Inside the Creative Mind of John Tranter

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I came across John Tranter’s chameleonic way with words for the first time at a poetry gathering. At one point, the evening’s host decided to read aloud Tranter’s The Urn of Loneliness. I was transfixed. A magnetic power seemed to lie in the poem’s shifting perspectives, from Morton opening a diary to the exposure of Mary’s thoughts, interlocked with Lesley’s mutterings and the overhanging memory of Angela’s kiss. It was like being beckoned into a labyrinth of intriguing voices, down tunnels of neurotic confessions and through chambers of haunting suspicions. I listened with bated breath, lapping up every line with relish.

The Urn of Loneliness showed me how poetry can be such an ideal form for evoking details and nuances, such as a provocative image or snapshots of a character’s psyche. When I had the pleasure of interviewing John Tranter for In Other Words, Tranter referred to an interesting comment that the American poet John Ashbery once made, which was: “content is the unexplored important thing about poetry.”

According to Tranter, while poetry is often discussed in terms of structure or style, content is central to poetry. “With a prose poem, it looks like a piece of fiction when you glance at it, but once you read it, you realise it’s much more intensely concerned with the sentences and the way they move, and it creates meanings that are hard to grasp at first. Whereas when you read journalism you want it to be simple and clear with a beginning, middle and an end. And fiction, to some extent, does the same thing. It has to have a narrative that carries you along from one point to the next. Prose poetry can just throw all that out and do anything it likes.”

Growing up in country New South Wales in the 1950s and 1960s, Tranter pored over the gutsy and rebellious writing by the Beat Generation in America while they were shaking up a new cultural awakening thousands of miles away. He read On The Road and The Dharma Bums, both written by Jack Kerouac, in his late teens and the books made him yearn to travel to America and join the rock’n’roll adventure.

“I think the lifestyle they lived was the kind of lifestyle the average teenager wanted to live. You know, you hitchhike around the place and you take drugs and you get drunk, go to lots of parties and write poetry. I mean, it’s not hard to do but it’s a lot of fun. And they seemed to be saying that this kind of lifestyle wasn’t self-indulgent at all, but it was artistic, so everyone wanted to try it out.”

Tranter left for Britain in 1966 and ended up visiting France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Turkey, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and India on his way back overland to Australia a year later. He found it important to get out of Australia at the time because the country was culturally stagnant and conservative. Travelling overseas allowed him to “see how Australia looked from the outside” and his experiences of culture shock fueled his creativity and inspired new approaches to his writing.

“I found it very interesting to visit different cultures because you notice little things that at home you would never notice. For example, in London, when I was there from 1966, I noticed, to make a phone call from a public phone, you had to have six pennies in your pocket and they were gigantic, heavy copper things. You had to put about a pound of copper into this machine and push buttons, and there were all sorts of clanging noises. I thought, ‘This is so strange! The English don’t see how weird that is. Why don’t you just put one small coin in? Why do you have to have six large copper discs on you every time you want to make a phone call?’ And then in Australia, you wouldn’t think of that, but because it’s strange when you see it overseas, you think about little things like that all the time. And I noticed distinctly how strange habits were in different countries and, by extension, when I came back to Australia, how strange things were here, too.”

Travelling still plays an important role in Tranter’s writing career. Most recently in 2009, Tranter stayed at a writer’s retreat for six months at the Civitella Ranieri centre in Umbria, Italy, alongside other poets and writers, as well as music composers and painters. He embarked on the residency because he has found that going to a foreign place triggers new ideas for his poems. “Being somewhere different jars you out of your old routines of thinking and acting and doing. It gets your mind working along fresh tracks, gets you thinking of new things.”

At the retreat in Umbria, Tranter wrote a suite of poems that are essentially loose revisions of poems by Charles Baudelaire from the French poet’s volume Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil). Tranter changed the subject matter of the Baudelaire poems to reflect a more contemporary setting but retained the overriding sentiments and Baudelaire’s symbolic fixation with muses and goddesses.

During our interview, Tranter read to me a selection of his poems including Venus, which had been inspired by Baudelaire’s La Muse Vénale and The Sick Muse, which was based on La Muse Malade. Whilst Tranter was reading the poems aloud in his crisp yet lulling voice, it occured to me that they are certainly not mere translations from the Baudelaire originals. In each of his poems Tranter presents a different character and situation to those illustrated in the original Baudelaire poem.

In The Sick Muse, Tranter addresses the saturation of consumer culture in our society with “Mammon, God of the Golden Dollar” ruling over us and mentions the American department stores Macy’s and Bloomingdales, where salespeople promote soulless images of beauty and luxury. By contrast, Baudelaire’s La Muse Malade refers to the power of gods from Greek-Roman mythology, such as Phoebus (Apollo) and Pan, as well as a female demon called Succubus from medieval folklore. In Tranter’s Venus, a drug addict returns home one night to find the heating has been cut off and wonders whether she would try to support herself by doing odd jobs or stand-up comedy. Yet, in La Muse Vénale, an impoverished woman is left to her own devices to brave the wintry cold and Baudelaire warns that, in order to survive, she would have to do something that she doesn’t believe in, such as performing ceremonial duties in a church, like an altar boy. All that is preserved in Tranter’s poems is the bare frame of Baudelaire’s voice and manner of addressing the readers. Rather than copying Baudelaire, Tranter appears to be keener about taking something from the past and moulding it into something new and relevant to our present times.

