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Curious, Mysterious, Marvellous, Electrical: All We Leave Are The Memories

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Brisbane’s weird, in the best way. They’ve got portals into the past – actual physical gateways. Years ago, they had state-sponsored magicians who could make buildings disappear overnight. Their job was to erase the city’s history. These things happened right in the middle of town.

It’s all documented. The magic’s fading now, and when I first heard the stories, I assumed it was just people exaggerating. But I work in an archive, the place where records are kept, and it turns out Brisbane’s magic is real.

Check it out over at Curious, Mysterious, Marvellous, Electrical.

Curious, Mysterious, Marvellous, Electrical: Dinner at the Circus

You can subscribe to the Curious, Mysterious, Marvellous, Electrical newsletter here.

This week’s newsletter features an interview with Dale Woodbridge-Brown, acrobat and ringmaster at Circus Oz.

While Dale gave me an unusual Australian cookery lesson, we talked about sport, storytelling, country childhoods, and indigenous identity.

Check it out over at Curious, Mysterious, Marvellous, Electrical.

Dulwich Picture Gallery – 3D biographical comics

You can now see video from last month’s event “Your Mind Is The Scene Of The Crime” at Dulwich Picture Gallery in London.

Inspired by the work of M.C. Escher, the event saw teens exploring comics and biography through thirty boxes containing text and images from the life of a mysterious woman.

Teens discuss biographical comics at Dulwich Picture Gallery

Over the course of a two-hour session, participants transformed the thirty boxes into individual artworks which together formed a biographical installation: a three-dimensional comic book which used perspective and storytelling to respond to the facts and feelings of a stranger’s life.

Read more about Escher, Dulwich, and Your Mind Is The Scene Of The Crime here.

Curious, Mysterious, Marvellous, Electrical: The Butcher of Mungindi

You can read this week’s Curious, Mysterious, Marvellous, Electrical newsletter here.

Last week I set off on a 1000 kilometre road trip across rural Australia on a kind of impulse Bowie pilgrimage.

I didn’t get to my destination, but found myself at the border between Queensland and New South Wales: a land of cotton farms, ice, drought, and drama.

The night time streets of Mungindi, on the border of Queensland and New South Wales

I learned about beer and butchery, drugs and irrigation, the ballad of Kelly and Red, plus timezones, crime, and the One Ton Peg in the thick of the bush.

You can learn about those things too, over at Curious, Mysterious, Marvellous, Electrical.

Curious, Mysterious, Marvellous, Electrical: Bowie at the Aussie Borderlands

You can read this week’s full newsletter here.

David Bowie performing in the 1980s

I was seriously late to discover David Bowie. When I was a kid, I didn’t like him very much; I was born in 1980, so the Bowie I grew up with was a pretty mainstream pop star, like Elton John or Cher. I remember the Bowie of Live Aid and “Dancing In The Streets”, not Ziggy Stardust or the Berlin years, and I hadn’t been around for the extraterrestrial visitations of the 70s, when he’d blown away a generation of kids desperate to know it was okay to be different.

A post by the writer Javier Grillo-Marxuach reminded me this week that the whole point of mid-Eighties Bowie was to be mainstream that way. He explained that his favourite Bowie track was the middle-of-the-road “Modern Love”:

my favorite bowie song is “modern love”: it proves that bowie’s art sprang from complete mastery of form. it was bowie declaring that just in case anyone thought he hadn’t written a perfect, chart-busting, commercial radio-friendly, movie-soundtrack baiting song that would make elton john blush with envy, it was purely by choice.

Dave Thompson’s Hallo Spaceboy quotes Bowie himself on the same era:  “‘Let’s Dance’ put me in an extremely different orbit… artistically and aesthetically. It seemed obvious that the way to make money was to give people what they want, so I gave them what they wanted, and it dried me up.”

I guess I just hadn’t realised, as a little kid, that in seeing mainstream Bowie, I was missing the other chapters of his story.*

When I got into young adulthood, I started to ask new questions: who was it okay to kiss, to love; who was allowed to paint their nails, their lips, colour their hair. Now Bowie’s value as a star to navigate by – discussed beautifully by Stella Duffy here – became clear to me.

I was surprised how much I felt his death this week. Not so much because he was currently at a creative peak, but because he was a truly heroic figure for any of us who ever wondered about the ways you could choose to be different.

