'A Pretty Pure Form of Bullshit: Sam Twyford-Moore Interviews Tom Grant'

 

Tom Grant’s work in sound has been described as “subversive”, “devastating” and “neurotic”. “Abrasive” and “abusive” are also words occasionally used. While certainly accurate, they do not come anywhere near close to describing his diverse career or begin to suggest his singularity as an artist.

Grant is best known for his work using recorded voices. In addition to his work in sound, he has taught cultural studies and criticism extensively at a number of universities. For the past five years he has based himself primarily out of the small New South Wales cities of Newcastle and Wollongong. Grant’s current work in progress is a series of imagined interviews with one of his former university students, Nick Adler, who disappeared last year.

Tom and I conducted this interview via email and, eventually, in a single face-to-face meeting. Tom sent me the details of a coffee shop in Austinmer, located on a scenic look-out between the ocean and a mountainous backdrop. The winter sun was beating down hard and when I entered Tom was sitting in the back, staring out to sea. He didn’t look much like a poet, an intellectual, an artist. He was wearing a muted blue shirt, rolled up at the sleeves, as though he had been hard at work in a studio somewhere.

—STM

INTERVIEWER

How did you come to sound art?

TOM GRANT

I never wanted to be a sound artist. In high school, I had a friend who killed himself who wanted to be a heavy metal musician, and I picked up his dream and ran with it. Why not? He had ambitions where I had none. I had skill, where he was dead. But I was never really making heavy metal music, even though I liked it well enough as a genre. When someone told me that I was making might be sound art… well, that became the thing.

INTERVIEWER

That seems like a strange entry point for a career or a passion.

TOM GRANT

I would never describe something as a passion. I think that deletes a number of complexities about the way we work. You’ve got to hate what you do sometimes, really truly fucking hate it, and I don’t think you ever really hate a passion – you might hate with a passion. And please don’t get me started on the idea of a career… there’s no heroic code in calling something a career.

INTERVIEWER

It feels like a pretty rare opportunity to talk to you, despite much of your sound work being based on talk or other people’s voices and interviews, you yourself don’t give many.

TOM GRANT

I do plenty of interviews, even though I’m pretty hesitant when it comes to the form. I mean a lot of my work is yes definitely based on interviews, people talking, but that’s ultimately only ever going to be a half form. I read someone describe them as maggoty, interviews, which seems about right. The directness of talk misses the scenes in between and the subtleties of those scenes and I’ve got to build that up in the sound work myself. Talking is a pretty pure form of bullshit, don’t you think? As for interviews like this one, I do get in trouble whenever something like this runs. People come to interviews with artists with expectations. They’ve already dreamed up half of what you’ve said before you’ve even said it or before they even sit down to read the transcript. It’s hard to speak for yourself. I worked very, very briefly in a start-up gallery in Newie, and had to do interviews there in the lead up to the opening, and it’s easier to hide behind something like that – an organisation. Of course, reading back on those interviews they are a total waste of time, I’m not saying anything at all. It’s all publicity, not a single significant thought. And you have to figure out a way to deal with that. It’s a terrible movie, and I’m loathe to bring it up, but there’s a scene at the end of Beaches, where Bette Midler is watching herself on TV, giving an interview on a daytime kind of program, and she’s begging, pleading with herself not to give the answers she’s giving, even though it’s already been recorded and she knows exactly what she is going to say. I really like that scene and the idea that it represents, pleading with your past statements. It is saying something very true about the embarrassment of your former self.

INTERVIEWER

It doesn’t seem like you to agree to talk about this particular time though.

TOM GRANT

Not so much. It was a difficult time for everybody involved, so, yes, I choose to sit out on commenting on it too much. Reflection is incredibly important in this industry, of course, but you can get quite stuck in an incredibly complicated space of overthinking things. Easier done than said. So interviews about artistic practise aren’t so much fun always.

INTERVIEWER

You’re not originally from Wollongong – you grew up outside of Sydney. I’m wondering what spoke to you about Wollongong?

TOM GRANT

Nothing particularly. If it speaks, it speaks in a very dull voice and you might not pick up its meaning. I’m not so good at listening all the time either.

INTERVIEWER

How did you end up in Wollongong?

TOM GRANT

What happened was that I got a sessional job and I had some family in Wollongong, so I could stay with them overnight if I took the job. This whole time that you’re alluding to… it didn’t start in Wollongong exactly. I was teaching a class in Newcastle, and the students weren’t very good, they just weren’t getting a lot of the concepts. At the same time I was teaching a class in Wollongong, pretty much on the exact same subject, and with the same readings, and these students were excellent. So, I went out drinking with some of the students in the Newcastle class, which was a mistake, always a mistake, and after a few drinks I started to tell them about the Wollongong class, which was a bigger mistake, and started rambling about how the Wollongong students just understood things a little bit more, and how that difference surprised me. They were only marginally better to be honest, but there was this one kid there, he really took offense. Or at least I think it was offense.

INTERVIEWER

He was upset?

TOM GRANT

Sure, he probably thought he was the top student in the whole place, the whole city, but wasn’t really thinking that I was taking this other class, in another city.

INTERVIEWER

Is this Nick Adler?

TOM GRANT

Yeah, this is Nick. The next day, I had to drive to Wollongong in the morning to take the second class, and I was running behind. I actually got pulled over by a cop on a motorcycle about halfway down, and he issued me with a ticket for speeding, and the fine was pretty much the fee I was going to be paid for taking the class. So I wasn’t in the best mood when I walked into that classroom. I didn’t want to be there. And then I look up to find Adler was in the back of the room, and he was saying that he had transferred, and that he would be moving to Wollongong University… and it was just a fucking nightmare from then on.

INTERVIEWER

That seems like an extreme move.

TOM GRANT

It didn’t seem so extreme at the time – troubling maybe, but not yet quite extreme. It was just annoying really. I spent the next few weeks trying to get Adler off my back and out of my class. But he took it up with the administration and in the end I didn’t have a whole lot of a say in the matter.

INTERVIEWER

Why do you think he showed up to your class that day?

TOM GRANT

I don’t know why he did it. Maybe he wanted my approval. Maybe he thought there was some connection between the two of us. Maybe he liked what I was teaching and wanted more. It would have been funnier, certainly, if he had started attending both classes.

INTERVIEWER

You ended up working quite closely with him. How did that come about?

TOM GRANT

He revealed himself over time to be something of a talent. After a while we got over the stalker vibes coming off the guy. I was working towards presenting some of my work outside of the confines of the overly urban art galleries, with a view to presenting some work in a really public space like a shopping centre. I was obsessed with shopping centres at the time and particularly the kind of desolate ones you find in Newie and Wollongong. I’d had these overwhelming moments inside these mega-malls, getting quite close to having feelings on the level of a nervous breakdown really, but everyone else was walking around like it was normality. So I wanted to show them how I was feeling about these scenes. It was my intention to drown the place in noise for a few days. There were regional city funds available for a project of this kind — something that engaged public spaces — and Adler seemed to have some insider kind of knowledge as to how to get at them. He might have been a deeply unstable person, but he could write a very legible and concise grant application. Good for him. Wollongong seemed like the perfect place in a lot of ways. There was Wollongong’s golden child violinist Richard Tognetti who called the city a “dark and troubled place” in a newspaper interview, and said that the city had never been beautified because arguably there was nothing to beautify. It was ugly on ugly. Well, the town turned on him. That resentment was exciting – it moved things. People were wrong, but at least they were active in their beliefs. They wrote letters and emails. We wanted to build on this, give them an opportunity to take this to the streets. So we’d turn their town into trash to get them out of the house, off the couch, in order clean it up or else just complain, but in a very vocal way. They’d uncover something in doing so. We took this idea to the council. We were not one hundred percent clear on what we wanted to do, but we knew we wanted to use Crown Street Mall. There was a guy who was working on the distribution of the funds, and Nick set up a meeting with him. This guy was sitting in his office like a creep — all creeps sit in offices —and he had no time for us. He looked down on the project and basically said that it would not engage with the public enough to warrant the grant. “You have to engage with the public” he kept saying. What bullshit! He didn’t know the public. We knew how to engage with the public – the same way as that cliché about getting to a guy’s heart, you go through the middle: the shopping centres.

Grant later emails, “I could and probably should have answered this question with something more truthful about Adler here like ‘He became of use.’” —STM

INTERVIEWER

How do you go about that?

TOM GRANT

I was trying to suggest this to the students – if the number one bestselling books in Australia are often true crime or cookbooks, maybe you should turn to those forms to find a way into the lives and houses of middle Australians. True crime books aren’t really an art form, but I guess I was trying to tell them that they had a certain Trojan capacity. There are people I know who need their dose of culture buried in their meals, like worm medication for dogs. God that sounds awful, but what I was trying to do with my sound work related to this – you start with something soft, maybe even with a melody, and then you build it so that it delivers difficult content. You need to engage first before you can defy. Talk is bullshit, but it’s accessible. Our hope was that people would stop to listen to what was being said, and be engaged by these kind of ugly nuggets of narrative. The funding didn’t come through though, of course, so ultimately we never did get to bury the worm medication.

INTERVIEWER

Was there any temptation to take that project to Sydney instead? 

TOM GRANT

[Laughs] Sydney is deliberately defined by its absence.

INTERVIEWER

How so?

TOM GRANT

I drive around it, that’s part of it. [Laughs] This is the truth: I was kind of priced out of Sydney with the work that I was doing. There is an incredibly supportive underground scene in Sydney, because the cost of living is so high artists band together and support each other. I’d probably asked one too many favours though – maxed-out my free meal card. So Sydney became a void.

INTERVIEWER

This was during a time when the council was quite corrupt? Was there a bigger picture about Wollongong forming in your mind that was influencing your work?

TOM GRANT

That’s idiotic. There’s a danger in that view that you’ll end up being the photographer who gets caught in the helicopter taking the aerial landscape shots over and over again. Those pictures sell for a lot of money, and help pay for the helicopter ride, but what are you saying from up there? They end up on the most boring of walls. Do you know what I mean? Those guys aren’t on the ground and they’re not entirely present. Too many zoom out style shots and you’re just gone, you’ll never finish anything. I will say this however: the corrupting forces were not entirely unpleasant. They gave a local colour, and added character. Wollongong was ready to be levelled though, certainly. This was what I was trying to get across to the students, that they could turn Wollongong into something very interesting if they wanted to – really do something with the city. It was empty and just sitting there, ready for the taking. No one was paying attention. If something is disused and run down then it’s kind of an open space to take control of. No one—not one of them—took me up on that challenge, with the exception of Nick Adler. Maybe it was because he wasn’t from Wollongong, it was the Newcastle thing, that meant he could see the potential there.

INTERVIEWER

Nick ended up coming up with the funding for your project though – do you feel like he was working more towards your ideals?

TOM GRANT

What do you mean?

INTERVIEWER

That he was working on and directly contributing to your project, rather than doing his own work…

TOM GRANT

Well, sure, but I saw it as a bigger project than just me, but he was still undergrad all over. It was on him like a rash. What could he do on his own? Not much. He could tie himself to me though. He was devoted to what I was trying to achieve. Jump on board! He found me an alternate route to getting the thing off the ground. Nick told me that he had been sitting in his car one Friday night, waiting for his housemate to pick up some Thai take away, and Nick was reading some book or something when this councillor walks past with these two women, one arm around each. What did Nick know? Nick hung around the council chambers a lot, and he got to know some of the guys, so all he needed to do was to look at him. He wound down the car window and waved to this councillor. The guy did not have daughters or nieces, if you know what I mean. It was a Friday night and the streetlights were aimed at him in a suspicious way. Anyway, Nick soon brought in some money for the project.

INTERVIEWER

Do you mean that he blackmailed him?

TOM GRANT

I wish it were that dramatic. He found us funding. Private donations were made. No handshakes.

INTERVIEWER

Some of your students, they have said that what you were teaching when Nick disappeared was kind of grim and that you were kind of… grim…

TOM GRANT

It was a dark class from the start. There were a couple of murders just outside of town that year—a woman found in the boot of her car—but that really had nothing to do it. It was simply a case that I was not prepared to take that class, and that influenced both what I was teaching and the way I was going about it. What do people say? “I was not in a good place.” That was happening on a geographic and mental level perhaps. When I get nervous I go real dark. The content I was obsessed with went that way too. I was obsessed with the performance artist Leigh Bowery, who took an outlandish aspect of the Australian character and then blew it up into something very extreme, to the point that you could not see the original detail. I was trying desperately to link Bowery’s work to the murder of the former Wollongong Lord Mayor Frank Arkell – something about the work done to Arkell’s face after the murder—like Mark Valera, his murderer cut him up afterwards—and then to link that to Bowery’s own facial mutilations. And maybe go off into some bigger discussion about Bowery’s use of dress as touching on S&M culture. It turned out there was an academic who had already done this, though he’d gone through Norman Gunston, who of course was Wollongong’s favourite son, which is a million times smarter than what I was attempting. I mean, Bowery grew up in Sunshine in Victoria, which, despite the name, has its own troubles grappling with the grim. Anyway, the connection is not there. This academic had said that the pins left in Arkell’s face by Valera were a strange echo of Gunston’s face, covered in those garish tissue-papered nicks from his poor shaving technique. Genius! This was the kind of reading that I was trying to pass on to the students. I was failing terribly. They just looked at me in horror for most of the lesson. They thought they had signed up for something else entirely. I was so out of it at that time. It’s too easy to become an educator for the wrong reasons. They should do serious health checks on sessional lecturers before bringing them in. I was going all over the place. They weren’t ready to talk about body mutilation.

INTERVIEWER

Why do you think that was?

TOM GRANT

They were third year students but in no way did they want to stare into the oblivion pit I was outlining. Well, I was trying to tell them that fourth year, which is no year at all in university terms, when they would be out on there own, well that was the oblivion. There was no choice about it. I tried to make it easy for them, to draw simple enough patterns. I was obsessed with Johnny Knoxville, for instance, and I was continuously wondering what would it take to turn Jackass into something more highbrow. This is something a kid from Wollongong could fucking smash. Still, I couldn’t get these things to connect, and so there was a good semester’s worth of fucking around on this stuff and not getting anywhere, and I knew that someone was going to come in and kind of make the leap before I got there. I had a feeling Adler might have been the one to do it. He was doing his own interesting work. Why shouldn’t art benefit from political corruption for a while?

INTERVIEWER

Did Adler know you were unwell during this time?

TOM GRANT

I don’t know if I was unwell exactly. I was watching a lot of TV. It put out of my mind this low level anxiety that I was dealing with every day. I would watch the really awful daytime programs and just pretend I was in hospice care. It took away all sense of responsibility. It was better than turning to drugs or alcohol.

INTERVIEWER

Were you trying other ways to get well?

TOM GRANT

The treatment that had been prescribed to me that year was a beach walk every morning for fifteen minutes, followed by an hour-long session of yoga in the afternoon. This was typical health retreat stuff. I skipped the yoga and instead fell asleep on the couch—wishing I was dead—but the beach walks were strangely compulsive and I had nothing but time for them. I could feel my head clearing out along the way. This had been the problem from the start, of course – that the thoughts were going too far. The walks were not a pure solution though. They also presented a problem. I had become quite fond of this single house at the end of the walk, a sleek understated modernist affair. It showed restraint in a suburb not particularly known for it. This was pure working class territory for the main part, but the beach was dominated by retirees moving from Sydney to build their final residences, these final resting places of the rich. They built big. This particular house, however, kept it single-story and I was completely obsessed with it. This presented a problem, of course. I wanted to get into the house to have a look around. But I was in no state to ring doorbells and introduce myself to strangers. The fact was, the walking treatment had been prescribed in the first place because I had broken into a house earlier that summer. I was more surprised than anyone that I had the capacity to both break and enter.

INTERVIEWER

Was this something you mentioned to Nick Adler?

TOM GRANT

Sure, I talked openly to my students about those crimes and the criminal element, and how that influenced my artistic… being or rationale.

