Friday, November 19, 2010

Review: Electronic City

Preamble: I wasn't going to review Hoy Polloy's new production Electronic City because one of my oldest friends (and current housemate) is in it. This is, in the classic parlance, a conflict of interest. But it's had me thinking about that old doozy for a while, and of course it's something that every critic in Melbourne probably bumps their shins against once in a while. In a way, I think a critic who doesn't have conflicts of interest might be in a more difficult position than one who does. After all, a 'conflict of interest' can also be shortened to an 'interest' and the whole idea of the disinterested critic is, to me, a troubling one in an artistic culture of the sort this city boasts.

Maybe 'interested' and 'disinterested' are too vexed terms to employ here, bringing with them a long history of argument over the objective and subjective relationships between a critic and a work. For 'interested' I could substitute the word 'invested', because I do feel that anything I write about local theatre is an investment I'm making – I want it to result in a better return. But investment implies an economy, a financing, a fiscal dynamic that sours as it hits the tongue, too close to the imperatives of funding bodies and business models and strategic planning.

So we can replace 'investment' with 'involvement', cuckoo-like, and see what hatches. There are problems when a critic writes about something with which they have a personal involvement. How can we be assured of integrity and transparency and even-handedness, despite any number of disclaimers? It's why I haven't written reviews of Melbourne Fringe shows in The Sunday Age for the past few years, since my partner was Creative Producer for the organisation, and now that she's Artistic Director of the Next Wave festival I'll be doing the same for that (but also partly why, incidentally, this blog was established, since I think the hundred-odd Fringe shows I saw over that period deserved discussion somewhere).

But I also find it hard not to have an interest, an investment, or an involvement in the things I write about. I don't know any writers who don't. It's why, despite any claims to the contrary, Melbourne is an astonishing city to live in if you're at all interested in the arts. Just dip your toes in and you'll soon find yourself doing laps with someone whose worked you'd admired from afar, or who'll one day be treading the world stage. I can't count the number of judging panels, critic discussions, post-show foyer evaluations or on-air reviews I've been witness to that didn't include someone uttering the words “I have to point out that I'm a friend of so-and-so in this production”. Of course. That's why you're qualified to speak. Because we're all friends with some so-and-so, somewhere. That's what got us interested in the whole shebang.

I once sat in a pub stairwell with a maudlin Rose Byrne as she lamented a break-up. Once an award-winning local comedian asked me for a cigarette paper so he could roll a joint, and he hung around for a long chat about his dreams and disappointments. I once had a chorus role in a Daniel Keene play. I had a lead role opposite a Red Stitch ensemble member, alongside the director of new Australian flick Summer Coda. I went to uni with Ben Ellis and Caroline Craig and Angus Cerini. I was in a VCA film with Dan Spielman, and his performance put me to shame. I had an impromptu dance-off with Lally Katz (she won when she brought a full pot of boiling water into the mix). I've even been in a short play alongside Age critic Cameron Woodhead.

These (among others) aren't professional anecdotes but dim recollections, since for most I was working in a convenience store or getting fired from waiting jobs or scribbling for the street press. Short of arriving in Melbourne from overseas and leaping straight into a career as a critic, I don't see how someone could avoid personal involvement with the people you're writing about, and in that case I'd be wary of the authority such a person invoked to discuss the thing they witnessed. All the time, I see people checking out a show that a friend or family member is in and years later run into them making work themselves, embedded in a community that has sprung up around them.
Maybe Melbourne's artistic culture is like a virus, and close proximity must result in infection. Maybe the best critics are those with a rare resistance, or those who've been inoculated somehow. I doubt it. I think the best critic is someone who has the energy to discuss what they see, whether they're involved or not, whether they have an investment or otherwise, whether they have a personal interest in any sense of the term. I guess I hope that the handful of paid critics in this city have the professionalism to disregard personal bias, if not personal interest (and just between you and me? They do).

But maybe this is all just the longest disclaimer in blog-gone history.

Review: Electronic City is a damned fine piece of work, and I'd recommend it to all.

Mechanic's Institute, Brunswick. Ends. Nov 27.


Captain Angry Ranty Pants said...

As always, briliant

Liam said...

Lovely article. A writer friend of mine moved from NYC to Melbourne a few years ago and she absolutely loves it. The arts community in NYC is strong and incestuous, but she believes that it lacks the supportive, art-for-art's-sake element one finds in Melbourne.

Btw ... a woman in the comments section of a London newspaper article recently said that she once met Rose Byrne and that Rose is, "... not the sharpest tool in the shed." Please say it ain't so. Rose seems so charming and well-spoken in interviews.

Chris Boyd said...