In fact, Tranter experiments with writing in the voices of other poets to inform his own style. “Poets generally like other poets’ work not just because it is good, but for what you can get out of it.”

He has also always had a great interest in traditional poetic forms and feels that structural devices are what make poetry distinct from prose. “I like blank verse, which is the sort of form that Shakespeare used in all of his plays, more or less. I think that’s a wonderful form for English. It’s based loosely on the iambic pentameter but because it’s dialogue, it has all sorts of dynamics and energies that pull the form out of shape all the time, and then it tries to pull itself back to the pentameter again, and then someone starts talking too quickly and pulls it the other way, so you get this constant energy in the form. I really like that. It’s a very dramatic form because it can handle dialogue and argument and aggression, all sorts of things.”

Apart from the works of other poets and writers, Tranter gets inspiration from music and films. “I find movies very absorbing and very interesting, and so they appear in my poetry because they’re just things in my life that I really enjoy and find a lot of meaning in. I just put them in my poems because they tell a story and they’re vivid and interesting. Music, I think, has always been important to me because it’s a direct emotional expression. You don’t have to translate a word of music; it just goes across from one culture to another. And I just put them in my poetry because they’re around me everyday anyway, it’s part of life. It’s like… landscape poetry, except that my landscape is not a line of hills in the bush, it’s a movie I went to last night and a cafe I went to before that, and some friends I talked to in a pub.”

There is a particularly striking, film-noir quality in his collection of poems The Floor of Heaven. It is interesting to hear from Tranter that one of the primary concepts behind this collection came from a scene in Luis Buñuel’s 1972 film, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. “A group of people meet together and sit down to have a meal and the meal is interrupted by someone who says, ‘Oh, I must tell you about this dream I had.’ And you go into that dream in the film, and in that dream there’s a different group of people who sit down together to eat a meal and, just as they’re about to eat, someone says, ‘Wait a minute, before we start, let me tell you about this wonderful dream I had.’ And then you go into that dream and, well, you never really get out of those dreams. It seemed to me, in that film, you could play with any story you wanted to, in each of these dreams there’s a complicated story going on. And each story is as valid as every other story. I just thought that was a wonderful idea.”

Like The Urn of Loneliness, many of the poems in The Floor of Heaven do not follow a conventional narrative. Instead, the stories of the characters are told from a range of fragmented points of view. To Tranter, it’s instinct that tells him when to bring a different voice into the mix. “I guess you reach a point where you’re a little tired of one voice and you want to bring in a difference voice, so you bring in someone who argues against what that person’s saying or doing and you try to get a little conflict in it, and I guess, also, there are lots of echoes in my head of other novels and stories and movies I’ve experienced and that tends to drift into the stories I’m writing too.”

The first poem from The Floor of Heaven that Tranter wrote was about a woman called Gloria who is seeking therapy to deal with her muddy past, but it was only a month later that he created a sister for her. “I woke up one morning and realised Gloria had a sister. And she had another life that was sort of like Gloria’s. It just sort of happened overnight, I must have dreamed about it. So Gloria came to life in my dreams and told me to write more about her and her sister and family and all the adventures they had. She really came to life for me and directed the poem to go in a certain way and I thought, “OK, why not? Let’s see what happens”

As a result of being influenced by so many different mediums, Tranter’s writing is in a continuous cycle of transformation. He has never lost the appetite for experimenting with new forms and styles.”They say that writers, when they are learning to write, have to find their own voice. I guess that’s true. You start out learning by copying other writers and learning to write like T.S. Eliot, or learning to write like Kerouac, and you do it a lot until you’re good at it, and then you move on. Eventually you find your own voice, and I found my own voice about forty years ago and that was fine, except after ten years I thought, ‘What’s this boring voice I keep hearing over and over again? It’s John Tranter. God, how terrible.’ So, after that point, I’ve always tried to find some fresh new way of writing that’s not my own voice but a bit different.”

Whenever Tranter senses his writing style is getting a bit musty, he employs techniques to get as far away from it as possible. The idea behind the Baudelaire-inspired poems was actually part of a personal challenge to turn an already completed poem into something he can call his own. “When I rewrite Baudelaire, I change everything, but I change all the things that he gives me in the first place.”

Another trick he has tried is using the end words of a poem to invent a completely new poem. “You take 30 of the end words and you throw the poem away. And then you write your own poem with each line ending with one of those end words. So you’ve got a constriction on what you can write, which makes you write things you wouldn’t think of writing before, but you have to fill up the lines with your own writing.” This particular exercise resulted in a collection of poems Tranter has titled Terminals, published in Urban Myths: 210 Poems: New and Selected.

Over time, Tranter has developed a softer spot for the quintessential larrikin style that permeates through Australian poetry. In Urban Myths, he wrote a set of poems that placed famous literary figures in a number of iconic Australian locations: Sartre at Surfers Paradise, Foucault at The Forest Lodge Hotel, Yeats at Bondi and Rimbaud in Sydney.

Tranter once had an argument with David Malouf, who taught him English for a few years at university, about whether Australian writers should try harder to be internationally appealing. “I was going on about how we had to be international and get rid of these gumtree ideas we had, and he said, ‘Well, you’re right, John, but you’ll find as you get older, the one thing that’s distinctive about your work is its Australianness. You’ll always have an Australian tone of voice in the way you look at things.’ And he’s absolutely right. We have a particular, laconic way of thinking and talking that I don’t think other countries have that well.”

