Look me in the Eye on SBS and programs like it blur the line between reality TV and traditional documentary, prompting ethical questions
By Steve Thomas, University of Melbourne
In this era of ‘fake news’, with the unreliability of social media and some leaders’ habits of justifying their opinions by shooting the messengers that criticise them, there is a renewed need for transparency in the media.
This applies not least to the traditional compact of trust between audiences and documentary makers. However, it is difficult to foster that trust when confusion abounds about the term itself – ‘documentary’ having increasingly become conflated with ‘reality TV’.
Broadcasters used to maintain a clear separation between their non-fiction departments of news (including current affairs) and documentary, but the advent of docu-soaps and reality TV formats led to documentary being subsumed under the umbrella of ‘factual’.
Now, the latter has given way to ‘unscripted’, a strange moniker given most reality shows are at least semi-scripted, with the coaching of participants, invention of storylines, addition of narration and the strange requirement that everyone should speak in the present tense when talking about the past.
An example of this nomenclature confusion is SBS TV’s recent Look Me in the Eye, a ‘social experiment’ graced by credits to both the station’s Head of Unscripted and Head of Documentary. SBS’s publicity categorises it as a documentary series, which it eminently is not.
But does this really matter? Do audiences care what a program is labelled, when their priority is simply deciding whether they like it or not? Ethically, I believe it matters a great deal.
I’m not claiming that documentaries are completely un-engineered, or ever have been, but there is a tradition among documentary makers of agonising over our filmmaking and why we do it. We want to contribute honest arguments about our shared world and consequently give ourselves a hard time about duty of care and what we do to people by putting them on the screen for public judgement.
Historically, social documentaries have long gestation periods, are concerned with complexity, strongly authored, question the status quo, and are culturally specific and accountable. On the other hand, shows such as Look Me in the Eye (and Undressed, another current SBS offering presented as a ‘social experiment’ but which is more openly titillating), are notable primarily for employing the tropes of reality TV.
They are formatted franchises, developed elsewhere and exported.
Based on supposed psychological principles (the evidence for which is never revealed), they employ manufactured sets, run on a production-line basis with TV-sized crews, use ‘voice of god’ narration and continuous, over-produced music to steer viewers’ emotions (in Look Me in the Eye, even the silent eye contact between participants, the raison d’être of the show, is over-layed with music for audience consumption).
Meanwhile no doubt, as is standard TV practice, the participants are coached not to acknowledge the camera, have no control over the use of the footage shot of them, aren’t consulted during editing and don’t see the results until they go to air. They have probably signed a confidentiality agreement in return for some kind of payment and if they don’t like the way they are portrayed, tough luck. Ethically this represents bad faith.
More concerning though, is that what the audience experiences in Look Me in the Eye is restricted to a kind of heart-tugging voyeurism. Indeed, as the SBS publicity pronounces – it’s ‘guaranteed to make you cry’. But suppose I am estranged from a loved one and desperately wondering what to do about it. Would I actually learn anything by watching, apart from that I might apply to be in the next series? Probably not.
Look Me in the Eye may be a meaningful experience for its participants, but there is no discussion of societal issues, no evidence-based dialogue about estrangement, its causes and personal strategies for dealing with it, other than a pop-psychological idea about eye contact over talk.
So, what is the significance of this for ‘documentary’ as a descriptor? A clue lies in that complicit pretence referred to already, that there is no camera or director present. For as the writer Stella Bruzzi states, “what else is a documentary but a dialogue between a film-maker, a crew and a situation that, although in existence prior to their arrival, has irrevocably been changed by that arrival?”
Or, quoting the UK filmmaker Nick Broomfield: “it’s not the presence of the camera that changes people’s behaviour, it’s the relationship they have with the people behind it”.
The filmmaking relationship has always been central to documentary making, and the key ethical question for the filmmaker is how to represent her or his encounter with the other.
How do we avoid transforming our participants from subjects into objects to be experienced? Such responsibility is in danger of slipping away if documentary is subsumed under some all-embracing category. If a show is deemed ‘unscripted’ there is almost an implication that no-one is responsible—it ‘just happened’.
But if we are making a public document then ethics matter a great deal. That is why documentary as a genre, needs to be protected and nurtured, and whether a show is described as such, or something else, requires scrutiny.
Clearly, we will get no help from television here. It appears to be down to documentary makers themselves to defend their art.
Mr Thomas’s latest project is Freedom Stories, a collaborative feature and series of shorts exploring the stories and contributions of former ‘boat people’ who, after indefinite mandatory detention and years on temporary protection visas, are now Australian citizens.
See the work of graduating filmmakers at the 49th Annual Film and Television Graduate Screenings.
Find out more about studying Film and Television at the Victorian College of the Arts.
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Banner image: Sam McGhee/Unsplash
Victorian College of the Arts alumna Sarah Barton's documentary Defiant Lives introduces the world to the activists it's never heard of, and charts the rise of the disability rights movement.
By Sarah Hall
“I’m tired of all the well-meaning non-cripples determining what I can and cannot do to form my life, and my future. Get out of our way.”
So says Adolf Ratzka, one of the interviewees in filmmaker Sarah Barton’s latest documentary Defiant Lives, which tells, for the first time in feature-length, the incredible story of the disability rights movement in Australia, the United States and Britain.
The meticulously-researched documentary follows the story of people with physical and intellectual disabilities – from a time when life-long institutional confinement in inhumane conditions was the norm, through to other, more pervasive forms of ontological, constitutional, and access-related oppression.
It documents how, from the 1960s, disability activists have fought for civil rights, including equal opportunities for independent living, employment and education, housing equity and freedom from discrimination, abuse and neglect.
Disability rights activists have seen landmark developments over time, from a United Nations declaration on the rights of the disabled in 1975 to the National Disability Rights Scheme (NDIS) which was rolled out in Australia just five years ago and continues to be a source of debate within Australian politics.
Clearly, there’s still a long way to go.
Barton graduated with a diploma from VCA Film and Television (FTV) in 1992, at which time she didn’t necessarily see herself as a disability rights activist, though she did have a connection to it, given her ex-husband had an acquired brain injury.Director Sarah Barton. Image courtesy of Fertile Films.
Her graduating film was a comedy called Thanks For Coming, starring Kate Langbroek and Oscar-winner Adam Elliot (director of Mary and Max), about a lesbian couple trying to get pregnant with a turkey baster during the AIDS epidemic.
In 1994, she saw an SBS ad in Encore magazine urging filmmakers to pitch ideas for documentaries.
“I pitched an idea about sex and disability that I got after meeting a woman who sold sex toys for people with disabilities."
SBS ran with the idea and the result was a documentary called Untold Desires, which ended up winning the first ever Logie for SBS, and established Sarah Barton (then Sarah Stephens) as a name.
She then made Secret Fear (1997), a documentary about anxiety disorders, obsessive compulsive disorders and hoarding, followed by A Wing And A Prayer (2000), about women from the Horn of Africa settling in Melbourne, which was picked up by Oprah Winfrey's channel for American distribution.
Disability rights activist George Taleporos. Image courtesy of Fertile Films.
Her career, she says, has been a balancing act. While studying at the VCA, she was raising her first child.
About three weeks before shooting began for A Wing and a Prayer, Barton gave birth for the third time to her daughter, Stella, and was “literally directing with a baby in a pouch”.
“I had a really, really bad birth with my daughter," she says. "Everything that could go wrong did go wrong, and so a few months later Stella developed Cerebral Palsy.”
On the day I interviewed Barton, Stella was completing her final VCE exam.
“She's a real activist in the making," says Barton. "She really wants to work as a kind of advocate for disability rights, so I think she's been influenced by me somehow, as much as I’m influenced by her.”
I tell Barton that watching Defiant Lives exposed my own lack of awareness and knowledge about the disability rights movement. Why has it gained less attention than other civil rights movements? Why is it that racism, sexism and homophobia are far more commonly used, and better understood, terms than ableism?
“Look, I think there's always been this really sort-of patriarchal view of disabled people." she says. "The idea that they need to be looked after, and that they don't have agency to speak out on their own behalf."
Some of the very things disability rights activists have been fighting for have themselves – ironically – been obstacles. Inaccessible public transport has made congregating difficult for many people, to name just one issue.Arrest of a protester, screenshot from Defiant Lives. Image courtesy of Fertile Films.
“Of course, we’ve had improvements in communication and technology and now everything's undergoing a revolution with social media. People with disabilities are connected through social media in a way that they've never been able to connect before,” says Barton.
But ableist prejudices still exist. The NDIS is no silver bullet.
“I think the thinking behind the NDIS was really to give everyone the right to support and inclusion, and I think over time it will prove itself to be really valuable in that way,” says Barton. “But we're not there yet.”
Barton researched Defiant Lives for eight years, in parallel with the troubled roll-out of the NDIS. “I've always looked at myself as a filmmaker first, and then I find myself in this disability world, and it's like, ‘What can I do with my filmmaking skills to improve the rights of disabled people?’”
That said, Barton’s main objective was to create something for people who may not have given disability much thought.
“This is a movement, and the people in the documentary are the leaders and pioneers – they're the people we need to know about. Someone like [the late American activist] Ed Roberts should be as well-known as Martin Luther King, but he's not.”
As the first feature-length film of its kind, Defiant Lives lends historical context to the ongoing plight of disability activists and, as such, paves the way for greater public discourse around a key societal issue.
In the words of Emeritus Professor of Disability Studies Colin Barnes, one of the many compelling voices in Defiant Lives, “The idea that you can focus on society as the problem, rather than impairment or condition, is a radical idea.”
The University of Melbourne is hosting a special free screening of Defiant Lives on Tuesday 5 December, 4.30–6.30pm. There will be a panel discussion chaired by Professor of Disability and Inclusion Keith McVilly featuring Sarah Barton (Filmmaker, VCA Graduate), Frank Hall-Bentick (Disability Activist) and Jess Kapuscinski-Evans (Theatre Maker, Malcontent and Singer). Register here.
Banner Image: US street protest, as seen in Defiant Lives. Image supplied by Fertile Films.
In this TEDx talk, recorded in September, Head of Music Therapy Professor Katrina Skewes McFerran explains how our choice of music can make us feel better or fall deeper into negative thoughts and emotions.
“The purpose of the talk was to raise awareness about the ways we can use music during dark times in our lives,” said Professor McFerran. “It would be great to share it with people who might benefit from knowing a little more about using playlists and music listening to cope, rather than getting caught in cycles of rumination, intensification and isolation."
Find out more about Music Therapy at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music.
Find out more about Dr McFerran's Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), How Music Can Change Your Life.
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Main image: Serge Seva/Flickr
VCA PhD student Moonis Shah was recently awarded the highly prestigious Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art Emerging Artist Award from a pool of 300 entries across India. The prize includes a fully-funded three-month studio residency in Switzerland and an exhibition in a prominent gallery in New Delhi. We spoke with Moonis about winning the award, his art and anarchising the archive.
Moonis Shah, GUSBETHIYA (INTRUDER). 27 Portraits, Pen and Photo-transfer on Paper, Intervened Found Objects, Wooden Boxes, L.E.D Lights, Typewriter on Paper, 2016. Image courtesy of the artist.
Can you tell us a bit about the award? What did you do to apply?
The Emerging Artist Award is awarded annually by the Foundation of Indian Contemporary Art (FICA) in collaboration with the Swiss Cultural Council, Pro Helvetia, to a single artist from a pool of entries across India. The recipient is given the opportunity to travel and work in an international residency and showcase their art as part of an annual exhibition of FICA Grantees in July–August every year at the Vadehra Art Gallery, one of the most prestigious galleries in New Delhi. The award also includes a ninety-day residency in Switzerland in 2018, a round-trip air travel from my hometown in India, and living costs during the time of the residency.
I submitted a folio of no less than five bodies of work, an artist statement and a brief intention of work to be undertaken after the award is granted.
Were you surprised to win?
Yes, I was surprised to win! I applied for the award very close to the deadline, at a time when I was very busy with my PhD conversion. I couldn’t concentrate on the application the way I would have liked to but my body of work and statement of interest gave me confidence, and my supervisors' suggestions and continuous feedback also helped.
What does it mean for you to have won this major prize and be recognised in this way?
What is great about this prize is that it gives me a chance to travel. Living in a different place and meeting new people is healthy for me as an artist; it give me a chance to grow and re-territorialise my research.
Can you describe your practice and work as an artist?
My work seeks to decentre the notion of institutional history as ‘truth’: to question its premise, content and form. Through what I call ‘counter archives’, I intend to harness the transgressive potential of reorienting ourselves away from predominant systemic paradigms. Anarchic archivism, which I am proposing, aims to overturn the disciplinary power that archives have traditionally exercised in cultural memory. Anarchic archives imagine alternative semantics of time and truth that problematise, theorise, question and challenge one’s normative understanding of contemporaneity.
My work involves a lot of fun and confusion, and attempts to create a conversation about our contemporary identities through discussions about the elastic nature of past, present and future.
Moonis Shah, YOUR TOOL IS MY RESISTANCE TOO. Found Objects (Stone, Soil, Organisms) from a village where an army and Local Militia were involved in rape charges, Arduino, Processing, High-Speed Microscopic Camera, Pipes, LED’s, DC Motor, Print on Paper, LED Screen, 2017. Image courtesy of the artist.
When did you become interested in art?
I'm not sure if I can trace my interest in art, strictly. I was always interested in many things from economics, to political science, to philosophy, engineering and physics. Visual art, especially the way it is nurtured at the University of Melbourne, gave me a chance to crash all of my interests into a research which seems so far very chaotic … but also beautiful.
Tell us a little about your current PhD project at the VCA.
My practice-led research uses archival materials including text, mass media, cinema and historical documents to question the archive’s constitution, boundaries and materiality. The research argues that the archive needs to be accessed as a semantic field to demonstrate its relationship to power and control (temporal and spatial). How does the archive influence the epistemology and ontology of contemporaneity?
I am interested in examining the logic, tools and practices of representation which are used to establish the authority of the archive, while at the same time creating a parallel resistance against its authority. The research argues for a new term, which I mentioned before – ‘anarchic archive’ – which calls for a new way of understanding the archive. At the moment the archive serves to uphold power, but the anarchic archive uses it as a tool for new modes of enquiry.
I am interested in the way we theorise, analyse and historicise the present. Such play with the archive's form, material and content offers a radical reading and new possibilities for the future amid phenomena such as surveillance, mass-migration, borders, Occident and the Orient, and the local/global binary.
Can you tell us a bit about your journey from India to the VCA?
My journey was simple. I was looking for universities which provide funding. The University of Melbourne was one of the best ones and I decided to give it a try. I got great responses when I exchanged my research proposal with supervisors. Dr Stephen Haley, who is my principle supervisor alongside Dr Laura Woodward, proved to be of great help. They made it easy for me to settle down and get to work.
Moonis Shah, THE INCOHERENT LIVES OF THIS AND THAT Mixed Media, Print on Flux, Lab Print Photo Manuplated Found Images, Conveyor Belt Machine, 23 Minute Video on Loop 2016. Image courtesy of the artist.
What projects are you working on currently? What are you most excited about?
Currently, I am working to on creating an archive of landscapes in conflict zones. Its premise is to question how landscapes undergo changes and how, as organisms, they react and adapt to territorial conflicts.
What do you intend to do during the residency?
I intend to explore my research further in a new context, with new collaborations. This may result in a body of work which is totally different to my research. This kind of deviation is something which a healthy research practise demands, and I certainly hope that happens.
- Interview by Sarah Hall
Banner image: Moonis Shah, THE HYMNAL. Arduino, Weather Api, Stepper Motors, Steel, Iron, Marker, Paper, Wood, 2016. IMage courtesy of the artist.
Macau Days is a tri-lingual book (English, Portuguese, Chinese) that includes a series of poetic texts by Brian Castro and artworks by John Young, an introductory letter by Edward Colless of the Victorian College of the Arts and a response from the University of Adelaide's Paul Carter. In the lead-up to the launch of the book, on 14 November at Melbourne's MPavillion, Young and Castro spoke briefly with VCA Honorary Fellow curator Natalie King about the work and their shared histories in Macau.
Natalie King: Can you tell me about the genesis of the book Macau Days?
Brian Castro: John initiated things in 2012 with his series of blackboard and photo works called The Macau Days. I immediately responded by saying Macau has a special place in my childhood memories, and asked if he would like to do a collaboration on a larger exhibition and book on the topic. It took another four to five years before things fell into place.
John Young: The old Macau exists only in our imagining and memory. It is the oldest colonial port that served as a bridge between Europe and Asia. Those who lived in Macau were transcultural since the 1550s, with poets, novelists and artists occupying the space with a rich tapestry of worldviews, lifestyles and philosophies. Over the past two decades this precious yet fragile cultural territory has transformed into a gambling hothouse for the Chinese rich, with at least 38 casinos that articulated the coming of a Trumpian kitsch-like phantasmagoria. My initial exhibition in Hong Kong was never an exercise in social history, but rather an investigation into what visual forms and imaginings of the old Macau could take.
When Brian and I talked about the possibility of a book and another exhibition, I was tremendously excited, I respected his work greatly, ever since his first novel Birds of Passage, in which he implicitly referred to his childhood origins in Macau. Since then, in the many novels he has written, such as Shanghai Dancing, there have always been references to Macau. Both of us have referenced Macau in our work over the last 30 years. We both, after all, came from the same Southern Chinese diaspora.
The most exciting aspect of making this book for me was the introduction of another medium – text – to this Macanese imagining and memory making. But Brian brought even more: a gastronomic dimension.
King: The texts and images in Macau Days are based on the lives of six historical and mythological figures who lived for a time in Macau, a mixture of saints and sinners. Can you tell us a bit about these central figures?
Castro and Young: These figures lived in Macau in different eras. Today, some of their deeds are very well documented through text and visual images, whilst others, the more transient characters, could only be derived through documentations in Portuguese or Chinese, or from the time they spent outside of Macau itself. The goddess Mazu we know mainly through oral transmission, and existed only in myth. These varying aspects are probably the most exciting upshots in the memory making – the multi-dimensionality and the thickness of time this book reaches.
Mazu is the goddess of the sea after whom Macau is named. She is a mythical figure invoked by fishermen and sailors from the 10th century ACE.
Luis Vaz de Camões is a soldier and Portugal’s most celebrated poet from the 16th century who most famously wrote the epic poem The Lusiads.
Wu Li is a poet, painter and priest who was born in China in the 17th century – a generally obscure and holy man. He converted to Catholicism and became one of the three first Chinese Jesuit priests.
