Category Archives: news

The Hunger Artists of St Petersburg

Writes Dmitry Vilensky on the global arts newswire:


On May 15, the young contemporary artist Artem Loskutov was arrested
in his native Novisibirsk and charged with possession of a narcotic
substance (marijuana) by the local branch of the Interior Ministry’s
notorious Center for Extremism Prevention (Center “E”). Loskutov and
his supporters claim that the police planted the marijuana in his bag
in order to incriminate him. As one of the organizers of the annual
“Monstration” — a flash mob street party in which young people march
with absurdist, non-political slogans — Loskutov had long been an
objection of the Center’s attentions. At a pre-trial custody hearing
on May 20, it was revealed that the Center had been tapping the phones
of Loskutov and his friends for the past six months. In April and on
May Day itself, Loskutov had been summoned to the Center for
“discussions,” and his parents had been called and told that their son
was a member of a dangerous sect. The circumstances of the case and
the way that he was arrested thus point to a campaign of intimidation
directed both at Loskutov and his fellow “monstrators” in Novosibirsk.

The Loskutov case has sparked a massive outcry in Russia’s activist
and art communities. In the past three weeks, artists, activists, and
ordinary concerned citizens all over Russia have carried out a series
of pickets, protests, and actions in Loskutov’s defense. The most
inspiring of these actions has been a “plein air” hunger strike
organized by several young artists in Petersburg, now in its second
week. The artists encamped themselves in a park next to city hall and
began producing paintings and drawings whose central theme is the
increasingly brutal police repression of social activists and
left-wing artists in Russia. The hunger strikers have issued three
demands. First, they want a criminal investigation of the mass arrests
by riot police of a group of young anarchists on May Day in Petersburg
despite their having obtained official written permission to march
with the other columns of demonstrators. Second, they call for the
creation of a public commission to monitor the work of Center “E.”
Finally, they ask that all charges against Artem Loskutov be dropped
and that he be released.

Although the Loskutov case and the Petersburg hunger strike have
become one of the hottest topics in the Russian blogosphere, there has
been a near-total blackout in the mainstream Russian press, especially
television. That is why we ask you to read the article linked below
and learn how you can join our campaign of solidarity with Artem and
his artist comrades in Petersburg. We have called an international day
of solidarity actions for June 9, a day before Artem’s next hearing in
the Novosibirsk Regional Court.

An injury to one is an injury to all. Free Artem Loskutov!
Artists hunger strike drags on as international economic forum looms


Follow on the Chto delat? blog. Thought I’d mention.



Global University Labour, Struggles and the Common within the Crisis

Giovedì, 11 Giugno  2009 – Università di Roma ‘La Sapienza’, Facoltà di Lettere

“As was the factory, so now is the university. Where once the factory was a paradigmatic site of struggle between workers and capitalists, so now the university is a key space of conflict, where the ownership of knowledge, the reproduction of the labour force, and the creation of social and cultural stratifications are all at stake.” A few years ago in its manifesto, the edu-factory collective underlined the productive and conflictive dimension of the contemporary university.

But in fact the university does not at all function like a factory, and we are not nostalgic for the struggles of the past. This statement was rather the indication of a political problem. If we begin with the incommensurable spatio-temporal differences between the actual functions of the university and those of the factory, what are the political stakes of their comparison? In other words: how can the problem of organization be rethought in the aftermath of the demise of its traditional forms such as the union and the political party?

Today the economic crisis has opened new spaces to rethink the function of the university and the production of knowledge itself on a global scale. In other words, we have the chance to rethink the rise of the global university, as well as its crisis. Within edu-factory, we refer to this as the double crisis. On the one hand it is an acceleration of the crisis specific to the university that marks its end, the inevitable result of its eroded epistemological status; on the other hand it is also the crisis of postfordist conditions of labor and value, many of which circulate through the university.

“We won’t pay for your crisis”: this was the slogan of Italian “Anomalous Wave”, that is, the refusal to pay the cost of economic crisis and the crisis of university itself. The slogan was translated in other struggles, in different forms but with a common goal. Starting from this point, we want to outline this double crisis from a global perspective. From India toBrazil, from US to Europe, we want to focus on different experiences to think about the production of a transnational common space of debate and action.


