Indifference in difference


Just as there had been a flourishing of flowers that brought colour and shape of all manner throughout the forests of planet Earth, so too was there a burst of humans reflecting the diverse landscapes and climates across the great continents, grand brush strokes of language, song and dance, creed and shade, all speaking to their lands and their lands through them. No much more so than in India where diversity is of a scale only comparable to the densest of rain forests where we still remain uncertain of the depth of species, flora and fauna, that we have yet to know and learn from.

Between Alwar and Baran (Rajasthan, India) we passed a forest from which trees emerged, penetrating the early morning mist as broken arms clutching at the air, a landscape rent and torn by illegal sand-mining. Three camel drawn carts were loaded up with sand quarried by hand. We stopped to shoot this enterprise and in doing so sought permission from the villagers there. They agreed, for a small fee and we obliged.

When the villagers were done we moved deeper into the forest to capture material for my serene, reflective cutaways. Each of us found a zone of our own, documenting what we saw there either on camera or through personal reflection. I sought to walk and look deep into the mist. It was at such a moment that a shepherd emerged. His crook as tall as a small tree. We spoke through hand signs and gestures.

We were both curious about each other. Clearly I wasn’t someone he would regularly meet there, an alien on his home lands, and I certainly wasn’t expecting to chat quietly with a shepherd. We communicated without any sense of indifference.

As we spoke a member of my local crew walked towards us with an urgent stride, whipped out his smart phone, remarked on the length of the shepherd’s crook and prepared to take photos. I asked would he mind requesting permission first, to which he replied, “Here we don’t ask.” “With all due respect,” I responded,  “on my shoot we ask.” To which my request was ignored and photos merrily taken.

Communication that had been found in silence and respect, in mere moments, was extinguished.

Indifference and disregard were themes that I would find a constant challenge throughout the shoot, described to me as commonplace attitudes found throughout the country. What is commonplace is that there is nothing common between regions, states, tribes, the minutiae of lives in buried in slums and the makeshift dwellings nomads and the homeless construct on the open road, in fields, beneath freeways. If there was ever a place more deserving of suspended assumption, it is India.

It’s not so much that people are indifferent to each other, there is a learned system of responses hewn from a culture of many cultures. There is no one India. It can not be personified in any single artifact nor language. It can’t be drawn, exposed nor compared to anything. There are simply too many variances, too many nuances, too many histories and layered differences.

Indifference is a strategy. I try to be open to everyone, to all experiences, but there is a kind of madness that comes with that. Because one can not know the layers, one can not know why people say one thing to someone else and another to you, both statements contradicting each other, but to someone who does know it makes sense – it makes sense that it makes no sense! Try experiencing this a dozen or more times each day for a month.

I say to myself more than anyone else, best see India as a complex country of countless differences where every shadow cast is contoured by the dust of a millennia lives decomposed and transformed into nutrients absorbed into every single tree left standing.

Photo by: Cathy Chen (taken from a respectful and non-intrusive distance.


Skylines, gardens and memorable floor tiles


Slice of JK skyline.

Jakarta is getting richer and the divide between the rich and poor is said to be decreasing, but ever so slowly. There’s so much money and and plastic here. Cleaning products are stacked in supermarkets from floor to ceiling and all of it terribly toxic and no doubt ending up in rivers and oceans!

I’m fortunate to be living for the moment in a kind of roomy, urban villa, which gives one the impression of being far from the sprawling, congested malaise that is Jakarta.

I spend most days working from a pristine courtyard that bridges the house to the kitchen at the rear of the property. Lush gardens on either side of me and a pool next to the kitchen make for a pleasantly cool setting from which to forage my working day though. Yet one is never too far from the scavengers, the poorest people in Jakarta, who make what could hardly be called a living from everyone else’s waste. Hauling large carts they appear late afternoons at the front of the house, ensuring nothing of value is left to idle in our rubbish, which is accessible to them by means of a hatch fashioned into the sturdy fence.

Of the 140 cities on planet Earth, Jakarta is rated the 123rd most liveable, or 54th in Asia. The top five Asian cities are Osaka, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Singapore. I’d go do Tokyo at a drop… Japan… Osaka… languid evenings on push-bikes along delicately lit river-banks flanked by bars and restaurants, the rare squadron of firefly’s, escapees from the farm they are bred in near Takadanobaba where I lived a few weeks… Let me digress a moment and reflect on a most magnificent month I’d spent in Japan, pretty much two years ago to the month.

A thought on Tokyo

Despite what many say, I found Tokyo affordable. If you sub-let via craigslist, ride a bicycle, shop and eat with the locals in the back-streets and outer suburbs Tokyo life can be cosy, healthy and entertaining.

