Default Settings – Plastic #1

In 2020-21, I co-designed and piloted an experimental storytelling project called ‘Default Settings’ through Marco Polo Project, with Matthew Ziccone as co-designer, Maddy Bean as producer, and Kay Stavrou, Declan Fry and Xueqian Zhang as associate storytellers. Default settings is an experimental creative project exploring questions of reflectivity, discourse, polyphony and audience agency. It invites a digital audience and a small cast of diverse associate storytellers to reflect on the various intersecting story-worlds that they inhabit, and stretch their capacity to create a common world by interweaving different stories, stemming from different traditions.

Default settings presents five storytellers, sharing stories in five parallel zoom breakout rooms. The audience moves room to room every two minutes, then takes part in a facilitated reflection to make sense of the experience. The only constraint for storytellers was a strict 22 minute time limit, and using the keyword ‘plastic’ for inspiration. The experiment involved playing with different languages: it was a chance for me to embrace my new digital persona as ‘calm, original and gently shady’, and go back to writing in French. I ended up writing a long philosophical reflection on the theme, in 11 parts, which I will share in 11 short posts.

J’essayais d’écrire une histoire, mais au lieu de ça, je me suis laissé distraire. Avant de faire du neuf, j’ai voulu comprendre les origines de tout ce qui était déjà là. Par exemple, la table sur laquelle j’écris : c’est une table en formica, imitation bois. Mais qui est-ce qui a dessiné le bois ? Les lignes qui marquent l’âge, les nœuds, qui les a placés? Qui est-ce qui les a tracées ? La couleur du bois, qui est-ce qui l’a choisie ? Qui est-ce qui les a imprimées sur le formica? Où est-ce que la table a été moulée? Et qui est-ce qui a transporté la matière première pour fabriquer ce formica? D’ailleurs, à la base, le formica, c’est quoi, c’est du plastique?

Un livre de Victor Pelevine m’est revenu en mémoire. C’est dans la Mitrailleuse d’argile je crois, ou peut-être homo zapiens, je ne sais plus. Un roman qui peint l’apocalypse psychédélique de la Russie post-communiste. Au début du roman, je me souviens d’une scène, un enfant riche, fils de magnats du pétrole, dans la Mercedes de ses parents, se met à penser à l’essence qui fait avancer la voiture. C’est de la matière organique, pense l’enfant, un stock de matière organique très ancienne, accumulée. Des carcasses de dinosaure en décomposition. Et cet enfant, du moins si je me rappelle correctement la scène, se met à rêver qu’il n’est pas dans une voiture allemande, mais dans un char trainé par un brontosaure, un tyrannosaure, un diplodocus – et qu’il parcourt ainsi les rues de Moscou.

Et tandis que j’essaie d’imaginer la forme de mon histoire, mon ordinateur posé sur une table en imitation bois, je me demande – est-ce que je ne suis pas comme cet enfant ? Car si le plastique est un dérivé du pétrole, alors cette table est en dinosaure moulé. Je m’entends dire que je suis ‘debout sur les épaules d’un géant’, et je souris. Parce que l’ensemble de notre monde dépend du pétrole – sans jus de dinosaures, tout s’arrête. Et donc, le monde moderne repose sur les épaules de ces géants du passé. Pas un éléphant sur une tortue, donc, mais un mammouth sur un stégosaure. Et de la même façon que nous nous sommes apprivoisés les loups, pour en faire des labradoodles, nous nous sommes apprivoisés les vélociraptors pour en faire du diesel, du nylon, et du PVC.

Beyond the anglosphere – on a poem I read

As Covid-19 is putting us all in self-isolation, I have been going through my drafts and folders, putting some order into them. I resolved either to polish and share pieces publicly, or dispose of them. Some, I simply shared as is, others I contextualised. This is what I wanted to do here: in this post, I talk about anglo-ness as default in Australia’s cultural and literary world. As our borders lock down, at the same time that the world is experiencing a genuinely global trauma, some of the questions raised here may be more pressing than ever. So – what should we do, and what can we do, to no longer take ‘English’ as a default? 