Semi- and non-reviews: text

I have been in spillover for weeks now. That means: at the end of every day, a little bit of unfinished work spills over into the morning. The accumulating backlog, or just ballast of duties, is, with the end of semester edging closer, just about to become unmanageable. I am toiling on three intellectual (but unrelated) fronts – my research job, my degree, and my writing, theatre or otherwise – and I can recognise the feeling of brain in deep fryer that always precedes mental burnouts.

Four shows are currently playing in Melbourne, two I have already seen, and two I will soon. All deserve to be treated with much more dedication than I can currently give them. Hoy Polloy – whom I had a skirmish with, this time last year, over theatre and naturalism – are currently doing a Franz Xaver Kroetz play, Mensch Meier, a moment of 1970s German ubernaturalism; while, across the river, Simon Stone of Hayloft Project directs Phillip Ridley’s Leaves of Glass for Red Stitch. Leaves of Glass looks like another contemporary British post-realist drama about family, memory and dark secrets, and is Ridley’s second outing in Melbourne after the acclaimed Mercury Fur in 2007 (with Luke Mullins, Russ Pirie and Aaron Orzech, who has since gone on to do great things). It’s also Stone’s second gig for Red Stitch, after the similarly acclaimed pool, no water by Mark Ravenhill this-time-last-year (which I missed). Uh, a lot of name-dropping. I haven’t seen either of the two, and can only recommend them on the basis of my own interest.

However, the other two plays I recommend wholeheartedly on the basis of having seen them. They both finish this weekend, and are worth catching. At Trades Hall, IGNITE are doing A Dream Play, Strindberg’s 1901 proto-surrealist play, in a new, terse version by Caryl Churchill; across the river (note the perfect symmetry of this text), Paul Terrell directs Fernando Arrabal’s Garden of Delights, a 1968 work of ripe surrealism. I am seriously torn over the right phrasing: both are flawed works, but exciting in the way in which a staging of an unearthed and unforgotten (de-forgotten) classic is exciting. IGNITE’s Strindberg, despite the stellar cast (which reads like a who-is-who of Melbourne’s independent theatre) and Olivia Allen’s intelligent direction, seems somehow nervous and underdone when one would expect a certain deftness of touch (both because of the age of the play and the reputations of the artists involved). Describing the play, Strindberg wrote: anything is possible and probable. It is disappointing that rather early on the visual, narrative and emotional possibilities and probabilities of the production are clearly marked. Terrell’s Arrabal, on the other hand, would benefit immensely from being exactly half the length (or double the pace), without losing a single bit of stage business. Arrabal’s oneiric fantasia of repressed childhood and distorted feminine sexuality proceeds at a Jodorowskian pace that gives an air of datedness to the production, which it doesn’t require. However, both are works of theatre on very strong foundations, marrying exquisite text with visual richness in a way rarely even attempted by either physical or textual theatre these days.

I am convinced that the way forward for Melbourne theatre is through surrealism – while I’m not sure it is in historical revivals, it is certainly on the other side. My problem with both productions stems from the geohistorical moment, the meaning of surrealism in a society without oppressive structures. But it’s a frivolous argument, one I don’t have the stamina to develop this week. Until I have thought my way through this conundrum, found out exactly what’s nagging me, for which I do need to brush up on my Freud, I suspect I should say only that these productions should definitely be seen.

A Dream Play. By August Strindberg, in a new version by Caryl Churchill. Direction Olivia Allen. Cast: Gary Abrahams, Meredith Penman, Mark Tregonning , Michael Finney , Heath Miller , Kate Gregory, Nicholas Dubberley, Hannah Norris, Karen Roberts. Sound Design by Russel Goldsmith. Lighting Design by Angela Cole. Set and Costume Design by Kat Chan, and Eugyeene Teh. New Ballroom, Trades Hall, Carlton South, until May 5-17.

Garden of Delights. By Ferando Arrabal. Adapted & Directed by: Paul Terrell. Produced by: Nic Halliwell. Set Designed by: Yunuen Perez. Lighting Designed by: Katie Sfetkidis. Sound Designed by: Keith McDougall. Costume Designed by: Chloe Greaves. Stage Managed by: Amelia Jackson. And Featuring: Jono Burns, Austin Castiglione, Marita Fox and Julia Harari. Theatreworks, Apr 30 – May 16.

