Friday 30 July 2010

Web muster


Occasionally in my life I've received a gift and wondered - what do you, giver, think of me, that you believe that is something that will make me happy / I will find useful / deserves a place in my house? Obviously Claire Howorth has had a few of these experiences, as her analysis of David Cameron and Barack Obama's art-swop is pretty intense.


I've only recently discovered the Gerhard Richter website. She's not the prettiest thing out there, but she's (a) not built in Flash and (b) extremely comprehensive. I also like that the site creators have taken both the artist's ideas and user needs into account when putting the site together, as this note on the Paintings section describes:

Although the artist intentionally avoids classification, we have placed his paintings into subjective categories for easy viewing.


This week, both the Powerhouse Museum and the Brooklyn Museum wrote about why they've developed apps instead of websites for mobile devices. Fascinating insights. I wonder if New Zealand galleries, museums, arts festivals etc who have not tackled the mobile interface question yet will jump straight to iPhone app development?


Two articles I've recently enjoyed:

Federer as religious experience (2006) by David Foster Wallace (found via this list of the 'best magazine articles ever')

I'm Comic Sans, Asshole by Mike Lacher

And a blog I've just started following: The Subversive Copyeditor

Wednesday 28 July 2010

Book, book, book, shelf

It might just be that I'm attuned to it, but bookshelves seem to be a topic of much discussion on the web right now.

On the book blog The Millions, Charles-Adam Foster-Simard writes about organising his bookshelves as only a 20-year-old can:

After the toil of the unmaking, now I have to rebuild my library up — restock the shelves that now stand cleared, poised, filled only with light and shadows. After some consideration, the first book I place back on the top left cube, is Beowulf, masterfully translated by Seamus Heaney, the beginning of literature in English. I have to rifle down the spines of a few piles before I finally locate it.

Next up goes Tolkien. I cannot resist — without him I’m not sure Beowulf would even be taught in schools at all. His translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, first, to soften the transition, and then The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, Tree and Leaf, and The Children of Hurin. Then I place Herodotus, whom my girlfriend assures me thinks exactly like Tolkien. I am startled by my audacity. There is a jump from 10th century Anglo-Saxon manuscript to 20th Century fantasy writer to the father of history, a fifth-century Greek — my system is either creative or blasphemous.

Charles-Adam Foster-Simard links through to Sarah Crown and John Crace's more playful article on bookshelf etiquette on the Guardian. After noting that one of the first acts of recently-resigned British politician James Purnell was to rearrange his bookshelves, Crown and Crace run through some of the tried and possibly true methods of organising shelves:

I have a friend who arranges his books generically, with each genre bleeding into the next – science into SF; history into historical fiction. It took him days, but he was a happy man by the end of it. In Jonathan Safran Foer's novel, Everything is Illuminated, a girl derides her lover for ordering his books by colour ("How stupid") – but the system retains a small but passionate following. One colleague orders her books according to which authors she feels would be friends in real life – regardless of the centuries that separate them.

Meanwhile, links to Anthony Dever's tumblr Bookshelf Porn have been flitting about on Twitter. As Monica Racic writes on The New Yorker's book blog, introducing Dever:

I am fascinated by the contents of people’s bookshelves. And I am equally interested in how people organize those books. The arrangement is often just as telling of a person’s personality as the contents of the shelves.

One of my own favourite bits of writing on this topic (which, lets face it, can all get a wee bit pretentious and coy - god knows my own bookshelves couldn't live up to this level of aesthetic or intellectual analysis: books are now being put where they can fit) is Anne Fadiman's essay 'Marrying Libraries' in her anthology 'Ex Libris'. It's not online, so you're going to have to find it on a bookshelf somewhere, if you want to read it. I'm sure, given a little time, I could find it on mine for you.

Monday 26 July 2010

Father figures

Andrew Martin's recent article on the ways fathers are depicted in popular culture and particularly children's and YA literature is an interesting read.

