Art writing and MeMO Review
Rex Butler, Helen Hughes, Anna Parlane, Amelia Winata and Cameron Hurst in conversation.
Founders and contributors of online critical art writing platform Memo Review lead a live-on-campus session on art writing and review. Since January 2017, Memo Review has published weekly online reviews of visual art in and around Melbourne, featuring a broad range of art exhibitions at public art museums, commercial galleries and smaller artist-run spaces. Memo offers new critical perspectives from the next generation of Australian art scholars, writers and artists, many of them currently working and studying at Monash University. Students will have the opportunity to hear from Amelia Winata, Camerson Hurst, Anna Parlane, Helen Hughes and Rex Butler.
Form x Content is a mix of live and pre-recorded events featuring the voices of renowned First Nations, Australian and international artists, designers, architects, curators and academics. The program is delivered every Wednesday lunchtime during Monash University teaching semesters, with a mix of live and online sessions broadcast on the big screen at Monash Caulfield and Clayton campus.
Form x Content engages with the ideas, histories, sites and critical questions of our time. The Semester 1 program focused on sustainability, collaboration and the ways in which First Nations artists centre Country in their practices. Semester 2 will explore ideas of disruption and resilience, together with queer perspectives on artistic practice and urban space.
Form x Content is free and accessible to all. Join us Wednesday lunchtimes at 1pm—live or online and on the big screens, Caulfield and Clayton campuses.
Hannah Mathews: So welcome to today's session of Monash's Form x Content. My name is Hannah Mathews, I'm Senior Curator at Monash University Museum of Art, MUMA. For our low-sighted audiences, a brief visual description of myself. I'm standing in my lockdown Zoom room, I have long hair, a denim jacket on, and a pale complexion. As we begin, I would like to acknowledge the people of the Kulin Nations on whose Country the campuses of Monash University are located, and from where we are variously Zooming this evening. I'd like to pay my respects to traditional owners and the Elders, past, present, and emerging, and acknowledge Aboriginal connection to material and creative practice on these lands and waterways for more than 60,000 years.
Form x Content is a mix of live and prerecorded events featuring the voices of renowned First Nations, Australian and international artists, designers, architects, curators, and academics. The series engages with critical questions of our time with our semester two program focusing on ideas of disruption and resilience together with queer perspectives on artistic practice and urban space.
Tonight's conversation is focused on art writing, and we are incredibly pleased to have with us several founders and contributors to Melbourne's Memo Review, including Cameron Hurst, Amelia Winata, Anna Parlane, Helen Hughes, and Rex Butler. Since January 2017, every Saturday morning Memo Review publishes online reviews of visual art in and around Melbourne, featuring a broad range of art exhibitions at public art museums, commercial galleries, and smaller artist-run spaces. It's been an absolute comfort for these reviews to continue arriving in my inbox every Saturday morning during Victoria's various lockdowns.
Tonight, we thought we'd begin our conversation with Rex's account of Memo Review's origin story, a pub story I believe, and then in an attempt to share the diversity of writings and approaches that Memo encourages, our guests have chosen their favourite reviews by other writers and will share what they like about it, and maybe even read some of these excerpts. And then I understand the conversation will also parlay over into Memo's future plans. So thank you for joining us and thank you to our guests, and Rex, could I invite you to begin the story?
Rex Butler: All right. Thank you, Hannah, thank you very much. Yeah. My colleagues want me to give the... They sent me an email about this, the origin story of Memo. Those of you who've read a bit of psychoanalysis probably know that origin stories are when children imagine their own origins, and I try to think that instead of the arbitrary fact that their parents gave birth to them not knowing what was going to happen, that somehow not only did their parents choose them, but the kids can somehow choose their parents. And so people imagine that their destiny is sort of given, that they were sort of destined that this was going to happen, they were going to be born, their parents we're going to be the parents they had, instead of being the kind of luck, and chance, and contingency of all of our births. And that's sort of true of Memo.
And I think my colleagues put the word "origin" in inverted commas because they know very well the arbitrariness of things. In other words, if in a way, I'm vaguely the father of all this, I don't think they think that they're the father they would choose. There is quite a funny story to all of this. I came to Melbourne, I think about 2016. And one of the nice things that Helen Hughes got me to do is mentor some young writers at Gertrude Street, that's where I, in fact, met Amelia and Audrey Schmidt who also writes from Memo. And I really knew there was a fantastic context of young people doing stuff in Melbourne.