Tom Fool / Mensch Meier. By Franz Xaver Kroetz, translated by Estella Schmid and Anthony Vivis, directed by Beng Oh. Design by Chris Molyneux, lighting design by Ben Morris, sound design by Tim Bright. With Chris Bunworth, Liz McColl and Glenn van Oosterom. Hoy Polloy, Brunswick Mechanics Institute until May 23.

Leaves of Glass. By Philip Ridley, directed by Simon Stone. Design by Peter Mumford, lighting design by Kimberley Kaw. With Dan Frederiksen, Johnny Carr, Jillian Murray and Amelia Best. Red Stitch, until May 30.

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This week

I have entered the business end of the semester and will get a wee bit quiet on the theatre-writing front. Winter always makes me slow down.

Meanwhile, one of my dearest friends has flown herself to KFDA in Brussels, and I send her love. Some of my friends from soon-to-be-gone Theatre Studies (if not gone already, really), are preparing for the Performance Studies International Conference #15 subtitled MISPERFORMANCE: Misfiring, Misfitting, Misreading. Apart from the fact that everyone from Pavis to Lehmann will be there, it will combine theory with practical research in what looks like a super-exciting new format. It is held in Zagreb, in June, and I am heart-broken not to be able to go, for reasons that are purely financial, and mid-term unexpected.

And in another world, student protests in Croatia, in which all major universities have been occupied by students demanding abolishment of tertiary fees (introduced only a few years ago) for over two weeks now, are somewhat abating due to favourably-sounding ministerial promises. Slavoj Žižek, who was in Zagreb for the Subversive Film Festival, supported the protests, saying that what they’re doing is not only right, but necessary. Alida Bremer was quoted saying:

Accusations of high cost to the taxpayer are absurd – educated citizens, able both to think and to properly use democratic structures of the society are the only guarantee of fair distribution of taxpayers’ funds.

Many of my friends are among the student strikers, and I am incredibly proud. Although the commentariat has waxed and waned, no post-tertiary adult has failed to notice the high level of orderly democracy established by these kids, of my generation.

In that same world, Branimir Glavaš was yesterday sentenced to 10 years in prison for war crimes (ordering the torture and murder of Serb civilians in Osijek) during what is in English usually referred to as the ‘Homeland War’. Glavaš has since escaped Croatia and is believed to be in Bosnia. Good news; bad news. Another step for the legal system, and another step toward cleaning up the past and disagreggating the honourable from the less so; but also a failure of the legal state to detain a criminal.

On the Australian front, Mother’s Day is tomorrow, but in Croatia we celebrate 8th of May instead, the International Women’s Day, so the celebrations will pass me by.


What I have not been able to convey, in these stealthy notes between the lines, between 1am dinners and sleepy bike rides to work, is how very rich, dense and textured life is right now. If I have no time to be shallow on Twitter (bleargh) or write about my feet or comment on current affairs, it’s clearly because I haven’t had time to do my washing, cut my toenails or buy another bookshelf to shelf the book overflow which is making the house look a bit too much like a bookshop. All true.

But, and the sheer density of it all hasn’t allowed me to express myself properly here, what can, under a certain light, look like a case of either mindless mania or self-inflicted fatigue (a mental illness if there ever was one), is more of a long dessert. Between three very different jobs that I love all, each one of them teaching me very different things, return to university and all the attached little activities, and the time I have been making to relearn the fine habit of incident-pursuit, the learning curve has never been steeper. I go from one mind-blowing lecture to another exciting conversation, from reading gorgeous journalism to writing words I didn’t know the meaning of earlier that week. I keep putting things aside to indulge in one more neverending coffee, dinner or rooftop sandwich, and the notebook I bought to keep scattered thoughts less scattered is bulging. I take notes while these dinners are cooked and elegant coffees drunk, so rich and rewarding are these dialogues. I am writing down turns of phrase; conclusions about psychology; and reading and viewing recommendations, not to mention practical solutions to practical concerns. I keep hugging people on the street and – damn – our square 10km has most of the most beautiful people in this country – I am convinced.