Clothes are cheap too. Unlike Jakarta, one can find men’s sizes to suit slightly wider and taller blokes like me. Shopping for men’s clothes in Jakarta is like shopping for children. Shorts and shirts are cut tight and tiny! In almost all stores I’ve poked around in, an XL sized shirt in Indonesia is no larger than an M.

2nd last weekend in Jakarta

It’s 27 degrees and thunderstorms are expected. Yesterday an earthquake monitoring organisation released data recommending the kind of weights required to be engineered into new buildings throughout the archipelago given the sharp increase in tremors and quakes. Jakarta is sinking at a centimetre a year and still the skies are cluttered with cranes, new office blocks and malls. They may sink, but they may not fall should the perilous “ring of fire” burp.

It’s humid and as much as I tend to work well in such environments, for some reason the atmospheric mix has stimulated a fungus that continues to eat at my feet and hands… is if it were dining on me alive! A lizard creature just ran down the wall from behind a large painting hung above my desk, startling me for a moment. As much as I’m gradually warming to Indonesia, in spite of the lack of summer clothes and the state of my skin in parts, I look forward to the winter, rain water showers and clear skies.

Did I say how fortunate I am to be staying in Menteng? This house was built by the Dutch in a rather unassuming palatial style with art deco resonances that, in 2010, one could describe as bohemian earthiness at it’s nooks and far reaching crannies. This is further amplified by Heidi’s substantial art collection, some of which we hung throughout the house just as I returned from Bali.

Detail - floor tiles, Menteng villa.

The tiles on the floor of my room, for instance, could have been lifted from any Turkish bathhouse, or perhaps inspired by traditional Javanese batik. Kind of crazy to look at, but strangely appealing!

The gardens are lush and ample, a veritable jungle for the two cats that have kept me company on my late evening writing sessions and the few occasions I’ve had the entire premises to my self. The house is so comforting and cheerful, with its courtyards and open lounge and dining areas that I find it entirely unnecessary to step out. I can sit at the rear of the premises by the side of the pool, as I am now, and practise my guitar, read or write… or head back to my room if I need a does of air-con, which is rare given the cool calm and serenity of this tiny slice of Menteng.

Getting to the weekend was a worthy pursuit as was the week prior to it. Friday polished off a week of preparation for a day with peers and partners of EngageMedia, leading community and activist media makers from mostly Jakarta based organisations. Much of the day focused on discussion around the future of video as a social justice tool here and Asia-Pacific, the results of which I’m writing up over the coming week.

Workspace, Menteng, JK, Jul 2010.

Weekend highlights include starting out on my first novel by South Africa’s, J.M. Coetzee; hanging out with Sydney – Indonesian based sound artist and all round open source minded technology dude, Dan Mackinlay; and completing preliminary ideas for a track on South African producer, At Nel’s next album.

AKA Somerfaan, At was co-founder of the infamous industrial outfit, Battery 9. I’d first heard of Battery 9 via Benguala’s Alex Bozas who,  in his opinion, had produced “the best” remix on Benguela’s, Chop Sui, also featuring a remix by Burnt Friedman. Looking over the album I’m not sure which artist can be attributed to Battery 9. Electronic musicians have a tendency to release an assortment of works under a variety of different names. In any case, Chop Sui is worth a listen, as would Bengeula’s latest offering, Black Southeaster, was coincidently launched last night to be launched next weekend in Cape Town.

A weekend for music in the hemispheres… Some how, South Africa never quite leaves me.

I ain’t done with living yet…

Waiting to board a dhow

Waiting to board a dhow, Inhaca Island

Who would have guessed that nearly two months since I’d left Inhaca Island, straddling a dhow to Maputo (capital of Mozambique), I’d be taking my morning coffee in the garden of a fine house around the corner from the home of the vice-President of Indonesia in Menteng, Jakarta?

In the past five or so weeks since I’ve been in Indonesia, the EngageMedia team here launched the Time for Reel Action DVD I’d produced. Soon after I was to slump to my bed with dengue fever that saw me spend two nights in hospital as my white blood count dropped to 10 platelets short of a transfusion. Two weeks ago I’d dropped into a hole on a warm night in Bali, mangling my left foot, my right dangling in sewage and all manner of ugliness below street level.

My daughter cared for me in her cool pad in Seminyak whilst I returned daily to a clinic to have my wounds cleaned and dressings changed. The day after I’d fallen, someone I’d been quite fond of wrote that she’d lost interest in me due to my alleged “self-obsession” with these “dramas”. Oh well…

I reflected on her words that evening as I thrust the sash of my bag between my teeth, gripped the edge of the bed and called out, “Ok sister, go for it…” My wounds were found to have not been cleaned properly so I had to endure an hour of wiping and brushing without anaesthetics! It was perhaps the most gruelling experience I’ve had yet to face. I’d thought the crushing pain brought on by dengue was bad enough, but this was something else.

