Log Illustrated - a publication from the Physics RoomLog 5 Trans-Tasman
Log 5 Trans-Tasman

Under the Southern Cross, or "Cold? Well put a bloody jersey on then".
Gwynneth Porter


(an account of a convention illustrated with reproductions of works by Adam Cullen, who, at the time of writing, was, to the best of my knowledge, the most recent Australian artist to bother coming to New Zealand (1). Besides, his work is as good a summary of the impossible dreams and real nightmares of Antipodean existence as any I can think of right now.)

Adam Cullen: Freedom has a double edge
Adam Cullen: NEED TO FEEL
Adam Cullen
Freedom has a double edge
Adam Cullen

I have only been to Australia once so I don't really know much about it. That trip was pretty much a complete disaster as research went-so determined to leave was I and thus escape my travel companion that I even didn't stay to see Link Wray as embarrassing as that is to admit. This was probably due in no small part to making the mistake of staying with Sydney filmmakers whose acclaimed work led me to believe that the pointed saying "New Zealand short film: the new pottery" might be extendable to material generated over there. And thinking about what one might write for this Trans-Tasman issue was not made any easier by a friend pointing out that Australians don't give a rat's ass about New Zealanders anyway, confirming my suspicions that pursuing a compare-and-contrast model would be futile. Because it appears to me that we are all in the same boat. Except theirs is bigger with poisonous things in it, deserts and a slightly different gene.pool-more Mediterraneans, but equally large bodies of Anglo-Irish crimo-poverty settlers and remittance men. And ours is shaped like a key-hole.

The talk of another friend, presently engaged in the time-honoured activity of thesis building and openly fixated upon Charles Darwin among others (Hmmm... Mrs Darwin? Mrs Billy Childish? Mrs Handsome Dick Manitoba? Oh yeah, yep, Jwayne Kramer) was no doubt behind my temporary engagement with a piece of information that tumbled out an otherwise uninspiring paper at the recent Culture shocks: the future of culture conference at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington. Having been read excerpts from On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life(2) (or "The Origin" or "001" as she prefers to call it) detailing his experimentation with ether and his belief in the virtue of lacking focus when developing theories, my ears pricked up to the sound of his name and the claim that Darwin once described the South Pacific as "the crucible of the theory of evolution".

Darwin itself as a place sounds like it has been positively struck down by a vengeful god, a searing heat rendering its earth to concrete and young flesh to raisins as penance for the theory that in an inspired stroke destroyed most human mystique. After him humans were no longer Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve (if we go by the C. S. Lewis model in which the South Pacific is a place of noble Last Battles, scrimshaw and exotic dangers), but over-evolved chimps (3) which are not intrinsically good and have no master plan. He took his theory to its natural conclusion, ie. humans being at a base level pretty horrible, and needing to really try to be pleasant to get on (4) especially when they have no classy traditions to curb their rudeness, or mildness for that matter. (5)

Indeed, the Antipodes were characterised romantically in colonial times as the only area left on the globe where conquests could still be made above a 40 degree latitude. So, a penal colony and a nation of shop keepers were established where men could be really cruel to each other, and women could chase after them with tea-towels. These primal 'scapes were a stage set for hillbilly mythologies, with their fire and brimstone, sirens, cyclopses, and country music-fueled passions. The drunken childhoods of our cultures are by no means over. And furthermore, I don't remember voting for the New Right, and I bet Australians don't either. Although fascistic regimes seem strangely at home on the flat planes of the South Island's bald eastern seaboard where the mountains loom in our peripheral vision symbolising doom and keeping those anxiety levels up. Extremes of weather and a flailing economy make for a hostile environment that must be forcing some sort of hasty evolution in humans. Disturbingly we find our biggest settlements lemming-like by the sea, mountain conquerors on our banknotes, while Ayers Rock has thoroughly wormed its way into Australian mythology via their collective landscape psyche. (Although, kindly, at six, after the close of every working day, this mind-set is absolutely skirted around by the no-sweat bush setting and no-lingering-big-deals domestic bliss vibe of Home and Away. Thank you Grundy, what a relief.)

