Erenlai - 按標籤顯示項目: paul farrelly
週五, 31 八月 2012 12:39

Taipei’s Civility Engineering Project

Riding Taipei’s subway home from the recent Radiohead gig, I was struck by what should be a peculiar sight.

It was close to 11pm and the carriage had many more passengers than there were seats, yet no one was availing themselves of the dark blue Priority Seats reserved for elderly, frail and pregnant passengers, or those travelling with children. By the time I alighted the MRT eight stops later, not one passenger had taken a Priority Seat even though many remained standing.

The seats appeared to be saved for people who were not likely to board the train. Not many obasans ride in to Taipei Main Station at that late hour. Those passengers who were not elderly, frail or pregnant appeared unwilling to offend those that might sit in those seats, even though no such person was there. Perhaps though, the intended or possible presence of an obasan was enough to shape such cautionary behaviour. Such is the civil code of the MRT.

Officially labelled the Mass Rapid Transit, the MRT is an essential feature of daily life for those Taipei citizens without private transport. Only 15 years old and with new lines appearing every couple of years, the network is slowly diffusing throughout the bowels of the city. On an average June 2012 day, 1,588,700 people took advantage of the MRT’s punctual, clean and orderly service to travel around the system’s 101 stations .

More than just an ongoing civil engineering project, Taipei’s MRT is a civility engineering project.

It could be chaotic but it is not. Somehow the authorities have managed to instil a sense of cooperation into the riding public. Platform queues are orderly. Seats are yielded to those in need. Food and beverages are not consumed. Phone conversations are generally kept to a minimum.

For foreign visitors to Taipei, especially those unfamiliar with the Chinese language, the MRT is the easiest way to traverse the city. Were one to stay underground in the MRT system, one would think Taipei to be clean and cool; regimented and reliable. Such conceptions would be obliterated upon stepping up from the MRT station and into the frazzling pedestrian traffic and frying heat of the street. In that sense the train system underground serves as a panacea to the often frantic life above ground.

One part of the government’s project to train MRT passengers is an extensive set of posters hung in both trains and stations. These posters encourage proper behaviour both IN and OUT of the MRT.

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Passengers are exposed to a range of advertisements that seek to influence their behaviour. Having control over the walls of the stations and trains gives the government the opportunity to monopolise the advertising medium. Of course much space is given over to commercial advertising, whose valuable remittances help keep the MRT system afloat. But the endless entreaties to behave better are what really created an impression on me. The captive audience of the MRT is ideal for the government to impress upon its ideals of how to create a better city.

Do people live together in the MRT? Yes, they do. An unspoken code of behaviour exists. This is not without contradictions. Someone could bring on a box of freshly fried stinky tofu, and while the odor might be a bit much for some, as long as the offending passenger does not eat any then this is OK. However, if someone is feeling in need of a drink, which is common in the summertime heat island of downtown Taipei, then he would be advised not to sip from his water bottle, lest he incur a sharp look of disapproval from the nearest righteous passenger.

Such a stringent code of behaviour is not without failing though. The Priority Seats can be contentious, especially if you are sitting in one and do not look old or injured, or are not wearing the appropriate sticker. Of course, many injuries or illnesses are not perceptible from the outside. If you are sick or sore but do not look it, then your fellow passengers might take umbrage at your bold occupation of a Priority Seat. I once saw a lady vehemently defend her right to sit in the Priority Seat, even though there was an older (and at least visibly, more frail passenger) standing nearby. Confrontations of this sort are uncomfortable for those nearby but, at least to my knowledge, rare.

In a city where almost every available inch of space is utilised and contested, the MRT exists as a zone of relative harmony and compromise. It is not only citizens who take the MRT, but the city of Taipei also rides it on the way to a more civilised society.

 

 


週一, 31 十月 2011 14:41

Microblogs with Macro Reach: Spirituality Online In China

Sina Weibo is big in China right now. Essentially a microblogging service, it has elements of Facebook and Twitter, both of which (along with YouTube) are banned on the Mainland. With over 400 million users1, Sina Weibo is definitely a hit, and is likely to remain so as long as it does not become a vehicle for dissent and upset or threaten the government. Like all social media, Sina Weibo is overflowing with minutiae. Triumphs and tragedies, love and loathing, it is there for all to see. I enjoyed reading one of my Chinese namesakes wax lyrical about his newly rounded eyes (via eyelid cosmetic surgery). Body modification aside, the communication possibilities that Sina Weibo has generated are proving attractive to many in China, including those in the religious and spiritual spheres.

As I have written before, religion is a constantly evolving and fascinating phenomenon2, even in China where regulations continue to be more restrictive than in other countries in the region3. Here I will profile some of the various characters taking advantage of the enormous opportunity to promote their personalities, organisations and messages through Sina Weibo.

Taiwan’s Dharma Drum Mountain (法鼓山) is a large Buddhist organisation that uses its Sina Weibo account4 to share quotations of spiritual inspiration and considered reflection - “What is self?” and “Success is a beautiful result, failure is a beautiful experience” are two recent thought provoking and decidedly non-menacing examples.

Xing Yun (星云) is a monk who fled China decades ago and has built a massive international Buddhist organisation based at Foguangshan (佛光山) in southern Taiwan. On Sina Weibo he has garnered an impressive 327,593 followers5. Like Dharma Drum Mountain, Xing Yun reaches out to his followers with a stream of short and poignant pieces of Buddhist wisdom. For many years Xing Yun and the late founder of Dharma Drum Mountain, Sheng-yen (聖嚴), would have dreamed about having such direct access to Buddhists in the land of their birth. Sina Weibo now gives them unprecedented reach. However, it is in the less orthodox bloggers that we can find even more innovative examples.

