Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Living in a Trumped World

I’ve been meaning to write about this since the day Trump got elected and Leonard Cohen died. Seemed fitting somehow that Leonard would not want to live in a Trumped world. He no longer belonged. His vision and compassion was no longer wanted. I was filled with a deep sadness on both counts, and part of me wanted to go wherever Leonard went. Follow class and dignity to wherever it resides.
Like many have shared I felt something died the day Trump was elected. It was as if I awoke from a dream that was revealed to be a sham. I had been living believing that slowly we were progressing as a species. Sounds stupid and na├»ve to write it, but that’s honestly how I felt. I felt we were evolving, and Cohen was the embodiment of that. I felt we were making progress in being more compassionate and understanding with each other. It was not OK to bully people; being gay was OK – nearly; the position of women had attained something approaching parity; cultural differences and the value of diversity were being slowly recognised as an asset to a country, to a company, to the planet; most nations had agreed on some kind of action – however small – to negate climate change; the world was moving towards clean energy.
And then someone who believes in none of these things was voted in as the president of one of the world’s most powerful nations. 28% of Americans voted for a lying, ignorant narcissist, and thumbed their noses at women’s rights, blacks, gays, climate change, etc in the process. They simply wanted to return America to a time of near full employment (cars, manufacturing) and where men could abuse any woman they wanted with impunity.
Clearly a quarter of America’s population felt left out of the political process as they saw their lives slip into underemployment and poverty. Mexicans and Muslims, and anybody else who looked different to them, were taking their jobs and they’re angry. They have every right to be. I realise now that it’s one of the many failures of democracy and its elected representatives to adequately explain what is going on – what globalisation and automation are doing to the job market; why jobs are disappearing. No support offered in terms of meaningful retraining, and certainly no longer term vision of where retrenched manufacturing workers might fit in a new economy once traditional sources of employment dried up. People outside of politics who weren’t concerned with presenting false promises that everything would be OK had been saying for years that traditional manufacturing industry in the West was collapsing, and that alternatives needed to be explored. But nothing was done, government subsidies propped up dying industries and then the GFC blew it all apart. No conversations with affected workers took place about what the future might look like and what their options were. They were left high and dry by the political classes to fend for themselves and fed up with the whole goddamn business they voted for Trump. No matter that he had 5 kids from 3 wives; no matter that he’s filthy rich and a compulsive liar.  It really didn’t matter who Trump was, what he said, or what he believed, as long as promised to stick it up Washington and bring back the good old days.
It’s hard to see how Trump is going to keep this miserable 28% happy. Infrastructure projects might do it for a while. But the bigger picture for me is where to from here for the planet; where to from here for do-gooder lefty leaning liberals in Western countries like Australia. For people like me. How do we reclaim the agenda? How do we get things like the rights of minorities back in focus? How do we bring back compassion as part of a nation’s psyche? Somehow we need to talk with these people who are angry; we need to acknowledge their anger; and we need to present them with viable alternatives so they don’t feel like all those ‘others’ are wrecking their life, and taking away what they see as rightfully theirs.
Maybe they’re kind of right. Maybe as a species we simply don’t act to save ourselves until we reach crisis point. That’s what we’ve always done.  Maybe we need a war. Maybe we need to see and feel the results of massive dislocation of the economy due to climate change. Maybe when Tuvalu and Kiribati disappear the rest of the world might take notice. Maybe most of us are simply unable to think about others and the future for more than few well meaning minutes. And not until shits hits fan will we act. We can only focus on ourselves and the present.  Perhaps the ability to foresee the consequences of our collective actions merely screens the inward looking shallow nature of our true selves?
Maybe we can entertain notions like equality and gender equity when most of us have adequate employment and a living standard that is pretty comfortable. But when things slip back towards the poverty line we revert to self-preservation mode and inherently blame ‘the other’ for our woes.
I have never felt this way before. I’ve generally been optimistic about what the future holds. But I don’t like the circling China is about in the Pacific. I don’t like Trump’s disregard for old alliances and his reckless willingness to discuss using the US’s nuclear capability. I don’t like the hopelessness of the UN as a body without any clout. (Israel routinely ignores it and does what it likes and always gets away with it.) There is no global political leadership. As eloquent and articulate and loving as Obama obviously was, he too was unwilling or unable to effect widespread meaningful change. (Except inside America’s border with Obama care. And what of a people who seem angry that someone dared to help those who need a hand paying their medical bills??? What is with these people???)
It seems quite feasible to me now that a large war is not too far away. It’s not Trump’s fault. Our ineptitude has bred his success. He’s just another card in a collapsing pack that adds to the instability – he doesn’t have the intelligence to be part of any solution.