While I strenously disagree with his take on Dodie Smith's 'I Capture the Castle' ("Cassandra's father borrows his daughter's coloured crayons in order to plan his supposed epic; and she solicitously provides him with glasses of milk. He is completely broke, in spite of that castle, which he doesn't own, but only rents.") he does nail the point that absent or ineffectual parents are almost necessary to children's fiction, particularly the fantasy-tinged variety. After all, when does anything interesting happen when your parents are around? From the piggish parents in Roald Dahl's 'Matilda' to whoever the parents are in The Famous Five, from Harry Potter's dead, heroic, parents to Mr and Mrs Darling, lack of parental oversight is integral to adventure.

Often however there's the stand-in adult, the adult who seems more on the side of the child than the grown-ups. From Merlyn in 'The Sword in the Stone' to Mary Poppins, or the great uncles of 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe' and the 'The Dark is Rising', these characters are shaman-like figures, guiding children between worlds.

There are though some books that draw warm, insightful relationships relationship between parents and children, Roald Dahl's 'Danny, Champion of the World', Rebecca Stead's 'When You Reach Me', Michael Chabon's 'Summerlands', and the most searing account of parenting I've ever read, Cormac McCarthy's 'The Road'.

Friday 23 July 2010


I stumbled over the Significant Objects project recently, and was immediately fascinated.

As described on the Guardian:

In July 2009, two American cultural commentators, Rob Walker and Josh Glenn, began to buy and resell bric-a-brac at their Significant Objects store on eBay. In each listing, Significant Objects substituted the usual descriptions for a short story featuring the item, to see whether "narrative transforms insignificant objects into significant ones". The pieces were written by authors such as William Gibson, Sheila Heti, Nicholson Baker and Jonathan Lethem. Bylines accompanied each listing and bidders understood that they were only offering to pay for a shot glass or secondhand hairdryer that had served as literary inspiration. Yet, if they won, they would be buying both the gewgaw and a print-out of the story.

All the stories and objects are recorded on the Significant Objects website. Over two hundred objects have been listed, a publication has happened (or is planned - the website, while full of interest, is occasionally obscure), associated fundraisers have been held, and data has been crunched. Do I fully understand what's going on? No. Is some of it delightful? Yes and yes.

Thursday 22 July 2010


A few weeks back I was at SFMOMA. It was the first time I’d visited an art gallery with an iPhone, and the first time I’d seen such an open policy towards photography – no barriers, no restrictions. This is what I blogged about that visit.

Since I’ve got home, I’ve found myself pulling out my camera more and more – often surreptitiously, timing it around the attendants’ walk throughs. I feel guilty, but also justified: for example, sometimes I want to blog about a show – free publicity for the museum. Because I’m not “the media” as such I don’t get offered images the way other journalists do, and because I’m not “the media” – this isn’t my full time job – I don’t often bother to ask for images.

The other reason I take photos is that I'm doing a fortnightly spot on Nine to Noon on RadioNZ with Kathryn Ryan, talking about art matters. On the Sunday before I go on air I prepare my pages of notes - usually 3-4 A4s - which I pass on to RadioNZ, occasionally accompanied by photos, if I think they'll help.

So it occurred to me that the topic of taking photos in art galleries could be a good topic for one of these spots, so that's what I covered yesterday.

Visitor photography policies

In preparation, I did an email around to various contacts in museums and galleries around the country. First up, I'd like to thank all the people who got back to me with prompt, clear and often very thoughtful responses. It became clear to me that many of our arts institutions are grappling with their photography policies in this day of small devices and relentless recording and sharing of our experiences with our networks.

The policies I received back broke down into 3 categories:

1. Open access

This is more likely in museums. Both Canterbury Museum and Auckland War Memorial Museum allow photography throughout their galleries for non-commercial use, unless there are specific restrictions in a temporary show.

Auckland Museum is particularly interesting. They welcome photography and video in all their permanent galleries, and all their own special shows. The response I received noted:

The uptake of photos out there in blogs, Flickr, and Facebook, plus You Tube videos is tremendous for us. And it's even better for school kids, who can now base projects around our collections and galleries more easily.