Two days ago, my partner sent me the link to a poem by Koraly Dimitriadis, Greek-Australian writer and performer, called ‘an Open Letter to Melbourne Unesco City of Literature’. The poem throws flame at Melbourne literary institutions – festivals, magazines – denouncing their whiteness in explicit ways. And it expresses the rage of the poet for having to stay outside the door.

Oddly, this piece resonated strongly with me. I wouldn’t have expected it to. I’ve been trained in French formalisn, the raw emotional style jars with my classical taste, and I find its direct name-throwing discourteous. Yet I was moved.

I’ve been invited to many of the forums and events she names, disproving their exclusive anglo-ness, or non-queer friendliness. I never felt I was in as a ‘token foreigner’, and witnessed real commitment to diversity from the organisers, many of them women. Maybe because I’m nice and naïve – or maybe because they do have a genuine desire for more diversity.

And yet, in all these instances, I often felt a great solitude as one of the very few migrants, foreigners, non-native English speakers, among panelists and audience. I never quite know what these figures mean, but I read that in Greater Melbourne, 25 to 30% of people speak a language other than English at home. This is certainly not the soundscape I encountered at those events.

I do strongly feel the gap between a discourse putting forward cultural and linguistic diversity – aspirations to be some international city of literature, even – or in other circles, a part of Asia – and the domination of anglo-american authors and references in our literary life. It’s embarrassing, at a literary event, when you never heard of such American author, and the person you’re talking with has never heard of such Italian collective you love.

But it’s a tough game. It’s hard enough to lead a reasonable conversation within one’s own tradition. Trying to bridge aesthetic and ethical gaps may be beyond what audience or readership can accept.

I’m not sure rage is the most appropriate way to deal with this, but I believe we should be very aware of these issues she raises. And as a semi-white writer myself – for better or worse, I felt good after reading this piece.

On narrative experiences

Our current conception of music distinguishes three main figures: the composer, the performer, and the listener.

In Music, Nicholas Cook interrogates the Western construct of ‘music’ as an historically and geographically determined cultural experience. As I read his book (I’m up to chapter three), I wonder about writing as an art form. In particular, I wonder to what extent our current understanding of ‘writing’ echoes industrial production models. The writer is the ‘primary producer’ of a good (the book, the article), packaged and transported by intermediaries (editors, publishers, booksellers), and eventually purchased by customers (the readers). With this model as a background, we fight for the right of ‘writers’ to be paid in proportion to the quantity they produce – alternatively using word count or number of copies as a basis to calculate their share.

This framework has always struck me as dated and deceptive. Value chains are significantly more complex, involving layers of direct and indirect benefits, social, symbolic and financial. In addition writers don’t  produce goods in the way publishers do. Books and magazines are goods – texts may not be.

So what if we redefined writing as ‘crafting narrative experiences’, using contemporary service industries as a model?What new business model and value proposition could we come up with? What new prospects would that open to rethink the way we pay the writers, and the type of literature we produce?

The Beijing Series

Today, I’m running a poetry translation workshop at Monash University, preparing for a special event at Montsalvat Open Day next week. We’re going to translate pomes by Katie Key’s @tinylittlepoems, written during her stay in Beijing, known as ‘the Beijing series’

Katie Keys : poet @tinylittlepoems · 6 sept.

We are just passing through. With our mouths full of words. With our sleeplessness keeping us dumb. #tinylittlepoem from Hong Kong airport

Katie Keys : poet @tinylittlepoems · 7 sept.

I am not brilliant white. I am fumbled, tongue tied & lost in translation. I make songs with the sounds of my words. a #tinylittlepoem

Katie Keys : poet @tinylittlepoems · 8 sept.

Our fragile devices, these pieces of glass, the fingerprints left of ourselves. a #tinylittlepoem from @mpoloproject in Beijing

Katie Keys : poet @tinylittlepoems · 9 sept.

Childless, I am less than woman here – the shapes I make. Homeless, in the absence of my lines. a #tinylittlepoem from @mpoloproject in Beijing

Katie Keys : poet @tinylittlepoems · 10 sept.

Dragon-bourne and read, a two-forked tongue, a way with words. a #tinylittlepoem from @mpoloproject in Beijing

Katie Keys : poet @tinylittlepoems · 11 sept.

