Tuesday 28 June 2011


I was suprised and pleased to see Walker Art Centre director Olga Viso giving an honest and personal take on this year's Venice Biennale

Philippe Parreno’s slight and almost pathetic marquee of lights over the entrance to ILLUMInazioni seems to announce it all: a Biennale in malaise, full of deflated artistic gestures and impotency. The sense of “artistic stultification” — to appropriate language used in the Biennale’s exhibition guide to describe Maurizio Cattelan’s hundreds of taxidermy pigeons that line the ceiling and rafters of the Arsenale — was pervasive.

... On the journey home, I found myself continuing to contemplate the 2011 Biennale with curiosity and intrigue. Was my overall impression a generational one? Did my memory of past biennales that had more impant reflect a sense of nostalgia not relevant to the current moment?

This is part of what I wish 'professionalism' meant in the visual arts: the ability and confidence to share professional opinions openly and thoughtfully with an interested audience. I wish it happened more.

Friday 24 June 2011


A couple of busy weeks means that posting here will be very erratic, if it happens at all.

For replacement reading pleasure, how about checking out Longreads, or newcomer Byliner?

Thursday 23 June 2011

Getting shit done

I'm utterly smitten with this Atlantic article by Alexis Madrigal on the New York Public Library. Especially this paragraph:

I'm going to give you the conclusion to this article here to solve the tl;dr problem. There are two things the library has done to create such cool projects. First, I'm convinced the NYPL is succeeding online because of desire. The library's employees give a shit about the digital aspects of their institution, and they are supported in that shit giving. I mean this in the most fundamental way possible and as a damning critique for media companies. Second, the library sees its users as collaborators in improving the collections the library already has. While serving them online costs the library some money, they are creating value, too, by opening up conduits into the library for superusers.

Madrigal was obviously pretty smitten to - the Atlantic has put out an open call to librarians, archivists and curators to tell them more about what they're doing:

We here at The Atlantic Technology channel love archival collections that have been digitized. We think they help us situate ourselves in the present by giving us an unvarnished look into the past. We also think that your work doesn't get enough attention from the outside world. Reporting a recent story on the New York Public Library's digitization efforts, we realized that we wanted to create a conduit into our reporting system for you to let us know when you're working on an interesting collection.

So, that's what this form is. A self-service way to quickly ping us about the good work you're doing.


Tuesday 21 June 2011

Dance magic dance

Every so often I like to dip my toe in a different world - well, my reading toe, anyway ...

Dancers and their hair - I never realised it was such a big deal

Miranda Weese, a former principal at both City Ballet and Pacific Northwest Ballet, experimented with different lengths and layers to lighten the bulk of her hair. “I had to learn ways to put it up so that I didn’t pull it so tight, because I was literally balding in the front,” she said.

Ms. Weese eventually added bangs; her reasoning was that she could pull them back more gently after the rest of her hair was up. Once, she recalled, a concerned Rosemary Dunleavy, the company’s balletmistress, approached her backstage and said: “You’re not going to wear the bangs are you? Because I think it would make you look like a little dog.”

Taking Romeo and Juliet to the stadium, big screens, popcorn, early exits and all

“I’m so pleased that it’s so popular,” said Jo Moon, 42, an advertising executive who was standing in the refreshment line during intermission. “I like how people from all walks of life can come here and be themselves, with no airs and graces.”

But her companion Anja Tita, 40, said that while that was well and good, the lack of airs and graces meant that many people seemed to have no compunction about rudely taking their seats even after the dancing had begun. (Even more rudely, there was a rush for the exits even as the last scene was taking place.)

All aflutter over Twitter at the New York City Ballet, who are introducing a social media policy

the policy would require dancers to include a disclaimer specifying that their comments are not employer-sanctioned, according to a copy of a draft reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

It would also ban them from disclosing another dancer's injury or illness, and from posting photographs of company events, or of "persons engaged in New York City Ballet business without their consent."

Thursday 16 June 2011

Closing soon - NDF2011 call for presenters

I try not to mix my worlds up too much on this blog, but I want to pimp the National Digital Forum conference that's happening at Te Papa on 29 and 30 November this year.

