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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Style and epistemological decisions

Downtime, Berlin © Samantha Groenestyn

The question of style is something that I have been giving some thought of late. How does one uncover one’s style, and how does one develop it? Does amassing a collection of work really amount to a ‘body’ of work—will the pieces speak to each other, and somehow stand united? Is style simply what pours out of the end of your brush, or can you train it, and if you imitate the work of someone else, how much can you appropriate into your own style?

Bike riding through the city

The ever provocative Susan Sontag* has some ideas in her essay ‘On Style.’ She argues that when metaphors are concocted to explain style, they inevitably ‘plac[e] matter on the inside, style on the outside. It would be more to the point to reverse the metaphor’ (p. 17). In this she agrees with Cocteau, whom she cites: ‘Decorative style has never existed. Style is the soul, and unfortunately with us the soul assumes the form of the body’ (p. 17).

This is appealing from a practical point of view. In creating something, it can feel as though the thing created is limited in many ways. I might attempt to write a book in the spirit of Thomas Hardy, but find my writing to constantly fall short. This is explained by Cocteau’s position, in that my writing will be restricted by my own facility with words and my particular habits in stringing them together. Rather than falling short of writing in Hardy’s style, my writing will simply exhibit my own style, at its particular stage of development.

The same may be said of illustration: I have particular gouache techniques that allow me to achieve very specific effects, I have a steady hand with a pen, and I have some innate (though nascent) understanding of tone, but my particular experience and practices will not allow me to achieve just any style. My very lack of experience dramatically restricts my art to the point that my right hand feels like it lives in a deterministic universe. It does not yet know what it can achieve, or how to achieve the styles that get me excited, and feels quite set on its course to make the type of art that it does. Ira Glass expressed the sentiment of being a person of taste whose capabilities have not yet met the high standards of one’s taste, which I think equally applicable to style.

Sontag notes the importance of repetition to style, which not only allows us to class it but also aids our memory (p. 34). It is easy to spot the patterns in any artist’s work, and this repetition allows us to explore something more fully, in a meditative way and, further, gives us a means to perfect our craft. Sontag goes so far as to say that being able to spot these repetitions is what makes art intelligible to the viewer (p. 35). Motifs are a powerful way of connecting with and communicating with our audience. Their frequent appearances are little clues to those familiar with our work, an ongoing dialogue, even an inside joke.

What is repeated depends on what it is that we care to emphasise. Sontag refers to the function of ‘insisting on something’ and removing other things—‘ the most potent elements in a work of art are, often, its silences’ (pp. 35, 36). ‘Every style embodies an epistemological decision, an interpretation of how and what we perceive’ (p. 35). Art allows us so many means of distorting the world, narrowing it, making small parts of it larger, creating fantasies within it, glorying in it. We make these decisions every time we arrange a composition, or strike upon a colour combination, or obsessively note down leaf structures. It only remains for us to share our style—our inner experience of the world—in the outward objects we create. To do this, we must repeat what needs repeating, and in repeating develop our technical proficiency to match our style.

* Sontag, Susan. 1994. ‘On style,’ in Against interpretation. Vintage: London.

In the morning we are going on holidays!

Downtime, Berlin is a study after Yelena Bryksenkova. Uncertain about how to move away from realism, I attempted to reimagine my own image with some of her motifs and methods that I found appealing. While nothing is directly copied, the spirit of the piece feels too near to hers for my comfort. This has given me much to ponder—does my style approach hers, when I have the techniques needed at my disposal? I sense that I am far too attached to realism—particularly tone—but I did enjoy the opportunity to exploit patterns to such dramatic effect.

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Meandering luxuriously through time and space

To the Secret Forest © Samantha Groenestyn

I have a peculiar way of reading books, but I assure you that there is method in it. One book is most certainly not enough to read at any given time. This is because one reads for a variety of purposes, and certain purposes suit certain moods. One certainly wants some philosophy on hand, to feed one’s brain, but novels are equally rewarding in the relaxation they afford. Instructional texts are best read in small pieces, so that the information can be digested as tasks are performed. Multiple books of each type are necessary for contrast and comparison, as lenses through which to view one another, but most of all, to slow one down.

I started a Leonard Cohen novel about a year ago, and I am savouring every last sentence of the epilogue. This is a sure indication that I am attached to a book—I do not want it to end. The best way to prevent a book from ending is to read many other books concurrently and save the best one for optimal reading time. Optimal reading time will most likely involve lamplight, wine and your favourite music. Downtime is also excellent reading time, but generally less than optimal—on the train, waiting for the train, or waiting for your coffee date to arrive. There are always people causing distractions and saying ridiculous things that interfere with your reading. During my downtime, I am reading Oscar Wilde. He thinks he is very clever, and while his witticisms are overdone and forced, they are better than inadvertently hearing people’s conversations on the train.