I was in Vanuatu working with vocational educators when Trump was elected and Cohen died and I was desperate to talk to someone about it. I broached the topics with the people I was with. Their response? Is there an election happening? Who is Donald Trump? What’s wrong with him? And they’d never heard of Leonard Cohen. So there’s another kind of naivete that exists in many parts of the developing world. Their world is far from perfect but they are not tormented by the horrendous and sad stories that our 24/7 media world feeds the globally connected citizen. Trump and Cohen are irrelevant to them. They go about peaceful lives doing what they can to make a living and feed their families and don’t seem any less happy for it. They certainly don’t have the material means to travel but their disconnected cocoon of a tropical paradise seems to deliver a kind of peace and resignation that is far from the angst that my newly discovered naivete wreaks upon my being. Perhaps I’d have been better off being born in Vanuatu.

Thursday, December 29, 2016


Back in 2008 Clay Shirky flagged the en masse arrival of the digital photographer in Here Comes Everybody. I’ve been thinking again recently about my daily obsession with walking the streets and taking photographs. I take photographs and I’m therefore a photographer, but I’ve never been comfortable with that tag. To me photographers are people who have fancy equipment, have studied or mastered the art of composition, know how to compensate for poor light, when to focus close-in or retreat to the panoramic level and so on. I can do some of these things – as far as a top of the range digital camera will allow – but the fact is I’m not really interested in mastering the technical side of photography. I take photographs sure, but I take them mostly for other reasons, and technical excellence is low on my list of priorities.
I have been looking for a word that better describes what I do. It could be something as simple as a visual diarist. It feels like what I do is a cross between photography and anthropology so perhaps I’m an anthropographer? And guess what? The word exists. Anthropography is “The branch of anthropology that deals with the actual distribution of the human race in its different divisions, as distinguished by physical character, language, institutions, and customs.” While that is close, that is just part of what I do. Then there is the similar related field of anthrotography:
"Specialising in the science researching the origins, history, and development of biological characteristics, social customs, belief systems, and indigenous linguistic variations of humankind. The anthrotographer takes photographs for the purpose of sharing knowledge and spreading joy."(https://aspicyphoto.wordpress.com/what-is-an-anthrotographer/) It seems to be a less accepted term than anthropographer and may have been invented by someone trying to do what I am exploring – exactly what it is I do with photographs.
Let’s look at the elements of each of these disciplines and see how well they describe what I think I do – or not.
  • the actual distribution of the human race in its different divisions, as distinguished by physical character, language, institutions, and customs
I do take photographs of people of different cultures, and try and emphasise different physical characteristics. For example:

I also try and try catch glimpses of different cultural practices: 

Drinking Kava
I try and capture examples of different linguistic traditions: 

Bislama Language of Vanuatu
  • The anthrotographer takes photographs for the purpose of sharing knowledge

This has been a significant drawcard for me. Based on the assumption that your photos are shared with others – an essential element of the whole process – I was intrigued early on just how much random information I picked up from others’ photos, and what others could teach me about my own. It is common practice to ask the online community for assistance if for example, you don’t know the name of a bird or flower that you have photographed. Inevitably in time someone will provide the answer.
  • The anthrotographer takes photographs for the purpose of … spreading joy.
This can be the joy of learning; the joy of sharing photos of a shared experience, or joy in and of itself:
The anthro prefix in these fields of endeavour denotes the study of humanity. But what then with photos of landscape or nature? 

