Wednesday, 25 November 2015

The Melbourne Tour of All Tours: where are the indigenous Australians?

I was invited to Melbourne to make a tour performance as part of the exhibition Performing Mobilities at RMIT Gallery. It was an ambitious exhibition and performance programme that, among other things, looked at people's mobility in a local and global context and then how artworks and performances incorporate mobility within their formal structures. Given how the Syrian refugee crisis has unfolded recently, this was topical, even if the way this has played out in Australia is quite different to how it has impacted Europe. That was just one of the wider frames; locally, many other issues and practices seemed to also inform the work I saw, the conversations I had and my creative responses.  It was a quite ideal frame for The Tour of All Tour which was made in response to the tours I found and the wider life I encountered in the city of Melbourne. 

We started at RMIT gallery and headed out into the city-centre. I find my tours of tours are always more lively when we get to see some other tour groups in action rather than just hear about them through an abstract commentary. We were in luck today: we bumped into Technopia Tours. The previous day, when we were a small group, we even stealthily joined another tour for 5 minutes in a practice I call 'tour surfing'. No chance of that on this tour, we were too much of a group with our own gravitational force.

The State Library of Victoria has a number of galleries displaying artworks that are in some way part of the story of the state and its people. Particularly interesting for me were the paintings showing the genesis of Melbourne at the end of the 1830s. These paintings showed hills and trees punctuated by the log cabins and tents of the early settlers. The landscape was somewhat familiar; I had already seen it when I was taken out into the forest with the Walking Club of Victoria. One of the things that struck me was the depiction of indigenous Australians: two or three men huddled around a fire on the edge of the settlement. In this version of events they were marginal but present. These pictures were historical recreations of the scene painted 40 years after the city's founding, that is to say, when Melbourne had already established itself and was looking to develop its own mythology.

When we came to Chinatown I had to stop outside some of the Chinese tour agencies and point out their packages. One of their 'hot tips' was a trip to Sovereign Hill, a gold rush theme park where some enterprising Australians recreate the mid-nineteenth century by dressing up in period costume and taking visitors down mines before making a high-tech sound and light show in the evening. It is amusing to imagine a kitschy Australian theme park from a Chinese tourist's point of view but, when I stopped to do this, I realised there was something disconcerting. Seeing it through this frame, I imagined I was looking at the 'Australian people' as an ethnic group dressed in their traditional costumes. Completely absent within this frame were indigenous Australians; this was a history which they had been written out of entirely. Not having been to Sovereign Hill myself I cannot say if that is the experience of seeing it up close but I did read that it most surely is how it is in a similar historical recreation park in Australia. The paper, Colonialism's Past and Present, makes the point that discrimination is perpetuated and enshrined in popular memory through inaccurate historical recreations. One of the conclusions is that while tourist sites are primarily run as businesses, sites such as these do also have a historical and educational responsibility that is not always being fully met.

Since we were walking through Chinatown, we made a stop outside the Chinese tax free shop where it was possible to go a bit further into some of the patterns of Chinese tourists. Part of this was the way students act as the driver for parental holidays and then we got onto the gift culture and some of the more exotic items that this shop specialised in: skin cream made from sheep placenta.

I gave this tour a number of times and it was interesting to note that when we were a small group it was possible to have much slower and more interactive tours where each stop was, in a sense, a prepared conversation starter on different topics broadly within the politics, culture and experience of tourism in Melbourne. When we were a larger group, however, it became a show where timing was essential and the conversation took place much more within the audience as we walked from stop to stop.

We had our moment with the selfie stick and shortly after our tour experience was on social media. 

We came across two works of Invader on our tour making a neat link to East London where these space invader mosaics are also to be found and feature in a tour of mine. One of the things I am attuned to, having made tours in different cities and countries, is not only the portability of tour formats, but also the duplication of sites. This is something that I typically associate with corporate structures like Regus: they produce similar rented workspaces around the world, one of which I took a tour of and reviewed here. In street art this is less typical; I am aware that there are some taggers who operate on a European-wide scale but very few spread themselves quite as far and wide as Space Invader who operates on multiple continents.