And Helen then asked me to launch an edition of the online journal she was doing called EMAJ, she and a bunch of other people. And I launched it, I had a few drinks before the launch, and during the launch, I said, "Someone should start on online web review doing reviews every week." Because I knew that The Age newspaper was running its reviews down, and that newspapers were, all around Australia, having terrible problems kind of continuing the long practice of weekly reviews.
And we all went off for a drink, and as we went on a group of young... Many of the young people subsequently being involved in Memo, sort of gathered, and we're all chatting away, and we left sort of drunkenly that evening with the thought that we would start on online journal. In fact, at the cool Fitzroy pub we were all having a drink at, not only was it gathering many of the people who who going to be involved in Memo, but actually, and students, these people came from Melbourne and Monash, but in fact, weirdly, at the same time, Helen can vouch for that, the vice-chancellors of Melbourne University and of Monash University, who happened to be married to each other, were also in the pub at the same time. And as I got more and more excited about Memo I was really going to get up and sort of tell them about this. Luckily I think someone wrenched me to the ground and saved me losing my job, but we got it going.
But really the point is, it's not how things start, it's how they keep going. And I, as kind of the old outsider of the whole group, look on at this fabulous group of people who incredibly efficiently get this thing done and I too am full of the same sense of wonder that Hannah is that the thing happens every Saturday. I now have very little to do with it, I'm the proofreader, that's all, everything else is done by everybody else. Everybody's got on incredibly well during the several years it's got running, and really, everyone involved takes great pride in the fact that it's happening and everyone feels ownership. I think that's really, really important.
In fact, I just want to get a slide up, I think, of something. This is by Cameron, who is here, and she talks really beautifully, I think, about what reviewing is. And I think she really nicely puts into words the kind of continuing challenge for anyone writing reviews. And you could say, "God, you've been doing it for much longer than everyone else Rex, aren't you over it?" Or, "Do you still have to try really hard to write a good review?" Trust me, I don't do the best reviews in Memo, lots of other people do, but I still enjoy doing it because it's a kind of test for myself, and it's a test for all of us when we try and do it.
And Cameron writes in this fantastic little sort of exchange she has with Audrey really nicely about what motivates her, and I'll just read it out because it's lovely, and I completely abide by this. "What do you think the point of a review is? Especially in this pandemic context. Is it to provide a comprehensive document of what the show was like for people who couldn't legally attend?" A little bit. "To summarise themes?" A little bit. "To pick "rising stars"?" Maybe a little bit of that too. This is nice, "Maggie Nelson has described art writing as a 'performative moment'."
And I think all of us who write for Memo do it because we like the performance of trying to figure out how to write a good review that week in this context. And that's the thing about weekly reviewing, it's sort of continually changing context. In other words, if someone's written a kind of review the week before a Memo, it means you can't really just do the same review the next week, and it changes ever so subtly the way you're going to write for that week. And that's another little factor you have to take into account.
And Cameron goes on nicely to say all this. "I like this way of thinking about reviewing, where it isn't framed as a pious public service nor a totalising judgment of worth." And that's also very true because Memo is this sort of ongoing project of meditating upon its own judgements. One review will subtly put into context what's been written several weeks before. Reviews are in some kind of conversation with each other.
And I think even more than a single reviewer, usually the model for newspapers, the fact there are the many different voices at Memo, gives it this nice dialogical sense. People write with different assumptions, from different points of view, and not only I hope do our readers sort of put them into a kind of conversation, but I'm sure our writers do. In fact, we're quite conscious of the fact we want to have a whole bunch of different voices and different tones writing, coming from different positions. We write about small indie-run shows, we write about the National Gallery of Victoria, and we write about everything in between.
And we know that really a good review system will cover all of those things and have all those different voices. "Even though it was hard to review a huge, unthemed exhibition in a minuscule word count, it was a fun constraint." And she's put that very nicely because again, the fact that when you're asked to do the review for this Saturday, you have to get it together, and thus far, as Hannah said, not one person, it's a miracle, has ever failed to come up with a review on that Saturday, they've factored in the constraint. Constraint one, it has to be in by Friday evening for someone to proofread and get up online, and everyone's done it. And people have played with the constraints with reviews, people have written crazy unhinged things, but not entirely crazy, they've somehow grasped the sense of the review. Lots of people play by the rules of the review, and even that's sort of unorthodox nowadays.