There’s no evidence of people present – deliberately so – so the anthro tag does not apply to all I do. So something that denotes observation of earth or nature needs to be part of the description. ‘Geo’ seems an obvious candidate but geographer is already taken, and I don’t want the anthro aspect completely sidelined. So what about anthrogeography? It does exist according to Google, but it seems to have been superseded by anthropogeography - a branch of anthropology dealing with the geographical distribution of humankind and the relationship between human beings and their environment. The relationship between human beings and their environment. This is getting closer. But I want a term that encompasses observation of humans and the environment or natural world not only in isolation, where they exist independent of each other, but also how they interact with the other.
While trying to decide what it is I do I realise that it’s about
  1. people
  2. places
  3. the mutual impact people and places have on the other

And a final aspect that others have been quick to point out about my photographs – what happens when people leave the scene: the process of neglect, incremental change, and slow decay. It is a significant theme in my work but I think it can be included under the third point above.
Anthropogeographer sounds clumsy to me, and if anthrogeographer has been superseded I could reclaim it and redefine it. Or I could start brand new with geoanthrographer, but it’s difficult to pronounce.

“So you’re a photographer Michael?”
“No. I’m an Anthrogeographer.”
“What’s that?
“Someone who photographs people and places and how they interact.”
“Ah…interesting…’ J

I don’t expect to start a new movement. I could perhaps be accused of being a wanker. But I really do want a term that makes it clear that what I do is not based on an interest in photography as a technical discipline. I am much more interested in where photographs can take you; how one might use them to create a dialogue between us about the nature of existence. So for now, I’m a anthrogeographer! (This may change ;)

Saturday, December 03, 2016

Thoughts After My Second Visit to a Tiny Island Nation

Tuvalu is a magical place. It’s like I’m smitten. But it’s an ambivalent relationship. Love the place but can’t wait to leave. Happily cruising back to Suva on a Pacific Thursday afternoon and feeling content to be going home to Elizabeth and safety. The remote location and the isolation that comes with it is hard adjust to. But I’m filled with visions of classic tropical enchantment. It reminded me of Kuta, Bali in 1973. Narrow roads through vegetation hiding houses and families and yards. The laughter and noise of family life wafts through to the road and leaves you with a half sketched out idea of what life might be like back in there.
But what you can see is an eclectic mix. And not everyone is going to come to the same conclusion. I see beauty, intrigue, relics, mysterious pathways that the children disappear into. You can see wrecks of cars and boats, piles of leftover building materials, empty squashed plastic bottles, rickety wooden platforms, assorted litter and a general inattention to tidiness. Basically it’s beauty or mess – both are there in abundance and it’s your call. You see what you’re looking for.
There’s barely a house on Funafuti that wouldn’t be classified as a slum or ruin in suburban Australia. Banged together collections of wood, plastic, corrugated iron, and always with a 4 poster covered wooden platform in the yard for families to hang out on in fresh air, in the shade, or out of the rain. Life is essentially held outdoors. There are some proper houses – wooden boards, louvres, a tin roof perhaps – but they too have the family platform, the litter, and the rambling dirt tracks winding back from the main drags. And everything ends at the sea.
On average, Funafuti (Tuvalu’s main island) is about 100 metres wide so you can always hear the sea. The coast too is either a sad affair littered with ex-engines, left behind thongs or items of clothing on a charming foreshore that leads to a calm lagoon that is often glass like smooth. At dusk some make it a ritual to bathe, or in the case of young boys, jump around like monkeys off the sandbag groyne that’s there to help reclaim land. Pure unadulterated children in paradise stuff. A joy to behold. And they happily share it with you the stranger – showing off their best moves and flashing full faced smiles.

About 100 metres away, just short of the other – ocean – coast, the 15-40 year olds gather on the town’s runway for the daily sport carnival of rugby, volleyball and soccer. Barefoot they bound around the warm tarmac throwing themselves at various balls. All again with copious dollops of laughter – a signature of Tuvalu. A true tropical paradise.

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Fawlty Towers Live - Her Majesty’s Theatre, Thu Oct 28

Many of us have seen episodes of Fawlty Towers multiple times. We know and love the characters. We know the lines. We know the madcap plot twists. Hence the excited sense of anticipation about how it might translate to the live stage. John Cleese has taken 3 of his favourite episodes and cleverly reworked them into a two act stage play.