It's New Zealand's key event for web-inclined people working in, with and near museums, galleries, archives, libraries, and any other organisation or company or endeavour interested in getting New Zealand's culture and heritage online, accessible and re-usable.

As well as invited speakers, each year we run an open call for presenters. This year we welcome proposals on a range of topics including:

  • connecting our online culture and heritage - through partnerships and through technology
  • measuring success and failure - how do we know when we’re doing the right thing well?
  • getting New Zealand’s culture and heritage out into the world: innovative projects, community engagement, education, re-use by consumers and creators
  • sharing stories of inspirational and creative projects
  • the challenges and opportunities facing our sector.

We also welcome proposals that don't relate directly to these topics, but that you think will resonate with conference attendees.

I'm co-convening the conference this year with Brenda Leeuwenberg from NZ on Screen. If you would like to discuss an idea before submitting a proposal, you can contact us by email: conference AT ndf.org.nz

The call for papers closes on 20 June, and we hope to have registrations for the conference open at about the same time.

More information about the Call for Presenters and an online submission form are available on the NDF website.

Wednesday 15 June 2011

Web muster

Derek Powazek on How to Turn a Fan into an Enemy in Under 140 Characters (an online interaction with an NPR host that looks set to create a whole new movement)

The Art Gallery of New South Wales snags a show of heavy-hitters from MOMA

I know the character ends when the camera switches off, but try reading this New Yorker profile of Alec Baldwin without seeing Jack Donaghy preening in your mental eye.

And finally. I'm often asked why some artists get shown at City Gallery, or represented by Peter McLeavey, and others hang their work in cafes. Is there, people ask me, an objective distinction that can be made between the art from different art worlds? In this op-ed about the Australian four-year-old whose paintings are selling for tens of thousands of dollars, Noah Horowitz tries to answer that question.

Monday 13 June 2011

Why so serious?

[Republished, because I mucked up some HTML]

Back in the day, when I was one of the people running the National Library's twitter account, we used to agonise regularly about whether our linking lines were too smutty, or that the material we were linking to was too off-colour. It's surprisingly difficult to have a sense of humour when you're inside an institution, speaking out.

So I guess it's up to the people on the outside to have the good, smutty fun. Three examples that have come across the transom lately:

Fuck Yeah Victorians: clippings of all things Victorian gleaned from around the web.

Bangable dudes in history: it's not exploitation if there's pie-charts.

And my personal favourite, My daguerreotype boyfriend: because any hot guy looks better in long exposure. Especially, for some reason, criminals.

Wednesday 8 June 2011

The Emperor of All Maladies

From the occasional book review series - Siddartha Mukherjee's The Emperor of All Maladies.


Siddhartha Mukherjee is a writer/physician in the traditional of Oliver Sacks and Atul Gawande; in 'The Emperor of All Maladies', he binds together stories of the patients he treats as an oncologist in Boston with the history of the understanding and treatment of cancer.

The book opens with Carla, a 34-year-old kindergarten teacher who for the past month had been noticing increasingly concerning and painful symptoms - mysterious bruises, pale gums, exhaustion, a sudden and numbing headache on waking. She goes to her doctor for bloodtests; when her blood is drawn, is isn't red, but a thin, pale serum.

Mukherjee first hears about Carla when a sentence flickers up on his pager: Carla Reed / New patient with leukemia / 14th floor / Please see as soon as you arrive. Carla is whirled immediately into an isolated, sterilised room, and her five-year 'battle' with cancer begins. [I'm just going to be up front here - although I understand the history of the metaphor of cancer as a war, and survivors as ... well, survivors, it's still a metaphor I find distasteful.] We are returned to Carla throughout the book, and its conclusion coincides with her remission.

Between the beginning and end of Carla's story, Mukerjee takes us through 500 pages and 4,500 years of sickness, scientific discovery, political lobbying, fundraising, outsized personalities and bucketloads of factual trivia. Leukemia - the cancer Carla was diagnosed with - is regularly returned to throughout the book; the modern treatment of cancer began in the 1940s with Sidney Farber, a specialist in pediatric pathology (children's diseases), who decided to focus his attention on childhood leukemia: virulent, mysterious, almost inevitably fatal, but - almost magically, from a research point of view - a cancer that could be measured, and the efficacy of treatment revealed with data.