Some galleries are also negotiating permission on a show by show or artist by artist basis. The Govett Brewster in New Plymouth did this recently for their anniversary show, when they got approval from the exhibiting artists – Don Driver, John Reynolds and Pae White – for visitors to take photos.

This flags an interesting conundrum. I visited that show, and would have liked photos for this blog. However, I assumed photography was banned, and didn't see any signage indicating I was welcome to photograph these particular shows. How do we tell our visitors what they can and can't do, without interfering with current signage, or creating the Te Papa 'you can touch that - and that - but not this...' problem.

2. Limited access

Several galleries and museums permit photography under certain conditions:

  1. Non-commercial/personal use
  2. Wide-shot: not close-ups of specific works, but photos of the wider space.
  3. No flash, no tripods.

Examples include the Adam Art Gallery at Victoria University in Wellington, Te Papa, and the New Dowse in Lower Hutt. This policy skirts the copyright line; the theory being that if it's not a close-up, it's not copyright infringement.

3. No photography

Several galleries have a blanket ban on photos, including Auckland Art Gallery, Christchurch Art Gallery, Dunedin Public Art Gallery and City Gallery Wellington.

The main reason cited was that given copyright and lending agreement complexities, it was easiest to just say no.

Reasons for saying no

The first reason cited is usually conservation, although this applies to flash photography particularly, and even the concerns around this are not, as far as I can see from some googling, well documented. In fact, most of the information I could find was on blog talking about the lack of data.

The second is copyright. God knows this is a tough one to get around, with the artists' copyright being complicated by restrictions private and public institutions put on works they lend and exhibitions they tour. I would love to see more galleries following the GBAG's lead and asking artists for permission for personal photography in shows of their work. Pragmatically, people are taking photos already - why not make this a selling point for them?

Finally, visitor experience. This Michael Kimmelman article and the associated comments does a good job of aggregating the ways people feel about looking at art, and how they feel cameras and photography can aid or impinge upon their experience.


I would like to see more galleries and museums adopt an open policy towards photography for personal use, in consultation with the artists they are showing.

I honestly cannot see the harm of people taking photos and sharing them on Flickr or Facebook or Twitter, or just showing them to friends and family. If someone cares enough to take a photo and share it, it's usually as a recommendation or simple 'I am here, I am doing this' broadcast - both of which are the kinds of word of 'mouth' activities you think institutions would be dying to encourage (exhibit A: 'It's Time We Met', the Met Museum's crowd-sourced marketing campaign).

This is not saying that copyright, conservation, and visitor experience don't matter. Because I don't think that's what SFMOMA was saying. Instead, it's saying to visitors that we value their attendance, and understand their actions. And that's got to be good thing.

Wednesday 21 July 2010

Mid-week pretty

Actually, pretty AND smart

Slippy map generated from geo-tagged photos on Flickr, by Aaron Straup Cope

Tuesday 20 July 2010

As seen on

Over the last month I've been writing for my work blog, and it just occurred to me that some of you may be interested in those posts too:

Social media workshops for museums and galleries (15 June)

Full Code Press & Agile (17 June)

iPads, laptops, and social interactions (5 July)

ROI for social media: the human measure (12 July)

Friday links: design, development, usability and more (16 July)

Monday 19 July 2010

More than just moving the commas around

One day, I would really like to write my own book. I've worked on quite a few books, and contributed to a couple, but I don't have my own yet. Thank goodness Diana Athill is my new role model, replacing Winona Ryder in Reality Bites.*

When that day comes, I'd love to work with a really great editor. While I've had some terrible editing experiences and some satisfactory experiences, I've not yet had the blow-my-mind, oh-my-god, you-mean-it-can-happen-like-that? experience. But I believe it's out there.

