CITIES, poetics of life, policy & design

On breaking no law – Berlin by bicycle

I have been writing about flash mobs, Erna Omarsdottir, and swingers’ clubs all of this weekend. It has been a particularly nice application of my knowledge of how cities work on the subject matter of theatre, may I say.

But then the publication of this article came through, for Assemble Papers, the first in a series planned about Berlin. Here you can see me employ my purely urbanist pen, and write about this wonderful city purely from the perspective of design, circulation, livability, human rights, and such mundane things.

The whole article is also available after the break, but I suggest you follow the link instead, because Assemble Papers pairs my text with some exquisite photographs by Henrik Kuerschner – and also is a treasure trove of good writing on cities, full stop.

Continue reading “On breaking no law – Berlin by bicycle” »

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CITIES, poetics of life, travel notes

At home in travel – Dancehouse Diary

Corto Maltese by Norwood, a very talented artist whose work you can admire here.

A short message from a Berlin dancer reminded me that I wrote an essay for Dancehouse Diary, a publication for Dancehouse, independent dance’s home in Melbourne, earlier this year. It was one of the very last bits of work I did before leaving, it got published just after I left, and, in the general confusion of intercontinental travel, I never saw it in print, and completely forgot about it.

But here it is now, reprinted under the break. It’s about travel, a topic very close both to my heart and to my scholarship. Reading my own writing from the past, articles I have completely forgotten about, always feels like reading someone else’s writing, and this one, read from a distance of 6 months, touched me in a strange way. I hope you will also enjoy it.

Continue reading “At home in travel – Dancehouse Diary” »

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CITIES, how the world works, policy & design

BMW Guggenheim Lab in Berlin: PR English, asking the wrong questions, and the festivalisation of urban planning.

It so happened that last Tuesday I attended a meeting with the BMW Guggenheim Lab curators, organised by the students of the TU Berlin Masterstudiengang Historische Urbanistik (or Historical Urban Studies). I was invited ad hoc, and had no intention of writing about it, and would not have, were it not for the strange and indicatively unsuccessful nature of the encounter.

Some background: according to BMW’s own head of branding, the company decided to engage in some image-cleaning and reach out to “those people who currently don’t have any particular affinity to the BMW brand and might even view cars with ambivalence”, thus joining with the Guggenheim Foundation and funding an enormously expensive, world-touring, well, 6-year event, a sort of festival of urban planning and design. A temporary carbon-steel building by Atelier-Bow-Bow (very vogueish Japanese architects) is erect for 10-or-so weeks, each time in a different city, and a series of events, from lectures to workshops and tours, takes place. The general theme? Urban problems, challenges, opportunities. The cities? New York, Berlin, Mumbai.

Having had its 10 weeks in NY, the Lab was on its way to Berlin when the trouble started. The site chosen to erect Bow-Wow’s temporary architectural work was an abandoned site in Kreuzberg, in the Wrangelkiez, right on the river Spree.

If you know a single thing about Berlin, you know that Kreuzberg (specifically, the smaller area within it known as Wrangelkiez) has as enormously strong, politically radical community, and a history of resistance to top-down planning. Here is where Berlin’s (and to some extent Germany’s) squatting started, with 160 apartment buildings occupied at once in 1980, around half of which became legalised housing communes soon after. Here is where the residents’ opposition to inner-city demolition led to a wholesale change of the Senate redevelopment policy from greenfield construction of new estates to careful urban renewal of existing neighbourhoods: careful to the historical building form, careful to not displace any residents, and careful to involve them in the planning process. The squatting movement in Kreuzberg led to financing programs that allowed housing communes to renovate the buildings they occupied, to almost every existing social housing policy in Berlin, to the squatting culture that opened up the city’s empty spaces to art and music in the 1990s, and, subsequently, to the image of Berlin as Europe’s party capital, an image that is today Berlin’s only relevant export. Kreuzberg today, again particularly the Wranglerkiez, is struggling under increasing gentrification (the rent-controlled contracts signed in 1980s have largely run out in the past few years, and the rents have risen under the pressure from tourist and temporary residents lured by Kreuzberg’s allure of cool), and there are almost constant meetings, protests and initiatives to come up with new policies that will protect the rents in the neighbourhood, and the rest of Berlin. In a city where 85% of citizens rent, with no industry and the highest unemployment rate in Germany, sharply rising rents are a social catastrophe.

No wonder, then, that public resistance to a Guggenheim vanity project in the area was huge. An anti-project blog appeared; there was a protest against Guggenheim; letters were sent to papers and the police ascertained that vandalism would be a serious threat (this is an area in which new apartments and expensive cars are regularly vandalised, too). Guggenheim responded to the threat of vandalism by renouncing the Kreuzberg location, and moving to the much nicer, already-mellowed-down Prenzlauer Berg in the former East.

The media largely welcomed Guggenheim Lab as a good investment and media project, but even then with reserve. Berliner Zeitung:

“It all seemed a bit ridiculous, as it’s only about a six-week project, and not a permanent establishment. The coming weeks will reveal whether the debate blows over, or continues with ideological posturing. But the city-state’s politicians can no longer ignore the agitated atmosphere in the inner-city neighborhoods. And the Guggenheim organizers are burdened by high expectations. They want to address the issue of urban living, but so far there is no convincing program. They will need to prove that they want to build more than just a talking shop.”