INTERVIEWER

How does crime influence someone’s artistic being?

TOM GRANT

I think it comes back to that awareness of your capacity for these things. I can feel my capacity for violence, for instance. And that energy can feed into a work or works. But it’s important not to romanticise that shit. You’re not going to buy dinner with that idea, you’re just going to get kicked out of the restaurant.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve been quite open about your mental disorders in the past and how they have informed your work.

TOM GRANT

People say, oh you’re so brave for talking about these things – but what I’m really talking about there is weakness. I was very, very weak. Why should that be celebrated? Why should I be congratulated? Let’s put it this way – I was ill, disastrously so. Disorders, depressions, downers, whatever you want to call them are always a kind of a cop out. I was not too far from becoming one of those Japanese teenage hideaways – a hikikomori, you should really google that when you get home. I just wanted to be in my room by myself all the time. I don’t think that that should be applauded. I shouldn’t have been suffering these things, and I think I’ve been too open about them in the past… far too open.

INTERVIEWER

How so?

TOM GRANT

This is one way I think about it: I do genuinely fear that I taught Nick how to be unwell, or at least demonstrated some of the behaviours of an unwell person that were easy for him to pick up on. And that led him to feel that that was a place that he had to go in order to get to where I was. It is one thing to fuck up your own life, fucking up somebody else’s is a more pure form of agony. I had a young psychologist once who told me that anxiety is very, very contagious. I wasn’t anxious around the time I was hanging out with Nick, but, like you say, I did talk a lot about my anxieties and how they played out in my work. Nick just took to it. He was following me around and asking me questions about what it was like to go through that stuff. It was like he was taking notes on how to perform this suffering.

INTERVIEWER

But the project didn’t ultimately go ahead, like you said.

TOM GRANT

Nick had seen a movie that summer that had this incredible impact on him. He was talking like this character out of the movie all the time. It was a movie about a psychopath or a sociopath or a superhero or something, and he just loved the way this guy talked, so he talked like that guy. He’d absorbed everything from this American piece of crap. This mimicry was everywhere, of course, but it seemed more pronounced in Nick. He had lost himself, and I feared that he was going to lose me in the process. Then his girlfriend came around to my house, and she said Nick was in real trouble with this councillor, that we had to pay the money back. It was horrible, this girl was eighteen or nineteen and she was getting harassed because her boyfriend was getting in over his head. You can’t leave a guy like that in charge of finances for a major public art project! It was no longer worth it for me. I was having real difficulties concentrating, or doing any meaningful work really, and I was letting things build up to a point where I was really worried that I would never get anything done again. That’s a truly horrible feeling. That and when you feel like your work has no worth. It’s best not to drag other people into that.

INTERVIEWER

How did Nick respond to you dropping the project?

TOM GRANT

I think he thought that I had wasted his time and that I had put him at great risk. But I just did not want to continue with that project, because it did seem contingent on working with him. What duty of care was there for me as an unwell person looking after another unwell person? The university was deeply and perversely cheap. They knew about my condition but kept me on, said they would provide support, but hung up the phone on me on multiple occasions when I was pleading for help.

INTERVIEWER

Nick came to you right before he disappeared, did you feel a similar responsibility? Were you the last person to see him?

TOM GRANT

No, his girlfriend was the last person to see him, but yes he came to me the night of his disappearance. Did I feel a sense of responsibility? He was having trouble of some kind. He had shaved his head, and just seemed to have gone quiet inside. The fast talking kid with the insider knowledge was gone. It was getting quite late in semester and he was getting increasingly anxious about no longer being in the university system. It was a comfort zone for him. This last night, I took the students out for drinks, again a mistake. Always a mistake. They’re all such sissy drinkers. I was getting drunk in a very unprofessional but very expert way and I was going on and on about how I thought there were more interesting things happening in Newcastle than Wollongong – a more direct attempt to remake the city, to make it of use, through the Renew program. I kept going back and forth between wanting to do the project in Newcastle and Wollongong. Newcastle was getting dark. They found Tinkler’s $500k Ferrari burnt out by the side of the highway. Good for them. I’ll tell you what I love about that crime… Tinkler looks exactly like the kind of criminal you would imagine if you closed your eyes and tried to think about the guy who stole Tinkler’s car. Tinkler looks like my memories of bad high school kids. He looks like Kearney Zzyzwicz, that leather and steel-spiked wrist-bracelet wearing playground bully from The Simpsons? It’s the shorn head that gives him a look. I thought I could make some commentary on Tinkler. Nick went off at this idea. He left the pub really upset. I thought that he might be getting on the first train back to Newcastle to make something happen. I don’t know why he was so upset. This was a flip, certainly, on my part. In his mind, I had made a seismic shift where I had displaced the two cities south and north of Sydney. But it was just talk. It was only ever talk. Nick was thin-skinned like that—you could have seen the blood in his veins if you’d held him out in the sunlight—and he bruised too easily. He wanted everyone to take note of those bruises, but the other students didn’t even notice him leave, so we went on drinking. I went home and fell asleep reading some Dave Hickey. It’s good but I fell aslseep reading it, like I do with pretty much any book. I woke a few hours later though to what I thought was the sound of Velcro tearing away from Velcro. Turned out it was Nick ripping open my fly screen window and climbing into my lounge room.

INTERVIEWER

What did you do?

TOM GRANT

I went out into the lounge room. The place was a mess. I never was, you know, someone to ask people to take off their shoes in my house but this was pushing it. He told me what I was doing was not natural. And by natural he meant literally nature. He had brought in armfuls of leaves and mud and twigs from outside and dumped the lot on my rug. He was building a little sculpture to represent his power over me, I guess. I should have been congratulating him for having paid attention in class. He had done the readings on the Frank Arkell murder that I had set, specifically the altars that Mark Valera had designed after the killing part was done.

INTERVIEWER

That sounds terrifying…

TOM GRANT

He was acting out. So what? I had done the same at his age. But maybe he was more serious about it, and in my half sleep I could not recognise just how much trouble he was in. Alec Waugh proposes “seriousness” as a form of infectious stupidity. I could not get serious that night for whatever reason. Perhaps, at best, I was being careful not to get vocally angry. It came down to this: a small, critical misunderstanding had taken place between us, and I’m still not sure what exactly that was. I asked him if he wanted a drink, and he started telling me about how his father was an alcoholic and that he thought he might have inherited that gene. Talk about a sign! I started laughing at him and, obviously, he did not take that lightly. He said he wanted out of my class and I told him there were only two weeks left anyway, and then I never saw him again.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel at all responsible for Nick’s disappearance?

TOM GRANT

There is one thing I keep thinking about that night. He’d been able to break into the one house that I never could – my own. I was proud of him for that. But did I feel responsible? No, I don’t think so. He’s not all gone. Look, in school we were scared by a story told by a particularly grim-faced teacher about a man who had accidentally locked himself in the back of his freezer truck, and knew that he was going to die from hypothermia if he couldn’t get out. The poor guy spent twelve hours in the truck, before someone found him in the morning, and when they opened the truck’s doors, he was there, frozen to death. But the freezer had not been on when he had been locked in. He’d willed his body temperature to drop. This was supposed to impart to us a message about the power of suggestion of the mind or something and the story has obviously stayed with me – and Nick willed his disappearance, certainly…

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Sam Twyford-Moore is a writer of fiction and nonfiction and will direct the 2014 Emerging Writers’ Festival.

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This piece is from our most recent print issue, TLB20. You can grab a copy for yourself!

'Slip: An essay, of sorts, about women’s underwear', by Madeleine Watts

In the nineteenth century, nice girls wore crotchless panties.

Women only began wearing ‘underwear’ around the beginning of the 1800s. Although they were long, modest and uniformly white, these ‘drawers’ were designed with an open slit at the intersection of the thighs. Every nineteenth century heroine you’ve encountered in a second-hand paperback­­—Anna Karenina, Jane Eyre, Madame Bovary, Queen Victoria—all those headstrong, lovesick women sipping tea in drawing rooms had nothing between their legs under all their skirts.

Throughout the nineteenth century, little girls wore closed crotch knickers—all the better for running, skipping and climbing trees—but once they reached sexual maturity they transitioned to open-crotch drawers. The opening was worn for a range of reasons, including the easy access point it gave a lady’s husband, the alleged health benefits of having air circulating down below, and, undoubtedly, because it made it easier to pee. But as the twentieth century dawned, as women demanded their economic and political autonomy, as their skirts became shorter and narrower and they began to stress that female sexuality wasn’t a mythology whispered about in erotic novels, closed-crotch underwear became more popular.

Seamed ‘step-in’s’ were pretty and practical; they were for girls who wanted to work and march in protests, dance till dawn and lose their latchkeys in the backseat of a car in a giddy tussle at the end of the night. By the 1930s, open-crotch drawers were a dated souvenir of Victorian grandmothers, and crotchless panties transitioned from a commonplace piece of clothing worn by nice girls to a symbol of girls with dubious reputations, because women’s attempts to structure their lives and bodies according to their own desires shaped, and continues to shape, the design and consumption of what they wear next to their skin.

Fashion has a unique way of locating debates about politics, economics and culture directly on the human body – particularly women’s bodies. Fashion symbolises and constructs our relationships to institutions of power and culture, gender and economics, while also taking hold of the popular imaginary in a way the rest of the design world has reason to envy. The language of fashion accounts for the ways mass culture is transformed into personal experience; it helps us articulate who we are, or slip in and out of versions of who we want to be. Yet it’s so easy for people to dismiss it, to write off skirts and hats and knickers as the fairy floss of a moribund materialist culture. Underwear in particular is something so wildly commonplace you never bother to contemplate its meanings as you absentmindedly slip into it in the mornings. Yet it is something that has a profound impact on how bodies are made feminine and how the prevailing ideas of how a person should be, of how a woman should be, are used to physically shape the body when we are clothed, but not dressed.

**

When I was a little girl I had three separate dress-up boxes – one at my mother’s house, one at my father’s, and one at my grandparents’. I was an only child with divorced parents. My school reports described me as ‘clever’ and ‘imaginative’. I spent a lot of time wandering around spinning out complex and fantastical daydreams. I was a wood sprite, I was an explorer, I was fleeing the Nazi’s on a Paris-bound train with a false passport and a pistol concealed beneath my beret. The stories were more refined when I was wearing a Turkish kaftan of my aunts, or a patched suit jacket, or a gown of silk scarves and torn petticoats discarded by my grandmother. These scraps of fabric helped me articulate my stories; they gave weight to my daydreams.

Now that my childhood dress-up boxes have faded into the middle distance of my early twenties no form of clothing holds as much magic for me as underwear. I’m more comfortable wearing underwear than anything else. It doesn’t matter if anybody sees me or not. If I’m alone in the house, I’ll wear tights and slips and lace bras. I feel most comfortable in my own skin when I’m wearing very little at all.

Fashion allows us to embody our desires, buy our identities. It is the consumer product most enmeshed in our performance of everyday life. Jill Fields, in her book An Intimate Affair: Women, Lingerie and Sexuality, makes the argument that the history of women’s underwear “reveals how women’s struggles for self-definition interact with resistant social forces to reconfigure gender distinctions.” The body in underwear is at once private and sexualised, as well as instrumental in shaping the silhouette according to whatever standard of femininity is considered ideal at the time. Every morning when you put on knickers (or don’t), you interact with hundreds of years of ideas and cultural debate by slipping your limbs into a small piece of cloth.

We like to think we’ve shed the history of our grandparents. The women’s movement made a pair of lacy closed-crotch step-in’s symbolic of sexual and carefree modern girls. Our grandmother’s spoke about the bras they didn’t burn but wish they had. The ethereal schoolgirls in Picnic at Hanging Rock cast off their corsets before dancing barefoot, letting lizards writhe across their naked ankles and disappearing behind a sinister granite boulder, never to be seen again.

Corsets have become a tired cliché of women’s oppression by the fashion industry. They cinched the waist, giving the illusion of prodigious hips when prodigious hips were fashionable; they smoothed and ‘corrected’ any perceived flaws in the female form. But people were genuinely convinced women needed corsets and that the corset was both a medically sound and socially responsible thing to wear.

Havelock Ellis, a British physician, social reformer and early supporter of evolution, was regularly cited when the inadequacy of female anatomy was publically discussed. Ellis calmly explained that women required corseting because the evolutionary transition from crawling to standing up straight was more difficult for them. “Women might be physiologically truer to herself if she went always on all fours,” Ellis wrote in 1910 when he published An Anatomical Vindication of the Straight Front Corset. “It is because the fall of the viscera in women when she imitated man by standing erect induced such profound physiological displacements…that the corset is morphologically essential.” By way of example, corset manufacturers routinely pointed to Native American women as evidence of the female form’s need of a corset. The idea being that when the body is left to develop ‘wildly’ the waist thickens, the breasts drop, and what once was ‘beautiful’ becomes ‘grotesque’.

We may have shed our corsets generations ago, but we inherited the symbolic restraint of whale-boning. I remember watching my grandmother getting changed. She was a woman who’d grown up poor, who told strangers she lived in the harbour-side suburb of Vaucluse when in reality she lived in a former Housing Commission semi on one of the busiest streets in Sydney. Her favourite place on earth was David Jones. When she looked after me she would dress me up with a beautiful bow in my haphazard curls. We would catch a bus down Elizabeth Street to the elaborate doors of the perfume hall, and she would buy things. I would sit in the David Jones changing rooms with her, patient because I had been promised a chocolate milkshake, watching her struggle out of layers and layers of cream nylon petticoats and beige tights, to the thick, medical-looking elastic girdle holding in her stomach. Her excess would spill out over the top when she bent too far in any direction. Her soft flesh was overprinted with straps and seams and buckles. When she extricated herself from the thing she sighed because she could finally breathe. The mediation of the female body the corset industry imposed at the turn of the twentieth century turned into the necessity of the girdle in my grandmother’s generation. Shape and meanings change, but the legacies remain.

**

The last day I went outside without wearing a bra, I was ten years old. I was in Grade Five and standing in line for the canteen at recess. A girl named Lyle from the year above turned, looked me up and down, and sneered, “You know you really need to wear a bra. I can see everything.” I held my arms across my chest for the rest of the day and refused to go anywhere near the monkey bars in fear of something bouncing. I was afraid of an unruliness located on my chest over which I had absolutely no control.

That happened around the same time my father took me to see Vertigo on a Saturday night at the Sun Theatre in Yarraville. Vertigo is an Alfred Hitchcock romance, with Jimmy Stewart paid to pursue Kim Novak, the ethereal blonde he gradually falls in love with from afar. There’s much more to the story than that, but the character that I was most interested in was Midge, Jimmy Stewart’s sensible blonde friend sidelined into a supporting role by her black-frame glasses. She doesn’t appear in the film for long, but in the second scene we get to see Midge in her apartment, the walls a collage of her drawings and paintings. While Jimmy Stewart balances on step ladders in front of a window overlooking San Francisco, Midge works on a sketch for a ‘revolutionary uplift’ bra, with no straps or back, designed “on the principle of the cantilevered bridge.” After watching that film the experiences converged and I began to think about lingerie as architecture of the body. It was a necessary instrument in helping construct a woman from out of the disparate elements that made up the girl.

Underwear takes the body and embellishes upon what occurs naturally, according to an ideal form. And it standardises. Adorno speaks about pseudo-individualisation – the process wherein mass production is given the guise of free choice, making what is a standardised product come to feel individual, a completely unique object that you, and only you, were clever and discerning enough to pick for yourself. That process has become entrenched in the production of lingerie. Standardised sizes of bras, for instance, only came about in the 1930s, but our tendency is to speak about cup sizes as long-entrenched measurements, like they were so many inches and acres. My cup size has become a component of my identity, something I can tell tongue-tied new boyfriends in the first few weeks of being undressed together. But it means nothing. It’s the incorporation of my own body into a structure of standardisation, into the recognisable and regulated architectural forms of the female body.

