Category Archives: brief notes

On Elite Education (w/ Néojaponisme)

In his 2005 article The Myth of Japanese Universities, Marxy of Néojaponisme penned a short, but biting critique of the supposed ‘elite’ Japanese universities (such as Tôdai; I’ve met girls professing to simply want to marry a graduate thereof).

I quote in some length, because Marxy (himself a graduate of, as alleged throughout Neojaponisme, Harvard), compares the liberal arts education there and yonder through meaningful criteria, and draws sensible implications. This is not only relevant for the Japanese ‘elite’ universities, but also, very much so, for Australian ones, and its culture in general.

As a disclaimer, I am a graduate and occasional employee of an ‘elite’ Australian university, and I have written before on the very low levels of education enforced by the institution, the cynical discourse around it, and the emphasis on immediate profit and financial growth above all else.

But, here Marxy:

Graduating at the top [of an elite Japanese university], however, does not take so much effort — mostly just perfect attendance and taking the final exams. There are very, very few papers or long writing assignments, and reading is kept to a minimum. Students enrolled in elite zemi (seminars) are expected to write a thesis and do other substantial research projects, but mostly they do work as part of the zemi group.

I’ve seen nothing compare to my own undergraduate Junior Tutorial in East Asian Studies where we read 200-300 pages on a given topic, discussed it with a professor one day, discussed it with a graduate student the next day, and wrote a seven-page paper almost every week. This particular class was my trial-by-fire that whipped me into much stronger academic shape with writing, reading, and general knowledge. Japanese universities — in their current institutional role as “fun time” before a life of backbreaking employment — would be somewhat malicious to assign such a curriculum. The students may be able to do such a task, but this sort of demand breaks the trust between educator and educatee in what McVeigh calls “simulated education”: We all pretend like we’re studying and you pretend to not notice we aren’t [emphasis Jana’s].

[…] I do think there is a connection between the anti-intellectualism (well maybe, a-intellectualism) of Japanese universities and the a-intellectualism, a-politicism, and general social apathy of Japanese society. Most Western students may get a taste of social understanding in high school, but universities are where we get a chance to get a deeper knowledge and broader perspective on the world. […] There are some positive society-wide benefits to having a college-educated populace: higher understanding of social issues like racism/sexism/class discrimination, deeper interest in artistic endeavor, a greater social discourse. Frankly, huge swatches of Western societies lack a certain amount of these “ideal” effects, but we do have many institutions that are fueled by academic maturity (for example, The New Yorker and National Public Radio).

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Groups can be creative too.

Basically, what I learned from Japan is that creativity isn’t solely the domain of individual artists or inventors. Groups can be creative too. It took me a while to realise this, but when I did it made me happy, because it resolved an apparent conflict between two of the things I hold most dear: collectivism and creativity. I think you can say that Japan is capable of producing both the cliches of the manga industry and the originality of someone like Yuichi Yokoyama, whose quirky abstract mangas depend for their impact on twisting the conventions of mainstream manga. It’s not like Yokoyama defies manga, or appears courtesy of divine lightning.

– Momus, The Rumpus Interview

This feeds into a number of conversations I’ve been having recently, through which I have unearthed the roots of my own understanding of a meaningful life in the diet of socialist-approved children’s books my generation grew up on in Croatia; books in which gangs of smart children come together and make awesome things come through, generally accompanied by either a complete disinterest, or active sabotage, of adults (Vlak u snijegu, Družba Pere Kvržice, Junaci Pavlove ulice, Emil i detektivi, Blizanke, Koko i…). This, to me, ties directly to the fact that the most interesting initiatives in art, politics and design in Central Europe (not merely post-socialist, but all of Central Europe) are collective pursuits (art, design and curatorial collectives, magazines, festivals, movements, protests), as well as to the fact that contemporary young Australia is woeful in all of these categories. Coming together to work on a bold, brave project is shrouded in a kind of sublime poetry over there. Here, people shudder and say I hate group work, and ‘arts management’ is understood as the art of midwifery for many individual little geniuses.

Groups can be creative too.

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Humanist art

Little thought on the occasion of Crack a Fat Circus show at The Spiegeltent. I’m sure this is not particularly original – in effect, it would be strange if no one has written a book on this already – but I wanted to jot my thoughts down anyway.

Circus may be the most humanist of all artforms – certainly of all the performing arts; and by humanist I mean something like atheist.