Dramatic? Well, it was… Self-obsessed? I do spend a lot of time thinking about my work and playing guitar, but I can well do with out the dramas.

Back in Jakarta and a guest of Heidi and Andrew’s (both of whom nursed me through dengue), I’m finding both time to repair my feet and catch up with the work I’d not been able to muster during those odd periods of sorry health. I don’t get sick that often and apart from the occasional whack to my shins and an over-sat, some what achy back, I’m not prone to many physical ailments. All this changed in November of 2009.

Late last year problems I’d had with my back finally caught up with me. I was only a day or so away from heading to Malaysia to run a workshop. A team of print journalists were eager to improve their video production skills. But it was not to happen. I’d not been able to get out of bed. What followed was months of exercise and careful planning around my work practises. Eventually I got careful, stronger and better.

Then, two weeks before I was to leave for South Africa in May, I’d some how managed to acquire a viral infection in my right lung that left me bed ridden at best, sleepless and gasping for breath at worst. Thankfully, with the help of two powerful antibiotics, I got to Johannesburg and Quiet Mountain where I’d spent a week at one of the rare face-to-face APC board meetings . It was to be a month before the next ailment, but those four weeks prior were nothing short of inspired.

What transpired is best encapsulated in an improvisation Roy MacGregor and I  cooked up one warm afternoon after a day of libations and casual chatter. We played a lot of guitar together spending ten days roaming Kruger National Park, Mozambique and Nelspruit. Although many more musical revelations were to follow, this was one of the few captured on video.

Take a moment to listen and reflect on Pecan, performed at the foot of Sudwala Caves. For me, it’s a very special piece that some how captures the warmth and breadth of our friendship.

Roy taught me many things – ‘how one lives well with little’ is perhaps the most important lesson I’d left South Africa with.

Oh Lordy, I ain’t done with living yet…

Planet earth is blue


Redrafted from an email sent to friends and family, written from a plane in the air and a bungalow in Johannesburg.

I’m around 11,800 feet in the air on a flight from Buenos Aires to Johannesburg. It’s Thursday, 2nd of July and it’s a beautiful morning up here above cloud cover. It’s pink and a kind of soft, golden orange in places – like fairy floss (I’m sure that’s been said a good many times before) and I regret not having a window seat.

By the time I get to Anriette’s house I will have slept on no less than 75 surfaces in two years. That includes couches, floors, tatami mats, bare ground and many, many beds. I don’t count planes as I rarely sleep on them.

Anriette is Executive Director of the Association for Progressive Communications (APC). We’ve just had an APC Board meeting in Argentina where I’d spent two weeks. We’d accomplished a great deal at this, our first face to face meeting in well over a year.

Over the next few days I’ll work with Anriette to finalise post-meeting matters. This is my second term on APC’s Board and the first as its Secretary. I’m enjoying the challenge, putting systems into place ensuring the next to take up this position eases into their responsibilities with a suite of templates and accessible procedures at the ready.

Don’t think we’re so well cashed up that APC can fly its Secretary around the world just to finish up minutes of our meetings. I’m taking the opportunity with my return ticket to stop over in Johannesburg to not only attend to my Board responsibilities, it affords me the opportunity to spend more time with friends and the chance, finally, to take one of the great train journeys – the Premier Classe, Johannesburg to Cape Town.

I wasn’t able to make this journey last year. So, as each trip I now take feels like the last, I make the effort to stretch my budget and time to immerse further, deeper into the opera of life, from the comic to the tragic, the latter of which is staggeringly relentless…

Day after day, year after year, and there seems no end to it, humans continue to terrorise each other and blue planet Earth with increasing voracity and disregard.

Seed for optimism or alarm?

Thankfully there are seeds for optimism, but frankly, I doubt there are enough at this time to address the most urgent of concerns.

There are many and they are inter-twined, so much so that I cannot see climate change being addressed without the fundamental protections and rights issues of our time dealt with in a just and equitable manner. These include access to land, freedom of expression and association, sustained culture and biodiversity.

And yet with more information at our disposal, more wealth and opportunity than at any time in human history, knowledge and wisdom is surely counted on the low end of the scale.

We are becoming the product of our own cleverness and avarice – something new, defined by the coercions of the Market and the worrying lust for instant gratification.

I got to tell you, pretty soon I’ll need to spend some time around tangible, wholesome down on the ground stuff of encouraging change – real change!

Please, someone take me to a working Transition Towns program, a successful permaculture community, any where where forest people live on fully protected custom native title land, or to an ample supply of GM-free farms and farmers markets… even a few episodes of Australia’s Landline, perhaps one of the most compelling programs on TV, will do.

I’m telling you how it is through my eyes. You may see a different world. But I can assure you, I don’t seek these hazards out. They’re real. And they’re bad!

