Tuesday 30 April 2013

Looking back in time

One of my favourite recent additions to my twitter stream is life100yearsago.* It's a group account sharing daily snippets from diaries of New Zealanders from one century ago.

The account is run out of the Ministry of Culture and Heritage, as part of the WW100 programme, with a number of contributing organisations who are digitising material and writing tweets, including Te Papa, Kete Horowhenua and the Wairarapa Archive.

Te Papa is digitising the diary of Leslie Adkin, a Levin farmer, amateur photographer and scholar who made significant contributions to New Zealand science. Adkin did not serve in the war, but his diary describes life in New Zealand over this time. In 1913 the war is still a far-off thing; Adkin's diary currently records farming life (putting the "old ewes" through an arsenic footbath) and his steady pursuit of his soon-to-be wife, Maud (a saga a friend has described as Love in a Time Of Innocence: the Seduction of Maud).

One recent entry caught my eye though. Adkin's diary entries are usually short, but on the 18th of April 1913 he and a group of friends, including Maud (who seemed less discombobulated by the city than their other companions, he notes, admiringly) trained to Wellington to see the HMS New Zealand. 

I've taken his lengthy entry from that trip and played with it below. It captures a sense of awe, but also of Adkin's lively and intense observation and curiosity.

The battlecruiser HMS New Zealand in Wellington Harbour. Smith, Sydney Charles, 1888-1972 :Photographs of New Zealand. Ref: 1/1-020101-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22802746

She was a monstrous vessel
low grey hull
three funnels + two tall masts
a grim + formidable
fighting machine

She carries several 12 inch guns
wonderful engines of destruction – about ½ a chain
in length, about 2 ft
in diameter at the muzzle, + 5 ft
at the breech.  The barrel is 6 inches
thick at the muzzle.
the complicated + marvellous machinery
could hardly be described
in 20 pages

They had just taken on 500 sacks of flour +
gangs of sailors were dumping the sacks to the chutes
leading down to the storeroom
others were swinging over the side
dusting the flour off
the armour-plates.

We were shown the galley
where there are no fires but where
the cooking + boiling apparatus consists of steam-pipes;
also the bakery where
a huge batch of fine white bread emitted
an agreeable odour.

Regaining the deck we passed along
a maze of passages
massive walls of steel on every side, + saw
the case of silver cups
+ other trophies
presented by the various Governments of the Empire to
the “NZ”.

On the walls of the superstructures
the ships’ motto + arms – the latter
in carved polished wood
with dates + the names of Cook + Tasman
on either side.

One motto was “Fear God; Honour the King”.

*I have a lot of friends working on this - inevitably - but even if I didn't, I'd admire it as a effective and engaging long-term project. 

Monday 29 April 2013

Day by day, room by room

Recently on a night out a group of friends and I got into a debate about whether kids should have limited screen time. Me, I'm confused by how we encourage kids to "get lost" in books but are freaked out when they get lost in an iPad; my friends - the parents amongst us - talked about the "zombie face" they see their kids assume when they become passive ingestors of screen content.

A few days after that, a friend sent me a link to Aaron A. Reed's 18 Cadence, and I've been returning to it over and over again.

18 Cadence tells the story of a house in New York and its occupants over a century. You click through years, rooms, and characters, and learn each person's story and their perception of the other characters along the way. You can also take the objects offered as you move through the years and remix them into your own stories, which can then be shared.

It's designed for the iPad, but I've just been fooling around on my laptop, because I'm more interested in following the story than shaping it for myself (a personal failure - I'm quite a passive reader by nature). Here's a blog post by Reed about the game/story.

I've found 18 Cadence really compelling. It feels like a missing bridge between using your imagination and having the screen give you the story that we debated over dinner. Just like Pippin Barr's games invite you to scrutinise your morals and assumptions, Reed's story invites you to explore and exert your curiosity.

Friday 26 April 2013

High rotate

Girls on relationships this week.