And it works. Wonderful comedic writing, zany story lines, quirky characters, and liberal dashes of good old-fashioned slapstick guarantee that much. And a well-seasoned cast deliver mostly storng performances in a fun evening of timeless frivolity.

It was impossible not to compare with the original – Aimee Horne as Polly was perfect, as was Paul Bertram as the eccentric and forgetful Major. They could have walked on to the original set of Fawlty Towers without anyone noticing. Deborah Kennedy was superb as the deaf and potty Mrs Richards, Blazey Best did a great job of reminding us just how much of a tasteless tart Sybil is, and Syd Brisbane channelled Manuel beautifully.  

Then of course there was Stephen Hall’s daunting task of taking on the role of Basil Fawlty. He deserves spades of accolades for simply daring to take on what would have to be one of the more impossible acts to follow in the history of show business, and he largely succeeded, especially in the secoind act where he seemed more comfortable in the skin of the more manic Basil. One could quibble about aspects of his performance but his ability to realise a believable character is central to the whole show working and he definitely achieves that. If we had never seen John Cleese in this role it would be hailed unreservedly as a great performance. He is not John Cleese. And Cleese’s Basil Fawlty has already gone down in history as one of the great comic characters of the 20th century.

Those who were expecting something more original than a carbon copy of the original characters, plots and dialogue may be disappointed. And sticking so close to the orginal begs for comparisons to be made. As one astute observer commented, it was like going to see a cover band play all of your favourite songs. You know they’re good – not as good as the original versions - but you go along anyway to remind yourself how much you love and enjoy all those songs. And so it was with this production of Fawlty Towers.

The fantastic set was very true to the original with an added vertical dimension with both floors of the hotel visible simultaneously. The famous lines were all there (“Would you like me to move the hotel a little to the left dear?” “Don’t mind him he’s from Barcelona.”) and it flew by in a flash. Lots of chuckling, permanent nostalgic grins, but not much uproarious laughter. More like a comfortable night out with an old friend that you love dearly.

(also published on The Clothesline)

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Are WOMADelaide and the Adelaide Fringe Losing Their Soul?

