Tag Archives: politics

Diamonds are for everyone

How contemporary jewellery breaks the alliance of risk and management.

Risk management

Like other media around the nation, The Age newspaper heralded the recent carbon tax as ‘Julia’s Gamble’. It’s an odd take. How could such a bureaucratic exercise as an emissions levy be viewed as a game of chance? The immense business of re-aligning flows of capital across the nation comes down to a fragile human drama—how one politician manages to hold herself together as she walks the gauntlet of media and public. Good policy isn’t quite enough. We still need to toss the coin.

We are awash with statistics of Australia’s impecunity. Complementing our astronomical greenhouse emissions are regular reports of our addiction to gambling. Last year, the gambling turnover in Australia was $153 billion. An Economist special issue had Australia as a world leader in the amount of gambling spent per capita—each Australian loses on average $1,300 a year, or $22 billion. The Australian Gaming Council is understandably optimistic, expecting a four-fold increase in TAB and on-course gambling.

It is not just the amount of gambling that we notice, but its increasing reach into daily life. Gambling odds are now seen as incisive augers of the fortunes of political parties leading up to an election—‘money doesn’t lie’. Gambling is presented as a way of supporting your favourite team. The website for the online betting business 888 Australia talks up gambling as a form of participation: ‘Instead of screaming from the MCG side lines, why not bet on the game… nothing says confidence and support like a placed bet.’ Gambling ‘products’ go beyond the final outcome to continuous odds and idiosyncrasies, such as the first goal. The ‘one day in the year’ when Australians used to ‘flutter’ has come become every second.

The current flood of gambling reflects a familiar metaphor for the Australian condition. The ‘lucky country’ has been able to ride out the GFC thanks to the good fortune of its mineral deposits. Thus an exhaustively planned policy to introduce a carbon tax is viewed as a toss of the coin.

Given this, one could be forgiven for seeing gambling as a source of grand evil in Australia. But is playing with luck always a lost cause? Why go a half measure in mandatory limits for poker machines? Why not ban gambling completely?

The prospect of a world where chance is over-regulated evokes the other blight on Australian society—managerialism. Those working in universities decry the way teaching and research is reduced to quantitative accounting, leading inevitably to the bottom line. What Frank Furedi in the Times Higher Education calls ‘the formalisation of university life’ entails the removal of context and judgement from academic practices. The aim of ranking schemes like ERA is to serve a dashboard hierarchy in which the complexity of research can be reduced to a series of dials sitting on the desks of managers.

Similarly, we decry how managerialism has infected politics. ALP ‘machine men’ put public polling before ideology. The expanding ad-scapes in public transport are evidence of the public-private partnerships that seek to capitalise on common needs.

Risk and its management seem to be our Scylla and Charybdis. On the one hand we have a blatant disregard for money in compulsive gambling, and on the other an over-valuing of it in managerialism. Are they symptoms of the same cause or potential antidotes of each other?

The spirit of risk has become industrialised in clubs like sweatshops milking the unmet human need for chance. Capitalism has become hyper-efficient in gathering huge fortunes, but unable to build anything enduring with it. With Crown Casino, the Packer empire has blossomed as both a player and consumer of the lucky dollar. The bulimic alliance of capital and its purging needs to be broken.

The key is in the lock, we just need to turn it. Gambling is a natural antidote to managerialism. In its traditional context, gambling can be effective in countering the sacred quality of money. The ‘lucky dollar’ is usually taken out of circulation and used as a charm. The ‘luck economy’ reveals the fetish element of commodification. In Singapore, shops selling charms quote prices with lucky associations, such as $388. Rather than the atomised scene of pokie venues, traditional gambling is intensely social. Balinese cock fights or two-up in Melbourne lanes were scenes of vibrant local culture.

The alternative currency of contemporary jewellery

Melbourne has recently been the site of radical jewellery practice that seeks to question conventions of value, particularly in monetary form. This group sits within the marginal but globally diverse realm of contemporary jewellery.

The ‘movement’ of contemporary jewellery began in post-war Europe as a critique of preciousness. The aim was to liberate ornament from a purely monetary value. Rather than use only diamonds and gold, artists celebrated the preciousness of alternative materials, such as aluminium and plastic. While this was initially a way of giving value to labour, particularly creative innovation, recent jewellers have been more radical in questioning the basis of monetary value itself.

This occurs today in various parts of the world. At the annual festival of ornament in Munich, Schmuck, the jeweller Stefan Heuser presented a work titled ‘The Difference Between Us’. It consisted of one hundred identical cast sterling rings. The only difference between them was price, which ranged from $1 to $100 in dollar increments. Monetary value was the only element separating the rings. While most rushed to buy the cheapest rings, a few chose prices for aesthetic reasons. Would you prefer a ring costing $49 or $88?