Well, out of the ether and back to the conference. There was a good deal of telling material re the human condition 'neath the Southern Cross. But first, parenthetically, this conference about culture was typically "university" in tone and content. In being interested in worthy subjects (cf. TV, the suburbs-respectively the confidant and breeding ground of most academics), it belied innaresting points of existential tension both here and there like confusion about quality of life and identity in our new world colonies. As some Wellington comedian recently pointed out, "why send a probe to Mars? We don't even know what's going on in Invercargill." Missing was the faultless sort of illogical smoke poetry and no-knowledge knowledge of a lot of Australasians' sea-worthy Irish forebears expressed in a coming-of-age tragicomedy by J. P. Donleavy thus: "Ah Master Reginald, you've learned your first lesson in life. Unless you were better off where you've been, you're always better off where you are. But no matter where you've been or where you are, you'll never know if you'll be better off where you are going." (6)

So, first up there was a talk, a kind of Woodsy Allen stand-up affair, given by a small young Brooklyn boy called Douglas Rushkoff, whose credentials included being a friend of Timothy Leary and establishing Wired magazine. He originally wanted to call his paper "Futurists suck" in reference to corporate mystification of technology and the future, but the organisers wouldn't have it on. Anyway, his "Coercive futures? Living for profit in a shareware universe?" didn't add up. It all fell apart for me when, sitting ever so informally on the side of the stage, he professed the following: "Just like in physics there is no such thing as cold, only an absence of heat, in the world, there is nothing but good." I found this humanistic outburst to be so irksome that I cornered him during the reception that evening and needled him until he admitted that he has to try really hard to stay positive and sublimate suicidal impulses. And indeed it would not be difficult for him to stay positive given that he is on a real conference junket, giving papers at least twice a month all over the globe. After Wellington, he was going home to New York for a night, then was off to Budapest.

However, there was a really interesting close to home bit when he raised the subject of television programming. He set out to expose programmers as being patsies to the corporations that seek to sell things to viewers. This is achieved by transmitting material designed to wind up our anxiety levels-oh god I am ugly I have no superannuation plan and the is bacteria growing all over me I think I'll go make myself a sandwich and how's your drink?-so we feel compelled to spend our way out of the hole we see ourselves in. We find ourselves in the humiliating position of having fallen in love with television, not because it is really great, but because it is more powerful and manipulative than we. More evidence (Oh boy o boy do I want a piece of that...), it seems, of the truly pornographic baboon-esque character of our species. Darwin's legacy was this piece of unwelcome information, that we are each with our own brand of ugliness, wan, and a specialist in our own concerns. Our culture has mutated forest fire swift out of our imbecilic dog-in-a-suit desire for sophistication way past our species' natural psycho-emotional adaptation.

Rushkoff then presented ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) as an adaptation to a world where everything wants you to submit-"is it any wonder that children do not want to pay attention these days? If you could get what was going on all at once, it would be so painful you would pass out." More clout for the theory that the insane might be the only ones who know what is going on in our communities these days. His points made me mindful of the should-be dictum "To pay attention is to pay attention a lot" (7), not to mention the vast illicit use of Ritalin. (This ADD medication works to calm down and supposedly focus children. But after adolescence it works on adults like speed, only cheaper, and made available by parents selling off their kid's scripts to the growing market for gutter drugs. According to recent statistical hearsay, 80% of Australians are presently self.medicating in one form or another. Hardly surprising when you consider that the flat cities of Australasia-Christchurch, Invercargill, Adelaide-have some of the highest rates of clinical depression in the Western world. And our literacy rate is going to heck in a hand-basket. Poverty might be a good thing if one were approaching the gates of heaven, but goodness translates to nourishing if you are a ways down the food chain.)

Later came Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, a museum theorist from the NYU faculty of tourism with "Black box/white cube: the museum as technology"-truly a woman with an immaculate grasp of the absurd, viz. her line, "Experience: ubiquitous, and under-theorized." At this point I once again lamented the no-show of the speaker I was most looking forward to-"new museology" theorist Jonathan Friedman and his proposed paper "Indigenous struggles and the discrete charm of the Bourgeoisie". I think that this sort of thing was exactly what the conference needed because much of the material seemed anthropological rather than based in first hand experience, ie. museum people, academics-a most un-motley crew-trying to get to grips with subjects from the outside. The image I was left with after this event was that of an elephant's graveyard. We seem to be entering a new evolutionary phase whereby the theoretical environment is no longer nourishing anthropological takes on culture. Our access to the raw materials of human interests has been made so easy via the mass media that we simply do not need people's second hand pseudo-definitive summaries of subjects. As anthropology ebbs, new subjective studies flow, and so do the baby elephant's walk into currency.

There was a definite air of absurdity to the proceedings as speakers seemed to be standing prissily apart from life/ normal things. Like John Nixon telling Adam Cullen that "the difference between my art and your art is that mine is neat and yours is messy." (8) I must admit that when studying culture, I too prefer to see what I am eating. Or again in the words of Richard Meltzer "If only you could recapture the times when you were just a creep and your responses to other creeps were just as creepy, man that's were primal innocence is at." (9) Today, if the relevance of cultural studies is anything to go by, regressive is progressive. Perhaps that would have made a really good souvenir T-shirt script for the convention. Or better still might have been that characteristic call of the Antipodean mother as she waits impatiently for the day her cubs leave the family burrow and fend for themselves, "Cold? Well put a bloody jersey on then."

