CITIES, how the world works

Das Weiße Band

Either I am choosing my friends more and more wisely, or men are just getting better in general, but each year more and more of my male friends are making explicit statements against violence against women.

Thank you so much for that. It is some kind of manifest sign that the ratio of violent men in my life is decreasing. It may seem like an abstract thing to some of you, but, when you’re a woman, it’s often very real.

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CITIES, how the world works, spatial poetics

With all the money we need to buy guns…

This may be the year when we finally come face to face with ourselves; finally just lay back and say it – that we are really just a nation of 220 million used car selesmen with all the money we need to buy guns, and no qualms at all about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable.

– Hunter S. Thompson

I was cleaning up my Google Docs, when I found this quote, sitting solitary on an empty page. I no longer know why it was so important to preserve it, however many years ago, and whether it related to some specific US event, or some relationship I felt it had to the aggressive entitlement of Australians to keep comfortable, no matter what harm it did to others. The younger self is another person. Still, it is like getting a message from someone who used to be important to us, even if they no longer are.

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Kid’s Wear Magazine.

CITIES, poetics of life, spatial poetics

kid’s wear magazine, or why Europe is beautiful.

I was leafing through the magazines and my hairdresser’s, waiting to be called for hair-washing, my first pile of European fashion magazines in six years, when I found this treat. Kid’s wear magazine is one of those things made out of advertising; a good 95% of the magazine was fashion editorial. But between the images of children’s clothes, hidden in the middle, was a spread of perhaps 10 pages about the childhoods of a number of people, a few paragraphs for each person. Elfriede Jelinek, forced into music lessons from a young age, starting at the Conservatory as a very small child, the beginnings of her mental illnesses starting show by puberty. Ludwig Wittgenstein’s father who supported the arts, but not his children. Pina Bausch who, as a child of a bar owner, learned early how to play alone and amuse herself, and who was taken to dance classes by family friends, her own parents being too busy with the bar. Andy Warhol; Thomas Benrhard; Ian Curtis. Margot Tenenbaum.

I used to love magazines, when I was a European teenager, but then all but stop reading them as an adult in Australia, for the relentless shallowness, cruelty, tedious lack of substance.

What makes Europe beautiful is these small surprises, these moments of care, these stabs of realisation that people here think seriously, almost all the time.

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CITIES, things I have liked

'The first image he told me about was of three children on a road in Iceland, in 1965.'

He wrote me: coming back through the Chiba coast I thought of Shonagon’s list, of all those signs one has only to name to quicken the heart, just name. To us, a sun is not quite a sun unless it’s radiant, and a spring not quite a spring unless it is limpid. Here to place adjectives would be so rude as leaving price tags on purchases. Japanese poetry never modifies. There is a way of saying boat, rock, mist, frog, crow, hail, heron, chrysanthemum, that includes them all. Newspapers have been filled recently with the story of a man from Nagoya. The woman he loved died last year and he drowned himself in work—Japanese style—like a madman. It seems he even made an important discovery in electronics. And then in the month of May he killed himself. They say he could not stand hearing the word ‘Spring.’

I saw Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil maybe half a dozen times. An essay-film, not a documentary but certainly plotless, almost 3 hrs in duration, a miracle of dramaturgy. Every time I saw Sans Soleil, I was in company, and each time I was the only one to stay awake until the end.

Watching Sans Soleil has always felt like being inside someone’s head: unspeakably intimate. To see what they see and think what they think, synchronised, have the same associations, same train of thought. Sex doesn’t even come close. Chris Marker was a recluse who gave no interviews, and that is probably why.

Chris Marker is, without a doubt, the only film-maker I can quote by heart. He said: nothing distinguishes memories from ordinary moments; only later do they become memorable by the scars they leave.

Chris Marker died this morning, at the age of 91.

He said, I’ve been round the world several times and now only banality still interests me. This is from Sans Soleil too, footage of people sleeping on the ferry to Tokyo. Limbs in every way tangled, a socked foot dangling off the armrest.

