Friday, 30 November 2012

Only connect - NDF2012

UPDATE: You know what? Don't read this. Read Tim Wray's write-up instead.

Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon.
Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted,
And human love will be seen at its height.
Live in fragments no longer.
Only connect...  

E.M. Forster, Howard's End

The National Digital Forum conference pointedly does not have a theme. But connections and emotions came to the fore for me this year. How can we connect items within collections, across collections, throughout the web, programmatically? And how can we connect as people, connect emotionally, with these items - with our heritage and our history and our present and the products of our making and thinking and doing?

For example, Tim Sherratt has gone on from his 'Small stories in a big data world' presentation and demo at NDF to give this week a talk titled 'Archives of Emotion'. He asks:
Why are we so reluctant to acknowledge that archives are repositories of feeling? Is emotion meaningless because it can’t be quantified, dangerous because it can’t be controlled, or does it simply not fit with the professional discourse of evidence, authority and reliability. 
As our experience of archives moves further into the online realm, so the possibilities for making emotional connections increases — simply because it’s so much easier to share. From the like button or the retweet, through to a lovingly-tended personal collection in something like Pinterest — we have new opportunities to explore what’s important to us and why.
Sarah Barns' keynote captured so much of what I am looking for in terms of a more emotional, a more meaningfully spectacular engagement. Her collaborative, research based, site-specific projects like Last Drinks and Unguarded Moments bring the past into the present in a way that is intelligent, respectful, delightful, unexpected.

Last Drinks: Australia Hotel, Commonwealth Bank, Martin Place from esem projects on Vimeo.

Sarah also nailed a point at the end of her talk that I have been ranting about for a while: our collections are the fuel of contemporary creativity. They need to be made available with the the purpose of creation in mind. And these creations need to be brought back into the archives too, to fuel the next wave of making, and so on, and so on, for ever more. That's how culture works:
When we live in a digital age, when our expectations of learning and experiencing a sense of the past involve not only books but media recordings and artefacts, YouTube and StreetView, I think we also need to consider a broader concept of what public space means, to include considerations of how it is that we access and participate in sharing and re-using our ‘digital public spaces’. What might the different forms of access be for different kinds of uses, whether as a student, a historian, or a documentary maker, or a city council, and how might we define the public values of our digital archives in the future – not just as ‘memory institutions’ but also as resources for future creativity and innovation?
Chris McDowall's demonstration of a project in which he took 16,000 portraits from the Auckland Libraries heritage collection, ran them through facial recognition software, cropped the photos automagically and then morphed them artfully into a visualisation that takes the metaphor of continents as its organising principle showed how primal our connection to the past can be - we are endlessly, deeply, emotionally drawn to faces. A sea of faces opens before us, and all we want to do is immerse ourselves (Chris's project is not yet online, but a prototype can be seen in the National Library's Big Data / Changing Places exhibition, in its newly re-opened Wellington building.)

I was very taken with Cath Styles' talk of 'analogical links' in her presentation on Sembl. This app, developed at the National Museum of Australia for education groups, encourages the playful and thoughtful linking of collection items - with potential for greater effects:

My own talk also canvassed this area - hence, I suppose, why I was so sensitive to this particular zeitgeist. I have posted a preliminary taster of my presentation; I'm working on the full text.

I spoke to many people after the conference about how this theme - unintended by the organisers, but all the more interesting for rising up unbidden - had struck them, and how it might shape their work. It makes me incredibly excited already to see where NDF2013 might take us.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Arms wide open

I spent a chunk of last week with the awesomely talented and very personable Nate Solas, of the Walker Art Center.* Hanging out with Americans is always interesting, for many reasons, including talking about the difference in the funding models for our cultural institutions.

I thought of that this morning when I woke up an looked at Twitter and saw Maxwell L. Anderson, director of the Dallas Art Museum, dropping a tantalising hint:
I made some coffee, and by the time I was back at my laptop the announcement was out. The Dallas Art Museum is not only dropping its admission fee from 21 January next year, but also making membership free.

From the Dallas News:
“Nobody has ever done this,” Anderson said last week in an exclusive interview with The Dallas Morning News. “We’re going to build a model for museum engagement that we believe every other museum like us will want to have.”
Some special temporary exhibitions will continue to have charged entry; people with free memberships will be able to collect 'points' through their visiting activity (terrible phrase, all my own fault, but covers in this rushed early morning post things like repeat visits, going to specific galleries, catching public transport to visit the museum, through to Facebook friending) to earn discounts.