Terry Hu (胡茵夢) is a Taiwanese movie star turned author6. Her works are spiritual in nature, and include a translation of the biography of the 20th century Indian philosopher Krishnamurti. Currently promoting her autobiography, Hu is tapping into her network of Sina Weibo followers to drum up publicity by holding competitions. Those who forward details of her book onto three friends have the opportunity to win more books and the writers of the five most outstanding comments will also win a book. Several hundred bloggers have participated in this marketing ploy.

Another Taiwanese author writing and translating in the ‘body, mind, spirit’ genre (身心靈) is Tiffany Chang (張德芬)7 . Prior to her career as a spiritual figure, Chang was a news anchor on Taiwan’s TTV channel. Aside from writing her own books (Meeting the Unknown Self) and translating popular foreign authors, such as Eckhart Tolle (A New Earth), Chang has produced a short series of videos where she reviews books8 and has assisted Taipei’s Huan-ting zen in Taiwan and China. Demonstrating considerable web savvy, Chang operates a China-based body, mind, spirit website called ‘Inner Space’9. She uses her Sina Weibo account to distribute news of updates on Inner Space to her followers, who number just under 100,000.

Perhaps the most interesting religious figure using Sina Weibo is the young Buddhist monk, Shi Daoxin (釋道心)10. Having accumulated over 189,000 followers, he uses Sina Weibo in a way that some might more associate with a self-absorbed and self-promoting youth. I have never seen a monk demonstrate such fashion sense; Shi Daoxin has a knack for matching his robes with his (often gaudily coloured) glasses. Even if you don’t understand Chinese, scroll down his blog and you will see a fantastic variety of photos.

Shi Daoxin pouting. Shi Daoxin posing wistfully outside a temple. Shi Daoxin rendered as a cartoon. Shi Daoxin meditating. Shi Daoxin meditating next to a naked babe.

The photo of Shi Daoxin meditating behind a penitent-looking female nude is particularly interesting. Apparently the winner of the Virginia Photo Exhibition in the USA, this photo is titled “Mind without obscuration” (心無罣礙) and is re-blogged with a quote from the Heart Sutra: “form is emptiness” (色即是空).

Besides his own manifold images, Shi Daoxin also uses Sina Weibo to disseminate Buddhist teachings, including videos from more established teachers, such as Xing Yun. He has also circulated several of his music videos, including one karaoke-friendly ditty where he sings a Buddhist song while wandering around a temple garden and market. The suitably devout chorus is “Amitabha Buddha, please protect me” (阿彌陀佛,呵護著我). Shi Daoxin has achieved some degree of celebrity, having participated in the TV dating show “The Whole City is Madly in Love” (全城熱戀) and was interviewed on China’s top daytime TV talk show “A Date with Luyu” (魯豫有約).

If there is one thing that this brief survey shows, it is that each of these bloggers is attempting to make religious ideas relevant to life in contemporary China. Methods vary greatly—orthodox or radical, commercial or benevolent—but the bloggers are linked by the common goal of seeking to share a spiritual message with the widest possible audience. Doing so via Sina Weibo does not necessarily dilute the potency of their messages. Writing on religious innovation in contemporary China, the Cambridge anthropologist Adam Yuet Chau recently wrote that

Modern technologies and other non-traditional elements can often be effortlessly incorporated into the framework of traditional idioms and practices, which in turn reveals the dynamic innovability of the traditions themselves11.

Sina Weibo is an ideal example of this innovability. Even the more ‘traditional’ bloggers discussed here, such as Dharma Drum Mountain and Xing Yun, have made a concerted effort over many decades to revitalise Buddhism so it is more relevant to life in the contemporary world. Microblogs are just another stage in the evolution of this process. Not surprisingly, Shi Daoxin also claims to be a disseminator of modern Buddhist culture and art, albeit in his own unique way. For the time being, Shi Daoxin et al will continue to be able to encourage, inspire, question and interact with their followers through Sina Weibo. And when Sina Weibo loses its lustre or is blocked, then I’m sure they will be among the early adopters of the next web platform, whatever it may be.

(Photo courtesy of www.weibo.com/shidaoxin)

 


 

1. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/news/8851585/China-fights-to-silence-the-social-network.html

2.http://bit.ly/rC0vpY

3. http://bit.ly/uVZTtH

4. http://weibo.com/ddmbascc

5. http://weibo.com/1861268640

6. http://weibo.com/1243683297

7. http://weibo.com/1759168351

8. http://www.youtube.com/user/BOOKLIFE1313

9. http://www.innerspace.com.cn/f/index

10. http://weibo.com/shidaoxin

11. Adam Yuet Chau. Religion in Contemporary China: Revitalization and Innovation, Taylor and Francis, 2011, page 20.

 

 


週一, 13 十二月 2010 22:33

New Religions in China

An Italian translation of this article appeared in the December 2010 edition of popoli and is a continuation of some ideas raised in eRenlai's October 2010 Focus on religious innovation in East Asia.

To recap, the term 'new religious movement' was originally coined as a less loaded alternative to 'cult'.  It represents an attempt to classify new religious groups that are either a brand new conception of reality, a reinterpretation of an existing belief system or transplanted beliefs in a foreign land. Such groups are continuously evolving all over the world, and China is no exception.


週日, 31 十月 2010 00:00

Next stop on the Denim Express … Struggletown

On a recent long distance train trip in China, a budding entrepreneur and proud patriot asked me if my country had any factories.

“Sure”, I said, “we’ve got a few, but not as many as China does”.

 

“That’s right!” he quickly retorted.

 

“Because of OUR factories YOU have a good lifestyle and WE have a lot of hardship!”

 

He expressed these views very forthrightly and had no doubt about whose favour the Chinese balance of trade was in.  Perhaps my new friend’s family had felt some strain from China’s rapid industrialisation.  After all, he was making a 15 hour train journey to return home to his young family after working in Beijing.