David Thomson once wrote that La Jetee is the most important film ever made, “never mind if no one named it recently for Sight and Sound in their “10 best” polls. I know that if you went to most of the people polled in that magazine and asked, “What about La Jetée, then?”, they’d say, “Oh, well, of course”, and then (I’m one of them) we’d come up with some fancy excuse about La Jetée being above and beyond the best.” La Jetee, made in 1962, still feels, to this day, like it comes from the future of cinema.

The man who introduced me to Chris Marker was also the worst person I have ever encountered in my life, a vile man, and here we return to the proverbial Jew-gassing Nazionalsozialist and his enjoyment of classical music. To make my life easier, I tell myself stories of how he never appreciated Marker for the real reasons, only the false ones, things like technique or the monochrome stylishness of La Jetee, or Marker’s place in the history of cinema. Not things like dangling feet, or the side observation about the Japanese man ‘making an important discovery in electronics’ before killing himself to follow his wife.

I remember thinking, in the early days, that Chris Marker, despite the name, could not be an Anglophone, because his humour was too soft and diffuse. The bit in …a Valparaiso where the narrator starts inventing reasons for why the city is just so. The tiny commercial break in Letter from Siberia, a sing-song advertisement for reindeer as household appliance. Who does that? Nobody does that. When people do things like that, we fall in love. When we think about why we love people, it’s that calibre of behaviour, nothing bigger or more outwardly significant.

The question that has haunted me for years has been this: why do we get bored watching a film, or reading a book, and yet we can observe a street corner for hours? Sometimes it seems like art couldn’t possibly surpass living reality; and sometimes there come majestic works of art that seem like the only thing worth making, really worth making. Chris Marker created the pinnacle of both possibilities. Sans Soleil, the awe of reality; La Jetee, the perfect artefact, truer than the truth.

It is easy to love La Jetee, I as much as everyone, but Sans Soleil was always my favourite, because it was stronger than sex, because it had not the easy 50s stylishness but the more trying, gravelly 80s video textures, because it was as long as a DJ set, because it kind of was, anyway, a remix of memory. Sans Soleil is messy, and, someone once said, ‘for people who want their lines straight, life itself is a problem’.

As I get older, I realise that this will become more and more common: I will outlive artists important to me. And then, perhaps, one day this time will no longer be my time, among the living artists there won’t be any I adore. There have never been many artists truly, seriously important to me. Perhaps one for every artform (except non-moving visual arts, which I like but do not love). Chris Marker is the first one to die, and I am left a little bit more mortal.

I like to think the spirit of Chris Marker lives on in the work of chelfitsch and Jerome Bel.

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CITIES, poetics of life

If I were in Melbourne, I'd go to this: Assemble Papers

I am in Berlin, so I cannot go, but you should.

Assemble Papers, a new independent magazine, is launching on Thursday 26 July (tomorrow or today, depending on your time zone) in Northcote. A magazine about the culture of apartment-living, small living, non-sprawled living; about elastic urban growth boundaries, livability indeces, about Australia’s architectural heritage and the compact (but gorgeous) houses of Japan. It is edited by the very talented Eugenia Lim, otherwise a video artist. The first issue features some wonderful stuff (an interview with Alain de Botton; and then an interview with Marcus Westbury).

I have been involved in Assemble as a mentor, and it has been a really wonderful, rewarding experience to see the project shape up so nicely.

While I am enjoying the benefits of compact living in Germany, here are the launch details:

A reminder to join us tonight, as we launch
Assemble Papers & the culture of living closer together.
Taco Truck onsite and refreshments from
Sailor Jerry, Rekorderlig, Mountain Goat
and the Beaufort Bar.
Tunes by DJ Simon Winkler.
Join us from 6.30pm
Thur 26 July 2012
20 High St Northcote 3070 (corner of Walker St)
www.assemblepapers.com

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CITIES, spatial poetics, things I have liked

In this spore borne air,

Edit: I almost forgot to assign this artwork to Anna Garforth. Oops.