A couple of weeks ago English comedian Alexis Dubus begrudgingly conceded that he was done with the Adelaide Fringe. He had watched it change into something that no longer met his needs and he no longer wanted to be part of it. At the risk of starting a bandwagon I may have reached the same point with WOMADelaide. And for a veteran who has seen all but one of them and who often said that ‘WOMADelaide is my religion’ this is no small matter. If I did nothing else each year, I always attended this that was the greatest show on earth.
I saw things at WOMADelaide this year that I have never experienced before. Bins were often overflowing with rubbish, stages were named after sponsors, and technical stage problems were common. I can’t be sure but it seems that the only explanation for the technical glitches is that new crew were involved. Novatech? I heard more feedback in the first three days of the festival than I’d heard for the last 10 years. WOMADelaide had raised the bar in many areas, and one of those areas was stage management. Feedback just never happened. When performers were unable to hear themselves in the foldback, it was sorted within 30 seconds or so of a performance getting underway. The sound crews were slick and professional. For some reason this year that standard was let drop and it was sad and embarrassing.
But the main reason for my doubts about whether I’ll attend WOMADelaide again are based upon the music and programming. There is no doubt that over the years the program has been changing incrementally in favour of acts that are essentially bands, and mainstream acts like The Violent Femmes because they pull large crowds. These kinds of acts are primarily designed to get people up and dancing. The D in WOMAD stands for dance, so that’s fine, but it’s about the percentage of these high voltage acts that are now crowding the program.
I’m a WOMADelaide purist. What first attracted me to the festival was the truly exotic – Russia’s Terem Quartet, a lone kora player from Africa, throat singing from Sardinia, Madagascar’s Justin Vali Trio – music you would never hear anywhere else, and where you felt extraordinarily privileged to witness things you otherwise had no access to. Mostly these musical events happened on the small stages where you had the opportunity of a more intimate musical experience. Adelaide music magazine editor and critic Robert Dunstan once wrote “as I stood among the Moreton Bay fig trees with the sun going down listening to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, I found myself thinking ‘I have never been happier’.” These kinds of intimate and exotic musical experiences at WOMADelaide can still happen, but they’re getting harder to find.
The bulk of the program now features what I have taken to calling ‘global funk’. It matters not where the performers come from – Africa, Europe, Latin America, or their Australian based derivatives – all of these bands have percussion and electric guitars, and after a few songs in desultory recognition of their origins, they descend into a frenetic version of global funk played at loud volume and high speed. (It’s interesting at these moments to close your eyes and see if you can pick where the players come from.) It is music designed to whip up dance frenzies and the masses dutifully oblige. But WOMADelaide diehards like me keep seeking that magical moment on the smaller stages where I hear something that I’ve never heard before, and that challenges my musical horizons. And after this year’s event I realised that it is no longer worth the money or the four days trying to find those magical exotic moments. There are too few of them.
WOMADelaide has gone mainstream. It is now mostly about high energy and frantic rhythms.
I can accept that things must change. It has been 24 years after all and nothing stays the same. I understand the need to change the programming to attract new audiences. And organisers would be foolish to continue to cater for the original Boomer types who were there at the beginning because we are beginning to disappear! There is some sadness in the realisation that it may be all over for me and WOMADelaide, but there’s a realistic acceptance too that the beast I fell in love with has changed. As it had to. I am enormously grateful to have had 22 years of musical wonderment. It was an organic experience that WOMADelaide performers frequently commented on, but it is now more about heaving masses and loud electronic rhythms.
In this quest to attract greater crowds WOMADelaide has become more commercial. What was a highly innovative and exotic experience now threatens to sound and feel like ‘just another festival.’ It was more than that once. It has lost its innovative edge.
And so back to Alex Dubus and the Adelaide Fringe. He is saying similar things about the Fringe and that in fact it is fringe no more. It too has caved in to featuring many mainstream acts to bring in the crowds and the strategy has worked. Again in 2016 it was bigger than ever. But perhaps bigger is not best. It seems that perhaps both the Adelaide Fringe and WOMADelaide have lost their ‘fringe feel’ in the quest for larger crowds. They have drifted away from the core mission that initially inspired them. Of course there is still evidence of ‘cutting edge’ acts in both festivals, but it’s about percentages and the truly fringe acts out there on the creative margins are being squeezed out by established artists and bands with bigger sounds. Perhaps it’s time for the artistic directors of these two events to get together and discuss where these festivals are heading. They are both still wonderful events, but they are changing and are being threatened by commercial imperatives. A conversation about their artistic soul and raison d’etre is needed.
Otherwise we may soon be attending the [insert major sponsor] WOMADelaide festival where every stage has a named sponsor.

(also published on The Clothesline)


Plant 1 Bowden, Tue 8 Mar

Five concurrent plays performed simultaneously in a pit of foam rubber on the site of the old Clipsal factory. Sounds like a recipe for total confusion but no, it was surprisingly cohesive.
Four years in the making by drama students from Flinders University this production explores the themes of alienation and information overload in a hyper connected world. It takes a while to sort out who’s talking to who but once that’s achieved it was easy enough to take turns focusing on the conversations that criss-crossed the performance space – in much the same way we’ve learned how to digest the information we want to hear from multiple streams of media in the contemporary world. It’s a cacophony if you try and take it all in, but quite manageable if you split your focus to those parts you find more interesting.

Two online gamers at opposite ends of the space did a great job of remaining connected. A couple who share a pregnancy are not sure how close they want to be. An earnest young man espouses the virtues of the Bahai religion on his YouTube channel, and gets side-tracked into another play when he spots a young woman who he feels is in need of spiritual assistance.
At several junctures the conversations dovetail as if they are on the same wavelength before drifting off again into separation. “We are all connected.” These could be random coincidences or a higher power exercising subliminal control.
It’s an intriguing premiere of a brave concept. Beautifully played, and artfully directed by Nescha Jelk, it subtly increases the level of angst until the various characters are eventually driven to physical closeness in a chaotic finale.
A really enjoyable spectacle and experience. The minimalist lighting was eye-catching and super effective, and there’s a delightful irony in the fact that this fable of modern life takes place in a relic of an industrial era that’s coming to an end.
(also published on The Clothesline)