 

Last Train Home screened at the 7th Taiwan International Documentary Festival in Taichung and gave me a new perspective on my earlier encounter on the train.  The cinema was almost full and arriving late, I had to find a seat in the front row.  Seated behind me were a bunch of 10 year olds, probably attending as part of a school excursion.  To begin with they were merrily chatting away, no doubt wishing they were watching a cartoon, and oblivious to the projections of the grim cityscapes of China’s south-eastern megacities.  But it didn’t take too long for them to be drawn into the story, wide-eyed and silently absorbed by the unfolding tragedy.

 

Presenting the tale of the Zhang family – parents toiling in a jeans factory in Guangdong, kids raised by their grandparents in rural Sichuan – Last Train Home is a bleak look at life in modern China.  As the story develops over 6 years, we see the characters evolve against the dual backdrops of the urban and the rural: sewing machines and tiny bedrooms alternating with cornfields and crumbling and damp farmhouses.

 

The story is very engaging, despite some of the dialogue appearing a bit too staged.  Flashes of brutality alternate with misguided optimism, all the while dreams are torn apart and the scraps reshaped, like denim off-cuts salvaged from the factory floor and haphazardly stitched together into something new.

 

The cinematography is artful throughout, generating a strong sense of place. The scenes at Guangzhou train station during the Chinse New Year are particularly powerful. We see hordes of travellers stranded as the rail grid is thrown into turmoil by inclement weather, progressively getting anxious as the narrow window of time they have to return to their hometowns grows ever smaller.  The claustrophobia of the crammed station and tension of the travellers as they jostle for space is palpable.

 

Last Train Home is a gruelling look at the flipside of China’s year on year 10% economic growth.  The Zhang family are just some of the many millions manning the machines that drive China’s economic juggernaut.  At times harrowing, this is a film that will appeal to anyone seeking an alternative perspective on China’s economic miracle.


週日, 31 十月 2010 00:00

The Un-Bollywood

“We are fed up”.

So says one of the Nats, a community of street performers in eastern India, featured in the documentary King of India.  As itinerant performers existing on the margins of society, the Nats pass through the markets, street corners and fairs of metropolitan India, eeking out a living by putting on shows. Another day, another dirty slab of concrete, another set of headstands and tightrope walking.  Possessing the dual charms of athleticism and cuteness, the child performers grind out their show several times a day, hoping to bring in enough rupees to keep their family afloat. The kids’ energetic dance and acrobat routines are driven by rhythms pounded out an old drum and tin plate rattling against the ground.  Squint your eyes, muffle your ears and maybe you might mistake it for a big ticket Bollywood number.  Or maybe not.  The dust and desperation of these children is the Un-Bollywood.  The throbbing beats and gyrating hips filtered through the dusty melange of Kolkata’s backstreets offers us a different story altogether.

 

The King of India is just one of several films about India and South Asia that were screening at the 7th Taiwan International Documentary Festival in Taichung.  These depictions of struggle are far removed from the all-singing, all-dancing entertainment juggernaut that is Bollywood.  In addition to King of India, I also saw Dreaming Taj Mahal and three of the Journeys with Kabir tetralogy.

 

Dreaming Taj Mahal tells the story of a Pakistani driver, Haidar, whose lifelong dream is to visit India’s Taj Mahal. Frustrated by small-minded village life, government propaganda and the semipermeable membrane of the Indo/Pak border, Haidar never gives up his dream of visiting the Taj.  He lives in a world where fear of the Other conspires to trap him.  The restrictive duality based on Hindu and Muslim differences that shapes Indo/Pak relations is nothing new though, Kabir had already dealt with similar issues in an altogether different era.

 

Kabir was a poet who lived 500 years ago in India and the Journeys with Kabir films look at his contested legacy.  Kabir sought a more inclusive society through religious tolerance.  His poems have long existed in an oral tradition and are kept alive in many different ways.  The director, Shabnam Virmani, stated “the more people I meet, the more Kabirs I meet”. Almost everyone seems to have a different interpretation of Kabir’s poems, from the universal view of the protagonist, Dalit (untouchable) folk musician Prahlad Tipanya, to the more dogmatic and exclusivist position of some of the pundits and experts met on the roads and rails of India. The Journeys with Kabir filmsoffer a probing look into the forces that shape contemporary India, from communalism to globalisation, with an ever-present folk soundtrack.  For fans of Indian folk music, the Kabir movies are worth watching for the extensive concert footage alone.

 

These stories are given time to unfold and are uncluttered, especially Journeys with Kabir.  The characters have space to talk, to let their feelings flow.  The ambient (and not so ambient) sounds of India reverberate throughout – car horns, train station announcements, heated finger-waving discussions.  The India shown here is the flipside of years of economic development.  Those in the village and those who have moved from the village to the city in search of a better life aren’t shown to be sharing in the spoils of India’s growth.  They survive in a world where the politics of caste continue to shape one’s destiny.

 

As opposed to the glitzy glamour Bollywood, these movies are better seen in the context of subaltern studies.  Writers in the subaltern studies group have long attempted to give a voice to those who are neglected by most historical accounts, an approach that can be equally applied to film.

 

For several decades writers from the subaltern studies group have been generating a view of history that locates the place of minority, repressed or low class people within the context of post-colonial societies.  The work of these writers can help explain how the lower castes remain on the fringes of Indian history.  Evolving from the work of Antonio Gramsci, subaltern refers to non-elite or subordinated groups.  A large number of groups have this status in India as they are marginalised by their caste or other socio-economic factors.  According to Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak[1], the existence of the subaltern is an unavoidable product of the discourse generated by elites.  This discourse in India has been primarily concerned with the democratic progress towards modernity and is found in the media and history books.  The subaltern is thus “marginalized not because of any conscious intentions but because they represent moments or points at which the archive that the historian mines develops a degree of intractability with respect to the aims of professional history”[2].