The last time life was so varied and grand I was 18, and it was signalling the end of something. I cannot quite see the end just yet: it would need to be a beginning of something rather luxurious for the change to be welcomed. Meanwhile, I have a pile of writings on Jonathan Franzen, all red-pocked and circled and underlined and boxed; I have mastered geomorphology and get an energy kick twice a week, when I trace maps, use a stereoscope, and learn about types of rock; Brecht is finally making sense, and the world is made anews; I write and read, finally managing to read more than I write. Meanwhile, my new computer is waiting for the OS to be reinstalled, before I can upload bookmarks, software and music, and I cannot find the time. Money, touch wood, is coming in on multiple sides and I have no time to sort my invoices, let alone spend it well. Who needs money when the best things in life are all free and occurring simultaneously? (By which I mean, I suppose, knowledge, people, love, art and sunshine.)

The bit that was missing, for a while, was rest. J-friend wondered, recently, whether I was exhausting myself as a guilt backblow. No, I said, it was just hunger for everything I had missed while life was on hold. On the weekend, having made gnocchi for an impromptu lunch for a few friends who live in the neighbourhood, once alone I curled up on the couch with Hedda (Gabler) and Frederic (Chopin), promptly fell asleep and woke up at 9, dazed. Ibsen’s play is phenomenal, but it was great to remember why I had such a consistently good opinion of Chopin. But the protagonist of the tale is this luxurious rest which, in the middle of luxurious work of all kinds, is that little bit that I’ve finally found, the little bit that was missing.

I will be back in Sydney soon. (I saw a picture book about the Bondi tram in the library today. The sheer gorgeousness of the illustrations gave me microshivers. I thought, perhaps crassly, what a beautiful city, and how wasted on its people. Perhaps such stunning scenery pushes the population into deliberately shallow insensitivity simply because aesthetic profundity couldn’t cope with the beauty. Ahh, yes I generalize, but what thought isn’t…?) I cannot wait.

This week / Standing on hands

Some of us have had a busy week. I have discovered I have magic geomorphological powers and weevils in my pantry. I have been writing to the point of becoming reverse-dyslexic, unable to string simple sentences together, particularly if on paper, but that seems to be a bit of a theme these days. Over on Spark, now moved to a swish new domain, looking all wonderful and pretty, we have been publishing some interesting new writing. From London, Giulia Merlo has started a monthly in-depth update on the latest going-ons, while we are currently working hard to publish the up-and-coming theatre critics reviewing the Ten Days on the Island festival as a part of Critical Acclaim, a workshop in phlegm run by, among others, our very own Alison Croggon, and Sydney’s very own (but still much loved over at GS) James Waites. All up on Spark, yeah?

Meanwhile, some bits and crumbs: Hayloft Project (remember Spring Awakening? Remember Platonov?) are opening their 2009 season with a double bill: the Sydney version of Spring Awakening (the one that confused the shit out of Melbourne when reported in the Sydney papers) plus 3xSisters, announced as Chekhov playfully deconstructed by three directors (Hayloft’s Simon Stone, Benedict Hardie and Black Lung’s Mark Winter). It opens on April 24, at the Meat Market, and runs until May 10. All details here.

Same Simon Stone is returning to Red Stitch to direct the Australian premiere of Philip Ridley’s Leaves of Glass. Ridley was the writer of the critically acclaimed Mercury Fur, the sleeper hit of spring 2006 at Theatreworks, while Stone’s production of Mark Ravenhill’s pool (no wate) for Red Stitch got nominated for a bunch of Green Rooms last year and I missed it because I left for Europe two days earlier. Well. Red Stitch, every self-respected theatre realist’s substitute for MTC, and our finest bourgeois theatre, has unearthed yet another play that looks like smart, interesting, contemporary. All details here.

Speaking of which, MTC has apparently slashed its youth ticket prices permanently to $30. No more 9am queueing if you really want to revisit a classic, and no more sneaking from your radically lateral seats into the breezy A Reserve between the acts. Why is this important? Well, because August: Osage County, on which Giulia writes in her Postcard from London, is opening soon, with Robyn Nevin and Robert Menzies no less. And before that, our intrepid Ming-Zhu is just about to open Realism. Looks like a bit of orientalist silliness to me, but what would I know? I’m biased in all matters Slavic.

