On soundscapes

I’m back at Gills Diner. Yesterday morning, I started working from my study, but felt eerily drawn to Gills, and so I went. It’s not only the bombolone. It’s something about the place, it’s the vibe. And when I reflected on it, wondering why I love working form that cafe so much, I realised: it’s the soundscape.

We live in a multi-sensorial environment, surrounded by sounds and smells; our body reacts to the cold wind on our legs or the presence of another person nearby. But – maybe distortion of our screen-mediated world – visual cues take credit for everything. A place, a person, a thing, look good, or doesn’t. Whether they feel, smell, sound good – it matters, but it’s not something we think about.

I’m an earthy guy, and experience the world through all senses. The touch of wood, the waft of bacon and coffee, the echoing voices of nearby conversations and clinging metal from the kitchen – they’re more important for my own sense of space and presence than just how things look.

There’s an old rivarly between Melbourne and Sydney. Once, coming back from the other city, as I stepped out of Spencer Street Station, I had a sudden flash of insight. Sure, Sydney pleases the eye – but Melbourne is sweeter on your ears. The tingle of trams, the clapping horses, the buzz of pedestrian lights, and the large echoes of its broad street, make the Melbourne CBD one of the most pleasant urban soundscapes in the world.

And since that moment, I realised – to discover whether a place feels right – I close my eyes, and listen.

On clutter

I imagined this personal initiative: the ‘cubic metre project’. When I migrated to Australia, my belongings fit in a 1m3 box. Over seven years, clutter has accumulated. My apartment is 50 m2, with tall ceilings about 3.5m high. That’s 175 m3 in total Enough for two people and parties, not for junk. So, could I get rid of 1m3 in a day?

It was less difficult than I thought.

First stop around the bin. In a minute, I got rid of a bulging ‘bag of bags’, full of useless plastic and air. Second stop, my study. A few months ago, I went through my bookshelves, and selected about 40 books  to donate. They were still sitting in a pile. I slid them inside an old shopping trolley. They’re now ready for the op shop. Third stop, a quick run through perishables. Curry paste from 2014, sweet soy sauce from 2012, almond cordial from 2010, I bid thee farewell. They joined a broken suitcase, a useless plastic jug, and worn out pillow cases in the bin downstairs.

“Decluttering” is a popular trend. People have read the book, ‘minimal aesthetic’ equates happiness. Many resist, of which I am: are things really that evil? Or maybe, we just don’t want to painfully sort through piles of emotionally loaded mementoes, papers, books, photos, or even clothes. But often, half the problem can be solved in an hour. The same wisdom applies to houses as computer hard drives. If it feels clogged, clear the trash.




The green banker’s lamp

The green banker's lamp

I can’t remember exactly when I bought my first banker’s lamp, but I had one when I lived in Dublin, in 1999-2000, and I have never lived without one since.

The lamp is round and heavy. The base resembles a Chinese Stupa, starting with a heavy golden dome surmounted by a golden spintop and finishing in a golden sphere. From that little golden sphere, at an angle of about 160 degrees, juts out a thin curved metallic arm which, in turn, supports a horizontal golden two-pronged fork holding an articulated, curved green glass top that hides an electric bulb, and projects a greenish aura when the lamp is lit up.

I remember first seeing a green banker’s lamp in a film by Visconti, ‘The damned’. I saw the movie at a small independent art cinema called ‘Accatone’ in the fifth district of Paris when I was in preparatory class, in 1997. The film explores the fall of a wealthy German industrial family corrupted by its dealings with the Nazi regime. In a famous scene, the young son of the family dresses up as cabaret singer Marlene Dietrich and sings ‘Einen  richtigen mann‘ at his grand-father’s birthday party, draping a long dark boa round his neck. The gay subplot, the lavish aestheticism of a central-European bourgeois decor, the slow camera work – that film had everything to fascinate young closeted me. About halfway through the movie, we see the library of that German family, with a rich leather covered desk, and a green banker’s lamp. I can’t remember what happens in the scene, but I clearly picture that beautiful, desirable, green banker’s lamp, and ever since, I’ve wanted to own one.

