Tuesday, 30 July 2013
LET A MAN COME IN AND DO THE POPCORN
2013 Film Festival Programme Launch
by Campbell Walker
A recent visit to Wellington’s new People’s Cinema sparked an ongoing conversation about the political possibilities of cinema as a form. . . and which way this form works best. In particular, whether it constitutes a more potent political meaning to adhere to cinema’s dominant forms but add explicitly politically engaged meaning, or, to attempt to generate a new formal structure found outside the system. I argued that the second – the “radical” rather than “activist” approach was the only approach that could avoid the risks inherent in working within the monoform – especially that of being subsumed or corrupted by the system.
The film chosen for the programme launch of this year’s film festival really hammered home these dangers. The Rocket, a supposedly “charming” tale about a young Laotian boy’s triumph over adversity, is actually rendered quite repellent through it’s unblinking acceptance of the norms of western cinematic storytelling. Made by an Australian documentary-maker (who I hope is unaware of the condescending nature of their choice of structure) the film employs the romantic drama monoform to tell a supposedly “universal” story, in the process turning it’s main potential strength – a lively but unfamiliar cultural millieu – into severe weakness.
The problem is that the modern commercial cinema very much serves the needs of the dominant political landscape: escapist storytelling reinforcing that the world isn’t supposed to be easy but that, with hard work, heteronormative romance and a little lottery luck the hero and family can become the sole members of a community to upgrade their lot. Everything in The Rocket that is shown as ‘Normal,’ is shown within the modes of western cinema storytelling, and so everything that is outside the norms is thus shown as Other, as anatagonistic, and as primitive. The villagers are powerless, reliant upon western largesse and knowledge, especially (if implicitly) technologically. Their own culture, is largely reduced to colour (dick jokes) and dramatic device in a very traditional western mode (the hero’s narrative engine is generated by his desire to plant his dead mother’s mangoes). The inevitable triumph at the end of the film is only achieved after utilising western technological secrets channeled through a kind of cargo-cult James Brown.
By showing his acceptance of his place, he is briefly allowed to permanently advance one class, on a strictly local level. Further, the ideas and traditions native to his own culture are obstacles to be overcome. . . so the process of expedient pragmatism triumphs over complex customary knowledge, as is shown within the forces of globalism.
But there really are a lot of other ways to present these worlds, and they don’t all support these dominant discourses in such a virulent, invasive way. Unfortunately, cultural gatekeepers like the Film Festival, abandoned by public funding to the winds of economism, require ultimate recourse to such dominant discourses through an internalised profit imperative. As potential audience members are strained by systemic power shifts imposed from above, the possibilities of exposing ourselves to something more distanced from our own lives becomes more risky, more of a chore. Over the last two decades in film, I’ve seen a strong imperative towards a post-colonial cinema (with its interest in racially, geographically and culturally different ways of presenting film) slowly slide off the table and onto the floor, in favour of this kind of expedient, simplistic and falsely feel-good exotica, a neo-liberal co-option of neo-realism that replaces quiet open observation with forced imposition of identification.
Reading the programme emphasised that this is not really a one off. There are of course wonderful and important films that will play, but extensive claims towards diversity are betrayed somewhat by a programme that features unironic categories like the documentary section “Real”, or a special one, “Bold – here are filmmakers who don’t play by anybody else’s rules”, that surely tells more about the other films selected than the single page of films in this category. What was, under gentler ideologies, an important contribution to diversity of our cultural landscape has retrenched under pressure to become a casualty of our acceptance that we don’t need to have one.
*This article was originally published in hard copy in POINT ISSUE#36.17-23.JUL.2013
NAMES TO CONJURE WITH
Reviewing THE FELLOWSHIP OF COLIN MCCAHON, TOSS WOLLASTON AND JOHN & ANNA CASELBERG @ Brett McDowell Gallery
by David Graveney
One reviewer has already labeled this show ‘art royalty’ [sic] and they are certainly right. Anyone with even the most rudimentary understanding of the trajectory of modernist painting in our country will be familiar with the work of at least three of the artists gathered in this modest exhibition. As the title of this show implies, the curation aims to celebrate the working relationship and an ensuing solidarity that developed between members of the group. There are some twelve works: a sketch, a suite of lithographically illustrated poems, paintings, and a further suite of handwritten poems. What interested me as a viewer is not so much the individual merits of each work (all are competent works by artists who are working at the higher end of the scale of their abilities) but the interplay of influence between each of the artists. There is no shortage of published literature available detailing this. Woollaston as the grand visionary of a tradition inherited from and informed by German Expressionism, with McCahon as his lieutenant in the realizing and continuation of this vision. John Caselberg’s poetry derives too from the same influence, and lines from which can be found in many of McCahon’s paintings.