Süddeutsche Zeitung:

Still, the protesters hit a nerve in the city. For their blackmail they used widespread fears of rising rents, the displacement of the poor into outer districts, and the specter of ‘gentrification.’ … The Senate has yet to find a politically convincing answer to this. As correct as Klaus Wowereit’s rejection of intolerance is, the fears and worries must be taken seriously.

Non-mainstream commenters were openly critical. Berlin Art Link commented on the choice of location thus:

An uncontroversial choice in the Wrangelkiez area where rents have increased by 20% last year, and about half the locals had to leave. One wonders whether anyone from the BMW Lab bothered Googling “Berlin” “Urban problems” or “gentrification” or the like before settling on this spot.

Intercultural Urbanism (a blog) commented on the new location:

The area has been undergoing gentrification, however, and that might not send the best message to citizens in Berlin and elsewhere who worry about what corporate-sponsored “pop-ups” portend for their neighborhoods.

But the most interesting critique came from Despina Stokou in Bpigs, who went to a community meeting in Kreuzberg at which the Guggenheim project was presented to residents, and who analysed it through its use of what she terms ‘PR English’ or Art English. (“The surface of the sentence (and it’s meaning as we know it in the English we have learned or natively speak) is often miles away from it’s actual meaning as used in the PR/Art context.”)

It got hot in the Guggenheim Lab event too. What started off in an already negative atmosphere got worse with the power point presentation. I had to double check, as I could have sworn it was in English and that would make no sense in an 90% German speaking audience in Kreuzberg. It was in German but it really felt like English, with program titles like: Confronting Comfort, Beyond Segrification: Models for Equal Glocalization, FeedForward 2: Co-opting Place, Urban Yoga… People started booing and they were absolutely right. This use of language is common in media circles, (it would not have caused a stir in Pfefferberg, I would have shrugged it away myself) but it is void of meaning, it is constructed only to impress, not to inform. This became very evident in this non-art context, where people just wanted to know how this project would affect their everyday lives. As somebody graphically put: Ich versuche jeden Monat die Miete zu bezahlen und Ihr macht eure Kunstkacke. [I try to pay rent every month, and you’re making your art turds.]

I wish, in fact, I had read Stokou’s article before our meeting with the Guggenheim curators at TU Berlin, because it would have prepared me better for what was going to happen.

Instead of a discussion, we were given a PowerPoint presentation of the project, organised by four curators, each one programming roughly a week of events. Jose Gomez-Marquez, an MIT-based engineer, would be running workshops on how to make stuff from everyday stuff (e.g., a solar-powered coffee grinder). Carlo Ratti, another MIT-based engineer and architect, had a program on the new technologies for sensing the urban. Corinne Rose, a psychologist and artist, the only German and the only person of the four with any experience of living in Berlin, was presenting many small projects with local artists and designers, all around her interest in the aesthetic experience of the city. (To her credit, Rose will put on one event of relevance to Berlin right now: a discussion of the role of Liegenschaftsfonds Berlin, the public body responsible for selling public land, exclusively to the highest bidder. The current discussion in the city has focused largely on whether they should be legally forced to consider other criteria too, such as cultural or social merit.) Finally, Rachel Smith, a Brisbane-based transport planner from AECOM, had a series of events about participation and sustainable transport (cycling, largely). Only Smith and Rose were there to talk, and the focus of the discussion was on their part of the program, not least because the presentation contained very little on the actual Berlin program (and a lot about the many institutions and people involved in making it, as is usually the case with vanity projects of this kind). There would be walking tours. There would be a workshop to teach Turkish women how to ride bicycles. (The program has since been found on the website: buried deep in the ‘Press’ section.)

In a city whose urban renewal policy has been shaped by mass squating of the 1980s and 1990s, a city in which, on any given weekend, about half the programmed events are illegal, a city in which trespassing is a collective sport and commuter-train parties normal, Smith asked: “Imagine if you didn’t need a permit to do whatever you want, what would you do?”

In a city in which everyone rides bikes everywhere, a city with fantastic cycling infrastructure, and a culture of utmost respect for cycling, Smith was posing questions relevant only to cities, such as Brisbane, trying to deal with chronic car-dependency and related health problems: “How can we get more women and children on bikes?” “How do we negotiate between the lycra cyclists who hate parents riding bikes with their children, and vice versa? Could we establish 7-metre-wide ‘cycling superhighways’, fenced off on both sides, for safe cycling to work?”