Chloe Howl's 'No Strings': an appealingly Britishly dirty-mouthed take on a one-night stand (plus, spot those fuzzy Foster the People beats)

Leave before you go with Bank's 'Before I Ever Met You'

And after the break up, Tove Lo's 'Habits' suggests lots of shots and making out with random mustachioed men is the best way to get past heartbreak (if you've ever wondered what people mean by 'hot mess', have a look at the video)

Wednesday 24 April 2013

Call back

The New Museum's exhibition NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star is matched by one of the nicest outreach programmes I've seen in a while: Recalling 1993. As they say in the intro video, they've turned 5,000 payphones throughout Manhattan into time machines: pick up the receiver, dial in the number, and listen to a person tell you s story about the area you're calling from, from 20 years ago.

As much as I liked the little stories, and could imagine wandering the streets for a day, picking up phones, I loved what happened as you zoomed out on the maps even more.

Monday 22 April 2013

Over the airwaves

If I could make a couple of extra days in each week, I would spend them on two things:

  1. I would write a book. (I don't know what book. But I would write A Book.)
  2. I would start a podcast. (Heavily influenced by my love of the Slate Culture Gabfest.)

Of course, it's not really time holding me back, it's priorities and commitments I've already elected. Luckily, while no-one else can write my book for me, two people have started a podcast that does one of the things I would love it.

Museopunks is a brand-new podcast from Suse Cairns and Jeffrey Inscho. As Suse explains in a blog post:
Museopunks is a podcast for the progressive museum. Each month, we’ll invite passionate practitioners to tackle prominent issues and big ideas facing museums in the modern age. With innovation, experimentation and creativity as focus points, Museopunks features forward-thinking people and projects that push the sector into new territories.
The first episode of Museopunks has just been released, launched at Museums and the Web. Titled 'Kick out the jams', the episode investigates museums in "the age of scale". It begins with Jeffrey and Suse introducing themselves, then looking at this idea with two people: the Smithsonian's Michael Edson, and New Zealand's own Paul Rowe, of Vernon Systems.

There's a really interesting tension touched on in the podcast: the question of how much our visitors want us to innovate. Many museums have adopted the imperative Innovate or die; museums also attract curious, questioning, restless employees. I often find myself wanting to pursue ideas and experiences that are quite wide of the mark of the 'traditional' museum, and I've increasingly found myself wondering What would we do if we stripped ourselves back to our basic building blocks: a container, lots of objects, some people, and the internet. What would we make out of them then?

Friday 19 April 2013

High rotate

A little pop selection, to make up a little for the sad boys we've had recently.

Frida Sundemo is one of my high rotate Scandi poppers. 'Jaguar' is just too lyrically ridiculous for me to handle, but I've come to love both 'Indigo' ('Impossible to rise / With shoulder blades of velveteen') and 'Snow' (Goodbye Mr Snow / I'm begging you to go').

While we're Scandi popping, some new Fallulah (fun, but still not nearly as good as 'Out of it')

And a complete change of pace for Dark Dark Dark's 'What I Needed', which has this rather sweet nostalgic juke-boxy sound. Put on your pouffy skirt, Brylcream your hair, and have a good sway around your bedroom.

Wednesday 17 April 2013

On the radio

Exhibitions at movie theatres, missed connections in New York museums, and two exhibitions at the Sarjeant Gallery.

Art exhibitions go to the movies - The Globe and Mail 

Exhibition: Great Art On Screen 

Missed connections in the art world - Artinfo 

Sarjeant Gallery exhibitions

Chipmunked disco diva

A fascinating article on Auto-Tune, the pitch-correcting software for singers and musicians, whose creator was (a) a classical flautist* and (b) using algorithms designed for the oil industry.

When I flipped that article to a friend, he sent me back this one from 2009, talking about the spread of Auto-Tune in North African and Arabic music, and makes a really interesting point:
Contemporary ra├» and Berber music embrace Auto-Tune so heartily precisely because glissandos are a central part of vocal performance (you can’t be a good singer unless your voice can flutter around those notes): sliding pitches sound startling through it. A weird electronic warble embeds itself in rich, throaty glissandos. The struggle of human nuance versus digital correction is made audible, dramatized. Quite literally this is the sound of voice and machine intermodulating – a far cry from [music critic Jody] Rosen’s conclusion that T-Pain uses the technology to ‘impersonate a computer’. 
Chalk another one up for machines that make art. Speaking of which, when I sent the top article to another friend, he responded with this - and I'm not even sure where to go when the world starts imploding like that.