If I may speak as a critic for a moment...

Best. Disclaimer. Ever.

[looks for 'like' button to click on)

richardwatts said...

I'm with Chris. Beautifully written. The interconectedness of Melbourne's arts community is one of the reasons I love this city so much.

Cameron Woodhead said...

Man, this circle-jerk isn't for real is it?

The only part of JB's dunderheaded, yawnworthy piece of self-rationalisation worth a damn is this:

"I think the best critic is someone who has the energy to discuss what they see."

And JB spends 15 words discussing what he's seen (which don't tally with some of the remarks he made after the freaking show, I might add). Pathetic.

Born Dancin' said...

Love it!

Also: note the incorrect apostrophe AND random period in the last line. Intolerable. Plus I reckon I was being a bit of a skite when I mentioned that I once met Rose Byrne. Who didn't seem stupid, Liam, but perhaps surprisingly guileless.

Chris Boyd said...

And John speaks highly of you too Cameron. (Er, actually he does. Loyal to a fault... which makes sense in the light of the above.)

Is 'energy' sine qua non? It's certainly not enough. What's so bad about other incentives? There are many shows I'd choose to ignore/forget about rather than slash, or (worse) go "meh" over. But a bit of professional disinterest -- gasp, even doin' it for money -- can be useful. No?

Cameron Woodhead said...

Er, I was being loyal. Saying nice things about people is the easy part of loyalty. It's criticising them when you think they deserve it that's risky and fraught. I try to do this, which is why my compliments (on JB's wonderful Albee interview, say) actually mean something.

"There are many shows I'd choose to ignore/forget about rather than slash, or (worse) go "meh" over."

I've done this too, but very sparingly. Criticism isn't an unpopularity contest. On the other hand, if our general policy is to ignore/forget about the weeds rather than slashing them, we won't have a garden left.

I will get around to discussing conflict of interest & related issues at length when I find the time. Suffice to say I think that the semantic legerdemain of converting the "interest" in "conflict of interest" into more general "involvement" is cheap and nasty.

Born Dancin' said...

Hey, some of my best friends are cheap and nasty.

And you don't say what criticism is fraught *with*, Cam. Something can be fraught with joy, for instance.

Otherwise, CB and CW, I agree with all opposing viewpoints expressed above.

Chris Boyd said...

Individual differences, Cameron. Individual differences. JB's idea of loyalty is rather different to yours. Not inferior, just different.

Your presumption that the "circle jerk" is some kind of encouraging pat on the back from friends and family who can't bring themselves to be honest and nasty is wrong too.

Cameron Woodhead said...

"JB's idea of loyalty is rather different to yours. Not inferior, just different."

Stop putting words into my mouth. Never said JB's loyalty was inferior, Chris. If anything, it's superior. (I get attacked a lot more, for a start, and I've seen how unpleasant things can get when people try to stick up for me. Ask Richard Watts about it.)

Plus this looks really weird. JB and I have moved in the same circles, on and off, since we were teenagers. You're "defending" him against someone who's closer than you yourself are. :S

"Your presumption that the "circle jerk" is some kind of encouraging pat on the back from friends and family who can't bring themselves to be honest and nasty is wrong too."

Really? I'll need a better argument than "You're wrong" to change my mind. You give no reason for your praise. Surely you have something more nuanced to say than: "Best. Disclaimer. Ever." Like, you know, addressing the substance of the argument, my critique, etc.

Alison Croggon said...

Yay! John changed his comments thingy and I can finally comment. The java always defeated me.

Excellent demonstration of negative capability, John.

Cameron, do you really think you're the only person in Melbourne who can be honest to his friends? Friendship has never been a problem for me in responding to work, though I have have lost a couple of friends over that. Their problem, not mine.

Michael Billington (who had a close relationship to Harold Pinter, among others, and wrote a fine book about him) made the point once that it's much harder as a critic being honest about one's enemies than one's friends. The reason being, any negative comment about an enemy will always be taken - no matter how just - as mere personal spite. I can certainly attest to the truth of that.

As for conflict of interest - in terms of newspaper ethics, it is very clear. All journalists depend on their contacts - the contact book is probably a journalist's most prized object, and the quality and depth of contacts is a precise measure of that journalist's specialist knowledge. This was true when I was reporting industrial relations, and it's true of theatre. Relationships per se are not a conflict of interest.

However, an on-going working relationship with someone you're reviewing is a real conflict in the institutional media. As of 2011, I will have such connections with people in both major companies here, which clearly is impossible. This is why I've resigned as Melbourne theatre critic from the Australian, from the end of this year, something I knew I would have to do several months ago. (I will say, to stem the inevitable gossip, that this was entirely on my own conscience, and my boss was very gratifyingly surprised and sorry).

