Let There Be Light

Q: What do a selection of 19th century oil paintings, a 50-year old piece of 16mm film, and a 21st century carpet have in common?

A: They are all exhibits in ACMI’s winter show, “Light”, based on works from the Tate’s Collection.

Image: James Turrell, “Raemar, Blue” (1969) on display at ACMI (Photo by Rory Manchee)

Despite ACMI’s brief to showcase the moving image, only three of the art works in the exhibition consist of film. A few more incorporate movement in the form of kinetic sculptures. But otherwise, this is mostly a collection of paintings and photography (and yes, a carpet).

Does it work? Yes, because just as light can be regarded as an essential building material, the use, portrayal and capture of light is essential to render colour, shadow, depth, perspective and narrative in all forms of art.

Arranged thematically, by theory or technique of how light is represented and rendered in art, the exhibition is both diverse and cohesive. It avoids the risk of overload because the selection is quite compact (given the wide remit of the topic). It also avoids choosing works based on technical prowess alone. Therefore, the exhibition succeeds through the combined principles of quality over quantity, and content over form.

It was timely to see mention of The Enlightenment as a key source of artistic exploration, as well as being a driver in the fields of of scientific discovery and liberalism. The exchange of ideas between and across different disciplines has always been essential to progress in the sciences, the arts and the humanities.

My favourite exhibits among the works I hadn’t seen before were by Olafur Eliason, Lis Rhodes and Peter Sedgley. And it’s always a pleasure to immerse yourself in one of James Turrell‘s installations. The only slight disappointment was that visitors are kept at quite a distance from Yayoi Kusama‘s The Passing Winter, an intriguing cube-shaped sculpture that is like one of her infinity rooms in miniature. The last time I saw it in London, it was possible to peer right in to get the full effect.

All in all, highly recommended.

Next week: Hands on the wheel

Literary triggers

Reading for pleasure should be a joy in itself. But to read a book and then be drawn into somewhat tangential (and even trivial) thoughts triggered by personal recollections is an added bonus.

That was partly my reaction when reading Jonathan Coe’s marvelous novel “Mr Wilder and Me”. Ostensibly a fictional account about the making of one of Billy Wilder’s final films, set in Greece and France in the mid-1970s, it manages to incorporate many themes – Hollywood, the creative process, migration, family, the Holocaust, ageing, travel – without selling any of them short. Happily, it’s now being made into a film itself, which confirms the strong narrative at the core of the book. I look forward to seeing it when it is released.

For myself, the novel prompted three travel-related memories:

1. Just like a key time in the novel, my first visit to Greece was also a few years after the collapse of the military junta – currency restrictions, banks only open a couple of hours a day, rationing of hot water in the hostel where I was staying, and construction projects abandoned unfinished because of their association with the military regime

2. The narrator’s love of cheese, stemming from an impromptu visit to a Brie maker, brought back memories of many trips to Paris in the 80s and 90s, and visits to bars like La Tartine, and trying the different types of crottin

3. On my first trip to California, I was fortunate enough to have drinks at the Hotel del Coronado, the setting for Billy Wilder’s most famous film, “Some Like It Hot”, and an iconic resort facility in San Diego Bay.

Seemingly unconnected, yet all evoked by a single work of fiction.

Next week: Let There Be Light

Renzo Piano & the Centro Botín

In March this year, the Victorian Government unveiled the winning concept design for the NGV Contemporary, a new centre for art and design, forming part of the planned revamp of the Arts Precinct on Melbourne’s Southbank. Due to open in 2028, The Fox: NGV Contemporary (to give it’s full name, thanks to the benevolence of trucking magnate and close acquaintance of Premier Daniel Andrews, Lindsay Fox) is being heralded as an iconic, nation-defining statement in support of Melbourne’s claim to be the cultural centre of Australia. So far, so good – but I can’t help feeling the design competition has been conducted with some undue haste: Expressions of Interest were sought in March 2021, with a one-week registration deadline. The competition for Stage One of the project closed in August 2021, and Stage Two in November 2021, with the winning team announced in March 2022, barely 12 months from the EOI. Why the hurry (especially as Melbourne was in lockdown for much of that time), and up to now, there does not appear to have been any public consultation in the design process.