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Exquisite Corpse

Space Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre, Mon 7 Mar
Wikipedia tells me Exquisite Corpse is an old parlour game where people used to take turns writing stories by building on the work of the previous player. For this project the idea was extended to include twelve composers and two visual artists. Each composer built on the last piece of musical notation from the previous participant to create a collaborative score, and the visual artists did similarly.
It is important to understand the collaborative nature of this work to appreciate the final product. If it at times seems fragmented it’s because no one composer had an idea of what the final piece would sound like. Given the circumstances, it’s remarkable to say that it did by and large come across as a unified work, and that’s due to the artistry of the Zephyr Quartet. Two violins, a viola and cello bow, pluck and strum their way through a frequently changing soundscape that has many moods. I preferred the moments where all instruments were being bowed in traditional fashion but the experimental passages were often more rhythmic, and it was intriguing guessing where it would go next.
And then there were the visuals. Projected on screen throughout were a series of bizarre drawings of a surrealist world that reminded me of the animations of the type that the Monty Python team made famous. The Python versions we know were harmless fun and devoid of meaning. But what of these? Did they mean anything? Were they connected to the music is some way, and if so, how? While quite charming and often amusing (it didn’t seem appropriate to laugh) I ultimately found them intrusive. Rather than complement the musical score, I was being distracted. They were too assertive; too pronounced in their presence.
What worked well were the coloured tubes that snaked around the stage and emitted various hues and frequencies to create a pleasing aura of colour and movement around the quartet. For me, this was all the visual effect I needed.
It was like being at two performances – one musical and the other visual. I could enjoy one or the other, but not both simultaneously. But kudos to the Zephyr Quarter for this brave idea – musically it largely worked for me, but overall it felt like a metaphor for modern distracted life: there’s just too much going on.

(also published on The Clothesline)

Saturday, March 19, 2016

John Cleese and Eric Idle - Together Again At Last For the Very Last Time

Adelaide Entertainment Centre, Tue 1 Mar, 2016
In truth John Cleese and Eric Idle could have served up anything and I’d have been happy. I just wanted to pay homage to these comic masters who together with other members of the Monty Python team turned comedy on its head 40-plus years ago. The good news is they are still masters of comedy.
Things began unconventionally of course as we hear Cleese muttering that we don’t have to start on time and we can just show them some videos. So we got five minutes or so of a greatest hits collection of some of their best work before the stars of the show sat down for a relaxed chat about how the Python crew met, and the early shows they worked on with Peter Sellers and David Frost et al.
They then swapped stories about their favourite sketches from the past – complete with video clips. It was fascinating to hear them critique each other and comment on what they each considered was their best work.
Two live sketches followed and showed they haven’t lost any of their comic timing and sense of the absurd. Great stuff.
After interval John Cleese talked about the nature of comedy, what makes people laugh, and his love of the dark side of the genre. A string of politically incorrect jokes targeting various racial groups followed and Cleese drew spontaneous applause when he lamented the inability of contemporary society to distinguish between what is just teasing in good humour, and what is racist and mean spirited.
Eric Idle returned guitar in hand to demonstrate what a capable player and very fine songwriter he is – even if his songs are by his own admission a little on the filthy side.
They joined forces once more for a Q&A session with the audience and provided quick and witty off the cuff answers, and more good natured banter about the other Pythons – especially Michael Palin! Contrary to what is sometimes reported it is clear they have a great deal of respect and affection for the other members of the Python team, but that doesn’t mean they don’t make jokes about them at their expense!
The show predictably closed with the song that has become the most requested song at British funerals and we all sang along karaoke style.
An insightful, entertaining, and very funny show chock full of stories, jokes, sketches, videos, and songs that revealed their enormous comic talent. The Python era may have been their peak of commercial popularity, but they are still quite simply very funny guys who love making people laugh. “Say no more.”

(also published on The Clothesline)