This happened …

Late in 2019, the Australian prime minister (marketing guru and shitty-pants Scott Morrison, ‘Sco-Mo’ to you) and his theatre assistants removed the federal administration’s arts appendix. One moment the word ‘Arts’ appeared somewhere in the names of government departments, and the next it had gone. Snip! And he chucked it in the bin. 

Well, not exactly… ‘Arts’ was removed from a department’s name. To compensate, the yarts (as they are called in Australia) got an office. The Office of the Arts: <https://www.arts.gov.au/>. Never have the arts and government been so closely aligned than in this uniform resource locator.  

There were articles in newspapers, outrage on the arts websites, and a long rash of angry emojis at the end of comments on Facebook.  

The conservative government in Australia, returned at the May 2019 election by a slender margin, had decided a feature of the victory after-party would be to show the country’s angry, artistic child the door. “Your mother and I are tired of you! Always with your hand out, and never a word of thanks! Get a job!” And then, the ‘clap’ of the fly-screen door and a barely audible ‘clack’ of its tiny snib that seemed to say, “And don’t come back.”  

Making art is a patient, lonely business. Making any progress seems to require years of practice and a bit of luck. Guidebooks and internet articles about being an artist, full of advice and clichés, pile up very quickly. Be yourself. Tell your truth. Talent is important, endurance essential. In the age of Instagram, sexy drawings and a bubble-butt are handy, but not essential (or so they say). Governments are not needed, but academic sinecures, supervising doctorates in novel-writing or discussions of queer theory, good if you can get them. When universities are financially sous vide, as they will be emerging from the 2020–forever pandemic, place bets at long odds that the arts will be favored for rehabilitation.  

Governments, truth be told, don’t want to help. The governing classes are too busy ‘governing,’ which might as well mean lying, or fudging, or crying crocodile tears, or making a killing on the stock market, or taking a holiday in Hawai’i. To be the governor is to be the winner, the one who calls the shots, to be ‘the decider.’ From their high station in life these decider-governors have a role in narrating our social experience. They have a role we give them in legislating to tell us what is and is not important. (Have you noticed how very often our prime minister tells us what is important, and how very important is the very thing he is now saying?) It’s been a long time since governors of any stripe have shown us how the arts and sciences are important. Business, the economy, the stock market, and jobs are important. Wages growth, arts, and science, women, not so much.  

UNFURL, my arts publishing project, was a reaction to artists’ reactions to government biases against the arts. Who needs government money anyway? I thought. It turns out, lots of people working in the arts need audiences, and it’s not easy to find and maintain audiences without government assistance. And, even within my narrow range of interests—writing and visual arts—the connections between arts activity and funding are deep. Poetry is not the malnourished tenant of the attic it was in Australia in the mid-1980s. The long lists of books for review and the number of official insignia on web pages are two possible measures of this.  

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At the same time, long-established literary magazines have had their funding cut. There is money for the arts, so long as it is going to places where the expenditure can be seen to be spent. Government wants the internet to sing “Hey, big spender!” while it cuts funding to Meanjin and others. It may be partly Meanjin’s fault: it has had nearly thirty years to figure out how to get its great store of content online for prospective subscribers to access, while the failure to do so begins to look like obstinacy.  

UNFURL asked writers and artists to promote their own work to their own social media contacts while doing the same for other artists and writers: it’s a tool for artists to find new audiences and readers. UNFURL /1 started with a couple of writers I knew, Davide Angelo and James Walton, and a writer whom Angelo recommended, Anne CaseySusan Wald, also published in the first UNFURL, was a painter whose work I liked and who had an exhibition planned for early 2020. I wanted to establish a process that could lead to unexpected choices. I would try not to make selections. I wanted artists to select or recommend other artists; and I wanted those artists to choose for themselves what they wanted to show with as little mediation as possible, encouraging people to show and to publish work they liked, and that might not have been selected (or grouped together) by an editor or curator.  

