and sound in this show. The first fruit of their work was the solo dance Glow, a lyrical gem that evolved disturbing and beautiful choreographies of body and light. Glow, performed on a square mat in what was effectively a boxing ring, had a visceral intimacy and elegance of form that is here opened out, with phenomenal sensual success if not without a concomitant loss, into spectacle.

The radical alienation of Mortal Engine begins before the performance starts, in the low lighting of the auditorium. It is dark enough to fool the eyes, for individual faces to be thrown into relief by the yellow light against pools of blackness. In stark contrast to Inert, the audience is invisible, hidden in shadow. The dancers emerge from this shadow like primeval life forms creeping out of the id, falling down the steep face of the stage in their self-generated pools of light and shadow.

The show's dream-like feeling is underlined by a series of almost domestic sequences that punctuate the dance. A couple seem to be lying in a double bed (actually a vertical wall that rises from the foot of the set), turning in the blind, clumsy intimacy of sleep. The scenes seem like those infrared films taken of sleeping people, and carry a similar sense of voyeuristic invasiveness, except that as they move strange things happen - in one sequence they writhe away from gelatinous shadows, with an amplified noise like damp sticking plaster, and in another they are possessed by a field of electric energy, which explodes out of their bodies in a visible field.

Mortal Engine is, as its title indicates, a choreography of dualities - male and female, waking and dream, self and other, flesh and machine, light and shadow - moving in a constant state of flux and tension. Most of it is characterised by ambiguity: in this world, a dancer can "throw" light just as he or she throws a shadow. But at other times images evolve with a sinister directedness: near the beginning, a dancer is menaced by a many-legged shadow, a humanoid mass that swallows her and from which she fights free, only to be swallowed again. In another, a woman lies on top of a man, pinning down his every movement, his shadow blotted out by hers.

The vivifying sense of tension is missing in a sequence that is pure light show. It features spectacular sound-sensitive graphics but, without the complexity of the human body, they remain just a retinal explosion. It's frenetically brilliant, but lacks the visceral connection that otherwise dramatically emphasises the emotional textures - including the alienations - of Obarzanek's choreography. The danger of spectacle is, of course, that it remains merely spectacle.

There are sequences that are blindingly beautiful - dancers moving across the white stage as little flecks of shadow fall down from their gestures, like trails of confetti, or two dancers moving through grids of light that move chaotically where their bodies touch. And the final laser sequence, in which dancers control the lighting with their arms, carves the auditorium into strange fluid chambers defined by green light. After all this distancing, this ocular estrangement, we are fleetingly in a small room with the dancer, enclosed by rippling walls of darkness. It's deeply unsettling, at once intimate and alien. As if, as it almost seemed to be in the beginning, the dance emerges from our own dreaming.

Top: Simon Ellis in Inert. Photo: Nat Cursio; Bottom: Charmene Yap in Mortal Engine. Photo: Andrew Curtis.

Dance Massive:

Inert, choreographed and performed by Shannon Bott and Simon Ellis, designed by Scott Mitchell, sound by David Corbet, videography/editing by Cormac Lally. North Melbourne Town Hall until March 15.

Mortal Engine, directed and choreographed by Gideon Obarzanek, interactive system design Frieder Weiss, laser and sound artist Robin Fox, set design by Richard Dinnen and Gideon Obarzanek, lighting by Damien Cooper. Dancers (rotating): Kristy Ayre / Sara Black / Amber Haines / Antony Hamilton / Marnie Palomares / Lee Serle / James Shannon / Adam Synnott / Charmene Yap. Chunky Move @ the Malthouse Theatre, closed.

Cross-posted to Theatre Notes

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Apologies for the absence

Welcome to a temporary Sarsaparilla!

Late last year it was felt that Sarsaparilla would benefit from a dust and polish, but in the process of getting out the Mr Sheen, the whole structure collapsed and it was discovered that the host server didn't like owning us. Picking up the pieces has taken longer than we thought, so this blog spot has been set aside as an interim measure.

Stick around, join in, have your say, and keep in touch. We'll let you know as soon as possible where Sarsaparilla proper will be living. Read more