I am stuttered. The words come out on the page, not the world, & nobody hears them but me. a #tinylittlepoem from @mpoloproject in Beijing

Katie Keys : poet @tinylittlepoems · 12 sept.

The way the trees hold tight to the smoke haze, greying the avenues, softening the skies. a #tinylittlepoem from @mpoloproject in Beijing

Katie Keys : poet @tinylittlepoems · 13 sept.

A question of water, of art and of air – a question of who we might be. a #tinylittlepoem from China for the @mpoloproject

Festival time

Three days to the Marco Polo Festival! It’s been eighteen months at least since I first sat down in Little Lonsdale Street to discuss an idea for a program that would bring together writers and readers from Australia and China who embraced the internet as a key part of their practice – combining online and offline events.

Marco Polo Festival events

Preparing a Festival takes a lot of energy, and as a result, I’ve been a bit silent on this blog – but I haven’t exactly stopped writing. One pleasant aspect of working as a Festival Director is the level of attention you get – even when you’re just running a junior, first time gig – and I was able to publish a few things over the last month or so: a piece on Translation in Writer’s bloc, another on ‘Translating Asian Voices in Australia‘ in Peril Magazine, a Q&A with Writers Victoria, and an interview with the new Tongues magazine.

And now Festival time is a-coming – we’ll be talking all things digital and cross-cultural, sometimes all in English, sometimes in two languages. And I look forward to sharing ensuring thoughts and meditations here, or on the Marco Polo Project blog. Meanwhile, if you’re in town, come along and take part in the conversation!

Honey Pot – how a project came to life.

Four years ago, I wrote the script of a short gay film that would show two men dancing in a public toilet. My friend Nghi, whom I’d met by chance at a screenwriters meetup, was interested in the storyline, and offered to produce it. We gathered a small team, found a location, negotiated hard for a permit, and shot the whole thing three and a half years ago. The film screened at the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and was later selected for the Verona and Mumbai Queer Film Festivals.

Two years ago, Nghi decided to put Honey Pot on youtube. We were not going to sell it, and had exhausted the festival circuit. A month later, our film had received over 10,000 views – and we were exhilarated! That was more viewers than fifty festivals. And then the number grew. 50,000. 100,000. Last I saw, we were over 2 million. More people have seen this film than live in South Australia, Stockholm or Dublin – and with 2000 to 3000 views a day, we’ll soon overtake Manchester, Budapest or Vienna.

This is the power of the net. What was just an idea four years ago, with very minimal budget – 3000 dollars, which we’ve since covered through youtube ads – we’ve reached out over 2 million people, generated hundreds of comments, and become part of debates and discussions about male desire, police abuse, and the perception of Asian gay men. We spent no money marketing or promoting the piece – it resonated enough with people that they sent a link or told their friends about it.

This little video, and the story of its online success, is one of my great pleasures. When I doubt about the success of my current projects – I think back on Honey Pot, and how, within four years, a few words on a page became images seen by over 2 million people over the world. It’s happened, it could happen again. It’s taken time, other things will. And if all fails, at least, I’ve made this little film, which people have enjoyed. It’s also taught me something else: many viewers were in countries I never thought of – Indonesia, Philippines, even Saudi Arabia. There’s an audience beyond the North Atlantic – and maybe we should think of them when we shoot, write, paint, or edit. At least, from now on, I do!

For those of you who haven’t seen it yet – here’s the video. If you like it – send a link to your friends!

Blogging in Chinese

Wow – I just opened a blog on Sina! Thank you Lavender for your help. As a start, I will be re-publishing Australian Aesthetics there – with a bit of help from google translate. WordPress is blocked at the moment, and I think my descriptions of Melbourne would appeal to potential visitors or migrants here. But who knows, I may develop a radically new Chinese online personality, and start blogging away. I don’t quite understand every feature just yet, but I can make it out, more or less – CMS and blog servers become intuitive pretty quickly.

Still – Wow! – that’s a whole new experience :-). Interested? Follow ZhuZhu’s blog.

