Australiana

Some very bizarre things have been going down in these parts. We seem to have a vigilante gardener who has mysteriously trimmed one of our trees, laying the cropped branches over our garden bed, to smother it, and ignoring the real overgrown trees and hedge. We don’t mind particularly, but are at a complete loss as to when and how this happened. Did the gardener get the wrong house, pack up and continue on next door? Do our neighbours across the road like to spy into our bedroom window? At any rate, there is some distinct sawing that has gone on, this was no act of nature.

Several days later, this perplexing leaflet appeared in our mailbox:

I don’t know where to begin. I suppose I’ll begin with ‘Action Koala’–‘Land Clearing.’ My oh my. These modern koalas and their highrise apartments. I especially love the effortless segue from general tree brutality to mega-insured concreting. I can’t wait to tear my garden down and replace it with a good, sturdy slab. And a little bit of ‘palm special,’ but only in the corner. (?)

Anyway, I was fortunate enough to discover that someone’s very talented nanna is a huge fan of my favourite band, the Black Keys, and has put together a little routine:

Apparently, these blokes went down a treat in Perth a few years back, probably worth looking into.

Have you seen my online shop? Society6 is offering free worldwide shipping through Sunday, so you might like to splurge on a print or set of greeting cards:

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The factory

Death is dead © Samantha Groenestyn

The past few days have passed in somewhat of a printing frenzy. After a giddy, hands-on letterpress class, I went on a class excursion to ‘a printer’s.’ My graphic design teacher had been raving about this excursion since some time last year, and having read the basics of offset lithography, my classmates and I were somewhat skeptical of the outing, though interested in printing.

We rolled up to one Intech Printing at 6pm, expecting the place to be deserted but for Gary, our friendly neighbourhood printer. Instead we found ourselves gawping in the car park of a white box of significant proportions, and were permitted into a very much alive and bustling factory. We were led from room to room scattered with stacks of paper on pallets, pallet-inverting machines, offset printers, die cutters, folding machines, stitching machines, colour-testing machines, quality control check points, ink pots, tools, rolls of paper, web-fed presses, pallet-stacking robots and coke cans.

Yes, we have engineered fascinatingly complex machinery to put ink onto paper, and have come a long way from the nib of the scribe. But my printer experience was somewhat darkened by the realisation that this remarkable feat of humanity, one that opened the way for literacy, spread music to the masses and led to all-around enlightenment, requires people to be to hand at all hours of the night to act as machine-minders and to perform repetitive tasks of the reparative and not the creative variety.

Ah, German humour. (We were at this point wearing ear plugs).

While I had entered a workshop and worked under the direction of an experienced letterpress printer with a keen eye for detail and a passion for accuracy and precision, and therefore spent a day absorbing both technique and history, the ‘real’ printers, the ones who print the physical printed objects that come into our hands daily and who make a living from the trade rather than an expensive hobby, quite simply looked bored. And any decent human being couldn’t look at the ‘Daddy’ mug next to the ink monitoring controls without thinking that people ought to be able to go home for the night and rest, and partake in normal social interactions.

Is there pride in such work as is produced in a factory? Richard Sennett* writes that ‘pride in one’s work lies at the heart of craftsmanship as the reward for skill and commitment. … Craftsmen take pride most in skills that mature. This is why simple imitation is not a sustaining satisfaction; the skill has to evolve. The slowness of craft time also enables the work of reflection and imagination—which the push for quick results cannot’ (p. 294-5).

The very speed of our society pushes this kind of pride in workmanship out of the picture. Humanity finds itself a crutch to the machinery that can largely perform the entire process alone—it is only when paper is jammed and blankets need replacing that people have their time to shine. I watched a very grim-faced Tony expertly and intently repairing the Heidelberg Speedmaster and thought, now I have seen the real craftsmanship of the printer. We had come to witness the Speedmaster in action, in all it’s blue neon, CMYK radiance, and were disappointed when it stalled. But it was only when it failed that we saw Tony rise from a monitor to a problem-solving lateral-thinker, adept with his tools.

Heidelberg Speedmaster

The printing industry is what it is, and must meet our demands or collapse, and there is certainly room for a level of ingenuity and pride in one’s trade as a competent repairer, colour-matcher or mechanic. Every job will require some level of repetition, and this repetition underpins facility with tasks that allows for pride in one’s competence. But removing the control and ownership of the process, and making it into a round-the-clock production has made it a hollow shell. There is certainly more to be said on the topic of slowing down and giving tasks their due attention. Sennett notes that craftsmen did not stand up to the machine, but nor did they themselves develop them according to the needs of the workshop: they ‘did not sponsor research or themselves design machines that would keep a large body of skilled operatives necessary. Mechanical change came to the labour force rather than from within the labour movement’ (p. 107-8). It is because of the craftsman’s disinterest in machines that he became dominated by them—‘Technological advance comes in this way to seem inseparable from domination by others’ (p. 108).