 

The characters in these movies all occupy the role of the subaltern.  Be it the ongoing conflict between India and Pakistan, the struggle for equality for the lower castes or the ferocious forces of globalisation that threaten to leave large portions of the Indian population behind as the country modernises, these events are so large that the voices of the marginalised can be easily drowned out.  Watching the Indian selection from the 7th Taiwan International Documentary Festival won’t necessarily be an entertaining couple of hours, but it will be eye opening.  The frustrations of the characters in these movies say so much more about the unfortunate reality of so many in India than your average Bollywood extravaganza could ever hope to.

You can watch the Journeys with Kabir tetralogy at http://www.cultureunplugged.com/

 


[1] Gyatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Subaltern Studies: Deconstructing Historiography” in Ranajit Guha (editor), Subaltern Studies IV, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1985.

[2] Dipesh Chakrabarty, “Minority Histories, Subaltern Pasts” in Saurabh Dube (editor), Postcolonial Passages: Contemporary History-writing on India, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2004.

 


週三, 06 十月 2010 18:13

An Expo-lent Australian Adventure

In early September I spent a day at the Shanghai Expo.  Bracing myself for crowds of up to 300,000 jostling queue-jumpers, I was relieved that the venue was not too packed. Most pavilions (especially later in the day) did not require any considerable time lining up.  The vast number of unused crowd barriers snaking around entrances that I bypassed at various stages of the day were testament to just how bad the queues might have been.  That said, there were still a hell of a lot of people there.

Arriving a little too late to snap up the special tickets required for China’s gargantuan pavilion (a great design actually, and one that I hope primary school kids around the world can mimic with Paddle Pop sticks), I had to settle for some of the less grandiose pavilions.

The South Korea pavilion had a great mix of 3D and interactive technology, all set to an infectious K-Pop soundtrack.  The hosts remained unflinchingly gracious in the face of relentless questioning (“Are you really Korean? REALLY? But how can you possibly speak such good Chinese?”), even managing to diffuse a vicious brawl between two frazzled and possibly queued-out ladies in the theatrette.

The India pavilion offered a snapshot of Indian civilisation from ancient times through to the recent period of economic development, but my lasting memory was of the handicraft bazaar and the tantalising smells from the curry kitchen that seduced guests meandering around the venue.

The Singapore pavilion was slick, if somewhat forgettable, and the Denmark pavilion had the actual Little Mermaid statue, shipped all the way over to China, and some bikes for visitors to cruise around on.

All good stuff but in spite of the smorgasbord of global morsels that were at my finger tips, the one pavilion I really itched to visit was that of the land of my birth – Australia.  Not just to reconnect, but to see how Australia had decided to pitch itself to what former Prime Minster Kevin Rudd famously called it’s “true friend (zhēngyǒu)”.

pf_shanghai_expo_1Upon arriving at the giant undulating pavilion, which looks a bit like a corrugated tin off-cut left to rust in a paddock, I was able to breeze in through the door, unhindered by any queue. Here I was greeted by a friendly Akubra-clad avuncular type with “G’day! When watching the movie, you might wanna sit at the back so you can see the subtitles”.  Thanks for the tip, mate.

Spiralling up a ramp around the inside of the pavilion I was treated to a potted history of Australia in series of cute dioramas. Unsurprisingly, there was an emphasis on the relationship between Australia and China.  If you were looking for any information about Aboriginal Australians, you had to wait for the last section, where the landmark 2008 apology to ‘the stolen generations’ was highlighted.

Australia’s first inhabitants were excluded from the diorama of when the English landed in Australia.  Instead of Aboriginals, as are normally included in such stylised versions of this event, the pompous-looking Englishmen were confronted with a stick-waving Koala and a stern Kangaroo with crossed arms.  Crikey!  Look at claws on that one!

While there were brief explanations of the diorama scenes, no one really seemed to be paying much attention to them. Unlike the other more hi-tech pavilions I visited, there were certainly no snazzy gizmos here to keep the punters entertained.  The crowd hurriedly snapped photos of each of the dioramas and then barrelled on up the ramp, to where though, no one seemed to know.

pf_shanghai_expo_3As it turned out, at the top of the ramp was the theatrette, where we were rounded up like cattle (how very Australian).  Once in the proverbial cattle yard, some burly Aussie bloke did his best to keep us placated until the next screening, cracking jokes in Chinese and exhorting us to be orderly “for your own safety”.  I found this guy to be pretty funny, but the people around me seemed mainly to be sniggering at his pronunciation.  Perhaps something was lost in translation.  I’m not sure how well the average Chinese person understands the Australian sense of humour.  Some didn’t seem to understand his safety instructions either, with a couple of people trying to push through the queue, even though there was a closed door at the end of it and we had been told that there were enough seats in the theatre for everyone.  The queues at the Expo were generally much more orderly than I expected based on my previous experiences lining up at various Chinese train stations and tourist venues. Nevertheless, some people still found the need to fruitlessly try to push through, only succeeding in pissing everyone else off. I’m surprised that I didn’t see more fights on the day.

The Australian movie was passable, but nowhere near the level of South Korea’s all singing, all dancing, roller coaster ride. Not that the crowd, many of whom were quite young, cared.  They all seemed very happy to be there.  The spritely attendant even managed to cajole them into chanting a mangled version of the dire Sydney Olympics-era chant “Aussie! Aussie! Aussie!”.

My favourite image from the movie was towards the beginning. Just after the characters had been introduced and the audience subjected to a montage of dodgy computer graphics, the side of an open-cut mine was spectacularly blown up.  This led in to a sequence of heavy machinery carting rocks out of the ground and onto the marketplace.  The market of course, as Australia’s recent recession-proof prosperity might testify to, is China.  What better symbol to represent Australia and China’s current relationship.  I loved it.