So that's what I think our writers respond to, the challenge of writing, and Cameron's put it really nicely. "For me, it became a concise exercise in style, perhaps at the sacrifice of considered content." But maybe not, maybe good style is good content. And you can never say everything you want to in one of the Memo reviews, you can't write long enough, although many of us have written, occasionally, very, very long reviews, which we shouldn't. But I hope that the reader also sees the kind of play with and against the rules of reviewing.
And I think one of the prides we all take is that we have continued the genre and the exercise of art reviewing well into the 21st century when newspapers are vanishing, when audience expectations are vanishing, and there are things like Instagram, and Twitter, and stuff, which sort of diminish the length of reviews and things. And I think, even the youngest of us have grasped the history and sort of the sense of standards which you're holding yourself up against when you try to write actually a review of art. And again, I think Cameron's really beautifully conscious of this. And I probably have picked Cameron because I think she is in fact the youngest person involved in the sort of inner core of Memo, and I think it's wonderful that she has this sense of the kind of history that's come before her that is sort of shaping the way she writes.
That is a constraint, but it's also very empowering. And I think all the people who write for Memo have enjoyed the exercise. And by now, they're beginning to enjoy the fact they're in a kind of context of Memo itself, as well as of course, the very, very long history of reviewing in Australia of which there've been many spectacular reviewers over the century and a bit that reviews have been written in newspapers. So that's what Memo, I think, is, it's a very lucky group of people who have managed to keep on going. So much more important than any origin story is the sort of lack of... The fact that we're keeping on going and eventually we'll forget how we started and that's totally appropriate, I think.
Hannah Mathews: It's a good sign, isn't it?
Rex Butler: Yeah. There's only one thing I'd like to sort of finish with. I have a suggestion for a still younger generation of people if I could imagine another origin moment or something, I mean, here it is, and I'm pretty sure I'm right on this sort of sentiment, all right? It's this idea. I think the next thing to do is not maybe another online review, but I think someone in Melbourne, let's just say to start with, should go out and start interviewing artists. After all, Gordon Bennett has left very little audio-visual record of him, what he sounded like, what his voice sounded like. John Nixon, who died last year, I think there's very little live audio-visual footage of John Nixon. Kate Daw, who also died last year, again, I think there's very little record of her, what she sounded like, what she said, what she felt like when you saw her talking about her art. These are invaluable documents and no one's doing it at the moment.
I think in about 2019 there was a Colin McCahon's centenary exhibition at the NGV, and they played, and of course back in his day there were only tape recorders, a tape of him, by now an old senile, tobacco-voiced, croaky-voiced, sort of alcoholic, talking about his career forgetfully, being occasionally corrected by his long suffering wife, Anne, and that's the only record we have of Colin McCahon's voice and presence. And I remember sitting there with the things over my ears, listening to it and I was slowly crying, listening to him. I'm a huge fan of his work and it just meant so much, I'd heard that tape before at the Hocken Library in New Zealand, but to hear it again with his works in front of me, I found it extraordinarily moving to somehow be in his presence.
So I think someone out there can put together this irreplaceable archive of what people looked and sounded like. And today, of course you could do it and record their faces and stuff saying stuff. I think you'd start slowly by interviewing your artist colleagues, people of your own generation, and you get better and better at it, eventually become very practiced, and have your own little team. And I think you'd work your way up to people like Juan Davila, who by now is quite old, as far as I know, he hasn't been recorded on tape. My goodness, you'd want to ask him well-informed questions, be at the top of your game, you'd want to get very practiced at it. But I think if you could demonstrate to someone like him that you could do this quite well by showing your other interviews, I think he'd love to go on the record knowing that he's not going to be here forever.
And I think that's the new record of art. This is, I think, maybe the last art review website in a sense, as a genre. But the next thing is that. So if anyone's listening out there and they're younger, I think that's the thing to do. And I say to you, seize the moment and be that person, create a little team a bit like Memo, you might have to have a front person who's the usual interviewer, but you'll have your camera person, your sound person, and really go for it. This is something that's waiting to be done. So there you are, I'll finish there. Thanks.
