Kevin Murray, writer and curator in Melbourne, Australia, is a refined and knowledgeable person. I hesitate to say exotic because it is such an outdated term. Let’s say he is singular. A sophisticated intellectual with a preference for the alien point of view. The variety of his interests are no doubt unique. He is an Albania expert, if I may say so, and familiar with East European cultures. He works as a part-time artistic director at Craft Victoria, a regional crafts organisation, rather unusual for a new media curator. Kevin has a significant online presence, currently as the online editor of Art Monthly. On top of that he has also been on boards, organised conferences, has an impressive list of publications, and is very much involved in Melbourne’s cultural life. Always in a critical manner, as the following e-mail interview shows.
GL: Following from a visit to New Zealand you are in South Africa at the moment. What are your activities there?
KM: I am mostly trying to find out how black and white interests engage with each other in the “new south”. The New Zealand case seems paradigmatic of the reciprocal relationship that might exist between two races in the post-reconciliation era that beckons. Thanks partly to historical circumstance and the Maori spirit of friendship, it is possible for the European descendants in New Zealand to call themselves indigenous in a way that is less fraught than in other ex-British colonies of the south. This identity has a nominal and concrete expression. On an official level, the Maori word ‘Pakeha’ is used to denote those of European stock who inhabit the land. Culturally, the “Stone, bone and shell” school of New Zealand jewellery has carved (literally) a distinctive tradition out of European metal smithing, Maori motifs and indigenous materials, such as pounamu (South Island jade). How does this compare to the paths travelled by Balanda (non-indigenous Australians) and Umlungu (non-black South Africans)? Australia, New Zealand and South Africa have well established sporting links, mainly through rugby and cricket.
I am interested to explore the kinds of cultural links that might accompany these exchanges (www.craftvic.asn.au/south). It is possible to claim that the end of apartheid has led to a reduction of cultural ties with South Africa. We knew how to support the struggle of a repressed people, but we don’t really have a grasp on how to relate to the “new South Africa”, other than fear and trepidation. Australia is home to a large expatriate South African and New Zealand population. Rather than becoming a Club Med nation for white businessmen, we need to keep open links to their origins. All this is given urgency by the slide of southern currencies. The financial failure of the Melbourne Biennial is testament to the increasing costs in staging events within a northern framework. I’ve heard talk since in South Africa of south-south connections, such as trade links with Brazil. It would be good to try a few of these in the cultural circuit, rather than presuming a radial framework where everything must go through the centres.
GL: You have a special relationship to Melbourne trams.
KM: Trams rescue Melbourne from being just another large Western city. Their practical utility as public transport is sublime. But privatisation has made Melbourne’s tram system as a site of struggle, with an enduring alliance of ex-conductors agitating against the evils of a world operating on remote control. Trams provide the props to fantasise that a city like Melbourne actually has a soul. One of the wonders of the new South Africa is the emergence of the mini-bus network that covers the nation with frequent service, cheap fares and daredevil feats of driving. In Cape Town, mini-buses with names like ‘Poor Man’s Friend’ and ‘Who Let the Dogs Out’ provide instant contact with people and friendly advice. The jockeys who hang out the door collecting fares and shouting destinations seem a reincarnation of Melbourne’s lost tram conductors.
GL: One of your projects dealt with the question of coincidence in history. What would have happened if Australia would have become a Portuguese colony? Or Dutch? What fascinates you in playing with alternative scenarios?
KM: The “what if” histories help place reality in a meaningful context. The Portuguese colonisation of Australia is a particularly apposite speculation given the situation in East Timor. Since the First Fleet, the relaxed morals of the Portuguese colony in Rio have provided a contrast to the god-fearing path of British colonists. Now in East Timor, the new Australian colonists come up against the Portuguese. The Portuguese supported the struggle for independence on the world stage and have a natural sympathy with the people. However, they left virtually no infrastructure in the country despite centuries of colonisation. What if Australia was Portuguese? It may have been a mess, but it would have been an exciting one. I’ve been interested in the power of fictions for a long time. My PhD was titled ‘Life as Fiction’ and the project How Say You (www.kitezh.com/howsayyou) explored the creative potential of pseudonyms. The logic is that our experience of reality is always framed by an understanding of how it might have been otherwise and how it could be different. Changing the horizon of possibilities is one way of altering our reality. Plant a utopia and see what fruit is bears.