Tranter recalls getting mixed reception from American audiences for performing a poem called South Coast Haiku by Laurie Duggan when he was travelling around the States. “It’s about young people turning away from commercial, capitalist society, and going to live on their own in the bush or by a beach somewhere, and getting close to nature.”

South Coast Haiku is an ironic, little poem that goes like this:

Rain drips

through the tin roof

missing

the stereo.

But the Americans didn’t get that it was supposed to be ironic.”When I read that in New York, everyone laughed their heads off. When I read it in San Francisco, they looked blank and looked at each other.

Although he is very much devoted to experimenting with his writing, Tranter does not follow a strict writing routine from day to day. “All the writers I like say, ‘I start at 10am and work for four hours.’ I can’t do that, I’ve discovered. What happens is I don’t write for months and months, I do other things and I suppose at the back of my mind I’m thinking about what I’ve seen, a movie I’ve seen, a book I’ve read. And then I get an idea for a poem and I start to write it. And then I think, ‘Why don’t I write a few of these like that?’ So I write five or six poems, and then I write eight to ten, all in about a week.”

When he isn’t writing, Tranter works on a multitude of other projects. Some of his past ventures include editing his very successful, online poetry magazine Jacket and broadcasting for the Books and Writing program (now called Arts and Books Daily) he founded on ABC Radio National. He also enjoys taking photographs and admits to spending too much time reading magazines about digital photography on the internet.

While poetry is the main thing he has kept at over the years, Tranter believes it is important to keep busy with other activities too. “You just have to do the best with what you’ve got, and be aware of what’s going on around you, and try and get interested in lots of other things. Try not to think of yourself all the time. It’s very important to read a lot, and go to a lot of movies, and go to a lot of parties, meet lots of people, get married, have kids, all that stuff.”

And so, as life imitates art, or vice versa, John Tranter continues to grow, change and try new things.

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Evolution at Signal Arts Studio

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Overlooking Flinders Street Station and Sandridge Bridge, Signal is a youth arts studio that has, since its opening in 2010, developed into a creative cocoon for Melbourne’s young people to find their feet through the process of making art.

“Our whole mission in all our work is to support the idea of cultural citizenship,” says Simon Spain, the creative producer of Signal. “We want young people and their families to feel like they are cultural citizens, and what I mean by that, is somebody who can contribute positively to the culture of Melbourne without the fear of people laughing at them.”

Among a multitude of art projects and workshops designed for young people, Spain and the team at Signal have been occupied with running Evolution, a program that operates in eight-week cycles for homeless or at-risk youth between the ages of 13 and 22.

“Evolution is about re-engaging kids into mainstream education, through the arts and activities, so it’s more of a tool for social engagement, rather than some of the other programs that we run, which are simply about art,” explains Spain.

Signal collaborated on Evolution with FrontYard Youth Services, a support centre for homeless or at-risk youth based in the Melbourne CBD, in order to ensure that there would be a youth worker present at every workshop to support all the participants in the studio.

As the youth worker attached to Evolution, Belinda Biffin has always recognised the potential of delivering intensive art programs for disengaged young people that have dropped out of school and are without any permanent housing arrangement.

“In our waiting room at FrontYard, one thing that I’ve always picked up on, for as many years as I’ve worked there, is that there are some people who are not able to focus on anything but, for some bizarre reason, are able to focus on art,” says Biffin. “There are times when we have put a big canvas in the waiting room, along with some paint, and some very energetic young people who have been bouncing off our walls will go and focus on doing a painting.”

The headquarters for Evolution is a cosy studio space upstairs at Signal that has windows stretching across all four walls, letting in generous expanses of sunlight. On a Wednesday afternoon, a group of participants are seated around an island of long, wooden tables, submersed in concentration over their artworks. Biffin sits in with them, sketching a rocket in her visual diary. A dull scraping can be heard as a girl next to Biffin carves out the outline of a flower into a piece of lino. Meanwhile, Clare McCracken, the artist-in-residence for Evolution, looks on as a boy uses a computer program to apply colour to his intricate line drawing that resembles a sprawling jungle of abstract shapes. Together, they decide to set the drawing against a red background that fades to white.

“Most of the time, these young people are being assessed and they have to constantly talk about their issues. It’s unusual to be in a situation where they get to engage on a different level,” says McCracken. “Evolution is an opportunity for them to leave all of their issues at the door and work on a project with an outcome.”

Biffin is responsible for sifting through referrals to find disengaged young people, who are not currently at school but have an interest in art, to participate in Evolution. The majority of referrals come from a range of support services around Melbourne for young people without a permanent residency. Through her work, Biffin has found that homeless young people face a particularly high risk of dropping out of school, due to their personal ordeals.

“It is very, very rare to come across a young person who is homeless and has passed year 12. Generally, if they’re really lucky, they may have stuck around to year 9,” says Biffin. “If you sit down with them and have a discussion about their experience of school, you’ll find that most of them have had an incredibly negative experience. A lot of it involves bullying, so they can be victims of bullying, or sometimes they can be perpetrators of it, and often they’re both.”

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare‟s „Counting the Homeless‟ report, approximately 6, 408 Victorians between 12 and 25 have been identified as homeless, which is 19% of the total homeless population in Victoria, making it the age bracket with the greatest proportion of homeless people.

