My day off at The Festival of Ideas

I should have known by my unproductive Thursday night and Friday morning, caused by a foggy head, that a (luckily rather mild) migraine was coming. However, I did not face facts so I still found myself at three ‘Festival of Ideas’ events, a lunchtime meeting with fellow students and our Head of School and being grateful that it had seemed to wet to ride in the morning when I was navigating my way to the bus stop being unable to tell the difference between stationary and moving objects on the footpath. Today has been completely written off when it comes to ‘field-work’ and my recollections from yesterday are sketchy at best.

Identity is a pretty broad topic, which I suppose makes it a suitable theme for events like this one. Two of the clearest arguments about identity from the day included

  • Identity as something protective that politicians hide behind (Mr Peter Nicholson)
  • Books should not be identified as belonging in/ not belonging in the various criteria (Ms Louise Swinn)

 Perhaps the discussion of identity most relevant to my current project was provided by Professor Shane Murray. He spoke about the significance of drawing on the identifiable local architectural idiom. His conclusion was that we should include an emphasis on both building as social container and catalyst and questions of aesthetics. The most relevant part of his talk is that when he showed a photograph of a house extension in Elwood done by NMBW as an example of when it is gotten right, all I could notice in the photograph is that the place looked remarkably like a building which has been pointed out to me, in the course of my ‘field-work’ as an example of built form preventing social interaction with people passing by.

During the chair’s questions at the end of the 10am session, the point was made that we should tell the stories, and it is because we do not that young people feel they need to reinvent everything. I think good history scholarship, like good anthropology, can de-naturalise assumptions about the world and what it is to be a person. Perhaps it is my own failings to really hear and know enough of the stories of Australia’s recent past which lead to me being called ‘cosmopolitan’ by my supervisor (because of my inability to accept that there was some sort of perfect community before people started complaining about neo-liberalism)?

The 1.30pm session on ‘Australian Bio-diversity and the Landscape of Imagination’ was notable for the audience’s insistence on asking questions about urban areas when considered in contrast to the addresses by panelists. It is not that discussion of the suburbs and suburb dwellers was absent. Professor Ary Hoffmann was not just talking about the high country, but was also talking about what Australians think the high country should look like, and how changes can be incorporated into that (e.g. brumbies). Professor Tim Bonyhady provided an interesting discussion of the role of reproductions used in homes (eg prints, placemats and Christmas cards) in bringing representations of the Australian landscape into homes and the consciousness of Australians.

However, this session as a whole and the tension between the ideal of landscape as remote or at least farmed rural land compared with the audience asking questions about cities really reminded me of a fellow student’s suggestion that the early obsession with highrise towers was about suspending polluting humans off the earth. The old housing commission in Melbourne provide a great example of this; they were surrounded by grass and the ground floor generally (or was it always?) featured an open under-croft. Now we see a shift as the undercrofts seem to largely have been built in (eg Hoddle Street, Brunswick Street) and even the surrounding grass is being built over to provide more fashionable ‘mixed’ development (e.g. Carlton, Brunswick Street).

This is not a criticism of the session. I really liked the way that Hoffmann and Bonyhady provided interesting and accessible analysis to ask interesting questions or challenge popular conceptions. While I found myself wondering if Dr Janine Burke was actually providing a parody of academia/ the arts scene, I had never before heard such a positive reading of Emily’s career so it was good for filling a rather large knowledge gap I had.

 

The final session for the day, Australian Identity and Australian Humour, turned out to be two performances. These were really enjoyable, and I especially liked that the headache worsening lights that were shining into the audience for the rest of the day were turned down.

 

In conclusion, I really should not have taken yesterday off because today has been quite a write-off. Perhaps some of the points made yesterday will provide interesting conversation jump off points in the weeks ahead, but I will not go next year unless I pack sunglasses to wear while sitting in the audience.

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