I will, however, continue the blog: cleared of the responsibility of being Melbourne Theatre Critic For The Australian, it will be able to be much more what it is: work by a writer responding to the work she sees. The only thing I am accountable to there is art itself. And that is in fact the only accountability that I think counts.

Cameron Woodhead said...

"Cameron, do you really think you're the only person in Melbourne who can be honest to his friends?"

From the absolute past master of putting words into other people's mouths, I would expect no less.

Good that you're being true to your conscience; unfortunate that you seem to imagine conflict of interest and associated ethics somehow magically vanishes online.

Alison Croggon said...

I render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, Cameron. While working as a journalist, I abide by those guidelines, as is required. On the blog, my ethics are painstakingly transparent; rather more demandingly than I've ever been asked as a journalist. I don't hide behind institutions. And I've never pretended to be a "proper" critic. But maybe I should just suggest you try reading Robert Brustein.

Chris Boyd said...

"Stop putting words into my mouth."


I'd be more worried about the voices trying to put ideas in your head Cameron! :D

In fact, I'm the one who thinks JB's idea of loyalty is inferior, and not just different. But I come here to be both pricked and amused, to have my prejudices challenged.

And, no, there's no nuance you're missing out on. I said what I meant. And said all I meant. (Not much, true.)

Cameron Woodhead said...

Chris I'm confused.

Internet 1 Nuance 0.

Grr. Alison. Stop banging your shoe on the table.

Alison Croggon said...

Weren't you demanding earlier that someone "address the substance of the argument", Cameron? And yet, when someone does, they're "banging [their] shoe on the table". Bizarre. Or maybe it's just the usual bait and switch.

Perhaps directly quoting you, like asking you a direct question or stating an opinion that is clearly not yours is "putting words into [your] mouth". I echo Chris's exclamation marks.

I don't think you've quite got the hang of teh internetz, Cameron. Certainly you haven't grasped the basics of rational civil debate. You're well on your way to becoming the Andrew Bolt of the theatrical blogosphere. Keep up the trolling and personal attack, and you'll reach those dizzy heights in no time! (And this from a man who keeps banging on about ethics!)

I admit that it livens things up. To what end is not nearly so clear.

Nicholas Pickard said...

What an extraordinary series of comments. And slightly scary.

Anonymous said...

la woodhead = hilarious.

and this is the man who once said "the internet is full of trolls".

has he only made the transition to the blogsphere in order to prove himself right?

Cameron Woodhead said...

Alison, had you addressed the sustance of my argument, I might have responded. You can't argue your way out of a paper bag though, and constitute perhaps the most frightening case of narcissistic antiprocess I have ever seen in my life.

I know it's hard for you to believe, but my initial remarks WERE NOT ABOUT YOU, OK? My "banging your shoe on the table" comment was just trying to get you to shut the hell up and stop talking about yourself. (Only a guilty person leaps in to defend themselves when no one has accused them of anything, by the way.)

John's disclaimer is a woolly-headed wank, and it reduces his "review" to spin that doesn't represent his real opinion. Keats would roll in his grave to hear you say that this post is a fine example of "negative capability". Look at the practical effect of theatre world as "family", and how it enshrines and valorises the worst kind of mendacity, nepotism, hypocrisy, etc, which it seems to have inherited from capitalism. :(

But this is all such a hall of mirrors. Chris says "JB's idea of loyalty is rather different to yours. Not inferior, just different." and then claims he meant JB's idea of loyalty is in fact inferior. (Irony obviously needs to be better signposted on the internet.)

I give up. Someone invoke Godwin's law, please.

Cameron Woodhead said...

"You're well on your way to becoming the Andrew Bolt of the theatrical blogosphere. Keep up the trolling and personal attack, and you'll reach those dizzy heights in no time! (And this from a man who keeps banging on about ethics!)"

I can't let this pass. You are already the Andrew Bolt of the theatrical blogosphere, Alison. More than a few people (some in this thread, even) think you argue like him. And they are not your enemies, either. Perhaps you should reflect on the comparison.

Chris Boyd said...

My apologies Cameron. "JB's idea of loyalty is rather different to yours. Not inferior, just different." was a very public attempt at some cognitive behavioural therapy on my part... I was trying to persuade myself. I failed.

As for trolling, by the strict letter of the law, your first "circle jerk" comment should be included in any reference book on the art. You entered the discussion like a chainsaw at the local petting zoo.

Just sayin'...

angus cerini said...