I heard the news of his death while I was en route from Europe to Australia. After landing, I spent my first couple of days in Australia on a kind of Bowie pilgrimage through the long, arid stretches of rural Queensland and New South Wales. The video for “Let’s Dance”, Bowie’s most successful and mainstream song, was shot in country Australia in 1983.

You can read about what happened on my trip at this week’s Curious, Mysterious, Marvellous, Electrical. You can also subscribe to the newsletter here for ongoing weekly updates.

*As a child, I probably preferred Midge Ure and Ultravox to Bowie, which doubtless says terrible things about me – except you can read Leigh Alexander writing brilliantly about 80s nostalgia, video games, and Midge Ure’s cover of The Man Who Sold The World here

Zoe Toft’s New Year’s Resolutions

I don’t think I’ve ever been mentioned in someone’s New Year’s Resolutions before, but the great book blogger Zoe Toft mentioned me in her blog on plans and schemes for 2016, which include running a Fun Palace this coming October.

Playing by the Book banner image - children with books and toys

Zoe writes brilliantly on children’s literature and devises amazing hands-on activities for kids, like this post on activities to tie in with Aina Bestard’s What’s Hidden In The Woods, which also manages to sneak a New Year’s appropriate Johnny Cash song into the mix.

I also love Zoe’s idea of collecting leaves in the woods using sandwich boards; I guess that’s my lifelong love of forest adventures showing.

Go and visit Zoe’s site Playing By The Book for more – and if you live in the Midlands of England, maybe you could team up for a Fun Palace too.

Curious, Mysterious, Marvellous, Electrical: An E-mail Newsletter

In January 2016, I start my role as Creative in Residence for the State Library of Queensland, Australia.

A man riding a goat over a high jump in Blackall, Queensland, 1905

Tiger the goat makes a record high jump – State Library of Queensland Archives

As part of this new adventure, I’ll be launching a weekly e-mail newsletter called Curious, Mysterious, Marvellous, Electrical. In it, I’ll share some of the things I find on my journey through the past, present, and future of Australia’s Sunshine State.

To join up, visit – the first newsletter will go out on Saturday, 9th January.


Dulwich Picture Gallery, “Your Mind Is The Scene of the Crime”

Today I’m running an event for Dulwich Picture Gallery’s Off The Wall series of teen workshops. Dulwich is the oldest purpose-built public art gallery in the world and this year I’ve been working with them on outreach events which address 21st century challenges in making art with communities.

M.C. Escher, Hand with Reflecting Sphere

M.C. Escher, Hand with Reflecting Sphere

Today’s event, Your Mind Is The Scene of the Crime, is linked to Dulwich’s current exhibition of M.C. Escher’s work, which was put together by the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.

Escher is currently undergoing something of a reevaluation, as Darran Anderson captures in his review of the exhibition.  The artist, once seen as a creator of mere visual tricks, more suited to student-dorm posters and video game designs than critical interrogation, might now be recognised as influential and intriguing in ways we’d previously overlooked. This process of recognising the artist and his works afresh has parallels to the work of detectives re-opening a cold case; returning to the accumulated files, seeking new evidence, and trying to see it all from a fresh perspective.

Solving crimes is never really about arriving at a final truth; it’s about making a story which more closely and convincingly tends to the evidence at hand. This process also applies to the business of art history, and the activities which ran at Dulwich today.

Critical examination of Escher’s biography plays a part in our reopened investigation. Divorced from context, sold as a poster, used as the background of an old video game, an Escher landscape can look impersonal, technical, heartless. Nowadays, however, we recognise the ways in which Escher’s mindscapes are grounded in personal experience and observation. His youthful travels in Italy seem to have informed works like Belvedere; Escher’s visit to the Alhambra in Spain shaped his later explorations of pattern and tessellation. Micky Piller, curator of the Escher Museum in the Hague, recently discovered that many architectural elements from the artist’s “impossible worlds” can be found in the stairwells of Escher’s old high school.

For young people creating art, Escher offers a range of possible paths to explore. His Italian and Arabic influences demonstrate the way that leaving home for travel and adventure can provoke and inspire deeper reflection. At the same time, the fact that Escher returned to, and spent most of his life in, the Dutch town of Baarn reminds us that wonder can be generated in even the most ordinary of settings. In an age when we are increasingly preoccupied with the need for technological skills and scientific thinking, Escher reminds us that mathematics, science, and technology are always grounded in feeling, in human possibility, in a sense of wonder. As Anderson puts it:

The view of mathematics and science as purely and coldly intellectual exercises is exposed as inaccurate in Escher’s work; they are at work everywhere in nature; indeed, they are how we interpret the cosmos.