Yet, Biffin claims that homelessness among young people continues to be an invisible problem to the wider community in Victoria. “ Many of the kids we support are doing what we call couch surfing,” says Biffin. “From one night to the next, they don’t really know where they’re staying, but they might meet someone today and they’ll sleep on their couch tonight, but come tomorrow, they have no idea where they’ll be sleeping. That’s classified as homelessness, and a lot of people don’t understand that.”

In a report released in October as part of the Victorian Homelessness Action Plan for 2011-2015, the Victorian Government cites education as a key factor that helps to reduce an individual‟s risk of becoming homeless. However, there is currently a lack of education engagement programs, particularly in the visual arts arena. “There just isn‟t a lot of art programs for the sort of guys that we work with,” says Biffin. “There‟s very little that you can tap into, and I don‟t understand why there is this massive gap.”

Despite having extensive teaching experience under her belt that ranges from instructing Diploma of Public Art students at RMIT University to running fair-trade design programs for year 9 students in the outer-eastern suburbs, McCracken had never come across at-risk youth in the classroom before she was selected to be the artist-in-residence for Evolution. “In the past, I have been working within the school system, and often with high-achievers too, so this is really a very different experience for me,” says McCracken. “I suppose I had assumptions about their ability, but I was constantly surprised. Some of the young people have incredibly high literacy skills, considering that they’ve dropped out of school, while others really struggle. They‟re as diverse as any group of people you‟d get in a room, and their needs and interests are just as diverse too.”

Evolution is now undergoing its fourth eight-week round and McCracken has worked hard to fine-tune the program for each new group over the past three rounds. During the first round, McCracken realised that she had to dismiss the notion of having a formal lesson plan. Instead, she has taken on a flexible, multi-disciplinary approach for Evolution and is striving to tailor the program to the needs of each young person to retain their interest. “The plan now is not to have a plan,” says McCracken. “It‟s like running separate programs for every individual all at once, and if they all rock up on a day, it’s pretty much like running a marathon.”

At the first workshop for each new round, McCracken hands out drawing kits to each participant and directs them to start sketching anything they want in their visual diaries as a “wake up” exercise. “It’s about getting them comfortable,” says McCracken, bubbling with enthusiasm. “Then I’ll start suggesting avenues for their drawings, if they haven’t already come up with an idea.”

Showing the young people that anything they want to achieve is possible is not just an airy, idealistic message that McCracken wants to get across to them but it is actually her personal philosophy towards making art. “Usually, within my own practice, I come up with a concept, and then I think how to build it,” says McCracken. “It was a very similar process working with these young people. There’s a million ways to solve every problem, and I choose the way that they are most comfortable with. For example, if they are not confident about drawing, we will go and take some photos. Then, we will put the photos on a light box and trace around the image.”

On the other hand, some participants are extremely keen to try out new art practices. McCracken recounts a workshop where a girl approached her with the idea of making a coffee table out of mosaic tiles. “It was a bit of a push for me, because I hadn’t done mosaics for over ten years, but that’s an example of how you just need to throw your plan out the window.” McCracken supported the girl through a process of intensive research to find the best design for the tabletop and she was ultimately inspired to do a multi-coloured mosaic representation of a game of Tetris in motion.

Straying away from the typical classroom-learning model appears to have contributed to how smoothly Evolution has been running throughout all of its cycles. “We make it clear to each young person that it is voluntary. We don’t chain them to the chair,” says Biffin. “If they’re not feeling like they’re in the right state of mind, it’s okay to disappear for the day. I’ll just give them a call a bit later to make sure they are okay, and hope to see them back the next morning.”

At the same time, Biffin places a strong emphasis on getting each participant to take little steps towards boosting their attendance record. “They just may not have established a steady routine,” she says. “Some of our guys come from families where mum or dad don’t work, and perhaps have never worked, so they may not be used to the concept of something as simple as getting up in the morning and going to school or work everyday.”

It is a big deal for Biffin when she manages to get an individual to turn up on time to every workshop session. “It could take five or six phone calls in the morning to get them to turn up. But over the eight weeks, some of them reach a point where they know I’m going to call them in the morning, so they start getting up themselves.”

Although she is aware that at-risk youth who have dropped out of school are often perceived to be “lazy bludgers” who “don’t want to do anything”, Biffin has found the opposite to be the case with the young people she supports at FrontYard and in the Evolution program. “I find most of the young people I’ve ever worked with are incredibly eager to achieve something. They often don’t know what that something is, so it comes down to a worker being switched on enough to give them plenty of options and ideas.”

Throughout the program, Biffin engages in regular conversations with participants to encourage them to continue with schooling in alternative environments. “I tell them that some schools they have tried just aren’t the right fit for them, but that doesn’t mean they should put a giant line through school altogether,” says Biffin. “When you have lots of opportunities to have these kinds of discussions and keep chipping away, they often start to come around after a couple of months, even though they were completely anti-school in the first place.”

Marion Singer, the Access Co-ordinator at Signal, works closely with Biffin and McCracken to enhance the re-engagement aspect of Evolution into the long-term. “We check in with the young people long after they’ve finished participating in Evolution to see how that idea of re-connecting with education and employment is going, and to support them in continuing with that re-engagement,” says Singer.

For Biffin, the program is not a success if participants don’t join up for another program after the cycle has finished. “Real success is when we’ve been able to assist them to link into further education and training beyond our little program. They may go on to do an arts course at TAFE. It may have nothing to do with art. Art might just be a hobby on the side, while they develop a career in hospitality. These are all good outcomes to me.”