Oh my, such a dizzingingly brilliant can of worms unleased by a far superior work of not just opinion, or philosophy, or even principle...

then followed in quick succession by a comment (#5 aka waste of space) so mean, so stupid, so fuckin dumb you just have to wonder at the particular make up of the writers last meal. I mean, what bile, what stinking festering rank excretous meal has that literary genius feasted on?

I wil say that honesty is a good policy, except when it's not. For instance, opening night, an actor asks what you think of a piece, you are positive, because that's just being kind and/or polite. After all, cutting in will hardly achieve anything that night will it? Or even during the season. In the cold light of 'later', an honest assessment can be made/offered/given - which depending on the relationship you have with this person can/should be measured in terms of the personal/professional (as in, do I want to stay friends with this person/is this person going to give me a job/be my boss one day).

That principle works across the world, and across industries.

So. I believe in closing that I have said the following to these people, and these words precisely:

To Chris Boyd in introducing him to someone: "this is Chris Boyd, he is the enemy".
To Cameron in challenging him about a bad (dumb/unintelligent review and upon realising who he was (that we went to uni together): "Man, why are you such a cunt?"

The point here being that you Cameron Woodhead describe John Baileys writing, his post as 'dunderheaded' etc, and yet you, you are the most singularly irrelevantly intelligent arts journo (perhaps person) in Melbourne. What does that mean? Well it means that by spouting such stuff (including the dropping of names of books and shit you've read), that you miss the point.

Too often, reading what you write is like reading a mirror of Cameron. Yes you are smart, but in such an impractical, ridiculously nonsensical way to demean the very idea of intelligence. You seem to know so much, why is it then you know so little?

That my friends is 'baiting', and some may even say 'trolling'. Mods, can I please be banned from this forum?

Cameron, I will say it again.
You are a dunderhead.

Chris Boyd said...

Damn, Angus. I thought you called me 'frenemy' and that we bonded cos of our mutual love of Sex & the City. :D

Cameron Woodhead said...

Hi Angus,

I'd be the first to admit I have my dunderheaded moments. Also impractical. Sometimes ridiculous. Am I irrelevant? Probably, in the grand scheme of things, but most of us are. All I can say in my defence is that I describe what I've seen and what I thought about it without fear or favour, and I do so because I care about theatre.

Comment #5 isn't "mean stupid or fucking dumb". Not even JB says that. For what it's worth I wasn't going to post anything here. Then, days later, there was a vapid cheer squad in action, so I felt obliged to be candid. I wasn't trolling. I was attempting to stimulate debate and make people think hard about what JB had written, and what it means.

Trolling sets out to personally attack people and sidetrack or shut down debate. My comment was directed squarely at what JB had written. It scarcely shut down debate, although it's predictable that people are tending to focus on the form rather than the content of my remarks.

And yes I'm sure actors, directors and other theatre artists do have to schmooze and politick in the way you describe. Critics try to be personable, too ... but where you have the luxury of fudging; we must (or should) be honest, sometimes brutally so, and typically while the show is still running. That's our job.

RUIN said...

You lot ought to get off the internet and go run some laps around an inner city park somewhere. You could use the exercise i reckon.

Liam said...

Dear Cameron: I don't need anyone to "make [me] think hard" about what someone else writes. I'm perfectly capable of processing and reacting to articles without your unbelievably arrogant (and childishly judgmental) guidance. The only "dunderheaded", "yawnworthy" and "pathetic" person here is you.

Vapid cheering squad? Get the hell over yourself.

Cameron Woodhead said...

If this is you thinking hard, Liam, you're "not the sharpest tool in the shed". Just sayin'.

Liam said...

Here's a little tip for you, Cam: If you wish to initiate an intelligent, critical discussion, come up with something interesting to say, then say it. It's very simple.

How did YOU proceed? You came on here like a petulant child, barking vulgar insults you mistakenly believed to be clever, then awaited the fallout. And we gave it to you. While you managed to succeed in your pitiful goal of making the "discussion" entirely about you, you failed to use your brains to say ANYTHING of value. I may not have posted fascinating comments, but I didn't behave like a self-centered ass while ridiculously pretending to be a noble shit stirrer in the cause of the greater intellectual good.

Stop behaving like a fraud and start using your mind to say something worthwhile. Stop hiding behind a hostile facade and have the guts to say something from your heart. You seem capable of it (I wouldn't have responded to the nasty taunts of a moron). It's possible to challenge mediocrity without being a complete asshole. Good luck to you.

Cameron Woodhead said...

Dude, this is still not convincing me of your shed's tool's sharpness. Look at JB's response. Now look at yours.

As for making this "all about me": that's the last thing I wanted, but you seem to insist on making it so. Talk about the goddamn issue rather than launching ad hominem attacks. Bah. Enough feeding the trolls.