Entry charges have been on Anderson's mind for a while:
Museum admission fees have been an issue with Anderson since he wrote a landmark thesis during a fellowship at Princeton University that questioned the use of museum attendance as the primary definition of museum success. Admission fees represent about 2 percent of a museum’s revenue and are not, in his words, the driver of the economic engine.  
If, for instance, “you take the top 130 art museums in America and add up their operating expenses, it was $2.1 billion in 2010. If you then add up their ticket revenue, it’s around $116 million. So, that’s under 4 percent nationally. But if you exclude New York, you’re closer to 2 percent nationally.”
This post about the announcement by Tyler Green tracks changes and trends in admission charges in museums across America.
The DMA is continuing an industry trend of making general admission free. In recent years museums such as the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Walters Art Museum and the Detroit Institute of Arts (for local residents) have all decided that they can better fulfill their missions by eliminating barriers to access and entry.  
The trend toward greater public access to art has yet to extend to museums in major tourist cities: MoMA soaks visitors — 60 percent of whom come from overseas — for $25. The Met asks for $25 (here’s why that’s a bad idea) and the Guggenheim charges $22. In San Francisco, America’s other big city for art tourism, SFMOMA charges $18. None of them offer free admission or discounts to their home audiences.
Of course, we're not really talking about the financial benefits of membership here. We're talking about the concept of being a member: of belonging. Of making this the default setting for every person who enters the building (or engages with the museum in some way). As Anderson says:
“When somebody from South Dallas walks up to the front desk, and the person behind the counter says, ‘Welcome to the DMA – are you members?’ What are they hearing? It’s like walking into a country club. It freaks you out. It’s exclusionary. I want everybody to feel they belong here, so I want everybody to be a member.”
*Nate is the Senior New Media Developer at the Walker - check out the team's blog here. The Walker's redeveloped site, with its open attitude and data-crunchy underpinnings, was the hit of the museum world this year. Nate was in New Zealand as a keynote speaker at the National Digital Forum conference. Video of the presentations will be available soon; in the meantime, we're using a Google Doc to collect as many sets of presenter notes, slides, and demos/projects as we can.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

A Poem, Three Photographs, and Another Poem

[UPDATE: The full text of my talk is up now: Going back to gallery land]

Last week, I spoke at the National Digital Forum. My talk was about moving from the web world to the gallery world; about the metaphors I am taking from one environment to the other. It was also something of a call for more emotion and more connection in the way we make experiences around art and our other heritage collections, both physical and digital. (I was lucky enough to follow on from Sarah Barn's keynote; projects like Last Drinks and Unguarded Moments are such beautiful examples of this.)

I also talked about two ideas I have - one for a Museum of Emotions, one for Emophoto, an interface that allows us to take an image and attribute emotion to it. I plan to write these both up in more depth, hopefully before Christmas, and if not by then, then over the summer break.

Giving the talk made me nervous. The precis above might not suggest it, but it was significantly more personal and more difficult than almost any other public presentation I have given. I have only stood up once before and let more of myself show in front of people. Part of me wants to clean up and share my notes; part of me is reluctant to do this. While I was up on stage I had no idea whether people were coming with me on my journey or just thinking What on earth is she going on about? But the reaction of Twitter and the things people said to me later in the day made me realise that the silence in the room wasn't bewilderment or boredom; it was connection. It's this connection that makes me reluctant to share my notes, as I feel that connection was special and should perhaps be left in those moments in that room; be allowed to be a little ephemeral.

I did however want to share five things.

When I introduced the idea of the Museum of Emotions, I put up a slide with the opening lines from Charles Simic's poem 'William and Cynthia'. I read this poem a while before the notion of the Museum came to me, and re-read it after I had written up my first set of ideas and talked to some close friends about it. I didn't think of the poem between those two readings, but clearly it was moving around in my subconscious. Now, I come back to it every week or so:

Says she'll take him to the Museum
of Dead Ideas and Emotions.
Wonders that he hasn't been there yet.
Says it looks like a Federal courthouse
With its many steps and massive columns.

Apparently not many people go there
On such drizzly gray afternoons.
Says even she gets afraid
In the large exhibition halls
With monstrous ideas in glass cases,
Naked emotions on stone pedestals
In classically provocative poses.

Says she doesn't understand why he claims
All that reminds him of a country fair.
Admits there's a lot of old dust
And the daylight is the color of sepia,
Just like this picture postcard
With its two lovers chastely embracing
Against a painted cardboard sunset.

When talking about my idea for Emophoto, I referred to a DigitalNZ set I keep called 'You Move Me'. It's not a set I share, but one that I use to collect images for my own pleasure and sweet sadness, images that do just that ... move me. I talked about how the emotion I feel when looking at these images seems to transcend what they capture - it exists in the air between me and them. Here I will provide the transcript of my talk, and also show the images I chose not to put up on the screen, because I wanted ... well, I'm not sure what I wanted, but it felt right for the moment.


