Dec 8, 2010


If you’re still tabulating the pros and cons of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, flip over to Jack Shafer‘s article, “Why I Love Wikileaks: For restoring distrust in our most important institutions.” The headline pretty much tells the story. Shafer is Slate’s estimable and original media critic; his follow-up is: “Julian Assange’s Great Luck: Why his arrest and jailing in the United Kingdom is good news for him.

Our Julian, cyberhero for the common man:


Shafer’s argument boils down to this:
— We shouldn’t be surprised by the recurrence of scandals, but, of course, we always are…
— Information conduits like Julian Assange shock us out of that complacency…
— Assange and WikiLeaks, while not perfect, have punctured the prerogative of secrecy with their recent revelations.*

(*As the Economist put it … “secrecy is necessary for national security and effective diplomacy.” But it “is also inevitable that the prerogative of secrecy will be used to hide the misdeeds of the permanent state and its privileged agents.” … “The untold story is that while doing the United States’ allies, adversaries, and enemies a favor with his leaks, he’s doing the United States the biggest favor by holding it accountable.”)

Shafer’s articles backs these assertions with lucid detail, but also a clear-eyed assessment of this strange new cyberhero: “He looks like an alien, talks more insane trash than an NBA point guard (he says he’s practising “scientific journalism”), believes that the ends justify the means, and possesses such an ego-swollen head it’s a miracle that he can walk without toppling over.” And this quip: “But if you want to dismiss him just because he’s a seething jerk, there are about 2,000 journalists I’d like you to meet.” We could substitute any number of professions there.

The Spartacus effect: “The more WikiLeaks leaks while Assange is in jail, the more he’ll become like Spartacus, making him an inspirational figure, not just a controversial one. The mirroring of the WikiLeaks information to hundreds of servers around the globe is one manifestation of the Spartacus effect.” (It’s started happening. And the amazing Spartasian mirror list.)

Our Julian: Larrikin, Leakywick, Not the Messiah just a naughty boy

One unintended side-effect of the circus is the confirmation of Julia Gillard as a Great Disappointment. Her reaction to the case — “Let’s not try to put any glosses on this”: muesli-ejecting laughable — is a nostalgic reminder of Mark Latham’s line: something, what was it? about suckholes and congalines.

It seems Assange is no longer fit to be a citizen, by Prime Ministerial decree. Our export quality pets: Our Nic, Our Russ, Our Hugh, Cate, Shane, Cathy, Thorpey et al … but not Our Julian: this is serious, Mum. On the legal points, lawyer Malcolm Turnbull points out, Ms Gillard doesn’t know what she is talking about. Assange is not the Messiah, though he may be a naughty boy — you don’t crucify him, you respond like a responsible parent.

It seems the larrikin is no longer a suitable Australian character. No doubt Australia will not be represented at the Nobel Prize ceremony as we will be supporting China’s suppression of Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo for protesting human rights, the ungrateful rat.

The American outrage, too, is confusing — the whole point of the Tea Party is distrust in big government. The pale and weedy Assange would fit perfectly into a long line of dissenting American heroes. (Recall the seminal leaks of Watergate.)

As for the Swedish ‘sex-by-surprise’, the most sensible reading comes from the mouth of babes, Assange’s son Daniel, as reported in Crikey: “I haven’t seen any evidence that there was any actual non-consensual sex involved at any point, so it looks to me that it’s just some sort of cultural misunderstanding or general social failure on the part of my father or the women that’s led to the situation.” Shades of Helen Garner’s The First Stone. But it’s also an inevitable conclusion that this hook is to catch a fish they cannot net or web by any other means. A leaky wick, maybe, smell a fish, you bet.

The Big Gov-Industrial-Military-Money complex want Assange gagged and WikiLeaks destroyed. Gosh, I wonder which side is the right side?

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Leak winks

Julian Assange defends WikiLeaks, in the Australian.

Salon’s fierce and forensic Glenn Greenwald’s reality check: “Anti-WikiLeaks lies and propaganda”

The Time interview.