But simply because we inherit a legacy of constraint, of standardisation, doesn’t mean that you can’t take the regulated architecture and break it apart until the rooms look and feel exactly the way you want them to. Meaning leaps between body and object, and object and body, and back again.

The muddling of meaning between material and body has made women’s underwear an incredibly powerful sexual object, in and of itself. Lingerie gives femininity form. It lies close to the skin, next to the most sexual parts of the anatomy. It puts the body in an ambiguous state, a no-man’s-land between clothed and dressed. It is the last step before naked, revealing just enough to suggest that beneath the lace and straps and ribbons might be something wonderful beyond comprehension. The airborne, ethereal materials used to make it both deny the body and frame it, creating the illusion of softness and sensuality and feminine mystery. Fashion houses know this, and for decades they have sold us back our fantasy. Those “metaphors of magic”, as Jill Fields calls them, were particularly dominant in post-war lingerie advertising.  The best known of these were the “dream campaigns” used to advertise Maidenform, where a semi-clothed woman daydreams of walking a tightrope, or smiling for Europe, or transforming herself into Cleopatra, dreams facilitated entirely by her Maidenform bra. Maidenform sold the seduction of being looked at, yes, but it also sold women the ability to re-shape the architecture they inherited.

It’s important not to reduce how women see their own bodies to a parade of airbrushed magazine images and culturally prescribed rules and restrictions, against which we’re always struggling and seeing ourselves as deficient. The gaze is always multiple, always shifting and contested, and there are a myriad layers of viewing involved when you look at yourself. When I look at myself in a mirror what I see is an image formed in the prism of the fantasies freewheeling in my mind, a patchwork of lingering glances, photographs, recollections, neuroses. The memory of what I was thinking and feeling the last time I wore something—an ex-boyfriend’s comment, the way the light leapt off my skin as I emerged from the house in a new dress, or a scruffy looking stranger telling me I was “smoking hot” as I stood in line at a bar—are far more important to the way I perceive myself and my femininity. Women consider their bodies in terms of what they aspire to look like. That might be refracted through cultural ideals, but it is never those things alone.

Arguably, there was a kind of shift that took place around the 1970s, when we entered what Barbara Vinken calls the age of ‘post-fashion’. Her argument in Fashion Zeitgeist: Trends and Cycles in the Fashion System, is that in the 1970s, “the fashion designer loses his absolute power” and “fashion becomes a co-production between the creator and those who wear the clothes.” This is an era in which fashion has become performance, where designers have collaborated with people on the streets and begun to dismantle and deconstruct the original ideals of femininity, the fetishisation of what it meant to be a woman.

A few years ago a fashion blog called The Man Repeller got international press coverage for representing that same deconstruction of femininity. Run by New Yorker Leandra Medine, the blog is focused on clothing adored by women and designers, but which frequently confuses or at worse repulses the ‘average man’. The blog defines the act of ‘manrepelling’ as “outfitting oneself in a sartorially offensive mode that may result in repelling members of the opposite sex. Such garments include but are not limited to harem pants, boyfriend jeans, overalls, shoulder pads, full length jumpsuits, jewellery that resembles violent weaponry and clogs.” In 2010 The New York Times ran a piece on Medine, in which her mum—interjecting as she ran out the door to yoga—observes that Medine “is relating fashion to feminism. She is saying women dress for themselves.“

What we wear isn’t dictated by the design establishment anymore. Fashion’s stage is no longer the opera or the races or the ballrooms of the aristocracy, but the streets. It’s for that reason that the most powerful people in the fashion world today are bloggers, people sitting in their bedrooms assembling a visual identity out of a jumble of eras, ideas and trends that momentarily catch their eye. Deyan Sudjic, the Director of the Design Museum in London, writes thatobjects “are what we use to define ourselves, to signal who we are, and who we are not” and “design has become the language with which to shape those objects and to tailor the messages that they carry.” Yes, fashion is about gender construction, and dressing for other people to see you, but fashion has also become the zeitgeist in visible form. It has come to life, in a way, as an embodiment of the discourse on what it means to be alive right now. We tell stories about ourselves through the clothes we wear.

**

If you’re a woman, underwear is the medium through which you can begin to construct your femininity, your desires, the first kind of sense of your sexual self. You can begin to figure out how you might want to look, and how you want to be, how you fit into the architecture of womanhood. And you can do it in private. It’s the closest thing you find, as an adult, to the dress up boxes of your childhood. You can piece things together from the chaos of history and economics and art and philosophy. You can tell yourself stories about beauty and desire and about who you might be, in the same way you once told yourself you were a gypsy or a soldier or a hedgehog. And you translate those things into a language entirely particular to you. You imagine, for perhaps only a matter of moments, being somebody else, or a different version of yourself, as though the life of another person is a place you can travel to.

My favourite piece of clothing is a pale blue slip I bought one summer in Berlin. It was made some time during the 1960s, when slips were still something women wore every day, to give femininity form. Slips would lie next to the skin, where nobody saw them, but gave shape to what everybody saw. My grandmother wore slips into her old age. While I don’t wear slips the way my grandmother wore them, to hold and shape the unruliness of my body, when I wear my blue Berlin slip, I’m happy. I feel nearer some version of myself which makes me safer in my own skin. It’s a private play-acting. It is an imaginative leap from one version of myself to another, a way of telling myself a story and trying on different versions of myself. Slipping in, slipping out.  

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Madeleine Watts is a writer living in Sydney. She has contributed to Junkee, Griffith REVIEW, FasterLouder and Concrete Playground

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This piece is from our most recent print issue, TLB20. You can grab a copy for yourself!

'A Most Unconvincing Replicant: Allegory and Intelligence in Blade Runner’s Chess Game', by Jacob Edwards

Blade Runner (dir. Ridley Scott, 1982) is set in a world rich with background detail. In terms of creativity—such as the complex ‘cityspeak’ fashioned at great length by Edward James Olmos (who plays the character Gaff), although it features only briefly—the film demonstrates considerable attention to detail. Yet, in one of its more mundane depictions—a game of chess—Blade Runner is found wanting: the game between Sebastian and Tyrell has been rendered with a level of intent and accuracy sufficient only to draw attention to its flaws.

The chess game performs a simple function in terms of plot—giving Roy a means by which to approach Tyrell—and allows for an easily perceptible ranking of Sebastian’s, Tyrell’s and Roy’s respective intellects. This may serve adequately for most viewers. Megan de Kantzow, author of the New South Wales high school study guide for Blade Runner, for instance, accepts (p. 86) that Roy gained access to his creator because Tyrell was “intrigued” by Sebastian’s move. However, a more detailed examination reveals that the specifics of the chess game do not align well with its apparent function within the film.

Blade Runner has seen several different releases, but none of these versions differ in their portrayal of the chess game. Let’s first recap, superficially, the relevant sections of the film. Sebastian and Tyrell are playing chess by correspondence. The game features in two scenes:

Scene #1 (from the Director’s Cut, 73:24 to 75:41)

Roy catches sight of the chess board in Sebastian’s apartment. After studying the position for just under ten seconds, he makes a move. Instantly, Sebastian corrects him.

Sebastian:      No. Knight takes queen. See? No good.

Roy moves to the other side of the board, plays Sebastian’s supposed refutation, and then ponders the new position. The focus of the plot shifts for a few minutes before returning to the game.

Roy:                 Is he good?

Sebastian:      Who?

Roy:                 Your opponent.

Sebastian:      Oh, Doctor Tyrell? I’ve only beaten him once in chess. He’s a genius.

 

Scene #2 (from the Director’s Cut, 77:48 to 79:02)

Roy and Sebastian are taking the elevator up to Tyrell’s penthouse. The lift stops and Tyrell questions Sebastian over the intercom.

Tyrell:             What can I do for you, Sebastian?

Sebastian:      Queen to bishop six, check.

Tyrell:            [Moving from his bed to the chess board] Nonsense! Just a moment. Hmm. Queen to bishop six. Ridiculous. Queen to bishop six. Hmm … Knight takes queen. What’s on your mind, Sebastian? What are you thinking about?

Roy:                 [Whispering] Bishop to king seven, check-mate.

Sebastian:      Bishop to king seven—checkmate, I think.

Tyrell:             Got a brain-storm, huh, Sebastian? Milk and cookies kept you awake, huh. Let’s discuss this.

The film industry may be notorious for its mis-depiction of chess—few serious chess players would be surprised that the position on Sebastian’s board in no way matches that of Tyrell’s—but in Blade Runner’s case there seem to have been some pains taken to portray a real, historical game. From the specificity of the moves played, and what can be made out from Tyrell’s board (the clearer of the two), it can be seen that Sebastian and Tyrell are re-enacting Anderssen versus Kieseritzky (London, 1851), an encounter that has been dubbed by history as the ‘immortal game’.

To reach the position that Roy first contemplates, Anderssen and Kieseritzky played the following moves: 1.e4 e5 2.f4 exf4 3.Bc4 Qh4+ 4.Kf1 b5 5.Bxb5 Nf6 6.Nf3 Qh6 7.d3 Nh5 8.Nh4 Qg5 9.Nf5 c6 10.g4 Nf6 11.Rg1 cxb5 12.h4 Qg6 13.h5 Qg5 14.Qf3 Ng8 15.Bxf4 Qf6 16.Nc3 Bc5 17.Nd5 Qxb2 18.Bd6 Bxg1 19.e5 Qxa1+ 20.Ke2 Na6 21.Nxg7+ Kd8

image

Starting from this point, Roy gives—in the obsolete descriptive notation that Anderssen and Kieseritzky would have used, rather than the algebraic notation that is prevalent in modern times—22.Qf6+ Nxf6 23.Be7 (checkmate)

William M. Kolb, in his ‘Blade Runner Film Notes’ (pp. 165-166), observes that Sebastian is scripted in the film as a chess grandmaster, and that this both highlights Tyrell’s genius and elevates Roy to an altogether new level of intelligence. However, all three players act in a manner that is thoroughly inconsistent with this portrayal.

Firstly, Sebastian. His response to Roy’s first move—“No. Knight takes queen. See? No good.”—is that of a beginner to intermediate level player, dismissing the move simply because the queen can be captured. In reference to the whisperings that Ridley Scott dubbed onto Sebastian’s automatons during post-production, Paul M. Sammon, author of Future Noir, suggests (p. 169) that Sebastian’s “No. Knight takes queen” comment is ‘reinforced’ by a ghostly murmur of “…will mate you.” Logically, however, “…will mate you” can refer only to the positive outcome of Roy’s move, not to Sebastian’s specious refutation. In this case, it seems that even Sebastian’s (admittedly perspicacious) toys can see the merit of Roy’s play. Given the precarious position of Tyrell’s king, and that Sebastian already has sacrificed (or blundered—inconceivable for a grandmaster) two rooks and a bishop, he would actively be seeking moves just such as this one. Strong players rarely are as shallow in their thinking as Sebastian appears, and in the historical game Kieseritzky resigned after 20.Ke2 (or possibly 20…Na6 with Anderssen having announced the winning continuation). Perhaps the original intention had been to start Roy’s calculations one move earlier—the queen sacrifice is more difficult to see with the black king still on e8, and with a white knight on f5 denying the queen access to f6—but although this is more credible, the innocuous move ‘knight takes pawn, check’ could hardly give rise to the dismissive response that the script requires of Sebastian.

Secondly, Roy. Although his initial consideration of an unfamiliar position is natural, his subsequent behaviour does not match that of a strong player. The two moves—queen to bishop six, check, and bishop to king seven, checkmate—are bound together. The first, which serves to decoy Tyrell’s knight from g8, is played solely to set up the second. Sebastian’s supposed refutation merely confirms that Tyrell would have no choice in his next move. Roy, having seen the two move combination, would have no need to doubt his own analysis or reconsider the position. Charitably, it could be argued that he moves to the other side of the board so as to put himself in Tyrell’s mindset—but this is a purely symbolic interpretation of what, in terms of the chess game itself, remains inexplicable behaviour. Roy’s question to Sebastian—“Is he good, your opponent?”—also makes little sense if Roy is assumed to be intelligent enough (as someone beyond-higher-than-grandmaster level obviously must be) to evaluate the position independently. Even if Roy understands nothing but the rules, and is progressing from beginner to super grandmaster in a matter of seconds, it would be more appropriate to ask, “Is he considered good, your opponent?”

Thirdly, Tyrell. For a supposedly higher-than-grandmaster chess player, Tyrell is unnaturally flustered by Sebastian’s move. He cannot seem to visualise it away from the board, and even when contemplating it at the chess set, he does not immediately appreciate its significance. Admittedly, his mind may be racing ahead in cogitating the non-chess subtext of the game, but to merely play ‘knight takes queen’ without acknowledging the inevitable checkmate, is more suggestive of an amateur player than a preoccupied genius. In propounding that the chess game elevates Roy above Sebastian and Tyrell, William Kolb notes (p. 175) that it is not unheard of for experts to overlook a two move checkmate, and even cites Rubinstein versus Nimzowitsch (San Sebastian, 1912) as an example. However, although the chess dynamic between Sebastian and Tyrell may be as Kolb describes, and likewise the significance of Roy’s contribution, the ‘brilliancy’ of the two moves nevertheless has been misappropriated. The contestants themselves are depicted as (at most) something akin to social club players.

Further to the character-players not acting the relative parts of grandmaster, greater-than-grandmaster and somewhere-beyond-super-grandmaster, the game itself is not appropriate for conveying this dynamic. Adolf Anderssen and Lionel Kieseritzky were very strong players of their age, but chess in those days retained a significant romanticism that both encouraged sacrificial play and frowned upon the non-acceptance of gambits. The ‘immortal game’ is so called because it perfectly captures the spirit of that age. Anderssen sacrifices a bishop, then both rooks and finally his queen, before checkmating Kieseritzky using his remaining three minor pieces. Kieseritzky, though having lost only three pawns, has not been able to develop his pieces properly, nor move his king to safety. He is powerless to prevent checkmate. It is, without doubt, an unforgettable game, and one that most beautifully demonstrates the see-sawing balance that exists between strength and mobility. It was also, however, a friendly game contested during a break between rounds of a serious tournament. Anderssen’s play is whimsical as much as inspired, and Kieseritzky’s defence (if it may be called that) is little more than an indulgent acceptance of the material on offer. Writing the series My Great Predecessors in 1993, when he was world champion, grandmaster Garry Kasparov commented (vol. 1, p. 25), “Objectively the game is rather weak and superficial, but what a finish!”

The quality of play makes Anderssen versus Kieseritzky—and simply its re-enactment in Blade Runner—seem poorly chosen as an attempt to characterise Sebastian, Tyrell and Roy through their respective intelligences. The flow of the game does likewise. In the film the viewer supposedly is presented with a very strong player (Sebastian) matched against an even stronger player (Tyrell) whom he has beaten only once. Sebastian is headed for another defeat until the intervention of Roy, whose intelligence burns “twice as bright”. This is a difficult scenario to achieve, particularly in a correspondence game, because it requires a seemingly inferior position to be turned, via some innate piece of brilliance, into a winning position. An oversight made in time trouble—such as happened in the game to which Kolb refers between Rubinstein and Nimzowitsch—would not suffice; nor even would a more sublime queen sacrifice such as in Levitsky versus Marshall (Breslau, 1912):

image

Marshall won by playing 23…Qg3! This move looks utterly outrageous at first—the queen can be captured by either of two pawns, or indeed by white’s queen—yet it leads to a forced checkmate. (The threat is 24…Qxh2 which is unstoppable in light of the forcing variations: 24.hxg3 Ne2#; or 24.fxg3 Ne2+ 25.Kh1 Rxf1#; or 24.Qxg3 Ne2+ 25.Kh1 Nxg3+ 26.fxg3 Rxf1#) Black’s winning move may be spectacular, but it arises from an already superior position, and relies for its checkmating combinations upon black’s extra knight. Well might the spectators have thrown gold coins onto the board, yet still this remained a powerful end to a game in which Marshall dominated, not a telling reversal of fortunes.