In keeping with the middlebrow theme, La Mama is launching a duet of Becketts to commemorate some anniversary or other. Opening on 14 and 15 April, Andre Bastian is directing a handful of shorts, and Laurence Strangio a …waiting for GODOT. We’ll see how the Trust sits with that irreverent title, hon… Bastian was the man behind last year’s Red Stitch production of The Work of Wonder, one of the most extravagant postdramatic things I’ve seen in Melbourne. Who knows what the Becketts are going to be like?! And how exciting!

I must have forgotten another hundred things, but my brain is fried. I pledge not to ever care about a review again. Indeed, I may just avoid difficult theatre altogether. BUT!, one thing that I haven’t forgotten because it’s unforgettable: La Mama has joined the Comedy Festival with the best piece of, what-did-we-say?, Alternative and Hybrid Performance, in the world. So You Think You Can Cow? closes next Saturday, and you don’t want to miss it. It’s everything that’s brilliant about theatre, comedy, disco, and life in general. And then more. Just go.

Ha!, I reckon I could cure reverse-dyslexia just by writing more theatre news, but I need to sleep, shower, and find a way to connect Cow to Woven Hand, in reverse order. Well, Cow has music. Woven Hand make music. There we go. And this video, from Ultima Vez+Wim Vandekeybus’s beautiful dance film Blush, is not only the most erotic moment in YouTube history, but needs to be here so that, the next time I start ranting about Splintergroup, I can direct all the confused passers-by here:

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This week / reporting from the trenches

I sometimes forget that this is a blog; that I could indeed post photos of my feet were I so inclined. In the last weeks, GS has come to seem more like a monster-chore, up there with Film Production, Graphic Design, Liaising, Dinner Parties, Dance Writing. For these have sapped all energy out of me, exactly the way I had promised myself not to allow happen.

What has been going on? Dance Massive, an exercise in condensing the rather maverick diversity of movers and shakers in the city (and somewhat beyond) into two weeks. Just the right size, I say, and a report is on its way.

Arts House has returned to its rather excellent programming: after a season in Sydney, down come Hoipolloi with their fantastic show Floating. Its brilliance lies not quite in its deconstructive tendencies (that refusal to play by the rules), nor in its interest in stand-up comedy (a la Fondue Set), but rather in its playful approach to time and semiotics. I am a humourless grump prone to outbursts of rash whenever marriages of formal deconstruction and induced laughter are attempted in front of me – no soft spot whatsoever – but I loved Floating like I rarely love a performance. On until this Sunday.

Opening on Wednesday, same Arts House, same high expectations, My Darling Patricia return from Sydney with Night Garden. If you remember their excellent Politely Savage in Fringetime ’06, you are, like me, expecting a lyrical, moody, formally inventive inquiry into the Australian social mythology. Great word of mouth is preceding them.

Down at the VCA, Paul Monaghan will be opening some Strindberg (A Dream Play), and Daniel Schlusser rebuilding Peer Gynt from scratch in a little over a week. Both are opening on Thursday 26, details here.

I cannot quite put in words how exhausted I am. My brain is fried from all the writing I have been doing, a tangle of knots the only thing keeping my head up. In the act of final betrayal, my mind decided, amidst reports, print formatting, and evocative descriptions of dance (all today), to boycott the fine sieve I was trying to push it through, and switch to fiction. No extra points for creativity.

Finally, a small announcement. In 2009, I will be making a special effort to see as much hybrid art and performance as this city can muster, and my time give in to. Apart from the fact that not-quite is my favourite kind of perfomance (the mind is a melange, just like these unpinpointable brainstorms of dance, music, dialogue, image), I am also sitting on the Green Room Alternative & Hybrid Theatre Panel. So please keep me informed of all those site-specific, upside-down, one-audience-member-at-a-time, multimedia, weird-arse, and other such shows happening around. Just in case. I spend up to 10 nights a week in the theatre, but lovely events still fall through the cracks, behind the desk, together with the lost pens and forgotten dirty laundry.

On that note, I retreat back to the trenches with a salut from C. de la B:

Marina Comparato performing Voi che sapete (Mozart), in Wolf, dir. Alain Platel.

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This week / exhaustion

The quiet of the last few weeks, on GS, was just the backstage of the roaring thunder of Ms Gorilla managing no less than 6 jobs and one full-time university degree, adding up to something approximating 100 hours a week. If you think that this is bordering on literary figure and/or surrealism, well: there’s your answer to my absence from writing lite thoughts about current affairs and my feet.