Circus is crafty tricks and a huge amount of skill, a spectacle of the human body, infinitely capable human body trained as close to perfection as one is ever likely to see. To watch circus is to feel awe in front of the animal that is homo sapiens sapiens: how agile, how strong, how dextrous..! To watch circus is to feel the sort of silent admiration of someone who isn’t me, but who is of my kind, therefore a version of me, someone who represents me – in their anonymity (circus performers are never stars), in their muteness and any-man-ness (there is rarely character in circus), even in the generic nature of the tricks (there is a repertory). To watch circus is to watch a hymn to the capabilities of the human species – no different from watching a well-oiled factory full of workers, or an IKEA warehouse in full productive swing. No wonder that Trick Circus, in their most philosophical show a few years ago, quoted largely Nietzsche. What other philosopher could suit the art of circus better than the one who refuted God and talked about the ubermensch, the superhuman, the one who has overcome the any-human?

Even clowning; if the physical tricks are circus celebrating the human as a body, as non-divine, as pure matter, as not standing for anything but itself, as non-metaphor, then clowning, with its inherent absurdity and sadness, is the Camusian, existentialist, melancholy side of the coin. The humour of the circus, when it’s not about piss, shit and sex, is the terrible humour of death and meaninglessness, its bleakness, its fleshy finiteness, completely un-alleviated by a transcendent or immanent divine.

I feel very 19th-century in the circus – not because of costumes and mood, but because circus is a 19th-century form, and the 19th century was one long panegyric to human ingenuity and effort. The circus trick is the precursor to the Nazi gymnastics and the Soviet slet (rally), to Tito’s Relay of Youth, and the entire boom of athletics and sport that came at the turn of the century, together with garden cities and seaside holidays. I don’t know if circus contains within that original seed of fascism (it possibly does – what a thought!), but it seems, to me, to be the only artform viable without God; in fact, one that has never had to consider it this way or the other.

I like circus. I like it very much, and I particularly like it in Australia. I like its relationship with the audience: the element of execution, the possibility of it going wrong, the gasps, the successes and failures, the rapturous applause. I like the predictability, the lack of narrative, the lack of uncertainty about where it is all going, what it is trying to say. In that sense, circus is like Olympic ice-skating, baseball, Dancing with the Stars, David Hare’s plays or Damien Hirst’s art. But unlike any of them, there is pure tangible poetry in the material of circus: the naked human body, young or old, awe-inspiring or laughable. Circus is never cliche, even when it sort of is, because that human body is always there, hanging precariously a metre or two off the ground, always able to fall and break into pieces.

Cruel, but kind

Cruel but kind – a precise description of one element in the pervasive ambivalence of the national character. Here also are vitality, energy, strength, and optimism in one’s own ability, yet indolence, carelessness, the ‘she’ll do, mate’ attitude to the job to be done. Here is insistence on the freedom of the individual, yet resigned acceptance of social restrictions and censorship narrower than in almost any other democratic country in the world. Here is love of justice and devotion to law and order, yet the persistent habit of crowds to stone the umpire and trip the policeman in the course of duty. Here is preoccupation with material things – note, for example, the hospitals: better for a broken leg than a mental deviation – yet impatience with polish and precision in material things. The Australian is forcefully loquacious, until the moment of expressing any emotion. He is aggressively committed to equality and equal opportunity for all men, except for Black Australians. He has high assurance in anything he does combined with a gnawing lack of confidence in anything he thinks.

Robin Boyd, The Australian Ugliness, first ed. 1960

Cruel, but kind

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The Australian Ugliness

The ugliness I mean is skin deep. If the visitor to Australia fails to notice it immediately, fails to respond to the surfeit of colour, the love of advertisements, the dreadful language, the ladylike euphemisms outside public lavatory doors, the technical competence by the almost uncanny misjudgement in floral arrangements, or if he thinks that things of this sort are too trivial to dwell on, then he is unlikely to enjoy modern Australia. For the things that make Australian people, society and culture in some way different from others in the modern world are only skin deep. But skin is as important as its admirers like to make it, and Australians make much of it. This is a country of many colourful, patterned, plastic veneers, of brick-veneer villas, and the White Australia Policy.

Robin Boyd, The Australian Ugliness, first paragraph in the book

The Australian Ugliness

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Doing things the long, hard, stupid way

“Remember this,” says Chang. “Just because we’re a casual restaurant, doesn’t mean we don’t hold ourselves to fine dining standards. We try to do things the right way. That usually means doing things the long, hard, stupid way.”

Doing things the long, hard, stupid way

A mental, primary landscape

Everyone must have a city he can call his own, a mental, primary landscape created from the relationship between the self and the city. My city is something I have created, not something given to me by someone else. Each individual continuously acquires, selects, and assimilates territories, mental landscapes, and urban fragments made up of information, ideas, and events, and from those actions arises a new city. One can create such a place or landscape, even though it may be only a temporary habitat.