Why is this beautiful? Because it’s moss, yes, and so it has a third and fourth dimension over and above normal graffiti or wall writing. But then, after, chiefly because of the comma.

All images tend towards invisibility, and all phrases tend towards noise. In five or ten years, perhaps dangling clauses (or prepositional phrases) will be the primary gimmick of advertising copy, and this just an annoying piece of self-conscious quirkiness in trendy typography. For now, though, periods vastly outnumber commas, and a graffiti of this sort still has the power to follow me round the corner and until the end of my day, uncurtailed by any finite punctuation.

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CITIES, how the world works

On the difficulty young Americans have with using the language of moral evaluation, rather than entrepreneurialism.

The student discussion was smart, civil and illuminating. But I was struck by the unspoken assumptions. Many of these students seem to have a blinkered view of their options. There’s crass but affluent investment banking. There’s the poor but noble nonprofit world. And then there is the world of high-tech start-ups, which magically provides money and coolness simultaneously. But there was little interest in or awareness of the ministry, the military, the academy, government service or the zillion other sectors.

Furthermore, few students showed any interest in working for a company that actually makes products. It sometimes seems that good students at schools in blue states go into service capitalism consulting and finance while good students in red states go into production capitalism Procter & Gamble, John Deere, AutoZone.

The discussion also reinforced a thought I’ve had in many other contexts: that community service has become a patch for morality. Many people today have not been given vocabularies to talk about what virtue is, what character consists of, and in which way excellence lies, so they just talk about community service, figuring that if you are doing the sort of work that Bono celebrates then you must be a good person.

Let’s put it differently. Many people today find it easy to use the vocabulary of entrepreneurialism, whether they are in business or social entrepreneurs. This is a utilitarian vocabulary. How can I serve the greatest number? How can I most productively apply my talents to the problems of the world? It’s about resource allocation.

People are less good at using the vocabulary of moral evaluation, which is less about what sort of career path you choose than what sort of person you are.

In whatever field you go into, you will face greed, frustration and failure. You may find your life challenged by depression, alcoholism, infidelity, your own stupidity and self-indulgence. So how should you structure your soul to prepare for this? Simply working at Amnesty International instead of McKinsey is not necessarily going to help you with these primal character tests.

Furthermore, how do you achieve excellence? Around what ultimate purpose should your life revolve? Are you capable of heroic self-sacrifice or is life just a series of achievement hoops? These, too, are not analytic questions about what to do. They require literary distinctions and moral evaluations.

When I read the Stanford discussion thread, I saw young people with deep moral yearnings. But they tended to convert moral questions into resource allocation questions; questions about how to be into questions about what to do.

It’s worth noting that you can devote your life to community service and be a total schmuck. You can spend your life on Wall Street and be a hero. Understanding heroism and schmuckdom requires fewer Excel spreadsheets, more Dostoyevsky and the Book of Job.

via The Service Patch – NYTimes.com.

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CITIES, travel notes

Stray cats of Malaysia

The kittens of St Paul’s Church in Melaka were two; both completely black, tiny and underfed. Stroking them, I could feel all of their little ribs. They were both very still. One looked asleep on its feet, perhaps enjoying the cuddle, perhaps about to die.

One never sees abandoned kittens on Australian streets, and is thus spared from having to think too often about the cruel, simple indifference of the universe in the face of life (what is there to do? Take all stray cats home, the whole billion of them?).

Stroking the little thing, I started wondering about whether cats have emotional responses in any way analogue to humans. Does a stray cat, when cuddled, feel anything like, any feline equivalent of, the frightened and blissful warmth of rare intimacy? Does it enjoy it as a special treat, without planning to get used to it, for experience tells it all intimacy is short-lived, its promise of security ultimately deceiving? Cats don’t think, of course, but they too learn from experience. Does a cat also find a bittersweet, lonely joy, or at least some sort of existential contentment, in total freedom? Stuff like that.

