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, policy & design

There is this thing called 'right to the city'; women have it too.

1. TRUE STORY. LAST SUNDAY, at about 6am, four of us girls were returning home from a club, here in Berlin, tired and starving, having danced all night celebrating the birthday of one of us. On the corner of Revaler and Warschauer Straße, at a döner kebab shop, we got something to eat and sat outside, at a table. A (very nice) English man asked for some filters in his best German, and got them, and said thank you, and goodbye; we were very sad that he left so quickly. But he left because another man, German, approached us from the other end of the table, and, once the Englishman was gone, plonked himself at our table and started asking us detailed, personal questions, one at a time. We were tired, chewing in silence, not even talking among us, and this man’s insistent question-asking was not merely annoying, but excruciating. About 10 minutes into a conversation which consisted mainly of very polite silence on our side, it occurred to me that this man was a parasite on female politeness, nothing more: one of those men who simply exploit most women’s need not to be confrontational. So I asked:

“Sorry, would you like to go somewhere else? We don’t feel like talking to you.”

Except that he then said: “No.”

I repeated: “We would really like you to leave.”

He stayed. The German girls said it again, this time not in convoluted Australian phrasing, but using the typical German, simple syntax: “Go away. Nobody wants to talk to you.”

He shrugged and cackled and launched into a monologue about how some of us were mean, others neurotic, and some again had problems.

The third girl tried the Croatian approach, and insinuated he had mother issues and wouldn’t get far with women. To no avail. The man must have spent another 15-20 minutes at our table, talking to us while receiving nothing but the phrases above, repeated with firm hostility. “Are you going to leave?” “We’re not interested in talking to you.” “Leave us alone, please.” In the end, it was us who left, having finished our food.

This incident left me thinking because this doesn’t normally happen to me. I usually go out with male friends – and men like the one above never, ever approach mixed groups of people. I am never approached by bores when I’m alone, probably because I look vaguely lesbian-ish. And so I was simply not accustomed to seeing a man behave, consciously, like an arsehole, ignoring or dismissing the opinions that four women had over the matter. It’s not that we weren’t articulating our no well enough, or that he wasn’t able to read our subtle, feminine signs: he simply didn’t care. He was giving us no say on the matter. I rode my bike home with the creepy afterthought that this man was rapist material: he was the type of guy for whom it simply didn’t matter whether a woman agreed with his plan or not; he needed to have the upper hand. And the most awful detail was that my three friends, all beautiful (non-lesbian-looking) young women, seemed somewhat accustomed to this kind of behaviour.

2. MY FIRST TASTE OF THE UNDERSTANDING OF CIVIL LIBERTIES IN AUSTRALIA was getting yelled at by two female friends the day after we stayed out on Lygon St, Carlton, drinking until about 3am. Continue reading “There is this thing called 'right to the city'; women have it too.” »

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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, 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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CITIES, how the world works, spatial poetics, travel notes

A note on violence

13 June

As I’m writing this, the first gay pride parade in Split (second biggest city in Croatia, biggest coastal, smack-bang in the middle of the area that was heavily bombed during the war, therefore, somewhat predictably, somewhat right-leaning) resulted in a violent riot, as the parade (of 200 mainly non-gay people – activists, intellectuals, supporters) was met by a rock-hurling counter-protest (of about 10,000 by the police estimate). Croatian media are exploding with commentary, all condemning the violence in the harshest possible terms. This is great improvement since the LGBT issue was first raised, only about 12 years ago, when no one spoke about it, and the general opinion was not far from an assumption that there are no homosexuals in Croatia. But, in a very strongly masculine culture, homosexuality is, of course, destabilising for a whole series of cultural paradigms. As one journalist wrote: Continue reading “A note on violence” »

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CITIES, policy & design

Cities, or the missing vision for 'em in Australia

Dear reader, I have been busy beyond description. I have had no time to tweet, let alone post considered long-form writing on this blog, which is still incredibly dear to me. Instead, I have placeholders in my mind, things I think about when I’m running up and down Melbourne (literally, physically running), and things I can list here as a sort of physical placeholder:

– criticism as judgement and as philology;
– the role of the audience, and critic as an audience member;
– short taxonomy of live art;
– on Christoph Schlingensief (I have recently submitted by interview with Anna Teresa Scheer on the book she has edited with Tara Forrest on Schlingensief, of which I am tremendously proud – I will re-post here when RealTime publishes it, but I was going to write a few other things too).

However, I’ve been also itching to write more about cities. I’ve realised I don’t publicise the other half of my life enough – many people don’t know that I have spent 14,600 hours (I calculated tonight) studying and working on cities, which makes me at least fluent in urbanism. I am a geographer, there’s about half of an urban planner in me, and I’m also being trained in urban design. I research, I design, and I write about urban problems to almost the same degree as I write about theatre. And it was only recently, when I realised that my ex-boyfriend had somehow managed to sell himself to the world as the theatre and urbanism expert who just happened to be going out with me, that I started wondering about whether I am perhaps too reticent about these things. I mean, I do have this whole other area of interest, if not exactly expertise.