At 3 Quarks Daily, a very nuanced analysis of a deep reading by Aaron Bady of Julian Assange’s 2006 essays (pdf) explaining the motives behind WikiLeaks. Convolute and sail gliding over the chasm of theory and philosophy, it does seem to lead back to Assange’s original ideas.

The Guardian‘s editorial, “WikiLeaks: The man who kicked the hornet’s nest” makes an ironic reference to “Mrs Clinton’s powerful January 2010 speech on internet freedom…: ‘As in the dictatorships of the past, governments are targeting independent thinkers who use these tools.’ ”

Clay Shirky has mixed feelings in his admirably balanced analysis, “WikiLeaks and the Long Haul.” He does conclude: “If it’s OK for a democracy to just decide to run someone off the internet for doing something they wouldn’t prosecute a newspaper for doing, the idea of an internet that further democratizes the public sphere will have taken a mortal blow.”

Sex-by-surprise: Outside the Beltway is suspicious; Feministe is damning.


Dec 2, 2010


I want to show you three pictures from an exhibition called An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar, by Taryn Simon. They were selected by the photographer, who also wrote the accompanying text. One might even say the text comes with illustrations.

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Imagine what kind of picture this is describing:

Nuclear Waste Encapsulation and Storage Facility, Cherenkov Radiation
Hanford Site, U.S. Department of Energy
Southeastern Washington State

Submerged in a pool of water at Hanford Site are 1,936 stainless-steel nuclear-waste capsules containing cesium and strontium. Combined, they contain over 120 million curies of radioactivity. It is estimated to be the most curies under one roof in the United States. The blue glow is created by the Cherenkov Effect which describes the electromagnetic radiation emitted when a charged particle, giving off energy, moves faster than light (faster than light!) through a transparent medium. The temperatures of the capsules are as high as 330 degrees Fahrenheit. The pool of water serves as a shield against radiation; a human standing one foot from an unshielded capsule would receive a lethal dose of radiation in less than 10 seconds. Hanford is among the most contaminated sites in the United States.

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(This type










see the


straight away.)

That description is of this picture:


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(Note: the images come with integral captions, as per photographer instructions.)

Pictures in the show include young converts to the  Ku Klux Klan; a vial of pure HIV; a captive shark; the tubing enclosing the fibres that keep the world connected; the man who waits for the signal to push The Button; an in-bred white tiger; the confiscations at JFK Airport Customs; a  research facility with corpses decomposing in in the wild. Gaining access to most of these places took lots of time. Simon recalls:

Sometimes it would take over a year to gain access to a site and then with others, a couple of months. But it was never a simple process. That was the bulk of the work, which is not immediately evident in the end result.

One place that declined her request is Disneyland. They sent her a reply, which has been enalrged into wall text, explaining that after much consideration Disneyland had chosen not to grant her permission as it wished to protect the fantasies of its customers.

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A broken mirror

NanandBrianIf you’ve ever seen Nan Goldin’s notorious late 20th century work The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, with its self-explaining title, you’ll have engaged with a prime example of one of photography’s unique qualities — the frozen instantYou see what I sawThe moment’s truth

Right: Nan Goldin, Nan and Brian in Bed, New York City, 1983

Photography refashioned the modern world, contributing crucially to the modern mind, through its shards of mirror with their images made permanent. Once we saw through a glass darkly … then we inserted film behind that glass, and it became impossible to forget what we had seen, or what other people had witnessed.

That assumed veracity, of course, has given way to our deep contemporary distrust of the photo — tainted from a hundred years of political manipulation and the impact of Surrealism’s dark twins: art strategy and advertising. So often now our reaction is, But is it real? (It’s been a long time, about 16-17 years, since I had the dambusting joy of my editor saying to me, Photo Shop, is that the one down the road?)