Anyway, the reason I was musing on this was that I came across this New Yorker column by Susan Orlean tucked away in my Instapaper files, and wanted to share it:

I could go on, about how I left Publishing House X for Publishing House Y because I was still scared of Editor F, and how at Publishing House Y I managed to get three books written there working with Editor G—who assured me that he would never leave, and this was almost true, except for a brief period when he did, in fact, leave, but then he came back—and then the head of Publisher Y got fired, and eventually I left and then Editor F left, and then I was working with Publisher Z, and then the head of Publisher Z left, and then I left Publisher Z to go back to Publisher W, because the person now running it was an old friend from the magazine world, who I knew would never leave, but you might think I was exaggerating. But I’m not.

The piece also reminded me of this piece by Gary Kamiya on Salon that I blogged about years and years ago, which I still love. And also this piece by Scott Berkun, which describes the editing relationship I hope to have:

I want to hear some tough stuff in the copyedit. How else will the book get better? A copyeditor and author shouldn’t agree on everything – the process should force the writer to think more clearly and catch bad assumptions they’ve made. I get final say, so what do I have to lose in being questioned? Better now than in book reviews.

*Female readers of a certain age will know what I mean. I hope.

Friday 16 July 2010

Web muster

Stuart Jeffries gets his bile on in the Guardian over boring blockbuster programming:

Conservative? The Royal Academy's newly open Sargent and the Sea, and the National Gallery of Scotland's forthcoming Impressionist Gardens are set to be both tourist-friendly lollipops and visual Prozac for a staycationing nation of depressed and professionally insecure self-deluders. Not that I won't be going to see Sargent's swelling seas; it's just that I'll hate myself when I do.

Also in the Guardian, an interview with Victoria Miro.

Audience research firm Slover Linett Strategies on the potential hazards of 'gateway' programming.

Jerry Saltz on the Whitney's expansion plans:

If I were on the Whitney’s planning committee I’d trust the curators to curate, even if many of their shows would be infuriating. I’d harp on one thing: building enough interior space to permanently display the permanent collection. The Whitney must learn from the Museum of Modern Art’s mistakes. Even after spending over $750 million dollars on their expansion, MoMA neglected to reserve enough room for the greatest collection of modern art in the world. The result borders on tragic.

And from Newsweek, the Creativity Crisis:

Like intelligence tests, Torrance’s test—a 90-minute series of discrete tasks, administered by a psychologist [to measure the ability to generate useful and original ideas]—has been taken by millions worldwide in 50 languages. Yet there is one crucial difference between IQ and CQ scores. With intelligence, there is a phenomenon called the Flynn effect—each generation, scores go up about 10 points. Enriched environments are making kids smarter. With creativity, a reverse trend has just been identified and is being reported for the first time here: American creativity scores are falling.
I couldn't resist pasting a few New Zealand artworks into Pixel Width Portraits, although I always wonder if any self-respecting designer would actually use this as a way to come up with a palette.

Finally, New Zealand company My Tours have worked with the creator of the Invisible Paris blog to create mobile tours of Parisian street art and architecture the way natives, not tourists, see them - they look great.

Wednesday 14 July 2010

Infinite Judd

Does what it says on the box: by Chris Collins

Monday 12 July 2010

They're looking at our art, over there

This weekend I went along to the panel discussion on the current state and future of art history in New Zealand, held at the Adam Art Gallery.

Director and facilitator Tina Barton made some brave attempts to start some conversations about how curators and academics are writing the history of New Zealand today, but struggled with an overly large and occasionally reticent group of speakers. Some of the central questions for me about the writing of art history in this country revolve around who the history is being written for, what the writers hope to achieve, and how it is getting to the audience. Why, for example, has the Awa Press put out anthologies of sport and science writing, but not art writing? Why is Brown and Keith's history still being treated as some kind of obstacle to be overcome, or bogeyman to be railed against? Are our public institutions focused on single-artist publications and collection histories because they sell better, or because CNZ is more likely to fund a publication linked to the work of a living artist than a bunch of dead ones?

One interesting point made by Elizabeth Caldwell, director of the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, was that when putting together publications on New Zealand artists, they are increasingly looking to get non-New Zealand writers to contribute essays, as a way of helping the artist in question to forge links (and presumably exhibition and market opportunities) in other countries. There seems to me to have been a subtle shift in ambition (and probably policy) over the past two decades away from attempts to take our art history overseas (Headlands, Toi Toi Toi, Cultural Safety) and towards exporting our artists (the Venice Biennale, residencies, CNZ support for appearances at art fairs).