Giuseppe Castiglione is a Jesuit missionary, painter, well-known nobleman and friend of the Emperor, who was also born in the 17th Century, albeit some fifty years later than Wu Li.
Camilo Pessanha is a poet and lawyer who was disillusioned by the law in Macau and developed an opium addiction. He was around in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Wenceslau de Moraes is a Portugese writer, lover and traveller who features on the cover of our book. He is a tremendously interesting character, whose life in a sense is so much a part of our present sense of flight and homeless travel. He wrote extensively about the Far East. As a poet and man of letters, de Moraes arrived in Macau from Portugal, he married a Chinese woman and had a child, yet his roaming spirit took him to Tokushima, where he had yet another family. Having found his spiritual home in Japan, and his ultimate love, he left behind copious writings of his journeys in the Far East, yet never returned to Portugal. His was a diverse, multi-lingual life, a life of miscegenation, eccentricity, and becoming foreign.
King: Can you tell us a little bit more about the Chinese sea goddess Mazu?
Young: Traditionally and mythologically, Mazu was a young silent girl who saved the lives of seafarers, and could manifest herself at a distance without travel. She was clairvoyant. Historically, there stands a large statue of A-Ma or Mazu at the mouth of the harbour of Macau, welcoming all who arrive. Indeed, Macau was named as the translation of Mazu in Chinese. There is also a temple devoted to this shamaness, which holds too many stories to tell. As the feminine or the anima, she stands in stark contrast to another group of women, the women pirates – who ruthlessly ruled the Southern Chinese seas for centuries. Both these feminine aspects are referred to in the book.
King: What is the role of food – 'the flavours of Macau' – recipes and dishes as the work of memory?
Young: Memory is the work of flavour and smells, like Proust’s Madeleine biscuit soaked in tea. Food and its connotations become an immediate and visceral yardstick of a culture or place. You can always feel the differing proximity of a new culture’s food from your own ‘comfort’ food. It opens worlds up in an immediate way. Brian references food a lot in his writing to explore cultural differences in olfactory and taste – it’s a sort of intransitivity that has been more explored in the written text than in the visual arts.
King: How did you arrive at the unique format of melding recipes, trilingual poems, reflections and artworks into the publication?
Castro and Young: This was the best way we could think of combining memory and history and cultural re-call, bringing the eye, taste, sound and smell into a confluence of experience. It is the least likely but most indicative conjunction. Macau Days is less a social history or poem than is an eclectic work - a kind of objet or curiosité de Macau.
To listen to an in-depth interview between Natalie King, Brian Castro and John Young, come along to the launch on 14 November, drink a glass of champagne and have a squiz at what is bound to be a significant new cultural artefact. More details.
Banner image: Supplied by Art + Australia.
Free improvisation that's as hot as a chilli and soft as a cream puff? Join the MCM's Dr Rob Vincs and his CLV bandmates as they launch their latest CD, Satellite.
By Dr Rob Vincs, Head of Jazz and Improvisation at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music
The music of Satellite is like an aural landscape. Rather than following a particular structure, it arises out of improvisation and ends up sounding textural rather than melodic. The style is roughly free jazz but to avoid all the baggage that comes with that term we’ve decided to call it “self-organising music”. You might hear tiny little ants’ feet dancing beside great, big mountain ranges.
We’re often blending together sounds that have intense qualities. When you eat a chilli and get a sort of hit, that's a kind of intensity that’s different, say, to eating a cream puff, which has a different type of soft, sweet and fleshy intensity. Well, in this music there are moments of cream puff and moments of chilli – sort of transiting from one to another.
Myself and [MCM lecturer in Jazz and Improvisation] Ashley Cross, have been working on this style of playing for about 30 years now. We’re working with a younger ex-student of ours, Hannes Lackmann, who’s currently involved in the MCM Masters Program. Hannes has a love of poetry and incorporates spoken word into the performance, which is something Ashley and I haven’t done before.
On Sunday, we’ll be performing a collection of improvisations from Satellite – sonic textures and spoken word. The venue (Melbourne's Neapoli Wine Bar) is pretty tiny – we’ll all be standing shoulder to shoulder. In the 1930s it was a notorious strip club, and there’s still a cage in the middle of the venue that was used by the performers. So despite being pretty gentrified now, the venue has an interesting atmosphere, and is rich with history.
You can get a sneak preview of what's to come, below. Enjoy!
– As told to Sarah Hall
CLV will launch its new CD, Satellite, at the Neapoli Wine Bar, 30 Russell Place, Melbourne, on 15 October, 2017, 7:30pm. Free entry.
Banner image: Damian Gadal/Flickr.
Following the success of Dr Jeanette Tamplin’s first dementia choir, Musical Memories, seven more choirs for people and carers living with dementia will be introduced in Victoria and Tasmania. We spoke with Dr Tamplin about her ongoing project.
By Sarah Hall
Hi Jeanette, you’ve been working with therapeutic choirs in dementia since May 2016. How did you come to start working in this area?
It all started with an NHMRC [National Health and Medical Research Council] and ARC [Australia Research Council] co-funded fellowship, which I’m half-way through now. My proposal was to explore the effects of therapeutic choirs specifically targeting people with early to mid-stage dementia who are still living at home with their family carers. We wanted to support carers in coping and adjusting in their role as well as people living with dementia. The first group we started in May 2016 was called Musical Memories, which I conducted alongside my Melbourne Conservatorium of Music colleague Dr Imogen Clark.
Previous research into choirs for people with dementia has mostly focused on qualitative outcomes – for example, the pleasure and social benefits of singing. We’re looking at quantitative outcomes as well, which is quite difficult in dementia, looking, for example, at measuring the effects of choir participation on relationship quality, anxiety, depression quality of life and cognitive function.
Are those individuals who participated in Musical Memories still singing?
Well, yes, when we got to the end of the research trial period they all said, “We can’t stop, you can’t take this away!” They got a lot out of it and they really wanted it to keep going. We managed to secure some funding through an Austin health donation for another 12 months and are now looking for funding options post June 2018. We’ve also found a partner for the next stage of the research – a community aged-care provider, Uniting AgeWell. They believe this is a really affordable program that’s filling a gap in current service options for people with dementia living in the community and their family carers.
Why have the choirs been so successful?
I think because they’re not just about coming and having a cup of tea and talking about dementia; a lot of people don’t want to do that. People are often still trying to adjust to the “dementia” label, and that’s really hard. The choir is about doing something enjoyable and accessible that has individual benefits while still providing an environment for people to support each other.
It was interesting to see in the short video that was made about the group – the carers seemed to be getting as much out of it as the dementia patients.
Definitely! Carers need to be supported, both from the perspective of their quality of life, and for the cost they are saving society. Having people in aged-care facilities, as opposed to staying in their own homes, is expensive and often not very nice. If we help carers manage at home, by doing whatever we can to support them early on and nurturing the relationship between carer and person with dementia, that’s the ideal situation for everyone.
In your career as a music therapist, has singing been your primary tool?
Singing’s not my primary instrument, but I have been interested in therapeutic applications of singing for my whole career. My research has looked at a variety of things that singing can benefit. For example, singing to help people with communication after a stroke, singing to help people with respiratory function after a spinal cord injury, singing to improve speech and voice outcomes for people living with Parkinson’s disease.
And have you found singing to have successful therapeutic outcomes in all of those research areas?
Well, I am biased, but definitely, yes, and it’s something everyone can do. You don’t have to be a trained musician to use your voice. Sometimes people find it confronting; it’s very personal your own voice, it can be embarrassing. Sometimes people have been told that they can’t sing or that they’re tone deaf … But that’s why group singing’s kind of nice – you’re all in it together and you can kind of hide in the group a bit if you’re embarrassed.
And it’s not about the quality of singing, it’s about the therapeutic process of joining together as a group.
So why, in simple terms, does singing makes us feel so good?
We know that when we sing there are a whole lot of neurochemicals released in the brain – endorphins, serotonin, dopamine. It also decreases cortisol, which is linked to stress, and increases feelings of empathy and social bonding.
What’s next for your dementia choirs research?
Well, we’re moving into the second stage of research, where we will be comparing people who sing in these therapeutic dementia-specific choirs with people who don’t on a range of quantitative outcomes. We’re going to set up seven new groups next year: five in Melbourne, one in Bendigo and one in Tassie, which is really exciting. It’s a randomised controlled trial so people who enrol will be randomly allocated to either attend a choir straight away or wait for 6 months before joining.
We’ve also got a gig coming up for the Musical Memories choir on 15th October, where they will be performing at the cocktail reception for the annual conference of the NHMRC National Institute for Dementia Research National Forum. It’s a great opportunity to promote our pilot results to the media and help us to get the word out there about these new dementia choirs, and recruit participants for this next phase of our research
A loaded question ... Does music therapy have enough recognition and enough funding?
No. Unfortunately in many cases it’s still pretty fringe in terms of healthcare funding. When I started working in the industry 20 years ago most people hadn’t heard of music therapy, and that’s not the case so much now. It’s had more coverage in the media and people are really fascinated with the effects of music on the brain. But still, when it comes down to spending the money, it’s often considered an optional extra. That’s why we really need to do these types of research projects – to demonstrate that music therapy is a cost-effective way to treat neurological conditions such as dementia.
I’m working on another project at the moment led by my MCM colleague Dr Felicity Baker. Our team received a NHMRC grant for over a million dollars for a National dementia research project in residential care. We will be looking at the effects of various forms of music engagement on depressive symptoms, cognitive functioning, neuropsychiatric symptoms, quality of life and caregiver burden as well as conducting a health-economic analysis. We are looking at whether people engaging regularly with music therapy are reducing anti-psychotic drugs and anti-depressants and are visiting the GP less frequently. If we can demonstrate that people who are regularly accessing music therapy are decreasing other costs then there’s a huge cost-benefit.
Contact Dr Jeanette Tamplin for more information on participating in the MCM's ongoing dementia research. The NNIDR Australian Dementia Forum runs 15-17 October, 2017, at the Melbourne Convention & Exhibition Centre. It is followed by the 17th Alzheimer's Australia Biennial National Dementia Conference 17-20 October, 2017.
Banner image: Video still. University of Melbourne.
The University of Melbourne’s Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) and Gertrude Contemporary have announced a new international residency partnership based at the VCA’s Norma Redpath Studio in Carlton.
The program will support invited international artists to pursue studio production and curatorial research.
Director of the VCA Professor Jon Cattapan said he was delighted with the partnership and that he envisaged many positive outcomes. “This partnership is a brilliant way for the VCA to forge new international relationships of sustenance and meaning, which will benefit our students,” said Professor Cattapan.
“The artists in the residency will all commit to some activities with VCA Art, for instance, delivering lectures, masterclasses and tutorials with appropriate cohorts and students,” he said. “It will create learning opportunities with leading local and international artists and provide models of how to establish a professional studio art practice.”
Both Professor Cattapan and Gertrude Contemporary’s Artistic Director Mark Feary said the partnership reflected an increasingly strong relationship between the two significant cultural institutions, which have been entwined since Gertrude was founded in 1985.
Mr Feary said: “The Gertrude International Studio Residency has been one of the most coveted and dynamic aspects of Gertrude Contemporary’s engagement since its establishment, enabling visiting artists and curators to be enmeshed within Gertrude and our community.”
“This new partnership with the VCA enables this important component of our studio program to continue and flourish, and further solidifies our engagement with staff and students at Melbourne’s most important art school.”
Australian sculptor Norma Redpath’s house and adjoining studio were generously bequeathed to the University of Melbourne by the artist’s family, with the intention that they be made available to artists and academics. The studio has been managed by the VCA since 2015.
The first participants in the partnership program began their residency last week. Mexican artist Joaquin Segura and San Francisco-based Mexican-Australian curator Ivan Muniz Reed, will hold an exhibition at Gertrude Contemporary in collaboration with Melbourne-based artist Tony Garifalakis.
Banner image: Norma Redpath Studio, by Sanjeeva Vancuylenburg.
Win a double pass to the opening night of L'Orfeo on Thursday 7 September. Email email@example.com with the subject line "Orpheus Giveaway" for your chance to win.
In September, a cast of singers and musicians will perform Monteverdi's groundbreaking opera, L'Orfeo, in a landmark production by the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music in association with the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions. In this interview, Artistic Director Professor Jane Davidson explains her reasons for staging the work.
By Frederic Kiernan
Jane, why did you choose to stage this opera?
Claudio Monteverdi’s 1607 opera L’Orfeo (sometimes called La Favola d’Orfeo, or The Tale of Orpheus) is a remarkably beautiful work, and is technically quite challenging, so I wanted to explore this work’s creative possibilities in a modern production. This year is also the 450th anniversary of the birth of the composer, so we also wanted to take the opportunity to celebrate this Italian master’s wonderful musical legacy. Even though there have been a number of operas based upon the Orpheus myth written over the centuries, Monteverdi’s setting is a standout masterpiece.
What makes Monteverdi’s opera so special?
Monteverdi was very much a musical innovator. He composed music at a time when great shifts were happening in the way people thought about music, and what people wanted music to do – this was all happening towards the end of the 16th century, and during the first decades of the 17th century, in Italy. Italian composers at that time, and especially Monteverdi, were exploring music’s power to express the emotional meaning of texts, whereas previously, more strict rules were in operation about how melodies and harmonies were supposed to behave. Those rules didn’t relate much to the text being sung. When the text became an expressive priority, opera was born. Monteverdi’s work is probably the first “true” opera (although scholars continue to debate this, of course).
Why is The Tale of Orpheus the first “true” opera?
Some scholars argue that the first “true” operas didn’t emerge until the first public opera houses opened up in Venice in the 1630s, and there is merit in this argument. But discussions about opera’s origins still invariably return to Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo. Other composers had written theatrical productions that were sung through from beginning to end before Monteverdi. Jacopo Peri had written Dafne in 1598, which is now lost, and he also composed an opera based on the Orpheus myth, Euridice, in 1600, which also included music by Giulio Caccini. These were, in a way, early “experiments” in operatic writing.
While they did use new musical styles such as stile rappresentativo, or the “representational style”, where the melody was geared towards expressing the emotional content of the text, these early operas never really achieved the stylistic synthesis that Monteverdi achieved with L’Orfeo. In this opera, we see a vast array of musical styles at work – both old and new, side by side – and they all somehow come together in a remarkably cohesive way. That was a historical turning-point in music history and, in many ways, marked the beginning of what is often called the “baroque” period.
What is your vision for the current production?
In this production, I want to bring historical ideas into the present in a creative way. I’m an opera director, but I’m also a music psychologist, as well as leader of the Performance Program at the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, so I want to focus especially on emotions, and how these have been expressed in music historically. The current production explores the significance of historical ideas about music’s relationship to the planets and mood regulation through innovative staging, direction, and other design elements. By doing this, I hope the audience comes away with a greater appreciation not only for Monteverdi’s wonderful opera, but also how it represents an important shift in the way people thought and felt in the past.
The Tale of Orpheus by Claudio Monteverdi will be performed at The Meat Market, 5 Blackwood Street, North Melbourne, on 7 and 8 September, 7.30pm–9pm. Visit Eventbrite for ticketing and show information.
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Main image: The Tale of Orpheus by Claudio Monteverdi. By Sarah Walker.
Fifty years of La Mama theatre is documented in the University of Melbourne Archives, offering an insight into the emergence of Melbourne’s avant-garde theatre scene in the late 1960s.
By Jane Beattie, University of Melbourne Archives, University of Melbourne.
Inspired by New York’s La Mama Experimental Theatre Club, founder Betty Burstall was confident that Melbourne performers and audiences wanted and needed a place for progressive music, poetry and film too.
La Mama nurtured local talent and rode the international wave of social and cultural change in the late 1960s to provide a platform for alternative voices in the arts. In a company newsletter from October 1969 this vision was expanded: La Mama would be a theatre to make possible “a new audience-actor relationship. It was informal, direct, immediate. It was also a playwrights’ theatre…where you could hear what people now were thinking and feeling.”
Early archival material, such as correspondence and newsletters, reveals the co-operative nature that Burstall was committed to; her policy of developing solely Australian work was financially risky in an arts scene dominated by the mainstream canon of mainly American and English work.
Censorship and controversy
“Revolutionary things are happening in theatre today and I want them here.” Burstall’s ambitions for La Mama were grand, and the revolution began almost immediately, with plays pushing the legal boundaries of decency of the time.
The earliest offender was the 1968 production of Alex Buzo’s Norm and Ahmed. The final line of dialogue “fucking boongs” is delivered by Norm to Ahmed, a Pakistani student. Actor Lindsey Smith was arrested for using obscene language, and the play’s producer Graeme Blundell was charged with aiding and abetting Smith. In 1969, John Romeril’s Whatever Happened to Realism resulted in the arrest of nine actors for using obscene language in a public place.
Boxes of news-cuttings from this era tell the story of La Mama’s ongoing battle against censorship and the restrictions imposed by Australian social and cultural values of the time.
The archives also feature production posters, including lino-cuts crafted by Tim Burstall, Betty’s husband. The few styles repeated in different colours with handwritten production dates and times illustrate trends in grassroots art and design, as well as the collaborative nature of La Mama.
Other established artists such as photographer Peter Lyssiotis created production posters and art work – in Lyssiotis’ case posters and artwork for his playwright daughter Tes. A wild variety of style and quality is demonstrated in some of the earlier posters by anonymous artists whose work is marked with holes left by the staples used to distribute them on street corners.
Supporting other art forms
La Mama encompassed many more facets of the Melbourne avant-garde arts scene. Neo Kyma refers to a movement in Greek music that found popularity in the 1960s and 70s, extending well into the 1980s in Australian Greek communities. For around five years, Christos and Tasos Ioannidis played Greek and ployethnic music at La Mama.
“The 1970s and ‘80s were the golden era of Melbourne’s Greek community. Everything, including the arts, was blooming. Especially La Mama - it was not only for Greeks, it was a place of meeting, getting together, it became a culture” explains Christos. Burstall and Liz Jones, who followed her as artistic director in 1977, had created a space where artists from all backgrounds could practice, improvise and collaborate with their peers
Poetry and spoken word were also promoted from La Mama’s inception in 1967, led by Glen Tomesetti and Kris Hemmensley, and continues today as a regular in La Mama’s program. Each La Mama Poetica event featured multiple acts and showcased work from both emerging and established poets.