In the ‘immortal game’, Anderssen (Sebastian) very deliberately plays his way into the winning position, and Roy’s concluding queen sacrifice is nothing more than the logical—and only—extension of the preceding moves. Given that the flow of play in no way approximates the required contrast of intelligences, one cannot help but conclude that the ‘immortal game’ was chosen as much for its name as for its relevance to the human/replicant dynamic. This is perhaps further evidenced by the extemporised nature of the chess game’s inclusion. According to Sammon (pp. 55-56, 171), Hampton Fancher, who wrote the early Blade Runner scripts, originally had Sebastian spiriting Roy into the Tyrell “preserve” under the guise of delivering an artificial griffin (or miniature unicorn). Ridley Scott and producer Michael Deeley insisted on replacing this sequence with a less expensive plot device. In one of several instances of the artificial animals/electric sheep thread being pulled from Blade Runner, Ridley Scott instead conceived of the chess game, which then was scripted by David Peoples.

Given that Blade Runner’s inherent question—“What is human?”—would lose much of its meaning if not for the replicants’ almost palpable mortality, it seems intuitively wrong that there would be no significance in the act of two mortals—one human, one replicant—contesting the ‘immortal game’ of chess. Yet Ridley Scott, when asked whether Blade Runner’s chess game was structured in homage to Anderssen versus Kieseritzky, dismissed the idea, saying (Sammon p. 384):

“The answer is no. What’s that line you see at the end of film credits? ‘Any resemblance between this photoplay and actual events is purely coincidental?’ [laughs] I’m afraid that’s the case with Blade Runner’s chess game—it’s purely coincidental.”

It’s a glib reply, and unconvincing. Granted, not enough of Tyrell’s board is seen to establish conclusively that it shows the exact position of the ‘immortal game’, but the moves played—two for white, one for black—are highly distinct. Qf6+ is unusual in any regular game of chess, if for no other reason than because black’s king starts on e8 and usually relocates (via castling) to either g8 or c8, none of which squares are attacked from f6. If the king does find its way to d8 then almost invariably it is because the white and black queens have been swapped on that square, an act that again precludes the possibility of Qf6. The odds against white’s queen moving there, with check but without capture, are lengthened still further by the fact that the square is guarded. Indeed, the knight on g8 usually is developed quite early in the game, and for it to take any piece—let alone a queen—on its first move is virtually unheard of. Once the pièce de résistance of Be7 is taken into account—a minor piece checkmating in the middle of the seventh rank, attacking a square upon which the king hardly ever resides—the probability against the Blade Runner sequence being unintentional becomes astronomically high.

Further still, Ridley Scott was not likely to have let his crew sit twiddling their thumbs, playing an infinite number of chess games until there manifested a position of Shakespearean eloquence. Scott took complete control over every aspect of Blade Runner, noting in one interview (Sammon p. 387) that, “to put that kind of thing on screen requires enormous attention to detail. And it can finally only be accomplished through one pair of eyes.” Probabilistically, there can be no coincidence. Having signed on as director, Scott personally oversaw all aspects of script development, and the moves scripted for Sebastian, Roy and Tyrell leave no doubt: the chess game in Blade Runner is Anderssen versus Kieseritzky.

So, somebody set up the chess boards. Somebody—presumably at this stage David Peoples—wrote the exact words of dialogue. Perhaps Ridley Scott genuinely suspected nothing of the connection between the ‘immortal game’ and that of Sebastian/Roy versus Tyrell, but in that case it might well be argued that he should have known, and that the chess game should have been either better chosen or specially constructed, if not to characterise Sebastian, Roy and Tyrell through means of their moves, then at least not to undermine their characterisation (as does the current sequence). Would it have been possible to stage a game more apposite to the participants’ supposed intelligences? The answer is yes, and the key to such a scenario lies—fittingly enough—in an appreciation of the difference between artificial and human intelligence. Consider the following position from game two of the 2006 match between computer programme Deep Fritz (white) and reigning world champion Vladimir Kramnik (black):

image

The position is even—black with the advantage, white set to draw by perpetual check—but Kramnik, with half an hour left on his clock, having planned his continuation six moves previously and checked it on every subsequent move, stunned the world by playing …Qe3?? and thus allowing Fritz to checkmate him in one move with Qh7.

In contrast to Tyrell’s disbelieving bluster, Kramnik reacted calmly to the ‘surprise’ nature of his opponent’s move, merely raising one hand to his forehead before sitting down, signing the scoresheet and leaving to attend a press conference. But what was the cause of Kramnik’s monumental error—a move that grandmaster and blogger Susan Polgar called “Blunder of the century? Biggest blunder ever?” Kramnik himself could offer no excuse, but, given that one grandmaster commentating the game also overlooked the checkmate, Alexander Roshal (editor of Russian chess magazine 64) proffered the following explanation: that the positioning of white’s knight on f8 is so unusual as a means by which to support a checkmate on h7 (almost always it would be on f6 or g5) that Kramnik’s brain, his organic pattern recognition software, simply did not register the threat.

Herein lies the intrinsic difference between man and machine in their respective approaches to chess. Grandmasters are highly imaginative and can calculate to an extraordinary depth, but their calculations are filtered and directed according to positional assessments, which are based on experience. There is, in short, such a thing as ‘chess memory’. Strong players rely not only on strings of individual moves but also on the ‘chunking’ of analogous blocks of information; and whereas computers may be programmed to mimic this apperceptive intuition—that is, to evaluate a position either more or less favourably in instances where human experience has shown the benefits or drawbacks of a particular type of move, in a particular type of position, to be beyond strictly computational range—a computer retains its processing power at all times, and does not suffer from chess ‘blindness’. No chess computer, not even the simplest of mobile phone applications—a far cry from artificial intelligence—would ever make Kramnik’s blunder. Any half-decent programme would have played Roy’s combination within seconds.

What the Blade Runner chess game attempts, but fails, to depict, is an ability in Roy to find, through computation, a winning line that lies hidden to the grandmasterly experience, intuition and imagination of both Sebastian and Tyrell. This could be achieved, realistically, by taking some of the familiarity—the ‘chunked’ patterns—out of the game. In 1996 former world champion Bobby Fischer formally announced the rules for Fischer Random chess, which in essence, by shuffling the pieces on each player’s first rank, allows for 960 different starting positions. Fischer’s contention was that knowledge had begun to outweigh ability in chess games at the top level, and that the game had to be de-theorised if it were to become again a true test of intellect. He even demonstrated this, believes chess player and journalist Tim Krabbé (Open Chess Diary, entry no. 139), by playing anonymous blitz (three minute) games against strong opposition on the internet, making strange, almost random moves in the opening, and then fighting back to win from objectively worse positions because he was able to outplay his opponents amidst the resulting unfamiliarity. Such is the type of scenario that would have been necessary to convey Roy’s inherent superiority over Sebastian and Tyrell. Imagine the following position, arising from a game of Fischer Random chess:

image

(composed by grandmaster David Smerdon)

Scene #1 (with the chess board appropriately set)

Roy catches sight of the chessboard in Sebastian’s apartment. After studying the position for just under ten seconds, he makes a move: Qd3+. Instantly, Sebastian corrects him.

Sebastian:      No. King takes queen. See? No good.

Roy moves to the other side of the board, plays Sebastian’s supposed refutation, and then smiles. The focus of the plot shifts for a few minutes before returning to the game.

Roy:                 Is he considered good?

Sebastian:      Who?

Roy:                 Your opponent.

Sebastian:      Oh, Doctor Tyrell? I’ve only beaten him once in shuffle chess. He’s a genius.

Scene #2:

Roy and Sebastian are taking the elevator up to Tyrell’s penthouse. The lift stops and Tyrell questions Sebastian over the intercom.

Tyrell:             What can I do for you, Sebastian?

Sebastian:      Queen to queen three, check.

Tyrell:            [Moving from his bed to the chess board] Nonsense! Just a moment. Hmm. Queen to queen three. Ridiculous. Queen to queen three. Hmm … King takes queen. What’s on your mind, Sebastian? What are you thinking about?

Roy:                 [Whispering] Castles queenside, check-mate.

Sebastian:      Castles queenside—checkmate, I think.

Tyrell:             Got a brain-storm, huh, Sebastian? Milk and cookies kept you awake, huh. Let’s discuss this.

In the position that grandmaster Smerdon has devised, black (Tyrell) is two pawns up and, although his own king is precarious, is threatening both white’s queen and a revealed attack on white’s king.  White (Sebastian) appears at first to have a strong continuation in 1.Nxe4 but after 1…Qxe4+ 2.Qxe4 Bh7 3.Qxh7 g6 4.Bxe3+ Kd1 there is nothing that he can do to prevent 5…c2 (checkmate)

The dynamic perfectly fits the characters, yet still leaves room for Roy to find 1…Qd3+ 2.Kxd3 0-0-0 (checkmate). The winning combination, deceptively simple, is easy to overlook because the rules of Fischer Random chess, unlike regular chess, allow the king to start on—and therefore castle from—a square other than e1 (white) or e8 (black). In this case, white’s king would move right one square to c1, with the rook lifting over to d1 to deliver the checkmate. Such is the nature of this surprise move that it would even allow for Tyrell’s flustered response.

As GM Smerdon has demonstrated, then, it would have been possible to show a scenario wherein a high intellect (Sebastian) is elevated beyond a higher intellect (Tyrell) though the intervention of an intellect that is even higher still (Roy). Doubtlessly, the complexity of such a chess position and winning moves would have rendered the game incomprehensible to most viewers—that should, in fact, be the point—but its function within the film, and the impression it gives of Sebastian, Tyrell and Roy, would have remained the same. Not only would the use of a Fischer Random game (or ‘shuffle’ chess, as early variants were called) have carried a more futuristic feel, it would have allowed the scene to withstand the scrutiny of chess players and non-chess players alike.

Although Blade Runner was made before the advent of Fischer Random chess, and before Kramnik’s famous blunder against Deep Fritz, the concept of ‘shuffle’ chess was already well established by 1982, as was research into how grandmasters think. The truth of the matter is that the visionaries responsible for Blade Runner—and ultimately, the blame must fall here upon Ridley Scott—though looking forwards in almost all other respects, chose inexplicably to look backwards when scripting the chess scenes. The resultant depiction—intellectual heavyweights clumsily re-enacting simplistic moves from a century and a half earlier—not only comes across as implausible and amateurish, but also was eminently avoidable.

_________________

References and Further Reading

Megan de Kantzow, Brave New World and Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut (Pascal, 2001)

Garry Kasparov, My Great Predecessors (Gloucester/Everyman, 2003)

William M. Kolb, ‘Blade Runner Film Notes’, in Kerman, Judith B., ed., Retrofitting Blade Runner: Issues in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, second edition (University of Wisconsin Press, 1997), pp. 154-177.

Tim Krabbé, ‘Open Chess Diary 121-140’, 9 June - 26 September 2001. http://www.xs4all.nl/~timkr/chess2/diary_7.htm

‘Man vs machine shocker: Kramnik allows mate in one’, ChessBase News report, 27 November 2006. http://www.chessbase.com/newsdetail.asp?newsid=3509

Susan Polgar, ‘Blunder of the century? Biggest blunder ever?’, Susan Polgar Chess Daily News and Information, 27 November 2006. http://susanpolgar.blogspot.com/2006/11/blunder-of-century-biggest-blunder.html

Alexander Roshal, quoted in, ‘How could Kramnik overlook the mate?’, ChessBase News report, 29 November 2006. http://www.chessbase.com/newsdetail.asp?newsid=3512

Philip E. Ross, ‘The Expert Mind’, Scientific American 295.2 (August 2006), pp. 64-71.

Paul M. Sammon, Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner (Orion, 1996)

Eric van Reem, ‘The birth of Fischer Random Chess’, 31 May 2001. http://www.chessvariants.com/diffsetup.dir/fischerh.html

_________________

Jacob Edwards lives in Brisbane with his wife and son, and may be found online—conspicuously not blogging—at www.jacobedwards.id.au

_________________

This piece is from our most recent print issue, TLB20. You can grab a copy for yourself!

'Gay Rugby', by Simon Copland

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(Illustration by Sara Drake) 

It’s part way through the second half of the game and the rugby team I play in is winning – a rare occasion for us this year. I can tell the opposition is getting frustrated. They’re certainly not expecting a loss. In fact, I am sure they expected to walk all over us.

Once again they try but are unable to push through our line. One of their players bellows at his teammates, “Come on! We can’t let these faggots beat us!”

My blood boils. Don’t get me wrong: I can handle tough talk on the field and I don’t care about a bit of sledging. I tend to avoid it - prefer to stick to the game - but I understand others need to gee themselves up. But as soon as I hear the word ‘faggot’ I’m ready to rip someone’s head off.

I’m lucky. Before I can do anything rash and stupid the play continues. Having to make the next tackle, there is no chance for a fight - a fight I’m certain I would have lost. And in the end we win – a much greater punishment.

I play in Brisbane’s only gay-friendly rugby union team, the Brisbane Hustlers.

**

I have been playing sport my entire life. As a kid I was obsessed with basketball and played for ten years. My brother started first, and Dad convinced me to sign up by joining as the coach of our team at the same time. I ended up quitting at the end of high school, because as I said “basketball is full of wankers.” Looking back, I’m pretty sure what I meant is “basketball is full of homophobes.”

During university I spent most of my time in the gym. It was my turn of the phase that many gay guys go through, where one aims for the perfectly sculpted body (I have finally accepted my fate of being known as a ‘cub’—a young, hairy and solidly-built guy). After uni I was recruited by a friend to play in an Ultimate Frisbee social league – an obsession that lasted for a couple of years. The Frisbee community was the most open sporting community I had ever been involved in and I made great friends through it. Although, whilst I can’t remember any experiences of open homophobia, the heteronormativity—the assumption of straightness—was always present. As it goes in most of my life, playing Frisbee I often felt on guard, concerned that the next person that found out about my sexuality would be the one to have a problem. Moving to Queensland after spending all my life in Canberra that issue became much more prominent; playing in a men’s Frisbee team up north, I noticed more open homophobia. It’s not like I couldn’t deal with it, and I certainly didn’t feel excluded because of my sexuality – whenever I came out no one blinked. The homophobia was just incidental, not vicious. Still, I noticed it, and I found it tiring. It stopped me from really being myself in the team, and that takes way too much energy.

Then I found the Hustlers. I’d always been interested in rugby, and after reading about the Sydney Convicts—Sydney’s gay-friendly team—I thought I’d see if Brisbane had an equivalent. They did, and so I decided to go to one training session, see what it was like.

The Brisbane Hustlers reformed in 2012 after a hiatus, and after playing our first real game in the 2012 Purchas Cup—an annual gay rugby tournament—we entered a Brisbane competition and set ourselves for the season. Our team—a mixture of gays and straights—played a total of fourteen games, winning two and losing twelve, and then went on to come second behind the Sydney Convicts in the 2013 Purchas Cup.

**

If you were to try and find the realm where homophobia is most persistent in Western culture today, sport would have to be pretty high up in the list. In both professional and amateur leagues, homophobia remains a serious issue. In 2010, former AFL player Jason Akermanis caused a storm when he wrote an opinion piece calling on any gay AFL players to stay in the closet. The piece came after persistent rumours (ones that continue today) that gay players in the league were being gently encouraged to come out (none have yet). His argument was simple – that the code wasn’t ready for an out player. In his piece he recounted the story of an out player he knew during his early years and the apparent awkwardness his sexuality caused. Akermanis argued that an out gay player would still make others uncomfortable, and could “break the fabric of the club.”