* Where does that extra a come from?

Monday 15 April 2013


A friend sent me a link to this post about Leo Caillard's Art Games with the single word "Heresy".

I actually really like them. They remind me of all the things I've been thinking about in terms of art made with technology and things like Anonymous Paintings

They also remind me very much of the work Local Projects has just done on Cleveland Museum of Art's Gallery One; in fact, Caillard's work, though earlier, feels almost like the logical end point of what Gallery One is doing. Not in stated intent, but in aesthetic, or perhaps unstated intent - a totally permeable collection and art experience, online and real world. Once again I find myself groping for words to describe an only-just-future state.

Friday 12 April 2013

Play it big

The Art Newspaper recently published its yearly issue on exhibition stats. Among some of the interesting articles:

The 2012 attendance survey - led by a tour of paintings from the Mauritshuis to the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum

The massive boom of museum visitation and building in Brazil

And this fascinating opinion piece by Blake Gopnik on the ever-growing, and in his opinion, spirit-sapping, focus on blockbuster and temporary exhibitions, on which I have yet to make up my mind.

Tuesday 9 April 2013

Real-time art

So, I don't usually talk much about work here, but I am quite, quite excited about an experiment we are running at The Dowse this week.

I love watching exhibitions get installed. That kind of behind-the-scenes access - along with visiting the collection store - is the biggest treat of the job. There's an intimacy to the way you can be with the art, and a camaraderie in the team, that just makes it a lovely experience.

This week, we're experimenting with opening this up to visitors. Normally, it would be risky to have people in the space while we deal with loan works, trundle scissor lifts around, futz with lighting and play with power cables. But Kerrie Poliness's big elegant drawings - executed straight onto the wall with permanent markers - are basically damage-proof.

Plus, the process is the point of the work, as you can see in this blog post I wrote about the works. Letting visitors watch the drawings get made - allowing them to be part of the planning, if they're in the room at the right time - felt like such a natural idea. We've seen time-lapses of installations of Poliness's work, but never an open installation. So that's what we're trying.

Laura choses her four starting points for the drawing by eye - no rulers allowed.
Kerrie Poliness Black O 1997. Jim Barr and Mary Barr Loan, Collection of The Dowse.
From today (Tuesday) through Friday, you can visit The Dowse and watch Cat Auburn and her team making the three drawings we've selected for the show. Come along at the right time, and  you could even get to map the starter points out.

I have no idea if this will work, be popular, or be worthwhile. But nothing ventured, nothing gained.

(Fortuitously, at the same time that we started this experiment, Suse Cairns posted about the value of "process stories" for museums - those chances for visitors to get more deeply involved in their visit, to get an extended form of access. I hope to write a follow-up piece about how this works out here.)

Oh! And you're welcome to take and share your own photos of your visit. That would make me super happy.

Monday 8 April 2013


From the occasional reviews files: Jean-Claude Ellena's Perfume: The Alchemy of Scent


My perfume collection recently expanded, in a single heady evening, to thirteen bottles. My collection of perfume books expands more slowly - they are more unpredictable beasts than their subjects.

When I impulse-bought Perfume: The Alchemy of Scent on Amazon, I think I thought that it would be one of those artsy-sciencey floaty bits and bobs, in which Jean-Claude Ellena - one of the highest profile noses in the business, perfumer for Hermes, and also the maker of a number of highly regarded L'Artisan Parfumeur fragrances - would dispense words of wisdom, hints of magic, and insider gossip with his history. I was vaguely prepped for this by Chandler Burr's The Perfect Scent which contrasts the creation of Ellena's 'Le Jardin Sur le Nil' against the creation of Sarah Jessica Parker's second scent, 'Covet'.