Government wants the internet to sing “Hey, big spender!” while it cuts funding to Meanjin and others. It may be partly Meanjin’s fault: it has had nearly thirty years to figure out how to get its great store of content online for prospective subscribers to access, while the failure to do so begins to look like obstinacy.

It is more efficient to work on all one’s secret agendas simultaneously, so I should also admit my concern that belle-lettrist aesthetics (including the idea that poetry is language’s semantics incubator) and faux-modernist experimentation have combined to make poetry mostly irrelevant and a branch of marketing. —One only has to look at the writing being selected by the selectors to see that something is wrong with the practice of selection. As much as possible, I think, best to leave artists to make their own choices; and if there are mistakes, then, we’ll know who to blame. 

And then, in March 2020 … then was the actual end of the world-as-we-knew-it. Those crazy ‘preppers’ I’ve made fun of started to look like visionaries. “Where the fuck is my bolthole, goddammit!?” and “How big is your bolthole, my friend!?” could have been common questions in some circles. People who could afford it, and had somewhere to go, did leave town. Gen-Xers lost their hospitality jobs, decided that they couldn’t afford their share house rent, and moved back ‘home.’ Artistes no longer had audiences. Artiste-enablers, stagehands, administrators and carpenters, were also out of work.  COVID-19 put the arts and sciences back in the news. 

The intersectional tragedy of pandemic and conservative political hostility to the lefty arts seemed to many like another opportunity to turn indifference into punishment. It was hard to disagree with pundits who have been cataloging this punishment.   

UNFURL, possibly because of all this, has done quite well. By the time UNFURL /5 was released, writers and artists could expect to reach about two thousand readers within a couple of weeks of publication. (Each new UNFURL number provided a little boost to the previous issues, so that all the issues now clock up numbers in the thousands.) Eighty per cent of readers were in Australia, and most of the rest in the USA, Canada, UK and Ireland. The male:female ratio of readers was almost 50:50. The largest age group of readers was 18–35 years. (Though if everyone is ten years younger on the internet, maybe that’s 28–45.)  

It’s difficult to read poetry on small-screen devices, so I did not expect UNFURL to be read on phones. The visual arts component of UNFURL is quite effective on phones and tablets, however. It seems likely that readers interested in the writing in UNFURL resorted to their desktops and printers. Sixty to seventy percent of downloads of UNFURL were to mobile and tablet devices.  

I learned that women writers (poets) had a ‘stronger’ following among women readers than men had among readers of any kind. It was very apparent, with Gina Mercer, for example, that a very significant number of readers returned more often, subscribed more often, and were women.  

I learned that women writers (poets) had a ‘stronger’ following among women readers than men had among readers of any kind. It was very apparent, with Gina Mercer, for example, that a very significant number of readers returned more often, subscribed more often, and were women.  

I learned that social media isn’t the be-all and end-all of connecting with an audience. Old-fashioned email also works really well. Some artists and writers had no significant social media presence but used email effectively to communicate with friends and contacts.  

I also learned that visual artists were, generally speaking, more enthusiastic and positive about using social media, and even better at basic stuff like answering messages. Visual artists be like Molly Bloom; writers be like Prince of Denmark.  

I found that both writers and artists did things in UNFURL other publications might not permit (requiring, as they mostly do, first publication rights). Philip Salom published groupings of new and old poems. Alex Skovron published poems, prose, paintings, and drawings. Steven Warburton published a series of pictures about how one canvas evolved over several years. Robyn Rowland published poems and their translations into Turkish for her readers in Turkey. Ron Miller published a brief survey of his life’s work in space art.  

All that and more to come.  

Scientific progress you can make while you sleep …

Folding@home is a distributed computing project that originated in Stanford University. It aims to get 1 million people involved in donating computer power to model the folding of proteins that are implicated in diseases such as breast cancer and Alzheimer’s, and several contagious diseases, now including COVID-19.

There are currently about 110k participants.

Make your computer get off its arse and save the world while you sleep.

Installing the program is easy.

Start folding proteins at home.

COVID-19 update on the Folding@home site

Swedish Academy’s new protocols for laureate selection

The Nobel Committee for Literature has announced new procedures for determining laureates in the field of literature.