Ethical Metalsmiths from the USA promotes jewellery production that doesn’t involve environmentally damaging mining. In their Radical Jewelry Makeover events, participants bring their unloved jewellery to be recycled into new original pieces. They receive a credit for their contribution which goes toward purchasing a new piece. Money doesn’t have to change hands, just the bracelets.

Jewellery provides a way of deconstructing money as a material substance. In a recent survey of Latin American jewellery, Argentinean Elisa Gulminelli created a small sculpture that juxtaposed a mountain of pesos from the past with a tiny coin representing their current equivalent. What’s today’s currency is tomorrow’s trash.

In New Zealand, Matthew Wilson has applied his Maori heritage to the fine weaving of metal. Alongside this, he has developed a striking technique of extracting the motifs of coins from their background. Out of mass manufactured articles, he has created individual works of art. There is something magical in the way he has liberated coinage from its heavy duty of exchange. His work brings into stark relief the enduring national symbols.

In Melbourne, a particular school of urban jewellery has evolved that seeks to make value out of nothing. This can involve collecting aged plastic from gutters, as Roseanne Bartley does in her Seeding the Cloud project, where she her Coburg neighbourhood to create an elegant necklace out of what the streets provide. Bartley is a New Zealand ex-pat who was originally taught bone-carving by a Maori in Auckland. She has specialised in using leftover materials, such as her series Homage to Qwerty that made handsome jewels out of typewriter keys and strikers. She has been particularly interested in the sociology of jewellery as a way of connecting people together, even constructing human necklaces for a performance work. Seeding the Cloud employs the jeweller’s craft to create poetic expressions of place out of its detritus.

Her colleague Caz Guiney has evoked great controversy in questioning notions of preciousness. Her City Rings project in 2003 placed gold ornament in secret locations around Melbourne CBD, such as a gold brooch on a rubbish bin. This quickly became the topic of the day for talk radio, as government funding was seen to be thrown away on trash. In an almost atavistic ‘gold fever’, prospector scaling city buildings to find Guiney’s jewels. Guiney eventually had to call her project off to prevent law suits from those injured in the process. Since then, Guiney has continued in a more modest way to plant jewellery in public urban spaces, short-circuiting the relationship between preciousness and private property.

More recently, the collective Part B has sprung up to realise jewellery ‘flash mob’ style events in the city. Last year, their exhibition titled ‘Steal This’ invited the public to come and steal works on display in a Melbourne lane. Another collective, Public Assembly, is located in the Camberwell Market and produces jewellery from curious vintage objects that visitors find in the nearby stalls. The resulting pieces can then be paid for by donation. For these collective jewellers, the worth is not in the materials themselves but the stories that people bring with them.

Of particular note is the project by Vicki Mason, Broaching Change Project, which is designed to introduce the idea of an Australian Republic into everyday life by person to person contact. She has produced three beautifully made brooches based on the wattle, oregano and rose, as currencies of communal gardening. Despite their obvious value, she distributes these for free. The only proviso is that when someone notes how attractive these are, you are obliged to give them over, as long as they agree to do the same when it comes to them. Since the project started early 2010, various hosts of these brooches have been contributing their comments about a garden-led republicanism.

Such jewellery re-connects with the origins of ornament as a form of protection. By contrast with the pearls and diamonds that find a resting place on the bodies of the status-conscious wealthy—with little resale value—the power of amulets increases through circulation. We need to put Pandora back in the box and put on the heirloom charm bracelets.

Gambling can be a source of social connection by demystifying the power of money. But this has become industrialised in our time. Far from opening our lives to chance, it furthers our atomisation. Risk or management, which is it to be? Heads or tails?

A version of this article was published in Arena Magazine, #113, 2011. It was written as part of New Work grant supported by the Visual Arts Board of the Australia Council.

The politician and the speech writer, designer and maker

Australian politics is currently on a knife edge, as we are still yet to determine which of the two major parties will form government after a tie in the general election. The inability of the ALP to win its second term, after great success in dealing with the GFC, is partly due to the leadership change, when elected PM Kevin Rudd was replaced by current PM Julia Gillard. The ALP election campaign was dogged by questions about this, such as which of Rudd or Gillard had been responsible for unpopular decisions in the past. To an extent, the relationship between Rudd and Gillard is parallel to a previous partnership between Labor Prime Ministers Paul Keating and Bob Hawke – reformers versus the populists. There is still debate about which of Keating and Hawke was responsible for their major reform, the Accord, on which Australia’s prosperity was built in the 1980s.