(Interested readers should seek out Peter Simpson’s excellent Answering Hark for an illustrated and
detailed explication of their work together.) Caselberg’s wife, Anna, daughter of Woollaston and student of McCahon, contributes the majority of paintings to this exhibition, and it is perhaps in these works where the influence of the two aforementioned coalesces. These works (all dating from the early 90s) also show an abiding affinity (mimicry?) of Doris Lusk’s landscapes, herself a peripheral member of this group and painter influenced by modernism and later Cubism. There are the heavy impasto skies, the architectonic lands cape reliefs, the same palate of clay reds and light greens, flinty blues and grays associated with 1930s-40s landscape painting. I was quickly admonished by a senior curator and art historian when I referred to these works as examples of ‘very good Sunday painting.’ They were very quick to point out the inherent skill in the works. They seemed to miss my point. My gripe was not with the technique, but the fact these works don’t really do anything to develop on a tradition realized sixty years prior to their making. Perhaps it’s a little off complaining about such a trivial detail when the history of western art is built on such acts of homage, by making again.
UNTITLING THE TALISMAN
Saskia Leek’s DESK COLLECTION at the DPAG
UNTITLING THE TALISMAN
Saskia Leek’s DESK COLLECTION at the DPAG
Sally Ann McIntyre
For a while I’ve been intrigued by the way that despite their small size, the paintings of Saskia Leek seem to open backwards within time, embedding visible duration within the a-temporality of the painterly surface. Such temporal shifts become amply evident in the sparse delicacies of the mid-career survey show Desk Collection, within whose chronologies the artist’s earlier works’ ambiguous confessionals morph into a distinctly conceptual grasp of surface. The paintings reach for “a distancing effect.” via the evocation of a layer of light or dust, a point of fading - the effect of time embedded in materials not supposed to last that long in the first place.
Certain paintings of the mid 2000s preserve houses as subjects, like wasps trapped in the amber of a hermetic, waxy airlessness. The atmospheric tone, like pickling fluid, is archived within the fading of its objects, like a 1970s kodachrome photograph recording within its scene an inaudible conversation, a refrain of music. The tone comes through, as not so much a golden light as a patina marred with age, a distinctly maudlin emptiness. The localisation of the depicted places sometimes swims though the haze, the “distancing” Leek describes as her part-intent.
|Saskia Leek Animal Home (2007)|
Maybe I like them because they recall the kinds of fifth-generation cubist and surrealist images that haunt the back-brains of those who grew up in the 1970s. The visual paradigms of the historic avant garde filtered down to popular illustration culture: compulsively nightmarish faux Odilon Redons illustrating post-hippie folk tales, read while sitting under surfeits of discoloured Degas ballerinas set against the regulation florals of Laura Ashley bedroom wallpaper. Something of the power of these works is their ability to communicate in ambiguous manner the potential talismanic nature of any thing, the way an object can be imbued with significance merely through being looked at for a long time, through being lived with in a room, the fleeting fantasy worlds that cohere and then dissipate, their sunbleached fading beyond usefulness and memory an evocation of the stories told and then forgotten within their presence.
The repetition within the show of the title ‘Untitled’ replaces the Modernist forestalling of the figurative with an evocation of the unknown histories of the found, the nameless mystery of the stray, the objects that cannot speak biographically for themselves but retain a mute materiality. To call an artwork ‘Untitled’ in this context seems a place-holder, a hope that one day this namelessness might find some archival logic. The works themselves stand in place of this inarticulation and extend its pathos.
The longing for another place, the nostalgia evident in these works is a throughline to romanticism. Perhaps Novalis’s statement, in a 1798 fragment, that “any beloved object is the centre point of a paradise”, might be usefully amended by Leek’s explanation of the drive behind her most recent works: “they search for a point of pictorial rightness but without an expectation of what that might be”. Fittingly, the hermeticism of this style becomes its own dead end, requiring a break, and escape, a rupture. Maybe this is why the breathing space afforded by the erased house (another Untitled) in the show’s concluding group is so satisfying, retaining the trace of these earlier works, but introducing an open gestural painterliness, alongside the blocky formalism of the represented object, spilling visibly out onto the frame as a smoky emanation.
Originally published in POINT issue#37, 24-30th July 2013.
THIS IS WHERE YOU GET TO CHOOSE WHAT THE WORD ‘SANE’ MEANS...
THIS IS WHERE YOU GET TO CHOOSE WHAT THE WORD ‘SANE’ MEANS...