I was reminded of this point just now when I was going through my feedreader and found this piece by Greg Allen on Len Lye. It begins:

I came across a mention of Len Lye's spectacular-looking kinetic sculpture a couple of weeks ago, while reading 1965 coverage of the Buffalo Festival of the Arts. Sandwiched in between a photo of Robert Morris and Yvonne Rainer in a nude dancing embrace and a headless mannequin dangling on the set of a Eugene Ionesco play was an installation shot of Lye's Zebra at the Albright-Knox: "It consists of a nine-foot rope of fiber glass which, when set in swirling motion by a motor, bends into constantly changing shapes."

Allen didn't come across Lye's work through the concerted effort of an institution or individual art historian to promote Lye's work or place him within a local and international context. He happened upon it when doing his own art history; working through the primary material in order to answer the question he was interested in, and then publishing his findings. This reminded me that even if there is no shared objective in our art history, there's still the need to just get stuff out there.

UPDATE: more from Allen on Lye, including correcting one of the well-known windwand photos

Friday 9 July 2010


In my professional life, speed is highly valued. I'm an advocate of Agile project management, for example, with its emphasis on time-boxed development periods and fast, focused releases. I've worked on numerous projects that have gone from 'here's what we want' to 'here it is' in 12 weeks. I've been to a million talks and presentations where people have preached the cult of failing fast and failing often, of rapid iteration and daily releases.

Which is why I'm currently filled with admiration for E.H. Gombrich. Start-up founders could take a lesson or two from a man who managed to summarise the history of human civilisation in under 300 pages and on a 6 week deadlines.

A Little History of the World was written in 1935, when Gombrich was 25. He'd finished his thesis, but hadn't found a job. Given an English history book for children to translate into German, he was distinctly underwhelmed by the text. He wrote a sample chapter of a rival book for the publisher, who gave him a conditional yes; the book would be published if it could be completed on the same deadline as the translation.

Gombrich worked 6 days a week on the manuscript - Sundays were spent with his wife, to whom he read each section. Each day, Gombrich would tackle a chapter: the morning for research at home, the afternoon for research at the library, and the evening for writing.

The resulting book - which I'm reading at the moment - is a marvel. Although the tone feels a little dated, especially the questions and comments directed at the intended child reader, the clarity is extraordinary. Gombrich introduces history as a long story, passed down from generation to generation. Writing history, he says, is like lighting a scrap of paper and dropping it down a deep well - the flare lights up the past as it descends. His flare lights up people, places and moments that shaped human culture, from the invention of writing to the age of chivalry.

Reviewing the book when it was finally released in English in 2005, Peter Conrad described it as a 'mental microcosm', and Lisa Jardine as "a manifesto for freedom and integrity". The thing that astounds me about the book is its personal tone - smilingly ironic, sincerely admiring, occasionally melancholy, rarely angered. Above all, it is wise and gentle - but never dull.

Review by Lisa Jardine
Review by Peter Conrad

Wednesday 7 July 2010

Hacking colour fields

Today I started playing with Brooklyn Museum's latest 1st fans artist's project, Tweeting Colors by Brian Piana.

Piana has been using Twitter to generate source material for a while. Ellsworth Kelly Hacked My Twitter, for example, is a dynamic digital artwork modified whenever one of the people Piana's follows on Twitter tweets.* Medals (after Stella) responded to tweets containing specific words related to Olympic medals. [It's probably good to note that Piana bases these titles on visual similairities and his own admiration of the artist's work, rather than claiming a conceptual kinship.]

Piana's project for 1stFans is somewhat different. In this case, members of 1stfans control the artwork, by tweeting phrases that contain the relevant keywords and hashtags (including a number and a colourcode from the palette Piana has provided).

The tweets are parsed as scrolling vertical lines of colour of various widths.