At Boston's Children's Hospital, Farber trialled treating children with leukemia with folic acid (which had recently been shown to restore the normal creation of blood cells in bone marrow in nutrient-deprived treatment). His first experiments went horribly wrong; folic acid accelerated the progression of leukemia in the children. But Farber was fascinated - if folate exacerbated leukemia, might an anti-folate treat it?

And there you have it - in one paragraph. Up until about the 1980s, treating cancer was a practice of ideas (not even what I would term theories) and experiments. From the 1950s, through the partnership of Farber (whose later experiments worked out much better than the first folate trial) and philanthropist Mary Lasker, America's Congress and private patrons funded the war on cancer on a basis Farber and Laskey deliberately compared to the Manhattan Project. But for decades, funding went primarily to trials, and only a snippet to research into prevention and the cellular basis of cancer - the basic research required for coherent, systematic development of targeted drugs.

The first half of Mukherjee's book is fantastic, fascinating and appalling. We move from the Egyptian physician Imhotep in 2,500BC, who categorised tumours, to Galen, to the hubristic surgeon heroes in the first decades of the 1900s. I was particularly struck and distressed by the story of surgeon William Halsted, who invented the radical mastectomy. Halstead worked from the thesis that cancer spread of radially from a central node, and that by excising all flesh that could possibly be infected, a relapse could be prevented. Surgeons cut deeper and deeper, further and further into women - removing breasts, chest and back muscles, lymph nodes, collarbones. Of course Halstead and his followers did not recognise that cancer metastasizes unpredictably; it may not reappear next to its first appearance in the breast, but in the liver, pancreas, brain. This may seem exploitative, but as Mukherjee writes:

When for patients, that manic diligence had become a form of therapy. Women wrote to their surgeons in admiration and awe, begging them not to spare their surgical extirpations, as if surgery were an analogical ritual that would simultaneously rid them of cancer and uplift them into health. Haagensen transformed from surgeon to shaman: "To some extent," he wrote about his patients, "no doubt, they transfer the burden [of their disease] to me." Another surgeon wrote - chillingly - that he sometimes "operated on cancer of the breast solely for its effect on morale."

When a surgeon named Keynes successfully trialled a treatment for breast cancer in the 1920s where the tumour was removed in a lumpectomy and then the patient treated with radiation at relatively low doses, he was laughed off, even though his remission rates were at least equal to extreme surgery. It's these kinds of stories - like that of the history of lobotomies - that chill me to the bone.

The second half of 'The Emperor of All Maladies' drags a bit in comparison. His chapters on the tobacco industry and the link between smoking and cancer are terrific, and filled with grim details. Smoking became so prevalent it was impossible to see it as being related to cancer. In 1870, cigarette consumption in America was under one cigarette per capita per year. In 1900, Americans consumed 3.5 billion cigarettes and 6 billion cigars a year. By 1953, the average adult American smoked ten cigarettes a day, the Englishman 12, a Scotsman nearly 20. In the 1920s, a renowned St Louis surgeon was asked whether tobacco smoking had caused the increased incidence of lung cancer, he replied 'So has the use of nylon stockings.' In an awful irony, at the same time researchers and surgeons were getting to grips with cancer treatment in the 1970s and 1980s, and quadrillions of dollars had been spent on the war on cancer, the incidence and mortality of cancer was increasing, as first the peaks of male and then female smoking came of cancer age. But in general, as the treatment and research into cancer become more detailed, so does Mukherjee's book, and I occasionally got lost or skimmed the odd page.

Mukherjee's writing is clear, even lyrical in admittedly odd places:

To choose a medical specialty is also to choose its cardinal bodily liquid. Hematologists have blood. Hepatologists have bile. Huggins had prostatic fluid: a runny, straw-coloured mixture of sugar and salt meant to lubricate and nourish sperm.

One small criticism relates to what I started calling the adjective trifecta: sentences like this appeared more than seemed necessary:

Impatient, aggressive, and goal-driven, the president, Richard Milhous Nixon, was inherently partial to impatient, aggressive, and goal-driven projects.