So, I’ve spent the best part of this semester completely engulfed in urban design (when I wasn’t completely engulfed in the break-up with the said ex-boyfriend) – urban design which, in Anglophone countries, has been detached from urban planning since about the 1960s, which has resulted in some important problems. I’ve been grappling with those problems, as well as learning to master the expectations, the tasks, the problems and the opportunities of the design-based teaching process. It has been absolutely hectic, but extraordinarily rewarding so far. I am very fond of the design teaching process, which is studio-based, which is to say problem-solving and creatively oriented, but at the same time homework-driven and hugely demanding of the student. It seems to me that almost any discipline or area of knowledge could be taught that way, and that the practical component (the having to make something and present it in class twice a week) enhances one’s knowledge in a fairly significant way.

I have also been offered to teach studio-based subjects, which is humbling and incredibly exciting at the same time. I am getting interested, very interested, in combining performance training practices with design practices, in one way or the other (in performance exercises being used to generate design, or design exercises being used to generate performance). And when I say design, I really do not mean buildings, but solutions.

You see, the divorce between urban planning and urban design in the Anglophone countries has resulted in a peculiar state in which neither the left nor the right hand have the tools to effect change, and are, on top, working in mutual hostility. Urban design has gone the way of architecture (on which I will say only: I am yet to meet an architect who isn’t incredibly ignorant of most of the world, yet smugly convinced of the superiority of his discipline over all others – other than my friend Pouria, who doesn’t count because he’s Iranian). Urban planning has gone into public policy. The result is that urban design is only interested in shapes from bird’s eye perspective, and urban planning in equitable processes of consultation, and policies. The latter has no interest in Really Existing urban conditions, not as far as I can see. The former, while it has an appreciation for Really Existing urban conditions, has no understanding of the social processes that form and perpetuate such conditions – which makes it essentially unable to replicate them through design. The result is the deep stasis we see in Australian cities, a failure of imagination and governance.

Dan Hill has recently published an extraordinary article on this failure of imagination and governance in Architecture Australia, and re-published it on his excellent blog, City of Sound. I recommend the article even if you never cared about a city in your life: it’s very thought-provoking. Dan makes a point that governance isn’t simply management, that it needs a vision for the future (which is what design could give urban planning); but also that ocularcentric (pretty-pictures) design, of which we currently have bucketfuls, cannot give us the solution. This is why I previously made a distinction between designing an object and designing a solution: the latter can be invisible, yet it has to work. At the same time, paradoxically, it is urban planning in Australia that has the ‘strategic’ epithet in front of it, the long-term thinking and acting. Design is short-term and product-oriented, while strategic planning is without vision. No wonder we’re fucked.

In another, recent blog post, Dan also addresses this, somewhat obliquely:

Strategic Design is, to me, potentially the most interesting recent development in design. It’s neatly defined at the Helsinki Design Lab site:

“Helsinki Design Lab helps government leaders see the “architecture of problems.” We assist decision-makers to view challenges from a big-picture perspective, and provide guidance toward more complete solutions that consider all aspects of a problem. Our mission is to advance this way of working—we call it strategic design.”

It feels (and is) quite different to design thinking, which is a term and way of thinking I think will fade quite rapidly, for some good reasons (the incorporation of its basic tenets into everyday processes) and bad reasons (the lack of rigor, awareness and responsibility on the part of many who have been actively pushing it in recent years). Either way, strategic design feels like something else, and its careful, integrated and thoughtful focus on meaningful, systemic challenges like health care, education, and climate change is particularly relevant. It’s also sketched out well here.

I have seen ‘design thinking’ appear in many places recently, even creeping into the world of theatre (through people such as Esther Anatolitis and Ming-Zhu Hii, who are very interested in design). I am quite wary of the term, because I am under no illusion that designers have the general knowledge needed to find solutions to problems. I work with designers, and I can attest to the inordinate focus they place on packaging, as opposed to function. But what design disciplines do have is a method of ploughing through a problem – a process.

What is needed, however, is greater emphasis on learning how a city works, what a city needs, how a city changes – in an abstract, non-targeted way – before a designer has actually gained enough knowledge to put their drawing skills to good use. See, for example, the eminently reasonable curriculum offered at Delft university (the Dutch are particularly good at teaching this stuff right). (ADDENDUM: I didn’t want to be mean when I original wrote this, but now I think it may make sense to compare this to the similar curriculum at Melbourne University. As you can see, the design subjects are strongly focused on design methods, such as digital modelling; while the planning subjects are mainly concerned with legislation. The focus on actual processes shaping the city is just about negligible.)

On a related note, I saw Timothy Morton give a lecture last week, at Melbourne University. The gist of it seemed to be that the age of theory is over, and the age of doing has begun. This is a peculiar thing, coming from a theorist, who in the question time admitted that all he knows how to do is sit in libraries and think, and that there must be a place for such activity too. Of course, yes. But I’m finding it interesting that this sort of thinking has been creeping into humanities and philosophy: a sort of glorification of the doing, of labour, of the physical, unthinking world, over abstract synthesizing of the world. The problem is that it very easily slips into glorification, precisely because it comes from people who don’t know what they’re talking about.