We can see what Akermanis means. Last year St Kilda AFL player Stephen Milne was fined $3,000 for calling a Collingwood player a “fucking homo”. During the 2010 rugby season, swimmer Stephanie Rice was criticised after she tweeted “Suck on that faggots” when the Wallabies beat South Africa. Similar incidents can be seen in professional sports around the world. When NBA player Jason Collins became the first active male athlete in a major US team sport to come out of the closet, it was reported that he was so scared of how his team would react that he didn’t tell anyone before he made it public. Reports about Collin’s outing often focused on historical homophobic stereotypes – talking about straight players being “comfortable” in the locker room with a gay player, as if that was the biggest issue at play. Internationally we can see it as well. When Qatar—a place where homosexuality is illegal—was awarded hosting duties of the 2022 Football World Cup, the advice FIFA President Sepp Blatter provided to gay and lesbian people if they wanted to attend was to “refrain from sexual activity.” The International Olympic Committee has been no better, having done basically nothing in response to anti-gay laws recently introduced in Russia, which is due to host the 2014 Winter Olympics.

For women’s sports, the issue is perhaps even more complex. Despite the relatively low numbers of professional women’s sports players who are publicly out, there is an assumption that all women who are in competitive sport are gay. For example, Australian tennis star Jelena Dokic’s father made a controversial statement in 2003 in which he said that 40% of women’s tennis players were lesbians. Damir said at the time, “I wouldn’t be able to stand it if it turned out that Jelena was one of them. If she was a lesbian I’d kill myself.” In the US this has lead to a backlash. As Jessica Luther explains:

“There are often backlashes within women’s sports to the stereotypes that all female athletes are gay. Only six years ago, Rene Portland, the then-head coach of Penn State’s women’s basketball team, resigned after it came to light that she had a strict ‘no lesbians’ policy for her team. Lauren Lappin, a gold medalist softball player for the US, has talked candidly for years about her fears of coming out because of the negative stereotyping around gay people generally and her fears of feeding the idea that all women who play sports are necessarily lesbians. Often, teams or leagues retreat to what Hamilton has described as ‘an almost hypersexualized version of femininity’ in order to ‘derail homophobic assumptions’ by glomming onto sexist ones. This was evident in 2009, when the Florida State women’s basketball team created a media campaign that featured their athletes in fancy dresses, heels, and makeup (since being seen as ‘butch’ by playing sports feeds stereotypical ideas about gay women in our society). Or more recently when the Women’s Tennis Association’s “Strong is Beautiful” campaign used similar techniques to draw attention to their players.

The fate for intersex and trans* competitors is no better. In 2009 South African runner Caster Semenya was subjected to gender testing and then publicly ‘outed’ without her approval as an intersex person. A similar controversy was stirred after the London Olympics when it was revealed that four female athletes had the “genetic make-up of males.” These and other controversies demonstrate a complete inability of powers-that-be to deal with gender issues in sport. 

Research has found that this behaviour trickles down into amateur sport as well. In 2010, the report Come out to Play surveyed 307 gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans* sportspeople in Victoria. The report found that 42% had experienced some form of abuse due to their sexual or gender identity. Dr Caroline Symons from Victoria University’s School of Sport and Exercise noted at the time that this didn’t just affect GLBT participants. She said, “While GLBT people are likely to experience homophobic discrimination in sport, it is important to note that you don’t have to be gay, lesbian or transgender to experience it… Straight people perceived as gay are just as open to discrimination and homophobia.”

You can see why in 2010, Dave Zirin, the sports editor at The Nation in the United States, called the men’s locker room “the final frontier of homophobia in our society.” The message to LGBTIQ people is pretty clear: “sport isn’t for you”.

The impact is clear. In the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, there were only 23 openly gay or lesbian competitors in the 11,000 attending athletes – gay and lesbian athletes made up only 0.2% of competitors. In Australia’s male football codes there has only ever been one openly out gay player (rugby league player Ian Roberts), whilst the US male professional sports codes (American Football, Basketball, Baseball and Ice Hockey) only received their first out active player this year in Jason Collins. The same can be said for most codes – men’s or women’s. Out, active, professional players are few and far between.

This points to a stark reality. Either gay and lesbian players are not joining sports teams, or when they are they are staying in the closet.

**

The President of the Brisbane Hustlers, Aaron Fleming, had an experience somewhat similar to mine. He started playing in the Sydney Convicts before moving to Brisbane. It was he who reformed the Hustlers in 2012.

“I originally joined the Convicts as I wanted to be around like minded people,” he said. “I didn’t feel comfortable being out in my sexuality and I didn’t feel like I could be honest with people in a rugby team. And if I couldn’t be honest with them, I didn’t have much in common with them. So I decided to join the Convicts as a way to meet like-minded people, which it achieved.”

Gay rugby has grown dramatically. The International World Cup, named the Bingham Cup (due to be held in Sydney in 2014) was first held in 2002, whilst Australia had its first gay rugby team, the Sydney Convicts, in 2004. Earlier this year Australia’s gay tournament, The Purchas Cup, was the largest in its history. Sydney’s bid for next year’s Bingham Cup attracted high-profile support, including a video message from the then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard. The growth of support, and the pressure it has placed, saw the Australian Rugby Union (ARU) become the first code to announce a comprehensive anti-homophobia policy for the sport.

Still, it’s important to point out that The Hustlers are about a lot more than a challenge to homophobia. In fact, the discussion of homophobia is in danger of painting a very narrow view of what gay rugby is, and what it means. Commentary about gay rugby focuses almost wholly on the community and the stereotypes we are challenging, and very little on the sport itself. I suspect part of this harks back to the stereotype that gay men can’t play physical sport, that we must just be in it for the fun. There is also definitely a novelty factor for people – a ‘look at this unusual thing’ view. But the first thing I noticed when I started playing rugby was how important the sport itself is to participants.

We started the season in late February/early March. I became involved with the team after I sent them an email asking if they still needed players. I was promptly invited to their first training, which was only a week away. I was lucky that I was feeling in an adventurous mood – often I would explore new ideas like this, but then be a bit too terrified to ever end up going. But this time I resolved I would go, even if it turned out to be just once. It would just be one training, and if I liked it, I could go back.

With rain pummelling Brisbane in late February and early March, all of the fields were closed, so we were forced to do our first week’s training on indoor beach volleyball courts. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would this team take the game seriously? Or were we just here to play a glorified version of touch rugby? Part of me wished for the latter. If I could enjoy the community and be part of a team, yet also be able to avoid high-level contact, that, to be honest, terrified me, then maybe all would be okay. I was quick to realise however that this wasn’t going to be the case. Our first session started with half-an-hour with a personal trainer – very early on testing the fitness of our team. I was exhausted by the end of it, but we weren’t stopping there. Next was tackling practice. Our coach, Darren, showed us the pointers of how to make a good tackle: keeping your knees bent, stepping into the opposition player, tackling with your shoulders, not your arms. And then it was up to us. I teamed up with another guy around my size - another Simon actually. We were both relatively new to the game, but that didn’t stop him. He tackled hard. For a guy who had never done any contact sport, it was a little terrifying.

Aaron Fleming explained to me that it has always been his philosophy to put the rugby first. “Some of the challenges we’ve had along the way have been weighing up being a social side compared to a competitive rugby team. And it’s always been my philosophy that there’s always been other avenues for gay men to join social groups, so the rugby needs to be competitive first.”

A man named Chris Waterson was one of the straight players in the team, and our captain throughout most of the season (the regular captain was injured). For a straight player, it was the rugby that was most important to him: “When I was first approached to play I suppose there wasn’t really any definition for me between the sexuality of the guys – it was more about whether or not they were going to take the rugby seriously, or whether this was just a community group brought together under the auspices of rugby. Given I’d played a lot of rugby I needed to make sure that my participation was around the rugby side of it rather than the community side of it,” he told me.

 **

It took me until about the third or forth game before I started to have the same appreciation for the game.

We were playing up in North Brisbane. We hadn’t won a game yet, but we were improving. I’d come on in the second half and we’d managed to gain possession of the ball. We were counterattacking and had reached the opposition’s 22 metre line. We’d saved a try and were trying to turn things around. A ruck formed up in front of me and the ball made its way out the back. Our scrum half (the one who takes the ball from the back of rucks and directs play) wasn’t there yet and called for a ‘pick and drive’, where I would take the ball out from the back of the scrum and drive it forward without passing it on. I moved in, grabbed the ball, looked up and began to run.

It was here where I made my mistake – a mistake my coach used against me for the rest of the season. As I grabbed the ball and moved away from the ruck I stood up almost directly. It’s a natural reaction to want to stand up straight (in evolutionary terms, it allows for a better of view of one’s surroundings, and thus a quicker response time to danger), a natural reaction that rugby training tries to drill out of you. The first thing I saw was a mountain of a man coming straight at me. He would have been 120kgs and he was running at full speed.

Apparently the impact was just as loud from the sidelines as it was to me. Before I knew it was flat on my back, pummelled into the ground. I don’t remember how, but somehow I’d passed the ball back to my team and by the time the ruck had cleared and I had managed to get up (which took quite an effort) someone had knocked it on and we were preparing for a scrum.

I will be forever thankful for that scrum. It was a life-saver. I walked over to my position and hunched over, my guts wrenching, feeling like I was about to vomit. A couple of teammates patted me on the back and said well done. A huge part of me wanted to just walk off the field, to wave myself off and bring someone else on from the interchange bench. But I resisted (to be fair, I knew Darren would have nothing to do with such an idea). I would keep going. I made it through that first scrum, and then the next, and finished off the game.

The opposition team that day was big, and hit us hard. I have never felt so much pain from playing a game of anything. Yet at the same time it was incredible. When I got home I updated my Facebook status: “Rugby update. Today I got head-butted in the nose, stomped on the throat and hit harder than I’ve ever been. So fucking awesome!”

**

When I first came out as gay, one of the more common responses was along the lines of “I didn’t expect you to be gay.” Or maybe something like “I would never have guessed you were gay.” As a kid, as I am now, I didn’t fit what you could call the ‘gay stereotype’. I am not particularly camp, have always loved sport, have terrible fashion sense (apparently) and am not obsessed with Kylie Minogue, Cher or Lady Gaga (although I do enjoy listening to them every now and then). But these characterisations s followed me. The moment people found out I was gay, they would attempt to shrug the stereotype over my frame. 

Stereotypes dominate the queer world. We see them everywhere, and they take on a very particular theme. You know them: that gay men are feminine – we have ‘girly jobs’ such as being hairdressers, decorators or fashion designers, we are all into fashion and design and we are as bitchy as can be. We are all Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Lesbians are ‘masculine’ - they are butch, wear comfortable shoes, are bad at fashion, play plenty of sports and are angry and gruff. They are all ‘dykes on bikes’.

The pattern here is pretty simple. The way we stereotype queer folk is to take their ‘normal’ gender away from them. Lesbian women are basically men. Gay men are clearly just women in disguise.

There is nothing wrong with people who fit queer stereotypes (even if Carson Kressley is annoying as fuck; although most probably he’s an annoying person, annoying far deeper than his performative shtick). It allows queer people to challenge gender boundaries. We can transverse the stereotypical ideas of how gender is supposed to operate. And when we’re clever about it, we can challenge these ideas in ways that tackles both assumptions about sexuality and gender at the same time.

However, stereotyping is also the perfect way for the mainly-straight world to oppress queer people. It places us into boxes, and then ridicules or objectifies those boxes. In a world where gender is so important, people who don’t fit their assigned gender deserve mockery. Lesbian women are either mocked for their masculinity or objectified as objects for straight-male pleasure. Gay men, on the other hand are just here for our entertainment – as comedic relief. You can see clear examples of all of this. Advertisers are now delving into the issue of lesbianism, but only ever do so with what can be called “the male gaze” – advertising designed for men’s eyes. Gay men in our TV shows and movies are always provided for comic relief – if a gay character is serious then the show or film is almost always placed into the niche category of ‘queer film/TV’. And this doesn’t even delve into the issues of how we stereotype trans*, bi and other sexually diverse people. In a world in which gender is so important, having your gender questioned so openly is the perfect form of oppression.

Queer theory goes potentially a long way to explaining why the locker room is the ‘final frontier’ of homophobia in our society. Sport is seen in society as a man’s game. It is the peak of masculinity. Our sportsmen (and I am using the word ‘man’ here very carefully) are treated as heroes, gods in their own right. Look at the early imagery of the Olympics – these athletes are presented as masculine gods who deserved to be worshipped. Watch the pre-game entertainment in our footy finals and the imagery is almost exactly the same.

The effect this can have is quite perverse. If your life is created around the idea of being a masculine hero, then your clear opposition are those who may exhibit a more feminine aspect. Gay men cannot exist as equals within this über-straight world. Not only do they not have a part to play in a sporting team, but their very existence calls in question the masculinity of their straight counterparts. What if they check them out in the showers, or pat them on the bum? High-level sporting culture is all-consuming. If you exist at the peak of masculinity, then you must challenge any threat of encroaching femininity.

It’s almost the opposite in women’s sport. Sure, in early 2013 NBA basketballer Jason Collins became the first openly gay sportsman in the US major league sports (basketball, baseball, ice hockey or American football). But whilst Collins was cheered for his bravery, many ignored the sportswomen who’d been leading the charge for years. In women’s basketball in the United States for example, the WNBA, women have been out for years. Sue Wicks was the first to come out publicly, eleven years ago. And since then others such as Sheryl Swoopes, Brittney Griner and Seimone Augustus have pursued successful careers in the WNBA after coming out.

Part of this is embodied in the sexism that exists within our community as a whole, and particularly within sporting cultures. Our discussion of homophobia in sport, just like our discussion of sport in general, is focused on the male. We still treat sportswomen as inferior to their male counterparts and treat women’s sport with a collective ‘meh’. But it also about the ‘lesbian stereotype’ - one directly linked to the issue of masculinity. If sport is the peak of masculinity then women who play it must be masculine as well. And if they’re masculine, they must be lesbians. That’s the assumption we have – that sportswomen are all clearly gay, so why care when they actually come out?

**

It is stereotypes of masculinity that make gay rugby so interesting, and potentially so important. In rugby union, just like all other sporting codes, the dominant ‘masculine model’ of sport prevails. It is believed that you have to be straight and tough to be good at the game.

Gay rugby players directly challenge this, and in a very particular way. Part of it is about us saying “we’re gay and we can beat you in rugby.” We could tell coming in to many of our games that the other teams were treating us as easy beats. (“We should be able to walk all over these poofs.”) You can hear it in their pre-game warm up: a deep sense of over-confidence. It’s a perception that actually gets played throughout the community – the idea that we’re just here to be ‘hot gay rugby players’ and we don’t really take the game seriously. Aaron Fleming explained that it’s something we have to challenge:

“I think people have that perception of us, until people come down to training or see us play on the weekend and realise how seriously we take the rugby. That’s a perception that we need to overcome. And certainly we’ve come some of the way there in this season and something we need to build on for next season.”

When the opposition and the fans realised that we were actually a pretty tough team, I think we did a pretty good job of challenging those stereotypes. I could often see the difference after a game. We would often join the opposition for beers and a barbecue after the match; pre-game disdain felt like it had turned into post-game respect.

Still, just showing that gay men can be as masculine as their straight counterparts doesn’t achieve all that much. It will neither break down the assumptions of how men and women should ‘act‘ to fit their gender, nor in turn break down the assumptions of who can and can’t play sport – the very thing that is limiting the participation of many. Being tough on the field says ‘gay men can be masculine as well’, but doesn’t challenge the very masculine assumptions of being a man or of sport as a whole. This is where gay rugby plays an even more important role. See, rugby suits all kinds. You can be pretty much any shape or size and play an important role on the field. I was stunned to see it in my first training – we were a team of tall lanky guys all the way down to short stocky men. You can be as aggressive as you want, or a bit more passive like me. It is a game for everyone, as long as you don’t mind a bit of tackling. Gay rugby allows us not only to challenge the idea that gay men are all feminine, but also that one needs to be masculine to be good at sport or to be considered a man. Our team is a real mix, a diversity of guys I’ve never really seen gathered together before. And in such a diversity we have the ability to break down ideas that sport is all about masculinity. We tackle hard on the field, and then dress up and go dancing at night. We get into fights, and we talk about fashion and boys.