Hannah Mathews: I think it's a good point, Rex, and I think, Anna, you could attest to in the Art History and Curatorial Studies students, they're all thinking a lot more about interviewing as a platform, aren't they, and a research methodology?
Anna Parlane: Absolutely, yeah. And I think the pandemic's really kind of brought interviewing to the front of our kind of toolbox as well, it's one of the things we can do really well these days.
Hannah Mathews: It's so true. I wanted to segue because, Rex, one thing you picked up on very clearly is the diversity of approaches, and styles, and voices. And just thinking about Philip Brophy's excellent review, thinking about Diego Ramirez' Goya review from Saturday, just thinking about how much art, culture, geography Memo traverses, it would be great to have you all in conversation now about your favourite texts, what you've enjoyed, why you've enjoyed. Who would like to lead that part of the conversation, or begin that part of the conversation?
Helen Hughes: I'm happy to go next. Yeah. I will just follow on from Rex's salient points, and I thought I would use my five minutes just to make a very, very simple point, which is that a lot of writing about contemporary art these days really just takes the form of variations on the media release, which is of course that piece of writing that the artists and the gallery agree upon at the outset of the show and then use to communicate its intentions to the public.
And one of the things that I think Memo does really well is the way its writers never simply offer up a version of the press release, but really insist on giving an original take. I think their writing describes properly their encounter with an exhibition rather than simply regurgitating what they've been told to think about that encounter.
So yeah, I thought I could just quickly single out three of our regular writers who each approach this task of saying something original differently. And the first one, which Hannah just mentioned, obviously comes to mind. One of the most extreme ways of departing from the press release is to question its claims, and in this way, hold the exhibition accountable to itself. And yeah, Philip Brophy is probably one of our most renowned writers in this respect, he's very dedicated to the approach.
And he just got this description of an interactive artwork by Haroon Mirza at ACCA a few years ago that's just been permanently etched into my brain so I thought I would read it. He writes, "Mostly, the installations at ACCA are as empty as the ideas expressed by Mirza in the podcast. Their reliance on half-chewed science cobbled from middle-brow scientific commentaries circulating populist media does nothing to deepen their value. 'Stage' exemplifies this: the invigilator instructs me to 'use my body' to make physical contact with any two metallic floor plates to engage a lo-fi tone emitting from a connected synth module and amplifier. Really? Was something meant to be activated within me? Was there something I symbolically engaged in by closing a circuit of connectivity? The potential for any development of an engaging idea is short-circuited (is that a pun?) by the crèche-like situationism..." Which is such an amazing phrase, "...favoured by the contemporary art space in the name of interactivity and immersion."
And it might sound like Philip is really picking on the artist here, and he obviously is, and he's also kind of sounds like he's picking on the institution, but really what he's doing is zooming out, always, and moving between a micro and macro kind of perspective to comment on the broader conditions and contradictions that underpin like capital 'C' capital 'A' Contemporary Art. And it sort of not unlike the way Claire Bishop does this and takes the claims of relational aesthetics to task in October some 15 years ago. And I think this kind of polemical critical writing is really valuable, even when it gets under people's skin and it is kind of offensive.
So secondly, and this is something that's also, I think, is really wonderful about Memo is the prevalence of writers who are interested in galleries and artists about which there's literally no press release or really any writing much to respond to. And that'd be because the gallery's only existed for two weeks and it's in a decommission toilet block in someone's backyard, or because the artist is a 19 year old undergrad student at VCA, or they're a member of a really obscure subculture somewhere.
And in these cases, the Memo writers have to invent from scratch a vocabulary to account for the artworks in question. And I think that's always a really impressive achievement when people would do this. And from my perspective, the absolute queen of the genre is Audrey Schmidt who is absolutely also really masterful at spinning high and low theory together in totally effortless way while also kind of offering really cunning insights into the sort of social scenes and mechanations of the Melbourne art world and its various subcultures.
So she just had this review of a Neon Parc show called 'Carny' a few years ago that also really left an impression on me. And so I'll just read a quick except here. She says, "If Carny felt somewhat patched together, it also gave the impression that Neon Parc was deliberately developing a commercial strategy that leverages the different audiences and social capital of each of its two spaces. The first opening at Neon Parc City showed artists that clearly ranked for their subcultural influencer status and a highly Instagrammable feature-work, as if the first opening was meant to generate the social-media publicity and social-capital for the main event in Brunswick, which opened a week later.