Giles has moved into an abandoned warehouse. He didn’t make the grade for the new WINZ Job Seekers regime – they’re processing all us marginals at the moment – so he’s run out of coins. He tells me it’s not too damp or draughty but he’s a little worried he’s dying of asbestos related disorders. Thinks it may be painful. I told him he was being paranoid; it won’t be painful at all. There’s a bit of paranoia rocking and rolling around Wellington at the moment. Some of it seismic (another small one just jellied in), and some of it politic. Actually, some of it – both seismic and politic – is paranoia, but much of it is simply justified fear. I’m going to forget about earthquakes for now (I’m still processing last weekend’s field trip to Christchurch) and ask a simple question: Is it sane to fear the proposed changes to the GCSB Bill? You know, the one that makes it legal (even in its latest Dunned down version) for us to be spied upon.
My big brother Reggie, now that he’s allowed back after his stern rebuking and stand downing following my impersonation attempt, works in one of those gigantic golf balls high on Poacher’s Hill, para-crunching and meta-sifting data. He lent me a suit the other day so I could do my jump-through-the-hoop routine for WINZ. I fared better than Giles – I still have coins. Reggie whispered to me as we parted company ‘I see that Point Offices now has a Faceborg page’. Nothing else was said. He has a particular look he dons when he’s spilling state secrets, and as he doesn’t do social media himself (or social anything much at all for that matter), I surmised that the authorities have become both aware and watchful of this publication. I do hope they read it. But it would be unfortunate to say the least if they, for example, had access to our internal business plans and strategies to take over the fashion world with bright red, class levelling suiteralls.
Seriously, wake the fuck up before it’s too late to wake the fuck up! You can ignore these proposed amendments and slide onward into a post-secret world where neurospies dictate not only what you are allowed to do and say but also what you are allowed to think; a world where sanity is about being obedient lock-step geese. Or you can resist. Protest on Saturday and give voice, or even silent expression, to real concerns and fears. Opt for a world where sanity is actually something that belongs to you. Where do you think this is heading? Toward a time when organising such a protest cannot be done under the radar, ‘off-seismograph’ as it were, and when such a protest is seen as an act that constitutes a threat to the existing economic and political structures and flows. And later, to a time when those who threaten, or are of no use to, those structures and flows are surplus to requirement. Good god, people, why do you think they want this law? It’s not about your safety, it’s about their money; about security of the structures and flows. Is it reasonable to be concerned about all this? It’s your call. These are the kinds of moments where one is necessarily part of deciding who controls the means of production of sanity. This ain’t rock n roll….
First Published in POINT issue#37, 24-30th July, 2013
THE PEASANT HAS RETURNED
Donald McPherson and the new obscurity
Consider these lyrics from Donald McPherson’s 1994 debut album, Some Songs, one of the ten releases that the great recluse of Dunedin music recently made available on Bandcamp under “name your price” conditions.
Someday cats will chase the dogs & mice will grow to fuck the cats
Helpful hands will open doors, & ships will welcome back the rats…
Prophetic? Not for McPherson; yet. It seems hardly a week can go by without the international underground railroad coughing up some new lost gem; sometimes as re-releases but most assiduously via the internet. Some Songs ought to have been among them by now, but as it was released in an edition of 20 lathe-cut copies, you’ll be forgiven for never knowing it existed – though it easily stands alongside its near contemporaries, Alastair Galbraith’s Talisman and Crude’s Inner City Guitar Perspectives as a document of rugged individualist Dunedin splendour.
Why didn’t hundreds of people here and overseas find out about him, correspond with him, release his albums around the world, as has happened to so many others? The succinct answer is that he didn’t want them to. Forget the arch, faux-feyness presented as a signifier of sensitivity - Wes Anderson, etc - McPherson is the real, awkward deal. An artist of consummate skill, a lyricist who consistently ekes poetic magic out of his obsessions, and one of the most extraordinary improvising guitarists you will ever hear, who just wants to be left alone to get on with it. A candidate, perhaps, for bagging and shipping as “outsider art”, he is in reality just a clever, quiet guy who cannot and will not, as his song title has it, disown his own mind.
It’s often seemed, to this writer, a terrible shame, though. There is simply so much - so much care, craft, inspired looseness, mad whimsy, invention, sheer beauty - in his music sometimes, it feels ridiculous to not be part of some wider community who’ve been touched by it as well. It is not, by any means, about small or obscure ideas. But the obscurity of its presentation dogs it; and this deluge of material, starting a few months ago, prompts the question of whether it constitutes a true tide-turning, or a new obscurity.