Mainstays included Jennifer Strauss, Wendy Poussard and Jennifer Harrison. University of Melbourne academic Kevin Brophy was a regular and a reading by Chris Wallace-Crabbe would have been rousing. Left field inclusions were the works of Indonesian poets performed by Geoff Fox, radical experimental poet and a founding member of Australia’s Poet’s Union. And there was Thalia, a night dedicated to the Perseverance Poets collective, featuring Louise Craig and Whitefeather Light.
Despite earlier confrontations with the law, La Mama continued supporting Australian writers, actors and directors, providing a place where collaboration and experimentation were centre-stage. Stalwarts of the Australian theatre scene like Jack Hibberd, David Williamson and Graeme Blundell were given the chance to practice and develop their craft, as were other performance artists, such as filmmakers Corinne and Arthur Cantrill.
In the decades following the ‘obscenity trials’, La Mama continued pushing audiences, exploring concepts of identity, and elevating voices of the silenced. Playwrights such as Mammad Aidani and Tes Lyssiotis used this platform to chronicle the variety of the migrant experience, whilst plays like Pundulumura: Two Trees Together (1990) by Aboriginal actor comedian Gnarnayarrahe Immurry Waitairie and prolific Melbourne writer and director Ray Mooney explored relationships between black and white Australian cultures.
From the first donation of records in 1977, the University of Melbourne Archive has seen its relationship with La Mama as a valuable one, not only for volunteer projects and exhibitions but in maintaining a comprehensive record of Melbourne’s theatre history. The La Mama Collection complements that of the Union Theatre Repertory Company which evolved into the Melbourne Theatre Company, as well as smaller collections of ephemera from the late 19th century to the 1960s.
The La Mama collection is open access to all researchers and its finding aids can be located on the UMA online catalogue by using the search term “La Mama”. A selection of records and production posters from the La Mama archive are on display in the Arts West building at the University of Melbourne.
Banner Image: Wikimedia
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The relationship between elective facial surgery and feminism in China is at the heart of Su Yang’s short film Beauty, which recently won the Melbourne International Film Festival’s inaugural Powershorts Short Film Competition. Here, she explains why she made it.
I was introduced to feminism for the first time in the US and became very interested in it, having not heard or learned about it properly in China. I was doing my MFA studies at the State University of New York at Buffalo at the time, having graduated from a Bachelor Degree in Design in at the Tsinghua University in China. When I went back to China from the US on vacation, I was confronted by the phenomenon of cosmetic surgery in China. Many people I knew, including a number of my relatives and friends, had undergone facial cosmetic surgery, and I saw advertisements for cosmetic surgeons everywhere: on TV, billboards and posters in our apartment elevators.
It struck me that people had started cloning each other, losing their personal characteristics. And the notion of beauty in China seemed very singular to me, and the procedures for changing your appearance very oppressive.
I decided to start my graduation thesis on notions of beauty and the phenomenon of cosmetic surgery among the female population in China. And after graduating I still wanted to continue my research because I wanted to know more, not only about feminism, but also feminist art and western feminist art theory. I read some Chinese feminist art criticism but it wasn’t progressive feminism – I wouldn’t even call it feminism – so I decided to move to Australia and continue my studies here.
I was accepted as a PhD candidate at the Victorian College of the Arts in 2015, and am continuing my studies along this theme. The current working title of my thesis is Feminist Aesthetics: The Representation of Women in Contemporary Chinese Art.
Recently I co-created a short film Beauty as part of my thesis research with my husband Zhang Xiaoan, who is also studying a Foundations Film course at the VCA. It won the Powershots Short Film Competition and will be shown at an exclusive Melbourne International Film Festival screening this month. It's about one girl’s experience with cosmetic surgery. She goes through the process of choosing a new face from a number of different options presented to her. All of thee faces are actually my face adjusted on a phone app that's very popular in China at the moment.
Beauty (2017). Su Yang and Zhang Xiaoan.
In the past, the trend in China was to look European but recently the aesthetic, I’d say, is not even human. The chin has become very sharp, and the eyes are very long and very round … the facial features don’t fit the face properly. So the character chooses this style of face at the start of the film. As the trends change, so too does her dissatisfaction with her now ‘outdated style’ of face.
There have been many different understandings of feminism for ordinary people in China since it was introduced from the West in the early 20th century. The initial translation of the word in mandarin was 女权主义, which is close to ‘women’s-power-ism’. But in the 1990s, that word was seen to be too ‘man-hating’ and not aligned with Chinese values, which are underpinned by Confucianism – quite a sexist belief system. The core philosophy of Confuscionism is ‘harmony’, and people in China people believed that 女权主义 or ‘women’s-power-ism’ was too oppositional for the men. So the new translation became much softer, and much less feminist, in my opinion: 女性主义, which translates roughly to ‘women’s-feminine-ism’. This translation was supposed to be more in line with Chinese beliefs.
When I go back to China I am still shocked about the state of feminism there. I went to an exhibition by a Chinese woman artist who painted three-inch shoes, from the times of foot-binding in the Tong Dynasty, in a romanticised way. I was so shocked to see these shoes, which are symbols of female oppression, celebrated in the painting. She painted the shoes like flowers, and talked about how Chinese foot-binding was a great part of Chinese culture. I believe this attitude is still able to exist because people haven’t had a chance to learn feminism. They should have access to this knowledge.
I have spoken to young women and girls in China who, because of overseas travel and education opportunities and the internet, are learning a more progressive feminism. But it is not common enough. My current project is to identify and name a lot of these problems in China. For future projects I hope to help educate people in China about Western feminism.
As told to Sarah Hall
Banner image: Screenshot from Beauty (2017). Su Yang and Zhang Xiaoan.
VCA Dance students are recreating a seminal work from the founder of Australia’s first modern dance company, nearly 90 years after it was first performed in London.
Early modern dance is associated with floating scarves and light leaps and bounds. However, after the First World War those innocent reveries were only one form of dancerly expression.
The impact of modern industrialisation and political revolutions in 20th century Europe highlighted the conflict between man and machine, and for many the machine symbolised the engine of a new moral and social order.
In Dancing Sculpture at the National Gallery of Victoria, Victorian College of the Arts dance students are recreating Gertrud Bodenweiser’s The Demon Machine, first created in Vienna in 1924. The work has a rich history and transformed modern dance; it uses female dancers to compose a dance in which lyrical pastoral gestures slowly shift into the rhythmic workings of a machine.
It arrived in London in 1929, the unusual abstraction and plasticity of the bodies attracted attention in the local press and signalled that, far from mere pleasure, “the art of dance brings to our notice facts of the greatest ethical value,” according to Ms Bodenweiser.
By 1936, the Austrian choreographer was very aware of the rising threat of Nazism in neighbouring Germany, and of its impact on many of her Jewish artistic friends.
Accompanied by the strident music of Lisa Maria Mayer, Ms Bodenweiser recreated The Demon Machine to depict the resplendent Demon rising above the machinery of human bodies, with some dancers appearing shining and tranquil, and others perhaps kicking or turning in horror.
The strong diagonal lines, in both the electricity symbol on the Demon’s helmet and the extended limbs, suggest the clash of forces, inner and outer, that drive the machine.
With the annexation of Austria in 1938, Bodenweiser, herself Jewish, and her company of dancers set sail for South America, taking with them into exile many years of choreographic knowledge and artistic experimentation.
The famous Australian theatrical entrepreneur, J.C Williamson, hired a small troupe of Bodenweiser dancers to perform The Demon Machine in a revue touring outback Australia in 1939. The dancers performed crowd pleasers such as Viennese Waltzes, and other playful dances, but The Demon Machine remained a feature of the program intended to appeal to male audiences, perhaps because of the bare midriffs and the show of legs, but also because of its subject matter.
Well in advance of other dance repertoire of this period, the dancers were highly trained in modern dance techniques that gave them strong rhythmic propulsion while retaining an inner quality of expressive intensity.
By 1947 Bodenweiser had established herself with a dance company and school in Sydney and was creating new work for local audiences, including Cain and Abel (1940) and Abandoned to Rhythm (1942). The Demon Machineremained an important part of her repertoire.
On tour in New Zealand in 1948, a newspaper review observed that the music accompanying the dance added to the “maddening crescendo of mechanical movement as the machines assert their power over the human puppets… (and was) sombre when the dance was sombre, joyous at time of revelry”.
For The Demon Machine’s latest version, the Victorian College of the Arts dancers have been using this history to recreate the work, under the guidance of the Head of the VCA Dance program, Professor Jenny Kinder, herself also trained in the modern dance lineage, alongside the New Zealand choreographer, Carol Brown.
Ms Brown has researched the fascinating history of the Bodenweiser legacy and has also produced her own original solo performance called Acts of Becoming. Originally created in 1995 as an homage to the great Bodenweiser, the solo incorporates words and gestures from the archives of former Bodenwieser Tanzgruppe dancers.
In a recent Archibald prize painting, 102-year-old Eileen Kramer, a member of the original Bodenweiser company in Sydney, expressed an ‘inner stillness’ and her ongoing love of expressive dance. She is a living example of the inner spirit of modern dance in Australia with its extraordinary history and impact on future generations of artists.
Carol Brown, a student of the Bodenweiser dancer Shona Dunlop-McTavish, has recreated The Demon Machine for the Leap into the Modern symposium (12 August) curated by Professor Rachel Fensham (University of Melbourne) that accompanies the Brave New World: 1930s Australia exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria. She is speaking at the symposium alongside other contemporary dance artists, such as Meryl Tankard and Shelley Lasica.
Banner image: The Demon Machine Benda D’Ora, 1936. Picture: National Library of Australia
Professor Felicity Baker is co-director the National Music Therapy Research Unit at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music. This week she received word that her world-first study into the use of music therapy for people with dementia has been awarded a substantial government grant. Here, she explains what she hopes to achieve.
By Paul Dalgarno
Congratulations, Felicity. You’ve just secured what looks like a massive amount of money for a research project – $1,014,430.20 to be precise. What's the project?
The grant is from the National Health and Medical Research Council, or the NHMRC, and it was part of a special call for dementia-specific projects. The government has identified this as being an important area for our future. Music therapy has been practised in aged-care in Australia for a very long time – since I was a student, in fact. But there hasn’t been this kind of large-scale, systematic study of its use in dementia care anywhere in the world.
It's a three-year project – what will it cover?
It'll be a really major randomised control trial involving 500 participants from across the country. We'll get people living with dementia to participate in small group musical experiences, singing songs, talking about what they mean, that kind of thing. And then we'll compare it with participants taking part in choral singing, because that's something a community musician, as opposed to a therapist, could lead. We want to see if there's really any difference between those two approaches.
The people we’ll be working with will no longer be able to be look after themselves – they’ll be in aged-care facilities 24-hours a day, either because they're too unwell to stay home and look after themselves or their family carers are unable to look after them properly because the level of care they require is too great for the resources they have at hand. It'll be one of the biggest music therapy studies in history – and certainly in dementia. It'll be a game-changer, not just for us in Australia but globally.
What’s your gut-feeling on choir-singing versus music therapy in that context?
We have a bit of a hypothesis, because we’re looking at mid- to later-staged dementia. We suspect the choir approach will suit those who are higher-functioning and less progressed in their disease. They'll be able to independently have a conversation with the person sitting next to them about the song they’re singing. Whereas those who are more progressed in their disease will require much more focused, skilled support from a music therapist who knows how to connect with them, because that’s what they’re trained to do.
So, three years down the line, when you’ve done all the work for this, what value will it have?
From a political perspective it’ll be really important for us to show that having an intervention delivered by a trained music therapist is more effective in addressing the wellbeing of people with dementia. We’re also examining changes in the level of burden experienced by caregivers. Nurses can get very stressed when there are lots of people with dementia calling out, getting agitated, etcetera. It's a very stressful context. We're expecting that our intervention will help to calm those people with dementia down a bit and that this in turn will lead to reduced stress in staff. We'll be looking at the carers' wellbeing, number of days of sick-leave, the degree of work stress experienced, and more.
As a general approach, how does the relationship normally start up between a music therapist and someone with dementia?
Usually we start with music. One thing we know from previous research is that older people tend to remember, and have the most connection with, music from their late teens and early 20s, usually when they're dating and going out dancing, or in other important life events where music was present. We try to work out what their musical preferences were at that time and use those as a starting point. Often these are people who are losing their language abilities and may be struggling to communicate but, after hearing those pieces of music, they might start talking, saying, "Oh, I remember when I played that to my son," or whatever. The music stimulates those memories and with those memories comes language. If they’re in early-stage dementia, and more cognitively able, we might start with dialogue around their life and connection with music.
Do they then make their own music?
Yeah, they can. And in fact my special interest area is in using songwriting as a tool. One project I've been working on in a dementia daycare centre involves people with early-stage dementia creating songs. It was fascinating to hear the centre staff saying they'd never seen those people so animated. Groups of people would be having little arguments about whether someone was using the right word, or which words rhymed, in a way that was collaborative and clearly stimulating them intellectually. The other interesting thing is that these are people who are supposedly unable to learn and who are losing their memory would remember the lyrics of newly-created music from week to week. That was something new – we didn't expect that. It demonstrates that people living with dementia can learn. And that's because music has a unique ability to facilitate learning, even in people with declining cognitive function.
You’ve come through a career in which music therapy has gone from being a pioneering area ... I mean, it still is now, but it's developing pretty quickly into something more mainstream.
Yeah, and I would hope that one of the reasons we got the NHMRC grant is that someone is looking at music therapy and thinking there’s something there. It’s already got an emerging evidence base, and so I’m hoping it will become mainstream rather than kind of fringe. That would be ideal.
This new grant comes on the back of some other good news for you. Last month you won a World Federation of Music Therapy Award. What was that for?
It's awarded to a person who has made a significant contribution to the development of the discipline, and, in my case I think, that I've really brought songwriting to the forefront of music therapy practice and explored it in ways that haven't been tried before. I was chuffed to get it. They only started giving out these awards three years ago and they only happen every three years. I’m the second recipient, so I feel pretty special to have been nominated and then awarded it.
Take a punt. Five or ten years down the line, where would you put your own research and music therapy?
That’s a hard question. When I finished my training and became a music therapist back in 1992, I thought we’d be a lot further ahead than we actually are currently. But I think at the moment, at least with our team here, we have a lot of momentum. I really think research is going to be the key to our future expansion. The government wants to save money, not spend it, so we have to show we’re worth spending money on. In our discipline there's also debate over whether we should be going for the sort of medical model, evidence-based research or developing theory and focusing on individuals’ unique responses. In my view, we need both. Hopefully at some point those two sides will come together and then we can really move ahead. When I arrived at the MCM from Queensland four and a half years ago, we had just five people in our department, and now it's 11. The more people we have on our team the more work we can do to be better understand the role and impact music therapy can have on people's lives.
Professor Felicity Baker will be joined on her project team by Professor Christian Gold (Norway), Professor Hanne Mette Ridder (Denmark), Dr Jeanette Tamplin and Dr Imogen Clark, both from the MCM.
Main image: Hartwig HKD/Flickr
See also: Clearing the fog of dementia with song
Serkis continues to revolutionise screen performance using a motion captured avatar, conveying extraordinary emotional depth in the role. His success, often attributed to the mastery of animators and technicians, is testament to the rise of an entirely new approach to acting animals in an age of CGI, animation and motion capture.
Performance Capture (the total recording of a performance using a motion capture system) was first used in 2004. It is inherently theatrical, since a performance is filmed in its entirety - without multiple takes of a single scene. Actors wear suits with markers to help computers track their movements during the scene.
To perform as apes, Serkis and others are drawing on the techniques of method acting to emotionally connect with their simian characters. For Serkis, and Planet of the Apes movement choreographer and actor Terry Notary, this has meant going to extraordinary lengths to feel their way into their roles.
Serkis was led by Notary on all fours for hikes in the Canadian woods. They would spend two-hour stints not talking, only communicating as apes. The aim, says Notary, was to allow “the human conditioning to fall away”.
A brief history of monkey business on film
1968 was a big year for apes on film. Primates appeared in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and the original Planet of the Apes, starring Charlton Heston, first aired. In Space Odyssey, actors such as John Ashley donned monkey suits and set about charting the early history of tool use in the celebrated opening sequence known as The Dawn of Man.
In Planet of the Apes, actors such as Maurice Evans and Roddy McDowall relied on monkey masks with furry hands and feet to convey their simian characters. Their bodies were clothed in remarkably human-looking outfits.
Fully costumed performances of primates in films continued until 1995, when Misty Rosas as Amy the Gorilla in Congo performed alongside “enhanced gorillas” running through the jungle at an extraordinary pace, complete with appendages to extend their front limbs.
Over the last decade, we’ve seen a resurgence of cinematic apes, with a full reboot of the Planet of the Apes franchise, a couple of King Kongs, and more than one Tarzan. But the monkey suit has shifted from a furry outer layer to the modern motion capture suit as actors such as Ace Ruele in The Legend of Tarzan (2016) and Notary (alongside Serkis and others) in War for the Planet of the Apes (2017), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), and Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) transform how they perform - and we consume - monkeys on the screen.
Feeling like an Apeman (or woman)
With these new technologies, comes a revitalised interpretation of “The Method”. Primate actors are now exploring their performance by inhabiting and feeling “Ape”, and have developed their own “system” to perform as primates.
This system is built around the aspirations of Stanislavski - the father of method acting. It includes embodying the emotional state of the primate via practising regimented gait and walk cycles and using specific breathing techniques and even numbered approaches to gaze and smell. So, for instance, the scent of another primate in the distance would be given a number and a correlating pose, which ape actors would be instructed to adopt.
The Ape method includes a bespoke, non-verbal language used by actors to communicate with each other during filming. Aspiring actors can even take masterclasses with the likes of Notary, as seen in this video.
Serkis calls Notary (who also starred in Kong: Skull Island) “the greatest unsung hero of this entire [Planet of the Apes] franchise”.
Notary talks of “de-conditioning” to play an ape and finding each ape character’s “first position foundation” (a neutral non-human, pose). He says,
most of the actors that do play apes have told me that it’s been one of the most profound things they’ve done, because you have to be so honest with yourself.
He describes his own ape character, Rocket, as “that open, vulnerable, grounded, connected, feeling creature that I aspire to be all the time”.
As humans, our development of tools was made possible by our eventual rising to two feet, releasing our hands from the earth, Freed from holding objects (such as bones and babies) our hands and mouths could then perform other functions.
Our hands and minds now grasp vastly complicated objects, like virtual studios and motion capture systems, and use these to perfect the art of pretending to be monkeys. It’s a strange full circle – an origin story returning.