Some of the images in this set are easily parsed. Colin McCahon’s Scared, for example: the stark, brave statement in white paint flung against on a black background: I AM SCARED. I STAND UP. Ian Scott’s joyous, sexy, carefree Leapaway Girl. A photo from 1905 of three blind old men in matching beards, pipes and uniforms, sitting on a bench on the verandah of the Ranfurly Veteran’s Home. A man and a woman kissing at the Wellington Railway Station, watched by the partial profiles of two soldiers. Then there are the items that are less explicit.

There is a photo I feel great tenderness for. It’s by John Pascoe, and it’s from 1943. It shows Laurie Walker, the owner of Manuka Point Station in the South Island, standing in profile, head bent over his hands, reading a letter. Next to him stands his horse, also in profile, patiently waiting for him. It is so quietly reflective, so peaceful, so intimate, and when I look at it I hear the silence of my childhood, sitting in a paddock in the middle of nowhere, no-one else in sight, reading my book, waiting for my father to come back from wherever he’d gone and collect me.

There’s an image that I find endlessly forlorn. It’s so bland, when you describe it: it’s a photograph, taken in about 1935, documenting a pothole on Molesworth Street. That's all. An empty section of street, the bottom part of a row of shops, and a pothole. But I feel such a wave of loneliness whenever I look at it.

And there’s a 1950 photo from the Evening Post that I find incredibly romantic. It’s titled, simply, ‘Man and bird’. It shows a young man, his hair ruffled by the wind, wrapped in a trenchcoat, in Evans Bay here in Wellington. In the background, there is an overturned bicycle. And in his arms, he cradles a huge, powerful dark bird.

Every time I look at this photograph, I think of Richard Brautigan’s ‘The Castle of the Cormorants’. The poem goes like this:

Hamlet with
a cormorant
under his arm
married Ophelia.
She was still
wet from drowning.
She looked like
a white flower
that had been
left in the
rain too long.
I love you,
said Ophelia,
and I love
that dark
bird you
hold in
your arms.


At NDF this year, we had our first deaf attendee. As a result, we had a person signing in each session, interpreting the speaker's words. I was fascinated - I am alway fascinated - watching as words I know transform into gesture. So when I came to Richard Brautigan's poem, I relied on memory and turned away from the lectern, and watched the signer take the words and give them physical form. And it was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.

John Dobree Pascoe, Laurie Walker and horse, Manuka Point Station. Ref: 1/4-045900-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. 

Pothole, Molesworth Street, Wellington. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. 

Man and bird. Ref: 114/138/10-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Monday poem

Craig Arnold's throat-thickening, tear-welling 'Hymn to Persephone'

Help me remember this how once the dead were locked
out of the ground and wandered sleepless and sun-blinded
She was the one who took them each by the hand helped them
lay their bodies back in the dark sweet decay
gladly as onto a lover’s bed they call her Koré
the Maiden a dark queen with a crown of blood-colored poppies
her fingers lift the cool coins from a dead girl’s eyelids
her breath in a man’s mouth releases him from memory

There was a man who would play fast and loose with Love
She smiled at first to hear him tossing around her nicknames
like cheap wedding confetti Pretty Butt Manslayer Smile-lover
or mocking the blessed valentine folded up in her lap
petal-pink as a seashell but when he swore he’d never
let Love knock the wind out of him and leave him panting
that set her teeth on edge Love is a cruel justice
she makes us pay for our lover’s sins as well as our own
and she took away the one whose loss would hurt him deepest

Maybe he would have wept but grim determination
came to him more easily than tears and so he followed
the road that only the desperate walk with their eyes open
where the willows bend to comb their fingers through the river
and the long grass cuts the ankles stalks of mullein
stand like tall candles the dead mixed with the living
and spiders weave webs between them glint in the sunlight
the vague gray country where all shadows gather
and the dark queen keeps them safe in her lightless mansion

She was sitting out on her porch peeling a pomegranate
leaning back in her chair feet propped on the railing
her face a cool and cloudless moon ink-black hair
Who are you she called most of my visitors come here
with their arms crossed and pennies laid over their eyes
My eyes are open he answered nothing I do can close them
night after night I lie awake counting my heartbeats
my hands won’t work they can’t seem to hold anything

Come in the house then she held the door half-open
and deep in the dark hallway he thought he could see the faintest
flutter of movement and he was afraid She took his hand
her fingers cool as a cave of water-hollowed limestone
Someone you knew she asked this graceful tender of shadows
My advice to you is to go home and grieve her
Sound the well of your tears as deeply as you can
wipe your eyes and be glad you’re still among the living

Why he demanded you could bring her back in a heartbeat
Maybe she said do you think you’re the first to come here
chasing after someone they lost but you have the guilty
look of a man who tossed away what he loved too lightly
How can I feel sorry for you You don’t know the first
thing about my love he snapped So prove it she said
sing me a love song who is this girl you miss so much
that you come to my house to fetch her out of the shadows