You only ought to have spent a day cycling around Berlin to understand why the local students’ eyes glazed over at these ‘exciting’ proposals. In this city, one is allowed to cycle both on the (very wide) footpaths and on the (very wide) roads, and the continuous network of paths and crossings means that one genuinely has about 7 metres of cycling space in most parts of the city. The fencing off, a typical example of monofunctional urban-design thinking, would make no sense in a streetscape dotted with shops, apartments, things to get off one’s bike and do. In fact, the only place where having fences on both sides of a bike path would not be a nutty idea would be in the middle of a freeway. But this is not that kind of city…

Finally, Smith programmed an event in which we establish a “No Excuse Zone”. This deserves some explanation. If a group of AECOM urban planners meets in the centre of a CBD, each rides their bike in a different direction for exactly 20 minutes, then stops, maps their position, and draws a circle connecting them all, the resulting zone around the CBD is the “no excuse zone”: if you live within this residential area, and don’t cycle to your CBD work, you have “no excuse”. This is an excellent example of a moralistic, guilt-inducing, feel-awful approach that is so often used in Australia, that costs money, solves no problem and serves nobody. Just like desire lines trod through lawns, people queuing at wrong ends of a bar, or accident-prone intersections, non-cycling-friendly cities are a design problem, not a behaviour problem. People cycle in cities that have low car speeds, pleasant and safe cycle lanes, good street lighting, high residential density, and high density of shops and services on the street. Otherwise, cycling is unsafe, boring and impractical. Berlin has all of it, and there are quite probably more bikes on its streets than cars, at any one point of the day. Furthermore, Berlin has no CBD: it is a polycentric city. Where would you begin your 20-minute radial ride? In Alexanderplatz, a low-density wasteland? To watch Rachel Smith talk about cyclability in Berlin, apparently completely uninformed about any of this, was about as strange as it would be if she gave a speech in Italy about how to make pasta.

The first glaring problem was pointed out in one of the early questions. Smith and Rose insisted on having met with many Berliners, involved as many as possible, and shaped the program around urban problems facing Berlin. “Can you go back to your list of Berlin issues, please”, asked one student, “and explain how you are going to address each one in your program?” Well, there it was. Gentrification? “We have one whole day devoted to it.” Lack of industry and jobs? There will be one event on the day themed ”. Berlin’s over-reliance on tourism as an export industry? “One Planet Tourism, the world-leading tourism consultancy, will be working with local tourism businesses, to teach them how their businesses can be made more environmentally sustainable and economically sustainable, in the current climate of crisis.” (I hope you don’t have to be an urbanist to notice that this does not address the problem of ‘over-reliance on tourism’.) Rising rents? “Oh, I don’t think we’re doing anything specifically about that.” “So”, said the student, “the most important issues facing Berlin, gentrification, rising rents and unemployment, you are going to address all in one day?”

Begging the question was: how in the world do they think that, whatever is said or achieved in that one day, will be relevant for Berlin? Relevant to the point of justifying the stress on the existing neighbourhoods that the Lab would bring, relevant to the point of making up for the insult and injury of having an international mega-corporation orchestrate a supposed discussion about the city, bypassing all existing channels of communication and community and government groups? I was going to ask, simply, how they understand the benefit this would make to Berlin. But the questions kept coming, and they were not generous. The curators responded: we are hoping we could create a platform for a dialogue. “But there are already many platforms like that here!” the students responded. The fact that the event was corporate image-cleansing was brought up a few times: how does this not compromise the event?

“How did you decide on the location?” Apparently, they thought that Berlin was not using its riverfront enough, so they rented a boat, sailed down the river looking for an empty lot, and then found one. “I think that’s quite insensitive, actually”, recapped the student. Rachel Smith seemed genuinely confused about why their chosen location caused so much stir. “I come from Brisbane, and they would have done anything to have such an event in their city. Any Australian city, Sydney, Melbourne, would have done anything to host BMW Guggenheim Lab. We have marvelous speakers coming to speak for free. We have One World Travel, the world leader in tourism consulting! We have the man who founded Surfers Against Sewage! We have the people who run Copenhagenize website! In Brisbane, when Richard Branson gave a talk, the tickets were selling for AUD$2,000! There are some really cool people coming here!”

This was, finally, when it all descended from satire into farce. It was perhaps terrible enough that we were greeted to an expensive program that posed no questions of any relevance to the city. But to be there, concerned about the influence that such globally-visible vanity project will have on rising rents, and be told that this is about seeing some “cool people” speak, was not even offensive; it just showed what a gap there was between Guggenheim Lab and Berlin. To have a talkfest programmed, with the large majority of speakers either coming from international consultancies or media, bloggers and dispensers of internationally diluted best-practice, and call it engagement, city-building, anything but festivalisation of urban planning, would be believing one’s own lies; one’s own PR English. Brisbane perhaps can’t tell the difference. But Berlin has had a history of good planning; it can.

In the end, many of my questions were simply too cruel to ask. How can BMW Guggenheim be useful to Berlin? It won’t, and that’s not its intention. Berlin, the capital of European cool, will be useful to the Lab. It will add to its image of relevance, real grit, and internationality. It will cost money, be another tourist attraction for a few weeks, and then move on leaving little behind. As some German media have commented, it is the same stuff as usual, only much more expensive. But, if the meeting we had on Tuesday is anything to go by, the Lab curators might be completely clueless about the feathery weight of their work.