Ironically, many participants in the previous cycles of Evolution have gone back to school, with the majority undertaking VCAL at TAFE or in alternative settings. From the first cycle, five out of the six participants enrolled in an alternative school immediately after completing Evolution, while the remaining participant took a traineeship course in hospitality at TAFE. “They’ve returned to study and that’s very surprising, because when I first met them, most of them could talk at great length about how much they hated school and how much they don’t want to go back,” says Biffin. “But, I find, when they’ve had a positive involvement with a program that involves learning, even if it’s not obvious that it is an educational program, they start to come around to the idea of being in a learning environment.”

Apart from re-acquainting participants with the education system, the artworks completed by every individual during Evolution are showcased in an exhibition curated by McCracken at the end of each cycle. “We don’t follow the old community arts model where it’s about the process, not the outcome,” McCracken explains. “The process is still important, but the young people get really anxious if they can’t see that the outcome is going to be something that they can be proud of.”

Biffin remembers how ecstatic the participants in the last cycle were during their exhibition, about the fact that strangers were willing to turn up to look at their work and commend them on their effort. “To say that they were chuffed by the end of the night would be an absolute understatement. It’s not like anything they have ever experienced in their lives.”

Visitors to the exhibitions have also taken the initiative to purchase some of the artworks. “People that come to the exhibitions will approach the young people, and then I will have a chat with them about what price they’d like to put on it,” says McCracken. “50 or 100 dollars makes a big difference to a young person on Centrelink.”

Signal‟s creative director Simon Spain claims that the exhibition “doesn’t shout at you that these kids need special support.” Rather, it shouts, “this is good work in a very diverse exhibition.” Spain is so impressed with the outcome that he is even setting his eyes on making Evolution a permanent fixture at Signal. “I think we are going to build it up and integrate it into our core program because it has been so successful.”

In particular, he hopes to develop the idea that participants can sell their work on a more formal level. “I think it would give an economic focus to the program as well, and show the young people how they can make some money from their work.”

The exhibition for the current round of Evolution will run from December 1 to 7 at the Signal Gallery. Gallery hours are 1 to 5 pm on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

The Educational Divide

Standing behind the counter of her father’s hardware store with a friendly smile, Ballarat teenager Sophie Wise appears carefree and optimistic, as though the world is at her feet. Yet, beneath her bright and bubbly exterior, Sophie is silently grappling with a learning disability.

Sophie, 19, has a mild form of dyslexia, which means it is difficult for her to read and spell correctly, as well as see the digits of numbers in the right order. However, there were no support programs for dyslexic students at her school and she never told her teachers about her condition.

“I didn’t want to be singled out from the other kids so I never asked for help. Instead, I kept relying on my dictionary to be able to spell things correctly,” Sophie said.

Sophie felt increasingly disengaged in class and eventually dropped out of school after Year 11.

“When I was hesitant to read in class, the teachers just assumed I was stupid and never suspected that I had a reading problem. Many teachers did not give extra time to help individual students and it seemed pointless to try so hard on my own.”

There are many teenagers in Australia like Sophie, who have dropped out of school because their learning disabilities have not been identified or their school has been unable to provide for their needs.

“About 20% of young Australians do not finish high school, which puts them at great risk of becoming unemployed. An overwhelming proportion of those who drop out have learning difficulties,” Associate Professor of the University of Melbourne’s Graduate School of Education Erica Frydenberg said.

The Victorian Government has released a response to their 2009 Pathways to Re-engagement through Flexible Learning Options report, which investigated how to assist disengaged students, but the response offered no funding for alternative education programs.

“We have developed new programs for students at risk of dropping out of school but there is still insufficient funding from the Government to kick start them,” Hands On Learning Founder Russell Kerr said.

Health experts believe that negative labels are often applied to children with learning difficulties, which makes it difficult for them to feel confident in the classroom.

“Many people with dyslexia have been wrongly labelled as stupid or lazy when it actually has nothing to do with intellectual ability,” Centre for Adolescent Health Director Dr Nola Firth said.

“Teachers need to be trained to look out for signs of dyslexia and teach reading by phonic methods,” Dr Firth said.

Health Groups Push For Tighter Smoking Restrictions

Health authorities are campaigning to municipal councils across Victoria to ban smoking in outdoor areas, including dining spaces, public parks and shopping strips.

The campaign is a joint initiative by Quit Victoria and The Heart Foundation, in response to an air quality report on Melbourne’s outdoor cafes by the Tobacco Control Journal.

Tobacco Control’s report found that diners in semi-enclosed spaces are exposed to hazardous levels of second-hand smoke when they are within one metre of a smoker.

Spokesperson for Quit Victoria Jessica Longbottom is particularly concerned about the health of children who regularly visit parks and dine at outdoor eateries with their parents.

“Second-hand smoke not only causes lung cancer and heart disease but it is also associated with increasing the risk of pneumonia, meningococcal, asthma attacks and SIDS among children,” Ms Longbottom said.

“The number of children taking up smoking when they are older would actually decrease if they don’t see so many people smoking in public all the time because it is normalising the behaviour for them,” she said.

Quit Victoria is currently developing pamphlets with Frankston City Council to educate residents about the dangers of smoking.
“We want all local councils to know that they have our support in building a healthier society for our children,” Ms Longbottom said.
The pamphlets will also provide information about a trial smoking ban at three open-air shopping strips in Frankston starting on September 1.