Eventually, through dialogues, people will get an opportunity to discover what parts of their separate cities they do in fact share. It is then that people will discover that possession by each individual of a city of his or her own provides a more stable foundation for the city as a community.

Fumihiko Maki, Nurturing Dreams

A mental, primary landscape

On plans, on the future

I am thinking about redesigning guerrillasemiotics.com, and quite possible merging it with my other, currently unused, domain, feminaludens.com. Femina ludens (the feminine to homo ludens, the woman who plays), was always tentatively conceived as a folio website, personal website, something along the lines.

I am happy to hear ideas, while I’m thinking about how to approach the task.

What’s made me think about this has been the combination of inspiration and necessity; or, as life often is, a combination. On the one hand, I need a lighter website so deal with, something I can wire more easily into Facebook, something appable, something clouder, something with a more elastic spine. I’ve been on a very slow server for some years now, mainly out of being too busy to move, and I feel GS.com like an obese child under my custody, a being I need to take places and make do things, but who is just hard to move.

On the other hand, I would really like a website that reflects my life, not one that distracts me from it. I have been quite fatigued, definitely this year, and for the larger part of last year, from the enormously wide horizon of my life. As I get older – this happens to everyone – I have become increasingly more qualified to do a wider range of things. But since I started off as a multitasker, that range has been slightly wider to begin with. Keeping specialised websites of this sort, hence, has become a project, not an outlet. I cannot quite reconcile a website that is essentially a long list of Melbourne theatre reviews with the fact that I spend large parts of my life

  • writing scholarly articles on cultural policy
  • researching connections between psychogeography and Situationist Internationale, performance art, flashmobs, Judith Butler, and non-representational theory
  • diagramming urban spaces
  • play-making and play-testing
  • devising participatory performance
  • travelling to Bangkok, Istanbul, and Japan, in order to study their urban environments
  • taking photos
  • making maps of demographic and other data
  • doing web-design, both commercial and of an artistic (goalless) sort
  • researching children’s independent mobility in Australia
  • writing on live art and performance for RealTime, being a member of Green Room Awards for hybrid (etc) performance, and generally being involved in an increasingly specialised part of theatre
  • teaching
  • writing comic book scripts
  • writing fiction and non-fiction that is neither on theatre, nor academic
  • playing piano, and learning to edit sound for radio production
  • spending most of my leisure internet time reading through websites such as cityofsound.com.

This is not necessarily as psychotic as it sounds. In fact, when I don’t worry about fulfilling my obligations to each and every context, there is great harmony and (ouch!) synergy between the different activities. Thinking about space is also thinking about body. Because my discipline puts a lot of emphasis on direct experience as a method of learning (fieldwork etc), having to teach space means structuring information as exercises, which has led me quite naturally into participatory performance-making. And writing about dance and physical performance is about as good an exercise for writing about life in general as one can imagine.

In other words, I basically design experiences, and analyse experiences in order to design them better, for a living. My interest, while reasonably cerebral in style, is largely directed towards physical, non-verbal aspects of life. There is nothing hugely incongruent about any of this…

Except when I get invited to yet another local opening of a recent American play about the middle classes.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy something like that – but it has little real, living interest for me. Quite simply, I am finding myself with less and less energy to go see theatre that isn’t movement-based, that isn’t somehow related to either performer’s live presence or to audience. I actually am more interested in certain kinds of experience design, these days, than I am in many works of theatre. And, having cut that type of activity down to the nth degree by the end of 2009, once I realised I was going to kill myself with having bronchitis, breaking up with my boyfriend, writing up a thesis and teaching young people how to notate space, all the same time, I haven’t gone back.

I have, instead, naturally become more interested in a different kind of work: the kind Mimi Zeiger writes about; I have also become more focused in my explorations of the empirical world, of the sort Dan Hill writes about.

And I keep thinking about how this website needs to reflect this a bit more.

I have recently returned from a fantastic trip around the world (well, almost), which took me to Istanbul and Bangkok, and gave me much to think about. I want the next Guerrilla Semiotics to be a website where I can organically skip between musings on the workings of such cities and the writing on performance and dance that I publish in RealTime. Otherwise, I feel like I’m heading for a major sort of identity crisis, and it really doesn’t need to be that way.

Smell

“Out of the millions of people we live among, most of whom we habitually ignore and are ignored by in turn, there are always a few who hold hostage our capacity for happiness, whom we could recognise by their smell alone and whom we would rather die than be without.”

Smell