The Centro Botín, Santander, designed by Renzo Piano (image sourced from Wikimedia)

Contrast this with the design of the Centro Botín in Santander, Spain, by Italian architect Renzo Piano, whose story is told in an absorbing documentary, “Renzo Piano: The Architect of Light”. First, neither the architect nor the sponsoring Botín Foundation had any aspirations of creating an “iconic building”; instead, the goal was to have as minimal physical impact as possible, while reclaiming an area of land and returning it to public use. Second, there was a public consultation process, to overcome concerns expressed by some nearby residents. Third, while the documentary has no doubt been artfully edited, it does provide extensive “behind the scenes” access to the design and construction process over its 7-year development, which included a 3-year delay in completion. The fact that this was a private commission rather than a competition may account for this approach, but there was still a great deal of negotiation with municipal and community stakeholders.

The documentary itself is notable not only for the degree of transparency (we observe meetings between architect, client and project managers throughout the process), but also for the simplicity of its narrative, and the wise decision to dispense with any voiceover commentary – the subjects are allowed to speak for themselves. There are also references to cultural icons such as novelist Italo Calvino and film-maker Roberto Rossellini. The use of Mahler’s ‘Symphony No. 5’ in the soundtrack underlines Renzo Piano’s fascination with light as a construction material, as important to him as glass, concrete and steel – the music is most famously associated with the film of ‘Death in Venice’, a city renowned for its light.

If the primary inspiration for the design of the Centro Botín is light (and lightness of construction), I’m struggling, based on the available evidence, to see what the inspiration is for the NGV Contemporary. Despite being a statement about “art and design”, I fear that this project is as much about political statements and lasting personal legacies. Much has been made about the potential job creation during its construction, but much less about the design principles and aesthetic objectives. I hope this project does not turn into a municipal white elephant.

The original NGV (now referred to as NGV International) is a landmark building and one of the most popular destinations in Melbourne. I have known it most of my life, having first visited it aged 10, when it left an indelible impression on me. Having lived in Melbourne the past 20 years, I have been a regular visitor since it was extensively refurbished in 2003. As part of the Arts Precinct, the NGV is a focal point for the city’s cultural activities, and is a major draw card for local and international visitors. Any enhancement of the NGV and the surrounding facilities is generally to be welcomed, and certainly there are parts of the precinct that could do with upgrading. However, I’m not sure the design for the NGV Contemporary is the right decision.

Aside from the hastiness shown by the NGV Contemporary’s design phase, I’m surprised that the winning design team, Angelo Candalepas and Associates, do not appear to have built any comparable projects, despite winning multiple awards for their past work. The Candalepas studio has designed many residential buildings (and I lived very happily in one of their first competition successes, ‘The Point’ in Sydney’s inner city suburb of Pyrmont), but as far as I can see, nothing on the scale, significance or importance as NGV Contemporary. The proposed design looks very “blocky”, notwithstanding the internal “spherical hall”, which is highly reminiscent of New York’s Guggenheim Museum. It’s also not clear what the spacial relationship will be with the existing NGV and other neighbouring buildings, nor whether any of them will need to be remodelled or demolished to make way for this latest addition. I’ve tried, without success, to find a map or ground plan of the proposed development, or any details on how the NGV Contemporary will be accessed from adjacent streets, other than via a new garden that appears to envelop the NGV International – so what existing land will this garden occupy, and what current facilities might be lost in the process?

In conclusion, since its opening in 2017, the Centro Botín appears to have been enthusiastically embraced by the residents of Santander, and manages to be both utterly modern and easily accessible, unlike so many other examples of “statement” architecture. I hope we will see a similar outcome for NGV Contemporary.