Australian Aesthetics

I’ve been in Australia for three years now, and recently received my permanent residency. To celebrate my integration, and reflect on this new life environment, I will develop an observation blog called ‘Australian Aesthetics’. I want to try and capture the shape of Australian urban life, as I experience it, through text and images. There is a certain beauty, a certain aesthetic quality to Australian cities – isn’t Melbourne ‘the most livable city in the world’? – yet I don’t often see it represented: travel books will show either the glitzy towers, graffitied laneways, a misty river scene, or expenses of roaring ocean. These sights are truly Australian, but they are somewhat exceptional. What I want to capture is, on the contrary, the everyday, the banal, what people see when they get out their front door, walk to the station, or have a stroll around on the week-end.

I will write this blog in French and English. This will be an exercise in multilingual text production, and the occasion to experiment with inspiration – what does each language invite me to tell, how do I react to my anticipated audiences? But I still need to figure out the technicalities.

Meanwhile, drafts are coming online at

Blog aesthetics

Has anyone started doing research on aesthetics of blog writing? I would like to reflect on the way I wrote the Fake China, and what I was trying to achieve.

I have long been obsessed with the image of the mosaic to describe what I want my writing to be like: small, hard little square, light-reflecting, which together form a larger image – and can serve a utilitarian function – are solid enough to be trampled on, or eaten on, without damage. That’s a bit vague. Another way of putting it, is to think of my writing as fragments, or pieces, which connect in a global pattern, and together form a general picture, by the way they reflect on one another. That would be a set of interconnected short stories, poems, or a polyphonic novel. But – and that was the exhilarating thing I discovered – the blog form was particularly pliable to what I had in mind!

I wanted to write about my time in China (a simple travel blog, so my friends could now about my experiences there). I also wanted to reflect, more generally about one aspect: the ‘fake’, mixed, cross-cultural coastal China. I decided the best way to go about it – for me – was to write a series of vignettes, each focussing on one place, experience or ‘concept’. A form soon emerged: text and photographs, alternating one paragraph of text with one photograph – both reflecting on each other.

Once I had the form, the themes came up. Some I had been thinking about before – the Great Wall and the Grand Canal; travels around East Asia; Chinese ‘pop’ graphics; karaoke, etc. Others emerged as I travelled. I listed them – a list which kept expanding; took a few notes, or drafted them as I went. And I took photos, when I went out exploring, with a particular post in mind. Ultimately, as if I was preparing a rather detailed proposal for a documentary film project. But the blog form, with its list of single post, allowed me to bring together a strong of reflection, photos, and travel anecdotes, then close them, and open another. Some deeper themes emerged – captured by tags and keywords. But I like how this is not a consistent essay, novel, or chronological narrative. It is, really, a kaleidoscopic work of writing.

I had been thinking about this for a while, inspired by long conversations with my ex-partner, Jean Francois Laplenie, who was (and still is) doing research on German musical aesthetics. In particular, I have been meditating often on an article he wrote on the Lied-cycle form, as the ultimate expression of German Romanticism: capturing totality through fragments. The Lied cycle consists of independent pieces, which nonetheless echo each other – through repeated words, or through repeated musical segments. There is also motivation to how they follow each other – a key change, a repeated note. But all of this is non-systematic. They form a totality, but that totality is not a clear system, the shape of which can be directly visible to the eye.

I would like to reflect more in depth, looking at other self-contained blog and internet projects, such as Philip Thiel’s ‘a year with‘ series, and try to write a collective work on the aesthetics of online writing, identifying writer and artists’ projects and formal designs, and reflecting on possible sources and parallels in history.

Interested, anyone?

Back in Melbourne

After 11 weeks away – 3 and a half in Europe, 7 and a half in China – I am back in Melbourne.

I did miss Australia. Smiles, efficiency, clean air; a general rationality to things.

But coming back from 7 weeks in Tianjin – the third city in China, 11+ million people, a potential new financial centre for Asia Pacific – I am in a shock when people here say – ‘Tianjin – where is that?’ Educated people. Policy people. Literary people.

In the first few days, it made me slightly depressed – that place I invested so much energy in discovering, is it really so meaningless? Now it makes me more angry – ‘hey, wake up, that’s where our neighbours live, that’s where Australia’s customers live; that’s where new migrants come from – at least, look at a map once in a while’.

But well, these things take time.

Meanwhile, is still going.