Current Nobel committee members Per Wästberg, Anders Olsson, Kristina Lugn, and Horace Engdahl, and associate members Sara Danius and Katarina Frostenson, have spoken at length about their dissatisfaction with the selection process. “Det är en jävla cirkus,” Wästberg said. “På något sätt blev hela jävla galen och vi hamnade med en jävla musiker. Hur hände det? jag vet inte.”

Determined that past errors and controversies would not be repeated, Danius and Frostenson have suggested that there should be a new protocol for nominations: “Vi kommer att få människor att kämpa i sina underkläder och under de hårda förhållandena. Det kommer att bli kallt. Verkligen väldigt kallt. Och det kommer att bli lera – enorma mängder mycket våt, slarvig lera.”

Once nominations have been received through the new process, a new protocol for selection will be equally rigorous. “Vi ska göra det på den gamla vägen. Naturligtvis kan vi inte avslöja för mycket, men det kommer att involvera äppelkakor, våfflor och pannkakor. Och risgrynsgröt, förstås,” Kristina Lugn said.

The Nobel Committee receives over one hundred official nominations each year for the literature prize. The nominees are usually pretty good writers, yet somehow the Nobel Committee manages to come up with a decision.

“Några av dessa tekniker används för närvarande i mongolsk och australisk litteratur, och deras genomförande här kommer att leda Nobelprisen till nittonde århundradet,” Horace Engdahl added.

The ancient techniques of Mongolian and Australian poets promote new respect for literature.
The ancient techniques of Mongolian and Australian poets promote new respect for literature.

North Korean sports director executed

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Hong Song Hyon, North Korean Sports Director

Director of sports, Hong Song Hyon, has been executed after he misspoke during a televised interview about the North Korean national sports day.

Talking to international media gathered in Kim Il-sung Square, Mr Hong said “Today there will be public sports events in various places in the capital. The healthy men and women of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea will demonstrate their love for the Supreme Leader and their preparedness to diet for him.”

Healthy North Koreans exercising for the Supreme Leader.
Healthy North Koreans exercising for the Supreme Leader.

Realising his error, Mr Hong immediately tried himself and pronounced the verdict of guilty. The penalty in North Korea for errors of this kind is death. The sentence was carried out immediately, by Mr Hong himself.

The Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un, who was at a cheese-tasting at the Supreme People’s Assembly when the incident occurred, commented that Mr Hong had been an effective and loyal sycophant and that it was unfortunate his legacy had been tarnished by this imperfection. “Mmmm. I rike this one,” the Supreme Leader said.

Turkish delights of the 1970s: movies of Metin Erksan

First ghost scene from Grigori Kozintsev’s Hamlet.

Metin Erksan (1929–2012) was no slouch. His movies were entered into major international competitions and sometimes won them. When Turkish cinema was having its heyday, in the 1950s and 1960s, Erksan was there. In the 1970s, though, he started making movies aimed at commercial success—or so the story goes—and on a couple of occasions at least, this seemed to involve taking well-known masterpieces of cinema and giving them a Turkish (and possibly Islamist) makeover for Turkish-speaking audiences.

Metin Erksan's 'Şeytan'
Metin Erksan’s ‘Şeytan’

The Yeşilçam (‘green pine’) period of Turkish cinema had entered its decline as Erksan was hitting his stride in the mid- to late 1960s. Making almost a shot-for-shot remake of ‘The Exorcist’ for Turkish cinema audiences must have seemed like a good idea. Erksan did it on a small budget and without much in the way of special effects. The makeover attempts to reproduce many effects of art direction, set design and music, but not very successfully. He gives it his best shot. In fact, he just steals the music. Erksan’s version, called ‘Şeytan’, was in Turkish cinemas at nearly the same time as Friedkin’s original. What was the point?