Whether or not this "Fyre Festival" influencer strategy succeeded, the Victorian Police did turn up at the overcrowded Neon Parc City event. By positioning the emerging artists in the city, several suburbs away from their more established counterparts, Neon Parc was presented as a sellability testing ground, attracting a younger generation (of artists and audiences) to the gallery with the promise of upward mobility to Neon Parc Brunswick—that is if they sell. The freak-appeal of struggling early career artists, i.e. edgelords, queers, sluts, is an ever-present opportunity for art-market arbitrage, the cult-value of the poor artist bought in one social-space and simultaneously sold in another.
As they say in the film Carny of 1980, 'A carnival ain't even a real carnival without a sideshow—everyone knows that!'." And in addition to popularising that brilliant term edgelord in this review, Audrey is also responsible for introducing many of Memos readers to the adjective fucky, the precise definition of which is still under dispute, I believe.
And thirdly, and lastly, I just wanted to mention a really recent review by Tara Heffernan, who was writing about Fayen d’Evie's current exhibition at West Space, which is an installation of very tactile and otherwise multisensory artworks created from the artist and curator's experience of degenerative vision, or in her words, "Of being blind-ish." Tara notes in her review that she was born legally blind herself, and therefore she has this sort of particular interest in both how disability figures in contemporary art and theory, but also how access conventions serve or fail contemporary art audiences with diverse abilities, and she offers in this review a really interesting critique of the Zoom access protocol of describing how you appear and where you're seated for people in the meeting, or in the audience with low vision, just like the one that Hannah offered at the beginning of this Zoom and which I've done in many of my classes too.
But in addition to this and what is perhaps the lasting gift of this review, especially given the current context of the lockdown, which has meant that Fayen's highly tactile and sensory exhibition has sort of been... Had all the visitors locked out and we've been reduced to online interaction with it. It's just the passages that Tara's dedicated to descriptive accounts of the work and not just what they looked like, but how they felt or sounded. So I thought I would just conclude by reading one of the really beautiful descriptions, which is just very simply, and as I mentioned at the beginning, a firsthand encounter of one of the works.
So she writes, "The final bundle in 'Museum Incognita' contains Sophie Takách’s 'handling (encounter between Fayen d’Evie and Georgina Kleege)' from 2016 to 2021. The bronze cast captures the negative space between clasped hands, in this case, those of d’Evie and Georgina Kleege, a legally blind Berkeley professor who has published several books on blindness and art. Kleege has also championed art education and accessibility programming in which she emphasises the significance of other sensory encounters with objects: their weight, texture, temperature, and density.
All these qualities are not necessarily apparent through purely visual encounters. Accordingly, visitors to West Space are encouraged to unwrap the bundles and explore them via touch. In contrast to the geometric negative spaces of someone like Rachel Whiteread, the Takách sculptures resemble strange organic shapes, like fungal forms or sea-creatures. It might take time to discern their origin and to locate the specific contours of the body they record. In the case of handling, realisation might be activated by replicating the gesture, or a vague approximation, with fumbling hands." So that's all from me. Thanks.
Anna Parlane: Thanks so much, Helen. I might jump in and go next if that's okay. I think that we're kind of developing a bit of a theme here about one of Memo's strengths being it's diversity of voices. And I guess I'm going to add to that. At Memo we're a kind of a constellation of people, there are people who are more involved and people who are less involved, we have a kind of core team of regular writers and editors. And we have a lot of guest writers who come in and present a review with us, or maybe even a few reviews. And some of those guests ended up becoming regular writers too, which is wonderful. But it's great to have that diversity of voices.
And I wanted to talk today about a couple of really very different reviews. And I love them both. One of them is by one of our regular writers, Paris Lettau, who is also one of our editors. And the other one is by Maddee Clark who generously took time out from working on his PhD to come in as a guest writer in 2019. And I'm going to share my screen because I want to show you what the review looks like.
So this is Maddee's review of Fiona Foley's work at the Ballarat Foto Biennale in 2019. And I wanted to share just the opening paragraphs of his review because I think they're really beautiful. So he begins, "The Ballarat International Foto Biennale launches with a performance of the title work of Fiona Foley's headlining major solo exhibition, 'Who are these strangers and where are they going?' The song is performed in both Badtjala and English by a group of young local Aboriginal singers.