**

The Purchas Cup would have to be the only rugby tournament in the world where the entertainment at the end-of-competition party includes players from the tournament stripping for the other teams. Stripping has become a bit of a tradition in Australian gay rugby in general. Popularly known as ‘rugger-bugger’, Australian gay rugby teams have been entertaining crowds with strip shows for a while, often as a way to raise funds.

It’s midnight by the time the Purchas Cup show starts. We’ve been partying since mid-afternoon when the final siren in the last game went, and now men from all the teams are on stage getting their clothes off. The show tops off a great day from a great tournament. That day we played two games, beating the Melbourne Chargers to get a spot in the final against the world champions of gay rugby, the Sydney Convicts. We were determined to take the cup off Sydney and went in fighting. The game was tough, and we held up against the Convicts for the entire 50 minutes, eventually going down by only five points. The midnight performance, which is well-choreographed where rugby skills are drawn on to get the boys to the full monty, topped off the evening.

The rest of the night played out as would many end-of-competition rugby parties. On the bus ride on the way back to our hotel from the fields our coach leads a ‘kangaroo court’, where players and officials are given ‘punishments’ (shots of alcohol) for their crimes during the season. There is a punishment for the player who took the biggest hit of the year (me), the player who is the ‘gayest straight man on the team’, and one for the player who never turned up for trainings. We continue the party in hotel rooms before we head to the bar to meet up with the other teams. But as always with gay rugby, there’s a twist. The next morning, as we headed to a recovery breakfast ‘barefoot bowls’ session at the local bowling club, we get to hear of the tales of who went home with whom, which is much more interesting when players are going home with players from teams they’d just played against.

It is here where gay rugby plays its most interesting role: that we’re not just a bunch of gay dudes fitting into a straight culture. Instead, we’re a team that is developing its own culture – one that brings together aspects from all over. We have some of the hallmarks of a traditional rugby team: the toughness, the drinking, the competitive spirit. Yet, we also bring in new and different elements, the sorts of elements you may see in more in other parts of the community - queer and straight. In doing so the team is not just important for breaking down homophobia, but also for challenging the queer community as a whole.

**

When I told other (straight) people that I was in a gay rugby team the question I most often received was “Why a gay rugby team?” At first I took to explaining the impact homophobia can have and why I wanted to be rid of that experience whilst still playing sport. But as the season unfolded I realised there was a lot more to it than that.

In an article titled ‘Why gay rugby is the most important thing in Australia sport right now’ gay rugby player Michael Rayner wrote: “They [Australia’s gay rugby teams] have long stood for inclusiveness and a fair go for all in sport but it has sometimes been a struggle to find broader support at the grassroots level for such a movement. They exist because there is a need. But they shouldn’t have to.”

And that’s what I used to think too. Without the homophobia in other teams, I thought, I wouldn’t have needed to join the Hustlers. I could pick any team or any sport I wanted. However, now that I’m a season in, I think gay rugby is about a lot more than that. It has a much greater place in our society and sporting culture.

For decades there has been a debate in the queer community about whether we should fight for acceptance into society, or whether the society is inherently unjust and therefore we should aim to build a new one. As Dennis Altman asked in his recent book The End of the Homosexual?, “Young queers today are caught in the same dilemma that confronted the founders of the gay and lesbian movements: do we want to demonstrate that we are just like everyone else, or do we want to build alternatives to the dominant sexual and emotional patterns?” If you look at the mainstream gay and lesbian political movement, assimilation is winning the debate. We’ve focused our energies on issues such as same-sex marriage, with the aim of permeating mainstream institutions rather than challenging them. Talk of queers moving into the suburbs and away from the ‘gay ghettos’ in the city paints a picture of integration rather than differentiation.

But this brings up a rather interesting debate for queer people. As queer politics has progressed, gays, lesbians bi, trans, intersex, and other gender and sexually diverse people—have used the opportunity to shape our own unique identities. The queer community coalesces around openly queer spaces – such as Oxford Street in Sydney or Fortitude Valley in Brisbane. We open queer venues: saunas, nightclubs and beats. We develop our own subcultures, like the bear community or the s&m world. Being queer is not an identity that can be defined – each person in the queer world lives and acts differently. But the queer community can coalesce around one clear idea – the exploration of sexual and gender identities that go well beyond the traditional understandings of how human beings work. The queer community is one that coalesces around differentiation.

Assimilation fundamentally questions the value of this coalescence. In the Sydney Star Observer Jesse Matheson wrote, looking to the future, of “a generation of kids growing up who don’t even care about the concept of sexuality. They aren’t ‘gay’ or ‘straight’ or ‘lesbian’ or anything, they just are.” It’s the same idea I had when I joined the rugby team – that one day sport wont care about the concept of sexuality, that sportspeople wont be gay, straight or lesbian, they will just ‘be’. And when they that happens I will be able to join in again.

Emerging from the experience of the Purchas Cup, however, from a weekend of playing gay rugby with people from all around the country, and my tune is changed. I’ve realised that my sexuality is actually an important part of my identity – it’s an important part of me. Dennis Altman, again, explains it like this: “None of us can be identified solely by reference to one part of our identity, but at the same time we cannot pretend that something as central as our desires, identities and behaviours is irrelevant to who we are and how we act in the broader world.”

Sure, if we were able to break down some of our assumptions around sexuality and open into a more fluid world in which heterosexuality is no longer thought of as ‘normal’, then the labels we’ve placed onto ourselves may become useless. But in aiming for this goal through demonstrating that we are ‘just like everyone else’, what we are doing is integrating queer people into the ‘straight world’. This is not a way to affirm the strength of our desires, identities and behaviours, but rather a way to silence them. 

In the face of this, gay rugby is about a lot more than just rugby. It’s there to challenge the perceptions of how sport works, and importantly how we define queerness and heterosexuality in the sporting world, and as such in the broader community.

**

Sport for me has always been a thing of relaxation: I join for the community and an opportunity to get away from work. But the Hustlers provide something extra. Gay rugby transcends so many of the stereotypes we have about gay men and about sport, making the team politically as well as physically challenging. Add in the extra perk of being seen as a ‘hot gay rugby player’ and developing what my boyfriend calls my ‘rugby thighs’ and the Hustlers seem to have everything I wanted. 

Chris Waterson, the straight player I introduced earlier, told me that he was most impressed with the intensity with which people took to the game. “We were asked at the start of the season what our individual goals were and I remember mine was to make each and every player in the team as passionate about rugby as I am.” he said.

Most of us came for the community but are now staying for the rugby. And despite all the expectations placed on us to be subversive and different—expectations I’m happy for us to uphold—the rugby will stay the priority. If anyone doubts that, I challenge them to face us on the other side of the field. 

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Simon Copland is a freelance writer and climate campaigner. He plays rugby union and is a David Bowie fanatic. On Twitter he’s @SimonCopland.

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Sara Drake is an over-emotional detective who is to close to the case and about to be sent home. 

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This piece is from our most recent print issue, TLB20. You can grab a copy for yourself!

'Reborn Again', by Sofija Stefanovic

It was my mum’s birthday and I was googling photos of adorable baby animals to send to her when I stumbled upon an image of an adorable baby. I was shocked when I realised it was not, actually, a baby. It was just the most lifelike doll I’d ever seen: the only difference between it and an actual baby being that, while a living baby will burst out crying (with that newborn meow coming out of newborn lungs) and will eventually grow up to become just another schmuck adult, this baby will remain in this perfect moment, forever.

I became fascinated with image-galleries of what I now knew to be ‘reborn’ dolls. As I scrolled through, I couldn’t stop thinking that this was so much better than Facebook, where people feel justified putting up hundreds of photos of babies they begot by doing nothing newsworthy. But these baby dolls are works of art. I’d be posting close-ups of tiny feet and wrinkly foreheads too, if I’d created them with my own hands.

Instead of the infant vole I’d been planning, I sent my mum a photo of a cute reborn. “That’s morbid!” she said when I revealed that the baby wasn’t real. Even though she had burbled over it when she’d thought it was alive, my mum now found it disturbing. There was something eerie about it, she said.

My mum was experiencing uncanniness: that feeling of dread, when something is familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. Like when a good guy in a film turns out to be a zombie, or when you mistake a mannequin for a person – a sudden sinking in your stomach tells you: something’s not right.

The Uncanny Valley is a phenomenon specifically addressing dolls. Roboticist Masahiro Mori came out with it in the 70s, when he noticed people getting creeped-out by humanoid robots. Most people are fine with dolls, Mori said. For example, teddy bears: we find them especially cute if they have human characteristics, such as a smile or cheeky facial expression. But when dolls start looking too human, then they frighten us. I asked my mum what she found so morbid about this baby. “It’s not alive, and I thought it was,” she said. “It reminds me of death.”

My mum was not the only person who got the willies from reborns. As I would hear over and over, dread was a common reaction. On the internet, people seemed to love them (spending thousands of dollars on dolls), or hate them (mainly for how terrifying they seem). Seeing the strong emotional reactions people had to these little dolls made me want to dig deeper.

I found out that reborns are conceived by sculptors: people like Alicia Toner. “Some people find them creepy,” Alicia tells me, giving an example of a friend who won’t come over because she is scared of the dolls. But for Alicia, they are art. “I started sculpting in 2006, after I had a miscarriage. I went on eBay looking for a memorial piece to help with grieving process. Then I saw the reborn dolls. I was fascinated.”

Alicia bought a reborn, then she attempted to sculpt one herself, and she’s been doing it ever since. “I believe you take whatever positive you can out of a negative. I do this every day, it’s how I make a living.”

Alicia trawls the internet for hours, looking at photos of babies. With the images still in her head, she sculpts every evening. Alicia’s baby gestates from a piece of clay. She lets inspiration take over her hands. Just like a real baby forming in-utero, (which comes out with its very own facial expression: an individual formed behind-the-scenes) Alicia doesn’t know how her baby-sculpts will turn out. “One time, I wanted to make an African baby. It ended up being a white premmie instead,” she tells me. (Granted, a would-be African baby coming out white would be unexpected in real-life, but stranger things have happened.)

Alicia sends her clay models to a factory to be made into vinyl kits (essentially, a dull, plastic baby in pieces). Now, photos of her prototype go on the internet. In vinyl, dull form, Alicia’s babies wait to be reborn. Reborn artists are people who can bring a vinyl kit to life, sewing and painting it masterfully until it is a baby, ready to be delivered to an excited ‘mum’. They go for $500–$1000.

Mainly, this is a woman’s game. The sculptors, reborners and collectors all seem to be female. There are reborning superstars, who are celebrated for their skin-mottling, milk spots and hair-rooting. Lyn Conlon is one such artist living in New South Wales. She has ‘reborned’ some of Alicia’s kits, painstakingly applying layer upon layer of skin-tone to make the baby real. I call her up to find out more.

“I do dolls for collectors.” Lyn says. “I’ve done one for a lady who takes her doll everywhere with her. I think that’s a little bit strange.”

I notice on the forums that a lot of collectors have, like Alicia, lost babies. Some of their testimonials are sad:

How can I thank you for baby Billy: it’s as if you had the living baby’s picture to work from. Am a bit worried as my maternal instincts kicked in when I set eyes on him…

I was pleasantly surprised to see how perfectly her skin colouring matches my husband’s, and her dark hair matched mine as a baby! Even more perfect is how much she looks like our angel, Leigh!

Lyn thinks I should see a doll in real life and refers me to one of her best customers. “Trish is a nice lady who buys five dolls a year from me.” Says Lyn. “She’s got one on layby now. They’re more than dolls to her, but she doesn’t put them in a pram and take them down the street or anything.”

In our first phone call, Trish is very open: “I lost my four children as babies. The dolls haven’t replaced them, but I love having them around, posing them and changing their clothes. These dolls bring good stuff out of some people and terrify others.”

When I ask if I can visit and see a reborn in real life, Trish hesitates. She explains that she has a problem trusting people. “I don’t go out anywhere, because I don’t like the people side of it. It’s me and the dolls and the dogs and the toys over here,” Just when I think that’s the end of that, she says, what the heck. She invites me to come over and see “the nut-house”.

On the long drive to Trish’s house, in which she lives alone with over a hundred dolls, I don’t know what to expect. Will I be scared of the uncanny babies? Will I be scared of Trish?

I arrive and psych myself to go inside. Trish and a shy, black cocker spaniel welcome me at the door. I peer into the house. “You ready?” she laughs, picking up on my child-about-to-go-into-a-haunted-house anticipation. “Come on,” she says, letting me inside.

We find ourselves not in a dark place with cabinets full of staring babies, but in a large, light-filled living room. It is populated with infants and toys: a childcare centre, frozen in a happy moment. Trish has a talent for design, and when she mentioned that she ‘poses’ her dolls around her place, I didn’t realise she was quite so good at it. Seriously, Trish should style doll catalogues. All around are babies and toddlers: in highchairs, playing with plush toys, holding crayons above unfinished drawings.

Trish explains her system: “I buy all the beautiful old prams, high chairs and bassinets I can afford. Then I get Lyn to make me a doll to go in it.” Trish takes me into the next room, showing me more cribs, high-chairs, all with small people in them. “It’s hard when you go in to hospital to have a baby and you come home with nothing,” she says. “But this way, there’s something in the cot. At long last. It gives me a chance to dress a baby form. I’ve done it to friends’ babies, but I’ve never done it to my own. These are my babies, and this is my turn.”

I ask Trish if I can hold a baby and she goes to a crib, takes the blanket off a newborn called Rose and gently takes her out. Rose was reborned by Lyn. Lyn weights the babies’ bottoms and heads, to add to the realism, so Rose feels very baby-like in my arms. I look closely at her. Her eyes have that blurry look of the newly born. She’s got a slight scowl, as if she’s about to let out a cry; maybe she needs to be burped. She’s got some wisps of blonde hair that stick up, but she’s one of those fair, baldish babies, that aren’t quite as cute as their dark-haired counterparts. If I look closely, I can see capillaries on her eyelids, and a tiny drop of milk on her lips. Her little hands are in loose fists, with veins running over their tops, the slightly translucent skin disappearing into chubby wrists.

Trish talks about the artistry that went into making a baby like Rose. The fine detail, the hair, rooted strand-by-strand. To get this fine skin detailing, Lyn puts a baby’s head into the oven on 130 degrees nine times – sometimes double that for a baby with darker features. It takes a long time to get the mottling and veining right, and you can really see when someone has talent, like Lyn.

As Trish shows me around room after room of dolls, I notice that I am keeping my voice down and gently rocking Rose. As often happens when I’m holding a baby, I get a sudden fear of dropping her.I can’t work out why I’m treating Rose like a real baby, even though she’s not. Is it a maternal instinct? Are we, as humans, just programmed to be gentle with something that has the form of an infant?

Trish lifts another baby out of its crib. “This one’s a premmie,” she explains, holding it up. Smaller than a full-term newborn, this little child is bluish. It’s finally my turn to have a moment of revulsion. I feel my heart do a small tremble of fear. I’ve never seen a dead baby, but I imagine it would look something like this.

Alicia Toner has sculpted premature babies before. “We cop a lot of flack in the media. But we’re just trying to create realism. I guess these dolls are not for everybody.” And it seems, they are not for me. Afterwards, at home I look up more premmie reborns. There are micro-premmies with tubes in their noses, spidery thin limbs, posed surrounded by medical apparatuses. Back at Trish’s, the lifeless premmie and Rose go back in their cots.

Trish and I have a cup of tea while lots of little eyes watch us. Trish tells me about the little girl doll she’s saving for. “I’m busting my butt to get the money to pay it off before Christmas. Lyn’s very good. She’ll always let me layby. She’ll call and say, ‘Your baby is ready, it’s waiting’.” Lyn sends a photo, and then Trish ‘falls in love’ and thinks about the baby all the way until it comes in the mail.

“What happens when it arrives?”

“Lyn packs them nicely, usually with a bunny rug or a toy with them. Lyn does up a little photo on a birth certificate and she puts my name on it.”

“And how do you feel when you see the doll?”