Further reading:
Frankfurter Rundschau, Guggenheim Lab startet nach Protesten
RBB, BMW Guggenheim Lab – das Program steht fest

NY Times, Amid threats, BMW Guggenheim Lab withdraws plan for installation in Berlin neighbourhood
Der Spiegel, German press review on Guggenheim Lab relocation in Berlin neighborhood
Der Spiegel, Guggenheim Lab cancels ‘high risk’ Berlin project

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CITIES, things I have liked

On dance on film

[pro-player]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MMrRF4lHflU[/pro-player]

I am posting this by popular request: because so many people recently wanted to know where to see it, because I showed it to my boyfriend two nights ago (someone who knew not a single thing about dance films) without editorial comment and he said, when it ended, ‘I think this is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, of any kind, because I re-watched it recently and had a moment of remembering how art can make one feel entirely quiet on the inside, because I sometimes think that I could do nothing but watch dance films my entire life, because dance film is perhaps my favourite art form, in the whole world.

Dance film has a power to draw me like no other form. I have a self-assembled archive. I watch dance films the way I read novels; out of pleasure, slowly, revisiting favourite passages, skipping to bits I particularly like.

I knew and loved dance film much before I knew how to properly look at a painting, much before I stopped giggling in front of conceptual installations, much before I could get to the end of a poem. It made sense to me straight away, just like dance did.

Continue reading “On dance on film” »

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CITIES, policy & design

Cultural policy and the arts

Save Live Music in Melbourne - a petition with 22,000 signatures calling for the the delinking of live music and “high risk” licencing conditions, delivered to the Victorian Government, April 7. Photo: www.carbiewarbie.com, with thanks.

IT IS A COMFORTING THOUGHT THAT AUSTRALIANS ARE GREAT AT ENTREPRENEURSHIP AND SMALL-SCALE INNOVATION, BUT LET ME SUGGEST ONE THING WE DO EXTREMELY BADLY: LONG-TERM AND LARGE-SCALE STRATEGIC PLANNING.

IF SUSPICION OF GOVERNMENT INTERVENTION IS RIFE, IT MUST BE BECAUSE WE HAVE VIRTUALLY NO EXAMPLES OF A WELL-THOUGHT-THROUGH, AMBITIOUS AND SUCCESSFUL STRATEGIC INTERVENTION. FOR EVERY INNOVATIVE ECO-BUILDING AND LANEWAY FESTIVAL, WE HAVE A FAILING PUBLIC TRANSPORT NETWORK OR A FORGOTTEN CARBON EMISSIONS SCHEME.

One-person innovation has traditionally been the domain of artists — this is the thinking behind many a ‘creative industries’ policy. The corollary is that artists are perceived as situated outside large systems (ministries, policy frameworks) as subcultural rebels, creating on the geographical, economic and social margins, needing no infrastructural support for their ephemeral creations.

Yet, looking at Australian arts in urban terms, another picture emerges. My research finds almost every arts venue in Melbourne since 1991 clustering in loose clouds around public transport, state art centres and educational facilities, and moving around to avoid the worst of the real estate boom—in music, design and performing arts alike. It is tempting to attribute artistic success solely to individual genius, but there is in fact cultural infrastructure in place, which includes schools, low rents and central locations, on which every artist relies, and this infrastructure is what cultural policy can begin to protect.

the importance of breeding places

It is common in artspeak to talk about defunding artistically irrelevant institutions, as Gavin Findlay does, but it is actually the uncertain funding of institutions that emerges as a bigger problem. For small- and medium-sized companies, flagship buildings to perform in and independent programming venues are a vital link to peers, critics and audiences. Convinced of art’s ephemerality, we forget the importance of ‘breeding places’: spaces and events that yield exposure, attract audiences, house archives, provide education and build social centres for the fleeting world of the arts. They serve their role best when their location and program times are unchanging and predictable—because then they can become meeting points, exchange points, networking points.

When we speak of the ‘independent’ artist, we sometimes forget how much artists depend on each other. Our few remaining theatre archives, the only memory-keepers we have, are tied to institutions with longevity (STC, Dancehouse, arts centres, state libraries); while VCA, Dancehouse or La Mama in Victoria, or Performance Space and TINA in NSW, are actual incubators of ‘scenes’ (social capital, an aesthetic, training), ensuring continuity to the arts. We can myopically boast a long list of important places and events that have ceased operating, from Pram Factory to the Green Mill Dance Project. Our lack of regard for ‘breeding places’ is best exemplified by the treatment of Performance Space, possibly the most important space for contemporary arts in Australia. A living incubator of innovation since the 1980s, having nurtured dozens of our most important performers, it has still not been recognised as a cultural flagship, let alone endowed with a permanent space of its own or operational autonomy within CarriageWorks.

The arts can and do punch back — but only if the issue can be sold in more than artistic terms. As I’m writing this, Victoria’s liquor licensing laws are being tweaked to save The Tote, a ramshackle music venue, from closure. Politicians were more worried about the voting preferences of the 200,000 protesters than the cultural significance of The Tote, granted; but the 200,000 saw The Tote as an indispensable part of Melbourne’s culture, not a den for a handful on society’s margins.