The title work of the show, a new commission, is a soundscape utilising an old Badtjala song made in collaboration with Murri musician, Teila Watson. It is accompanied by an installation of 3,000 oyster shells and sand, which greets audiences as they enter. The song records the Badtjala peoples of K'Gari's first sighting of the 'Endeavour', which as Foley notes in her doctoral thesis, was observed and tracked extensively by Aboriginal peoples of the east coast as Captain Cook proceeded in his project of naming and claiming sites along it. TakkyWooroo, named by Cook as 'Indian Head', is integral to the work as the site where looks are exchanged.
The European gaze, pre-determined as it is by discourses of colonialism, slavery, and racial science, conceptualised the Aboriginal people of K'Gari as an inferior race before ever encountering them. The song recalls another gaze, that of the K'Gari traditional owners, documenting and recording their observations for the generations to come. It disrupts the white historical memory of first contact by asserting that, as Aileen Moreton-Robinson has said, Aboriginal people are indeed deeply knowledgeable about whites, their movements, and their intentions.
The performance finishes, the audience applauds, and the space is momentarily filled with the sound of Aboriginal children and their families laughing, eating, and talking. Some of the children walk up and touch the installation of oyster shells and sand with their hands. The drier business of the Biennale launch continues, somewhat deterred by their presence. The soundscape expands and fills the room. I can smell the salt air. I want to take my shoes off."
I really love this opening setup of Maddee's review because it kind of makes the start of the review also an entrance into the exhibition. It positions us as readers in the space through Maddee's recounting of his experience. The line, "I want to take my shoes off." I think it's just absolutely perfect, it really grounds this experience. And I think that the strategy of opening the review in this way is also really clever because it establishes a viewing position. It positions Maddee, but also us as his readers to look from a position at odds with the European gaze that he describes. So we are placed in this position of reversing that European gaze of colonial history that the review is trying to destabilise and critique.
I also wanted to talk about a review by Paris Lettau which is very different indeed, I'm going to click over to that one. So this is a review by Paris of a show called 'KAWS: Companionship in the Age of Loneliness', which was held at the NGV in 2019. And this review sits in a bit of a tradition of hostility among Memo writers towards NGV blockbusters. We've had a few quite scathing reviews of NGV blockbusters since Memo began. And Paris worked on this review for literally months, and he did a really deep dive into data analysis. He pulled together data from the NGV's social media accounts, as well as the museum's financial reports and audience numbers. So the review has all these kinds of graphs and data analysis in it.
But when you read the review, he doesn't actually talk about the exhibition itself. I'm just going to scroll down through it for a moment. So I wanted to show you one sentence in particular. So he does a cursory description of what's on display in this show. There are three main sections, there's the art exhibit, there's a section called KAWS: Playtime, which is designed for kids, and there's a pop-up design store called KAWS Retail.
And the one part of this review, that's actually a review of the exhibition itself is one line, and it's this line, "It is 'KAWS Retail' that is the most interesting feature of the exhibition." Paris writes. So in this incredibly efficient way he just simply dismisses the whole art part of the exhibition, it's not even worth discussing. He's only going to talk about the museum shop.
So I think one of the reasons that I like this review is that it plays with the expectations of readers instead of simply just bagging this kind of over-inflated blockbuster show. Paris did an incredibly detailed and well-researched analysis which essentially became a piece of text about how value is manufactured through this kind of almost corporate partnership between the NGV, between its high culture or kind of credibility as a public art museum. And on the other hand, the huge commercial power of social media and street culture, a celebrity like the artist, KAWS.
And I think it's pretty bratty, but also quite funny to do this incredibly well-researched takedown of an exhibition that is clearly very light, it's very much a crowd pleaser. Having all these kinds of graphs and data in the review it's a little like bringing out a sledgehammer to crush a walnut. I might leave it there.
Cameron Hurst: Okay, well, I can dive in and have my turn. I guess I want to talk about maybe, I have a different perspective than everyone here in that I'm an amateur youth, and wasn't there for the genesis of Memo, and was an avid reader from afar when I was doing my undergrad degree at Melbourne Uni. And I always loved reading the roast reviews and the mean reviews, which you've talked about here, but I thought I'd pick a review that I really love that is a really deeply respectful and reverent review as a bit of a contrast. That review is Vicki Perin's review of π.o.'s book 'Heide'. I was thinking about when I read it, when I was rereading it just then, which is in the depths of lockdown I used to go to my cafe job when I was writing my honours thesis every Saturday on Brunswick Street. It was totally dire because the street was really empty and the cafe was dead, but every lunch break I would get my Memo out on my phone and be like, "Who's up this week?".