Banner image: Andy Serkis as Caesar in War for the Planet of the Apes. Chernin Entertainment, TSG Entertainment.
Born from marginalised communities as a force of self-expression, hip-hop gets an unfairly bad rap for its confronting lyrics, but its power to promote mental and social health is going mainstream.
Last year New York’s then police commissioner Willam Bratton was quick to blame rap music and the culture around it for a fatal backstage shooting at a hip-hop concert. Ignoring wider issues of simple gun control, Commisioner Bratton instead pointed at “the crazy world of these so-called rap artists (that) basically celebrates the violence.”
Hip-hop culture and rap (a method of vocal delivery popularised through hip-hop music) has for more than four decades been bundled with a range of negative connotations, leading many like Commissioner Bratton to equate hip-hop culture only with profanity, misogyny, violence and crime. Prosecutors in the US have labelled rap lyrics a criminal threat, and numerous studies have been undertaken on the harmful influence of hip-hop on kids. The impacts of this perception remain palpable.
Melbourne-based hip-hop artist Mantra (above) works extensively in schools and the community to empower youth. Picture: courtesy of Michelle Grace Hunder www.michellegracehunder.com
There’s no denying that the lyrical content of hip-hop music is confronting, and in many instances includes the glorification of violence, substance use, and gender discrimination. But while many people struggle to look past the profanity, materialism and high-risk messages often celebrated within mainstream rap music, hip-hop culture at its core, is built on values of social justice, peace, respect, self-worth, community, and having fun. And it is because of these core values that hip-hop is increasingly being used as a therapeutic tool when working with young people.
The perfect music therapy
School counsellors, psychologists, and social workers have helped to normalise the option of integrating hip-hop within mental health strategies. In fact, it has become central to the work of one group of psychiatrists at Cambridge University, who under the banner of “Hip-hop Pysch”, use hip-hop as a tool in promoting mental health. Some have even called rap “the perfect form for music therapy.” So what is going on?
Hip-hop culture, while born in New York City, is now a worldwide phenomenon. You would be hard-pressed to find any country that doesn’t have some kind of hip-hop scene. This new reality is driven by two factors. One is the commercialisation of the culture as a commodity, which has made it one of the most influential industries in the world with its own Forbes list, and pushed it to any place within the reach of record labels or the Internet.
US hip-hop artist Lauryn Hill. Picture: David Gallard/Flickr
But, the second factor is that hip-hop remains accessible and grassroots. At its simplest, you can make a beat with your mouth – beatboxing – or on a school desk, and create or recite lyrics about anything without singing. The proliferation of cost-friendly music creating software and hardware puts more involved participation in reach, and allows flexibility in creativity and even pathways to entrepreneurship.
Marginalised communities the world over resonate with the ethos of resisting exclusion or discrimination and fighting for equity and justice. Others just love the beats and lyrical flow. Beyond beats and rhymes, there’s also something for everyone, B-Girls and B-Boys dance, DJ’s scratch and mix, and Graffiti artists draw and write. Combined with emceeing, or rapping, these are the four basic elements of hip-hop, with the fifth element being Knowledge of Self: the drive for self-awareness and social-consciousness.
It is this accessibility and inclusivity that makes hip-hop such an effective therapeutic tool for working with young people. It’s a style most young people feel comfortable with and it provides a way to build rapport and initiate a client-therapist relationship. The reflective nature of the lyrical content is a vehicle for building self reflection, learning, and growth. Whether analysing existing songs, or creating new content, the vast array of themes found in hip-hop lyrics provide therapists access to many topics that are otherwise hard to talk about.
Finally, the repetitive and predictable nature of hip-hop beats are said to provide a sense of safety, particularly during song writing, and lyrical and musical improvisation. Therapists suggest this provides a sense of dependability for those with little regularity or safety in their everyday lives; something supported by research linking music engagement and self-regulation.
US hip-hop artist Kendrick Lamar (above) is an active advocate for social justice, with lyrics that tackle racism, violence and police brutality. Picture: courtesy of Michelle Grace Hunder www.michellegracehunder.com
In his US-based research, Dr Travis has shown that, despite publicised negative associations, many who listen to hip-hop find it a strong source of both self and community empowerment. More specifically, the important benefits to individual mental health in areas of coping, emotions, identity and personal growth, can help promote resilience in communities.
In Australian school settings, Dr Crooke has found hip-hop a positive way for students of diverse backgrounds to engage with their wider community, learning tasks, and schools more generally. In a recent (yet to be published) study, Dr Crooke also explored the benefits of a short-term intensive hip-hop and beat making program for young people labelled oppositional, seriously disengaged or at-risk of exclusion. Results showed students were not only highly engaged in learning through the program, but exhibited positive self-expression, built significant rapport with facilitators, and strengthened social connection amongst each other.
Hip-hop as a force for social justice
Hip-hop culture emerged as a reaction to the gang culture and violence of the South Bronx in the 1970s, and daily experiences of poverty, racism, exclusion, crime, violence, and neglect. It necessarily embodies and values resilience, understanding, community and social justice. Without these, hip-hop culture would never have been, and it is because these values remain at its core that hip-hop is such a powerful agent of positive social change around the world.
Australian hip-hop artist L-FRESH The LION. Picture: courtesy Michelle Grace Hunder www.michellegracehunder.com
Yet, the hip-hop project is not yet free from these difficult circumstances. Many communities around the world still battle the deleterious effects of discrimination, segregation, and injustice. Hip-hop is often a potent voice to these lived experiences. This remains one reason why the lyrical content still contains these themes. One of the primary strengths of hip-hop when it first emerged was that it allowed young, creative Black and Latino youth to create art which reflected the reality of their lives, of the neighbourhoods around them, and of the wider social circumstances in which they found themselves. In the words of US hip-hop Group N.W.A. they were making the most out their basic human right to “Express Yourself.”
We may be several decades on, but there are plenty of young people that still need to do the same.
Hip-hop is neither a panacea nor a cure all. It is not perfect, but its promise is undeniable. It is a culture with complicated social and historical roots. And it should not be appropriated without acknowledging, respecting and addressing these, because it is precisely these origins that make is such an important element in our society.
Hip-hop dancers at the RMIT Link Bust A Groove Dance Competition. Picture: courtesy Michelle Grace Hunder www.michellegracehunder.com
It is because of these roots that contemporary culture is infused with so many new young voices emboldened to promote resilience, positivity, tolerance, and justice. And, it is its complicated history that enables us to critically reflect on our society, and force us to face issues of race, privilege, class, and cultural appropriation.
Given the urgency of our need for equity, justice, tolerance and critical civic engagement in today’s society, we need to challenge our preconceptions about hip-hop culture, and what is perhaps one of the most important and generous movements in our world today.
Dr Crooke is part of a team running a short course at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music on how to use hip-hop in music therapy.
Main image: Rzom_/ Flickr
The 2017 Keith and Elisabeth Murdoch Travelling Fellowships, worth $75,000, were awarded last night to four University of Melbourne graduates from the Victorian College of the Arts and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music (VCA & MCM).
Awarded biennially to theatre, music and visual arts graduates, the Fellowships were established in 1994 by the late Dame Elisabeth Murdoch AC DBE to enable young artists to travel and study overseas in the early stages of their careers.
Dame Murdoch’s granddaughter, Julie Kantor, presented the awards last night at the Margaret Lawrence Gallery on behalf of her grandmother, saying the Fellowships were created to help students become “artists of the world”.
“It seems to me, and certainly to my grandmother, that an essential feature of the artist at any stage in their career, is to find compelling means of creating a bridge between the private world of feeling and insight, and a public world that has an enormous need for inspiration and understanding,” Ms Kantor said.
“To understand this need and to refine one’s feeling and insight, my grandmother and grandfather believed that young artists need to be able to experience the world beyond the place of their study and residence.”
Dean of the VCA & MCM, Professor Barry Conyngham, said providing young artists with international travel opportunities was of benefit to Australian culture more broadly.
“Travel can provide emerging artists, musicians and performers with inspiration and connections that last well beyond the initial moment, and indeed continue to inform their creative development throughout their careers. As consumers of culture, we all stand to benefit from that,” he said.
The main $25,000 Prize for Visual Art, judged on the day by a panel comprising Acting Head of VCA Art Dr Kate Daw, multidisciplinary artist Nicholas Mangan and Director of Gertrude Contemporary Mark Feary, went to Trent Crawford, who graduated from the VCA in 2016, for his video installation work Liquidity.
Crawford’s work, along with the other shortlisted works for the visual art fellowship, will be on display at the 2017 Keith and Elisabeth Murdoch Travelling Fellowship Exhibition in the Margaret Lawrence Gallery (40 Dodds St, Southbank) until 5 August 2017.
The 2017 Keith and Elisabeth Murdoch Travelling Fellowship recipients are:
Trent Crawford, B. Fine Arts (Visual Art). Born 1995, Crawford lives and works in Melbourne. Interested in dissecting images and technology to explore them in a passive state, Crawford’s work focuses on entering the in-between moments in time where the subject or material exists in a state of lapse; often with its function usurped or absent. By disassembling, restructuring and repurposing new media, he calls to question how the framing devices of screens and filters are active in the construction, fragmentation and degeneration of the image. Award of $25,000.
Theatre (two recipients)
Leticia Cáceres, M.Dramatic Art (Direction). Cáceres has been lauded as one of the most exciting directing talents in the country. She was Associate Director at MTC from 2013 to 2015. She has also directed for Belvoir, La Mama, Queensland Theatre Company, Sydney Opera House, La Boîte Theatre/Brisbane Festival, Melbourne Arts Centre, and Brisbane Powerhouse. She is the co-founder of nationally-acclaimed RealTV. Award of $15,000
Eugyeene Teh, M. Production (Design). Teh has worked with mainstage companies, earning him Green Room Award nominations for both his debut works; Endgame at MTC and Meme Girls at Malthouse. Last year, he worked on Straight White Men (MTC), In Between Two (Sydney Festival with William Yang and Annette Shun Wah), Lady Eats Apple (Back to Back Theatre) and Blaque Showgirls (Malthouse). Award of $15,000.
Troy Rogan, B. Fine Arts (Contemporary Music) (Hons). Rogan is a Melbourne-based composer, orchestrator and cellist, who brings his passion for making meaningful, engaging music to each project. He draws his inspiration from the art of storytelling, with a fascination of the parallel that various musical languages can impart. Award of $20,000.
Banner image: Trent Crawford with his video installation work Liquidity. Photo: Sav Schulman.
Some Artists & Philosophers Walked into a Room is a one-day symposium featuring an impressive line-up of speakers and thinkers, chaired by the Victorian College of the Arts’ Dr Sean Lowry and the University of Adelaide’s Professor Jenny McMahon. We asked a handful of the participants to enlighten us on their philosophy on art.
By Sarah Hall.
Q: What would the world be like without art?
Answered by Rowan McNaught, MFA candidate, Victorian College of the Arts.
“Without art our physiologies would adapt to have gigantic eyes. They let too much light in. We can’t go near others because of the risk that they will elaborate an impossible darkness. But all the stuff that people have in their houses is really much more beautiful. Esperanto is a success but was not invented, and June Huh cannot prove the Rota conjecture despite his best efforts. There is the same number of wars. In our dreams we can see figures from history but only as they rush by, wearing the clothes of today, made of technical materials."
Q: What role does art have beyond aesthetics?
Answered by Sophie Takách, Monash Art, Design and Architecture.
“Art has the potential to exceed; to exceed appearances, exceed expectations, exceed habitual responses. It can (and should) affect our way of thinking about possibilities and reality, make us feel the world.
“Art can bring us closer to the world, to materials and forces. It is possible that this affect is reached through aesthetic appeal, and I believe there is no reason that art should distance itself from aesthetics in pursuit of meaningfulness. On one hand, if it is only about looking, and not feeling or thinking, art can be too easily consumed and assimilated, lessening its power. On the other hand, if there is nothing in art to invoke sensation, how does it reach beyond the narrow confines of an already interested audience?
“The power of art to effect change in the world is through an intensification of sensation, by commanding attention, by engaging with people. I believe that the role art has in the world is to break established habits of consumption and action, and by doing away with established notions of beauty in the pursuit of the new it is possible to define a new aesthetics. So art does not leave aesthetics behind by going beyond them, instead it pushes aesthetics before itself as a cresting wave.”
Q: How does studying art help or hinder our understanding of it?
Answered by Dr Sean Lowry, Conference convenor, Head of Critical and Theoretical Studies in Art, Victorian College of the Arts.
“Art education can radically extend expectations for ‘understanding’ art.”
Q: Does an artwork still exist if nobody is there to appreciate it? Why?
Answered by Dr Kate Just, Graduate Coursework Coordinator, VCA Art, Victorian College of the Arts.
"My work's engagement with people is central to its purpose. However, a work of art can also exist or emerge as a gesture of love and devotion. An act of love does not need to be seen or reciprocated in order to exist. It can just emanate."
Some Artists & Philosophers Walked into a Room takes place on 11 July, 2017, 9.30am–5pm, at Federation Hall, Southbank, Melbourne. Free event, but booking is essential. More details.
Main image: 03 Immanuel Kant 03, by Willie Sturges. Flickr.
NOTE: This event has been cancelled. It will be rescheduled at a later date to be announced.
Next week, the Melbourne Conservatorium’s Dr Erin Helyard will give a public presentation, and short recital, on extreme emotional responses to music, with a focus on the 18th-century composer FD Philidor’s opera Tom Jones. Here, he explains why feeling hyper-sensitive to novels and music was, at that time, the order of the day.
“In the 18th century there was a phenomenon known as sensibilité, which basically described a very heightened emotional response to novels or music. At the opera, people would weep aloud or shout enthusiastically, and this sort of behaviour was enculturated and encouraged; it was seen to be a mark of an emotionally-superior human being.
“More recent equivalents might be something like Beatlemania, when crowds went absolutely nuts for The Beatles, or Lisztomania when people went crazy for the Hungarian composer Liszt in the 1840s.
"But sensibilité, as it was called in French, was somewhat different in that it was inextricably linked with the quality of a person’s character.
“To a large extent, we’ve lost this arguably refined level of emotional connection with the things we read and watch these days. We don’t respond in such an openly empathetic way, both because we are somewhat desensitised, and encouraged not to.
“The novel was a new invention in the early 18th century. English novelists in particular were understood to be master manipulators of the emotions.
"There are accounts of people weeping and throwing books in the corner, so moved were they by intricately-rendered accounts of human behaviour. Henry Fielding’s 1749 novel Tom Jones was hugely popular and lead to composer F.D Philidor using it as the setting for an opera.
“Of course, people do have extreme emotional responses to many types of music these days, but not so much at the opera. Rave culture might be the closest contemporary equivalent to 18th-century audience behaviour.
“For my talk, I’ll be discussing these cultural ideas of sensibilité as well as discussing Philidor’s achievement in the operatic sphere, and I’ll be joined by our very talented BMus student Dorcas Lim, who’ll be singing one of the arias from Philidor’s opera.”
-- As told to Sarah Hall
A presentation/recital by Dr Erin Helyard: “Philidor, sensibilité and Fielding’s Tom Jones” takes place on 12 July 2017 at the Baillieu Library, University of Melbourne. Booking and event details.
Main image: Ralph Arvesen/Flickr.
The electric guitar symbolises rebellion, freedom, excess and youth, and we need those qualities now as much as ever.
By Dr Ken Murray, Senior Lecturer in Guitar, Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, University of Melbourne.
The electric guitar symbolises rebellion, freedom, excess and youth. But with the classic rock period well behind us, is it in danger of becoming a faded relic? The Washington Post recently reported on declining sales in the American electric guitar industry, with some manufacturers expressing concerns about its future. One reason for this was said to be a lack of current guitar heroes.
Is this true? I’d argue we still have plenty, with artists such as Jack White and St Vincent leading the pack. At the same time, the electric guitar is evolving as an instrument. Increasingly, it features in contemporary art music ensembles. But what makes a guitar hero? Let’s consider some of the maestros first.
The guitar legends
One of the first and most enduring of these was the late Chuck Berry, with his unique fusion of rhythm and blues and country music. The Beatles and Rolling Stones covered his songs. Many artists emulated his showmanship and attitude.
The rock guitar solo further developed in the 1960s and 70s as players such as Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck pioneered a blues-based style of virtuosic soloing. The electric guitar played a key role in the panoply of rock guitar styles that developed in the 1970s. However, it has been many decades since the airwaves were ruled by the sounds of guitar gods like Jimmy Page, Angus Young or Eddie Van Halen.
1980s pop music embraced synthesizers, keyboards and new technology such as the Fairlight computer. Rather than limiting the use of the electric guitar, this shift led to a broadening of the sonic palette with innovative guitarists adding textural depth and a new range of colours. Influential exponents of this playing style include Johnny Marr of the Smiths, U2s The Edge and Andy Summers of The Police. Their subtle musicianship ushered in a new type of guitar hero.
In the 1990s, the dominant sound of grunge bands such as Nirvana, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam was an electric guitar, often distorted. Grunge musicians valued the instrument more for texture, volume, energy and tonal roughness than virtuosic solos.
Meanwhile, the English band Radiohead was releasing guitar dominated albums such as Pablo Honey (1993), The Bends (1995) and OK Computer (1997). Guitarists Johnny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien supplied muscular riffs, ambient textures, and blistering solos to these three albums, at times reminiscent of progressive musicians such as Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew, while also drawing on the textural style of the 1980s.
On later Radiohead songs, such as Optimistic, the guitar work is characterized by a rhythmic yet rough and relatively “unschooled” style of strumming. Greenwood and O’Brien’s role in the band expanded to include additional instruments, composition and arrangement.
The new electric virtuosos
The early 2000s was characterised by a return to the roots of popular music forms, whether the blues, country music, rock and roll, funk or Motown. There are many wonderful exponents of blues-based electric guitar playing active now - a short list would include Gary Clark Junior, Joe Bonamassa and Derek Trucks. Still, 21st century pop, in general, is not bursting with shredding electric guitar virtuosi, but rather songwriters and mavericks who use the instrument to create a personal style.
Jack White, who sums up this approach, might be our century’s most prominent electric guitar hero. White combines a love of blues and country music with a return to simplicity in both recording and live performance, He also wrote one of the most famous guitar riffs of the 2000s, Seven Nation Army.
Another strong contender for the role is Annie Clark, aka St Vincent. A phenomenally gifted singer, lyricist, electric guitarist and performer, St Vincent is an adventurous and trailblazing musician, embracing electronic music, alternative sounds and elements of progressive rock.