Without resorting to some sort of pre-industrial romanticism, I wish to simply say that we ought to be on our guard, taking ownership of our work, using machines but not being driven by them. Scribes have noted their miseries in the margins of their manuscripts and essentially inhabited slow factories, but factories nonetheless. We need to find the line at which we are personally comfortable operating, and think about what we are asking of humanity when we demand express printing, or express production in any sector.

* Sennett, Richard. 2008. The Craftsman. Penguin: London.

One day I was going for a walk and I saw a dead crow. It was like the Cold War Kids song, where he is thinking about his childhood road trips and how he ‘drew a picture of a cat laying dead in the street,’ and how he ‘finally figured out what the cat in the street meant.’ Dead crow–so meta. Mind blown.

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Dude-crafternoon: Letterpress

Dude crafts, for those who wonder at the distinction, are to my mind those that involve getting dirt, grease or some other substance only removed by solvol on oneself, and preferably involving machinery.

I am, of course, a fan of more traditional lady crafts, most notably knitting, but today I spent a very pleasant day arranging my sorts and setting them in a chase with the aid of wooden furniture and coins.

I love nothing better than working with my hands and producing something tangible–except perhaps thinking about abstract concepts and pondering Deep Things. I got to do both today, when I was let loose in a workshop and travelled back in time to learn the basics of an age-old and long-lived craft only recently superceded by our dearly-beloved digital technology.

This lovely Sunday was facilitated by the clever and generous folks at Design College Australia, in Brisbane.

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Babies

Op shops in Albuquerque © Samantha Groenestyn

My friend Robyn (the dazzling subject of the above painting) is working on a very interesting PhD topic: the ethics of having children, particularly with respect to overpopulation. She sent me an article from The New Yorker by Elizabeth Kolbert*, who suggests that, rather than it being a natural and morally laudable act to procreate, those who wish to transform potential people into actual people ought to justify this drive (p. 3). Where our ancestors had little control over the consequences of their amorous entwines, we have a distinct choice, and with choice comes ethical implications.

People offer all sorts of charming reasons for producing offspring. A pearler I heard this week was: ‘It just happens.’ A just as convincing argument was put forth in this exchange I was witness to:

Childless woman: ‘I like the bit where I get to be the awesome aunty and then I get to give it back.’
Father: ‘Yeah, and you don’t see the best bit. All the screaming and tears all the way home from visiting the aunty.’

Parents are so deprived of sleep they seem to have lost all rational capacities and can’t see that they are arguing the same thing as non-parents, but incomprehensibly arriving at the exact opposite conclusion.

I suspect that parents, having anticipated roses and gurgling giggles and having subsequently discovered tantrums and mess extending from one edge of existence to the other, have no other recourse but to proclaim their superiority, selflessness and general fortitude over the childless, and they certainly are a self-sacrificing lot of punishment-seekers. Given their children are in existence, they are doing an admirable job of keeping them alive.

However, such parents’ application of morality to the situation is back-to-front. Having children does not give you moral brownie points; nor does refraining from having them make you a selfish and immoral person. Once you have one, you undeniably ought to make a good go of it, and will have ample opportunity to exhibit all sorts of heroic qualities. But ethics enters the equation before birth. In our modern world, we have a responsibility to ask ourselves what the costs of increasing the population are. Kolbert (p. 4) cites Queen’s University (Ontario) philosopher Christine Overall: ‘To have a child in order to benefit oneself is a moral error.’

Overall is arguing that parents place undue emphasis on their own happiness and that of their children at the expense of greater humanity and, indeed, the earth. South African professor David Benetar (p. 5) argues that ‘Humans have the unfortunate distinction of being the most destructive and harmful species on earth. The amount of suffering in the world could be radically reduced if there were no more.’ I will take it as implied that overpopulation entails some very nasty things for everybody, and won’t belabor the point.

Robyn in fact loves children, and is not taking aim at anyone who happens to have any. But her research highlights the modern reality that once we are able to make decisions about things that previously were an unavoidable fact of life, we face some difficult ethical evaluation of our options. No more can we rely on the simplistically happy response of the past, branding every pregnancy ‘[insert name]’s baby joy!’ And no more should the childless accept accusations of selfishness and general condescension from those who haven’t given the question adequate thought.

* Kolbert, Elizabeth. 2012. ‘The case against kids: Is procreation immoral?’ in The New Yorker.

Above, Robyn enthuses over the glorious op shops of Albuquerque.

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Melbourne sketchbook

Cabinet

We packed our bags and made for Melbourne last week, to drink coffee, guzzle wine, discover jazz haunts and generally slow down. It was unbelievably refreshing to take some time out and to soak up other people’s cleverness.

Glory of hair

There are loads of things to do in Melbourne, but my favourites involve lots of sitting about in window seats or on wooden pallets, drinking the aforementioned coffee and wine, philosophising with friends and simply sitting, watching, reading and sketching.

Studying

So now my little ideas book is brimming with scribbles waiting to be galvanised like Frankenstein’s creature, only less repulsive.

Colombian hot chocolate

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