And Vicki's review, I thought I'd read the opening paragraph because it's just a really beautiful review. So it's about π.o., who's a poet that is probably in his 70s now, but has lived in Fitzroy for his whole life, and he's writing about... Well, read it and you can see what he's writing about. So Vicki starts it, "In Ian Burn’s near-perfect essay ‘Is art history of any use to artists?’ (1985), he argues that artists have their “own sense of art history” that is derived primarily from an oral history of “stories shrewdly selected and edited to make the most telling points.”.
'Heide', the recently published, epic poem by Melbourne poet π.o., is the greatest ode to local art history ever written and is itself a kind of radical art history in the terms that Burn imagined. So far, some reviewers have misunderstood 'Heide' as a retelling of the history of John and Sunday Reed’s Heide circle, just with a bit of extra kick and gusto (as if π.o. parrots irreverently what academics have chronicled solemnly). It is, instead, an anarchist’s history written by a poet, an art history that shouts passionately about people and place in free-verse. Open Heide, and say hello to ‘John’ and ‘Sunday’ and ‘Barrett’ and ‘Sweeney’. Spittle lands on you."
It's great. It's so good. Anyway, the review is really great because it just goes on to do this incredibly detailed close analysis of the book, which is a 550-page free-verse epic poem about Heide, which I would not have thought that I would be that invested in reading, but after reading Vicki's review... Which there's this really beautiful tone where she takes this kind of highbrow academic discourse and all the narratives of art history and kind of really scholarly work that I'd been reading at Uni and puts it in this really accessible and engaging tone. I went out and bought the Heide book and read the whole thing, and also bought the Ian Burn book and read the whole thing because I was so enthused by reading Vicki's really kind of, I don't know, just passionate, and respectful, and devoted way of writing about π.o. and the art history that had come before her, how she fitted into that, how π.o. fitted into that. This very respectful kind of lineage of how art had been written about in Melbourne before. And it was great, I thought, "Maybe one day I can write for Memo Review."
Which is why I like, Rex, that you have put... I feel charmed and flattered that you put that quote from me and Audrey at the start, I thought maybe we could link into what you wanted to talk about, Amelia, about the other Memo projects because off the back of my kind of reverence for Memo Review, then that quote that Rex has put at the start was from a kind of dialogue Audrey and I had after I wrote for MASS Memo Review, which is where all the undergrad students are doing art writing review the undergrad art exhibitions, that's kind of where I started writing for Memo. And that's a really nice project where... Because obviously when you write a proper Memo, it's 1,500 words, but when you're a student it's nice to have that...
Amelia Winata: ... 3,000 words.
Cameron Hurst: 1,500, no...
Amelia Winata: No, I was just being bratty.
Cameron Hurst: All right.
Amelia Winata: No, you were saying it's 1,500 words, it should be 1,500, sometimes up to 3,000.
Cameron Hurst: Okay, well, mine are 1,500.
Amelia Winata: Okay, cool.
Cameron Hurst: But the MASS Memo is a cool 500, which is good because when you're a student writer it's stressful to have to come up with that 4,000 word Giles Fielke review. So anyway, yeah, I like the quote that Rex has put in there because that's a nice example of me writing in short, MASS Memo, and then being taken to task by a boss Memo, Audrey, and this example of the kind of discourse and dialogue that can generate from small reviews. Yeah. That's my piece, I guess.
Amelia Winata: Yeah. And I think just segueing into the future of Memo, it's good to mention that we are planning on doing MASS Memo again this year. And one of the reasons why we do MASS Memo and why it was kind of such a success in, really, what was only its first iteration last year, there was kind of a precursor to it the year before, but is that there's really no kind of bridge between, I don't know, writing for a publication like... Well, there are very few publications to kind of begin as an arts writer and then step onto a larger kind of platform. And so MASS Memo really kind of offers that to young writers.