In the last few weeks I have done such an extraordinary amount of work that it’s a wonder I haven’t dropped dead. (As our beautiful days incorporate morning thunderstorms and painfully hot nights, I am reminded that I have truly adapted to Melbourne. When I first moved here, I spent the entire 2006 limping from flu to flu, my body in utter confusion about the 5-minute turnaround of seasons.) I have co-authored a paper, produced a short film, and held a research project together around these activities. I have been designing three websites, finished one, and prepared a book for print. I have interviewed, written, read, edited, commissioned, liaised, responded. Meanwhile, just to spice things up, I’ve had to somehow resolve a housemate crisis, lease crisis, Centrelink crisis, general home-economics crisis (huge), enrolment crisis, multiple-technology-breaking down crisis, and a personal crisis, each one bigger than the other. I have learned to read Social Security Law, which is more than the average person does in order to get social security. I also have a couch guest at the moment, but Fanny is a lovely, calming presence in this apartment that sometimes resembles an erratically steered raft in the Bermuda triangle.

However, in this chaos of duties, responsibilities and transferable skills, I’ve discovered the blessing that people with stable moods are. How vastly overrated psychological instability is!, how inappropriately deemed a sign of creative genius! These weeks have been made bearable, if not somehow enjoyable, by the continuous presence of many wonderful people in my life (you know who you are), people whose general emotional maturity I could count on. Good lesson. Important.

Onto the news:

by now everyone knows that Dance Massive has started, a two-week dance fest that will certainly keep those of us who tire of language happy. There will be in-depth coverage, here on GS, on Spark Online, and elsewhere. I would enthusiastically recommend Inert, were it not sold out. Other things of interest include Morphia Series, by Helen Herbertson and Ben Cobham (see my review of Sunstruck) Chunky Move’s high-tech Mortal Engine, and Sydney’s Fondue Set with No Success Like Failure, on which David Williams wrote beautifully here. Splintergroup, an offshoot of Ultimavezesque Dancenorth, are down from Queensland, with lawn and the charmingly titled roadkill. The website claims the latter was developed with Sasha Waltz and Guests, which alone is a recommendation enough.

At Gasworks, Sandra Parker’s extraordinary Out of Light is going until 7 March: you have three nights left to catch it. At La Mama there are two nightfuls of Wretch left, with the inimitable Angus Cerini and Susie Dee. If you’re into another kind of unrealism, National Theatre in St Kilda is showing Don Giovanni by Victorian Opera, directed by the man-legend Jean-Pierre Mignon, and it’s absolutely fabulous. Samuel Dundas, whose debut as a principal singer this role I believe is, is an extraordinary Don G, cocky and damned equally, making it all infinitely more credible than MTC’s scandalous Don Juan in Soho (although the latter added drugs, urban squalor and yuppidom in search of verisimilitude).

Arts House, my favourite venue in town, will soon have My Darling Patricia down from Sydney, with Night Garden, and Hoi Polloi far-down from the UK with Floating. Both look delicious, but I am biased towards hybrid performance. More information on the Arts House website.

On the more text-heavy side, Malthouse is soon opening Goodbye Vaudeville Charlie Mudd, a highly anticipated return of Lally Katz & Chris Kohn to the city. Combining Julia Zemiro with the historical research into vaudeville, this should prove very popular with the general audience. I am hoping to see it some time later, as my rarefied interest in non-dancing dance and silent performance, and body and memory, and so on, keeps me occupied. But oh you should all go.

Yet the most exciting news, to the urbanist me, has been the launch of Creative Spaces (a week ago, but, hey, 6 jobs). More than a very pretty website, it has been conceived by the City of Melbourne as a sort of match-making service, trying to connect every vacant space in metropolitan Melbourne with an artist looking for a studio, performance space, or a storage corner. You can advertise a space, or a need for space.

While this is a hugely practical, useful set-up, it also marks a commitment by the city government to take care of its creative communities. The project was fancily launched in Boyd School Studios, former JH Boyd Girls High School at 207-221 City Road Southbank. Local government has bought the object from the State gov, and refurbished it into studio spaces. This is likely to be a temporary settlement, while the future of the site is negotiated into either another housing condominium, or, as the local residents are pushing, a community centre (don’t get me started). Even such, it’s a very positive, if small, step towards making life on a shoestring easier in this city.

