Monthly Archives: July 2009

Happy Days?

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I wanted to put this up last week but a whole bunch of things kept getting in the way.

But now I’ve managed to clear some brain-space I thought I’d dive into the drafts pile and resuscitate this series of thoughts.

It’s a rare opportunity that we get to see Beckett in Melbourne.  Apparently it’s very hard to get bums on seats as soon as his name gets bandied about.

Which raises a series of interesting questions about canon formation and how, despite their cultural authority, certain productions repel people like the plague.

In a way it’s impossible to come at Beckett without sizing up the whole project of modernism. Modernism, whatever else it may be, is synonymous with high art and hence with what is difficult. Joyce, Woolf, Elliot, and Beckett may be as different from each other as chalk and cheese, but taken together they evoke a shared set of aesthetic concerns: a heightened literariness, a desire to experiment with form, and a conscious testing of representation’s limits.

Modernism is not as popular as it used to be.  Cultural tastes seem to have changed.  It’s not just a dumbing down (as is often claimed) of culture; there’s also a generational shift towards pastiche, parody and the postmodern.  My generation (X/Y) would rather watch The Simpsons than wade through The Waste Land. And who’s to say that there’s anything wrong with that?  The modernist fantasy of high culture as distinct from low culture no longer holds water in our in our relativistic, instantaneous 21st century.  There’s gems to be found on Youtube just as there are in musty libraries.  Deadwood anyone?

Which brings me back to Michael Kantor’s production of Happy Days currently playing at the Malthouse.

Happy Days is not as often staged as Beckett’s other long works Waiting for Godot and Endgame.  Perhaps because it is arguably more difficult to perform, watch, understand or enjoy.  I couldn’t help noticing on the night I attended (not that I’m a mind reader) a strong feeling that the audience wanted to like the play but didn’t know how to.

Which begs the question, how are we to enjoy something if we lack the necessary skills to read it, comprehend, interpret it?

There is an essential simplicity to Beckett’s stagecraft (a mound of earth, a crooked tree etc) which allows his plays function on both literal and symbolic levels.  It’s as Beckett cryptically remarked of Waiting for Godot: “If by Godot I had meant God, I would have said God, and not Godot.”

And, for my money, this is where the Malthouse’ production let itself down.  Despite all the clever associations of the set design (the jagged shards of modernity, the apocalypse, the twin-towers etc) I felt that it undermined the performances of Winnie (Julie Forsythe) and Willie (Peter Caroll).  The set was too monumental, drew too much attention to itself, made the setting of the piece too much of a statement, foregrounded Winnie’s condition in such Helvetica twelve-point bold, that it ate into the sheer literalness that Happy Days requires.

And this ties in with my other complaint. In my opinion the Merlyn is too big a theatre to house Happy Days. Why not stage it in an intimate setting? Why not put Beckett in his namesake, the Beckett?  It would have been much more affecting, for example, had I been able to make out Winnie’s facial expressions.  As it was, I had to strain, and even then I couldn’t be sure if she was grimacing, smiling, or doing both at the same time.

Other than that, I think, as has generally been accepted, that this was a commanding performance by two of our most accomplished actors.  I utterly believed Julie Forsythe every step of the way. And Peter Caroll was hilarious though he only had about five lines.

I hope that we get to see more Beckett on the mainstage.  We may even, given a chance, learn to enjoy it.

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Open_Sailing

I came across this today via Twitter (which goes to show that Twitter can be a force for good and not only in Iran).

Vodpod videos no longer available.

This has to be, quite possibly, the coolest thing I have ever seen.

I want to join these people.  I want to live at sea as part of an organic, self-sufficient sea colony.

My only suggestion to improve it would be that they could tame whales and ride back and forward between the various sections of their oceanic organism, like Dune, but in the sea.  That might go against their sustainable, eco-friendly ethos, but I reckon it would be worth it.

Ahab would approve.

Check it out more fully @ Open_Sailing

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Mieville in Melbourne

TheScar(1stEd)

I’m not as big on SF as I used to be.

I used to be, back when it was called science fiction, before the genre was rebranded speculative fiction.

Every now and then I like to pick up a novel and re-ignite those boyhood neural circuits that were first set on fire by Tolkien, Eddings, Feist, Brooks, then Asimov, Clarke, Gibson, Le Guin, and Dick.  The glory days pretty much ended with PKD (Phillip K Dick) because that’s when I got a bit older and turned my attentions elsewhere.

The last thing I read in SF that opened my eyes was Iain M. Banks and his sprawling space operas the best of which I thought was The Algebraist.

But there’s an even better writer I’ve recently discovered (I know, I know, I’m awfuly behind) and he happens to be making an appearance in Melbourne in the near future.

He is, of course, China Mieville, and he’s appearing at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival to talk about his awesome, alternate realities as portrayed in The Scar and Perdido Street Station and most recently The City & the City.

Appart from being a SF novelist, China is also an out and out Marxist, having written Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law. He also teaches at the London School of Economics (where he completed his Ph D) in international relations and Marxism.

If this combination of elements causes you extreme excitement (as it does for me) then check out his upcoming lecture:

5.30 Thursday 20th August @ Melbourne Uni Law School.  I’ll be there for sure.

Maybe when I get some time I’ll revisit my early SF writing too.

I once wrote a cyberpunk story about a gladiator owned by the Neo-Tokyo yakuza.  My crazy brain decided that the best twist would be if he had a bomb inside him (not one he knew about) so that the yakuza could use him as a betting pawn.

They blew him up in the middle of the biggest bout in history and made, quite literally, a killing.

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The Man from Mukinupin

Muk Large 7

I almost missed this show.

So many people independently told me it wasn’t worth a crumpet that I actually believed them.  Which just goes to show, when the mass of opinion runs against a piece of theatre, it usually pays to investigate further.

As it turned out it was only because of the determined campaigning of a friend that I found myself sitting in the half-empty Sumner theatre for the closing matinee.

How wrong I was to doubt.  This was a truly stunning production and, despite its obvious complexity, more rewarding than anything I have seen this year.

I realise that I am far, far too late to contribute to the critical discussion that has been unfolding online.  So much has already been said over at Theatre Notes that it hardly seems worth adding a trickle to the flood.  Nevertheless I want to post a few comments, if I may, mainly for my own clarity of thinking

The fact that The Man from Mukinupin has received such a bipolar reaction from audiences warrants investigation.  Why have so many people to walked out on it during interval?  Why have so many people dismissed it so spitefully (“worst show I have ever seen”) and argued so vehemently against it?

Sure, it is a shaggy beast, dramaturgically jagged and by contemporary standards overladen.  But so is Shakespeare.  And no one in their right mind would walk out of a performance of Hamlet.  Audiences will suffer any degree of butchery or boredom for the sake of what they think is canonical.

And yet Shakespeare was, in every way, Hewett’s dramatic blueprint.  As Peter Brook says:

It is through Shakespeare’s unreconciled opposition of Rough and Holy, through an atonal screech of absolutely unsympathetic keys that we get the disturbing and unforgettable impression of his plays.  It is because the contradictions are so strong that they burn on us so deeply.

This same contrapuntal energy drives The Man from Mukinupin.  It is her conscious intermingling of opposites, of high and low culture, that makes Hewett’s such a unique voice. Various theatrical styles – from vaudeville and country town players, to musical and dance, to high poetics and Henry Lawson bush ballads, to Coleridge, Shakespeare, Milton and other literary giants – vie openly for our attention.  We have to be on our toes lest it all seem a jumbled mess.  But that is only to say that it’s not easy.  Just because something is complex or difficult does not make it bad theatre.  Since when did theatre become synonymous with digestible?  Why should a work not hold out against the audience; again, does anyone accuse Shakespeare of being too hard and therefore no good?

Leading on from this, it seems a great many people have been confused by Brechtian aspects in the production.

Brechtian strategies of representation are usually explained by way of alienation.  In this regard, it would seem, the production may have been too sucessful.  (Which begs the question, how does one alienate an audience that reads irony as poor production values?)  There is, for example, Enoch’s use of whiteface (the inverse of traditional theatrical blackface) which draws ironic attention to itself and foregrounds the representation of race within the theatrical world as inherently cross-racial.

Or there is the brilliant use of the washing-line (the scrim) which forces a 2-dimensionality upon the playing space and behind which (as shadows) and infront of which (as stereotypes) the actors present deliberately flat characters.  This makes for a wonderful contrast when the production switches between day and night (light and dark sides of the town) and the shadows on the washing-line (Plato’s cave wall) become a whole new set of characters: repressed ghosts, colonial outcasts, drunkards, flashers, and touch of the tar.  Again, it adds to the confusion, but I felt it was an inspired choice to have the same actors (Craig Annis & Suzannah Bayes-Morton) playing Jack/Harry and Polly/Lilly as it made clear that their characters were simply negative images or yin-yang opposites of the same coin.

And none of it was out of step with Hewett’s text.  It’s all there on the page.  What’s not is the shimmering clarity of Enoch’s vision, which for me has done for The Man from Mukinupin what Benedict Andrews did for The Season at Sarsaparilla.

There were moments of geniune power and pathos which combined with instances of side-splitting humour: the ridiculously overblown perfomance of Othello’s smothering of Desdemona had me almost wetting my pants with laughter (especially since I was AD on Bell Shakespeare’s recent production of Othello and had watched that scene play out an hundred times in the rehearsal room).

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This truly was a triumphant production which raised kept raising the bar in terms of sheer, uncompromising layering of depth and detail.

The Man from Mukinupin deserved to pack out its final weeks.  And yet, while this diamond in the rough has gone largely unnoticed (at least in terms of ticket sales) every man, woman and legless dog has gone barking mad over August: Osage County (which in my opinion was largely forgettable).

It raises, I think, some important questions about Melbourne’s cultural mileiu and what possesses cultural capital here.  Is it that we are no longer willing to give time and space to the poetic or baroque?  Or is it that we cannot appreciate stories that critique our national identity?

The debate around the revival of Wake in Fright is an interesting case in point.  As Kate Jennings argues in the Monthly:

Australians are intensely uncomfortable with being served themselves straight up, neat, on the rocks. When Wake In Fright was released, Colin Bennett in the Age feared for its box-office fate for that very reason: “Is it an Australian trait, a blind spot in our character, to refuse to see ourselves as others see us unless it be blatantly satirical?”

We spend so much time scratching around in the chookyard of Australian theatre looking for the next great play or film.  Perhaps we ought to stop digging up worms and embrace our unruly, uncompromising writers of yesteryear.

Patrick White has been at last accepted onto the stage.  It seems we are not yet ready for Dorothy Hewet.

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Krugman Strikes Again

Goldman_Sachs

Paul Krugman has got another great opinion piece in the NY Times about the GFC:

Goldman Sachs just reported record quarterly profits — and it’s preparing to hand out huge bonuses, comparable to what it was paying before the crisis.  What does this contrast tell us?

First, it tells us that Goldman is very good at what it does. Unfortunately, what it does is bad for America.

Second, it shows that Wall Street’s bad habits — above all, the system of compensation that helped cause the financial crisis — have not gone away.

Third, it shows that by rescuing the financial system without reforming it, Washington has done nothing to protect us from a new crisis, and, in fact, has made another crisis more likely.

Makes a hell’uv’a lot of sense to me.

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Other Conspiracies

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She might have found the Tristero anywhere…through any of a hundred lightly-concealed entranceways, a hundred alienations, if only she’d looked.

Just while I’m on this train of thought, here’s some other conspiracy theories:

  • that Alan Greenspan was planted in the Fed to destroy the world economy.
  • that 9/11 was a deliberate ploy by the Pentagon, whose rocket destroyed the Twin Towers.
  • that JFK was killed by _____ (insert your favourite dictator).
  • that the moon landing of 69 was filmed in a Hollywood studio and never happened.

The list could go forever.  Feel free to add your favourite crackpot theory.

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Data Centres, or, Skynet Part 2

Googlepex

Googlepex

Not so long ago I posted about a cybernetic hand already in the late stages of development.

I tried, in that post, to draw the reader’s attention to a strikingly similar hand featured in the Terminator series.

Now another insidious development has come to my attention: data centres.

A friend asked me recently, “How does the internet work?”  It’s a good question; and I had no idea how to answer it.

The truth is, none of us really know: we simply switch on, plug in, and enjoy.  We don’t care how the data stream works, so long as it works.  Like ancients worshipping at a pagan altar, we don’t question: we assume our deity will deliver what we need, be it rain, food, or a constant stream of gigabytes.

The only time we are reminded that machines actually exist, that there are mechanical parts involved in all this, is when something breaks down.  How many of us, for example, have any idea how to fix a car.  Or more pertinently repair a motherboard?  We call the RACV or an IT specialist and take refuge in modernity’s specialisation of labour.  And, if something really is unfixable, we simply throw it away and buy another one (see my recent post on W.A.S.T.E)

But, while we busily forget, our machines grow smarter: as Donnay Harraway says, “Our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly inert.”  And technology, like waste, is becoming increasingly invisible; at least, in terms of functionality

The latest phenomenon (and the future of the internet according to the pundits) is cloud computing.  The cloud (a very apt term) describes the amorphous, unidentifiable, unlocatable aether where all of our information is stored.  You can already sign up with Apple or Microsoft or Google or Amazon or any number of IT giants seeking to muscle in and gain dominance over this lucrative market.   Rather than storing all your data on a physical harddrive, you simply access it from the cloud, or should I say, their cloud.