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Ice Age

Take a look at this picture before you scroll to the caption. Have a guess what is being shown, what purpose or meaning this thing may have:


‘Some books have pictures, some pictures have books.‘ — R.B. Kitaj

One of the aspects I find most interesting about Simon’s project is her insistence that text and image are utterly interdependent. The usual notion is that: Text turn photos into illustrations — Photos reduce text to captions. In Simon’s pieces the two join in tense congress — the meaning lies somewhere in between the A2 prints and the wall text — a deliberately awkward relation between small type and large picture.

You need to know, and you need to see. You can’t see the picture and read the text from the same position, collecting them with the same glance. The photographer forces your hand, or neck. She makes it obvious that it is not obvious. Which is something like the point she’s always arriving at in the show: we think we know America, but we know not what we see.

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Black Ops

This is one of her most remarkable images; it is or it will be infamous. You almost think you already know the story. And the text will become infamous too, because every time this is shown it will have to be explained. Simon always presents an impassive cool but here, I think, her text betrays a shudder of feeling:


Show and tell: the artist speaks

You can listen to Taryn Simon speaking with Philip Adams on Late Night Live. She is very intelligent about her methods and approach. The following is extracted from a long interview with the art journal Mono.Kultur. This is a clear articulation of her views about photography:

I find my work to be pretty interdisciplinary, as a lot of work from my generation is. People are constantly trying to figure out how to label my photography: is it conceptual, is it political, is it aesthetic? … Everything I do is entirely planned and very constructed … I’m not just documenting what’s before me. I’m often — more often than not — changing what’s before me and making admitted interventions to make the image more seductive … I’m not trying to hide that. For me, that’s a big part of my photography and a big part of my understanding of photography, which is that it can illustrate and create endless ideas and realities but it certainly can’t fully represent what it is actually documenting. It can represent many truths or no truth but there’s no fixed definition. That’s why I tend to make my images more and more abstract. They’re flying away while the text reels them in.

She thinks nothing of using the word “illustrate” which for so long had been a term of disparagement in the world of visual art (and only lately been in rehabilitation). The unfixedness she mentions is the simple problem of representing “reality.”

Simon has tried hard to avoid ambiguity but concludes that a picture can’t avoid it — this perception is an important a part of the show as its strange sites and sights. Pictures can show but they can’t tell; words can tell but they can’t show. It’s the old ineluctable conclusion and Simon has chosen to show and tell.

What Simon is not after is this kind of ambiguity:

Yes, in part ambiguity is what makes images so beautiful — and the actual images I take are more and more ambiguous. But in many cases, my interests are also political and I’m extremely sensitive to the historic repercussions of this ambiguity … one’s interpretations and understandings evolve or are restricted in the back-and-forth between image and text … I can appreciate straight ambiguity—it’s just not what I’m interested in.

Mono.Kultur: But isn’t fine art very much about this ambiguity that leaves you with the potential for interpretation?

That’s a conventional definition of fine art. Who knows what fine art is.

As for the selection of the three pictures above, I could have picked any number of equally unsettling trios — but in answering the question, Which image sums up the collection?, Taryn Simon says:

I have a couple of favorites but for me, the greatest representation of it (the show) is when they play off one another. As solo images, there are some such as the nuclear waste image that I think is quite emblematic for the whole project, as it resembles the map of the United States … But the power is when nuclear waste interacts with the cryopreservation unit which interacts with a hymenoplasty and you make these terribly irresponsible and awkward jumps. That’s where you arrive at the frenzy and confusion.

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Irresponsible and awkward, frenzy and confusion

It’s an unnerving show. The photos are beautifully shot — Simon has made “seductive” interventions, but they are understated compositions with a mostly flat affect. They could easily have been highly dramatised or overwrought. Once you know the deal, the banal reads as sinister. You come to expect the worst from what appears innocent.

This show confirms my/our most complicated and conflicted suspicions about the far-flung reaches of the American mind, even as we just know an Australian version of the show is perfectly possible. The second effect is that the extent of the exhibit also works in a deep, dislodging way on our understanding and expectation of the Photograph. It reminds us that things often only seem obvious. That even when it’s real, it’s unreal.