“I go ‘wow’. You can feel the love that’s gone into them.”

Before she discovered Lyn, Trish collected from other artists, and you can tell the difference in quality. To help her pay for her new doll, Trish is selling a little boy, who is about six months old. He sits in a wagon wearing a slightly uneasy expression. He’s got hazel eyes and freckles and he’s wearing a grey hoodie, a plush turtle toy in his lap. Trish explains that his hair hasn’t been rooted well – he’s one of her earlier dolls.

“Do you think about your own babies a lot?” I ask.

“Every day. I have a little cabinet with four little dolls in it. Sometimes, I’ll sit and wind up all the musical boxes and play with their little booties. Those are bad days.”

“How do you ever get over something like losing four babies?” I stupidly ask, even though I know the answer.

“You don’t.”

I remember something Alicia the sculptor said: she came across reborns when she was going through the “grieving process”. A process indicates change over time. Alicia kept the reborn she bought off eBay for a year, then she sold it. I wonder if a mother’s body craves to hold something small and soft after pregnancy? So maybe straight after the loss of a baby, a doll can fulfil a purpose. Perhaps it’s okay to cuddle a reborn, as you deal with your immediate grief, before you go back to the world of the living.

Since her miscarriage, Alicia has had another baby. Her daughter is now three, and plays with the sculpted doll heads that didn’t work out. While Alicia works on her reborns, she lets little Ellie paint the seconds: “They come out with blue eyelids and green noses.”

But what if you never have another baby, and you don’t find a way out of the grief? Is it a good idea to surround yourself with dolls, shunning contact with real people?

“I find it’s a great coping mechanism,” Trish says. Though for some, like Lyn’s customer who takes her reborn everywhere, it seems like a way of never letting go.

While one testimonial says: Kalani is amazingly realistic. I half expect to hear her breathe or feel her pulse through her little veins! the fact remains that Kalani will never have a heartbeat. Because what it comes down to, as my mum pointed out: it’s not alive. That must be a confronting thought when you’ve lost a baby, and perhaps the woman half-expecting her doll to breathe would rather not be confronted by it.

Even though I find Trish’s reborns mesmerising, I wish her life wasn’t only about them. And just when I think we’re going to end on Trish sitting still and alone in a house full of dolls, something Hollywood occurs (in rural Australia).

Enter Hollice, Trish’s neighbour. Hollice also lives alone. He’s about Trish’s age, with sparkly eyes and a ready smile. Apparently, he hangs out here every day.

Wait a minute, I hear you say: Trish has a friend? It’s true that Trish avoids most people, but Hollice is different. In a good way. For one thing, he is perfectly comfortable in this house full of dolls. In fact, when Trish gets a new doll in the mail, Hollice insists on being there for the big reveal. (“It’s a lot of fun,” he says.)

When they met, Hollice was so impressed by Trish’s house that he opened up about his own passion for toys. But, being an adult, he didn’t have any. Trish soon put an end to that. She pushed him buy his first toy aeroplane and it escalated from there. “We have dumper trucks, remote controlled cars, jigsaw puzzles, train-sets and planes,” Trish informs me.

“Sometimes, we build a train track through the house,” Hollice adds.

“People think we’re weird,” Trish says, but they don’t care, and nor should they. While others sit at home watching The Bachelor, Trish and Hollice do awesome things like build Lego villages. “He’s the ringleader in the fun we have,” says Trish. “Often we just end up rolling around laughing.”

Hollice was luckier than Trish, as far as kids are concerned. He’s got grownup children with babies of their own. Trish has photos of all of them. “His kids call me their other mum.”

I wish it was as simple as Trish and Hollice being happy forever, but Trish is certain she’ll never get over her grief. On bad days, she’ll play with the toys in the cabinet and think about death. But on good days, she might take the dogs out and fly remote-controlled planes with a 120cm wingspan in the company of a pretty cool guy. Those days are all about being alive.

As I’m writing this article, something weighs on my mind. I call Trish. “Oh, I’ve got to tell you what happened yesterday,” she says.

An elderly neighbour runs out of the house sobbing. “I think my cat’s dead,” she tells Trish.

Trish calls Hollice: “Go to my house, make a strong coffee and wait for me, I think I have to bury a cat.”

“Right.” Hollice is on the case.

Meanwhile, Trish goes into the neighbour’s dark house and in the corner finds the dead cat. The old lady cries out the front while Trish takes the cat into the backyard and digs a hole.“And as I’m burying it, I’m talking to the cat, I’m saying: ‘Your mum loved you, but she can’t be here right now.’ And I’m bawling and bawling.”

That’s the thing about humans: we’re soft. Even after everything that’s happened to her, Trish’s heart breaks again over a dead old cat. “Yep, yesterday was hard. So now Hollice is coming over and we’re going to have a picnic and play with the dogs.”

I ask Trish if she’s still selling the little boy doll with the light freckles.

“Tommee? Yes, he’s still here.”

When the box arrives, I feel a rush. Trish has written a card: “Hope Tommee arrives safe, am feeling a little sad to see him go. I have enclosed some winter clothes and dressed him in his summer outfit. He has his toy and a blanket.” I look at my very own reborn and think Trish and Alicia, who made it out of the uncanny world of death and found new ways to be alive. I examine Tommee’s little face, which I first took to be uneasy. Now I look closely, I see I got it wrong. His face looks hopeful, and full of potential.

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Sofija Stefanovic writes for both print and television, and is a founding faculty member of The School of Life Australia and Paper Trail Tours. 

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This piece is from our most recent print issue, TLB20. You can grab a copy for yourself!

'On Killing Anna' by Anthony Morris

The piece below by Anthony Morris won’t make much sense unless you first watch this short film. (Click either ‘rent’ or ‘buy’, and enter the discount code ‘theliftedbrow’ to watch the 29 minute film for free.) 

The film is this: after filmmaker Paul Gallasch’s long term girlfriend Anna breaks up with him, he finds himself wishing that she had died in a tragic accident, thinking that situation would’ve been easier to deal with. In order to understand how this fantasy makes sense in the context of his continual love for her, he organises and performs a funeral service as if she had died, and films the process of doing so.

Trailer: 

‘On Killing Anna’ by Anthony Morris 

Why don’t we teach people how to cope with a broken heart? We assume that studying how to deal with pretty much everything else is at least worth a shot. We’ll spend weeks studying for a math test, months learning how to drive a car and years training to throw a ball really, really well, while the prospect—for most of us, the near-certainty—that at some stage someone we love is going to tell us to go away and never come back is something we’re supposed to deal with on the fly. People will happily spend money learning how to survive falling out of a plane, which is the kind of thing that generally speaking doesn’t happen to you unless you want it to, and yet spend nothing and no time learning how to survive a broken heart. So why don’t we? Maybe, as the short documentary film Killing Anna bluntly points out, because it’s not as easy as it looks.

By his own admission, writer and director of Killing Anna Paul Gallasch came late to love. Scarred by his parent’s bad divorce and his resulting fear of intimacy, he was in his early 20s, wandering the United States, sneering at their women (as he puts it early on in the film, “American women in general were unattractively ignorant and sentimental”) when he met Anna. He fell hard, they moved in together in New York City, and two-and-a-half years later she came home one day to their flat and told him she didn’t want to be in a relationship this serious – a specific phrasing that has the stab of truth; it’s often not that they don’t love you, they just don’t want to settle down right now (and then they marry the next person they meet). Considering the premise of this half-hour documentary, it’s safe to say he didn’t take it well.

The fantasy that a break-up would somehow be better—purer, more powerful, more understood—if the other person had just died instead is usually one that we keep to ourselves. I spent some time after a particularly bad break-up pondering a slight variation on it, wondering how I would have felt if my partner had died right before she unexpectedly dumped me, whether it would have made any difference to me not having her in my life if she hadn’t been directly responsible for her absence. Most people who think this way go on to be people who in subsequent relationships try to do the dumping before they can be dumped. Gallasch? Well, perhaps in anticipation of such bitterness, he decides to put on an actual funeral for his very-not-dead girlfriend. He also films the funeral. And the days and weeks leading up to it. And conversations with people about the funeral. Including Anna herself. Still, it’s not quite as creepy as you might expect, although the measure of what is creepy is perhaps rapidly narrowing

There is a slight difference between wishing your ex dead and wishing your ex had died, but it’s a difference only discernable to the person doing the wishing. In the first case, it’s an ugly wish motivated by anger and entitlement and it’s the kind of thing that no-one should be encouraging. Fortunately, Gallasch makes it clear—sometimes consciously, sometimes inadvertently—that his focus is entirely on himself with all this. Despite the title (which does make sense in a way), he doesn’t want Anna dead here and now; he just wishes that his pain came from her random death rather than her decision to leave him.

About now it’s really important to keep in mind that we’re talking about a young guy (he was in his mid-twenties when he made the film) going through the end of his first serious relationship. As he tells us, Anna was his first love, his first girlfriend, his first sexual partner (but don’t worry, he had plenty of opportunities before her, seriously). Killing Anna is a documentary in large part about someone trying to figure out what to do when a relationship ends and Gallasch isn’t really doing anything unusual here. He’s just coming up with a very external way of working through something most of us do in private. If you want you can fault him for putting his emotions out there in what is perhaps a crude way, but it’s hard to fault him for feeling that stuff in the first place.

There’s no better way to become utterly self-absorbed than by having someone leave you. You go from being largely externally focused—you’re part of a ‘we’—to being stuck inside your own skull. The only person who could possibly understand how you’re feeling is the person who made you feel this way, and perhaps the person who doesn’t care. Only that’s not true, because it doesn’t take long to realise that nobody else really cares either, or at least they don’t care as much as you do because it’s all you care about. How can you make people understand how bad you feel? Next thing you know you’re thinking that if your partner had died, maybe then the rest of the world would take your mourning seriously. If there was an actual grave to go to, maybe then everyone else would realise just how serious your heartbreak is.

Gallasch doesn’t dig a grave or create a fake tombstone (“R.I.P. MY HEART”), but he really does put on a funeral and yes, Anna does know about it. To some extent the film feels like it’s building up to the funeral, but we’re shown a clip from it at the start of the film that pretty much sums up the whole experience: Gallasch gets up in front of a small crowd and pours his heart out. It feels like exactly what it is: a group of friends indulging a buddy who’s spinning just a little out of control. It’s a smart move to put at least some of it early in the film, as once you’ve seen it much of the dark overtones suggested by the concept vanish. He’s grieving a dead relationship in a clumsy way, not standing outside his ex’s window shouting, “I wish you were dead!”

Much of what follows the opening is Gallasch trying to figure out how to go on. Let’s say it again: why don’t they teach this stuff in schools? It’s interesting enough to see him asking various older, wiser people (the staff at a copy shop, a security guard at a music festival) how to go on, but if you’ve ever been dumped you’ve heard/seen/felt it all before. They tell him a raft of things: you’ve got to try to sleep with someone new and if you find you’re not yet up to that you’ve just got to wait it out. Or: love is awesome, you’re young, relationships can work, don’t give up, don’t let your heart die.

Does Gallasch take their advice? Does he find out a way to go on? It’s giving away nothing to reveal that the final scene doesn’t feature Gallasch picking up a copy of the notorious pick-up artist’s guide book The Game while muttering darkly, “This time I’ll be the one breaking the hearts,” even if that’s probably closer to the experience of a lot of guys. He doesn’t spend six months in a drunk tank, he doesn’t join the army or become a monk, he doesn’t shave his head and start dressing like a pimp. Despite the outrageous nature of Killing Anna’s concept, on the scale of post-dumping nutty behaviour, putting on a fake funeral isn’t really that far out there. Spend a whole year crying on the floor and film it all, then we’ll talk.

Instead, Gallasch is reasonably insightful, seemingly decent and surprisingly funny – well, there’s a couple of decent (intentional) jokes in there, which is a couple more jokes than you’d expect from someone who’s been dumped. He’s a good guy who just isn’t equipped to deal with the sudden end of a serious relationship; then again, it is his documentary and he’s only showing us what he wants us to see, so all we really know is that he’s self-aware enough not to make himself look like a total dick.

As for Anna, she gets only one face-to-face scene with Gallasch and it’s the best scene in the film. It seems they’ve stayed friendly post break-up, which in this case means he keeps making contact and she doesn’t say “fuck off”. But she’s not keen to be filmed and she’s not on board with the whole funeral idea – though she’s not angry either, which suggests a whole hidden world to their relationship if this is something that only mildly freaks her out. She just wants him to come to terms with their new status quo, and as they walk and talk his shell starts to crack; he’s cried by himself in other scenes, but with other people he’s managed to pretty much keep himself together.

Not any more: he howls “I can’t come to terms with it because you’re fucking right there,” and the film cracks wide open. She’s not what she was to him, and she never will be again. Maybe they can be friends one day, maybe not. But the woman he loved is gone, and meeting up with her while his heart is still raw is like meeting a ghost. She’s right there, walking and talking but he can’t reach her. He can’t bring back the person he still loves so much. Maybe this whole funeral thing wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

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Anthony Morris’s writing on film and television has appeared in Empire, Kill Your Darlings, The Vine and The Big Issue, where he is currently DVD Editor. 

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Paul Gallasch is a director and writer, known for Killing Anna (2012), BIG CHINA/lil’ crise (2013) and Mag+ (2011).

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This piece is from our most recent print issue, TLB20. You can grab a copy for yourself!

SILLY HOLIDAY GIVEAWAY

Someone is going to win 52 books from our favourite Australian publishers! How? It’s pretty simple:

Anyone who:

or

before 2014 (so midnight on New Year’s Eve is the cutoff) goes in the running to win all of the books in the above photo. 

That’s it! It’s a win-win situation for you (you get Brows and you feel great) with the chance of it being a win-win-WIN situation (you get Brows and you feel great and you scoop a ridiculous pile of excellent reading).

52 books! It’s actually a year of reading: 52 books; 52 weeks in a year; a book a week; how wonderful.

For those of you who are gift-givers: if you buy a Bag of Brows or Subscription before December 22, we’ll post your order out quicksmart so you can give it as a Christmas present. You can be fabulously altruistic and also perhaps win many kilograms of literature! What a time to be alive.

Note: for those of you who already subscribe to the Brow (you intelligent beautiful creature), you can still enter. Just re-subscribe, and we’ll add your six subscription issues on to the end of your current subscription.

This offer is open to both Australian and international persons! (Come on non-Australians — here’s your opportunity to take a crash course in Contemporary Australian Literature. You’ll be some kind of expert!)

 

BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOKS!

Thanks to the following publishers, ones who are serious about publishing the best books and the most excellent writers:

Giramondo, Affirm Press, Sleepers Publishing, Black Inc, Meanjin/MUP, Pan MacMillan, Scribe, Text Publishing, UQP, and Allen & Unwin.

 

FEELINGS GALAXY

Jon Tjhia’s mixtape is titled ‘Feelings Galaxy’

“I don’t know which is more surprising: that seriously emotional music for one person is tedious or unmoving to another; or that the same piece of music can graze that continuum so erratically for just the one person. Songs are the great love affairs of our lives, or at least they are to, erm, songophiles. We fall headily for some and blindly march into relationships with others. Some days, we betray them with other songs (new and exciting ones, even), and some nights, we coddle them like nothing else exists except the two of us. For the lover of songs there are highs and lows, but few regrets.

I also tend to wonder when a song becomes a not-song. After all, the best exude some sort of essence. What can you strip away before it’s gone? How delicate is the balance? What is the required detail? And beyond the song itself, what are the things that happen in our lives/minds that open or close that perfect window through which a song might enter us? 

There is a whole feelings galaxy out there (in here) about which we still know so little. Who knows whether to be more impressed with the vastness and eternity of the twinkling universe, or the impeccable discipline and force of the craft?

Back to planet. This collection of songs and sounds is like a small gathering of people and animals that I’ve met. I don’t think they’d really be friends – 'you know how you have, like, different groups?’ – so until now, I’ve declined to invite them to the same do. I hope you have good conversational skills. I made dips.”