After the movie, we were herded down the ramp, out of the theatre and into the gift shop.  There was also some dinky-di Aussie tucker – meat pies, fish and chips, beer and other imported delicacies.  Despite my strong urge for a pie and sauce, it was all a bit pricey for me, so I skedaddled out the door and to find something a bit cheaper and possibly more tasty.

pf_shanghai_expo_4Judging by the chirpy crowds hanging around in the foyer and checking out the tacky merchandise for sale, I think the organisers had a done a good job.  The primarily Chinese guests seemed happy.  However, the Australian government wants to do more than just flog off a couple of overpriced fluffy kangaroos and tinnies of VB.  The real impact of the pavilion will be felt in the years to come, as Chinese students head to Australian universities or Chinese and Australian companies enter into business deals.

While appearing to be solid, Australia's relationship with China is not without hiccups. The level of China-awareness among the Australian public is low and at times paranoid.  My only lasting memory of China from my childhood education is of the prospectors who came out to Australia in the Gold Rush of the 1850s.  A reciprocal Chinese pavilion in downtown Sydney or Melbourne might help raise the general level of awareness of our looming northern neighbour.  You wouldn't get the full story on China, that's for sure, but at least it would be a start.  However, it is not only the Chinese government that emphasises some aspects of the country at the expense of others in order to paint an attractive picture.

Staging the Australian Expo pavilion in China means pitching the message to a Chinese audience.  If the 2010 Expo was being held in Australia, the pavilion would undoubtedly be significantly different. Australians can be very sensitive about how the nation broadcasts itself to foreign nations.  Witness the  domestic controversy generated by each new iteration of advertisements selling our wide brown land to the global tourist market.  Some Australians wish to entice foreigners with our cosmpolitan metropolises and sophisticated urban lifestyle, while others think that the beaches/bikinis/kangaroos/koalas model sells the nation best.  Given this unfortunate and out-dated dichotomy, those Australians affected by the dreaded  ‘cultural cringe’ would be best served by staying well away from the Australia pavilion.  Do yourself a favour and go to the South Korea pavilion instead.

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週二, 29 六月 2010 20:54

Josh Homme and the rise of manufactured mystique

I have watched two seemingly distinct phenomenon over the last 15 years with considerable interest: the growth of the internet from a niche tool of academics and geeks to a brobdignagian digital life form; and Josh Homme’s transition from cult desert guitarist to supergroup-worthy rock god.  As people around the world now begin to ponder the long-term influence of the internet on society, I believe that analysis of Josh Homme’s career and can help shed some light on this evolution, in particular with regard to the mystique of artists.

Fifteen years ago, I was a curious high school student, who, among other teenage pursuits, was discovering the world of rock and roll.  Having dipped my toes into grunge, g-funk and somewhat mystifyingly, grindcore, I was trying to find my way in the mid-90s alternative music market.  In 1995 I bought a heavy metal compilation that featured One Inch Man[i] by Kyuss, a short-lived rock band from Palm Springs California featuring the then 22 year-old Josh Homme on guitar.  I was instantly transfixed.  This bass heavy track rode a groove that got my head bobbing while at the same had heavy enough riffs to make me feel tough.  Vicarious toughness through music was important to me at that age.  As my funds permitted, I bought all four Kyuss albums and listened to them endlessly.  In fact, 15 years later I still listen to Kyuss quite frequently.  They were that good.

In an odd turn events, only one week after discovering Kyuss, I read in Hot Metal magazine that they had just recently broken up.  At this stage I was still about 18 months away from using the internet.  Information on Kyuss was almost non-existent.  I found a band profile in a second hand copy of Hot Metal from a few years prior but other than that, nothing.  Apart from albums in record stores, an underground band that died in 1995 had little chance of maintaining any sort of profile.  With that being the case, to me Kyuss was nothing more than a well-orchestrated collection of highly listenable sounds.

 

In late 1996 I graduated from high school, eager to enjoy a summer of parties and cricket.  As events transpired, the only guy I knew who had internet access was having a party and I was invited. Sambucca and Southern Comfort were drunk up on the roof, girls were kissed and garden furniture was broken. I even have hazy memories of watching the clip for Wannabe by the Spice Girls. Wiiiild times, let me tell you my friend.  Early in the night I managed to get in a session on the internet – something to me that up until that stage was nothing more than a nebulous idea that media pundits liked to talk about – either as some whiz-bang medium of the future or as a dangerous forum for disseminating The Terrorist Handbook.  None of these options took my fancy.  For me, the internet was there to find out about Kyuss.

I discovered a website lovingly put together by a Kyuss devotee and printed off some fan-made guitar tablature.  At this party I also saw Kyuss film clips for the first time.  The band was a strange looking bunch, swaggering around the California desert belting out psychedelic metal riffs.  In the Green Machine filmclip, Josh Homme cut a very unfashionable figure – shorts and boots worn together have never been very rock and roll[ii].

Three months later I was enrolled at university and the internet was suddenly at my finger tips.  None of my lecturers had worked out how to use the internet as an educational tool and most of the content on it was made by amateurs.  In spite of this, the internet was a revelation to me (like it is to most) and I spent many an hour using Hotbot to scour the neighbourhoods of Geocities, as one did on the Information Superhighway in 1997.

Over the next two years I eagerly checked Kyuss fan sites, hoping for news on upcoming projects.  Occasionally there was a tidbit – Homme and his mates were jamming in the desert, the singer had a new band, the bass player had opened a pet store in Palm Springs, the old drummer was playing with Fu Manchu and so on.  But these stories were rare, and there appeared to be no system for digitally disseminating them.  It was more or less gossip or info culled from Californian street press and then uploaded on to fan sites.  And there were only a handful of these sites on the whole World Wide Web where I needed to look to find out anything, most of which were not much more than digital versions of zines.

Following Kyuss riding off into the sun, Josh Homme re-emerged in 1997 with Queens of the Stoneage, dropping the first track on the silly genre-naming compilation Burn One Up: Music for Stoners.  For those in Australia and without the internet, this event would likely have largely gone unnoticed.  When their debut album appeared a year later the only clue that Queens and Kyuss had some sort of connection was the sticker on the CD case – “Featuring ex-members of Kyuss”.  At this stage there was very little promotional material about Homme’s new band, who were dragging themselves around Europe playing small clubs and festival side stages.