Like White, St Vincent embraces imperfections, energy and spontaneity in her playing, which is a highlight of live performances. Like many pioneering progressive rock artists (the Moody Blues, King Crimson, Frank Zappa), she draws on aspects of contemporary classical music and has written chamber music for the American ensemble yMusic.
While sales of the electric guitar may have stagnated, in the past 20 years, the instrument has become increasingly influential in contemporary art music. One pioneer here is the American guitarist and composer Steven Mackey. Prominent new music ensembles such as Bang on a Can, the International Contemporary Ensemble and Australia’s Elision Ensemble have embraced the electric guitar. In fact, it has changed aspects of how these groups operate, due partly to amplification and balance issues and the opportunity to use electronic effects across all the instruments in an ensemble.
There are many wonderful works for the electric guitar, including music by Australian composers George Lenz and Andrew Ford, which were first performed by the Sydney-based new music specialist Zane Banks. And in early June, two electric guitar symphonies written by New York composer Glenn Branca had their Australian premiere. His use of drones, alternative tunings and mass electric guitars has influenced both classical and rock musicians. In my own work with the MCM ensemble Three (trumpet, trombone and guitar) I have found the electric guitar a perfect foil to the brass instruments.
Guitar women and shredders
There have been some great female electric guitar soloists, from the pioneering gospel blues of Sister Rosetta Tharpe to performers Nancy Wilson (Heart), Joan Jett (The Runaways, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts) and Carrie Brownstein (Sleater-Kinney). On the local front, Adalita Srsen (Magic Dirt) has been a leading guitarist for years and Courtney Barnett has achieved international fame with her understated electric guitar accompaniment style.
A more soloistic rock style is represented in the work of Danielle Haim (Haim) and Donna Grantis from Prince’s band 3rdeye Girl. These are all guitar heroes to inspire a new generation of performers.
Compared to the music of the 70s, guitar solos are on the wane in mainstream rock and pop. But in the genres of heavy metal and progressive rock, shredding (rapid, high energy, virtuosic playing) is still a valued form of expression. Many of these “progressive” guitarists work with guitar makers and effects designers to come up with new products (such as the seven-string electric - now used by many metal guitarists - designed for playing low, heavy riffs).
Virtuoso guitarists Dave Mustaine (Megadeath), Kirt Hammet (Metallica) and John Petrucci (Dream Theatre) have been influencing young shredders for decades. Psychedelic rock, meanwhile, is undergoing something of a renaissance in Australia with Melbourne band King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard leading the way.
In short, the electric guitar is evolving. A new breed of guitarists are plucking, strumming, shredding, riffing, experimenting and amplifying their way into the future.
Steve Mackey will be visiting the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music in late August/early September this year. He will perform at the Melbourne Recital Centre on September 2.
Main image: Claus Rebler/Flickr
Such is the ubiquity of the guitar that its popularity can be taken for granted, its history overlooked. The period between the 1890s and 1940s was crucial to the instrument's evolution.
By Dr Ken Murray, Melbourne Conservatorium of Music.
The guitar may be the most widely-played instrument in the world, an active component in musical styles from all corners of the globe. It's well known that the guitar played a key role in the music of the post-second-world-war era but what is less well documented is the trajectory of the guitar during the period from the 1890s to the 1940s.
The current Instrument of Change exhibition (until 31 August) at the Grainger Museum in Melbourne takes a fascinating approach to those overlooked years of the guitar and illustrates how the instrument was played and enjoyed by both amateur and professional musicians during that period.
It also includes photographs, musical scores and artworks by iconic Australian artists such as Tom Roberts and Russell Drysdale.
In the 19th century the guitar played an important role in instrumental groups such as the Spanish Estudiantina, where it accompanied steel strung bandurrias and lauds. These Spanish groups had great success touring the world in the 1880s and 1890s, helping to disseminate the Spanish guitar internationally. The exhibition features a beautiful early flamenco instrument, notable for dimensions similar to a 19th-century parlor guitar.
The formation of banjo, mandolin and guitar clubs and societies (known as the BMG movement) saw the guitar competing with a new range of instruments that were mass-produced and promoted through magazines and mail-order catalogues. In this context, the guitar was prized for its historical associations and sophisticated repertoire.
Instrument of Change also focuses on Percy Grainger’s intersections with the guitar.
Grainger, linked mainly in the public imagination to his piano performances and compositions, engaged with the guitar as both performer and composer over many decades, from his first works in the early 1900s, to experiments with the instrument in London in the 1910s, to performances with the American experimental composer Henry Cowell in the 1940s. Grainger appreciated and embraced amateur guitar and mandolin ensembles and included guitars in numerous pieces and arrangements.
Through the use of open tunings and plectrum-style strumming, Grainger was an early advocate of massed guitars in the concert hall. The Instrument of Change exhibition features scores, instruments and photos from the Grainger Museum archives.
The guitar surpassed the popularity of other instruments in this period through ingenious evolutionary changes of shape, design and function. With the arrival of new instruments, such as the Gibson harp guitar and early arch-top instruments, design features derived from both the mandolin and banjo were successfully adapted in a quest for greater volume and relevance.
A range of other related instruments are featured in the exhibition, such as ukuleles and the Hawaiian steel guitar, which added new waves of interest to this scene in the 1920s.
While many of the trends influencing the guitar were global, Australian performers and makers were involved in these developments and their contribution is recognised in the exhibition.
Italian makers the Cera brothers emigrated to Australia in the 1920s and continued making their amazing harp guitars and mandolins into the 1970s. The burgeoning classical guitar scene of the 1930s and 40s found an advocate in Len Williams (father of classical guitarist John Williams) who helped to build a classical guitar community in Melbourne.
The exhibition ends with the Maton guitar company, one of the most recognisable and enduring Australian musical brands, established in 1946. The founder, Bill May, played double bass and guitar in dance bands and Hawaiian groups and made his first guitar as a teenager in 1932. He began with flat-top acoustic guitars and later diversified with archtop instruments and an extensive range of electric guitars.
May was keenly aware of the diversity of guitar activities. In an advertisement from the early 1950s he stated that there were Maton models to cover a range of styles including “radio, orchestra, solo, hillbilly and Hawaiian”.
While American instruments were his examples, May was committed to making an Australian product that could compete with the best in the world. His vision of an Australian guitar with international impact was formed during the seminal period of 1920–1946 when the guitar became a truly global instrument.
Instrument of Change: Visions of the Guitar in the Early 20th Century is at the Grainger Museum, University of Melbourne, until 31 August 2017. The exhibition was curated by Melbourne Conservatorium of Music Associate Professor Michael Christoforidis and Dr Ken Murray.
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On 15 June 2017, on the eve of the opening of the Victorian College of the Arts' landmark 9 X 5 NOW exhibition, Curator Dr Elizabeth Gower and participating 9 X 5 NOW artist Tai Snaith spoke with RRR Smartarts presenter Richard Watts about the show.
More than 300 visual artists have contributed original works for the exhibition, which runs from 16–25 June at the Margaret Lawrence Gallery, Southbank, Melbourne. Proceeds from the sale of the works, most of which will be sold for between $500 and $1,500, will go to establishing the new ART150 Fellowship to support emerging artists.
Image: David Rosetsky's 9 X 5 NOW work. LYV (partial version). C-type photo collage.
The Music Therapy team at the University of Melbourne was invited to collaborate with the National Gallery of Victoria to provide an experiential music activity for high-school students in response to the NGV’s Van Gogh exhibition. Here's what happened.
By Dr Lucy Bolger and Dr Grace Thompson, Melbourne Conservatorium of Music.
It's a Friday lunchtime. The National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, is filled with visitors coming to see the spectacular works of Van Gogh. The exhibition Van Gogh and the Seasons: The Art of Emotions has been extraordinarily successful and people have travelled and queued for the chance to see the collection. In the Grand Hall, two beautiful, contrasting pieces of Van Gogh’s artwork are projected onto the walls. One is a sparse, muted winter scene, with a dark figure and his dog walking a solitary path through the snow. The second is a lush, vibrant painting of a woodland grove in the spring, dotted with flowers.
Recently, the Music Therapy team at the University of Melbourne was invited to collaborate with the NGV to provide an experiential music activity in response to the NGV’s winter masterpiece exhibition of the work of Van Gogh. The program was intended to support high-school students engage creatively with the exhibition. As music therapists, we recognise that music is a powerful tool for exploring emotions, particularly in adolescence, and we leapt at this opportunity to explore the theme of the exhibition – “the art of emotion” – through music.
Scattered around the Great Hall are small groups of students, buzzing quietly with conversation, surrounded by paper, pens and musical instruments. From around the room we hear sporadic clangs and chimes; an occasional burst of laughter; brief musical phrases that swell and subside. Every now and then, the groups look up at the artwork with a new flurry of activity or a questioning eye.
Two or three music therapy masters students sit among each small group of high-school students, asking questions and giving suggestions, gently drawing out ideas and sounds from the young people. As a group, they draw together a musical response to the artwork they see on the walls.
This project was also an engagement opportunity for our Melbourne University Masters students, a chance for them to apply their developing skills in facilitation, songwriting and improvisation. In pairs, each student facilitated one of three different activities designed to explore Van Gogh’s work through music and narrative.
Two groups used song-writing, allowing the structure of familiar songs to scaffold an exploratory process of lyric writing. Two groups developed a radio-play based on the work, using music and sound to give voice to the emotions of their story based on the artwork. And two groups created a soundscape, allowing freely improvised music and a visual score to directly represent their responses to the art.
The high-school students responded impressively to the tasks at hand, offering creative ideas and exploring various ways to represent emotion through music. Their teachers expressed amazement at their students’ engagement and enthusiasm in response to such "new" tasks, and commented on how much was achieved in such a short period of time.
Suddenly there is an increase in intensity and activity. Groups start to arrange themselves and the sounds become more organised. The students are practising. After only an hour, the groups come together and form an audience for each other, sharing their music and creative responses to the cheers and applause of their teachers and peers.
They have produced diverse music – creative, thoughtful, funny, reserved – exploring Van Gogh from many angles, placing themselves inside of the paintings and using music and sound to express the emotions of the art.
See also: Van Gogh’s ear for music: a playlist.
Find out more about Music Therapy at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music.
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Main image: The Music Therapy team assembles at the NGV. Photo: Sav Schulman
On Sunday, Ariana Grande played to a packed house of 60,000 fans at Manchester’s Old Trafford Cricket Ground, in tribute to the 22 people killed at Grande’s Dangerous Woman concert in the same city two weeks ago. She was joined on stage by pop stars including Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, Justin Bieber and Pharrell Williams.
One Love Manchester aimed to counter the effects of terrorism by spreading messages of unity and love through music, harnessing pop as a personal and collective coping mechanism in the face of tragedy. But in troubled times, can music really heal?
The Manchester bombing is the latest in a line of assaults on entertainment venues, including the attack on the Eagles of Death Metal concert at Paris’s Bataclan Theatre in 2015, and at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, last year. These are seemingly inspired by a desire to curtail Western liberal freedoms, and specifically the freedom of women, the gay community and the young people who are celebrated in pop music.
Given the sentiment of the event, Grande drew some backlash on Twitter for performing her risqué song Side to Side. But as she revealed during the concert, she had changed her set list after talking with the mother of 15-year-old Olivia, who was killed in the bombing. During their emotional meeting, Olivia’s mum said that she “would’ve wanted to hear the hits”.
Evidence shows that bereaved families increasingly choose to commemorate loved ones with contemporary songs with which they, or the deceased, personally identify.
An Australian funeral services provider reported Queen’s The Show Must Go On or Another One Bites the Dust were increasingly popular funeral songs. In the same way, pop concerts are built on a known repertoire of songs, which the audience predicts. This assists in the ritual communication of emotion.
It was music’s capacity to arouse different emotions that allowed One Love Manchester to achieve Grande’s aim for her concerts to be, “a place for them to escape, to celebrate, to heal, to feel safe and to be themselves.” It is now well established that mechanisms such as rhythm, shared emotions and the memory of specific events make music a powerful tool for connecting with other people.
Pharrell Williams’ upbeat Happy embodied the concert’s defiant stance on terrorism, suggesting that fear can be triumphantly overcome through the enactment of happiness and joy. Coldplay’s touching performance of Fix You allowed for the expression of mourning and collective grief.
Robbie Williams led the audience in a version of his song Strong, changing the lyrics to, “Manchester we’re strong, we’re strong”. Cultural studies theorist Graeme Turner has argued that this sort of sharing brings with it a temporary experience of equality and comradeship between many people.
Black Eyed Peas’ Where is the Love?, inspired by the September 11 terrorist attacks in the US, has become an anthem for countering terrorism and related anti-Islamic sentiment. It provided the Manchester audience with an emotional bridge to the larger, global community of those affected by terrorism.
We need to do more research to understand how these shared emotions and experiences can be galvanised to create longer-term resilience and solidarity. But for this night, One Love Manchester demonstrated the power of music to heal an urban community and bring people together.
Samantha Dieckmann, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Music, ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, University of Melbourne and Jane Davidson, Deputy Director ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, University of Melbourne
Banner image: Ariana Grande by lindsaydaniella/Flickr.
How would you put together a playlist that captured something of Vincent Van Gogh for a major Australian exhibition? With great care, of course.
By Dr Rachel Orzech, Melbourne Conservatorium of Music.
Van Gogh and the Seasons is the current Winter Masterpieces exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria (until 9 July). Since 2015, I have been commissioned to create playlists for these annual exhibitions, each one focused around a major collection of significant artworks that would not normally be exhibited in Australia.
For a musicologist specialising in 19th- and 20th-century Western classical music, these assignments are a dream. Each year, I study the list of artworks to be exhibited, talk to the curators at the NGV, and undertake some research into the lives and work of the featured artists.
I then make a shortlist of related musical works and try to figure out how they might best work together as a soundtrack for the exhibition. In the process, I’ve discovered many wonderful (and sometimes obscure) pieces of music that I hadn’t previously been familiar with.
Visual artists are frequently part of much broader cultural networks that encompass music, theatre and dance, so it's usually easy to find clear connections between artworks in a gallery and musical works. Sometimes those connections are made because the artist knew the composer, or was inspired by the music, or because the artist and composer shared similar ideologies or philosophies.
In 2016, the NGV's Winter Masterpieces exhibition centred on the work of Edgar Degas, who painted a number of works featuring ballet and opera scenes in Paris; the link between music and painting in that instance was clear.
In 2015, the NGV exhibited items from the collection of Catherine the Great, and I created a playlist using music composed at Catherine’s court, and pieces that complemented artworks in her impressive and diverse collection.
But Vincent Van Gogh (1853–1890) presented a unique challenge. Relatively isolated during his brief career as a painter, he did not form important connections with any musicians or composers, as far as we know. Nor did he show a great interest in any particular musical genres.
I began by trawling through his letters, which have all been digitised and translated into English. I found very few references to music; the exceptions were some mentions of Richard Wagner, and a reference to Charles Gounod’s 1864 opera Mireille.
As a Wagner scholar, I could not resist the temptation to include a few excerpts from his operas, particularly those which were performed frequently in concerts in Paris at the time. The playlist opens with the Prelude to Act I of Wagner’s Lohengrin, first performed in 1850 – a perfect beginning:
The second item on the list is an aria from Mireille – a work I had never heard before undertaking this research:
In reading Van Gogh’s letters, I also came across a mention of the World Exhibition which was to be held in Paris in 1889; we don’t know whether Van Gogh attended, but he was certainly aware that it would be taking place.
These exhibitions were an opportunity for nations around the world to exhibit their national culture and for France to promote its own national culture to visiting nations. Musicologist Annegret Fauser’s fascinating 2005 book Musical Encounters at the 1889 Paris World's Fair revealed the musical life that flourished at the Exhibition, and gave me some ideas for items to add to the playlist.
Camille Saint-Saëns’ opera Ascanio (1890) was to be the centrepiece of the Paris Opéra’s contribution to the Exhibition, and although things didn’t quite work out that way (it wasn’t premiered until the following year), I included one of its "Airs de ballet" in the playlist.
More successful at the Exhibition (this time from the Opéra-Comique) was Massenet’s Esclarmonde (1889). Australia’s Joan Sutherland sang the title role in one of the work’s few revivals in the 1970s, so it seemed fitting to include it on the playlist.
The aria I chose, however, is sung by the character Roland, a knight who loves Esclarmonde, the Empress of Byzantium:
The final playlist betrays a heavy bias towards French opera and Wagner, which of course does not encompass or reflect all aspects of Van Gogh’s life and work. Yet the lack of direct connections between Van Gogh and music provided me with the opportunity to expose listeners to the music that interests me and informs my work, as well as the chance for me to discover works such as Esclarmonde that I had never heard.
See also: Van Gogh gets some music therapy.
Van Gogh and The Seasons is at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, until 9 July 2017. More information.
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Image: Sophie Duran.
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When many schools have cupboards full of musical instruments, why are so few students learning to play?
By Dr Alexander Crooke, Postdoctoral Fellow in Music Therapy
Musical participation in schools has been increasingly linked to a range of benefits deemed critical for today’s students. This includes fostering creativity, offering unique ways of understanding and interpreting the world, and promoting numerous forms of school engagement.
It is also linked to a number of wellbeing and social justice benefits, such as increased inclusion and connectedness at school and classroom levels, as well as cultivating peacebuilding, diversity and intercultural understanding.
So why do so many schools have cupboards full of musical instruments gathering dust? Our ongoing research has identified several important trends.
One major barrier to sustained music programs relates to who actually delivers them. Some argue it should be the generalist classroom teacher, but as over 15 years of research and government reports have pointed out, most have neither the time nor the training to do so.
This speaks to two issues: the first being that space for the arts in generalist teacher-training has been on the decline since the 1990s, with more recent reports claiming it comprises an average of 1.51 per cent of time spent in Victorian preservice courses. This has left teachers who aren’t already musicians under-equipped in terms of both skill and confidence to provide music to their students.
And then teachers must deal with an increasingly crowded curriculum. Few would disagree the emphasis in our current education model on standardised testing, and mandated performance in core subjects like literacy and numeracy, has significantly reduced teachers’ abilities to focus on provision in other areas.
If you then add in all of the other “extras” teachers and schools are expected to provide their students – think Bike Ed, dental vans, science excursions, swimming lessons and more – suddenly teachers are up against the wall. This is not to deny the fantastic work many do to build music into their daily lessons, but in our research, it has been clear these are the exception, not the norm.