Naturally, we stopped off in the street art zone. Because many of the people on my tour were just visiting the city for the symposium and not from Melbourne, the cameras came out and the performance became near identical to the tours I was talking about. Street art, no matter if it is good or bad, seems to have this effect.

At the age of 16 I had dreamt of moving to Australia and getting away from all the things that upset me in the UK, which were a great many. This stay in Melbourne was my first visit to Australia and so my week of taking tours around the city was an opportunity to consider how my life would have been different had I moved all those years ago. My conclusion was that I did not know at the time what I would have been stepping into and making that move now would be an uneasy one since, as a British citizen, I feel a weight attached to the colonial history of settlement. 

At the Performing Mobilities symposium, I gave a talk in which I floated the idea that the tourist gaze has spread far and wide, well beyond the realms of the tourist industry alone. City branding, wedding photography and outdoor sports are all areas where the tourist eye has started to extend and establish itself. It also, I believe, can be seen in mobile art projects, though here it is often an unconscious and unacknowledged presence, seeing as it is viewed as a negative thing. These are, in fact, ideas I will be developing and presenting at the end of March in Taipei in a talk I am preparing called The Emancipated Tourist. The symposium proved to be rich, varied and offered some welcome optimism. I had been troubled by the near invisible status of indigenous Australians in the tourist sector as I had experienced in the days before, but here in the symposium, that was far from the case. Aboriginal elders were treated as guests of honour, their ideas and culture valued, and a serious effort made to move forward together. I was very grateful to end my visit on this more constructive tone; it genuinely transformed my stay by addressing the thing that I had been sensing all week, giving form to my feelings and offering a model of how to integrate communities that history has previously set apart.

Monday, 9 November 2015

The Walking Club of Victoria Tour

The Walking Club of Victoria is a Melbourne-based walker's club that organises weekly walks in, around and outside of the city. I was kindly invited to join one of their Sunday walks for which we gathered at 8:30AM around the back of Southern Cross Station and then car pooled. With four of us comfortably seated and our destination Steiglitz entered on the map, we headed west out onto the highway. The city thinned and eventually gave way to dry farmland. As we drove I talked to my fellow passengers who told me about some of their more adventurous hikes in the thin Himalayan air of Nepal. Those days were behind them now and the Australian outback was where they now did most of their walking. 

Once we'd all arrived at our destination, an hour of so later, we stood in a circle and began with a formal introduction to the walk and the day. Our guide was a relatively new member of the club and she was being mentored by a more experienced walker. In a sense, she was the beginner and was leader in name only, but her responsibilities were, nonetheless, real. This was a learning experience for her and a way in which the club brought in new people and gave them the skills to lead walks. She explained what the walk would be like (she had already scouted it with another club member) gave us some advice on how to stay safe in the hot weather and welcomed today's new member, which would be me.

We walked out of Steiglitz and saw the remains of this gold-rush mining town. At one time it was home to over 1500 people. Streets such as Barry Street, pictured here, would have been lined with more or less temporary structures, all of which have now vanished. When the gold dried up there was little else to keep people here: today the population is in single figures. As I am currently developing a project for another 19th Century mining village, Allenheads in Northumberland, I was set wondering why one village was able to adapt and another has all but disappeared. 

As we walked we talked. The way conversations flow on longer walks, like this, is quite specific. The duration, the rhythm of the footsteps and the changing scenery allow for pauses and silences, for interruptions and observations whilst still maintaining enough direction for the conversation to continue. You invest time and effort into the walk and this rubs off in the connection with the other walkers. I find people are usually more open when walking in nature, more focussed on what and who is around them than on their phones, as is often the case. As we headed up a largely dry stream bed, the path became more broken and the walking became harder. I heard some nice stories about the club which was founded in 1947, and which had seen pretty much everything, it seemed. At one point, apparently, there was a spate of its members getting married to one another, and on another walk some years ago, a senior member had passed away. Whilst that must have been distressing for the rest of the people on the walk, it sounded like a pretty good way to go. They agreed; if it's your time, sitting down on a quiet rock in a beautiful place and letting go is just about ideal.