“This trial is about protecting the health of non-smokers in public spaces, where everybody’s best interests should be considered,” Frankston Mayor Christine Richards said.

“Police will be patrolling the streets to make sure that the designated areas remain no-smoking zones. Anybody caught smoking will be fined up to $110,” she said.

Ms Richards said that other local councils should follow Frankston’s lead and adopt similar smoking bans.
“Smoking takes the lives of 4000 Victorians per year, which is three times more than those who die from road accidents, illicit drug use and alcohol abuse combined,” she said.

“Establishing smoking exclusion zones in outdoor areas is the next logical step for Victoria, especially since the total smoking ban in enclosed public places in 2007 has proven to be successful.”

67% of the 4500 people surveyed by Cancer Council Victoria were in support of having smoke-free outdoor dining areas.

A Fashionable Cause

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Forget diamonds: Vintage clothing is a girl’s best friend. Or at least this seemed to be the case last Saturday, when hundreds of women squeezed into the warehouse behind Dear Gladys boutique on 296 High St for a charity clothing sale.

Due to the overwhelming number of customers bustling in and out, a makeshift change room that had been erected in one corner of the warehouse collapsed only a few hours into the sale. Fortunately, this glitch did not affect the enthusiasm of customers and they continued to try on clothes in the open. The sale was not just about getting a good bargain, but also about supporting less fortunate women in the community.

The warehouse sale was organised by Fitted For Work, a nationwide organisation founded in Melbourne that provides disadvantaged women with appropriate work attire and assistance with job interview skills. Twelve committee members sorted and prepared the racks of donated jackets, dresses and jeans, while six volunteers helped out behind the counter on the day.

“The purpose of the sale is to help sustain the life of Fitted For Work. Proceeds from the sale will go towards funding our programs and to cover the rent for the warehouse and our Melbourne office,” Convener of Melbourne’s Fitted For Work Advisory Committee Carolyne Cohn said.

“Disadvantaged women are directed by job agencies to our Melbourne office. When they arrive for their appointment, two volunteers will help them find an outfit that is suitable for their job interview. The volunteers will also talk to them about possible questions that might be asked in the interview,” Ms Cohn said.

Many women who seek assistance from Fitted For Work have been in prison and drug rehab or are newly arrived refugees and single parents struggling to earn enough money to support their families. These women find job interviews a daunting task because they cannot afford suitable corporate attire and are not comfortable with presenting themselves.

“It is very rewarding to see a client come out of a fitting looking great and feeling more confident, motivated and enthusiastic about finding a job,” Fitted For Work Founder Renata Singer said.

“There is also a great support network developing between women at Fitted For Work. Although some members had not met each other before the warehouse sale, everybody was working towards the common goal of giving women who have had great difficulties in their lives the chances that they deserve,” Ms Singer said.

Melbourne’s Tropfest Film Festival launches a mobile film category

Media Release

7 October, 2009

The Melbourne Tropfest Film Festival has opened a new “Telstra Mobile
Masterpieces” category for its 2010 competition. This category aims to encourage
contestants to enter films that have been made on mobiles phones. The inspiration
behind “Telstra Mobile Masterpieces” is the winning film of the 2008 New York
Tropfest competition, “Mankind is no Island”, which was filmed entirely on a mobile
phone.
Amanda Johnston-Pell, Telstra’s Executive Director of Brand and Communications
believes that camera phones will allow contestants to explore new methods of
filmmaking.
“With the rapid advancement of multimedia capabilities of mobile handsets, this new
category presents an exciting vehicle for filmmakers to get creative, ” Ms. Johnston-
Pell explained.
John Polson, the founder of Tropfest also stated that he is “looking forward to seeing
how filmmakers continue to take up the challenge of making films on mobile
phones.”
Films created on mobile phones will also be eligible for prizes in the main Movie
Extra category. Therefore mobile films must also adhere to the same rules as regular
films. Each film cannot exceed seven minutes, must premiere exclusively at the
festival and feature the annual Tropfest Signature Item, which is a pair of dice for
2010.

Entries need to be submitted online at http://www.withoutabox.com/login/6358 by
Thursday 7 January. The Tropfest panel will then select the top twelve films, which will be screened in every state from Sunday 21 February.

The venues for the 2010Tropfest screening are yet to be confirmed.

For further enquiries regarding the “Telstra Mobile Masterpieces” competition, please
contact Sarah Ashton on (02) 8576 7301. Alternatively, please send enquiries to
sarah.ashton@team.telstra.com.

A Shelter For Habit

Image

“Everyday rituals help to safeguard a sense of personal autonomy and dignity, or
preserve the distinctive qualities of a threatened way of life”- Rita Felski in The
Invention of Everyday Life.

The latest exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, “Waste Not” by Song Dong, got
me thinking about the significant role that our habits play in our everyday lives.
Song dismantled a section of his family home in Beijing and brought it into the New
York gallery. In the exhibition space, Song arranged all the household objects that his
mother collected over the course of her lifetime into meticulous categories, ranging
from watches to bundles of string.

Hence, Song’s exhibition perfectly encapsulates Henri Lefebvre’s argument that
everyday life can serve as an “object of critical reflection and representation in
literature and art”. Song’s arrangement of his mother’s belongings brings a new sense
of awareness into what had been a mundane part of her life.

In a similar manner to the daughter who hung up some old family quilts as “authentic
folk art” on the wall “to be admired” in Alice Walker’s story, Song allows us to
contemplate what is special about our daily rituals by rearranging pragmatic,
quotidian objects into something of artistic value.