He sang of the first permission of flesh and flesh to entangle
how we abandon the guard of our heart and throw our borders
open and welcome a sweet invader to take possession
the sudden exquisite catch in a throat and the slow hush
of a breath unfettered the sweetest sounds to a lover’s ear
He sang of hands finding shyly at first their way
to another shelf of hips oh how the heart flares
and melts like wax spilling over a candle’s lip

Even the spiders stopped spinning their webs to listen
I like your song she said maybe you’ll come back
and sing it again for me before too long he shivered
Out of her lawn she plucked a withered stem of mullein
Take this and go home and you’ll find her waiting
I’ll give you one more day and night and the morning after
to spend together however you please I warn you though
when the time comes say your goodbyes and don’t look back

That day the cherry-trees in the square had just flowered
making a roof of white blossom over their heads
That day they walked with the awkwardness of the long parted
and sat on either side of a table and shared a pizza
and washed it down with a half-carafe of cheap red wine
and tried to talk their way back into their bodies
and as they left the leaf-buds were a green promise

and when she stopped to put on more lipstick
she’d left it all printed around the rim of her glass
he laughed and said There goes my chance to kiss you
Why she replied would you ever let that stop you
And they took each other’s lips frankly took their faces
between each other’s hands and the tears were shaken out
like raindrops beaded on a branch and they were barely
able to have enough of touching and they kissed each other dry
and over breakfast they smiled so hard that it hurt

They went to make the bed and found the sheets bloody
and so they fished through all their pockets for quarters and walked
down to the corner laundromat where they sat together
holding hands as they waited and watched the dryer tumble
Together they folded linen billowed it out between them
to shake away the wrinkles brought the corners together
in halves in quarters their bodies coming at each fold closer
and smiling at each other over the hot cotton

The clock-hand spun in circles and soon morning was over
and all they had left was the long drive to the airport
the slow walk through the terminal trying to talk each other
out of sorrow their voices bright with desperation
until they stood at the edge of what any words could comfort

Don’t try to follow me this time she said whatever
else happens we made each other happy for a day
Yes he agreed and they turned to walk away from each other
and though he struggled bravely to keep his face together
he cracked he ran tear-broken back through the concourse
and caught her up in his arms until she eased gently
out of his clasp and kissed him one last time and left him

But too late the moment he turned a demon of memory
sat hard on his shoulder and caught hold of his ear
murmuring over and over the words of their final parting
What what would’ve given the story a happier ending

Out in the meadow that day dark purple butterflies
sipped the sweet nectar from yellow cups of blossom
and blundered into the webs where the big spiders waited
to tuck them into the soft silk of their winding sheets
all their legs a wiggle of happy anticipation
What are you doing here she asked him not unkindly
You look awful your eyes are spilling over with memory

The world hurts to look at he said all glitter and sharp edges
I’m sorry she said but didn’t I warn you to take your time
together and let it go at that it would’ve been kinder
Instead you sent your love back to my mansion loaded
with twice the grief she left with her own and yours also
And with that he felt like he’d fallen into a dark lake
and the cold had got his bones and he was slipping under
Let me join her then he said I’m sick of living

No she told him twice you’ve come here uninvited
and before I let you lay yourself in my bed forever
go back to the sunlit world and tell your story
All I can offer you if you aren’t afraid to accept it
is a kind of consolation and then she gave him a look
that was almost shy First would you do me a small favor
Make me another song like the last one you sang me
only this time sing to me of self-effacing
surrender of love that we give knowing we have to lose it

And so he sang of the love that is not so fearful of ending
that fear ends it love that admits the flavor of pain
the pulling apart of ivy-tendrils ripped from a tree
love that lays itself in the grave of another body
sweetened by loss as we lose ourselves in our lover’s arms
given completely over to pleasure the dark flower
that opens petal by petal unfolding us to the utmost
pitch of surrender lost in the joy of self-forgetting

Then he praised the maiden who makes us a gift of grieving
to spill the bowl of our tears when it grows too heavy
the grace to release our beloved kindly into her care
and not to fear the soft tap of her footsteps approaching
her fingers touching our eyelids when she comes to invite us
into her bed and with cool unhurried hands unravels
the milky threads of our thoughts and memories may we part with them
gladly and go more easily into the dark flower

And the girl smiled as if they’d shared a secret
and she broke the mullein-stalk in half and then in quarters
pressed the pieces into his palm and closed his fingers
Throw these to the wind she commanded and he did
and they were lost in the long grass that cuts the ankles
Then she reached on her tiptoes he was a head taller
and breathed into his mouth the scent of mint and violets

And he woke up alone in the other world and he was
walking down a familiar street and it had been raining
all night and the boughs of the trees were black and heavy
and the first cars of the morning passed with their tires hissing
over the blacktop and under his feet he felt the pavement
slither a carpet of petals battered down by the raindrops
and each puddle swirled with a slick of green-gold pollen
and though he couldn’t remember how or when it happened
his heart had been spilled and at its quick was planted a wet
seed that he’d never known before and it was spring

Friday, 23 November 2012

Friday poem

My crush on Mark Leidner continues. To the point where I wrote him a fan letter. My very first. And he wrote back! Bless that man.