Similarly, there has long been an interest among designers in philosophy; but this is always in the most utilitarian, de-abstracted terms: ‘let’s design smooth and striated space, as theorised by Deleuze and Guattari’.

It seems to me that neither of the two is particularly smart as an approach, and that the trouble comes from a certain lack of general knowledge, or specific knowledge, on both ends. There is a place in this world for abstract thought, and for creative problem-solving. They can be immensely useful to each other. But it is only in their non-compromised forms that they are actually what they are, and only as such can they be useful to each other…

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CITIES, poetics of life

On iPhones and belonging

I never quite realised that getting an iPhone would mean not so much getting a new phone, as getting an entire new life; the normal-phoned Jana has sort of handed the torched to iPhoned Jana – an entirely new person who sends emails from cafes, tweets overheard oddities, and can find out that elusive address whilst on her way (the previous strategy involved calling friends with smart phones). The new Jana is self-sufficient to an unprecedented degree. A kind of cyborg, really, in the most literal sense. I have weather reports, stock markets and international contacts at my fingertips. But that’s not all.

After ten years of having the oldest possible phones, I am suddenly up with the trends. I can participate in collective behavioural fads – play those games that people (in the sense of ‘society’) play. Then also: people (in the sense of ‘society’) make software (‘apps’) for people like me. Whatever service I have thought of so far (lyrics to songs, wardrobe organisers, on-the-go radio), it all exists. I say ‘uhm’, and they give it to me. Someone anticipates my needs.

This is actually quite interesting, because it’s very unusual for me. And it’s unusual, I think, because I’m so used to being a minority. And being a minority, I realise, it’s an experience largely defined by the frustration of seeing your needs not being taken into account. Or met, but that comes without saying. And, since even before being an immigrant of non-English-speaking background (an outsider’s outsider) in Australia, I was already female, poor and left-handed, I think being a minority really shaped my rapport with the world.

I can be literal and explain, since it so far may sound like whining. Left-handedness is pretty straight-forward: whenever an item has been designed with a modicum of thought (as opposed to just put out there, like a pole or a pinboard, exempli gratia), chances are it is not suited for a left-handed person. Typical and well-known examples: can openers, knives, male clothing (female clothing buttons up left-hand-friendly by a historical accident: it is not meant to be self-buttoned at all, but done by a maid), computer mice. Lesser-known examples: pasta makers, coffee machines, cars in most countries, entire writing systems (try doing Japanese caligraphy with a left hand!), most instruments (even supposedly balanced ones, like piano, are more difficult), every set of knitting instructions in the world. Being left-handed means constantly translating activities into something you can do.

But then take poverty – poverty not in its absolute, global sense, but in the relative sense of earning significantly less than the median income. This is poverty that registers in one’s experience as a feeling (of being poor), and that is by definition a state of minority (being relatively poor means deviating from the average, defined by the majority). In one’s experience, being poor registers as the perpetual state of not having access to the solution which has been provided to your problem, because you can’t afford it. It means not being able to get somewhere, because the only means of transport is too expensive. It means forgoing medical treatments, because you can’t afford them. It means having to do things the long way, because the short way isn’t your short way.

And then being a woman – this is a whole other story, involving, for example, the medical treatment of childbirth, maternity leave provisions, and is a long and tiresome story that plenty of literature has covered already. But there it is again – everyone’s short way isn’t your short way. This notion of the problem being one of provision, but also navigation, was repeated very nicely early this year in an interview German Labor minister, Ursula von der Leyen, gave in regards to the need to have business quotas for women:

I understand the position of young woman [sic] who say that we don’t need quotas. Many of these women have had the experience that they have no trouble in school, at the university and early in their careers. They haven’t yet learned that there are two career paths: the one for men with well-marked streets; and the one for women on unpaved roads that not even the navigation device knows. Most of the women who’ve made it into top management positions say that although they also used to be against quotas themselves, they now believe that women can’t get by without them. I was the same. I used to sing the praises of the right to choose. But I’ve now learned that you sometimes need a law as a catalyst for change. For decades, there was absolutely no change in the number of men taking paternity leave. But within two years of making men eligible to receive state funds while taking paternity leave, the figure has increased six fold.

Navigation, of course, is very easy with a smart phone. But my accidental discovery here is that one kind of empowerment negates another kind of disempowerment. Having an iPhone (which puts me, simply, into the category of ‘majority consumer’, as opposed to a sub-culture, a minority lifestyle which favours old phones) mitigates against being left-handed. Having money mitigates against being a woman. And so on.

To return to the notion of people (in the sense of ‘society’): what’s interesting is that, although one principle of exclusion (of me, from society) may be as functioning as ever, I can beat it with another principle that I do conform to. Hell, it even makes it much sweeter: I’m enjoying my iPhone like the world will end when I stop. But, of course, this is exactly the same principle that drives the poor to side with white supremacism, drives men to dispute women’s rights to things, and even, I would cautiously suggest, drives women to excel at school and then go into humanities. I reckon one gets just as great a sense of belonging to people (in the sense of ‘society’) from being one among a million players of Angry Birds, as one gets from making Shakespeare in-jokes. In a certain sense, both are diametrically opposed to hysteria.

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