In the event, Perfume is nothing like that. Rather, it's like a highly personalised training manual. The overall tone is of lecture notes, with the odd slip into freestyling philosophy:
Every day that I work with perfumes I am in search of beauty, yet I still don't know where it is to be found. What I know os that in order to enchant you, to charm you, to tempt you, to influence you, to fascinate you, in a word, to win you over, ['Perfume' is translated from the French - occasionally a little clumsily or carelessly, but I love this slip, intentional or otherwise], I have to manipulate and make a show of what I know, to make the perfume desirable. Desirable - the adjective that for the classical philosophers marks the limitations of art. However, the fact that perfume evaporates and disappears is proof that it cannot be possessed - desire remains desire. 
So it is through the use of memory, through the remembrance of shared fragrances, that I create the seductiveness of perfumes.
Passages like this are rare though, and if you want reminiscences about Ellena's favourite childhood smells or the scent of the crook of his first girlfriend's elbow, you're going to need to look elsewhere. 'Perfume' has chapters dedicated to 'Learning the trade' [I. Odor Classifications II. Memorizing the Collection III. Type of Olfactory Field], 'Bringing the perfume to market' [I. The manufacture of perfume concentrate II. Perfume manufacture and production III. Safety regulations IV. The products V. Concentrations] and 'Protection of perfumes' [I. Protecting names, containers and packaging II. Protection of fragrances]. It has an awesome little chart that shows how Fructone plus Benzyl acetate equals 'apple' when blotters are impregnated with the molecules then waved below the nose, while Fructone plus Ethyl maltol equals "strawberry". It details the five corporations who between them hold 60% of the international flavours and fragrances market, with their 2007 earnings and how they were split across their different product lines. It shows L'Oreal dominates the cosmetic market, and runs or owns the licences to well over a dozen brands that you would think of as "independent", from Stella McCartney to Viktor and Rolf.

Some of the technical sections I found to be sincerely gripping. Perfume interests me because it is so finely balanced between art, science and commerce. The section on obtaining materials, for example. Ellena traces the development over time of different ways of obtaining the ingredients for perfumes. Distillation was one of the earliest - the extraction of essential oils from secretory cells by heating them and then capturing the fragrant substances with water vapor. Yield depends on the plant: 5 tons of magnolia blossom and 20kg of lavender blossoms both render 1kg of essential oil. Expression is used just for citrus fruits. Extraction with volatile solvents was demonstrated at the Vienna International Exhibition of 1873. The process has all sorts of great phrases like "nonmiscible vegetable waxes" and "macerate in a volatile solvent". It renders a concentrate that is closer to the original scent than distillation, but yield also varies dramatically. 'Supercritical CO2 Extraction' is my favourite though, because holy impressive sounding science. This little section concludes with a commentary on Cost:
The selling price of a kilogram of essential magnolia flower oil is $935 at 2011 prices, as compared with $115 for essential oil of lavender, although more than 250 times as many magnolia flowers were required to produce it. This comparison shows that, with mechanical harvesting of lavender and a higher yield of essential oil, the price of an essential oil does not depend on labor costs, but essentially on demand.
This section is followed by one of the evolution of synthetic materials, beginning with Benzyl acetate in 1855, the aldehydes (the fizz of Chanel No. 5) in 1903, Hydroxycitronellal in 1908 (everything) etc etc. By the end of the 1930s, Ellena observes, all the major synthetics in use today had been discovered. Costs of synthetics are partly linked to their natural counterparts, but also reflect the labor force required to produce them and the steps to make them. Contrast the $925 for magnolia above, for example, to $4,675 for a kg of synthetic irone (iris scent).

The chapter that blew my mind though was about marketing. I mean, sure, we get perfume marketing. Hot young body, maybe some luscious landscape, some gauzy fabric, some dramatic eyebrows or sunny skies, and a discreet (or totally in your face) logo. But Ellena's aim with this chapter is "not to explain marketing as it applies to perfumery, but to situate the role of the composer of perfumes within different forms of marketing."

In the art world, we talk about curating in, and curating out. Curating in is when you start with the idea or theme, and pull art around it. Curating out is when you begin with the work, and build the show outwards. One is not better than the other; they're just different ways of working and it helps to understand which context you're operating in and assessing. The difference between commercial and niche perfumery is somewhat similar.