Charismatic Ambulance Driver

It’s WWII.
I’m a charismatic ambulance driver.
You make me French toast
and when you set the plate down
you kiss my neck
and I just stare and stare at you.
We’re tilling a field in Poland
when the clouds break open
and we throw down the reins of our plows
and make love in the wind and the mud
while the mules, mute, look on.
You are about to take a spacewalk
and I stop you in the airlock
by shouting your name
and as you spin around to face me
your hair splays out in the absence of gravity.
Not without this, I say
handing you your helmet.
It’s Texas and you’ve tricked me
into attending a bake sale.
We’re out in the desert, resting
in the shade a small cliff is creating
and you gently pat my stomach
and ask me if I am gay.
We’re driving through Atlanta
and it is the end of the world
and you point out the window
and I follow the pale curl of your arm
and the line extending from your finger to the moon
and the moon is full
and on fire.
You’re panicking
because you can’t remember the meaning
of nonchalant, but I’m massaging
your neck, whispering,
It’s what you are.
You catch the flu but you refuse
to blow your nose because you’re scared
of looking sick. I finally get you to blow it
by offering you $5, and when you do
the most beautiful music comes out.
I call you sport
and you get a funny look in your eye
and say, Don’t call me that.
You split our bread into two parts,
the crust and the center,
and you give me the crust.
I finally say, I’m leaving you!
All you ever gave me were the wretched crusts!
and you look up at me,
tears brimming in your eyes, and say,
But the crust was always my favorite part.
We are trying to purchase a car
and you are heavy with child
and we are test-driving a small coupe
and I take a corner too fast, and your water breaks
and you tap me on the shoulder and say,
My water just broke. And I say, Is it okay
to drive this car to the hospital?
It’s not ours yet, you know.
We end up getting a different coupe.
You ruined that one.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

But is it art?*

Paeans to perfume are a bit of a feature of this blog. This latest is triggered by a NYT interview with New York's Museum of Art and Design director Holly Hotchner and perfume curator Chandler Burr over the new show 'The Art of Scent'.

The article covers how perfume became a department at the MAD (Burr approached Hotchner, who says she considers perfume to fit within their remit, and to occupy a position analogous to photography in the 1970s) but perhaps the most interesting information is about how they are approaching the design. Rather than using packaging, bottle design and videos of ads and perfumers to deliver the show, it boils down to 12 alcoves in the gallery wall with sensors that distribute a puff of perfume when you put your head in them, and a couple of stations for other activities.

Going back over my posts, I found a quote from a 2007 review of Tania Sanchez and Luca Turin's Perfume: The Guide (now behind a paywall) that pondered how a perfume like Guerlain's Après l’Ondée could be displayed as part of "an exhibition of Edwardian art and design where it so obviously belongs, the olfactory equivalent of what Yeats called “the faint mixed tints of Conder”, alongside many other nearly contemporaneous manifestations of the beautiful pre-war cult of paleness?". While the MAD show encompasses 130 years of perfume (Jicky, from 1889, to Untitled (for Martin Margiela) from 2010) it treats them as artworks divorced from the social context that birthed them. It's still an idea I find intriguing.

*Ironic title.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Louise Erdrich - Shadow Tag

From the 'occasional reviews' department


Reading Louise Erdrich is like having your heart ripped out and stomped all over, but still understanding why someone did that to you - and forgiving them without even trying to.

Shadow Tag is a portrait - the metaphor is very apt - of a desperately, violently, drunkenly, obscenely, passionately, disdainfully, exhaustedly unhappy marriage. Gil and Irene feed off each other, wound each other, manipulate and heal each other, all before a chorus of witnesses: 14 year-old Florian, eleven year-old Riel and six-year old Stoney.