GL: You have recently done a show about digital weaving. It was focussed on possible similarities between craftsmanship working with textile and the “weaving” of websites. The analogy between writing code, linking documents and the computer as a loom is a whole history in itself. What is your strategy here? Is it your purpose to unveil broader cultural patterns, thereby tempering the expectations of the New which still surrounds the computer?
KM: While outmoded technologically and conceptually, the crafts have an active role to play in contemporary arguments. It is not just a matter of advancing crafts into the digital age, but of keeping our feet on the ground as the kite flies higher and higher. Crafts offer an uncanny “shock of the old” to counter the saturation “schlock of the new”. Similarly, tribal systems such as Albania’s challenge the increasingly abstract cultures of the west.
Now to weaving, I’m not so much interested in the similarities between making tapestries and building the Internet. Weaving is “women’s business” – immediate, tactile, communal and expressive. The Internet is “men’s business” – diffuse, abstract, individual and utilitarian. The weaving metaphor is a bridge that enables travel between the two worlds. The results are live discussions where men and women explain each other’s practice. In Adelaide (www.craftvic.asn.au/loom), we included a string theorist into the conversation, which is even more abstract than the Internet. What emerges is not a common understanding, but a live encounter-maybe a dialectic, but without the synthesis (further, you could say male and female is the warp and weft, crossing but never joining, but that shows how entangling the weaving metaphor can become).
GL: New media arts in Australia has turned out to become a very specific, not to say narrow discourse. You also work in other arts fields and curate shows in the “contemporary arts” sector. Could you give us an ethnographic view on how this particular set of ideas and arts practice has come into being? Where does, for example, the fascination with hardcore science and biotech in particular come from?
KM: Where I live, the public face of new media was constructed at the end of the 20th century by a specific state government agenda to catch the next wave of economic growth (Alan Stockdale was both state treasurer and inaugural minister for multimedia). While previous state governments sponsored arts that counterbalanced the mainstream, the Jeff Kennett agenda was to support whatever could be labelled as “contemporary”. Celebration of the techno-simulacrum became government policy. This peaked with the election campaign based on jeff.com.au site, which included a Grand Prix shockwave for potential young male voters to take a spin (it still exists as www.jeff.com.au, but has been made-over to the new crew).
What I’ve tried to do over the years is bring new media into the same critical discussions that include other visual arts. In Binary Code (www.kitezh.com/bc) we tried to get art critics and new media persons talking to each other. The result was mutual indifference. In two CD-ROM shows, Bug (www.kitezh.com/bug) and Chip (www.kitezh.com/chip) we tried to find a non-technological thematic-insects and psychoanalysis-for the small screen. The fear is that new media succeeds as a form of technological evolution, but fails as a medium for expressing anything of the world outside itself. These shows heralded works that succeed in conveying something beyond the medium, but I’m still worried.
More broadly, I’m interested in shifting the art-craft debate into the newly wired contemporary gallery. Video and photography have displaced painting from the contemporary art space. Painting now shares more in common with ceramics and weaving than it does with screen art. Whereas before, the critical difference was between 2D and 3D, today it seems whether the work is inside or outside the screen. Getting the screen to relate to the outside world can be an inspiring challenge. One of the thrills of the Museum of Sydney design was the way it combined ethereal Pepper’s ghost effects of video floating on glass with the hard-core physical substance of chains and milestones. Rather than an escape from the wet world, digitisation seems a useful detour on the road back to the world of flesh. As photography migrates to the screen, the darkroom finds a new meaning (www.craftvic.asn.au/darkroom). As the world becomes more densely wired, the realm of offline becomes more significant (www.kitezh.com/offline).
GL: You are working part-time at Craft Victoria Gallery where you did a show called ‘Instrumental’. The centre mainly focuses on such things as glass, wood, building violins, jewellery and textile. How does the computer fit into this world? Could computers been seen as instruments? They are usually portrayed as tools, isn’t it?