Unfortunately, we found that that, even when teachers who were incredibly supportive of the arts were given intensive support by skilled practitioners to integrate it into their daily teaching, most simply can’t find the time to do it. Others stated that, while in-class mentoring was valuable, this value lay in the fact that sessions provided students access to experiences they couldn’t, and didn’t intend to, provide themselves in their normal classes.
Some may argue the introduction of specialist teachers has addressed this issue.
Specialist teachers are employed, often part time, to deliver a specific subject that has been deemed too hard to deliver in the mainstream curriculum. In Victoria, this includes things like Languages Other Than English, Physical Education, and education in all art forms.
While this may be a useful model for the schools that can afford them, in the majority of the schools we’ve spoken to over the last six years, it is not a sustainable solution. Faced with the reality of being able to afford only one or two specialists, school leadership has told us they are left to pick and choose which of these specialist subjects they will provide.
Often this comes down to who is available, and what they are willing to do. Furthermore, because of the instability (and what many specialist music teachers report as a significant lack of support, or isolation, from the rest of the school community), these specialists regularly move on, taking the school music program with them.
These factors lay the groundwork for what we call “the exposure model”, whereby schools tend to expose their students to as many diverse arts experience as possible. This is linked to an understanding that, not only is ongoing provision in one art form unrealistic, but will inevitably reduce students’ access to experiences in other areas.
Clearly, this undermines the stability of music provision, which requires extended, deep engagement to achieve the benefits noted above.
The value of the arts
The most common factor which underpins all of this at a systemic and cultural level is what participants in our studies have repeatedly referred to as a lack of value for music, and the arts more generally, in our schools and in our society.
Participants have told us this is lack of value exists among teaching staff, school leadership, parents, education departments, the federal government, and in some rare cases, even students. Schools have consistently reported to us that this is one of the biggest hurdles they face in supporting musical provision.
We, and many others, have argued strongly that governments need to go beyond rhetorical support for school music, and start providing schools tangible support to provide it. That is why I welcome the Victorian Government’s pledge, to provide $2 million over four years so that every Victorian student has access music by 2018.
This is a significant step, and signals a value shift in the right direction. For this, people like Victorian Labor MP James Merlino should be commended for pushing this funding scheme through, and maintaining it one year on.
Yet, we are far from celebration. There is a lot of work to be done in our schools, and in our society, before all Victorian schools are really in a position to provide music to students.
The changes required are both structural, and cultural.
We first need to attribute value to music that is comparable to curriculum leviathans like maths and English. Secondly, this needs to demonstrated through education policy structures that place music within the core of the educational experience, rather than an added extra.
Once we do this, then we can expect musical instruments to be used with the same surety as calculators and dictionaries.
Banner image: Phil Roeder/Flickr
Masters students from the Victorian College of the Arts recently took part in a fieldwork intensive in the Bass Coast region of South Gippsland. Their aim? To explore how how indigenous knowledge sensitises us to the historical and contemporary complexities of regional sites.
By Dr Danny Butt, Lecturer (Master of Arts and Community Practice), Victorian College of the Arts
How can art help us understand a place? If that place is somewhere new to us, how can we go about orienting ourselves to it? And how can indigenous knowledge sensitise us to the historical and contemporary complexities of regional sites?
These were some of the questions explored by Masters students from the Victorian College of the Arts in a fieldwork intensive I coordinated in the Bass Coast region of South Gippsland in April 2017. The four-day visit was centred on the event Luminous Streets, a component of the Regional Arts Victoria Small Town Transformations initiative The Edge of Us, which links artistic works in five small towns along Westernport Bay.
With only a short period of time to get to know the area, students used a range of strategies to engage the event – some artists, such as Rich Keville, produced their own artistic response to the site in the form of luminous "graffiti" attached to the pier; while James Howard composed audio works based on field recordings taken at the site.
Other students took a more documentary approach, with Jared Kuvent taking long-exposure still photography, while Cath Rutten used interview techniques to generate data that produced a musical score – making a creative response to the typical evaluation strategies used in her work as a cultural planner.
The idea of “fieldwork” is best known in anthropology, and so the question of indigenous knowledge was central to student learning of both the site and the opportunities that fieldwork methods might present. I invited renowned Māori artist, curator and academic Dr Huhana Smith, Head of the School of Art at Massey University in Wellington, New Zealand, to act as guest faculty for the site visit.
Dr Smith presented her community-based action research project Manaaki Taha Moana: Enhancing Coastal Ecosystems for Mäori in a seminar at the Faculty of VCA & MCM's Wilin Centre for Indigenous Arts and Cultural Development before joining the students out on the fieldwork site, where they were welcomed to country by Boon Wurrung artist Steve Parker and participated in a smoking ceremony.
Working with my colleagues in the arts collective Local Time, who also joined the intensive, I’ve spent the last ten years researching how artists can engage questions of indigenous knowledge and political struggles for self-determination in a respectful fashion, to enhance our sensitivity to intergenerational local knowledge of habitat and the ecosystem.
Across the world, local communities and indigenous researchers such as Dr Smith are actively working to undo the impact of colonisation on customary methods of caring for the land. Indigenous knowledge now has urgent relevance as we seek sustainable ways of life in an era of widespread environmental degradation and climate change.
While a short visit to a regional arts project could only begin to point at the potential openings for artists into these questions, the experience highlighted for students the value of place-based learning and the benefits of a holistic approach to research and community engagement.
In the words of VCA student Cath Rutten: “It was a great field trip ... such great conversations and insights from everybody. It really reminds me of how important it is to work in proximity with others."
This wasn’t just a one-way flow of information, but a real exchange. Outside of their own learning, the students contributed significantly to the Luminous Streets event with their presence and engagement. They gained first-hand insight into how a large-scale community arts project works and I’m really excited to share their findings with the organisers.
Working with tutor and artist Amy Spiers, the students are currently finalising their research reports and responses. I will be sharing them with the Regional Arts Victoria project team to feed into the next iteration of the project in 2018.
Image: Boon Wurrung artist Steve Parker introducing the class to the material history of the Westernport area. Photo: Jared Kuvent.
An app that lets audience members experience Melbourne General Cemetery like never before? Victorian College of the Arts Lecturer in Theatre Robert Walton explains more.
By Robert Walton, Lecturer in Theatre (Acting) at the Victorian College of the Arts
Blurring documentary with fiction, Vanitas is a reflective thriller about life’s great mystery: death. Experienced through their own smartphone and decrypted through the secret language of flowers, each visitor will embark on a self-guided walk through Melbourne’s oldest modern cemetery. Alone.
Intrepid audience members will listen to the app as they wander towards a rendezvous at the centre of the cemetery. It’s a meditative experience that asks you to listen deeply and look closely at the world around you. In Vanitas, not everything is as it first appears.
A vanitas painting portrays collections of objects symbolic of the certainty of death. We were inspired by a painting from 1700 by Dutch artist Rachel Ruysch called Vase with Flowers (above). Ruysch’s floral vanitas depicts blooms just passing their best, on the cusp of wilting or being eaten by bugs. Her mysterious painting, like all vanitas pictures from that era, reminds us that all living things fade, and that our objects will outlive us and become the last traces of our daily lives.
In much of Australian culture, death remains taboo. For a variety of reasons, we are unable or unwilling to talk about it. In fact, we often go about our lives as if death is a fate that will not befall us personally. Australia also has the second highest uptake of smartphones in the world.
Hence, we have made a smartphone app as a vanitas for our own times. The interface itself is based on Ruysch’s painting with each flower representing an episode in the story. Like the flowers in the painting, you are drawn to some episodes first and then chance upon others along the way. The shift between guided and random order allows the audience to weave their own connections with the threads of narrative we present.
The story mixes documentary, autobiography and fiction and is told wholly through remixed audio fragments taken from interviews with a variety of experts on the themes of vanitas, flowers, life and death. We find out about the secret language of flowers, witness a cremation, and talk to botanists, historians and professionals from the death industry.
We are lucky to have Southern Melbourne Cemeteries Trust in our city; world leaders in forward thinking about the future of our cemeteries. Those we have worked with from the Trust's team have been great collaborators and have helped us to understand how death practices have evolved over the last century and how they might develop into the future.
What is clear is that Melbourne General Cemetery in Parkville is a place of extraordinary national importance. It is a haunting museum and art gallery of lives past, like the shadow of the city itself.
And, with 300,000 people buried there, it's certainly the biggest venue I have ever played. But the dead are what you’d call a captive audience. On the whole they are very well behaved bunch; they don’t give much back. They seem to be enjoying the show so far, yet we live in constant fear of a standing ovation.
The audience on the weekend can expect a meditative experience exploring themes of death and transience. Ticket holders can arrive any time between 10am and 4pm on their chosen day.
Audience members will be asked to come with a fully-charged smartphone (Apple or Android) with an Australian mobile number, email address, access to the internet (there is no WiFi in the cemetery) and headphones. Once booked, they will be sent an email with information on how to download the Vanitas app before coming to the cemetery.
Vanitas was commissioned as part of In Your Hands – a new series of artworks and installations that invite audiences to create experiences mediated through hand-held technology – by Arts House through the Australia Council’s New Digital Theatre Initiative. Tickets are available from Arts House. Admission: $10
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Banner image: Jason Maling and Robert Walton.
The ongoing Love: Art of Emotion 1400–1800 exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria was produced in collaboration with the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions and The University of Melbourne. Whether you’ve seen it or not, your views could help our researchers.
By Dr Amanda E Krause, Research Fellow, ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions.
While popular conceptions of love tend to focus upon romantic love, the National Gallery of Victoria’s Love: Art of Emotion 1400–1800 exhibition presents depictions of love in its many variations, in painting, sculpture, prints and drawings, as well as non-representational and functional objects such as costume, furniture and religious artefacts.
Curated by Postdoctoral Research Fellow Angela Hesson of the University of Melbourne’s ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (CHE), it features more than 200 items from the NGV’s International Collection, some of which have never been displayed before.
But what does it teach us? What do you, as a gallery-goer, get out of visiting an exhibition of this kind?
Though the artworks in Love: Art of Emotion 1400–1800 concern historical expressions of love, we are interested in how people experience those emotions today. With that aim, we are undertaking an audience-response research project, and would love – yes, love – you to get involved.
If you haven’t already, you can visit the exhibition at the NGV until 18 June, 2017. It’s located on the ground floor, free to enter, and the NGV is open 10am–5pm daily.
But even without visiting the NGV, you can assist us. Our online survey contains questions about visiting art galleries, and about yourself, and to respond to eight key works that are part of the Love exhibition. You can access it here – many thanks in advance!
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Image: The Garden of Love (c.1465–1470), Antonio Vivarini (studio of). National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.
The work of VCA Art alumna Penelope Davis blends art and science to form a commentary on the impact of climate change.
By Kate Stanton, University of Melbourne
The collective noun for a group of jellyfish is a smack or a fluther. But when the creatures come together in large groups, often in small areas, it’s called a bloom.
These blooms drift on the current, forming strange and ghostly clusters that can stretch kilometres through the ocean.
Artist Penelope Davis spotted her first bloom several years ago, when she was walking along the beach near her bayside home in Melbourne. Hundreds of jellyfish spent the summer in Port Phillip Bay and, after investigating further, she discovered the creatures were uniquely suited to the warmer, oxygen-deprived waters caused by climate change.
Sea-change (detail) by Penelope Davis made with silicon, nylon thread and plastic. Photo: Simon Strong/Artist supplied
“It was quite terrifying”, says Ms Davis, who studied at the University of Melbourne.
But she felt an aesthetic attraction to the other-wordly sea creatures.
“They were intriguing. I like their semi-transparency and how they capture light.”
A bloom of jellyfish is a natural occurrence, the result of changing ocean currents, seasons or the availability of prey. In recent years, however, some scientists have wondered whether jellyfish numbers are growing – and whether a warmer planet means more jellyfish.
Scientists are still unsure, but Ms Davis was struck by the imagery of a bloom as an evocative illustration of what oceans could look like on a planet ravaged by climate change: bodies of water congested with ethereally beautiful but poisonous animals.
That is the inspiration for Sea-change, Ms Davis’ latest work, which debuted last month at the MARS Gallery in Melbourne as part of the continuing festival Art+Climate=Change 2017. The festival was convened by the not-for-profit organisation CLIMARTE, which aims to use art to spark discussions about climate change, bringing together artistic and scientific communities for exhibitions, talks and other public programs.
For Sea-change, Ms Davis collected discarded plastics and other ephemera, cast them in silicon moulds and hand-sewed the pieces together into 46 creations designed to resemble jellyfish. Suspended from the ceiling, they look just like a bloom, delicate and eerie, floating beneath the surface of the ocean.
Look closer, however, and you will recognise the shapes of the components: tap heads, plastic tops off tomato sauce bottles, mobile phone chargers, camera lenses, fishing lines and other castoffs that recall consumption, consumerism and waste.
Ms Davis says she did not set out to explore climate science in her work, but it was the natural by-product of her three-month artists’ residency last year at LAB-14, a hub of studios and working spaces for creatives, engineers, researchers and start-ups in the Carlton Connect innovation precinct which is anchored by the University of Melbourne.
Ms Davis says LAB-14 had a buzzing, purposeful atmosphere that was an inspiring contrast to her artists collaborative in St Kilda.
“I’m usually surrounded by a bunch of other artists and we talk a lot about the Melbourne art world. To go somewhere where that’s totally irrelevant and there’s all these enormous issues that people are working on, it really made me step up,” she says.
Sea-change at the MARS Art Gallery in Melbourne. Photo: Simon Strong
Ms Davis says she would meet with the building’s other residents to explain her jellyfish, and to engage with them on the issues underpinning the work. She even asked for some of them to contribute their scraps to her project.
Carlton Connect was designed to produce such interactions, says Dr Renee Beale, the precinct’s Creative Community Animator.
Dr Beale sees herself as the bridge between people of different and often segregated disciplines, such as art and science, in the hope of forcing new conversations about the world’s biggest problems. She connects scientists with artists who might need research to inform their art.
The people behind the Carlton Connect project believe that real innovation and solutions come from these interactions. A new Science Gallery, set to open there in 2018, will regularly host exhibitions that use art to help visitors engage with science.
Dr Beale also curates exhibitions, such as last year’s Absolutely Famished, which brought scientists, food experts and artists together to talk about future food trends, including robotic farming and 3D food printing.
“We recognise the importance of the creative arts in opening up new ways of thinking,” she says.
Dr Beale says many scientists are interested the emotional power of art to prompt action on research and data that isn’t always inspiring in its raw form.
Dr Peter Christoff, a CLIMARTE board member, has spent much of his career communicating the intricacies of scientific data – to politicians when he worked on the Victorian Ministerial Reference Council on Climate Change Adaptation and to students as an Associate Professor of Climate Politics and Policy at the University of Melbourne.
“The challenge has been trying to represent the information and also the arguments behind climate change in ways that are extremely accessible,” he says. “Not only accessible intellectually but also accessible emotionally.
“I think a lot of people have realised there’s only so far you can go with facts.”
Dr Christoff says the public is tiring of conversations about climate change if the same facts and images are repeated over and over. It’s important, he says, for artists such as Penelope Davis to think of new ways to connect people to the dangers of climate change.
Penelope Davis’ work in progress at Carlton Connect, LAB-14. Photo: Artist supplied
“She’s created this extraordinarily beautiful and menacing future world that is the product of all our misdemeanours,” he says of the artist’s jellyfish bloom.
“That’s one of the ambiguities of this sort of art,” he says. “It can almost entice you with that future.”
Ms Davis says she started to think about ways artists could work with scientists during her residency at LAB-14, noting that a lot of their research goes unnoticed by the public.
“I think science has this problem, they’ve known all this calamitous information for an awfully long time. But it’s very hard for them to communicate it in a way that doesn’t overwhelm people and make them shut off,” she says.
A good communications strategy is an imperative for climate scientists, who are alarmed by apathetic attitudes to a warming planet.
“Climate change is not really a scientific issue any more, it’s a public issue,” says Professor Ary Hoffman, leader of the Hoffman Group at the University’s Bio21 Molecular Science and BioTechnology Institute. He studies the ways organisms adapt to environmental change.
“How do we convince the public to take it seriously?” he says. “How do you make it meaningful for people so they take action, and at the moment, we are not seeing action being taken.
“It’s clear that we are making very slow progress.”
Professor Hoffman, who uses works of art to emphasise points in his lectures, does believe that good art has a place in the scientific community.
Dr Beale, of Carlton Connect, believes art and science should inform one another, a connection she hopes to encourage at LAB-14. It is there that a sculpturist might work alongside a 3D printing company, or a virtual reality designer alongside a painter.
“The idea of having artists juxtaposed with scientists means you have two very different ways of thinking coming together and when you have that, often new ideas spring from that,” she says.
“In a sense they’re similar,” says Dr Beale. “Both artists and scientists are very experimental, they’re open to new ideas, they work on creating things.”
Banner image: Sea-change. Photo: Simon Strong/Artist supplied
By Alix Bromley
What does the word half-caste mean for people born of two cultures? What are its implications on individuals and communities?
Mariaa Randall, a Bundjalung woman from the far north coast of NSW, decided at a young age that dance was the thing she was going to do. She recently finished her Master of Animateuring at the Victorian College of the Arts.
Her dance work HA LF dares to take a closer look at the progression of Aboriginal identity and challenges the thinking that perpetuates racial segregation.
“I need to have really strong intention as to why I’m dancing.”
HA LF is Mariaa’s story, as told by Eddie Diamandi, a filmmaking graduate from the Victorian College of the Arts.
The project saw VCA film and television graduates team up with artists who have received support through the VicArts Grants program to make short documentaries that go behind the scenes with artists and give an insight into their creative process.
Each week we’ll release a new film in the series in partnership with Lido Cinemas who will be showing the films on the big screen ahead of all evening screenings throughout November and into the summer period.
Watch more in the Generator series: Video: A graphic way to tell the story of tsunami.
By Steve Thomas, Lecturer in Film and Television (Documentary)
As an independent documentary maker, my journey through asylum seeker terrain began in 2002, when I was researching a documentary on the history of the township of Woomera. That research eventuated in Welcome To Woomera (2004), the first of what’s turned out to be a trilogy of films I’ve made touching on the situation and lives of asylum seekers in Australia.
From those films, and the years working on them, I’ve noticed certain patterns and gained first-hand insights.
My second film, Hope (2008), was a collaborative documentary about the life of the late Amal Basry, one of a handful of survivors of the SIEV X people-smuggling disaster of 2001, when 353 people drowned en route to Australia.