Gwynneth Porter

1. Adam Cullen came to the Dunedin Public Art Gallery where I work under the Dunedin Visiting Artists Programme which is supported by Creative New Zealand. Cullen's own MFA dissertation, entitled "Birth of an Idiot, or Where I would have Got if I'd been Stupid", is an actual exploration of Australianness and traditional genres-the landscape, the portrait, and ultimately, the nude. Rather than ridiculing his habitat as has been the fashion with needy left-home sophisticates, he pays attention to the textures of suburban life, to "plebeian iconography", never for a second suggesting that it's "a crappy life and there is a better one". In his MFA tome, the suburban house is posited as a place where "information gets in and doesn't get out". And that "being an Australian artist means working without resistance".

2. Charles Darwin, (Fellow of the Royal, Geographical, Linnaean, etc. Societies and Author of Journal of Researches During HMS Beagle's Voyage Round the World) On the Origin of Species... John Murray, Albemarle Street, London, 1859.

3. "We must, however, acknowledge, as it seems to me, that man with all his noble qualities, still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin." (Darwin's closing words, The Descent of Man, ch. 21)

4. "The highest possible stage in moral culture is when we learn to control our thoughts". (Darwin, ibid., ch. 4)

5. "The evolution of the human race will not be accomplished in the ten thousand years of tame animals, but in the million years of wild animals, because man is and always will be a wild animal." (The Next Ten Million Years, ch. 4.)

6. J. P. Donleavy, The Destinies of Darcy Dancer, Gentleman Penguin Books, New York, 1979, pp. 47.

7. Richard Meltzer, The Aesthetics of Rock, Something Else Press, New York, 1970, pp. 148. Meltzer, with the belief that "Rock is the brute actualization where all earlier art is potential", attempted to write the first "serious rock book". He had a rave response from supervisors such as Alan Kaprow when he submitted papers that among other things compared Marcus Aurelius with the Beatles, and explored "The Concept of the Synonym and the Dave Clark Five". He promptly got a scholarship to Yale and was "so hellbent 'n' stoked I run full throttle, blind, into an ivy-covered wall" and was "kicked out toot suite on my rock-roll caboose. (A sensitive missionary, I cry a river)." They evidently did not like his "subarticulate" style. In his own words, "my 'scholarship' is basically up my butt... I overuse (misuse) terms as 'trivial', 'tragic', 'repulsive', 'chaos', 'boredom', 'authenticity', and 'good/evil' 'til they just lie there dead and pasty like last week's pasta fazool." In the words of a critic writing for the 8/15/86 Austin Chronicle, "Meltzer's book, Aesthetics of Rock, overshadows both the Hitler Diaries and Clifford Irving's Howard Hughes biography in the annals of literary hoaxes. It's been said that if you have an infinite number of monkeys pecking away at an infinite number if typewriters for an infinite amount of time, eventually, one of them would write Hamlet. It would take about 50 monkeys a couple of years to write Aesthetic of Rock."

8. Cullen added in the spirit of comparison that "Australians would live in trees if we had any. NZ is 'high' and 'poetic'. Australia is 'flat, long and formal' (in that post-war modern sense). That's why so many German artists came over here in the '80s to find themselves in the desert (low rainfall post-modernism)... I've always been a bit suspicious of 'cultural studies'. I know a hell of a lot of 'cultural commentators'-it's a disease here. I think I'm a 'pure discipline' guy. Which is a strange position for an artist to be in considering the kind of work I do. 'Though I don't see its formulation as essentially interdisciplinary. I don't know anything!!! I could be wrong...nuh... You're fucked, we're fucked-just in different ways. John Nixon should make a breakfast cereal called 'Marxist Mush'. I could have one and call it 'Capital Crunch'."

9. Meltzer, ibid., pp. 197. By way of conclusion, in the foreword to the 1987 Da Capo Press edition of this book, Melzer wrote about what he thought he was doing when he wrote it in the late '60s. The following extract should be, in my opinion, compulsory reading for all cultural studies students, lecturers and conference organisers: "Hey, I didn't even use words like 'culture' back then, concepts like 'liberation.' The goddam cup was so massively runnething over-what has elsewhere been referred to as 'an embarrassment of riches'-that it hardly seemed NECESSARY to define its shape, measure its perimeter, scratch and sniff its biosphere, sociologize its tide patterns, or mop and save its spillage. What seemed like the chore at hand was to dive headlong into an ever-enlarging Sea of Possibility and micromap, between stroke and breath, the vast infrastructure of all that it was remotely possible for the damn thing to already be... no fanciful speculation of 'futures' on this swimtrip." (pp. xv)


Log Illustrated - a publication from the Physics Room