Michelle Boulous Walker is working on what she calls an aesthetics of reading. Walker originally believed that her thoughts would uncover an ethics of reading, in that if we have a moral obligation to texts, it is that we afford them respect through reading them thoroughly and attentively. As she explained to me recently, aesthetics remains fiercely intertwined with this ethics.

The key to any philosophy of ethical reading is, as I see it, the notion of respect which recurs in her paper Becoming Slow: Philosophy, Reading and the Essay (2011).* This respect requires the dying art of patience—‘the patience involved in “sitting with” the world,’ reminiscent of the Situationist technique of De’rive, though, of course, with more direction. Where certain Situationists would lead their Parisian architecture classes in the mode of ‘drifting’—a solid day of drinking coffee on the terrace of a café, literally yet attentively watching the world go by for hours on end, learning by observing how people move in space (as Ve’ronique Vienne** describes), Walker calls for an equally slow indulgence in a book—a ‘rumination,’ as Nietzsche (p. 269) describes it; a ‘meditation’ in Walker’s words (p. 272). Nietzsche suggests that a serious reader, by contrast with ‘modern man,’ ‘need[s] to be a cow’ to possess such ruminative qualities. While not deliberately wasting time in order to resist boredom, as the Situationists sought to do, respectful readers will allocate sufficient time for reading, re-reading and meditating on texts that will, in the modern world, seem wasteful, behind and perhaps even disengaged. The irony is that expressing such patience allows ‘thought to emerge and respectfully engage with the world’ (p. 265, emphasis my own)—extending the ethics of reading into our broader experiences in the world.

Cows on the way to Brisbane's Secret Forest

Walker describes two forms of respectful meditation akin to reading: art and the essay. Art requires a slow approach to the world, a careful reading of visual stimulus, an attentive recording of forms and colours. An artist might approach the same subject matter again and again, perfecting technique and building up knowledge about that subject matter, be it a mountain range or human anatomy. Portrait artist Michael Shapcott captures this point when he explains: ‘It’s so fascinating to me that I can slightly alter the angle of an eye or the color of a cheek and the entire expression of the figure changes, changing the entire feel of the piece. The art of bringing emotion to a flat surface will always be a lifelong experience and learning process for me.’ Reading, I would suggest, is more akin to viewing art than creating it, though much art has provided mental food for centuries. Learning any process of creation can slow us down and help us to appreciate the art form in front of us—be it a few steps of ballet, opening our eyes to the complexity of a professional performance.

In terms of the essay—and I like to extend this to long-form writing in a more general sense—Walker (p. 274) summarises Adorno: ‘By refusing too hurriedly to seize the world, to understand it by containing it, to speak definitively, to summarise, or assimilate it, the essay offers us a future philosophy—one that holds out the hope for a slow engagement with the complexity and ambiguity of the world.’

Slow, meditative reading, argues Walker (p. 274), ‘would thwart our modern preoccupation with speed and haste, and open us to the wondrous space of a slow engagement that welcomes thought, rather than shutting it out.’

The Secret Forest

 

 

* Walker, Michelle Boulous. 2011. ‘Becoming Slow: Philosophy, Reading and the Essay.’ In The Antipodean Philosopher: Public Lectures on Philosophy in Australia and New Zealand, Volume 1. Eds. Graham Oppy and N. N. Trakakis. Lexington: Plymouth UK.
** Vienne, Ve’ronique. 2002. ‘The Spectacle: A reevaluation of the Situationist thesis.’ In Looking Closer 4. Eds. Michael Beruit, William Drenttel, Steven Heller. Allworth: New York.
↬ Hat tip to Emily Jeffords for putting me onto Michael Shapcott, who is about to embark on an ambitious project funded by fans through KickStarter.

News: My online shop is now open for business! Treat yourself to a print, or pen your friend or secret lover a poem on a charming note card. I will be adding more illustrations in a sedate and unhurried manner, and you are most welcome to request any favourites you would like to see make an appearance. x

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Return

Return © Samantha Groenestyn

Dad always came home from work around sunset, and we would drop everything, no matter what, to run to greet him. We’d hear his panel van roaring down the street long before it crunched down the gravel driveway, and while we waited, our minds bubbled with thoughts of the lollypops and chocolate frogs he might bring us. To our small selves, this was a momentous part of each day. (Illustration Friday).

Medium: gouache
Listening to: Powderfinger

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