An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar by Taryn Simon ends on Saturday 12 December.

Centre for Contemporary Photography
404 George St, Fitzroy
Victoria 3065, Australia
Phone: 03 9417 1549
Opening Hours
Wednesday–Friday, 11am–6pm
Saturday–Sunday, 12–5pm

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(For an opposite reading of the show see Art Blart — Marcus Bunyan: ‘I would say only about 50% of these photographs could stand alone without the validation of the text. … Even with text some of the photographs still have no resonance.’)


Dec 1, 2010


‘In 1818, well before Bach’s Mass in B Minor was given its first complete performance, the Swiss music historian and publisher, Hans Nägeli, described it as “the greatest work of music for all ages and of all peoples.” This was an incredible assertion at a time when Mozart’s works had already become a permanent feature of the musical landscape, and when Beethoven’s fame was at its zenith…’

That’s how the program notes begin, as written by Andrew Raiskums, director of the choir Gloriana, who performed it last Friday at the recently renovated St Mary Star of the Sea. It was wet and dark and the gaudily Catholic church was nearly full when we arrived, old Stan and me, and I walked up and down the aisles looking for Aunty among the packed pews.

This is how it looked at the end:



(Terrible pictures and all blurry — don’t know what I was doing.) Likely there hasn’t been so much secular applause in that space for a long time. I’m not familiar with this grand, expansive work and am incapable of making any judgement, so here’s Bruce Sims, who did:

Then off to the church with its trumpeting angels in the roof, to hear trumpets blaring in the mass. It was a magnificent performance from soloists, band and choir, who sang with great gusto. The large audience was very appreciative.

It was very impressive, and there was a lot to look at too. We were up the front on the side so we had a close up oblique angle view.


There were four soloists and a small orchestra for this big work, which has been called Bach’s “last will and testament.” It wasn’t performed complete until 1859, over a century after his death.


The orchestra.


Director Andrew Raiskums conducting. After the last note he reached into his pocket and patted his face down with a hanky. Over two hours of concentrated conducting at the end of months of rehearsals is a long time sweating it out.


Choir members; the flautist having a solo moment.


The bass, Nicholas Dinopoulos. The mezzo-soprano Sally-Anne Russell. A friend remarked later that he didn’t think the bass was quite loud enough, sounded a bit under-powered perhaps. But he’s a young man and it was a church with a very big air space. Russell wore this eye-catching dress with pointy wings opening at the sides of the bodice.


The bass, again, and the tenor, Timothy Reynolds — the tenor had a surprisingly small mouth but it opened up to release a beautiful sound. I missed getting a sketch of the soprano Siobhán Stagg, who was mostly blocked from my view, but I was in a direct line to the bass, who fell victim to my pencil.


A couple of the choir members. I can vouch they’ve had a splendid year. It strikes me that this fine outfit were all wearing their standard black — a secular group performng one of the most religious of compositions in an approriately Catholic setting to a large crowd which I’m guessing would have had a substantial component of non-religiously affiliated people. Now that‘s multi-culturalism.


Above left: There was a fella sitting in front of us who was definitely a tosser. He wore a denim jacket over a plaid shirt and had tight-cropped hair which effloresced into bottle blonde mullet curls. At interval he got up to give a solo standing ovation, and turned to see if anyone followed suit — at which point was revealed his trucker-white trash moustachio. As you can see from the sketch, he stuck his elbows over the back of his pew and every now and again would stretch his arms over his head and back into our space. Look at me!

Above right: I noticed Tim Colebatch, economics editor of the Age,  attentively sitting in the front row.

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The Gloriana choir next performs this Saturday 4 December at St Peter’s Eastern Hill, combining with the church choir and soloists. They’re going to ascend Bach‘s the other choral peak, Handel’s Messiah. I see the tickets include champagne and Christmas cake…

(Bach! Sorry, I just haven’t been getting a Handel on things lately. I woke this morning thinking — that’s not Bach, but I see folk have already commented drily on this big fat mistake; thank goodness someone knows these things.)