This hasn’t come out of nowhere: at least since Espy, the iconic music pub in St Kilda, was threatened with closure in 1997, live music has been promoted as a key part of Melbourne’s ‘cultural’ specificity. However, there must be a better way to protect cultural incubators than with rallies.

culture as a given

For many arts practitioners, the debate on the national cultural policy may look suspiciously like yet another thing to complicate already-fuzzy KPIs — but it would be unwise to limit the discussion to arts funding, because it is about more than that. To admit to a ‘culture’ is to say that there are things that we do that are important and worth protecting, because they make us who we are, regardless of their economic, health or social outcomes. In a sense it is irrelevant whether ‘culture’ includes media (as in Germany), is defined as “anything that stimulates closeness” (as in Croatia) or is left undefined (as in many European countries that nonetheless have robust cultural policies). It is primarily a principle of protection.

Artists should understand the power of words. At the moment, ‘economy’ is one of the powerful ones. Being good or bad for the economy, vaguely defined, is argument enough to defend or shelve a policy. Agreeing that we have a ‘culture’ would allow a whole new string of arguments to be made and, with due respect to David Throsby, defend the arts not on the grounds of its goodness for the economy, community or health, but simply as important for our culture.

Of course, arts policy in Australia already assumes ‘culture’: our funding of opera is otherwise inexplicable. But let me give you a sense of what else ‘culture’ might protect: in the 1990s Amsterdam initiated Broedplaats (“Breeding Places”), a squat protection policy, recognising them as incubators of creativity. “No Culture Without Subculture” was the mayor’s rallying cry. Formation of ‘alternative cultural centres’ is common throughout Europe, with a kind of light heritage overlay protecting use, rather than the form, of a building. Palach, in Croatia, has been an alternative music venue/gallery/café/performance space since 1968. It has had its dull phases, of course, but a new generation of bright young things inevitably emerged, taking over the same central location and benefiting from access to facilities, a ready-made audience and previous generations of artists. Similarly, the Save the Espy campaign in Melbourne could not rely on existing state laws to protect the beloved music pub: it didn’t qualify in terms of architectural, community or social heritage. After a prolonged fight, Espy was ultimately saved in 2003 because the local council managed to install sufficient protection on the grounds of local ‘cultural’ significance.

Save Live Music in Melbourne (SLAM) poster.

cutting across policy areas

Another intervention that only national cultural policy can achieve is the nurturing of systems, interventions that cut across policy areas and require departmental collaboration on the federal level. Many have been picked up in the submissions to Peter Garrett’s cultural policy discussion website: simplification of artist work visas, greater support for regional and overseas touring (having no national culture, Australia has no sustained cultural diplomacy either). To this I would add improvements to arts education, understanding the importance of subcultures and integration of arts institutions into the urban fabric—giving them centrality, advertising, public transport. What was the point of investing millions in CarriageWorks, if it is still sitting next to an underdeveloped train station, in a dark street, untouched by a single useful bus line? A comparatively cheap intervention into public transport would have quadrupled the returns on the enormous investment. Instead, one of Sydney’s most central performance venues manages to remain hidden to most of its population.

But what I would like to see most is some meaningful form of social security for artists. In most countries with ‘culture’, artists benefit from tax exemptions and reductions, access to free health insurance and pension funds, and different forms of income support that usually don’t require active job seeking. It is a measure that gives artists some modest existential certainties, but it’s also an intervention that the Australia Council for the Arts cannot initiate on its own.

art without culture…?

Judging from the way we mangle our strategic policies across the board, there is no reason to assume Garrett’s national cultural policy will get everything right. But defining ‘culture’ as an intangible, but protectable and nurturable good is the first step towards building systems, structures and strategies that ensure longevity for what we’ve got. We need culture if we want to remember, and be remembered ourselves; if we want our art to matter. Without ‘culture’, we’d have no culture wars, true, but also no values, meaning, sense. Without culture, nothing differentiates the arts from any other unprofitable industry. And without culture, there is literally no subculture.

Jana Perkovic is working at the University of Melbourne on an ARC-funded research project titled “Planning the Creative City”, studying the geographical clustering of independent arts in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, and the relationship between arts policy, demographics and urban planning. She writes for RealTime on contemporary dance and performance in Melbourne and Europe.

First published in RealTime, issue #97, June-July 2010, pg. 10.

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CITIES, travel notes

On girls and bikes

Picture this: Turkish island of Heybeliada. Beautiful name, big blue sky, people sitting in cafes by the sea. An older woman, in her fifties, dressed entirely in turquoise, is helping a girl that could be ten years of age to get on a much bigger bike. They succeed; the girl rides off, the woman sits down with two women in a cafe, both younger (early thirties). The turquoise woman has a headscarf, but is otherwise in plain clothes. The young women are dressed non-religiously, as is the girl, who comes back, gets off the bike, and joins them at the table.

Continue reading “On girls and bikes” »

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‘Kvart’ is a Croatian word that only really lives in Zagreb. ‘Kvart’ means ‘quarter’, 1/4 – as in quartiere, quartier, viertel; in other words, district, neighbourhood, part of town. Continue reading “Ville Radieuse; Croatia.” »

CITIES, travel notes

Ville Radieuse; Croatia.