The plants and landscape were pleasingly unfamiliar to me. There were no two-headed turtles or carnivorous bushes, but when I examined the flora closely I could not say precisely what any of it was. Along the way we came across a lot of tall grasses, the most aggressive of which was this variety that reaches a metre in height and carries a nasty spike on the end. The hikers came equipped: some wore gaiters and many used walking poles to cut a path through the bush and work the arms at the same time. I understood why: this was not a gentle stroll in Surrey, there were plants here that could rip you up, there were (thankfully rarely) poisonous snakes too, to say nothing of the threat of bushfires that can race faster than a man can run. I checked my phone: there was no signal down here in the valley. This was not a good place to come alone or to act dumb in, this was a place to come prepared and in company.

I wanted to see if there were different ways the group's members walked through and experienced the landscape because, although this was one tour, I suspected there were numerous parallel tours taking place. I floated around spending a bit time with different people, dropping into their conversations and then, sometimes, I just walked on my own and let the landscape make its own impression. As expected, there was quite a contrast in how we walked. One lady was keen on interpreting the rocks and trees and seeing things into them. For example, we sat in front of these rocks, which she called 'the temple' because they reminded her of a Greek temple, and once she had said it I also started to see it too. It was fun, not to say enlightening, to walk and talk with her and see the trail through her imagination. I then spent some time with a serious bush whacker who had a very specific and efficient way of forging a path through rough terrain. As he and a friend of his walked, they looked around and compared this trail to other trails they knew in other parts of Victoria. They were serious walkers. This variety of perspectives made me think that I should like to better understand how indigenous Australians view, cross and imagine this landscape. Theirs, however, must be a very different way of walking, one most probably quite antithetical to this.

At lunchtime the gatorade came out. I was offered some and while I'm sure it serves its purpose of rehydrating admirably, it is not a pleasant brew. I have a tribal loyalty for Irn Bru (Scottish family) which I admit is not consensual stuff either, but I was surprised to learn that there are Gatorade cocktails; an Angry Granny = gatorade and whisky; an H-Bomb = gatorade and malibu. Hmm, I think I'll stick to the gin and tonic.

At some point the trail levelled off and it became easier to stroll, look around and take everything in. That is when the otherness of this place really hit me.

The early afternoon sun was pretty hot and on the home stretch back into Steiglitz we fell into a more languid rhythm. A conversation question I overhead was, "Have you ever had skin cancer?" This struck me as a question you wouldn't often hear asked in a British walking club. In the UK you'd be more inclined to hear people ask where they went to find some sun. Towards the end of the walk, one of the group (not the lady above) had to take a stop for a breather in the forest, the heat getting the better of him. The club sprung into care mode and I discovered a number of the walkers came from medical backgrounds, and those who didn't were also active immediately planning a way to get him out, carrying him if need be. Finally, all he needed was a break and he was back on his feet and tramping back into Steiglitz in no time. It was reassuring, all the same, to see how the club takes safety seriously and everyone was really looking out for one another. 

When we were done we jumped back into the cars and headed over to a nearby cafe. Over custard tarts and refreshments I asked some of them why they were a part of the club. Their answers were varied but overlapping, the most common ones being that it was good exercise, a pleasant social activity and the club enabled them to go to beautiful places they probably wouldn't otherwise visit. The bonds of friendship seemed deep; even if the club's marrying days were over, at least for the time being, they seemed to connect well as people. I also learnt that there are a number of walking clubs in and around Melbourne, and that there is really quite some variety in them. I started to see that there was an understated competition for members between the clubs as they all need to ensure a consistent stream of new blood into their clubs. I felt that this club was doing things right; it could never be all things to everybody, what matters most is that it is meaningful for the people who do it and that it remains sustainable. In this respect, not being too large was actually quite a good thing: over the duration of the walk I had time to talk to just about everyone.

In a similar way to how we began, the computers and GPS stepped back in. It doesn't look too tough a walk, according to the stats, but fighting our way up the dry river bed, weaving from side to side was not smooth going. If I lived in Melbourne I would definitely give them a go again, they not only organise walks every week but also talks on subjects relevant to their outings. I suppose the most similar tour to this one that I have made recently was the trip up El Teide in Tenerife this Summer. That was a good deal more arduous and uncertain than this one, as our guide had never made the trip himself. This was an altogether more relaxed and comfortable walk, as I would expect of a club that had been doing this for over 60 years. What they had in common was they were about walking in nature and letting that be the strongest element, rather than listening to a guide telling a story. To put it another way, on these tours, the walk itself is the story and the guide is simply there to help us better hear it.