Next week: Mopping up after the LNP

Free speech up for sale

When I was planning to post this article a couple of weeks ago, Elon Musk’s bid to buy Twitter and take it into private ownership was looking unlikely to succeed. Musk had just declined to take up the offer of a seat on the Twitter board, following which the board adopted a poison-pill defence against a hostile takeover. And just as I was about to go to press at my usual time, the news broke that the original bid had now been accepted by the board, so I hit the pause button instead and waited a day to see what the public reaction was. What a difference 72 hours (and US$44bn) can make… It seems “free speech” does indeed come with a price.

Of course, the Twitter transaction is still subject to shareholder approval and regulatory clearance, as well as confirmation of the funding structure, since Musk is having to raise about half the stated purchase from banks.

Musk’s stated objective in acquiring Twitter was highlighted in a press release put out by the company:

“Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated,” said Mr. Musk. “I also want to make Twitter better than ever by enhancing the product with new features, making the algorithms open source to increase trust, defeating the spam bots, and authenticating all humans. Twitter has tremendous potential – I look forward to working with the company and the community of users to unlock it.”

This latest development in Musk’s apparent love/hate relationship with Twitter is bound to further divide existing users as to the billionaire’s intentions, as well as raise concerns about the broader implications for free speech. Musk himself has encouraged his “worst critics” to stay with the platform. Meanwhile, founder and former CEO, Jack Dorsey has renewed his love of Twitter, despite only recently stepping away from the top job to spend more time on his other interests.

Personally, I’m not overly concerned that a platform such as Twitter is in private hands or under single ownership (subject, of course, to anti-trust rules, etc.). Far from creating an entrenched monopoly, it may actually encourage more competition by those who decide to opt out of Twitter. What I am less comfortable with is the notion that Twitter somehow acts as an exemplar of free speech, and as such, is a bastion of democracy.

On the positive side, we will be able to judge the veracity of Musk’s objectives against his actual deeds. For example, will Twitter actually introduce an edit button, make its algorithms open-source, exorcise the spam bots, verify users, and reduce/remove the platform’s reliance upon advertising?

On the negative side, what credible stance will Twitter now take on “free speech”, short of allowing an “anything goes” policy? If Musk is sincere that Twitter will be a platform for debating “matters vital to the future of humanity”, he may need to modify what he means by public discourse. Personal slanging matches with fellow-billionaires (and those less-able to defend themselves) do not make for an edifying public debating forum. Musk’s own disclosures about Twitter and his other business interests will also come under increased scrutiny. We know from past experience that Elon’s Tweets can move markets, and for this alone he should be aware of the responsibility that comes with ownership of the platform.

We have long understood that free speech is not the same as an unfettered right to say what you like in public – there are limits to freedom of expression, including accountability for the consequences of our words and actions, especially where they can cause harm. The broader challenges we face are:

  • technology outpacing regulation, when it comes to social media
  • defining what it means to “cause offence”
  • increased attacks on “mainstream media” and threats to freedom of the press

1. Just as the printing press, telegraphy, telephony, broadcasting and the internet each resulted in legislative changes, social media has continued to test the boundaries of regulation under which its predecessors now operate. Hitherto, much of the regulation that applies to social and digital media relates to privacy and data protection, as well as the existing law of defamation. But the latter varies considerably by jurisdiction, and by access to redress, and availability of remedies. Social media platforms have resisted attempts to treat them as traditional media (newspapers and broadcasters, which are subject to licensing and/or industry codes of practice) or treat them as publishers (and therefore responsible for content published on their platforms). (Then there is the question of how some social media platforms manage their tax affairs in the countries where they derive their revenue.)