Queens of the Stoneage toiled in the musical underground over the next 5 years.  Another album, R[iii], was released in 2000 and despite getting some play on alternative radio stations in Australia, it seemed that most of the band’s followers were all Kyuss fans first, Queens fans second.  Queens were still yet to cross over into the mainstream.  This changed in 2002 when ex-Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl and ex-Screaming Trees vocalist Mark Lanegan came on board. Queens released Songs for the Deaf[iv] and then became alterna-rock royalty.  For the rest of the decade the band chugged along, releasing albums, enduring personnel problems, all the while maintaining a solid fan base through regular tours and a generally positive critical response.  This success made Homme a bonafide star and brought public attention to his previously underground side projects, such as the Desert Sessions and the Eagles of Death Metal.  While it would appear in the eyes of most critics and many casual listeners that Queens will never top Songs for the Deaf, the band has still managed to somehow straddle the line between commercial acclaim and critical success, all the while producing a distinctive sound.

Of course, over the duration of the 2000s, the internet swelled with more and more folks getting online.  As magazines and newspapers shifted their content into digital format and tried to work out how to keep making a buck, music blogs grew to become the arbiters of trends and memes.  And then there was the explosion in social media (mySpace, facebook, youtube, twitter et al) that, theoretically at least, allowed people across the world to access media with ease that most of them couldn’t conceive of 15 years earlier.  I certainly couldn’t have predicted this digital landscape when I first heard One Inch Man and wondered who Kyuss were and how they could make such transcendent music.

Now I can log onto youtube and watch Kyuss performing live in the Californian desert at one of their legendary ‘generator parties’[v].  Once upon a time I knew that these videos existed but not being familiar with the obscure world of tape trading (what tapes did I have to trade?) these gigs stayed a mystery to me.  As did the performance at the Bizarre Festival in 1995[vi] or the Italian TV gig from around the same time[vii].  For my friends and I, the unattainability of these shows created an aura of mystery.  We certainly weren’t at the shows and had no chance of watching them.  This let our imaginations run wild.  We already had the soundtrack – then we just had to dream of the desert, the drama and the drugs.

Now I can watch all these videos from the comfort of my sofa.  Beyond the initial investment of a laptop, modem and internet access, the world of Kyuss is at my fingertips.  My Taipei apartment couldn’t be further from the shifting sands of California’s Sky Valley but the internet has knocked down that time/space barrier.  That Kyuss’ history has been uploaded is fantastic and in some ways I wish it had happened 15 years ago when my curiosity was at its peak.  But then my appreciation of the band might not have become what it did.  My imagination had to fill in the gaps.

From the few interviews that I was able to read back in the day, I built up an image of Josh Homme.  He came across as chill, and didn’t seem to have the agro that is part and parcel of the metal world.  Then when Queens first started getting press, he claimed to want to create music that makes girls dance, a noble desire in the sweaty dude-filled moshpit that is the world of rock.

Now I can find out almost anything I want about the man.  From Homme’s collection of weird guitars[viii] to the somewhat infamous footage of him loosing his cool at a concert in 2008[ix].  Everything is there, pixellated and ready to download.  Fortunately Homme has maintained his sharp sense of humour and while he has developed something of a rock star attitude, he generally comes across as a likeable guy, someone you could sink a beer or two with.

What does this mean?  Without his ever-growing web presence I think it would be harder for Homme to maintain his career. The music audience has come to expect a steady stream of interviews, live footage and miscellanea to sustain interest in an artist.  Fan-made clips and shaky camera phone recordings augment the glut of professional digital media available, padding out an already large cyber presence.  But by no means has Homme saturated the market.  In the current climate of Lady Gaga, Justin Beiber and their ilk he still remains on the fringe, even with Them Crooked Vultures, his latest project where he has reunited with Dave Grohl and rounded out the band with John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin.

TCV hit the ground the running and over a period of months went from nothing more than an intriguing concept flagged on a blog post to headlining venues and festivals around the globe.  Tantalising fans with a well-conceived drip feed of studio footage and live clips, TCV (and their management) cleverly used modern communication channels to drum up interest prior to their album’s release.  In a world where illegal downloads threaten the livelihoods of all those involved with recorded music such an approach is now necessary.

This manufactured mystique captured the public’s attention but ultimately left me feeling a bit hollow.  Yes, I watched a bunch of youtube clips and got the gist of what was going on.  But of all Homme’s many projects over the last 15 years (he is a truly prolific collaborator) this one left me the least intrigued.  The whole gestation of TCV had been manipulated to the extent that when the band finally entered my world, I didn’t really care.  There was no magic.  Despite the behind the scenes spontaneity that Homme, Jones and Grohl undoubtedly experienced, I felt like the whole product was being force fed to me.  Not that TCV is a bad band – their tunes seem to be more or less worthy given the group’s much heralded genetics – it’s just that they somehow seem to lack that magic that Homme’s earlier recordings have.

As it becomes easier to build up an extensive archive of an artist, where every recording and performance can be downloaded, where every interview and blog post can be scrutinized, artists have become more accessible than ever before.  Fans have almost instant access to the minutiae of their idols.  It is easier for established artists to step away from this trend.  Their fanbase is already established.  But struggling artists seeking to make a name for themselves need to harness the digital media machine to get their ‘product’ out there.  To do this and somehow maintain an aura of mystery seems to me to be a challenge.  With over-exposure it is easy to tire of an artist and move on to the next emerging sound, of which there will be always be a dozen emerging micro-genres to pick and choose from.