This is all from me for a while. It has been suggested to me to start a calendar of events on this website, keep tracks of openings and such. To add that to my weekly schedule, though, I would seriously need to employ an intern, or a subcontractor.

But we will finish, as usual, with a pop song you are unlikely to have ever encountered: Alina Orlova, from Lithuania.

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Shaun Tan: Tales from Outer Suburbia

Shaun Tan: Tales from Outer Suburbia
published in Australia by Allen&Unwin,
RRP: $29.95

I do not understand the paradox of Shaun Tan. In a country with no tradition, and subsequently little undestanding, of illustrated books, from comics to picture books, Shaun Tan, who is essentially a creator of both, is revered as a national treasure. From the brouhaha that followed the publication of The Arrival in 2006, which went on to win every award available to a book, you would think that Tan had single-handedly discovered the graphic novel. And yet, while among the awards was the Angouleme International Comic Festival Prize for Best Comic Book, in Australia Tan was being awarded mainly as a children’s novelist and picture book artist, and many a visually-ungifted person was suggesting that keeping the hues of an entire page consistent, in order to achieve consistency of mood, was Shaun Tan’s ground-breaking invention, and loudly wondered what this new genre, this wordless book in which action was moved by – gasp! – images, was going to be called.

My hazarded guess would be that, while Australia seems to have inherited a healthy tradition of books for children from England, image still seems to be viewed as something suspicious, lascivious, out of control. As we are collectively descending into a willful misunderstanding of childhood, sentimentalised, idealised and fantasised into a fairy-tale for adults, children’s books have become part of this sacred area of life, in which we all strive to protect the untouchable purity of childhood. The double-edged fascination with Shaun Tan’s work seems to derive from a complex mixture of total charmedness with his work, usually interpreted as complex and imaginative children’s stories (rather than complex allegories for adults, which they could easily be), thus taking part in the holy battle against the McDonaldization of our children, and high incompetence in all things pictorial, adding a dash of blind reverie to the healthy respect. Whichever way, Tan enjoys a status that no other maker of images in this country currently has. The joy we derive from reading his beautifully crafted, and exquisitely printed books comes hand in hand with a moral uprightness that no other popular artist seems to beat.

It is, thus, commonly understood that Tan’s work stands apart from every book currently in existence: that The Arrival is not a graphic novel, The Lost Thing not a picture book, Tales from Outer Suburbia not a collection of illustrated stories. Why, with such adoration ready to be showered on one artist, Australia doesn’t have a healthier graphic publishing industry, is a mystery yet to be resolved. For now, though, Tan has achieved the stature that allows him to create as he wishes, and is using his freedom well.

Tales from Outer Suburbia is a slender book of great quality: fifteen short stories, ranging from traditional illustrated stories to two-panel illustrations with words. Tan dives head-on into the coherently, convincedly magical realm of childhood, recreating the solidity of all the beliefs children stick to whilst unable to prove. Treating the paradoxes of this outlook with the same seriousness he applies to the juggle of paradoxical beliefs that we call the adult life, Tan creates a malleable, colourful and softly uncertain world. When the two brothers in Our expedition embark on a quest to find what’s beyond the last pages of their father’s street directory, the reader is as uncertain as they are as to whether the city simply ends with a clear cut. Equally, in Alert but not alarmed, government-prescribed ballistic missiles in every back yard are slowly painted, decorated and turned into bird houses; whether one kind of swarm intelligence is better than the other is entirely up to you to decide.

Meanwhile, the mysterious asocial, and alienatingly denatured yet inurbane world of the Australian outer suburbia is, in Tan’s book, as grim and exciting as in real life, scrubbed of sentimentality, yet enchantingly full of possibilities. The mysteries in the book are not in the forest, beyond the hill; they are not immediate, dark and scary. No, they are the mysteries inside the neighbouring houses (as in No other country), the unimaginable vast society beyond the suburb (as in The Amnesia Machine), or in the behaviour of the transitory, alien people that populate outer suburbia (from Broken Toys to Stick Figures). Tan’s interest in migration, deeply investigated in The Arrival, is present again. In the wonderfully observed Eric, an exchange student asks questions that “weren’t the kind of questions I had been expecting”, while his mother comforts the host boy by saying that “It’s a cultural thing”. Coming to terms with the world of adults is paralleled by the learning that inevitably accompanies immigration in No Other Country, or even, in Grandpa’s Story, marriage. Unlike the magic possibilities of the Victorian mansion, or the industrial city, the mysterious possibilities of outer suburbia are less a function of its crammed fullness than its vagueness.