The Australian government is attempting to challenge social media companies in a couple of ways. The first has been to force these platforms to pay for third-party news content from which they directly and indirectly generate advertising income. The second aims to hold social media more accountable for defamatory content published on their platforms, and remove the protection of “anonymity”. However, the former might be seen as a (belated) reaction to changing business models, and largely acting in favour of incumbents; while the latter is a technical response to the complex law of defamation in the digital age.

2. The ability to be offended by what we see or hear on social media is now at such a low bar as to be almost meaningless. During previous battles over censorship in print, on stage or on screen, the argument could be made that, “if you don’t like something you aren’t being forced to watch it”, so maybe you are deliberately going in search of content just to find it offensive. The problem is, social media by its very nature is more pervasive and, fed by hidden algorithms, is actually more invasive than traditional print and broadcast media. Even as a casual, passive or innocent user, you cannot avoid seeing something that may “offend” you. Economic and technical barriers to entry are likewise so low, that anyone and everyone can have their say on social media.

Leaving aside defamation laws, the concept of “hate speech” is being used to target content which is designed to advocate violence, or can be reasonably deemed or expected to have provoked violence or the threat of harm (personal, social or economic). I have problems with how we define hate speech in the current environment of public commentary and social media platforms, since the causal link between intent and consequence is not always that easy to establish.

However, I think we can agree that the use of content to vilify others simply based on their race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, economic status, political affiliation or religious identity cannot be defended on the grounds of “free speech”, “fair comment” or “personal belief”. Yet how do we discourage such diatribes without accusations of censorship or authoritarianism, and how do we establish workable remedies to curtail the harmful effects of “hate speech” without infringing our civil liberties?

Overall, there is a need to establish the author’s intent (their purpose as well as any justification), plus apply a “reasonable person” standard, one that does not simply affirm confirmation bias of one sector of society against another. We must recognise that hiding behind our personal ideology cannot be an acceptable defence against facing the consequences of our actions.

3. I think it’s problematic that large sections of the traditional media have hardly covered themselves in glory when it comes to their ethical standards, and their willingness to misuse their public platforms, economic power and political influence to undertake nefarious behaviour and/or deny any responsibility for their actions. Think of the UK’s phone hacking scandals, which resulted in one press baron being deemed “unfit to run a company”, as well as leading to the closure of a major newspaper.

That said, it hardly justifies the attempts by some governments, populist leaders and authoritarian regimes to continuously undermine the integrity of the fourth estate. It certainly doesn’t warrant the prosecution and persecution of journalists who are simply trying to do their job, nor attacks and bans on the media unless they “tow the party line”.

Which brings me back to Twitter, and its responsibility in helping to preserve free speech, while preventing its platform being hijacked for the purposes of vilification and incitement to cause harm. If its new owner is serious about furthering public debate and mature discourse, then here are a few other enhancements he might want to consider:

  • in addition to an edit button, a “cooling off” period whereby users are given the opportunity to reconsider a like, a post or a retweet, based on user feedback or community interaction – after which time, they might be deemed responsible for the content as if they were the original author (potentially a way to mitigate “pile-ons”)
  • signing up to a recognised industry code of ethics, including a victim’s formal right of reply, access to mediation, and enforcement procedures and penalties against perpetrators who continually cross the line into vilification, or engage in content that explicitly or implicitly advocates violence or harm
  • a more robust fact-checking process and a policy of “truth in advertising” when it comes to claims or accusations made by or on behalf of politicians, political parties, or those seeking elected office
  • clearer delineation between content which is mere opinion, content which is in the nature of a public service (e.g., emergencies and natural disasters), content which is deemed part of a company’s public disclosure obligations, content which is advertorial, content which is on behalf of a political party or candidate, and content which is purely for entertainment purposes only (removing the bots may not be enough)
  • consideration of establishing an independent editorial board that can also advocate on behalf of alleged victims of vilification, and act as the initial arbiter of “public interest” matters (such as privacy, data protection, whistle-blowers etc.)

Finally, if Twitter is going to remove/reduce advertising, what will the commercial model look like?

Next week: The Crypto Conversation