Both Keating and Rudd took great pride in championing Indigenous issues. While Rudd’s greatest public moment was in issuing an apology to the Stolen Generation, for many Keating’s finest performance was in the speech delivered in the Sydney inner suburb Redfern, where he acknowledged the ills of colonisation.

Recently, Keating’s Redfern speech was selected for a special honour by the National Sound and Film Archive as a Sound of Australia. While delivered by Keating, the speech was written by Don Watson, who later reflected on it in his book Recollections of a Bleeding Heart. Recently, Keating accused Watson of breaking the speech writer’s code of ethics in claiming authorship of his speech. Keating argues that he had given Watson the core ‘sentiments’ of the speech. While acknowledging Watson’s talents as a writer, Keating concludes ‘the vector force of the power and what to do with it could only come from me.’

In response to this, rhetorician Denis Glover subjects the Redfern speech to analysis and conclude that it is in classic Cicero middle style, ‘a technical masterpiece’ reflecting Watson’s craft as a writer. Glover thinks Watson should share the credit with Keating. Fellow speech writer Joel Dean disagrees, arguing that ‘the words you write are not yours, they belong to the speechmaker.’

The issue reflects more broadly the tension in the partnership between creator and maker. Keating commissioned the speech and took responsibility for its outcome. Watson applied his unique skills in helping Keating his aim. In the same way, a designer might commission the making of a product from a skilled artisan. It’s the designer who usually takes the initiative and risk in this process, and in most cases the credit. But is there a place to acknowledge the contribution of the maker as an enabling force, particularly where a rare skill is involved? We would certainly consider this with a successful film, giving credit to actors as well as the director. So why not speechwriters, engineers, printers, weavers and pattern makers?

True to self or play the market? – the South African challenge



Erica Elk

In response to the recent South African election, the director of Cape Craft & Design, Erica Elk, penned these thoughts as part of their newsletter’s editorial. While focused on the South African situation, they could apply more broadly to all ventures that attempt to bring the market to play in assisting cultural development.

She reflects on the speech that opened the recent DAC Craft Awards:

Minister of Arts & Culture, Pallo Jordan, gave an interesting and thought provoking speech. The comment that stuck in my mind, which I paraphrase, was that we must be careful not to bend too easily to the dictates of product developers and trend forecasters who tell us how to adjust our products so they are more ‘palatable’ to international markets.  The danger is that one day we may land up having sold our cultural heritage down the river, producing homogenised products that look like everything else in the world – which is basically what’s happened in the high streets of all the major cities around the globe.

Right now, one of the reasons why our products are so popular is because they are so different and innovative and creative and clever and capture the spirit of the people of South Africa. And we mustn’t lose this.  The Minister has a very good point. We should guard our heritage and indigenous knowledge. But that doesn’t mean we should not be sharp enough to play the market at its own game – or get trapped into thinking that culture and knowledge is static. Because both those approaches could be dead-end roads. So how do we manage this contradiction between staying true to self and playing to market forces? I think part of the solution is the critical interface between education, culture and trade and the respective roles played by the departments of economic development, trade & industry, arts & culture, recreation, and education at all tiers of government.

They need to work together – which doesn’t mean doing the same thing.  It should mean doing different things together – in synergy – towards a common goal. Arts & Culture programmes need to nurture creativity, heritage, language and identity.  They should promote, preserve and protect to create the foundation for challenge, growth, innovation, experimentation, exploration and play.  They must help us explore who we are, where we’ve come from, and where we are going to – individually and collectively. They must set standards of excellence and not settle for mediocrity.  And they must do so without being prescribed to by the markets.

Economic and trade programmes need to engage with supply and demand issues – the provision and purchasing of products and services.  They need to nurture entrepreneurs, create an enabling environment, deal with infrastructure and logistical blockages, they must also market and promote and create opportunities and make connections. And simultaneously our education system needs to work to develop the skills, knowledge and confidence of the youth – so that they can express their real selves and not an imposed idea of self.

Without all of the above our products will become homogenised, as our minds and aesthetic judgment are ‘colonised’ by the barrage of images and products from the rest of the world. We’ve lived for so long in a country where things have literally been reduced to black or white – good or bad – that we lose sight of the nuances and complexities of our various realities and experiences.

Instead of it having to be a question of EITHER/OR … what about if it could be BOTH/AND…? While sometimes we do have to make choices – thankfully only every five years and this one’s over! – for the remaining 365×5 days we need to live with opposites and contradictions and different ideas and opposing opinions and views. How we manage to live and thrive in this space will ultimately impact on our success. Right now, I’m really hoping that our newly elected government gets this message.

Reproduced with permission. Innovative South African craft will be represented in the upcoming World of Small Things exhibition with new work by Hlengiwe Dube.