Song’s mother came of age during China’s Cultural Revolution and had the ideology
to “Waste Not, Want Not” ingrained into her since childhood, as resources were
tremendously scarce.

Her habit of preserving every single item in her household was a means of
safeguarding herself from any crisis that might strike next. However, she continued
her habit well after the Cultural Revolution had ended. Therefore, the exhibition also
documents China’s transformation from an agrarian economy (represented by Mother
Song’s array of steel pots) to its present consumerist culture (represented by the
empty tubes of Colgate toothpaste).

Song’s mother’s collecting became particularly obsessive after the death of her
husband in 2002. At this point, his mother’s collection began to mean more to her
than just an old habit. Instead, it served as a monumental shelter for her memories
with her husband and, hence, a way for her to hold onto the past. In this light, the
collection endorses feminist psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva’s view that a repetitive
routine is the key to “women’s experience of extra-subjective time”.
To help his mother deal with her grief, Song inscribed: “Dad, don’t worry, Mum and I
are fine” on a neon sign hanging over the exhibition space.

The nostalgic power that resonates through Song’s exhibition exemplifies how the
shared reality of repetitive actions in our lives enables us to relate to his mother’s
experience.

Street Vendor Pirates in China

In his essay Paid in Full: Copyright, Piracy and the Real Currency of Cultural Production, Armin Medosch claims that people who sell pirated material do so primarily for financial gain, regardless of whether they are an organised criminal group, illegally distributing millions of movies and music tracks, or a family making some extra cash by selling a few pirated copies at the back of their grocery store.

While Medosch does not believe that pirates of intellectual property always operate with high integrity, intending to be “champions of cyber rights and net culture”, he has found that the act of piracy plays a crucial role in providing the masses with access to “cultural goods” that would otherwise have been inaccessible.

In China, piracy satisfies the role of distributing less mainstream and commercial films that do not receive official distribution, including films from overseas, small independent movies and any films containing provocative or challenging subject matter that have been prohibited by the government via China’s strict censorship regulations.

Medosch points to the Chinese film Pirated Copy (Man Yan), directed by He Jianjun, to highlight how piracy can be used as a “counter-hegemonic force” to empower audiences by making “information, knowledge and sophisticated cultural productions” available to them. Pirated Copy not only captures the everyday lives of street vendors selling CDs of pirated films, but also often cuts to scenes directly ripped from pirated films throughout. Coined by the Sixth Generation of Chinese filmmakers, this intricate way of weaving footage from pirated material into the construction of the narrative has emerged as a prevalent cinematic aesthetic among films made in China.

Yingjin Zhang adds to the discussion with an enlightening observation of how much the distribution of pirated films in China has nurtured an interesting cultural movement of “intertextuality and intercontextuality” in the nation’s film industry. Zhang asserts that Chinese filmmakers are now vigorously consuming pirated materials and then reusing, remixing and making references to them in their films. In the process, this movement is exposing the general public to a rich body of films.

In a similar light, Medosch stresses that Pirated Copy exposes more than the confiscation of pirated material and confronting interrogations conducted by police officers that are a quotidian part of the official crackdown on piracy. The film suggests how piracy seems to have perpetuated a strong interest and curiosity among Chinese consumers in arthouse films of anything by Bergman to Almodovar with some local indie films in between.

Piracy is filling a gap that official distributors have left open in countries with stringent censorship procedures providing audiences with “information and cultural goods” that are in high demand but they just have “no chance” of legally obtaining.

So, it seems that the average street vendor has ample potential to act as a cultural connoisseur who caters to the sophisticated tastes and needs of Chinese film enthusiasts.

A clip from Pirated Copy:

Uploaded by loneraver2 on Mar 14, 2010

The above video shows a scene from Pirated Copy where a street vendor is being interrogated by a police officer. Pointing to a pirated copy of the Japanese film In the Realm of Senses, the officer accuses the vendor of “selling pornography” and warns him that this is “punishable with a jail term”. In defence, the vendor responds that In the Realm of Senses is an artistic film and a celebration of humanity. Here, Pirated Copy questions the legitimacy of the state’s authority to determine whether a film can be legally distributed in China.

References:

Medosch, A. (2008). ‘Paid in Full: Copyright, Piracy and the Real Currency of Cultural Production’, in Deptforth TV Diaries: Pirate Strategies, London: Deptforth TV, pp. 73-97.

Zhang, Y. (2010) Cinema, Space, and Polylocality in a Globalizing China, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

YouTube’s Celebrity Red Carpet: All Eyes on Charlie McDonnell

Will “ordinary” people, who rise to fame via social media platforms, be inevitably sucked into the celebrity system controlled by the mainstream media?

According to cultural theorist Nick Couldry, an average citizen can only achieve celebrity status in the real world if they leave their “ordinary world” behind and navigate the rolling red carpet hills of Tinseltown and grab the attention of the mainstream media.

Couldry reasons that YouTube stars, bloggers and other champions of citizen journalism cannot thrive forever in the virtual realm because their ability to pass through the gatekeeping mechanisms of old media is still perceived by audiences to be an important marker of success. To be frank, YouTube and blogging celebrities have to appear in traditional media outlets, such as magazines and on TV shows, before they are reverred on the same altar as Hollywood celebrities.