Two years later, I got into Ecole Normale Superieure, and started receiving a monthly salary. I guess that must have been the time I bought my first lamp – or maybe it was a year later, when I got to Dublin, moved into my first share-house, and had a gigantic room of my own to fill with beautiful objects. What I do remember is the big surprise I felt when I found out that banker’s lamps were affordable – no more than twenty or thirty dollars. Through this first encounter in film the object had come to signify ultimate luxury – and I have used them as my primary source of lighting for over fifteen years, bathing myself in metaphorical splendour.

I have been a serial owner of banker’s lamps. Beauty breaks – and so do they. Fortunately, they’ve become generic enough that no loss is a tragedy. When I migrated, I packed my latest lamp in the 1m3 box I shipped over from Paris. It had a French plug, and I had an adaptor for it. I broke it in 2009, in my St Kilda apartment, dropping it on the floor accidentally, where the glass smashed. The lamp I have now is the first I bought in Australia. And to blend in Antipodean cuteness with that symbol of Continental opulence, I attached a clip-on koala to the stem.

At the NGV

As a sequel to the Emerging Writers’ Festival, I will be part of the Future Bookshop exhibition at the NGV studio. During my residency there, I will explore the question of multilingual audiences in the digital space. I will be translating my blog on urban Australia, Australian Aesthetics, into French and Mandarin. This will be an opportunity to reflect on my own experience as a migrant to Australia, and a writer’s capacity to convey their own sense of place in their native and adopted languages.

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 australianaesthetics.wordpress.com

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?

British and Italian aesthetics

I discovered about British aestehtics one day, when driving through the mist in Wales. We were in the car, on a hill side, in very thick fog – we could only see a few meter ahead – and sheep were jumping out of the fog, and back into it, in front of the car. It was eerily beautiful.

I still remember that moment tenderly – and realised recently that it embodies a lot about British aestehtics. The half-seen, half-unseen. That mist, all-pervasive, that blurs outlines, and allows for a game of hide-and-seek with the world. I thought, the famous British reserve, the humour, the confusion in words and attitudes, this soft eye with the tear on the side. this shiftiness of the brits – it all comes from that mist-infused air, this constantly grey light, blurring outlines.

In contrast, the Mediterranean has sharp, terrible sun, pounding veritcal – but also complete, black darkness. A real sense of shade, as protection. Things are not half and half, they are either or. In the sun is how you show yoruself – the Mediterranean vanity – or the realm of caricature – the mask, imposed on you by this too visible world-stage, sun-drenched. In the darkness is where you keep your secrets – and you shed the most light on what you want to display – or what you will let others see, even as caricature.

The sublime and the beautiful

Phil and I had a long walk yesterday, from Carrum to Dandenong, along the Dandenong Creek. The landscape reminded me of Camargue – wetlands, hills on the horizon, long, geometrical lines. A manmade mix of earth and water. Reflections of trees, bird songs, water smells. I kept saying ‘this is so beautiful, this is so relaxing – who needs to go to the bush?’ Philip appreciated the walk, but didn’t quite take my point.
However, he did mention a Taize monk he had met in South Australia, who went in ecstasy over the Barossa valley – and how, at the time, he had found that odd. So we had a little conversation on French aesthetics.
We ended up thinking that the French don’t have a strong taste for the sublime – for nature at its wildest, ready to crunch you, for the landscape, immense, imposing itself on your eyes. That we are more atuned to the midler beauty of a garden, a manmade environment, orderly, which is obviously controlled – restrained. And the slight disruption that comes on this order – a bird flying obliquely over the parallel lines of a canal and its banks.
There is something Japanese in that French love for order. The French garden, with its clipped trees, low squares, and flowers arranged in colour patterns, is not too much unlike the zen arrangement of rocks.
And Victoria, the garden State, may appeal to the French taste in that respect much more than other, wilder, looser States of Australia. Not in vain did I once call it ‘Provence down Under.’