KM: I find the contrast between “bench” and the “screen” particularly useful. The bench is a horizontal surface, on which objects can be handled and worked. Put objects on a screen and they fall off! This stupid difference actually bears further thought. The floating world behind the screen provides a perspective for understanding the mysteries of the bench-making a smooth edge, finding the grain of the wood, throwing a pot, turning a tree into a violin. Things fall into place using the gravity of the bench.
The ur-text of new media, “Myst”, christened the computer with the sacred status of tool for the mechanical world. Players operated their computers like mechanics, fixing the broken contraptions of a fallen world. But this is largely a fantasy of computing, which connects it with the familiar material world. I disagree when people say about their computer, “it’s just a tool”. It seems a miserable cap on the imagination to reduce the screen to a mere practical device. It’s a machine for navigating a path through the ocean of information. It has the promise of evolving new collective forms of understanding that are beyond the scale of the bench.
GL: In 2000 you curated the ‘Loom’ show in Adelaide. Its website states: ‘“The analytical engine weaves algebraic patterns as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves”, wrote Lady Ada Lovelace describing Charles Babbage’s first mathematical calculator. As with many other creative arts, our traditional image of weaving is being challenged by the evolution of ever more complex forms of machinery. The image of a patient weaver at the loom seems to be increasingly rare, even nostalgic’. You noticed that much of today’s weaving occurs at the computer screen. How do you see the relationship between textile weaving and the digital world wide web? Is there any interaction between these two worlds or is it just an analogy?
KM: What’s to be gained by reducing a computer to a loom? It grants the virtual world a material lineage; it introduces a gender politics of labour; and it provides an aesthetic license. Maybe more. The loom metaphor can be a very productive, but it has a limit. As an interlacing device, the loom is a comprehensive mechanism where shuttles create a weft that encompasses the horizontal structure of the warp. The Internet is clearly more rhizomic in nature, with branches bifurcating endlessly. From the other end, textile arts are migrating to the screen. There’s a Jacquard loom at the Montreal Centre for Contemporary Textiles that enables weavers to “print” a scanned image into tapestry form. It’s not quite as simple as that, though. Weavers still need to manually translate screen colours into thread structures. This “flaw” offers a window for artistic expression. It will be interesting to see how long that stays open. Louise Lemieux Bérubé has some stunning tapestries of dance photography (http://www.lemieuxberube.com) – there’s a contrast between the instant of the camera and the measured time of the tapestry.
GL: The Loom show focussed on possible similarities between craftsmanship working with textile and the “weaving” of websites. The analogy between writing code, linking documents and the computer as a loom is a whole history in itself. What is your strategy here? Is it your purpose to unveil broader cultural patterns, thereby tempering the expectations of the New which still surrounds the computer? The website says: ‘As with many other creative arts, our traditional image of weaving is being challenged by the evolution of ever more complex forms of machinery. The image of a patient weaver at the loom seems to be increasingly rare, even nostalgic’. You notice that much of today’s weaving occurs at the computer screen. How do you see the relationship between textile weaving and the digital world wide web? Is there any interaction between these two world or is it just an analogy?
KM: I’m not so much interested in the similarities between weaving tapestries and building the Internet. Weaving is “women’s business” – it’s immediate, tactile, communal and expressive. The Internet is “men’s business” – it’s diffuse, abstract, individual and utilitarian. The weaving metaphor is a bridge that enables travel between the two worlds. The results are live discussions where men and women explain each other’s practice. In Adelaide (www.craftvic.asn.au/loom), we included a string theorist into the conversation, which is even more abstract than the Internet. What emerges is not a common understanding, but a juxtaposition – perhaps maybe a dialectic, but without the synthesis. You could say male and female is the warp and weft, crossing but never joining, but that shows how tangled the weaving metaphor can become.
GL: Could you tell us something about your involvement with Albania? It is perhaps not the most obvious topic of interest for a Melbourne art curator. How do you keep informed about the ins and out of the Tirana scene? How would you describe contemporary Albanian cultural politics, ten years after the fall of communism and the opening of the country?
