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In Adelaide recently for a variety of reasons including taking He Who Had A Birthday To Celebrate out for dinner (and what a dinner it ended up being) but also to experience the Fringe Festival, which we did with much unearthly delight, I found myself in North Adelaide one night in a room above a café watching a young man film himself.  No, I hadn’t strayed and ended up in a strip joint, though this was before He Who Had A Birthday To Celebrate flew over to join me.

You see, I’d run into a friend at an arts function – Malcolm, a performance artist, and I first met on a residency last year.  Anxiously, he invited me to attend his Fringe show.  I’d seen his work before, in fact I’d been quite moved by it: it was both shambolic and finely honed, which sounds oxymoronic, I know, but is accurate.

So I accepted the invitation and headed over the Torrens.  The café was posh: well-dressed patrons comfortably sipped expensive wine or imported beer and ate $30 pizzas.  But upstairs five other people and I watched the young man film himself; for an hour he did nothing else but dance, the footage projected on vertical blinds for our viewing pleasure, on an adjacent wall YouTube video clips of other people filming themselves dancing.  Apparently it was about how the internet has blurred the line between public and private, which is undoubtedly true.

After a ten-minute break during which I hurriedly drank a glass of Riesling, we returned upstairs and watched Malcolm, now alone, begin his piece (his opening-act colleague had inexplicably scuttled away in a taxi).  But Malcolm was so nervous he couldn’t get a glass of red wine to his lips.  Nevertheless, he repeatedly asked us to love him; he stripped down to his boxer shorts and conversed with an empty chair; he eventually managed to get some red wine into his mouth and then let it dribble down his neck and chest so it looked like he was bleeding from the inside; he smashed a red wine bottle and put the shards between his toes and paraded around the room; he tried to explain the show by drawing a graph on the wall; he sang a Nick Cave song; he finished by inviting us to get naked, which we declined.

In the taxi back to the relative safety of Hindley Street, I couldn’t help wondering what makes someone travel halfway across the country to perform in front of six people.  The thrill of the risk-taking?  The rush of communication?  The satisfaction of pursuing a career most would consider useless at best?

I bunkered down in my hotel room.  Needing company I clicked on the large flat-screen TV and watched beautiful young men and women go through their meretricious moves on So You Think You Can Dance.  And then some Peter Carey lines popped into my head, from his story The Death of a Famous Mime: ‘Asked to describe death he busied himself taking Polaroid photographs of his questioners.  Asked to describe marriage he handed out small cheap mirrors with MADE IN TUNISIA written on the back.  His popularity declined.’

My friend Malcolm may or may not end up being popular, but his bravery has been etched onto my mind.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, March 27 2010.)

In Radelaide recently (‘Radelaide’ being what appears to be a relatively new and sarcastic moniker for the grand old dame of South Australia, Adelaide) I spent a lot of time walking between Hindley Street, which is the Kings Cross of that part of the world and blogged about below in ‘Every City Has Sex’, an admittedly meretricious title for a post, but, hey, we all want to be wanted don’t we), and Rundle Street, because that wildly wicked Fringe Festival was on at the bottom of the street. So I wore out a fair bit of rubber on the old joggers, which I really should replace, though I don’t want to, because me and those joggers have been through so much – we’ve struck up this friendship and I can’t break it off, not yet.

Hang on, this isn’t about footwear friendships.  It’s about chicks.  Kind of.

Between Hindley Street and Rundle Street is Rundle Mall, a typical Australian pedestrian plaza filled with chewy-struck brick pavers, reject shops, fashion stores that only those with too little taste would bother entering, bubblers that don’t work, a bit of public art here and there (fat brass pigs banging around fake rubbish bins, that kind of thing), and stranded cafes selling over-priced coffee and cakes that should have been taken to the tip weeks ago.  Actually it’s not that bad – I’m just getting carried away with myself…yet again (but getting carried away is my professional obligation, or so I keep telling myself).

But then, on a hoarding for a new fit-out for a department store, I spotted a series of women.  Of course, there weren’t really women stuck to the hoarding, though that would have been very interesting indeed – as I said, this was the time of the Fringe, so anything can happen, anything should happen, so a group of women stapling themselves to a temporary facade would have been just lovely.  But the images: LIFE-SIZED (I can’t stress that enough) cartoons of young, apparently modern women.  There was The Professional Woman, The Casual Woman, and the High Society Woman.  There were others but I was beginning to look like a freak as I snapped away at what were essentially marketing images. We live in age when a man with a digital camera in public is either a terrorist or a pervert, and I’m happy to report I am neither.

Despite sounding like a Year Twelve Media Studies teacher, I can’t help asking a question: what do the images want to tell us?  ‘If you’re a woman, you too can have the waist the size of a 5-cent piece, the head the size of a hot-air balloon, and the eyes that Walt Disney would kill for.’  If you’re one of the developed world’s larger girls or women, are they saying, ‘Come inside this department store and we’ll make you slim and slinky and beautiful?  Just spend some money and walk out carrying a few shopping bags and you’ll have the biggest spring in your step it’ll be like you’ve just shagged 10,000 Jude Laws.’

Are these images saying, ‘Don’t worry about what you eat – just yack it up and all’s well?’  Are they saying, ‘Women don’t really have stomachs – that’s a myth’?  Are they saying, ‘Women can be anything they want, so come inside, max out your credit card and validate your freedom’?

I may well be getting all worked up over nothing.  Tell me I’m getting worked up about nothing.  Except Canadian humourist (and economist, would you believe) Stephen Leacock did say in The Garden of Folly (1924) that ‘Advertising may be described as the science of arresting the human intelligence long enough to get money from it’.  He’s got a point, doesn’t he.

Still, tell me to go listen to some wretchedly miserable contemporary rock band (Oh God, he’s going to mention The Antlers again, I hear you cry).

Tell me to just go to sleep and wake up cheery like a normal person.

I took these images over the weekend just gone in Hindley Street, Adelaide.  Hindley Street is essentially the seedy end of that South Australian town, filled with a wild, almost out of control mix of cancerous fast-food franchises, strip joints, sports bars, wine bars, hotels (some posh, some not), and independent bookshops with a fair bit of street art, both permanent and ephemeral, thrown in for good measure.  To spend a week in the street  – so to speak – was a joy, especially for someone who comes from the right side of the tracks.

I was in Adelaide for a range of reasons, including attending the Fringe Festival (which was bloody brilliant – steal money from your grandma to see Australia’s own The Burlesque Hour and The Wau-Wau Sisters from New York) as well as for He Who Deserves The Best Bars and Restaurants Money Can Buy, because it was his birthday, well, it’s almost his birthday.

But since I’ve been back in the comfort of my own house and street and suburb and city, I’ve been thinking about the miracle that is a pulsing city street, one that’s human despite the threat in the faces of the people who live there, beautiful despite the ugliness, wanting despite the aloofness.

Tonight I’ve come across a quote from the British author and critic John Berger.  In Keeping a Rendezvous (1987), he wrote ‘Every city has a sex and an age which have nothing to do with demography.  Rome is feminine.  So is Odessa.  London is a teenager, an urchin, and, in this, hasn’t changed since the time of Dickens.  Paris, I believe, is a man in his twenties in love with an older woman’.

I’m not from Adelaide but I’d call it an old-man wino in search of a cultural experience or a quickie in a laneway. And my home town, Canberra?  A bored middle-class white boy speeding along in a stolen car hoping to crash into some meaning.

Your place – how would you describe it?

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