Charlie McDonnell is a vlogger on YouTube and his channel is currently the #1 Most Subscribed YouTube Channel of All Time in the UK

Indeed, since achieving online popularity on YouTube, Charlie has released a studio album called “This Is Me”, promoted this year’s Comic Relief by making a YouTube video with musical comedian Tim Minchin and participated in a reality television show on BBC Two called Chartjackers.  Read more about Chartjackers in my post here.

Last month, Charlie made a video in which he revealed that he was not enjoying the experience of integrating into the celebrity system of the mainstream entertainment industry:

Uploaded by charlieissocoollike on May 8, 2011

In this video, Charlie revealed that he had an official manager for two years and claimed that his (now former) manager also manages Simon Cowell, the British music executive and television producer best known for being the “mean” judge on American Idol.

Charlie also announced that he is no longer represented by a manager because he wants to make a living purely from YouTube videos.  Charlie claims he has “never been happier […] so take that, mainstream entertainment industry!”

This means that Charlie is now focusing on building his status within the “internal system of celebrity” on YouTube, which operates in a way that does not always tesselate with the values of mainstream media culture.   While celebrities can remain in the limelight simply for being famous, as long as the mass media gives them exposure, Burgess and Green argue that star status for vloggers can only be achieved by ongoing participation. This is because vloggers need to maintain existing subscribers and attract new ones on a site where there are so many other vlogging channels and where there exists a hierarchical ranking system for “Most Watched” videos and “Most Subscribed” channels.

It is interesting to note that Charlie is now spending at least 1-2 weeks on his videos before he uploads them, raising the production quality, instead of regularly churning out videos every couple of days. In his latest video, Charlie has employed computer effects and heavy editing to stage a vlog conversation with a “robot” double of himself:

Uploaded by charlieissocoollike on Jun 5, 2011

Take a moment now to consider the connection between Charlie McDonnell’s new and improved videos and the refined aesthetics and editing techniques of the fictional LonelyGirl15 vlogs, which is a scripted vlog series created by professional film directors. Their backgrounds and production budgets may be different, but both Charlie and Lonelygirl seem to be responsible for influencing amateur vloggers to shift  away from making spontaneous videos on a day-to-day basis to sophisticated videos with meticulously planned and edited structures. Perhaps this shift may affect YouTube’s internal system of celebrity to the extent that, in the future,vloggers may be required to emulate the formal techniques of mainstream media productions, in order to reach star status.

References:

Burgess, J. and J. Green (2009) ‘You Tube and the Mainstream Media’, in YouTube: Online and participatory Culture, Cambridge: Polity Press, pp. 15-37.

Self-Fashioning: A Young Fashion Enthusiast’s Blogging Experience

Style Rookie , owned by American teenager Tavi Gevinson, is a fascinating fashion blog that is shows just how effective blogging is, as a tool for recording our rites of passage.

At age 11, Tavi published her first blog post, The New Girl in Town.   Here, Tavi announced that she is new to fashion blogging and aims to use her blog to document her steps towards learning more about the fashion world. Tavi’s blog seems to breathe more meaning to the stages and cycles of her life that would otherwise be forgotten in the hubbub of everyday life.

When Tavi first started blogging, she had no connections with the fashion world and did not know any other bloggers, but gradually managed to attract a following with her eloquent writing style and focus on reviewing fashion collections.  After all, fashion is a popular topic that a large community of people are interested in reading about and discussing. In this light, Tavi’s blog can be seen as a form of “digital self-fashioning”, which Matthew Berk defines as the act of transforming one’s identity into “assemblies of documents and other data designed for people to read and establish some relationship” on the internet. Tavi’s blog is certainly self-reflective, but she projects her identity in the face of how much fashion influences her life.  Therefore, her posts resemble personal narrative articles on fashion and transcend beyond the self.

While I acknowledge that there are many ways to connect with others in the blogosphere, from contributing to the blogging community by commenting on other people’s posts, forming connections and building up a blogroll with links to affiliated blogs, to allowing others to subscribe to your posts via email notification or RSS feed, I agree with Geert Lovink’s argument in ‘Blogging, The Nihilist Impulse’ that blogs often exist in secluded social networks perpetuated by self-serving intentions.

After observing the Pew Internet Survey, another cultural theorist, Terry Flew, provided an explanation as to why the interactive nature of blogging had not been exercised to its full potential on many blogs.  Flew found that internalised motives, such as “creative expression, documenting of personal views and experiences, and keeping in touch with a pre-established circle of family and friends are the most important priorities among bloggers.

Although The Times newspaper has reported that over four million people now follow Tavi’s blog , Tavi only has a list of 20 blogs on her blogroll and rarely responds to comments on her posts.

Despite having accumulated millions of followers and friends that include other fashion bloggers, Tavi’s blog is not yet a completely open forum for communication. Rather, Style Rookie continues to be primarily centred around her ideas and observations. Even the comments on her posts by readers are mostly directed at Tavi, so there is very limited dialogue between commenters. 

The essence of Tavi’s Style Rookie appears to be more about being a platform for her, as a blogger, to air her own thoughts and opinions.

References:

Flew, T. (2008) New Media: An Introduction.  Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Lambert, C. (2009) ‘Tavi, the tiny fashion blogger’, in The Times [Online], http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/education/young_times/article6864906.ece, [Assessed: 20 May 2011].

Lovink, G. (2008), ‘Blogging, The Nihilist Impulse’, in Zero Comments: Blogging and Critical Internet Culture, London: Routledge, pp. 1-38.