‘Şeytan’ (1974) removes all visual and narrative trace of Catholic heresy from William P. Blatty’s story. There are no Catholic priests in ‘Şeytan’, no cassocks, no seminaries and no desecrated statues of the Virgin Mary. When the possessed teenage girl is hovering above her own bed it is not “the power of Christ” that compels her to get back between the sheets, but an all-powerful Allah. So, at one level, Erksan was presenting Turks with a ‘Halal version’ of Blatty’s screenplay.

In the years following ‘Şeytan’, Erksan made five Turkish short stories into television features. Then, in 1977, he made a Turkish version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and he based it on the great, Soviet, cinema version of the play made by Grigori Kozintsev in 1964. This Soviet version was itself built upon a translation by Boris Pasternak and featured original music by Dimitri Shostakovich.

This time Erksan went further than making a Turkish Hamlet on the cheap. He added an unexpected extra element to the mix: he made Hamlet a woman. Highly-regarded Turkish actress, Fatma Girik, played the “Avenging Angel” of the title. “Hamlet” was the subtitle used on the posters, though the movie is usually listed as “Kadin Hamlet” or ‘Woman Hamlet’. Again, Erksan stole whatever was useful, chopping up Shostakovich’s score ruthlessly to make it fit his scenes, and echoing elements of the set and art direction. The effects fall short of Erksan’s aspirations: the ghost in ‘Kadin Hamlet’ looks less like King Hamlet than a somnambulant Bela Lugosi.

‘Kadin Hamlet’ was shown at the Filmex movie festival and was accepted into competition at the 10th Moscow International Film Festival (1977). At Filmex it was shown during the festival’s 50-hour movie marathon and greeted with hilarity. There’s no record of whether the jury was laughing in Moscow where, I imagine, there may have been serious discussion about the nature of cinematic homage, the political turmoil in Turkey, and the credit given to Shostakovich but not to Kozintsev.

Should we be laughing? I did. I’m not ashamed. But I wondered, also, whether there was something missing from this reaction, and if a cult of incompetence has grown up around certain movies—and ways of making movies—that makes it easier to laugh at them than to see what they were trying to show us. Erksan’s Hamlet stays in the background of her mother’s wedding, and she is dressed in a modern 1970s white suit. There is disco music in the background as the film’s first exchange takes place. Erksan appears to be making serious claims on behalf of his audience, including that Turkey’s decades-long reforms in favor of modernity, and equality for women, were not going away. Erksan smartly turns the duel between Hamlet and Laertes into a shooting-match with rifles in a forest.

Within a few years, the political situation in Turkey even more chaotic, other film-makers began cobbling together less respectful and less competent rip-offs of Hollywood hits. ‘Dünyayı Kurtaran Adam’ (1982), known as the Turkish Star Wars, is the most notorious example. It’s awful, and awfully funny.

Turkey was not the only country performing this kind of cultural appropriation. There is a Japanese version of Star Wars, called ‘Message from Space’ (1978) and an Italian Star Wars called ‘Star Odyssey’ (1979).


See also:

How Iran’s ‘filmfarsi’ remains the biggest secret in cinema history (Guardian)

Serge Gainsbourg’s empathy

Do popular songs aim low? According to the French wikipedia, Serge Gainsbourg’s ‘Le Poinçonneur des Lilas’ was a hit in 1959. It is a poem about a ‘ticket puncher’ in Mairie des Lilas (a railway station in Paris) who talks very quickly about punching holes in tickets all day and about someone making a final hole for him, where he won’t have to listen to talk about holes any more.

Serge Gainsbourg photographed by Claude Truong Ngoc, 1981.
Serge Gainsbourg photographed by Claude Truong Ngoc, 1981.

(The original music video—with English subtitles—is also on YouTube, but the audio track is not clear.) “The main road,” which the persona of the poem says he hopes to leave, is actually, in the French lyric, “la grand’route” or ‘the great highway’—surely a reference to the road we all take to the grave.

The song is a poetic and political act of empathy, and of a kind that has become rare in the sanitised marketplace of popular songs. And it is the poetry that saves it from being only political ideology and lifts it into the realm of art.

Gainsbourg died in 1991, having established himself as one of the world’s most influential popular composers and performers.