—Jon Thjia

It's Christmas Somerville time

Everybody’s best friend but nobody’s real friend, Chris Somerville, has made you, just you and no one else (in absolutely the creepiest way) a mixtape. It is titled ‘Anthems For A Seventeen-Year-Old Girl' and was uploaded from Somerville’s workplace almost definitely without his supervisor’s permission

DANTHOLOGICALLY INSANE

 


Daniel Kim, the mash-up magician, yesterday released his Pop Danthology 2013 megamix. Here it is, with the corresponding video clips:

 


Debate is raging as to how it shapes up against last year’s attempt, but really the debate is null and void because last year’s is a true piece of art (whichever criteria you use to define art, those criteria exist in this following mash-up):

 


Never mind whether you love modern pop music or hate modern pop music, the Pop Danthology 2012 is a work of historical, anthropological, sociological, political, linguistical, musicological and funological art. It’s something that has been created by a skilled technician who has also just got really lucky with the music that was available to him for that year, and yet the final result is far greater than the sum of those two elements. Perhaps this is where art lives, in that gap.

For our Music Issue (which you can still buy for just $11!) we interviewed Daniel Kim briefly about his work making mash-ups. Here is some of what he had to say:

“I first encountered megamixes in high school through listening to Australians: specifically DJ Nick Skitz and DJ Alex K. I collected every one of their hi-NRG Wild FM megamixes. Since high school, so much of my favourite music has come from Australia. I even enjoy music by Sneaky Sound System these days. I believe I have always enjoyed music from Australia because I just love dance music. I have to admit, at first, I thought all Aussies spent all their time dancing.

I’m unable to say exactly how many hours I worked on Pop Danthology 2012 as I was not keeping track of time. I was unemployed when I made it; I worked on it for three months straight like it was my full-time job. So my guess is around 500 hours. Making something like this takes so much patience, especially the part when all I’m doing is collecting my sounds and nothing is being put together. The payoff at the end is definitely much better.

I could not keep up to date with all the online viral activity of Pop Danthology 2012 because at the time it was posted I was working for Tiffany & Co. as a seasonal sales person and was not allowed to check my phone. From what I did see between work shifts, I noticed that Scooter Braun (talent manager of Justin Bieber, Carly Rae Jepsen, PSY, the Wanted) tweeted my video to Justin Bieber, Carly Rae Jepsen, PSY, and the Wanted and then PSY retweeted that tweet.” 

Kim reveals his process for the latest mash-up here and the 2012 one here (his posts are full of excellent infographics and also honesty). 

Happy chair-dancing!

New digital edition is out! Volume Four, Issue Two: The (Australian) Summer Reading Edition

featuring:

  • Sam Twyford-Moore interviewing sound artist Tom Grant
  • Rebecca Harkins-Cross on film-maker Ivan Sen
  • an excerpt from Luke Carman’s debut book
  • Rhianna Boyle’s history of introduced species in Australia
  • a comic from Michael Litven
  • an essay about women’s underwear by Madeleine Watts

Get the issue, and all others before and after it, from iTunes, you dummy!

HERE IS THE RESPONSE YOU GET FROM JONATHAN AMES WHEN YOU ASK HIM POLITELY AND DETAILEDLY FOR A MIXTAPE:

hello

nice to hear from you.

i can’t make a mixed tape because i’m technologically very impaired.

i don’t know any of the terms you mentioned.

i’ve never downloaded a song.

i live like a deaf person.

sometimes i listed to songs on ‘youtube’ … and when i rent cars in california (as a new yorker i don’t have a car), i enjoy getting to hear music on the radio … 

that’s about all i can manage in life, technologically music-wise.

and a friend once filled an ipod for me but now it’s broken.

i used to buy cds but that’s gone out of vogue.

if you like, in lieu of a mixed tape, you could publish this pathetic email.

also, i once wrote an essay called 'mixed tape’ about a heartbreaking mixed tape that an ex gave me.

i think it’s in my book 'i love you more than you know’ … if you could find that essay, feel free to reprint it … 

hope you’re well.

thanks for being so nice to me when i came to melbourne.

my travel piece for Yahoo was fluff and bad but there was one good transcendent moment in the thing, which, naturally, they cut.

jonathan

————————————————————

And here he is, being the best himself:

A CHOICE SELECTION OF @PETARCAREY’S TWEETS

image

(Illustration by Chris Somerville)

In the middle of 2010, a Twitter account named @PetarCarey appeared. Its bio read “My Life As A Fake”. People followed the account’s updates with reckless abandon. Peter Carey is a famous Australian writer who now lives in New York. Twitter is a great place for artistic experimentation. The law is the law. For a while the publishing company Penguin got into a bit of a tizzy about all of the tweets. People laughed; parody and satire are defences against boringness. Hunter College, a boutique university located in bustling Manhattan, began following @PetarCarey’s tweets. Not long after the original account was shut down by Twitter. Shortly afterwards @ZombieCarey emerged. Writing is writing. 

___________________

31 Jul 10 Petar Carey @petarcarey Melbourne will get wiped out by a tidal wave from Antarctica. Prediction. Australians will stop reading. 

31 Jul 10 Petar Carey @petarcarey Tsiolkas is about as controversial as store bought tzatziki 

2 Aug 10 Petar Carey @petarcarey spent Saturday night scraping fish scales off the soles of my $440 shoes near Pyrmont. So Sydney! 

2 Aug 10 Petar Carey @petarcarey the kidsTM are telling me to read Brett Easton Ellis but I nearly died in ’88 when reading another brat packer. Guess who and how! 

2 Aug 10 Petar Carey @petarcarey Chapter One of my untitled misery memoir is titled “Melbourne Misery”. GracieTM told me she didn’t read but liked the sound of it. 

5 Aug 10 Petar Carey @petarcarey Had a “NY Style” bagel in Balmain. Tasted like a Vietnamese baguette. Whatta town! 

20 Dec Petar Carey @petarcarey I spent the last year in New York, putting in development proposals for “Little Sydney” - all knocked back, some with spit on them. 

27 Mar Petar Carey @petarcarey Calling my publicist. I can’t remember if I included a scene set in Australia in the latest book, as per the contract. 

27 Mar Petar Carey @petarcarey Publicist is telling me that I forgot to include a scene set in Australia in Chemicals of Forgotten Tears or whatever it’s called. 

28 Mar Petar Carey @petarcarey WHAT THE FUCK? Why wasn’t Chemical of Tears or whatever it’s called long-listed for the Miles Franklin? 

28 Mar Petar Carey @petarcarey I spent two months writing Chemistry of Crying or whatever it’s called. The least you think they could do would be to long-long list it. 

28 Mar Petar Carey @petarcarey In New York asking if anyone has heard of the Miles Franklin award. My publicist: “Shouldn’t it be called the Kilometers Franklin?” 

28 Mar Petar Carey @petarcarey My new novel is a retelling of the Lindy Chamberlain story told from the perspective of the dingo. 

28 Mar Petar Carey @petarcarey Do dingos eat dog food? Wondering if I should try eating some to get into character. It would be great to try some baby meat too. 

28 Mar Petar Carey @petarcarey I just bought a dingo off eBay. Not happy with the steep postage costs, but hopefully will ensure it is alive when it arrives. 

28 Mar Petar Carey @petarcarey PETA have read my tweets and are threatening to stop my dingo shipment at Coney Island! This detail goes straight into the novel! 

28 Mar Petar Carey @petarcarey Looking for a maid in New York with experience in cleaning up after dingos in lofts. 

29 Mar Petar Carey @petarcarey NYU Creative Writing students didn’t like the smell of dingo that was wafting off me during my lecture “The Olfaction of Your Characters”. 

29 Mar Petar Carey @petarcarey Had lunch with failed movie actor James Franco today. Discussed his PhD and he seemed interested in my dingo book. 

29 Mar Petar Carey @petarcarey Shocking news! Took the dingo to the vet: “It’s just a kelpie covered in cheap gold spray paint, I’m afraid”. 

29 Mar Petar Carey @petarcarey Fake dingo has eaten and run off with my manuscript! “Fake dingo’s got my baby!” 

29 Mar Petar Carey @petarcarey Hanging out in Williamsburg with the handsome lads from Tame Impala, talking second album and thirteenth novel syndromes. 

29 Mar Petar Carey @petarcarey Post-coffee, sitting down to write my Nobel Peace Prize winning novel… “There was no need for wars. It was good and bad this non-need.” 

30 Mar Petar Carey @petarcarey WHAT THE FUCK! Where is my Sydney Writers’ Festival invitation! I may be busy colonising New York, but still!!! 

30 Mar Petar Carey @petarcarey I mean, if I had have been asked to attend the Sydney Writers’ Festival I would have said NO, FUCK OFF. But not being invited is insulting. 

30 Mar Petar Carey @petarcarey Loving these shameless Australian authors who never escaped Australia flaming up their Twitters with Sydney Writers’ Festival excitement. 

30 Mar Petar Carey @petarcarey Don Draper is based on me. 

30 Mar Petar Carey @petarcarey I hope you all realise that Mad Men is anachronistic take on my time Grey’s Advertising Agency in the 80s. 

30 Mar Petar Carey @petarcarey Hello inferior mid-list Australian authors who overshare on Twitter, thanks for the non-stop snubbing on Follow Friday! 

31 Mar Petar Carey @petarcarey Dumping the dingo novel to write something I was born to write about: mid-Western middle American families! 

31 Mar Petar Carey @petarcarey Planning my posthumous releases now. Some good stuff that I don’t mind not being around to be complimented on. 

31 Mar Petar Carey @petarcarey They should have called him Patrick White-Out, and he should have used it on every word in The Hanging Garbage. 

31 Mar Petar Carey @petarcarey New project: I have decided to write the first major biography of Phil Jamieson from Grinspoon. 

1 Apr Petar Carey @petarcarey Packing the shovel and driving out to Patrick White’s grave. I’m out of material, and I heard he was buried with a couple of manuscripts. 

1 Apr Petar Carey @petarcarey Shooing off David Marr with my shovel at Patrick White’s grave. 

2 Apr Petar Carey @petarcarey The internet makes terrible writers terribler. 

2 Apr Petar Carey @petarcarey I love eating shellfish at my desk, because cracking open imported blue swimmer crab is the exact same sound as an idea dying. 


To read the rest of @PetarCarey’s tweets, grab a copy of our latest issue.

'On Gravity' by Mark Chu

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(Illustration by Angelo Giunta)

There’s a mountain village called Tjentiste an hour from the Montenegro airport. Its population is growing quickly because of the new tourist demand for the Spomenik, a huge war monument more beautiful than war, two kinked slabs of cement like the heavy wings of a cosmic bird. Grave.

My friend Nico, he’s an engineer who used to work in Gravity, crazy and rich, and lives just with his dog. Nico dearly loves the Spomenik and bought up heaps of the land nearby and built this Ferris Wheel petrol station. He named it Annabelle, after his lost wife. The drivers go to Annabelle for gas, parking their cars in magnetic clasps that carry them up and around in a big revolution, up into the sky, while being pumped with petrol. Most drivers opt to stay in their cars, if they don’t have vertigo, but even though it’s even more expensive at the airport, everyone complains about the prices at Annabelle. Nico watches them complaining as they witness this paradise in the valley where the sun sets the tumbling mountains ripe peach and purple-green, and mist rings their peaks. From the top of Annabelle you can see the Spomenik; the hardened locals take relic for granted.

With his French inclination for profundity Nico once said to me, voice rich and deep, “Putain, I have no single person to love, so I work on giving love to everyone. They say love is a gift – but every gift, gift giver, gift taker; they’re all different. Every gift is given and taken differently – it’s so important to understand all these dimensions, all the dimensions of love – it’s important to make love my science.”

Nico built Annabelle from clear superplastic, 223 feet high, with twelve magnetic vehicle clasps that pump fuming golden petrol. She sits in the dip of a valley so it’s barely an eyesore. Nico lost a lot of money buying the land, carving up the roads, bribing all the officials. He thinks he’s doing charity work, especially for the post-war taxi drivers whose lives are sometimes bleak, driving small Volkswagens worth more than their homes. Some of the drivers take their kids to Annabelle for special birthdays and when Nico hears about a birthday he always comes out wearing his vintage gold Versace sunglasses and gives them an extra turn. When he lets the cars go around twice Nico knows he has to turn the petrol off. Once he left it on for a second revolution and almost blew the whole place up.

He keeps trying to update the pump system, even though it’s totally impractical. The pressure constantly changes as the carriages spin, it’s nearly impossible to understand, let alone profit from. Sometimes I help him with number work even though my supervisor doesn’t allow it. Whether misguided or fantastical, Nico’s beauty rendered me humble.

**

I quickly flipped tabs on my computer when I heard a door-knock.

Marty entered uncalled, British drawl in tow. “Perhaps we’ll descend for a coffee?” He seemed more energised than usual, “There’s a terrific one at this rainbow café.”

“One sec, I’ll just save this, I think I’ve got a new model.”

“Tell me over coffee – boy am I ready for the buzz!”

I shuddered. “Same.”

Every few hours he’d come into my space, to chat or invite me for coffee, and I’d oblige and go downstairs, sit and watch him order his ristretto, condescending to the waitresses, often reciting a tedious definition of ristretto. He was always sleazing all over Japanese girls, who, though never interested, were always too polite to drop him instantly.

“Also, we’re going to rehearse here later, that’s okay?”

“For sure, which instrument?” I said.

“Hover-3, maybe abalone with Aerosol-X.”

“Okay, good one Marty.”

**

I was glad to be rid of him, even for just a moment, and looked out at the view. Our space was near the top of the U-Izado Tower, Tokyo’s highest skyscraper. I walked to the glass wall, peered out and thought about all the space underneath and around, and how if I pressed my face against the cold glass it would make such a small unseen mark, a funny mark. But instead of squashing my face I sat down in a swivel-chair and zoomed around, lunging to and from the extraordinary view, getting dizzy from the thousands of grey buildings below.

On ground level Tokyo’s bustle was strange; every time I gave a smile people looked down at the bitumen and walked quicker. And I wanted that Lost in Translation fantasy, where Scarlett Johansson sits next to you at the bar, though I might’ve preferred a Japanese Scarlett Johansson. I even went to the Park Hyatt but the drinks were so expensive. I felt like an idiot and missed Sophie so much. I dreaded bumping into her somewhere during the convention, somewhere I knew would be awkward and horrible and public, my girl who never made it to the moon.

Thinking about her I nearly cried, after too-quickly drinking my one sad cocktail at the Park Hyatt, lights streaking as I tried to hail a cab, as the streets seemed to get so loud, though the bars were always so quiet, my hotel room always silent. Though my pillows hugged back, in the moments before I fell asleep every night, in that black inward space, Sophie was all I could think about, my love and hate. It filled me with guilt that sometimes I wanted her dead.

**

Marty and I attended the Gravity Convention to raise money for our balloon restaurant. There were seminars and things all throughout Shinjuku; miniature demonstrations of rain reversal harvesting in an alcove under the subway station entrance with crowds of spectators, scalpers selling front-capsule tickets for ‘Centre of the Earth’ sub-seafloor tour packages, thin and oily IT gimps with baggy eyes, retired scientist-couples on holiday walking with wobbly wispy hair and permanent smiles like they’d unlocked some of the universe’s secrets. Every three years it brought over a thousand specialists to Tokyo. Our concept was a mega helium balloon, the shape of an upside-down teardrop, six times the size of Red Bull Stratos, holding an encased chef’s table but with no chef, the food instead prepared and cooked mid-air by hovering robotic instruments. Understanding the cuisine was easier than the science; food is by far the simplest of the arts. 

To read the rest of Mark’s story, grab a copy of TLB20.

___________________

Mark Chu recently had an art show with works made from his own dandruff. He lives in New York.

___________________

Angelo Giunta is a city-based illustrator and artist who sleeps under a staircase, likes animals and listens to Scott Walker.