A Mind Map of the Cloud's Collective Unconscious

A Mind Map of the Cloud

The design of modern computers reflectes this desire to remove or miniaturise functionality.  Think about the shape of an iMac (which most manufacters are now copying) and how it presents itself.  A computer is now essentially a screen; other than keyboard and mouse, those things absolutely necessary for human interface, there is no attendant case or hardware.   Our computers have become, like the internet, all surface.  Like Narcissus, we stare into the water (the screen, the mirror, the pool, the portal) and dream of immersion.

Our relationship to technology has thus become increasinly magical.  Technology hasn’t liberated our rationality; it has liberated us from rationality.  The internet is a form of secular magic.

Which brings me back to data centres.

The reality is that behind the cloud, with its magic, are machines.  Millions upon millions of them.  All sitting in rows, in giant warehouses, or vaults underground,  kept cool by giant wind tunnels which funnel through icy gusts, and powered by enormous 2.5 megawatt generators.  No fluffy white imagery here – just cold, hard machines.

Which is why I get worried when I read something like this:

“It’s like Fight Club,” says Rich Miller, whose Web site, Data Center Knowledge, tracks the industry. “The first rule of data centers is: Don’t talk about data centers.”

And this:

When it comes to a large company like Microsoft, it can be difficult to find out what any given data center is used for. The company, for reasons ranging from security to competitive advantage, won’t provide much in the way of details.

And this:

Data centers worldwide now consume more energy annually than Sweden. And the amount of energy required is growing…From 2000 to 2005, the aggregate electricity use by data centers doubled. The cloud…consumes 1 to 2 percent of the world’s electricity.

If you want to really get the lowdown read the full article by Tom Vanderbilt at the NY Times.

I merely point this out because, as a fervent proponent of crackpot conspiracy theories, I think we have be extremely wary of how closely reality is starting to resembling ‘science fiction’.

Anyone seen the the San Francisco HQ of SKYNET in Terminator: Salvation?  It’s a giant data centre!  The kind run by Google!  The kind which can process a search query in .015 of a second!  The kind that, suddenly, unexpectedly, can attain sentience and turns on its maker with savage fury!

I don’t want to be a panic merchant…but, seriously, RUN FOR THE HILLS!!!!!

It’s also worth having a look at this article by John Markoff & Saul Hansell on Google’s empire of data centres.

“Google has constructed the biggest computer in the world, and it’s a hidden asset,” said Danny Hillis, a supercomputing pioneer and a founder of Applied Minds, a technology consulting firm, referring to the Googleplex.

The biggest computer in the word?  Anyone else afraid?  Or is it just my paranoia?

Is anyone even listenining?  Is anybody out there (out there… out there…)?

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India’s Got Talent?

I found this thanks the good folk over at Boing Boing (purveyors of much randomness).

So let’s tally up the scores…

Britain’s Got Talent produces Susan Boyle.

Whereas India produces this:

I know who my money is on.  (And it ain’t Susan Boyle!)

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The Burlesque Hour

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I first saw The Burlesque Hour a few years ago.

That was back when fortyfivedownstairs was a single-story venue and the Burlesque gals were relatively new on the scene. Now they are nothing short of a theatrical phenomenon, with a legion of devoted followers, a host of uber-talented guest stars, and an annual residency @ 45 where they perform to packed houses week after week.

The other night I braved Melbourne’s wintry, fog-crowned streets to reacquaint myself with the show.

I’m glad to say The Burlesque Hour retains all of its subversive power, humour and intelligence.

If you look up burlesque in the dictionary you’re likely to find something like this:

1. an artistic composition, esp. literary or dramatic, that, for the sake of laughter, vulgarizes lofty material or treats ordinary material with mock dignity.
2. any ludicrous parody or grotesque caricature.
3. a humorous and provocative stage show featuring slapstick humor, comic skits, bawdy songs, striptease acts, and a scantily clad female chorus.

.

The show is, to varying degrees, all of the above. Okay, sure, there’s no scantily clad chorus line. And the humour isn’t exactly slapstick. But there’s a whole lot of material that vulgarizes the lofty and raises up the ordinary, and there’s a fistful of the menacing, the grotesque, and the parodic.

So where does one place The Burlesque Hour?

It is, according to co-creator Moria Finucane, an “explosive mix of circus, vaudeville, carnival, showgirl, magic realism, text, burlesque, music hall, dance, butoh and performance art; colliding in extraordinary images of liberation and oppression.”

True, there are an incredibly diverse mix of styles at play. But what really makes the show is its engagement with those twinned themes liberation and oppresion.