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CITIES, how the world works

Re-thinking rape: It’s Not That They Don’t Understand, They Just Don’t Like The Answer


Peter Paul Rubens
The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus
c. 1618
Oil on canvas
88 x 82 7/8 in (224 x 210.5 cm)
Alte Pinakothek, Munich

Very interesting post at Yes means Yes on communication patterns and how one says ‘no’, applied in regards to sexual violence. A paper by Kitzinger and Frith (1999) uses very fine-combed conversation analysis to discover that

– in English, saying ‘no’ is usually done indirectly: through use of pauses, aahs and ums, palliatives such as appreciation, and explanation. In other words, a typical refusal of an offer sounds like this: ‘Thank you, I would love to, but… uhm… I have to work all day tomorrow, so… yeah… I might not be able to.’ This is how a rejection normally sounds like, a rejection of any offer. In English, a direct ‘no’ is understood as a rude and aggressive communication tactic.
– in English, such rejections are clearly understood by both men and women; neither had any trouble hearing the implicit rejection, however politely expressed, and regardless of the fact that they did not include the word ‘no’. Continue reading “Re-thinking rape: It’s Not That They Don’t Understand, They Just Don’t Like The Answer” »

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CITIES, how the world works

Swimming pools, Muslims, and the burqini in Dandenong

Very interesting opinion piece by Julie Szego in the weekend’s The Age on a women-only Ramadan event at the Dandenong pool, at which all women aged 10 or up must be covered from knees to neck if they are to attend. The comments are a predictable mix of people saying “Try and ask for a similar concession in a Muslim country”, “THIS IS A WAR”, “Why aren’t they assimilating?”, “Islam is the only religion that wants to take over the world” on the one hand, and “it’s an issue of equity”, “some of these women are isolated” and “so, according to your argument, I should be able to turn up to my daughter’s wedding in the nude” on the other. The article, however, does try to analyse the issues: women’s rights, the requirements of public pools to serve whatever community they have living around them, issues of equity, and tolerance. It’s up online, for anyone to read.

It is, however, interesting to read the discussion if, like me, you come from a slightly different angle: I have spent years trying to find a proper sauna and swimming pool in Melbourne, ie one that doesn’t require a neck-to-thigh cover for women. All the therapeutic benefits of sauna are cancelled out by sports swimwear, especially of the full-torso female type, and it is not just beyond unpleasant to sit in 90 degrees covered in lycra, it is also stressful on the body, and potentially dangerous. I could frame it as a discrimination problem: if men can get away with tiny speedos, why aren’t women allowed in topless? But I think it is more probably a prudishness problem (see, for example, the case of a Brisbane sauna-as-art). It all gets much worse when I raise the question of mixed-sex sauna: the immediate, automatic answer this seems to provoke is ‘EWW’, or ‘why would you want people other than your boyfriend to see you naked’?

+++

Compare and contrast.

Now, two things. First, it must be clear by now that I really cannot see Australia as the land of freedom to show one’s body as one likes. The whole argument of Western secular liberalism which celebrates the body, or even of some Aussie tradition of baring flesh, is simply not correct. There is a reasonable amount of Puritan disavowal of the body going on, or of sexualising all nudity at all times. As the Finnish artists themselves remarked, “there are cultural differences” between Finland and Australia. And, you know, it would be impossible to argue that this prudishness is not in any way connected to religion. The subject of nudity in the Australian society is so touchy that it’s ridiculously hard to even raise it in polite conversation without everyone getting red in the face and starting to crack jokes about paedophiles. (Which is, frankly, ridiculous. As is the oft-made remark about not exposing children to adult nudity. Children, especially toddlers and very young kids, could not care less.) Compare Australia to Scandinavian countries, to Germany, even France or Italy or Croatia, all places in which such scandalous behaviour as topless sunbathing (and swimming) and mixed-sex nude saunas, happens without much drama.

Second, I am always struck by the disingenuousness of packing together “liberal Western values”, “Enlightenment principles”, “feminism” and “women’s dress rules”. Call me bitter, but it is the same as coupling Capitalism with the struggle for workers’ rights; or, not very correct. Sure, there is a geo-historical link, but to say that one of the essentially Western (as opposed to Eastern, Muslim, or less-developed) projects has been equality of sexes is a gross overstatement, conveniently forgetting the fact that the universal suffrage, equal rights, and women’s lib were fights. As Tony Myers writes in the book I’m currently reading:

The [Enlightenment principle of] cogito [ergo sum] is the basis of the centred subject, or, as it is more commonly known, the ‘individual’. The consequences for this model of subjectivity are compelling. For example, until recently, it was generally accepted (by men at least) that only men were masters of themselves. Women, on the other hand, were supposed to be subject to passions and feelings which they could not properly control. That is to say, women were not centred subjects but decentred subjects. They were, therefore, not ‘proper’ individuals and were treated accordingly as second-class citizens, subject to the rule of the masterful men. In fact, the mastery of women formed part of the larger project to dominate the natural world itself (of which women were held to be a part). The results of this project, which is sometimes referred to as the Enlightenment Project, can be witnessed in the devastation wreaked upon the environment. If it seems a little harsh to rebuke a philosophical model with the destruction of the planet, it is perhaps worth remembering that only a subjectivity which thinks it answers exclusively to itself would risk the destruction of nature and not expect to be held accountable for it.