KM: The world has become so homogenised now, the best way to experience something foreign is to stay at home. Getting to know Melbourne’s Albanians initially led me to enjoy all the exotic features of a foreign culture – haunting music, strange language, difficult food and conversations about the fundamental things in life (http://home.mira.net/~kmurray/world/albmelb.htm). But then, I began to realise how similar they were to Australians – more Australian than Australians, you could say. They had a trust in higher authority that Australians share – Albanians seem just a little more expressive about it. There is a very good Albanian artist in Melbourne, Arsim Memishi (www.kitezh.com/soil/exhibit/ttszam.html). Being an artist is quite foreign to their sensibility, so Arsim’s projects most of his creativity into building kitchen cabinets in a business with his brother – making houses in Melbourne’s poorer western suburbs.
After the end of communism, artists literally came out of their closets (painting has been forbidden without official license). Expressionism burst forth in quite unadulterated forms, like bits of paint rags stuck to canvas. The wholesale dismissal of social realism and folk culture seemed another sad fracture in Albanian culture.
In the west, we are getting very little news about Albania. This silence suggests that great advances are being made in that country. News from other sources confirms this and some Melbourne Albanians are returning from Tirana with ecstatic accounts of the motherland. This enthusiasm is tempered by the situation in Macedonia, where most Melbourne Albanians originate. Their inherent fatalism has been renewed as the political situation unravels.
GL: Is Albania a mirror for you? How does it relate to the state of Australian multi-culturalism? Ghassan Hage has analysed it in his book White Nation. He came up with a radical critique, relating the state ideology of multi-culturalism with the rise of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party. Human rights organisations are criticising the harsh conditions in Australia’s detention centres, which are hidden in the middle of the deserts, far away from the urban centres. Immigrating to Australia has become next to impossible, in sharp contrast to the common perception overseas. It’s only allowed if you belong to the rich and bring in enough resources, like the whites from Zimbabwe and South Africa. And it’s particularly bad if you’re from the Middle East or let’s say Kosovo. Is this situation reflected in the arts?
KM: Albania is a piece of Europe that has drifted into the orient. Much of its history has been in the thrall of the east: five centuries of Ottoman rule and five decades of Maoist-style totalitarianism. This has been punctuated by brief periods of “enlightenment” – the Albanian renaissance of the late nineteenth-century and the experiment with democracy in the early 1990s. The dream is that Albania might transcend the grip of the east and enter the world of freedom in the west.
For Australia, the situation is exactly the reverse. For most of its colonial history it has been beholden to the values of the western world, as evident in the White Australia Policy that underpinned its birth as a nation. Of late, its cultural struggle has been to embrace the world of its neighbours, to be part of Asia. Both Albania and Australia seem to be pushing against the grain of their own cultures in order to be part of their immediate world. Albania resists the pull of the east that Australia gropes for. Australia seeks to wrest itself from the west that Albania aspires to. Perhaps they should just do a swap.
Despite this symmetry, there is a significant difference in the kind of isolation each country experiences. Albania is isolated from the rest of the world by three mountain ranges: the Pindus, the Dar and the Dinaric. The geographical isolation has bred a culture that seems out of step with the rest of the world – a world of honour, revenge, pantheism and national pride. Isolation is also a plight that Australians have complained of, as in the legendary phrase “the tyranny of distance”. Of course, this is a chimera. Australia is far from isolated from its immediate neighbours, such as Indonesia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Borneo. The colonial mentality bemoaned the distance from the Western centres. Since the Russian threat in the late nineteenth century, there has been a fear that Australia would be cut off from its mother country and left to fend for itself in the region. Thus the fraught hospitality offered to people seeking shelter on its shores. Asylum seekers are kept in prison-like conditions in the least hospitable parts of the Australian continent. Kosovars were given only tentative hospitality before being shipped back to their shattered homes. If only Australia were as isolated as Albania.
While mainstream culture is hooked into the West, Australian artists continue to develop links with Asian cultures. This has become a well-trodden route for artists seeking to incorporate oriental themes into their work. The result has been some quite evocative and deeply personal work. The plight of our “exotics” imprisoned at home needs to find a voice as well. The media sensationalises their presence, while artists seem best placed to take the human measure of their condition.