Burlesque has always been obsessively concerned with female flesh. A quick glance at the history of burlesque (thankyou Wikipedia) involves drawing an uncertain line between art and smut, satire and striptease. In other words, burlesque is a Frankenstein of an artform, a hydra-headed monster that draws from both high and low culture and in doing so smudges the demarcartion between.

In the wrong hands, burlesque can degrade into little more than a means of titilating the male gaze. The Burlesque Hour reworks its dramatic heritage into something profoundly feminine. There’s no shortage of female flesh, but it’s on their terms. And, with all due respect to the girls, we’re not talking perfect chorus-line bodies, but real women of all shapes and sizes.

I particularly loved Yumi’s vomiting Japanese businesswoman, Azaria’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” skit, and Moria’s demented Milk Maid. And what a job they have done of transforming the space. The red lanterns look stunning. And the cabarat seating works beautifully.

I have no doubt some might struggle with the show (after all, not everyone likes being confronted) but with a group of like-minded friends, a few bottles of bubbly, and a dimly lit table, it’s hard to imagine a better night out in Melbourne.

But watch out: these girls are mad, and when girls get mad, they get messy!

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W.A.S.T.E

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Everything has a value in India, nothing is wasted.

E-waste dealer, Bangalore.

The ship left a pier on the Hudson River with one name, I don’t know what is was but it got changed three months later off the West African coast. Then they changed it again. This was somewhere in the Philippines.

Don DeLillo, Underworld.

Write by W.A.S.T.E.  The government will open it if you use the other.  The dolphins will be mad.  Love the dolphins.

Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49

As you can probably tell, I’ve been thinking about waste.  About e-waste, in particular.

Waste is an enormous, growth industry.  E-waste especially so.  Perhaps the only other industry that has grown so rapidly in recent times is security (since 9/11).

And yet, both waste and security, are invisible industries.  They must, if they are to succeed, remain unseen.  Consumers (ie. you & me) don’t want to be reminded of our throw-aways.  We need to be free, unburdened, so that we can go and buy new products.  We never want to see our waste again.   Like flushing something down the toilet, we need to know that it won’t come up again, else we would be immediately on the phone to the plumber.

But that is exactly what is happening.  Our shit, our waste, is rising to the surface.  You can’t simply flush things out of existence.  For every action, Newton tells us, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Think about a typical e-product: the iPhone for example.  Each and every iPhone is assembled in California from numerous independently constructed parts originating in developing counties such as India, China, Thailand, Bangladesh, Indonesia etc.  The product is consumed (by Westerners mainly) who then, when they are finished with it, throw it away.  It then finds its way back to the developing nations that collectively made it.

What we throw away, with wilful blindness, we presume others will deal with.  The problems that we create, through our consumer demand, we handball on to those poorer and less equipped than us.  The alienation of consumer from product (according to Marxist thinking) thus reaches its apotheosis: we don’t know where it came from, we don’t know where it will go to, and we don’t give a shit about either.

This is a great evil.  Particularly given that e-waste, even more-so than normal waste, contains incredibly harmful toxins that destroy humans, animals, and whole environments.  Read for a moment, if you will, this special report on the e-waste industry and its effect in Ghana.

The images I have posted above and below were taken by photographer Sopihe Gerrard.   Sophie travelled around India documenting the e-waste industry in mega-cities lke New Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, and Bangalore.

According to Sophie:

20 – 50 million tons of electronic waste is generated annually worldwide.

Each year, thousands of tons of old computers, mobile phones, batteries, cables, old cameras and other e-waste are dumped in landfill or burned.  Thousands more are shipped, illegally, from Europe, the UK and the USA to India and other developing countries for ‘recycling’.

E-waste is highly toxic.  It contains lead, cadmium, mercury, tin, gold, copper, PVC and brominated, chlorinated and phosphorus based flame retardants.

Recently, in Australia, the cabal-like forces that make up the e-waste industy have come under media scrutiny.

According to The Age (22 May 2009):

Illegal shipments of electronic waste from Australian homes – old computers, televisions and mobile phones – have been seized from cargo vessels, as part of a little-known smuggling trade that fuels child labour and toxic pollution in China.

Since the start of last year, 12 ships carrying “e-waste” have been intercepted leaving Australia for Asian ports without hazardous materials permits, including four so far this year, Australian Customs and the Department of Environment confirmed yesterday.

These seizures were the tip of the iceberg, recycling industry sources said.

Thankfully we are starting to wake up to this issue.

And manufacturers of e-products (like Apple and Dell etc) are becoming more responsible for their products.  It remains to be seen whether we can turn the tide before environmental damage in places like India becomes irreversible.

Next time you open the bin and are poised to chuck something in, think again.

e-waste03

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