Tan, who has graduated in both Fine Arts and Literature, has a knack with the words, but the brilliance of his work stems really from his mastery of visual story-telling. In Outer Suburbia, there is never a word used where an image would be better suited, and no image inserted at any point in the story that isn’t just right. In Distant Rain, a collage of words and small images, is a stuttering, rhythmic story that changes colour with mood, and breaks into a two-page ominous climax just before the words rain down and the cloud dissolves into a pink, quiet epilogue. The entire centre of Grandpa’s Story, the honeymoon adventures of the narrator’s grandparents, are given over to panel-large images, and every turn of the page in Eric was considered in the terms of the accumulation of new information.

Small and unpretentious, Tales from Outer Suburbia is no more a children’s book than an illustrated, say, book of recipes would be. It is a pretty, light and deceivingly innocuous-looking read, equal parts whimsical and wise.

This week

The last few weeks, in Melbourne, Australia, have clearly been about showing the dogs for the dogs, and the humans for the humans. I have long been suspicious of the Australian habit of back-patting; of praising our courage, our simple and wholesome practical-mindedness and readiness to help in need. Of saying, we have been brought to our knees, but we will stand again. Now, though, I think it may be not at all different from the Croatian method of digesting catastrophe, which is fierce and unforgiving awe at the senseless cruelty of the world. Sense of not so much injustice, but the magnitude of suffering. Because both are, deep down, just different takes on the same basic truth of life. Terrible things happen; people suffer and die; life continues. We learn nothing but the depth and breadth of our own selves.

(As an urban planner, I am able to simultaneously have another angle on the events, one slightly more outcome-oriented. However, that is a different story, and I am not going to bore you with public policy discussion.)

Sad, sober and toughening-up few weeks. The best thing we can do, as always, is show Hemingway’s grace under pressure, in other words courage. Make sure we find out we are humans, not dogs.

It remains a theatre hiatus for me. Instead, I will offer a couple of reading recommendations. Zadie Smith, always the brilliant essayist, writes Speaking in Tongues for the NY Review of Books, a deep and personal meditation on Barack Obama, language, and difference:

It’s amazing how many of our cross-cultural and cross-class encounters are limited not by hate or pride or shame, but by another equally insidious, less-discussed, emotion: embarrassment. A few minutes later, I was in a taxi and heading uptown with my Northern Irish husband and our half-Indian, half-English friend, but that initial hesitation was ominous; the first step on a typical British journey. A hesitation in the face of difference, which leads to caution before difference and ends in fear of it. Before long, the only voice you recognize, the only life you can empathize with, is your own.

On the other side of the world, the new edition of Plotki is dedicated to Airports. Among many pieces of striking citizen journalism, it is worth singling out Lucie Dusk’s Leaving Nowhere, on the 100-odd residents of Heathrow, thus temporarily not homeless. In Eurozine, Slavenka Drakulić explains Why she has not returned to Belgrade, discussing personal and political responsibility.

While his speech clearly aimed at evoking sympathy from the audience, I must confess that I did not feel any sympathy at all. I was angry at his anger. Speaking on their behalf he somehow suggested that the new generation does not deserve such a treatment from “Europe”. The implication of his argument was that because they are young they must also be innocent.

Proving that serious writing has not disappeared from Australian mainstream media, Guy Rundle, in Winds of change, discusses the past and the future of our economic crisis:

The entire productive capacity of the West has been hollowed out, largely under the tutelage of an economic theory so oriented to consumption that its value calculations could not distinguish between $1 billion of GDP expressed as a steel mill and the same amount as represented by the sale of pet care products. As long as money was moving around, everything was all right.

Finally, fiction. In a recent issue of The New Yorker, Donald Antrim pens Another Manhattan, an exquisite short story that does the most wondrous kind of the short-story magic: changes colour and shape with every paragraph, ending quite a different thing than it began.

But we should always end sad weeks with a music number: