Balloting i.e. curating one’s own education

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Smell map Paris by Kate McLean

It is 9.30am and I am sitting in a full lecture theatre in Building 13, RMIT. It’s full of 1st, 2nd and 3rd year BA Landscape Architecture students or as they say The Lower Pool (I don’t think they mean gene pool). During my first supervision meeting both Mick and Charles (supervisors) suggested that I come along to Balloting. “It will give you a good idea of the terrain that is Landscape Architecture” they said; the what, why and how of this particular body of thinking / working. So here I am – the only one a) taking notes and b) with a notebook and pen. Old school.

There’s a short introduction about the wherefores of Balloting. A simple manifesto that reads:

  • Design in Everything
  • Modes of Practice
  • Rethinking Ideas of Representation
  • Curating your Design Education

So the way it works here at RMIT is that Lecturers present a semester long Studio. This happens both for Lower Pool (BA) and Upper Pool (MA). The students listen and don’t take notes! and then ballot for 4 studios that they’d like to participate in. It was encouraged by the BA Programme Manager that they don’t choose their studios dependent on liking a particular teacher / researcher or follow a strand that they already know, but rather stretch ideas / experiment with new methods / deepen enquiry. I studiously wrote this down, every one else jiggled their legs, scratched their beards, checked their phones.

What kind of studios are offered to Lower Pool? What kinds of thinking / doing do Landscape Architects engage in / with? Are there really strong links between Chroeography and LA (Landscape Architecture I mean, not Los Angeles)? Am I really in the right place, after all? I know I’m not doing a BA (sadly) but this is the foundation on which the rest of the glass tower is built, no? I wait in anticipation. I am the most excited, anxious person in the room.

From my notes ‘On Balloting’:

Studio: Light Works: human perception of light / space. Practices of looking and experiencing light. Determining a scale of intervention. Capacity of the work to speak for itself. Culture of feedback. Field trip to Canberra National Gallery to see James Turrell’s ‘Immersed in Light’. Studio involves walking in the city, particularly at night and observing light. Outcomes involve making own light work and working with light companies to source relevant light.

(BTW – I got in touch with the lecturer and am now going to be auditing this course! In fact, she’s really “fascinated” with choreography & performance and wants me to present to the students – what will I say? no idea)

Studio: Experiment: working in public space in a way that demonstrates design through experiments. Small changes that make a big impact. Grassroots focused. Dealing with the notion of pop-ups. Working with real client and real sites towards real outcomes.

Studio: The Valley II: on designing a bushwalk. How can you design through atmospheric and ground conditions and how does the body experience this? Students will spend 10 days on site – living in a National Park 1.5 hrs south of Sydney exploring methodologies that look at massive large scale projects and minute bodily scale projects. Methods include working with senses and critical cartography.

Studio: Meadow Lee: Notion of the a grassland in the Australian landscape. How do you manipulate the meadow? (A question I’ve never asked myself). What role does irrigation and the lawn mower play? How can the European model of a meadow be reframed in the Australia? The site will be (mowing) your own backyard. (The presumption being all students have one!)

Note: The man who gave this presentation had a very gruff, short, abrupt manner. He talked alot about the versatility and subjectivity of the lawn mower. He also wore a bright fluorescent pink pen behind his ear.

Studio: Working the Ground: this studio is based in the region of the Murray Darling basin and involves a road trip in a bus (driven by the lecturer). It is centred around developing techniques for eliciting stories from the community. How do we engender stories of landscape? Murray Darling has a rich colonial legacy – it’s full of stories about ‘back home’ i.e. England. It’s also full of contemporary stories. (This statement was accompanied by a slide of graffiti that said ‘Fuck You’ – students cheered). Studio technique asks students to work up juxtaposition. Using filmic references, ideas of collage and montage. Along the way, small pop-up exhibitions will be exposed in campsites, inviting fellow campers to engage with what they do.

I loved the concluding statement he made “camping puts us in immediate visceral communication with the ground”.

Studio: Composites: largely using Rhino (software) this studio tests and reflects on spatial concepts through drawing, programming, 3D virtual and phsyical modelling. She referred to the work of Smell Map, Paris (2013) by Kate McLean.

Note: Sensory Maps

Studio: Disturbance: is an ecological term meaning unstable landscape conditions. The site for this studio is Truganina Coastal Parkland 15km outside of Melbourne. The lecturer carrying her one year old baby which she termed “my very own disturbance prop” opened the studio by saying “if you don’t like walking, don’t sign up for this studio”. Later she used the term Geo-Mythology – “Geo-Mythology is outpacing digital technology” and restless Geomorphologies – “through walking, mapping experimenting with using your mobile phone for collection, you’ll develop your own classification logic”. The final outcome of this studio is to propose a disturbance or set of disturbances.

Studio: Overlapping Currents: this studio looks at the swimability of the Yarra (main river running through Melbourne) and peoples’ relationship to it. The outcome will be a comic inspired by this.

Studio: Kerb: opportunity for 3 undergraduate students to be editors of Kerb for one year – a high profile student led Landscape Architecture journal which (without wanting to sound like an ad) is sold in all good book shops.

Well, that was the morning. The afternoon was taken up with Design Research Seminars and Upper Pool Balloting Presentations. I (like the other students) stopped taking notes mainly because I came to understand that it’s all online! Of course. If you’re still reading this and still interested then look at the posters that accompany each presentation – http://www.ladrs.rmit.edu.au/current-upper-pool-studios/

The whole experience was very insightful and fascinating. I feel much more grounded knowing the kind of context I am to be working in / from. And, this was just LA – next semester I’ll go the Architecture and Design Balloting Presentations.

But no doubt, you’ll hear from me before then.

Maps are my new best friends!

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Smell Map, Amsterdam by Kate McLean

One month already

Next Monday marks a one month anniversary of arrival in Melbourne. It’s hard to believe that a month has come to pass – a waxing and a waning – a whole moon cycle. I feel that I have landed – although from time to time I pinch myself and shout (silently) ‘I am in Melbourne!’ I remember doing that in London for the first three years – mainly when I saw a red bus rumble past I’d remember ‘oh, that’s right, I’m in London’. It’s easy to forget which city I’ve woken up in and after a while, they’re not all that different – it’s not like being in a village in rural Sri Lanka for example, where you’re reminded all the time how different worlds within the world can be. But here the people I see could well be Londoners and my life is not so different and I’m more-or-less doing the same things I used to do there – going into a University – living in a house with electricity and running water – seeing friends – swimming in pools – road trips – dancing – la la la.
Of course from another perspective, there are some huge paradigm-shifting differences between here and there. Some of them are: waiting fifteen minutes for a train!! (This is why everyone drives here). Having a front garden and a back garden to call our own. That spontaneous meetings with friends is not entirely out of the question. That I’m doing a PhD or as I see it, being an artist full time for three years. That I live with my parents. That when it’s 18 degrees people complain of the cold. That the evening news always features a koala / crocodile / shark story.
Setting up a movement practice, finding my tribe(s), protecting space, reading, writing, inventing tasks / scores / projects, eating well, walking / running / yoga are the main foci of my life.
I did a practice with Dianne Reid this morning. Dianne is in her 3rd year of PhD at Deakin University and her research centres around Motion Capture – she works mainly in screendance. I met Dianne last year when I was in Melbourne and she has done alot of work with Andrew Morrish – so we have that good foundation for practice in common. I went into the studio in Deakin this morning to share dancing time and space with her. The studios at Deakin really remind me of Roehampton – they’re clean and bright, with views to the trees. One thing about being in School of A&D is I realise how much of a home a dance studio is. How much of a resource. How much I take its presence in my life, in this world for granted . It is of course quite an elite space. The information guy who I was asking directions was quite taken aback when I asked him where the main dance studio in Building B was. I had to shout the word ‘dance’ ‘dance’ over and over until he understood the word – but he seemed shocked to realise that such a thing as dance even existed at that University. I felt like a Light Bender (that’s an official job title you know).
Last night I went to a reading group called Centre for Logos. It is run by Mammad Aidani – a philosopher. He even looks like a philosopher and talks like a philosopher. He gets so excited by concepts – it was almost comic. We are reading together ‘The Phenomonology of Perception’ by Merleau-Ponty and it is wonderful to be with other dancers / artists and grappling or as Mammad puts it ‘dwelling’ in philosophy.
It’s not like I’m beginning from scratch. In fact I have a huge safety net here, much wider, much stronger, much broader than I ever imagined. Also, I’ve travelled alot and I have so many skills and tools of navigation. I know where I belong and I go there directly. It took me two years to discover the contact improvisation community in London, here it took me two weeks. And of course, the imminent PhD is a frame or as the Taoists might call it ‘A Way’ that helps enormously to make me feel that I’m doing something worthwhile from the outset. On that end, it officially begins next week with a module called Creative Practice Research Methods led by Pia Ednie-Brown.
Of course I’m rolling into my first class from a road trip to Airey’s Inlet. An old friend of mine who lives 1/4 of the year in Jaipur, India, 1/4 of the year in Ubud, Bali and 1/2 of the year in Castlemaine, Australia is coming in for the Castlemaine Writers Festival. We’re going on a Thelma and Louise styled road trip to hear her friend and extraordinary author of ‘Tracks’ Robyn Davidson speak at a Literary Salon. I agreed to it when she told me ‘oh no it’s not so far from Melbourne, you’ll easily make your 12.45pm class on Thursday.’ Unsurprisingly it is a 2 hour drive! But it’s too late now and, when in Australia …

Week 0

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Architecture and Design building, RMIT

My first PhD meeting went well yesterday – or so I think/feel. I had some time to kill in the city beforehand so I sat down in a cool Melbourne cafe and over a soya flat white wrote down my intentions for the meeting. They were:

– to be myself
– to listen
– to be present
– to admit vulnerability
– to ask stupid questions
– to not try too hard
– to tell the truth

The School of A&D covered in discs, is all concrete and steel, not a pot plant in sight. There are spaces called roof pavilions and warehouses. The offices are all open-plan, so in fact my desk – I get a desk with a PC for three years – is at the other end of the office where Mick, my supervisor sits. There is no natural air in the building, in fact no windows – the temperature is computer controlled – and apparently, all sorts of problems with this system. There are all sorts of semi-public break out spaces, where tutorial groups happen and posters on the wall instead of saying ‘Footprint Dance Festival’ read ‘Drawing with Robots’. The building itself is awe-inspiring if completely, in-human. Even the spaces that have timber floors are laid over concrete, but there is a deck outside with the most magnificent views across Melbourne and perhaps I can have a daily movement practice there or in the sound studio (with linoleum floor) or in the Botanical Gardens down the road. I suppose coming into School of A&D invites us (i.e. me and them) to test these limits.

The first meeting consisted of something between personal and professional, formal and informal. We covered topics from jet-lag, to the novels I’m reading in my sleepless nights – all by Murakami – to my needs analysis – a formal document Mick and I have to fill out at the start of my candidature – to auditing an MA module with Charles. So, I didn’t understand everything Charles – 2nd supervisor and Landscape Architect – said but what I did understand that I’ll be sitting in on is an inter-disciplinary module consisting of MA A&D students and Industrial Designers (yikes!). It will held at a gallery space in the Yarra Valley (about 2 hours out of Melbourne) that Charles is using as his office for the first semester – he’s creating an installation out there – and we (students) will be joining him in this ‘studio’. Not sure yet if that means going out there for the whole day or actually spending 3 days at a time at points across the semester – living and working there – naturally, the food and wine is excellent (his words, not mine)!
Mick is on research leave for the next semester but I will have one weekend with him – somewhere in Victoria – with other candidates – where we’ll all gather and hang out and give presentations that are not about outcomes but just sharing where we are. It seems that both my supervisors like to have overnight working groups – not that I’m complaining – when I told them my tent is in a cargo ship bobbing along the Pacific – they let me know that Technical Services at RMIT, apart from having state of the art cameras, sound equipment, computers, boom boxes, surveying equipment also have (state of the art?) camping gear to lend out. Welcome to Australia!
Before Week 1 of term there is of course, Week 0. In week 0 all the studio leaders present to the entire student body their ‘studio’ for the semester and students choose which one they want to join according to the presentation, which also includes posters that give you short synopsis of what you can expect from undertaking this mission. I’m invited to these presentations – it will give me a good sense – so they say – of the kinds of activity happening School wide.
In other news, I begin my only course-work called ‘Creative Practice Research Methods’ led by Pia Ednie-Brown in the roof pavilion (which by the way has an industrial kitchen somewhere along the way for catering during PRS – more on that later) in a few weeks and there some compulsory online courses e.g. ‘Ethics’ that I have to do before my confirmation of candidature – which is the first milestone I’m working towards – possibly in May but if I need longer then it can be later in the year – and if I happen to be in overseas, I could, should I wish, present in their other campuses of Ghent, Barcelona or Ho Chi Minh City.
I experienced my first meeting in a semi-haze. I’ve been pretty hard struck by jet lag and perhaps unsurprisingly, I’ve gotten ill with a chest cold. I felt there was a good balance in the meeting between all our voices, and a series of very easy questions and

answers that went both ways. Mick is great at guiding me through the bureaucracy of candidature and Charles seems genuinely excited to have a choreographer in their midst. He tells me that there’s alot in common between Landscape Architecture and choreographic processes. I’m very happy to take his word for it. They talked to me about teaching on their undergrad courses – they encouraged me to consider co-running a studio in 2016 – there is a formal application process for this but they both thought teaching as a way to think and do through candidature was a good idea. And, I talked about some residencies, performances and projects that I’ve applied for in UK and Aus. which they seemed excited about and willing to support.

I feel like I’ve entered another continent. Of course in terms of being back on Southern shores but more what I mean is in regards to having fallen, not unlike Alice, into the wonderland of A&D. Language(s) and resources I’ve taken for granted are no longer there – I literally feel that the ground beneath my feet has shifted – there is something else there although I can’t yet put it into words. Apart from studios in vineyards, there’s a palpable sense of something new. In terms of arriving, each day gets a little easier – but right now – I think more than arriving I’m dealing with ending. Not that I particularly miss my life in the UK but I certainly value it and think about it recognise that I built something very beautiful there and the people I met and the networks / communities I belong to were a kind of net that gave me hope and nourishment in a too-hard city. Here the canvas is more or less blank. In a way, I’m starting again – and right now, it’s mostly tiring. But despite the fog, I see chinks of sunlight – it is 33 degrees out there after all – and the opportunity to make something new is alive, and fragile and thin but humming with life.