Who knows, Homme is an artist who fortunately shows no sign of burning out after two decades of recording.  There will no doubt be much more to come from him.  And sure enough, I’ll be at my keyboard, waiting for news of the next project he has up his sleeve.  I just hope that it blows in like a cloud of sand from the desert rather than appear on my twitter feed as a micro-managed meme.

(Photo by Craig Carper, source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/giarc80/3976623459/)


[i] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CAXGu81Rk1g - ‘One Inch Man’ from And the Circus Leave Town (Kyuss, 1995)

[ii] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fc-7FXzbeA0 - ‘Green Machine’ from Blues for the Red Sun (Kyuss, 1992)

[iii] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bAXPUN2z2CE - ‘Feelgood Hit of the Summer’ from R (Queens of the Stoneage, 2000)

[iv] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s88r_q7oufE - ‘No One Knows’ from Songs for the Deaf (Queens of the Stoneage, 2002)

[v] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HPFhyd3fabs - generator party in the Californian desert (Kyuss, c.1993)

[vi] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2pMfqZGg-FA ‘Gardenia’ from Welcome to Sky Valley, live in 1995 (Kyuss, 1994)

[vii] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-j4A2iGgQQk ‘Asteroid’ from Welcome to Sky Valley, live on Videomusic (Kyuss, 1994)

[viii] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vY_O3eo1m1Q ‘Josh Homme’s cathedral pipe guitar’

[ix] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IfZm32tpWY8 - ‘Josh Homme (QOTSA) pissed off @ Norwegian Wood’


週五, 26 三月 2010 00:00

Reflections on a decade of higher education in Australia

Paul Farrelly from eRenlai reflects on his experiences of higher education in Australia.  In particular, he talks about the changing role of information technology, student life and some of the skills he learnt.


週四, 04 三月 2010 00:00

The great diplomatic balancing act of dialogue: Dalai Lama and the Cardinal

The Dalai Lama’s visit to Taiwan during August and September 2009 was ostensibly religious.  Accepting an invitation from the Democratic Progressive Party in the wake of Typhoon Morakot, Taiwan’s worst typhoon in 50 years, he arrived and explicitly stated that while he admires Taiwan’s democracy, his visit was non-political. And it appeared that way.  The Dalai Lama conducted prayers for the hundreds who perished in the typhoon and offered comfort to their family members.  Twenty thousand people attended the prayer service in the southern city of Kaohsiung.  Furthermore, the Dalai Lama held a public religious dialogue with Catholic Cardinal Paul K. S. Shan.  They discussed the ever-relevant values of mutual tolerance and respect and the importance of using shared religious values to reveal the qualities of humankind.  Both leaders noted that the material development of nations should not occur at the expense of religious or spiritual values, whether by neglect or by suppression.

As representatives of organisations (the Tibetan Government in Exile and the Catholic Church) with strained relationships with Beijing, this final comment carries some weight.  Even more so given the Chinese government’s strongly worded condemnation of the Dalai Lama’s visit to Taiwan.  These statements are routinely issued whenever the Dalai Lama visits, or prepares to visit, a foreign country. Given Taiwan’s delicate relationship with China, visits by the Dalai Lama are especially controversial.  Ignoring any political statements that the Dalai Lama may make, and most seem carefully worded to avoid antagonising Beijing, his visits routinely involve dialogue with local religious leaders and often luminaries in science, business or human rights.  He has even gone so far as to declare that the 21st century should be one of dialogue so as to avoid the bloodshed that typified the 20th century.

The Dalai Lama acts as a catalyst for dialogue among local religious leaders.  For the most part, these leaders would not get together too often to discuss matters of faith, community and tolerance.  When the Dalai Lama juggernaut rolls into town, all of a sudden the media spotlight focuses on religion.  Beyond any sympathy that the general public might have for the plight of the Tibetan people, the Dalai Lama has a huge following, both through those who adhere to Tibetan Buddhism and those who find solace in his advice on life as published in a large number of easy-to-digest books.  It can be easy to scoff at these events as feel-good hyperbole.  Nevertheless, they are an opportunity for local religious leaders, in the company of a global religious superstar, to search for universal truths, and do so in front of audiences of thousands of people.

In recent decades China has become indispensable to foreign countries, both as a consumer of raw materials and as the world’s factory of manufactured goods.  Somewhat mirroring this rise, the Dalai Lama’s constant foreign jaunts have increasingly become diplomatic issues.  Foreign governments do not wish to offend China, but at the same time, do not wish to be seen to be denying the Dalai Lama freedom of speech and as being bullied by Chinese threats.  Whether or not trade balances suffer will be of concern to leaders, however the civil benefits are also worth considering.  Inspiring local communities to seek and recognise commonalities in large public forums is a role that the Dalai Lama has evolved into being rather adept at and one that can offer much to communities across the world.

 

 

週四, 04 三月 2010 00:00

Cup of tea, TV and religious dialogue

The plane on which religious dialogue occurs is too often conceived as occurring at a high level.  Leaders of faiths occasionally meet in public, be it in front of an audience or a camera.  Within a community, a church may come together with a mosque or temple as part of a festival.  At a lower level, it is not uncommon for neighbours of differing faiths to discuss matters of faith with each other.
 
Dialogue within the family is an additional part of the spectrum of religious dialogue that deserves attention.  The construction of family units can be incredibly diverse.  While several generations might live under one roof, it is not uncommon for family ties to stretch across countries and even between them.  Within the myriad of family dynamics that exist, there are a few key concepts that I wish to focus on.

Whether through choice or destiny, many of our closest bonds are with our family members.  Our family members are the ones who we see on a daily basis, the ones with whom we share the tribulations and triumphs of day-to-day life.  For most of us, the support, understanding and care provided by family members is the necessary foundation for a happy life.  Shared religious conviction can form much of the basis of this stability.  When family members have a faith in common, religious dialogue can almost appear to be a given.  However, when family members have different beliefs or varying levels of commitment, religious dialogue can become an issue.  In the close confines of the family, this can be particularly acute.