This article was first published on VCA & MCM Channel in 2015.
By Alix Bromley
Journalist and author John Bailey traveled with Melbourne-based children’s theatre company Polyglot to Minamisanriku in 2013, a small town in Japan’s Miyagi prefecture that was devastated by the 2011 tsunami.
In his capacity as an arts journalist, John tried to document both the experiences of people and how they were dealing with the aftermath of the tsunami. He turned to the graphic novel, as his art form of choice, working with a large range of illustrators to tell this traumatic story.
“I realised that what I can do, which is put words together, wasn’t enough to tell this story.”
In the Wake of the Wave is John’s story, as told by Irene Metter, a filmmaking graduate from the Victorian College of the Arts.”
The project saw VCA film and television graduates team up with artists who have received support through the VicArts Grants program to make short documentaries that go behind the scenes with artists and give an insight into their creative process.
Each week we’ll release a new film in the series in partnership with Lido Cinemas who will be showing the films on the big screen ahead of all evening screenings throughout November and into the summer period.
Artistic director and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music Professor Jane Davidson is gearing up for a powerful Baroque music enactment of the Passion of Christ, at Melbourne’s iconic St Paul’s Cathedral.
By Sarah Hall
Passion, Lament, Glory, a staging originally devised 15 years ago by Professor Jane Davidson of the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of the Victorian College of the Arts and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, will be brought to life for the first time in Victoria at one of Melbourne’s most iconic cathedrals for two performances at the end of March and start of April.
The work, an enactment of the Passion of Christ that includes aerial artistry, is the second full-scale project to be staged by staff and students of the MCM’s Voice and Early Music Departments, following last year’s hugely successful performance of Marc-Antoine Carpentier’s opera La descente d'Orphée aux enfers (1686).
Now, as then, the artistic team features Professor Davidson as artistic director, and the MCM’s Dr Erin Helyard and Stephen Grant as musical director and choral director respectively. Designer and Victorian College of the Arts alumnus Matthew Adey brings a suitably spectacular dose of visual flair to the proceedings.
The musical centerpiece of the performance will be Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater – an 18th-century meditation on Mary’s suffering during Christ’s crucifixion.
The work’s soprano and alto roles are split between 12 talented female performers – a number that, of course, has a certain Biblical resonance.
“I imagine these twelve women as a close community, like twelve female disciples, supporting Mary and her loss,” says Professor Davidson. “And that’s not accidental. Essentially, I’m trying to attention to the fact that the whole story of Christianity has a very powerful female narrative – even though that’s not something we immediately think about today.”
The project’s themes – love, endurance, suffering, community, and particularly how humans share in grief and sorrow – are universal rather than exclusively religious, says Davidson. “I wanted the work to have that kind of resonance for everyone, whatever their culture or religion.”
Celebrated soprano Jacqueline Porter, an MCM graduate in Music (Performance), will be accompanied by an ensemble of top class Baroque music specialists in Handel’s Salve Regina; while 100 MCM singers will perform excerpts from Handel’s Messiah. It’s probably safe to say the 126-year-old St Paul’s will provide a fitting backdrop for an enactment of this scale.
“Obviously, there’s the historical significance of St Paul’s as a place of worship,” says Professor Davidson. “I think it’s going to be very powerful for everyone in the audience – and for the performers too.”
The performance includes a lot of movement, so not a traditional oratorio-style presentation, says Professor Davidson – an ambition made easier by the fact many of the singers are also trained dancers.
But the most unusual movement spectacle in the piece will be performed by an aerial artist who, thanks to some vigorous rigging now being erected, will take to the gods in the Cathedral towards the end of the work. Award-winning artist Tim Rutty will draw the evening to an appropriate musical and visual high point.
A strong female narrative, breathtaking aerial artistry, beautiful music and massed choral voices reverberating through a spectacular cathedral in the heart of Melbourne – if that seems worthy of your faith, be sure to come along.
Passion, Lament, Glory will be performed at St Paul’s Cathedral, corner of Swanston Street and Flinders Street, Melbourne, on 31 March and 1 April at 7.30pm. Admission: $30 Full / $15 Concession, bookings essential. Please book tickets via EventBrite.
Banner image: Sarah Walker
By Will Temple
Watch a group of musicians perform — whether a chamber quartet or stadium rockers — and you can see a key part of playing together successfully is the subtle interaction and communication involved.
For Dr Grace Thompson, a music therapist, lecturer and researcher at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, it is these interactions that drive her work with children newly diagnosed with autism who find it difficult to connect.
“The child might happily play for hours in their own kind of play but if someone tries to join them they are not so interested in that,” Dr Thompson says.
“This is where, for me, music becomes a really powerful tool, because the children are actually motivated by the music and, almost before they realise it, they are interacting with someone at the same time.”
Dr Thompson, a multi-instrumentalist who has been active musically since childhood, first heard about music therapy after getting into the Melbourne Conservatorium as a singer.
She is now the president of the Australian Music Therapy Association and has spent two decades working in the field in special education and early intervention — usually with children aged between three and four.
The weekly sessions typically involve making music in collaboration with the child and their family in whatever style, and using whatever instruments — from guitar to percussion — they respond to best.
“It’s a really tough time for families and for children,” she says.
“Their children are often quite challenging to engage at that early time after diagnosis so the music is important on a whole range of levels. Some parents will say that music is the only thing that calms their child down.
“Some will say their child interacts more, and some will say that it’s the only thing they can do together with their child and enjoy it and so it’s valuable on that level.
“We know a lot of our earliest interactions as human beings are musical — we don’t come into the world talking, but yet we seek to have connections with people. The ways we do that are often through these non-verbal musical interactions.”
Dr Thompson says the way music works to foster these connections is not fully understood but some of the theories being explored are based on early non-verbal musical communication, where “to be musical is deeply human”.
Others revolve around neuroscience, with music working as a particularly active stimulus to our brains, as shown through MRI experiments.
The types of music we enjoy may also be ones we are exposed to early on — even inside the womb. We also associate different pieces with emotional memories, such as a wedding song that a dementia patient may recognise and respond to at a time when they may not even know their spouse anymore.
Dr Thompson says she returned to research at the University of Melbourne because she found herself committed to providing evidence for what music therapists do. She is currently the Australian site manager for the largest psychosocial trial for autism intervention of any kind.
The global trial involves making music with more than 300 children with autism and their families in nine countries across US, Asia, Europe and the Middle East.
“It’s a truly multicultural perspective we are getting in this study and we are super-excited to see what the results show,” she says. “What we hope to find is what we feel as music therapists — that there is an impact on the social interaction with the children afterwards.
“We don’t expect to cure autism, that’s not our intention, but we are wanting to make a difference in their skills and their development so they can participate in their communities better.
“If they don’t want to interact with you then it is incredibly difficult to do anything else in terms of development and teaching.”
Furthering this “collision of ideas” from the arts and sciences is something Dr Thompson is deeply committed to in her practice.
She has just had a proposal collaborating with the Melbourne Neuroscience Institute’s researchers approved which aims to look into ways to improve a child’s visual attention using music over other kinds of play.
“We have the ‘Music, Minds and Wellbeing’ initiative which is a partnership between the Conservatorium and Neuroscience,” she says. “That connection between art and science is something that is trying to be fostered.
That’s the agenda — to keep working collaboratively.
As an artist and a therapist I have a certain perspective and I need my colleagues in science to be able to pull those theories together.
“For me, the early childhood time is where I focus my research. I want to have the opportunity to make a difference in the trajectory of development. That’s what really inspires me in my work — the potential for that to have a long-ranging impact on the person.”
Dr Erin Helyard has been praised as a virtuosic soloist as well as an inspired and versatile conductor, but his passion for performance goes way beyond the self
My conducting style has been described as “full-bodied” – a bit like a good shiraz. I do occasionally conduct from the pit, but the bulk of what I do is conducting from the harpsichord as they did in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which means I’m playing often with my left hand and beating with my right if needed. My violinist colleagues help too. Nowadays we tend to outsource all that direction to one person who beats and doesn’t make any sound with his or her hands or voice. I find that approach doesn’t work so well for opera from before 1800, which is what I’m fascinated by.
I’m deeply interested in how people can best live examined lives as musicians, and what we’re trying to teach our students. If you study piano, it’s good to learn harpsichord and electric piano and improvisation – not only eighteenth-century music but modern and many other styles besides. Rather than specialising we should be giving people a multiplicity of different skills.
Currently, we’re rehearsing for a student opera, Marc-Antione Charpentier’s La Descente D’orphée Aux Enfers, to be performed in late September. It’s a baroque work that involves many vocalists, which is great because we’ve so many here at the University. The student opera is hopefully going to be an annual event from now on, which is really exciting.
At one stage I thought that, if I didn’t get into academia, I would join the diplomatic corps. A lot of institutions and branches of government look for musicians to employ, because we’re trained to be receptive to other people, we work well in groups and intuit how to subsume ourselves or alternatively make ourselves heard.
Even as a teenager I was fascinated by music of the past and how people played it. I’ve also always loved literature, so it made sense for me to fall in love with opera.
The verb for playing an instrument is also “play” in German and French. If playing ever became odious to me I’d do something else, but I don’t think that would ever happen. Playing music was a great solace to me as a kid because I didn’t have an enormous amount of friends – music was a constant companion.
Haydn – Keyboard Concerto in D major – Australian Haydn Ensemble / Erin Helyard.
Pinchgut Opera was started up by me and another colleague in 2002, after we realised there was no baroque opera in Australia. A lot of Australians leave our shores and don’t come back. But at that point some were returning and we had a critical mass. We’re presenting stuff that’s new in that it’s rarely performed, but it’s also old – it’s a lovely postmodern mix.
I recently restored a vintage bike, an Apollo II, from the early 1980s. I wanted to be able to take care of an object that wasn’t a harpsichord. I took a course and found a vintage bell: I’m hoping my hipster cred is good.
French music of the eighteenth century is really beautiful and very precise. [Jean-Philippe] Rameau (1683-1764) is one of my go-to composers. The music is colourful, with interesting orchestration. You’ll have very bright, distinctive, unusual colours from the two piccolos and the bassoon – a really odd ensemble – and then something much more full-voiced, like a five-part string accompaniment. And with Rameau there’s lots of beautiful dance music as well.
Opera is not a cheap art form, and nowadays we invest the big money in cinema. I’m really excited to be conducting next year’s Adelaide Festival production of Handel’s Saul – it’s a $2 million production, which is an extraordinary investment.
I think the arts funding model will increasingly turn away from government towards private donorship, like the patronage system of old, and there’ll be big winners and big losers when that happens. I try to donate a portion of my salary to “good works”, as it were, and I think the more people who can afford to do that the better.
It’s intensely moving to watch a whole bunch of other human beings trying to enact human drama, to do human “stuff”. I love computer-generated imagery and all that because it’s been created by human beings, but there’s something to be said about a whole bunch of people performing live, warts and all. It’s a great symbol of community, of art. It ennobles us somehow, and I think that’s what gives me hope in dark times.
These days we expect our performances to sound like recordings. But I actually love when people take risks. A perfect performance that doesn’t move me is worse than a less-than-perfect performance that does move me by virtue of the performer’s absolute commitment to the role or to their instrument.
– As told to Paul Dalgarno
Banner image: A Private Performance, by Pio Ricci (1850–1919)/Wikimedia Commons
La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers by Marc-Antoine Charpentier will be presented in a fully-staged version by students and staff of the Early Music Studio and Vocal Area of the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music on 28 and 29 September. Details here.
Associate Professor Nisha Sajnani, from CATRU partner Lesley University, argues for the role of arts therapy in the refugee crisis
The following is an edited extract of Dr Nisha Sajnani’s speech, Arts, identity, and healing in the context of the refugee crisis, at the launch of the University of Melbourne’s Creative Arts Therapy Research Unit (CATRU) on 4 August, 2016. You can also read an interview with Dr Sajnani.
In the context of humanitarian crises, “is art just a frivolous distraction, or can it be used to heal and unify?” That was a question asked by our colleagues at the British Council of the Arts. I think the answer is “both” – although I wouldn’t say “frivolous”.
Making art in all its forms can provide a necessary distraction from the travails of everyday life. But it can also reduce anxiety, break isolation, and challenge the status-quo. The arts therapies involve the intentional use of artistic practices such as drama and theatre, dance and movement, music, writing, and visual art to reduce distress and promote health and wellness in a variety of contexts.
This topic is meaningful to me as the daughter of parents who sought refuge in India, and later emigrated to Malaysia and Canada following the Partition of India, Pakistan and West Bengal.
I found a place to express my voice in the theatre. Each role I played offered new insights and embodied new possibilities. Ensembles that I was a part of or directed offered an experience of belonging.
Themes relating to identity, migration, violence, place, beauty, ethics, and memory are threaded throughout my artistic and written scholarship.
Let's start with some background information on displacement and its effects and then provide a framework and examples of research on the arts and arts therapies with refugees. Many of these examples and more may be found online through a network I host on the arts and displacement.
The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that there are more than 65.3 million forcibly displaced men, women, and children. We are surrounded by images and headlines that reveal contradictory narratives about who has been affected and about how host communities should respond.Dominant narratives tend to reduce public discussion about displacement to the current humanitarian crisis.
Refugees are often cast as burdensome threats to national identity and economy or vulnerable victims in need of intervention.
This binary formulation dismisses the complexities of what it means to be displaced and what it means to belong. It also neglects internally-displaced persons who have struggled to assert their rights over generations before this current crisis, and reveals an empathic deficit in the conversation and a need for shared responsibility.
So what is displacement? And who is a refugee?
The following definitions, taken from the UNHCR, may offer clarification:
An asylum seeker is a person who has fled from his or her country and seeks legal and physical protection (asylum) as a refugee in another country.
A refugee is a person who has fled his or her country and cannot return because of a well-founded fear of persecution due to race, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, gender, political opinion, or membership of a particular social group.
Persecution occurs when human rights violations or threats are sustained or systematic, and governments either fail to protect, or in some cases actively participate in the violations.
An Internally Displaced Person (IDPs) has not crossed a border to find safety. Unlike refugees, IDPs are on the run at home. While they may have fled for similar reasons, IDP’s stay within the borders of their lands and remain under the protection of their government even if that government is the reason for their displacement.
As a result, they are among the most vulnerable to exploitation and violence. Using this definition, many Indigenous groups would fall under this category.
Migrants often choose to improve their lives by finding work, opportunities for education, family reunion, or other reasons. Of course, their choice to move may be motivated by disparities in their home countries.
Immigrants are defined by their choice to settle in the country that they move to.
Of course, with all of those definitions, it is important not to lose sight of intersectionality. Refugees, for example, are never just one thing. They are not a monolithic group but also consist of caregivers, adolescents, older adults, children, skilled professionals, people of differing abilities, artists, people with different gender identities, faiths, sexual orientations, and social status, etc.
THE IMPACT OF DISPLACEMENT
The experience of being dislocated from or within one’s homeland will differ depending on many factors, such as the nature and duration of suffering, the relationship to the perpetrators of violence, the presence of preceding traumatic events, and their experience post trauma.
Time also has an impact over how the experience of displacement and resettlement is expressed over generations.
In the case of asylum seekers, the ways in which people are treated upon arrival will affect their attitude towards their host counties and trust in the institutions and people around them. Other social and economic factors that influence matters include the presence of support before, during and/or after the event(s), and the visa status individuals are granted.
The Refugee Health Service (RHS) of New South Wales has put together an excellent resourcedetailing the persecution faced by displaced persons in their home countries while seeking safety in exile, and as they encounter host communities.
Here are some highlights from the RHS’s 2004 publication Working with Refugees: A Guide for Social Workers:
Their education and careers will have been disrupted.
Many will have experienced or witnessed torture and/or a denial of their human rights to self-determination, work, movement, education, property, leisure, and/or cultural expression.
Many will have left without opportunity to say goodbye to loved-ones or pack their belongings.
Some will have lost family members and friends in the search for safety.
Life in refugee camps is often overcrowded, with food shortages, poor medical care and few opportunities for education, religious practice, or work.
Sexual assault and other forms of gender based violence is endemic in many camps.
Refugees who spend time in detention have twice the risk of depression and three times the risk of traumatic stress compared to refugees who do not. Those with temporary protection visas have seven times the risk for depression and post-traumatic stress disorder compared to refugees with permanent protection visas.
Many are at increased risk of experience isolation as a result of not knowing the language or cultural norms of host countries and as a result of the traumatic event(s) themselves.
It is also critical to examine the impact of displacement on first-responders, caregivers, and host communities. When presented with the enormity of this crisis, it is only natural that each one will be affected. I have heard this referred to as a moral crisis; a period of reckoning in which we come to question our own sense of stability, safety, and responsibility to each other.
RECOVERY THROUGH THE ARTS AND ARTS THERAPIES
I will use the H5 Model of Trauma and Recovery developed by the HPRT as a framework to present research on the use of the arts therapies with refugees, caregivers, and host communities. This framework highlights five overlapping dimensions essential to trauma recovery from studies of refugee populations.
These include attention to humiliation, health promotion, habitat and housing, healing (self-care), and human rights. At the centre of these overlapping dimensions is the trauma story.
First, a word about recovery. Recovery may not seem like an appropriate word in that the experience of loss is paramount for someone who is forcibly displaced. One cannot always regain what is gone or repair what is broken.
I use recovery here to signify the process of developing a new relationship to one’s own person, to other people, to place, and to purpose. Central to this process is the experience of transitioning between the known and unknown, between isolation and social support, and between despair and hope.
Trauma stories, in the words of HPRT director Richard Mollica, “are stories told by survivor patients of distressing and painful personal and social events. Sharing these stories serves a dual function not only of healing the survivor but also of teaching and guiding the listener – and, by extension, society – in healing and survival”.
Arts therapists offer a means of symbolic communication to enable a person or group to access their stories safely. As one art therapist put it, “when trauma happens, children draw”.
The use of art and imaginative play can give people who have experienced unspeakable events an avenue for expression. From a neurobiological perspective, non-verbal approaches can be particularly effective as the capacity to connect feelings with language often compromised by trauma. In another project led by Dr. Rachel Cohen, weaving and textiles are used to support survivors in weaving together a sense of meaning.
Sometimes, myths and fictional stories help us make sense of terrifying events like this comic book created by Svang Tor and Dr. Richard Mollica to help survivors and descendants communicate the circumstances of living under the reign of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.