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CITIES, how the world works

On Elite Education (w/ Néojaponisme)

In his 2005 article The Myth of Japanese Universities, Marxy of Néojaponisme penned a short, but biting critique of the supposed ‘elite’ Japanese universities (such as Tôdai; I’ve met girls professing to simply want to marry a graduate thereof).

I quote in some length, because Marxy (himself a graduate of, as alleged throughout Neojaponisme, Harvard), compares the liberal arts education there and yonder through meaningful criteria, and draws sensible implications. This is not only relevant for the Japanese ‘elite’ universities, but also, very much so, for Australian ones, and its culture in general.

As a disclaimer, I am a graduate and occasional employee of an ‘elite’ Australian university, and I have written before on the very low levels of education enforced by the institution, the cynical discourse around it, and the emphasis on immediate profit and financial growth above all else.

But, here Marxy:

Graduating at the top [of an elite Japanese university], however, does not take so much effort — mostly just perfect attendance and taking the final exams. There are very, very few papers or long writing assignments, and reading is kept to a minimum. Students enrolled in elite zemi (seminars) are expected to write a thesis and do other substantial research projects, but mostly they do work as part of the zemi group.

I’ve seen nothing compare to my own undergraduate Junior Tutorial in East Asian Studies where we read 200-300 pages on a given topic, discussed it with a professor one day, discussed it with a graduate student the next day, and wrote a seven-page paper almost every week. This particular class was my trial-by-fire that whipped me into much stronger academic shape with writing, reading, and general knowledge. Japanese universities — in their current institutional role as “fun time” before a life of backbreaking employment — would be somewhat malicious to assign such a curriculum. The students may be able to do such a task, but this sort of demand breaks the trust between educator and educatee in what McVeigh calls “simulated education”: We all pretend like we’re studying and you pretend to not notice we aren’t [emphasis Jana’s].

[…] I do think there is a connection between the anti-intellectualism (well maybe, a-intellectualism) of Japanese universities and the a-intellectualism, a-politicism, and general social apathy of Japanese society. Most Western students may get a taste of social understanding in high school, but universities are where we get a chance to get a deeper knowledge and broader perspective on the world. […] There are some positive society-wide benefits to having a college-educated populace: higher understanding of social issues like racism/sexism/class discrimination, deeper interest in artistic endeavor, a greater social discourse. Frankly, huge swatches of Western societies lack a certain amount of these “ideal” effects, but we do have many institutions that are fueled by academic maturity (for example, The New Yorker and National Public Radio).

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CITIES, poetics of life

Basically, what I learned from Japan is that creativity isn’t solely the domain of individual artists or inventors. Groups can be creative too. It took me a while to realise this, but when I did it made me happy, because it resolved an apparent conflict between two of the things I hold most dear: collectivism and creativity. I think you can say that Japan is capable of producing both the cliches of the manga industry and the originality of someone like Yuichi Yokoyama, whose quirky abstract mangas depend for their impact on twisting the conventions of mainstream manga. It’s not like Yokoyama defies manga, or appears courtesy of divine lightning.

– Momus, The Rumpus Interview

This feeds into a number of conversations I’ve been having recently, through which I have unearthed the roots of my own understanding of a meaningful life in the diet of socialist-approved children’s books my generation grew up on in Croatia; books in which gangs of smart children come together and make awesome things come through, generally accompanied by either a complete disinterest, or active sabotage, of adults (Vlak u snijegu, Družba Pere Kvržice, Junaci Pavlove ulice, Emil i detektivi, Blizanke, Koko i…). This, to me, ties directly to the fact that the most interesting initiatives in art, politics and design in Central Europe (not merely post-socialist, but all of Central Europe) are collective pursuits (art, design and curatorial collectives, magazines, festivals, movements, protests), as well as to the fact that contemporary young Australia is woeful in all of these categories. Coming together to work on a bold, brave project is shrouded in a kind of sublime poetry over there. Here, people shudder and say I hate group work, and ‘arts management’ is understood as the art of midwifery for many individual little geniuses.

Groups can be creative too.

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