While my initial enthusiasm for the book didn't last all the way to the end, my admiration for Mukherjee remains. You can't help but look up to someone who can both practice medicine, and research and write a book like this.

Friday 3 June 2011

Busting assumptions

Occasionally an article on a topic you feel pretty familiar with turns up something new. This recent Art Newspaper article on blockbuster exhibitions, for example, made me for the first time think about the curators who assemble 'blockbuster' shows:

In general the criticisms levelled at such events—the wear and tear on artefacts and on curators, who often argue that they are unable to concentrate on their permanent collections because of the demands of temporary displays—are robustly brushed aside by museum directors. Dynamic directors believe that objects are more at risk on permanent display or in storage than they are on their travels, and that the good curator loves to combine care for their collection with exhibition organisation; as Saumarez Smith puts it: “I think there is an element of myth about exhibitions acting as a distraction from the task of interpreting collections. In my experience, able and energetic curators want to do both.”

I guess I almost thought blockbuster shows sprung, fully formed, from the originating institutions without much thought or work. Then I realised suddenly that I made this assumption based on the small number of blockbusters that make it to New Zealand's shores. Blockbusters come out here what, maybe once a year? I wonder what percentage of the international annual blockbuster production that constitutes.

It was also interesting to read that fashions in blockbusters are changing: more contemporary artists, more photography (of course, you could argue that you can market the hell out of almost anything and turn it into a blockbuster through sheer force of will).

At the end of this, you realise that 'blockbuster' is an unfortunate term (and not only in the sense that it originates in massively destructive aerial bombardment). Blockbusters seem to attract coverage, not criticism: the ubiquity of some of the works, the torrents of visitors, the merchandise seem to freeze critical faculties (if not carping). There is a tendency to assume that something can't be big, popular, and sophisticated. The Art Newspaper piece isn't a revelation or a revolution, but it made me think.

Wednesday 1 June 2011

Exploring copyright in academia

Four interesting articles from The Chronicle of Higher Education, looking at copyright issues in relation to researchers from several different angles:

Pushing Back Against Legal Threats by Putting Fair Use Forward

A rarely discussed form of self-censorship happens routinely on college campuses. Professors and graduate students choose not to tackle academic arguments that involve music, movies, or other forms of popular culture. They worry that including relevant clips in their work means the hassle and expense of getting copyright permission for each snippet.

Two professors at American University argue that actually scholars (terrible word, I'm sorry, but it probably means something specific here) can use this material, without asking for permission, and even if they hope to profit from the resulting publications.

A professor's fight over Shostakovich heads to the Supreme Court

Music professor Lawrence Golan has been fighting for 10 years to have a statute that makes it prohibitively expensive for small orchestras to play certain pieces of music overturned.

The dispute that led to Golan v. Holder dates to 1994, when Congress passed a law that moved vast amounts of material from the public domain back behind the firewall of copyright protection. For conductors like Mr. Golan, that step limited access to canonical 20th-century Russian pieces that had been freely played for years.

Out of Fear, Colleges Lock Books and Images Away From Scholars (slightly hysterical header)

Wide online access to university collections is curtailed due to legal uncertainty around 'orphaned works' - items that are in copyright, but for which the copyright owner can not be identified or traced.

[UCLA] is sharing only a fraction of [its collection of Mexican and Mexican American Recordings] with the world because it believes most of the collection is made up of orphans, still covered by copyright. Full access is restricted to computers connected to the campus network. Off-campus users can hear only 50-second snippets. UCLA chose that policy based on its reading of fair-use exceptions to copyright law, which may permit reproductions for teaching and research. Going further would introduce "a level of risk that, given the current status of copyright law, was really challenging," says Sharon E. Farb, associate university librarian for collection management and scholarly communication.

What you don't know about copyright, but should

Profiles Nancy Sims, a copyright-programme librarian at the University of Minnesota Libraries who's 'there to help people on campus and beyond—both users and owners of protected material—understand their rights'. Her job includes advising faculty on their own copyright rights (copyrights? hmmmm).

The only pity with these articles; that there's not one devoted to open research and Creative Commons licencing.