In recent decades, religious mobility has become increasingly common, both in Asia and across the world.  New religious movements (NRMs) continue to appear, either offering fresh interpretations of established beliefs or something altogether new.  And beyond the more organised NRMs, there are the nebulous sectors of new age beliefs, self help and spirituality, concepts that are expounded in books and seminars rather than in more established places of worship.

Not only do religions continue to innovate, people across the world are switching their religious allegiance or modifying their beliefs, often in the face of long-established family tradition.  This is enshrined in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, where “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance”.

Such lofty ideals do not necessarily filter down to day-to-day reality.  Conversions can cause schisms in the family.  When someone—be they parent or child—converts to a new religious belief, the rest of the family can be traumatised.  The faith of the convert, something that had always been taken for granted, has changed, calling many things into question.  When a member appears to have turned his back on his family, it can be as if they are cutting off the chance for dialogue, rejecting an important part of the family’s identity.  In many cases, this is true, especially when the convert conscientiously chooses to distance himself from his family.

[dropcap cap="T"]he reasons for converting are manifold.  The once common notion that members of NRMs had unhappy relationships with family members has been debunked.  There is just as much likelihood that the convert is from a happy family as from a troubled one.When someone adopts a new faith, it is not always an attack on his family.  [/dropcap]While the convert might be more content with his newly chosen faith, family members too can be happy that their kin has found a faith that suits him better.  However, such realisations can only be reached through discussion and demonstrating the love that the family members hold for each other, not an inherently easy task.
 
 
Intra-familial religious dialogue is not limited to circumstances where one family may have members of two or more religions.  Tension can arise when members share a faith but differ in the extent to which they adhere to the set beliefs or scripture.  Agreement on financial matters and reproductive health are fundamental to family stability.  If one member interprets (or ignores) his family’s faith on a matter such as these in a way that upsets or alienates other members then it can be unsettling.  For the family to continue to remain together, or at least do so fruitfully, dialogue must occur.  Where one point of view is taken as an absolute, either through doctrinal definition or mere tradition, then it can be difficult to find middle ground.  However, when the long-term well being of the family is at stake, these absolutes should be given a bit of leeway, at least in as much as it can help reach a point of understanding.

Religion can be a powerful force for bringing families together.  However, if the stability of a family’s religion is shaken by a member either not sharing the same level of devotion or leaving the faith, and possibly converting, then there is a risk of a serious breakdown occurring.  For there to be continued coexistence and hopefully a point of agreement, the members must come together through dialogue.  For members to challenge, and possibly change, long held (or in the case of converts, newly acquired) beliefs is no simple task.  But to help ensure the chances of the family’s ongoing happiness, this dialogue is essential.

 

週二, 26 一月 2010 00:00

Celebrating the Monsoon

By late July, stepping out into the pre-monsoonal weather in Bodh Gaya was akin to wrapping oneself in a blanket that had been soaked in warm water. The thick humidity was inescapable, conspiring to prevent you from being cool at all times of the day. Nights were the worst, especially when the power cut out—a not infrequent occurrence in under-developed Bihar—with the sound of thirsty mosquitos buzzing outside the tattered mosquito net only just masking the discomfort being completely covered in sweat. 

As a visitor to Bihar, I was fortunate. The sticky heat was something I only had to tolerate for a short while, and would not have to do anymore once I had moved on. However for Biharis, and those all over northern India, this is their reality, summer after sweaty summer. That is until the monsoon rains begin, sweeping across the Gangetic plains, cooling sweating brows, stimulating farmer’s fields and reviving rivers from dusty plains to surging watercourses.

 

Last year the rains began in earnest one night at about 10pm. After an hour in an internet café, I stepped outside to discover that not only had it started pouring, but the previously barren road was now awash with water, in some places already well above ankle height. The change in atmosphere was palpable; for the first time in weeks I was outdoors and didn’t feel the need to go somewhere cooler.

The waiter in the café advised me to take care when walking home as the deluge was likely to pick all manner of unhygienic items into the torrent running down the street, and I should take care not to step on something unpleasant. Walking down the street I caught sight of some boys playing in the water.

Paul_Farrelly_Moonson1These boys were demonstrating no such caution. They had stripped down to their underwear and were thrashing around in the deeper pools, playing in the newly abundant water, something that a mere day before had been just a dream. One of the boys in the shadowy pools had the contortedly arachnid limbs of a beggar – his legs most likely broken at an early age as an entrée into a life of pan handling. I had seen this same boy hours earlier, shuffling along the pavement outside the Mahabodhi temple, desperately seeking small change from pilgrims and tourists. The grim determination that had infused his previous expressions had been transfused by the sudden downpour. A luminous smile spread across his face as he rejoiced in the first monsoonal rains of the year, cooling and cleaning himself by the side of the road.

His joy was undoubtedly shared by everyone else across the state who was waiting for rain. Relief was at hand and there was hope for the future: water and food supplies looked that bit more secure. However, everyone would be aware of the power of these rains. In most years floods cause considerable damage to property, livestock and people in Bihar, with human death tolls of more than 100 frightfully common. And in August 2009 the rains ultimately proved to be deadly once again, with more than 50 people dying. [inset side="right" title="Paul Farrelly"]Paul is a graduate (MA/MAPS) of the Australian National University in Canberra. While there, he researched new religious movements in East Asia with an emphasis on those based in Taiwan. Paul is now studying in Taipei.[/inset]

Just as celebrations mark change and transition, so too do they indicate that the new situation is also nothing more than another fleeting moment, an instance that will pass, just as what it has come to replace has already moved on. Being lifted up in the ecstasy of the celebration can be fantastic; the respite and abundance brought by the monsoonal rains of Bihar are fair cause for jubilation. But the monsoon did not just revive the countryside and refresh residents, it ultimately brought about destruction. The tragic inverse is always lurking and should never be discounted as a possibility.

 

 

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