In the 1970s, marketing took hold in the perfume industry:
By widening the choice of product, by guaranteeing reliable quality, by offering worldwide distribution and a better return on investment, marketing contributed to the growth of perfume brands and to the transformation of a business into an internationally industry.
In Ellena's assessment, the marketing of demand equates to a kind of 'curating out'. The perfume begins with a marketing brief, customer profiling and segmentation, and the construction of perfumes using what he calls the 'cursor' method: effectively, making perfumes that tick off adjectives that we have come to have a common agreement on - feminine, light, elegant, flowery.
The objective was to sell perfume on a global scale. To achieve this, the marketing focus moved away from the selling of products, which were seen as too dependent on conviction and personal choice. To create a global market, the priority shifted to the marketing of demand. Demand marketing operates by continually assessing the needs, habits, and interests of consumers the way they judge products and the pleasure they draw from them. ... While this process can be described as innovative, it is not creative. ... This technique has distanced perfumers from the judgement of their own senses and curtailed creativity. It has provided a foundation for new olfactory conventions, a new conformity.
So far, so impassioned TED talk. But!
That being said, I find that the overall quality of perfumes has improved. Technically, they have radiance, diffusion, and persistence, and these qualities take months of work. They are good perfumes. 
The paradox of good is that it is identifiable; it doesn't generate surprise. Acceptance and assimilation are immediate. The good is almost always based on commonplaces, on the familiar, and on stereotypes.
Niche perfumes, on the other hand, spend little if anything on advertising (although they certainly publicise the hell out of their work, and the growing army of perfume bloggers and writers almost all describe their origin stories as aficionados as a movement from the commercial scents of their teens to an encounter with a semi-niche brand to a tumble into the blog world to a full-blown affair with the obscure - much like my own). This leaves them with the fragrance as the product. They are sold in small stores by highly trained staff, judged by professionals and colleagues rather than commercial figures, and require the perfumer and perfume house to closely observe the individual customer's taste rather than shape it in advance.
The fragrance has to speak for itself and express a strong identity, an olfactory individuality. Great care is taken with the name. The name is the first component in the communication process, and the aim is to generate curiosity, not consensus. ... For composers of perfumes, whether under commission or free agents, the approach is primarily olfactory - no preadjustment of products for customer segments, no market testing, none of the mythical imagery of marketing, the "plausible stories" Plato speaks of. They are simply unique fragrances, inventions of the mind, which appeal primarily to the olfactory sense.
And yet I only gave the book 3 stars. It is a feast of detail and insight, but it as an austere feast. This is not the book I would foist upon a perfume newbie. It is the book I would foist upon the person who doesn't care about fragrance, but loves understanding how worlds work. I may not read it again, but I'm a wee bit smarter for having read it the once.

Friday 5 April 2013

High rotate

Sad boy voices for this week:

Cloud Boat's 'Youthern'

Majical Cloudz 'Childhood Ends'

And Wintercoats' 'Everyone Seems to Be in on Something'

Oh, while we're at it, let's go backwards a bit. How To Dress Well's 'World I Need You, Won't Be Without You', which I listened to a dozen times before realising there were no words


And The Postal Service's 'Nothing Better', one of my favourite to-and-fros of all times (I feel I must  interject here ..)


Wednesday 3 April 2013

On the radio

Today on the radio I'll be talking about Te Papa's new hang from its art collections, Nga Toi.

Monday 1 April 2013

Kids-only days

An article about the Bronx Museum receiving a $500,000 gift from collectors philanthropists Shelley and Donald Rubin to support free admission caught my eye for this paragraph:
Many of its customers are students, and education is among the museum’s top priorities. So even though the museum is closed to the public Monday through Wednesday, it is open to school groups on those days. “Our mission is very different from a mainstream museum in Manhattan,” said Antonio Sergio Bessa, the museum’s director of curatorial and education programs.
I am rather intrigued by the idea of "no grown-up" days (although this is not how the Bronx Museum promotes them, and don't worry - I'm not about to ban those 19 and over from The Dowse any time soon). I was describing recently to someone my geeky childhood wish to be left in the public library overnight - I wonder what a similarly adult-free time in a museum would be like?

Chaotic, probably. But an interesting thought exercise.