The interaction is very simple right now, although Piana says he will introduce more functions as July passes. Right now I'm participating with a daily tweet, where the colour is related to the weather (so yeah, lots of greys) and the date provides the number. I'm interested to sees where this leads.

*Don't worry, I do understand that if you haven't succumbed to Twitter, all this is about as meaningful to you as 'discursive frameworks' is to me. Bear with me, and I promise the next post won't been tweety.

Monday 5 July 2010


or, Further adventures with my iPhone ... please excuse the picture quality

I'd be interested to know how many people could draw an overall conclusion about the five works included in 'Under Construction', currently on show at the Dowse. While the description of the show holds water

a collection of artist projects that respond to notions of space, location and environment. Joanna Langford, Karin van Roosmalen, Douglas Bagnall, Fiona Connor and A.D. Schierning each have differing practices, but all provide comment on the constructed environment and our relationship to it.

the actual experience as a visitor is as divided as the five spaces the works are shown in. Compared to the very easy to 'get' watercolour show, 'Under Construction' is rather oblique.

Having said that, I was utterly taken by the contrast between Langford's typically spidery, tenuous structure and the weightiness of Connor's stairs sculpture. Those two alone would have been enough for me.

The best word I can think of for the pairing is 'flattering'. It may be intentional and smart, or great dumb luck, but it's worth going and seeing for yourself.

Friday 2 July 2010

Close up

At the beginning of the week I was at SFMOMA, checking out the Fisher Collection show. It was the first time I've gone to an exhibition with my iPhone, the first time I've visited a gallery with free wifi - and the first time, I think, when I've visited a gallery that had no rules against photography.

So here's the Sol Lewitt/Carl Andre room

Close to a Sol Lewitt

Closer ...

Close to a Sigmar Polke

Close to an Agnes Martin

Apart from the wire roping off the Serras (sensible) this was the only barrier I saw ...

... a strip of darker wood laid into the floor, raised enough that if you stand on it you notice it. Nice.

Apart from the poor security guard in the Sol Lewitt/Carl Andre room trying to convince a pair of kids that yes, they really could walk on one particular floor walk, I didn't see anyone getting warned for getting too close or taking pictures.

And I noticed that one of the friends I was with - a quite serious photographer - wasn't just taking shots to record the experience, or test things out, like I was. It was how he looked at and understood the works on show. It's not an argument I've thought of before in favour of galleries loosening their photography policies, but it's one that I now believe in.

Thursday 1 July 2010

Slow media, fast delivery

I've just returned from a motivating and exhilarating time at Foo Camp in Sonoma County, just outside San Francisco. I would say 'humbling' as well, except I don't think I could have come out of it any more humble than I went in.

One of the most interesting sessions I attended was one led by Kevin Kelly and Stephen Levy on slow media. The argument is that in these days of gimme-it-now insta-reporting, it's hard both for publications to support long-form, long-term reporting, and for readers to find the attention span to absorb it.

In the session, it was noted that only one person had a laptop open. In fact, I barely saw a laptop at Foo. It's not unexpected that in a tech-heavy audience most people will be carrying either an iPad or a smart phone, but it did surprise me that laptops were so little in evidence. One of the nice things about the iPad is that it's far less obtrusive in a small group of people - the wall of the laptop screen disappears.

The weekend gave me a chance to get a little more familiar with the iPad. I still haven't found my killer app, the use-case that convinces me I need one. If I travelled more, that would be a different case. But as it is, for writing I prefer a laptop (well, a desktop for anything longer than a blog post or email) and my freshly acquired iPhone is quickly becoming indispensable for everyday checking up and checking in.

However, if my long-desired essay mixtape were to eventuate on the iPad, I would probably shell out. It is a good reading experience, and well-suited to long-form writing. However, I want more than to just surf the web and bookmark and revisit and happen upon and be linked too great articles; I want some way of arrnaging and describing and sharing them.

Further reading:

The slow media manifesto

Matt Jones on magic windows and magic tables

Russell Davies on 'printing the internet out and squirting it into things'

My past thoughts in the grandly titled 'future of essay anthologies'