The day after I put down Shadow Tag, I picked up Craig Arnold's Made Flesh. The collection opens with a long poem, 'Couple from Hell', a story of love and hate and distance and bewilderment, told through Hades and Persephone. It is very, very beautiful and very, very hard to read, and contains the following lines:

Two people on a bed      trying to make love
your hands won't hold each other      you turn away
to separate sleep      only to startle yourselves awake
in the thick of coupling      arms and mouths
full of each other      some unspeakable desire
grinds you against each other like continental plates
at the earth's foundation      but waking once again
you pull apart      to opposite corners of the heart
and what you don't say is a dance floor between you

Soft as ivy pulling brick to pieces
she puts down roots in you      you fear
her hold on you is all that keeps you whole
and fear leads to shame      and shame to anger
and anger to bitterness      she must own
what she has broken      you will hold her
hostage to your unhappiness

The poem hews close to the tone of 'Shadow Tag', and it feels appropriate to respond to one through the other, because I read Erdrich first as a poet. As a result, I cared less about the narrative (which is tight and fast in some places and slow and lingering in others) and paid more attention to Erdrich's words and, particularly, the set pieces that involved each of the children: small, innocent Stoney; lithe, knowing Florian; deep, defensive Riel. This passage - oh, this passage:
What is it? What is it?
The crying began all over again with the same miserable fore. Then Stoney quit.
I don't want to be a human, he said. His voice was passionate. I want to be a snake. I want to be a rat or spider or wolf. Maybe a cheetah.
Why? What's wrong?
It's too hard to be human. I wish I was born a crow or a raccoon. I could be a horse. I don't want to be human any more.
After he considered many other animals, Stoney told his mother what had happened. That afternoon, at school, Stoney had made fun of another child. The teacher had first sharply reprimanded him, then told him the other child was handicapped, which Stoney hadn't understood.
You made a mistake, said Irene, it's all right. You didn't mean it. Did you say you were sorry?
Yes, yes, said Stoney, crying again. His rosy face was deeply flushed. His eyelashes clumped in wet points. The skin around his eyes was puffed and tinged a delicate lavender. His sorrow entered Irene and loosened her arms and made her eyes sting. She tried to hold him, but he wrenched away, and said, I don't blame you if you don't want me. I should be taken away.
Irene put her arms out again and this time Stoney flung himself upon her heart. As she held him, her thoughts spun; it took a long time for her to coax Stoney into a different frame of mind. Later on, she remembered that each of her children at the age of six were thoughtful, said startling things, and had experienced shame. Sometimes the humiliations were public, sometimes it happened at home. But the first time it occurred shame always pierced deep. The feeling was new, fresh, and terrible. It made you want to crawl out of your skin. Irene had almost forgotten what the feeling was like.
There is a certain staginess to the novel - of tell, don't show:
Winnie Jane had lived to raise Irene and see her grandchildren - that was something. Not enough, but something. Irene had grown up in the middle of Minneapolis without a television. Her mother had dragged her to everything Ojibwe. She learned the histories of the reservations before she learned the Pledge of Allegiance. Winnie Jane also loved recordings of Shakespeare's history plays, and Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear. None of the comedies, of course. They were Indians.
Gil had grown up watching the TV set his mother had brought home from the church basement. He could quote plots and lines from The Brady Bunch, The Courtship of Eddie's Father, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, All in the Family, and I Love Lucy. Each episode was full of snappy comebacks, laugh tracks, an ooh-aah ending. Her endings were of course insane bloodbaths. His outlook was sentimental while hers was tragic. The union of the tragic and sentimental is kitsch. Irene felt that whenever she opened her mouth the appreciate her marriage in public, she was giving tongue to kitsch.
Towards the end of the book, Gil ponders a quote from a story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. It isn't given to us to know those rare moments when people are wide open and the lightest touch can wither or heal. A moment too late and we can never reach them any more in this world. They will not be cured by our most efficacious drugs or slain with our sharpest swords. Shadow Tag catches, unflinchingly, how the power of emotion first expressed as love can leach away or - more frighteningly - transmogrify into other, harder, weapons. It is a book that is denies redemption - and is all the more powerful for it.

Friday, 16 November 2012


Immersive environments are one of the things I'm thinking about at the moment. I think this might be partly because I'm increasingly listening to music as I walk around exhibitions - Angel Haze in Ben Cauchi's show at City Gallery Wellington, The Vaccines in Angels & Aristocrats at Te Papa, Frank Ocean in Joe Sheehan's show at Pataka. I think before this year I would have frowned upon myself for doing this; now I kind of like the way it creates a bubble around me inside the show, and also sets me up with these unexpected pops of visual memory when a track comes on when I'm walking or driving or running. But this new habit also plays off two of the most moving art experiences I've had, Michael Parekowhai's On first looking into Chapman's Homer and Janet Cardiff's The 40-Part Motet, both of which are visual experiences that hinge on music.

Anyhow. It all means I've been ticketing away stuff I find on the internet that ties inside my head to this notion of 'immersive'. One that's been floating around for a while now is rAndom International's Rain Room at the Barbican. It's a rather extraordinary installation in which water falls from the ceiling of a darkened room, controlled by motion sensors - as people walk through the room, the rain stops falling from the tiles above their heads, letting them make paths through the rain or just stand, dry, as it falls about them.