Nairobi-born London-raised poet, Warsan Shire, found expression through writing and poetry. She captures the experience of being a refugee in the first few lines of her poem:
no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well
Of course, it is important to remember that these aren’t the only stories people carry. As one man reminded me in a project in which the oral histories of survivors of genocide were transformed into performance, “people are not their trauma”, and spaces to share irreverent, humorous, hopeful stories were just as important to share as stories about fear and loss for, in his words, such stories gave him the “strength to endure.”(Sajnani, 2011).
It is also important to remember that silence and a return to tradition may be valued over disclosure in some cultures (Rousseau and Measham cited in Kirmayer et al. 2007).
Caregivers and first-responders also use the arts to give expression to suffering. Such was the case with Martin, a music therapist pictured here with a small lifeless child who remains unidentified.
He said: "I began to sing to comfort myself and to give some kind of expression to this incomprehensible, heart-rending moment. Just six hours ago this child was alive."
Humiliation is the result of violent acts as perpetrators of systemic and interpersonal harm communicate to their victims that they are worthless. Quoting Mollica again:
“Humiliation leads to a total loss of self-respect and can have major impacts on a refugee’s personal and social behaviour, being associated with learned helplessness, leading to a lack of self-efficacy. Often, the state of humiliation is re-created in the camp environment when individuals are not allowed to work, grow food, or make money.”
It is so important for each of us to feel like we have value. Strategies involving refugees with agricultural, culinary, medical, or architectural skills, for example, can remind us that people are more than their legal status.
Initiatives such as the Ownership Project and the Refugee Art Project bring the artwork made by refugees to wider audiences in ways that serve to counter isolation, educate the public, and support the transition from the identify of refugee to that of artist.
Recovering cultural forms that were suppressed during collective violence is one way to assert one’s right to belong in the world. Bringing artists into an exchange with host communities – such as the Somali community in the USA through the Midnimo project or through the Here and Away photo voice project in Canada – can also help to reduce stigma and facilitate relationships based on collaboration, understanding, and mutual respect.
Human rights, as an area, are often overlooked in therapy but are critical as all forms of violence violate a person’s human rights. The right to have past and present experiences of violations recorded and acknowledged is necessary to the pursuit of justice. Justice is a part of healing.
Also implicit in a human rights approach is cultural safety, a term I recently heard used by Richard Frankland, director of the University of Melbourne’s Wilin Centre for Indigenous Arts and Cultural Development.
For example, an art therapy project led by Dr. Savneet Talwar and Sophie Canadé in the USA took the form of a knitting group for women who survived ethnic cleansing in the Bosnian War. Knitting is a culturally embedded form of expression for this group.
In this case and in many instances, this work necessitates translation so that people are able to speak in their chosen language.
Research demonstrates that people who experience adverse events are more likely to die younger, develop chronic illnesses and serious social disabilities.
“Trauma survivors have poorer behavioral health, smoke more, use alcohol and drugs more, exercise less and have poorer eating habits resulting in obesity and the metabolic syndrome. All are risk factors for the development of chronic disease. In other words, trauma generates chronic disease through direct effects and indirect effects through mental illness (PTSD & Depression) and impaired lifestyle” (Mollica, 2014).
The use of puppets, performances, and visual art have been used in refugee camps to raise awareness about health and safety.
HABITAT AND HOUSING
The HPRT uses the word habitat to communicate the totality of the healing environment that is occupied by refugees and traumatised communities. Several groups are exploring the therapeutic use of gardening and camp design to confer a sense of dignity to an often chaotic environment.
Through my work with the HPRT, I have been examining how caregivers cultivate and endeavor to create healing environments.
In a recent project, Mapping Home: A Global Crisis of Place, I co-curated a selection of photographs from 507 first responders and resettlement specialists who were invited to submit a photograph of what constitutes a healing environment for them as they engage in the work that they do.
More than 65% of the photographs depicted scenes from nature which, to me, highlights our responsibilities to sustain that which sustains us. Climate change and displacement are interrelated issues.
Finally, healing, in this context, refers to overall psychological, physical, spiritual, economic, and social health. Our self-healing resources are activated when injured and our neurobiological processes enhanced when reinforced by social support, altruism, work, humour, exercise, and spirituality.
Per the H5 model, “one of the first steps of a traumatised person’s recovery, whether child or adult, is to break his or her social isolation by acknowledging that the forces of self-healing are at work and will ultimately lead to a good outcome, including the return to normal life.
"In this regard, helpers are essential because they can use their empathic skills to reinforce this therapeutic optimism in survivors” (Mollica, 2014).
Here the arts and arts therapies may be particularly useful as a way of promoting a perspective on trauma as a source of powerful transformation and growth.
Dr. Cecile Rousseau and drama therapy colleagues from the Transcultural Psychiatry Institute and the children’s hospital conducted a study using Playback Theatre to support the adjustment of newly arrived adolescents in public schools.
They found that using the structure of this non-scripted theatrical approach “provided a safe environment for expression while not forcing it, allowing children to relate their experiences indirectly through the use of metaphor” and that hope and empowerment arose from the “recognition that learning and growth can come from enduring suffering, witnessing the suffering of others, and experiencing solidarity” (Rousseau and Measham, 2007).
Hillary Rubesin (and colleagues), a current doctoral student who I supervise, drew similar conclusions in a study examining the potential of art therapy with Burmese adolescents resettling in the USA.
THE NEED FOR FURTHER RESEARCH
From a skill-base that integrates intra and interpersonal care with a nuanced understanding of creative expression and aesthetic reception, arts therapists provide useful insights into how art can support healing in the aftermath of collective violence, especially when practised from within a human rights framework.
Attention to the overlapping facets of the H5 model means that therapy (which is often stigmatised and/or seen as a luxury) does not always look the way one might expect.
We need to continue to develop an evidence base for how the arts therapies are specifically making a difference in the lives of those who are displaced, those who care with and for them, and for host communities.
I look forward to advancing our understanding through the programs that I oversee at Lesley University and through our collaboration with the University of Melbourne’s newly-launched Creative Arts Therapies Research Unit.
Dr. Nisha Sajnani, PhD, RDT-BCT is as Associate Professor; Program Director, Global Interdisciplinary Studies; Coordinator, Clinical Mental Health Counseling: Drama Therapy program; and Advisor, Expressive Therapies PhD program at Lesley University. She is also on faculty with New York University where she teaches Arts Based Research and with the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma.
Banner image: Aparna Sindhoor and Teestri Duniya Theatre/ Montreal Life Stories Project
In a world of virtual reality and multi-stranded games narratives, creative manipulation of cinema audiences’ expectations is more important than ever
By Nicolette Freeman, University of Melbourne
Back in 1983, when Sunday night came around, you, like me, might well have tuned in to the iconic ABC TV show, Countdown. So ubiquitous was Countdown, that in Jane Campion’s 1982 short film Peel, dramatic tensions rise considerably when her dysfunctional siblings, waylaid on a country by-road, realise they might not get back to the city in time to tune in to the weekly music show.
And if you were watching Countdown you might remember the show’s first ever computer-enhanced-animation opener, made by two students of the Swinburne School of Film and Television, Sally Pryor and Andrew Quinn.
Countdown introduction. 1984.
When we watch it now that opener looks so retro, but Pryor and Quinn’s design, targeted to the youth market and the associated music industry, captures the future-facing feel of the early 1980s; referencing both the familiar grid pattern dance floors of 70s disco, as well as the aesthetic of the burgeoning video-games industry.
The Swinburne School started its unique tertiary degree in 1966, transferred to the University of Melbourne’s Victorian College of the Arts in 1992, and this year celebrates its golden anniversary.
Film and Television Digital Archive Project Trailer.
Over the decades the school has graduated many Pryors and Quinns – emerging filmmakers hungry to build on the industry they inherited, and talented and motivated enough to create the changes that the next generation would take for granted.
Over the last six weeks we have been publishing a series of articles looking back over the school’s history, its graduates, and the stories of Australian society during those 50 years, as evidenced in the 50 short films by past students being made available to the public for the first time.
In this, the last article of the series, I’d like to focus on what comes next for the school.
Blue Tongue. 2004. Justin Kurzel.
A few short years ago, the buzz was all about 3D, but already that has abated and we rarely see 3D versions of films on offer. Today the conversation gravitates to either VR/AR (Virtual Reality/Augmented Reality) or games. Internationally, the screen-based games industry is worth roughly twice as much as feature films’ box office. The feature-film version of a game is even regarded by some as mere marketing for the game’s release.
The school’s first interactive computer game made by a student was Martin Gardiner’s Monkey Antics, in 1989. We probably don’t even have the technology to play it now.
I recently attended a VR/AR presentation at one of the city’s private animation and digital design schools. Sharp young code writers and computer programmers told of their difficulty in leading and influencing their viewers’ attention in a story world that has infinite horizons.
Celebrating 50 Years of Film and Television.
These new program-makers are crawling towards a mastery of storytelling and audience manipulation, at a snail’s pace compared to the dexterity and capability of their coding sophistication.
Sitting among them, I imagined being with cinema’s earliest pioneers and audiences – in one of those auditoriums where the viewers ran for the doors when a locomotive headed for them from out of the screen, as was reputedly the case with the Lumiere Brothers’ The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station (1895).
Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat. 1895. The Lumiere Brothers.
Coincidentally, another of the school’s graduates, Daniel Crooks (Graduate Diploma Animation 1994), has recently exhibited his latest work Phantom Ride, an imaginative and technically complex piece, during this, our anniversary year.
Daniel’s student film Food For Thought (below) has recently been digitised and is being released as one of the 50 films showcasing the range of the school’s work.
So how is the school addressing these newest forms of screen-based storytelling in its curriculum? Well, it might seem strange, but it is principally in the discipline of screenwriting.
Food for Thought. 1994. Daniel Crooks.
Our two newest degrees are a Bachelor of Fine Arts: Screenwriting and a Masters of Screenwriting, degrees that focus on the fundamental skills of good storytelling, of what captures an audience – skills as old as time, certainly from a pre-cinema world – and yet skills that are needed today in an expanding array of mediums.
In this world of virtual reality and multi-stranded games narratives, clever and creative manipulation of the audience’s engagement with the action and story is more important than ever.
It is exciting to consider where and how the mechanics of digital games will enable storytelling to develop, and particularly the audience’s part in that storytelling.
The audience/player now has unprecedented agency, acting as the protagonist, and is able to influence the story’s direction with their choices and reactions. This gives the audience/player a real and visceral feeling of having their own unique part in creating the story, while still sharing the story world with the broader audience and community of players.
As the school’s anniversary year comes to a close, many eyes and ears will tune in with great excitement for one of the major screen releases of the year, Assassin’s Creed: The Movie (2016).
This first installment in a planned trilogy is the highly-anticipated feature film adaptation of the phenomenally successful Assassin’s Creed computer games. Game devotees are already scrutinising whether their beloved games characters will appear in the film version.
With a budget somewhere in the vicinity of US$200 million, the film stars Michael Fassbender, who, as the film’s producer, chose as his director and cinematographer VCA Film and Television alumnus Justin Kurzel (Graduate Diploma Film and Television 2004: Blue Tongue) and Adam Arkapaw (Bachelor of Film and Television 2005: Catch Fish).
Catch Fish. 2005. Adam Arkapaw.
The three collaborated on Macbeth (2015), Kurzel’s screen adaptation of the Scottish Story, originally written for the stage over 400 years ago by Shakespeare.
Which all just goes to show that story is possibly still the world’s most fluid and enduring medium. As we, as a screen-based storytelling school, consider our move into the next 50 years, we would be wise to continue to foreground and treasure this ancient instrument, in order to best prepare our students for the yet-to-be-invented storytelling technologies of the future.
Banner image: Still from Blue Tongue. 2004. Justin Kurzel.
This is the seventh article in a series to mark the Golden Anniversary of Film and Television at the Victorian College of the Arts.See Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five and Part Six. Visit the Film and Television 50th Anniversary website and Digital Archive website for more information.
Emeritus Professor Denise Grocke initiated Music Therapy as a discipline in Australia in the face of stern opposition. Now she’s been honoured with an Order of Australia.
I’m in awe at being awarded the Order of Australia (AO). I looked it up and they’re usually for brain surgeons and politicians, not people like me. I believe, at the ceremony later this year, I’ll be given a medal to wear on official occasions, but I think there’s also a lapel badge you can wear at any time.
My two older sisters and I learnt the piano, my mother was a singer, my father was a pianist and an organist. We’d joke that we didn’t have a lot of family conversation because there was always music playing. I grew up knowing all the symphonies, piano and violin concertos. I came to the University of Melbourne in 1964 to do a Bachelor of Music, and thought I would end up being a school teacher.
I grew up in a fairly staunch Methodist family, with values of being concerned for other people.
In my third year at Melbourne I read a journal article about using music with children who were deaf. I thought: “That’s ridiculous, they can’t hear.” But that idea just took my imagination. Funnily, it’s about the only area of music therapy I didn’t end up practising.
The only place I could train as a music therapist was in America. I went to Michigan State University in 1968 to do a second Bachelor of Music degree, majoring in music therapy. I completed a six-month internship at Detroit’s Northville Psychiatric Hospital, a facility for 1,500 people, the majority of whom were black Americans. That was a huge culture shock – the only songs I knew were the English folk songs from my upbringing.
I came back to Melbourne armed with all this knowledge, but few people had heard of music therapy. One of the University professors, Dr Percy Jones, put me in touch with Dr Kahans, who had been trialling psychoaesthetics at Larundel psychiatric hospital in Bundoora, using various creative arts.
I worked at Larundel for ten years. Initially, I tried practising on all of the wards and coined the term “conveyor belt music therapy”. But then I started to work more specifically with adolescents with drug and alcohol addictions. I had a strong connection with people with schizophrenia. They were often in some other world. Through music, I tried to offer something that would draw them out, just for a bit.
I initiated Australia’s first music therapy course at the University of Melbourne in 1978, again with the encouragement of Dr Percy Jones. There was quite a bit of antagonism – some argued it shouldn’t be at a university because there wasn’t much research. Now, in 2016, the music therapy team brings in millions of dollars a year in research funding.
I narrowed my focus, taught my students, got jobs for them, set up a professional association. In a funny way the derogatory comments kept me going. It was a mother-hen kind of thing. I had to keep my chicks together, protect them.
Master of Music Therapy graduate (2011) Priscilla Pek discusses how Music Therapy helps sick children through creativity to make choices, have control of their environment again and socialise with other children.
My main area of practice is Guided Imagery and Music (GIM), a form of music psychotherapy. Periodically, throughout our lives, we ask ourselves: what is my identity now? Who am I? GIM provides a way for people to determine the coherence of what their values are and how they’re living, and what, if anything, needs to change.
In 1990 I introduced a graduate diploma in music therapy at the University of Melbourne, and then, in 2006, we converted the training to a course-work Masters degree. Last year they took in 33 students, which is the largest group to date.
Some music therapists have written about working in palliative care wards, playing music as a person lies there, their family surrounding them, taking their last breaths. That’s extraordinary, spine-tingling, privileged work – the person drifts away as the music is playing.
I derive more pleasure from music now, and it’s certainly my closest friend. Since retiring in 2012 I’ve been a lot more involved in the community, playing for community choirs. For years, the only keyboard I touched was the computer keyboard, so it’s been nice to get back to that.
Other than music, my great loves are my children and grandchildren. My daughter and her husband have twin boys, my son and his wife have two girls. I’m coming up to a very significant birthday and am taking everyone to Hawaii.
When people are admitted to hospital these days they can tick a box to say they’d like to receive music therapy. I have a sense now that the field is rock-solid, whereas in the 1980s it was more a question of: “My god, will this survive?” It’s really gratifying to see how things have developed.
– As told to Paul Dalgarno
Banner image: Sascha Kohlmann/Flickr
By Katherine Smith
Here’s a challenge: take a book with very little dialogue, a book that has birds and war as its two dominant themes, that begins in Queensland and ends on the Western Front, and is much beloved by readers. Then turn it into a one-hour opera.
Composer and University of Melbourne academic Elliott Gyger has done just that with Fly Away Peter, an adaptation of David Malouf’s classic Australian novella of the same name.
The opera was completed earlier this year and after a successful May run in Sydney, will be on stage in the Fairfax Studio as part of the 2015 Melbourne Festival.
Dr Gyger, who teaches in the Composition section at the Melbourne Conservatorium, says he’s not sure exactly why, but in opera, there are rarely any “new” stories.
“For some reason contemporary operas, and in fact even the really well known older operas, are almost all adaptations. There are very few operas that are a completely original script.”
He says libretti (the words that accompany the music in opera and convey the narrative) are strange beasts.
“The text tells a story with characters but it’s certainly not a play script. And it has to have poetry in it, but it can’t be self-contained poetry. It has to leave space for music.
“Malouf’s writing is very musical, very poetic. He’s interested in opera himself, and has even written libretti, although this is the first opera based on one of his own books. And he’s a patron of Sydney Chamber Opera, who debuted this piece, so there were some nice synergies there.”
Dr Gyger says audiences for new operas are small, as they are for new (classical) music in general, but that people respond very directly to it.
“Opera is a very immediate medium, or it can be.”
Fly Away Peter is Dr Gyger’s first opera, although he explains he grew up getting to know all the classic operas, influenced by his parents who were great opera buffs.
“At some point I found the historical nature of opera off-putting, even absurd. It just doesn’t make sense to people: people don’t sing to each other.”
“But what opera’s really great at is voicing internal states of mind and emotion. What brings traditional operas to life is not so much the dramatic exchange of what is actually happening, it’s the arias where the characters are pouring out their souls that are the real heart of opera.
“Musicals make this even clearer than opera, where most of the dialogue takes place with the spoken word, and is quasi realistic, and then suddenly the character launches into song, and you’re taken to another space: it’s their imagination, or the inside of their head and they’re conveying emotions which are too impassioned for mere words.”
The biggest challenge the Fly Away Peter story presented to the creative team was putting World War 1 on stage, something Dr Gyger says was “clearly impossible”.
“We had to find a way to portray the soldiers that Jim, the main character, interacts with. So the tenor needed to play several characters, one by one. It relies on a really good actor, because there’s no time for costume changes and the like, it’s all done with body language and expression.”
For a show like Fly Away Peter, Dr Gyger says voice and acting skills are equally important.
“With such a small cast there’s nowhere to hide. You have none of the spectacle of an opera with a cast of thousands, big expensive sets, and elephants on stage.
“You’ve got three people who have to carry the whole show for over an hour just with the power of their acting and their voices.”
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