The only other publication I can really think of that has kind of done that in the past, which unfortunately, due to funding, is doing that less and less now is un. And so there are all these kind of super, young, eager, tuned-in undergrads out there who have so much potential that isn't being tapped into. So really we're sinking our teeth into that. And also kind of really thinking about the future of Memo in terms of what happens when we become stale writers, and who is going to take over from us?
So Rex was saying we started in 2017, so we've been going for four years and it's kind of shocking to all of us that we managed to keep going off of basically the smell of an oily rag. But now that we have kind of found some level of recognition and success, at least in the Melbourne scene, it's probably good to safeguard our future. Wouldn't you agree that's kind of what MASS Memo is doing in part?
But in addition to the 48 reviews that we have been doing every week, we have been kind of considering what other, I guess, gaps there are that firstly, the regular Memo model isn't addressing, and also what is happening on a broader, I guess, level around Australia in terms of arts criticism and arts writing. So I wish Paris were here because he is really kind of the driving force behind everything that goes on behind the scenes at Memo, he built the entire website. Everything. I can't even explain how little would happen at Memo if it weren't for Paris.
So this year we've kind of decided to broaden the scope of Memo, and I can't talk too much about it at the moment, but in 2022 we'll be establishing a Sydney branch of Memo so that we already have a team of editors ready to go in Sydney and they would like to be in now, but of course there's literally nothing open. So we kind of are transferring that model of need. I mean, Memo was kind of filling that gap left by The Age, and now these Sydney writer's have seen what Memo is doing here and have kind of asked to replicate it there. So that's kind of a really big step for us.
And then in addition to that, we're still doing MASS Memo, and then also introducing a First Nations editorship, which we will be appointing a First Nations editor to commission 10 reviews throughout the year, which will fit into the regular Memo schedule. And the reviews are dedicated purely to First Nations writers.
So the 48 reviews remain the core exercise of Memo, and I think we're so successful because we do have such a simple model, but at the same time, it's nice to kind of build on the hard work that we've done and recognise that we are able to expand a little bit and spread, for want of a better word, it's a bit cringey, but our influence, if we can, because there is so little arts criticism. I think that, really, if I think about in Australia, and correct me if I'm wrong, there's Running Dog in Sydney, there's ReviewBoard, which is kind of like a shorter format reviewing platform, un, The Age, The Saturday Paper, but it's super limited. So if we can stay alive, that would be great.
Hannah Mathews: I have to say, listening to you all, I have been casting my mind back to the early 2000's in Sydney, and the last online art review forum that I really remember, and it was... Rex, you might remember what it was called, or Helen, it was anonymous reviewer, and it... What was it called, Rex? You can unmute yourself.
Rex Butler: There was something called The Art Life.
Hannah Mathews: The Art Life. I remember The Art Life in the early 2000...
Rex Butler: Which is sort of... yeah.
Hannah Mathews: I want to just make the point of comparison because that was anonymous. I mean it caused a real stir, almost the story behind it sometimes superseded the writing. It turned out it was Andrew Frost, everyone finally found out, and then he went to write for Art Collector. Anyway, my point being is that seeing all your names in print, you coming here today and speaking, there is a community, there is an ownership and accountability for what you're contributing in terms of art writing and art research. And I think it's really important and it's really valued, and if there is a way to model that in other cities and states, that's extraordinary.
But yeah, that was just the last kind of online platform I could think that actually had such influence, but for really different reasons. And the diversity of voices, writers, interests, styles, topics that Memo embraces is, well, it's just something we're all looking forward to Saturday morning. It has to be said. I think whether you live in Melbourne or not, people are looking forward to not necessarily even the art that's reviewed, it's the writing. So a big, thank you.
Rex Butler: We hope we not only form a kind of conversation around art in Melbourne, but as we've suggested, we'd like in various ways to imagine younger generations continuing, in whatever way possible in the 21st century, the idea of forming discussions and discourse around art. It may not be the Memo forever, but I hope that the example of Memo leads to inventive people thinking about it as some kind of an inspiration, that would be what we'd love to leave, I think. Yeah.
Hannah Mathews: So unless anyone has anything more they would like to add, everything you have shared has been very thoughtful. I would just like to say a big thank you, I'm sure there's many who are feeling and thinking the same, and for coming together tonight, and I guess sharing particular reviews that have stayed with you, and whether they be bratty, sharp, statistical, clinical, with love and reverence, it makes a really enjoyable weekly reading. So thank you again.