Monday, 2 November 2015

The Technopia Tour of The Press Club Kitchen, Melbourne

I came to Melbourne to participate in the gallery programme and symposium Performing Mobilities and also a part of the same programme was Technopia Tours offering daily tours of Melbourne at work. Today's tour was a visit to the Press Club kitchen, other tours during the week took groups to a recycling plant, the State Library and a public water facility. Technopia Tours is a curatorial project initiated by Kim Donaldson working in collaboration with both artists and non-artists which has resulted in several previous manifestations in the form of exhibitions and performances. One of the project's strategies, I gathered, was to draw upon tourism and find how it might inform and offer ways into the appreciation and experience of art.

We gathered outside RMIT Gallery where orange, high-visibility jackets were handed out. As a group, we then walked about twenty minutes south through the city-centre to our destination, The Press Club. Wearing these brightly coloured jackets gave us a presence on the street; passers by saw us and quickly then ignored us as we hid in plain view. When we passed others similarly clad, they'd as often as not clock us as fellow workers, the practical people who keep the city moving as opposed to the suits or shoppers who clutter the pavement. That said, we did not precisely look like construction workers or traffic wardens, we were more like a team of inspectors or busy-bodies en route to a construction site.

We arrived at our destination The Press Club

We were greeted by Robert the sous-chef who was to lead the rest of the tour. He introduced the restaurant: high-end contemporary Australian/Greek established by the celebrity chef George Calombaris. He spoke confidently and did so as a chef not as a salesman or a tour guide might do. I find it is interesting that when you get given a tour by someone whose main job is giving tours, they have different relationship to and thus take on the location to someone who has a regular job there and who is stepping out of it to show you around. The worker/guide is more liable to be interrupted with questions from other staff, who they will have a deeper relationship with and you get more of a sense of the place being in process. The tour guide is outside of time and floats through.

We were shown the equipment in the experimental kitchen: centrifuges, vaporisers and some scientific devices that I wouldn't know how to even begin describing. He admitted that while some of them were useful there was also a white elephant in there that they had still not figured out any gastronomic use for. Curiously, he also told us that they needed to prove that they were a genuine kitchen using this equipment for food as some of these babies could be used to manufacture illegal drugs. He said that although they do make good use of some of these machines they don't go in for adventurous chemistry style experimentation that would not taste any good. It remains a restaurant kitchen, after all. This makes perfect sense for a serious business but looking at these white metal boxes I was momentarily thrown back to a notorious art-meal I organised which involved all the guests bringing a can of food with the label removed. The three courses that resulted were more, or mostly less successful attempts, to salvage edible dishes out of what we found when the cans were opened. Serious amounts of alcohol were required to wash that stuff down but boy, we would have had some fun with these toys!

We took a brief look at the dining room before descending downstairs to the main kitchen where the real action was. The rest of the kitchen staff were busy preparing for the lunch and while tolerant of us, regarded us as a distraction.

I've worked in kitchens before and when the atmosphere is bad in the kitchen it seeps into the food and spills over into the service in the restaurant too. I could sense that there was a pretty good atmosphere amongst the staff here and that they were serious about making good food that people would come back for. The question that was running through my head as I was surveying the scene, looking at the artichokes awaiting creative treatment and  meat stock simmering away, was, how much does it cost to eat upstairs? None of us were rude enough to ask this most obvious of questions. 

The tour drew to an end in the refrigerated room amid boxes of mineral water, hunks of meat and boxes of vegetables delivered fresh from the city's markets this morning. Those standing by the door asked questions while those of us pushed into the room's deeper recesses shivered and prayed for a swift exit. This Technopia Tour was much more like a conventional tour than I was expecting; it functioned as a gentle framing device that delivered us to Robert and his kitchen. Taken for what it was, it was an interesting morning's backstage tour of a high-end restaurant that left more than a few of us thing, I'd like to eat here. How it fits within the broader project of Technopia Tours and engages with performance and art languages is another question. This felt to me like a way of making the research that informs the curatorial practice, public. How, exactly, this experience is then reconfigured is something I'd be interested to see.