Or, as a great man of Enlightenment said:

Since dependance is a state natural to women, girls feel themselves made to obey; they have, or should have, little freedom… Destined to obey a being as imperfect as man, a woman should learn to suffer – even to suffer injustice – at an early age, and to bear the wrongs of her husband without complaint. You will never reduce boys to the same point; their inner sense of justice rises up and rebels against such injustice, which nature never intended them to tolerate.

(Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile, IV: 710-11)

But, the point to make here is that Enlightenment did mark the beginning of a quest for knowledge in which nothing was sacred, nothing was beyond questioning. In particular, tradition. If there is any way in which feminism was Rousseau’s baby, it was in the call to question everything. This is why the ultimate paradox of defending the bikini because of our “recognised tradition of secular freedom” is deeply absurd: if there is anything contrary to the spirit of secular inquiry, it is upholding or banning practices based on how well they fit in with our “tradition”.

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I am a little dispirited by the argumentation of both sides in this debate.

On the one hand, I don’t think there is anything particularly logical or reasonable in demanding that women cover from neck to knee in a swimming pool, just like I don’t think there is anything reasonable in having to wear clothes to a sauna. I agree with Szego, it seems to me important to remember that there is a principle at stake here, a principle of the female body not being automatically sexual, not being automatically shameful, and not being required to cover (or bare). Muslim misogyny is misogyny alright. David Gilmore writes, in a sweeping comparative analysis:

Muslim misogyny is really not so much an attack on women as it is a flight from woman “as the source of uncontrollable desires in the male self”. Islamic misogyny, like all others, is a flight from inner conflict over women; misogyny is the psychic consequence to male ambivalance and turmoil. The reification of this struggle that occurs in Islam is similar perhaps to what occurs in Christianity, Hinduim, and Buddhism, except perhaps for the added biographical ingredient of the Prophet’s apotheosis of sexual anxiety into lithurgy. One may say that St Paul and St Augustine played similar roles in forming Christian theology.

(David D. Gilmore, Misogyny: the Male Malady, p.217)

But this treatment of women does correspond to the same sentiments, fears and neuroses in the Australian culture, however secular it may be on paper. There is a corresponding prudishness on the Australian side, that all the talk about “Western liberal values” and “secular principles” cannot hide. In fact, what complicates the debate to such a large degree is precisely the way in which Australian commentators seem themselves unsure of whether there is or isn’t a principle at stake, or whether we are simply debating degrees of exhibitionism. Szego:

The Brimbank spokeswoman explained that [the swimming pools required that the] ”participants should be dressed appropriately, as is expected of a centre used by children and families”.

It seems to me that, until someone remembers what that principle may be, commentators can go hoarse talking about how the burqini “run[s] counter to the West’s more than 500-year struggle for individual freedom” (Szego). In practice, we are bound to get all confused about who is allowed to see how much skin on whom before we all have to blush and go “ooh”.

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CITIES, policy & design

Changing the Face of Australian Theatre

Changing The Face Of Australian Theatre

By Jana Perkovic

Mainstream theatre companies aren’t working hard enough to engage with the diversity of contemporary Australia, writes Jana Perkovic

If any one issue has troubled Australian theatre of late, it has been that of diversity.

In a country that prides itself on egalitarian inclusivity, why do we see so few non-white faces on stage and behind the scenes? Why are there so few women directors? Why is our theatre by and about white, Anglo-Celtic men?

These questions routinely meet a series of standard answers. Indigenous theatre is thriving. Our arts centres bring in the Chinese Ballet and Greek rebetika. There are women aplenty in community theatre.

But by and large, these are exceptions to the rule.

The Sydney Theatre Company’s 2010 program promises to bring over entire productions from the US and the UK — but does not stage a single contemporary text of non-English origin. What does this imply about the state of our cultural diversity? A self-proclaimed “Australian Shakespeare” company, Bell Shakespeare, casts almost exclusively white actors. What does this say about what Australians should look like? To be fair, Bell Shakespeare’s 2010 season will feature Leah Purcell in King Lear — but here again is the danger of accepting the exception to the rule as a proof of revolution.

Mainstream theatre is nation-defining territory, and Australia’s mainstream theatres have been very good at excluding — together with any home-grown, “experimental” performance — any face, voice or attitude that strays from a very narrow understanding of what Australia is. If art provides a way to collectively imagine our world by telling stories about who we are, how we came to be this way and where we are heading, then onstage, “our” stories are still stories of mateship in the bush and middle-class white suburbia, the range of “our” characters reduced to the semi-articulate Aussie bloke (with the occasional girlfriend or wog neighbour thrown in). Think of the sugarcane cutters in Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, Don in Don’s Party and the Removalists, and the emotionally constipated Anglo families of Tom Holloway.