Countless books, movies, and shows from Harry Potter to Labyrinth and Doctor Who (which named an episode after Escher’s Castrovalva) have helped us to explore Escher’s cosmos by placing characters within their impossible architecture, lending life and motion to his precise, troubling geometries.

The figure of Escher, “modest yet colossal”, challenges our ongoing attempts to pigeonhole creative work. He is at once popular and ubiquitous to the point of banality, yet also marginal, his work set aside by the art-critical establishment. If his work has been dismissed on occasion as a “juvenile curiosity”, perhaps we should think on the current debate in which literary critics disparage YA literature, written for adolescents. Juvenilia has never been a weaker term of critical disparagement, in an era when young people are finally being accorded some of the power and voice to which they are entitled, and in which so many of us still feel the tensions and complications associated with adolescence. If Escher prints like Other World and Relativity are haunted by the traces of the artist’s high school experience, maybe he is the secret YA artist we never knew we had.

The contradictions abound. For the viewer, Escher made visual puzzles for which there was no solution; for artmakers, he found solutions to challenges in perspective which had no real-life equivalent. His work is “cold” and technical, yet steeped in personal experience and memory: the villages of Italy, the school of his youth, the tiles of the Alhambra where he imagined “a place of serenity where the universal laws of physics were everywhere and yet somehow might not apply.”

In Your Mind Is The Scene of the Crime, visitors explore this blend of the personal and perspectival when they are given visual and textual clues from the life of a mysterious woman. These photographs and snippets of prose will form the basis for a collaborative 3D visual artwork, creatively reconstructing a life story from limited cues.

In solving the mystery of a stranger’s life, and the challenge of juxtaposing images in three dimensional space, our Dulwich detectives will discover that solutions are only ever provisional; that the neatest account of the cosmos may defy the laws of nature; and that your mind is always the scene of the crime.

Lemon Knight: International Games Day at the British Library

It’s been an eventful weekend, and I’m five days out from running a day-long experimental project here in the UK – more on that further down the line – but I wanted to share some of the excitement from yesterday’s International Games Day at the British Library (BL) in central London.

Gary Green of Surrey Libraries invited me to join the team of volunteers who were running events under the leadership of BL Digital Curator Stella Wisdom.

Stella is co-founder of the BL’s Off the Map video game competition, and Off the Map winners Fancy Crab were there with their offbeat riff on Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories. The event was also tied in to this year’s 150th anniversary of Alice in Wonderland, and Ludi Price was in full cosplay mode as Alice herself.

There were video games, board games, and some that were just a little off the wall, including the bizarre German box-stacking game Ordnungswissenschaft:

We were able to play this by repurposing the boxes from the infamous Comic Book Dice, which had also made a visit to the BL.

I got introduced to the German game by gaming aficionado Ross Fowkes. Ross also showed me a digital jousting game which used motion sensors and the music of Bach in multi-player battles.

Johann Sebastian Joust” was inspired by a party game played with lemons and spoons. One quick trip to the supermarket later and we had unleashed the Lemon Knights in the heart of the library.

Both the BL’s child-friendly daytime sessions and the later evening event were great successes, with lots of visitors trying their hand at games old and new. Stella and her team did an incredible job playing host to a wide range of people and offering some truly bizarre activities. (Libraries are sometimes cautious about wild play, so I was delighted that Stella gave us permission for a full-on lemon battle in the shadow of the venerable stacks).

Read more

2016 Creative in Residence, State Library of Queensland

I’m happy to announce something that has been brewing for a while: in the new year, I’m off to Brisbane for a twelve month stint as Creative in Residence at the State Library of Queensland.

I’ll be working with the Library’s Signature Team to develop programming, partnerships, and community participation across Australia’s Sunshine State.

You can expect the usual blend of fun, play, challenge, and adventure, with a uniquely Queensland flavour.

The new role kicks off in January 2016. More news then!

Two men jumping in early 20th century Brisbane

‘Jumping for joy’ image (1918) from State Library of Queensland archives


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