Rain Room at the Barbican from rAndom International on Vimeo.

This video on the Guardian website explains how the piece works. And this review reveals some of the issues - the work is incredibly popular, the room takes only 5 people at a time, the queues are 2-3 hours long, and the technology is occasionally a little glitchy. None of this takes away from the fact that the whole thing is surreal and magical.

A few weekends ago I stumbled over this music video by Belgian pop group Willow. The song isn't rocking my world, but the illusion of an unfolding journey - produced through three projectors, a cunningly placed treadmill, and a tiny two-walled studio space - is incredibly impressive.

Willow - Sweater from Filip Sterckx on Vimeo.

I go back and forward on the question of the 'artfulness' of things like this - when the technology is so apparent, so much part of the intellectual satisfaction of the work for the maker and so apparent to the audience, are we looking at art or design or engineering? Does it matter? I'm inclined to say 'no'. I have on heavy rotate in my car at the moment araabMUZIK's remix of Sleigh Bell's Never Say Die. And watching that guy work is kind of a marvel to me.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Web muster

Which is why algorithms, exactly like fascism, work perfectly, with a sense of seemingly unstoppable inevitability, right up until the point they don’t. 
Literature is not Data: Against Digital Humanities by Stephen Marche, Los Angeles Review of Books

The palace Hickey's describing, with its lackeys and viziers, its dealers and advisers, is more of an American phenomenon. It's true that we too have wilfully bad art made for hedge fund managers, but the British art scene is not yet so thick with subservient museum directors and preening philanthropists that nothing is freely done and we can't see the best contemporary art in our public museums because it doesn't suit the dealers.And that will be true, I hope, until we run out of integrity and public money.
Guardian art critic Laura Cummings on David Hockney's renouncement of art criticism

She was, you could say, the Johnny Appleseed of Conceptual Art, planting germs of mind-expanding thought that would grow and flourish around the world.
Ken Johnson on the Brooklyn Museum's Materializing ‘Six Years’: Lucy R. Lippard and the Emergence of Conceptual Art, New York Times

Friday, 9 November 2012

Sky Street

Next February (I know, right? plans for next February) I'm giving a talk at City Gallery Wellington on (or around) Ben Cauchi's exhibition The Sophist's Mirror.

At the moment, the talk is titled 'Has the Internet Killed Photography?' - which is patently silly, and which will likely change. I'm going to use the talk as a chance to lasso together a whole bunch of diverse thoughts about photography, nostalgia, the creation and curation of online identity, serendipity, emotion, historical photographic collections, a whole bunch of online photography projects, and what this all might mean for the way we look at and respond to Ben's work.

So far, my prep has mostly consisted of reading things people smarter than me have written and gathering links and quotes into a rapidly expanding Google doc. It's increasingly fun to skate my eye over the document and see what leaps out: phrases like 'Kodachrome-tinted insta-past', 'Sehnsucht (a German word that translates as addictive yearning)', 'sharing is a form of memory', 'Young Me Now Me', 'multi-touch finger paintings'.

Having the talk quietly simmering on a back element of my mind has lent a certain sense of purpose to internet ramblings; a ticketing and collecting of points of interest. A recent example came by way of James Bridle's 2011 Web Directions talk Waving at the machines. 'Trap streets' are the Mountweazels of the mapping world - fake locations inserted into maps to protect intellectual property. There's something very China Mieville/Neil Gaiman/inverted world about this idea for me. The Sky on Trap Street is a tumblr drawing together shots of the sky from Google Earth's trap streets. I love it.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Read the walls

One recent Saturday morning when I popped open my feedreader, the following headline caught my eye: Cambridge University museums launch poetry 'renaissance'.

Poet Carol Duffy is leading an Arts Council-funded programme where ten poets will spend two-week residencies exploring Cambridge University's museums and collections and talking to staff, and writing poems to be presented in an anthology.

I got rather excited when I saw the headline, and then a little less excited as I read the article. But then I got SUPER excited when a friend sent me the following link via Twitter: Why We Should Treat Poetry Like Painting. In it, poet Linda Besner makes the call for museums of poetry; places where people can go, alone in or as families or on dates or whatever, and read the walls. Places that bring the physical experience of seeing art - that sense of occasion, of openness - to words. Rather than working to make poetry more of an everyday thing  (like the poems-on-public-transport kind of programme), Besner askswhy not treat it as 'high art' and put it into places that have the trappings (she is particularly interesting on the topic of curatorial explanations) that allow you to grapple with it on its own terms?