Back when records were records, so to speak, there was time and proportion involved in how you became acquainted with an artists’ work. With the sheer glut of material available online, one wonders how on earth anyone has the time to work out what’s good. Where once dedicated fans created brilliant contexts for all sorts of scenes in fan/magazines, the blogosphere suffers from the same glut conditions, as well as often feeling simply less engaged - less individual. Then, McPherson has filled these collections with all sorts of nubbins and byways, interesting (sometimes) as process, but a lot to process. Breakups & Breakdowns, at two and a half hours long, is maddening. But, since it begins with 15 of his most stunning written songs – his voice and guitar playing showing massive maturation and depth - one senses that he knew what he had; if not when to stop. For improv, Mirrors & Windows and Variety Show are good places to start – filled with the fibrous melodic invention that no-one else ever quite manages – but Anomalies’ swag of tentative trials might drive one seriously batty.
But whether or not anyone bothers to listen and work it all out, it’s just so good it’s there. Like the peasant in his eponymous song,
he’s brought disease with his rats and fleas
& some chimpanzees from the Seychelles
but you’re happy just to find him again.
see http://donaldmcpherson.bandcamp.com and tune in to Avantgardening on Radio 1 91fm, 10.30pm, this Sunday evening for more.
Originally published in POINT issue#37, 24-30th July 2013.
Friday, 26 July 2013
RETURN TO SENDER
Post-post-post-Office: Rethinking the Closures
By Malcolm Deans
The recent announcement that NZ Post will close its Dunedin Mail Centre, with the loss of 73 jobs, has come as a major blow to the Dunedin economy, already reeling from the closure of the Hillside Engineering railway workshops last year. NZ Post has decided it wants to close the Dunedin, Wellington and Hamilton mail processing centres, as well as all its small satellite centres, centralising all sorting at the remaining three: Auckland, Manawatu, and Christchurch. The restructuring process would result in 500 job losses, compensated by 380 additional jobs after centralisation, a net loss of 120 jobs. With the loss of 100 jobs from its corporate section earlier in the year and the threat of a reduction in service to three-day delivery with the resulting impact on postal workers, NZ Post management seem determined to add more workers to the ranks of the unemployed alongside other government owned or operated organisations.
At the same time that state-owned enterprises are throwing long-serving employees on the scrapheap the National government is dreaming up ways to force beneficiaries into competing harder for fewer and fewer available jobs while letting the private sector tap into government revenue streams in the process. Witness the recently revealed plans to pay private contractors up to $12,000 per person to get mentally ill beneficiaries into waged work.
The news of the impending closure of the Dunedin Mail Centre has drawn heavy criticism from the mayor, the editor of the ODT, and the Chamber of Commerce, for ignoring the economic needs of the region but predictably these criticisms have been couched in the language of regional competitiveness, setting workers in this region up against workers in Christchurch. The mayor of Hamilton is also on record saying that Hamilton should have been expanded at the expense of Auckland.
For the postal workers, however, this is just one more result of the corporatisation and deregulation of the postal service that has taken place since Labour first split up the old NZ Post Office into NZ Post, Postbank, and Telecom in 1987, corporatising them in preparation for privatisation. Initially to be privatised, NZ Post managed to escape the fate of the other two SOEs with the government steadily moving towards a fully deregulated postal market. Letter delivery was fully deregulated on 1st April 1998 which required NZ Post to open up its postal network to private companies to compete without any of the requirements placed on the NZ Post to deliver a universal service that reaches the whole community. Under the Univeral Service Obligation, NZ Post is required by law to deliver letters throughout the country, 6 days a week, at a standard rate of 70 cents. Private competitors enjoy full access to the NZ Post network with none of the obligations to the NZ public allowing them to ‘cherry pick’ the most profitable urban mail deliveries. NZ Post currently gives access to 6 private postal operators with one, DX Mail, running its own delivery and box services. NZ Post has lost almost 40% of market share to its competitors.
Although letter volumes have declined dramatically over the last few years due to the ubiquity of email and social media, the parcel business has increased substantially due to the rise of internet trading. Deregulated earlier than letter delivery, the parcel courier market is a duopoly in which NZ Post-owned Express Couriers Ltd (ECL) compete with Freightways. A 50 : 50 joint venture with DHL since 2005, NZ Post bought DHL’s share of ECL out last year for $108 million. ECL has 40% of the market share in courier services. Always a profitable business NZ Post could be even more profitable if it did not have to compete under unfair conditions with non-union private operators. Wages in NZ Post are below the NZ industrial wage average and are even lower again in the prive competition. Deregulation and partial privatisation have been a disaster for workers. NZ Post’s current round of restructuring will lead to a vicious cycle of inferior services and declining mail volumes. Postal workers, and the communities they serve, need to join together to fight against the further destruction of our public postal service. In next week’s POINT I will discuss how we can do this.
Join the Facebook Group, Save Dunedin Post, here
This article was originally published in POINT Issue#34 3-9 JULY 2013