This tendency leaves a lot of people out of work. The scandal of the year arose over the lack of women directing main stage theatre and culminated with Melbourne University demanding that the Melbourne Theatre Company employ an equal opportunity officer.

Yet theatres aren’t your average workplaces and equal opportunity in art can be difficult to defend. Neil Armfield’s defence of the all-male directing season at Belvoir St Theatre? Predictable: they were chosen on merit only. Few self-respecting artists would attempt to argue that the arts ought not be a meritocracy, and talent, alas, has always been very unfairly distributed. What if our best directors really are all men?

The problem is more complex, aesthetically and historically. The worst thing we have inherited from British theatre is an extremely narrow view of what theatre should be — amplified, without a doubt, by a colonial fear of not getting it right. British and American theatre traditions, visually fairly dumb, have been clinging to naturalism — a 19th century style characterised by literal representation of realistic events on stage — and for many critics this remains the only right way to “do” theatre, even though the best contemporary Australian performance has outgrown this aesthetic.

In 2007, Lee Lewis opened the can of worms that is the lack of racial diversity in Australian theatre, advocating cross-racial casting of classics. If we assume that the actor transforms on stage, she asked, why do we only allow this power to the white actor? If blackface is a theatrical cliché, why should there be a problem with a black actor playing Hamlet?

In the uproar that followed, many missed the subtler side of her argument: diverse casting has fared much better in those forms of theatre that embrace metaphor more openly. In this she counted opera and ballet but also contemporary non-Anglo theatre. The directors who have most consistently challenged whiteness on Australian main stages have been Benedict Andrews and Barrie Kosky (who cast Deborah Mailman as Cordelia in his King Lear for Bell Shakespeare) both of whose work betrays a suspiciously “continental” aesthetic. Their takes on Brechtian non-naturalism has consistently troubled our critics.

The best performances of 2009, in my opinion, were Cate Blanchett and Pamela Rabe as Richard II and III in Andrews’s vast, extraordinary The War of the Roses. The production shone a brilliant new light on a well-known text and revealed the interpretive range of these familiar actresses. The two women did not play men — not for a second were these drag performances — but embodied privilege and greed for power respectively. It was the boldest, finest, interpretation of Shakespeare Australia had seen in a long time.

As British critic Andrew Haydon has argued, the issue is not just about casting non-white, non-thin or non-male protagonists. Theatre creates meaning as much from the non-verbal signs it puts on stage as it does from the script. It does not need to be set around the block last Tuesday in order to be relevant to our lives.

On the theatre margins, companies like Back to Back, Rawcus and Restless — which work with people with physical and intellectual disabilities — play an important political role. Seeing these performers on stage, we become aware of the incredible beauty of bodies we normally consider unsightly. Such performances challenge our perception of who Australians may be, and what stories they may have to tell.

Yet aesthetically, their work is equally important. Back to Back is considered to be one of the finest theatre groups in this country — and this is doubtlessly a result of their innovative work methods. Their Food Court — an almost-wordless performance about bullying set to the music of The Necks — was among the most acclaimed theatre shows of 2008.

Because big theatres and big critics shun such experiments, they effectively nurture audiences who cannot read stage metaphor. Yet metaphor is not some avant-garde pretence but the basic building block of theatre.

Unlike film and television, which capture the world as it appears, theatre imaginatively creates its own reality. In this world, dying heroines find breath for entire arias, girls in white tutus play snowflakes and swans, and one woman’s existential despair is communicated by her burial waist-deep in earth. If we insist on theatre that amounts to live television in a classy setting, we betray our ignorance of the artform itself. Cordelia, after all, would have premiered as a man in a corset.

As long as we see the problem as one of loud minorities demanding political correctness, we fail to see that most of us, in fact, are excluded. After all, even though “arts arts” are patronised mainly by the white and the wealthy, it is the women, city dwellers and Australians of non-English-speaking background that research has identified as most appreciative of the arts. The same study shows that the elusive protagonist of Australian drama — country male, Australian-born of Australian-born parents — is the least likely demographic to think of arts as important in his life.

Lally Katz, who came to Australia from New Jersey with her parents when she was eight, writes plays immersed in whimsical surrealism. That she is not considered to be one of the most important Australian playwrights is a disgrace and it may be due to her gender, but it is certainly also related to her aesthetic. Yes, her Ern Malley mourns the fact that he doesn’t really exist, and her Canberra becomes an island with a volcano. Are these plays less Australian for their deviation from the suburban script?

As long as we keep thinking of Australian theatre as a narrow stream of tales about mateship and the outback, we restrict its capacity to help us imagine a shared present, let alone articulate an alternative future. For whatever reason, we are afraid to play.

Affirmative action is a good thing in principle, but the goal should not be simply to hire new hands to do old work. What we want, ultimately, is a greater range of perspectives and styles. We want new, imaginative universes in our stories so that we can understand better what this country is all about. We need diversity because we want innovation and excellence, not despite of it. We do our theatre no great service by protecting it from the best artists we have. Armed with an outdated and unimaginative idea of what theatre may represent, Australia, our main stage, remains as dull as dish water.

Originally published on 8 January 2010, on NewMatilda.com.

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