The above explanation makes the article sound rather earnest. It's not, really. It's exciting and inspiring and funny. It's hard to excerpt, because it's a lovely piece of writing, but here's a teaser:
Looking at Marie Antoinette’s hairbrush makes me hear the people shouting at the base of the guillotine, and Frida Kahlo’s paintings give me the feeling of being out in bright sunlight. In the same way, Irish writer Paul Muldoon’s “The Treaty” makes me feel woolly and tidy and sort of damp: “My grandfather Frank Regan, cross-shanked, his shoulders in a moult,/ steadies the buff/ of his underparts against the ledge of the chimney bluff/ of the mud-walled house in Cullenramer.” With many of my favourite poets, though, as with much contemporary art, the sensation is of a skimming, airy release from space and time. The dreaminess of galleries is in the visitor’s liberty to move from one immersive, transporting experience to another with plenty of gaps and white space in between for associative thought. 
I would love it if all major cities had a poetry museum, where you could go for a visit dressed up in your best all-black clothes. The poems would be widely spaced on clean white walls, big enough for four or five people at once to stand in front of them and read. You could go there on dates for the free Tuesday nights, and you could take your parents there when they came to visit. 

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Behind the scenes

I'm going to try not to deluge Best of 3 with work stuff - goodness knows that if you have elected to follow me on Twitter (for which bless you, kind people) you're getting the full fire-hose treatment - but yesterday was too good not to share.

I took an hour out to visit collection storage with Meredith Robertshawe, assistant curator at the Govett-Brewster, who was at the Dowse to drop off some Saskia Leek works for our forthcoming show and collect some Octavia Cook pieces. Meredith and I quickly discovered we share a deep love for New Zealand jewellery and had an amazing time pulling out the drawers, discovering surprise after surprise. Here are some of my favourite snaps:

Monday, 5 November 2012

The sensitive museum

So, here's an idea I'm kicking around: the sensitive museum (or sensitised - I haven't decided which). In fact, I've been kicking it around for nearly two years now, since reading about David Walsh's MONA and his plans (at the time of opening, at the start of 2011) to swap around the works on exhibition based on how long people spend in front of them.

Of course, this is a crude measure and crude reasoning - yet also intriguing. I like the simplicity of the idea, the speed - almost ruthlessness - with which it could be implemented, and the potential serendipity. It's data-driven curating (with all the potential for smartness and dumbness that this implies.)

I've been thinking about this more in recent weeks, following the public launch of (Which I have rather come to love, I have to say - the frictionless slipping through the site from artist to artist has overcome other qualms I have.) It was this review of the site by Elizabeth Merritt that got my mind ticking over, especially when she wrote:
But what really excites me about the Art Genome Project is something it hasn't done—yet. I envision a mashup between and the Internet of Things, a not-too-distant future in which I’m walking around a new city and my portable hand-held internet-connected device (let’s call it a “phone” for convenience’s sake) buzzes with the message: “Elizabeth, there is an Anselm Kiefer painting you haven’t seen, yet, on exhibit in the X Museum, just a ½ mile from here. [click for directions.] The Museum is open until 8 p.m. tonight and you can get in free with your Alliance membership. While you are at the museum, you might also like these other works….”
This made me ask myself: do I want museums to call out to me? How much do I want them to know about me and my tastes? Me, my tastes and my location? Would I wear a biometric device, collecting my heart rate and skin temperature as I travel round an exhibition? What does that actually help a museum understand about how I relate to a work?

We've all gotten our heads wrapped round the concept of the participatory museum. We all know that visitors (in larger institutions, anyway) are being trailed and observed as part of visitor research practices. Perhaps there is a difference between sensitised and sensitive after all. The former suggests data collection - the latter implies the thoughtful, considerate, caring use of that data. [There's a weird continuum here that leads towards performance art kidnappings, which crop up in the media every so often.]

This is one of the ideas I'm going to touch on in my talk at the National Digital Forum this month. Others include 'the stack as metaphor' and 'bangles'. You've been warned ...

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Set my images free

Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum reopens in April next year. In the meantime, they have just thrown open the doors of their collections. Via the Rijks Studio, 125,000 collections items can be viewed, added to sets. cropped, printed, downloaded (in glorious resolution) and reused.

It's the 'create products' that fascinates me. The museum is explicitly inviting commercial use. This is pretty amazing. As is this ...

To mark the launch, the museum is working with artists and designers to show what the Studio can do. This (temporary?) tattoo by Droog Design is a remix of  a 17th century still life painting.

And that's an example of the zoom that's available on the Rijkmuseum collection search. It's beautiful. And fast. And simple. I love it.

UPDATE: Inspired by this idea, I spent my lunchtime making (inevitably) a DigitalNZ set of images I'd remix for a tattoo. Droog-like, Rita Angus's Passionflower heads the list.