If you saw the amount of wastage, unfettered consumption of diminishing resources, the war on indigenous cultures and the forests they live in and do protect, largely unknowingly, for all of us, you’d think we were still in the dark ages.

The enlightenment never happened.

It’s well overdue!

We’ve all heard of the islands of plastic and debris floating in the oceans, countless reports and statistics on diminishing fish stocks and the melting of the Andean water reservoirs.

People – there is cause for alarm!

Anyone looking at what we’re doing from the outside would think we’re insane, hell bent on suicide, taking all life down with us as blue planet Earth goes about its extraterrestrial business regardless.

It’s this thought and the deeply profound experiences I’ve had of late that keep me going, that motivate me to write, film and walk this planet. But sometimes, honestly folks, I’m so overwhelmed by the extent of the damage I don’t know what to do…

Reflections on the road

By Monday afternoon I’ll be back in Kalk Bay, Cape Town, for a once in a life-time opportunity to perform with South Africa’s free improvisation trio, Benguela. Early August I’ll head back to Malaysia where I’d spent a month in Sarawak working on a micro-documentary series prior to my brief stay in Buenos Aires.

September will see me back in Australia. It’s Ma’s 80th and I’m so looking forward to seeing my family and friends again. I have an increasing urge to go home, but I’ve no idea where that is! Some where warmer, closer to family, some where leafy with panoramic skies would do nicely. Idealistic? Why not?


At Buenos Aires international airport I wondered how much longer it would be before there’s a perceived difference between those that do and those that don’t wear face-masks. Are those that do protecting me from them, or do they believe they’re being protected from me?

The flight stopped at Cape Town and picked up many more passengers. Most of them school boys all jammed around me sneezing, sniffling and coughing. I’m immunised to the max for just about everything, I just hope I get through this flight without picking up anything I can’t shake off. Since I’d left Melbourne, prior to it’s swine flu invasion, I’ve been so very fortunate to remain free of ailments. At times it does feel as if this H1N1 virus is chasing me.

On writing

I’d not seen as much of Buenos Aires as I’d wanted. In fact, I was so tired from the Board meeting and with my companion, insomnia, so very demanding, I filled in the spaces with walking, a variety of different cafes and writing. I’m making a point to write as much as I can from those places I draw profound influence from as soon as I can. Much has been lost over the years.

For example, the very few days I spent in Barcelona three years ago were so intense I had expected to write for days having planned out the exercise with street names, photographs, cafes of import and sites tremulous with wonder, art works, stone works and markers for further reading. It remains to this day an unfinished work, much of it contained in copious notes in my journal.

On a positive note, in Sarawak I purchased an Acer Aspire One D250 netbook. With nearly 6hrs of battery life, the size of my journals and packed with open source apps, my writing has increased significantly. Transcribing notes from my journals has become easier… mostly due to being able to do so from any where!


And so it was that my week in the Ulu Baram would see lucidity empty me of the banal and ready me for that which I have yet to find words for… the forest! Uncut, virgin forest deep in Sarawak, vulnrable to the unshakable appetite for timber, home to the Penan who have struggled for near on 30 years to protect their lands and livelihood. The forest, it speaks… and it moved me.

From Kuching to Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires

Stencil, Buenos Aires

I arrived in Buenos Aires just over a week ago to the 75th bed I’ve slept in in two years. I’d been in Kuching working on the next instalment of my video installation piece, NOTHINGKNOWN, and the micro-docs series, Sarawak Gone. More on the latter in the coming months.

It was the first face to face APC Board meeting since January 2008’s gathering in Ithala, South Africa, which brought me here. We’d accomplished a great deal in four days – approving the APC Governance Manual, the APC Strategic Plan for 2008 – 2012, audited financial statements,  two internal reviews, management and program staff reports and presentations… Always intense, necessarily detailed, never dull!

With every passing day I am enjoying more and more the bristling vastness of Buenos Aires, a place one can find much frustration with, but heavily counter-balanced by the fusion of cultural energy here. I was delighted and inspired to see a tango orchestra – a free concert and the theatre was full. Fascinating line up. Two double bass, acoustic bass, three violas, three bandoneón, flute, electric guitar, desks of first and second violins, piano. It was beautiful. So very very beautiful and sexy. When ever the solo violin appeared it felt as if the orchestra were chasing it, always a mere syncopated beat ahead, sometimes just behind, always racing towards highly pitched resolve, that never really quite ended, burying its intensity into the heart and head simultaneously.

One evening some of us went to a real, hard core tango night in an old part of the city, but the star attraction was ill, so not a great deal was happening. The venue was HUGE… like a warehouse, full of weird and funky art, a ceiling that went up to forever. I was happy being there… reminded me of the Shepparton Newman Warehouse and spaces like Alpha House in Sydney I’d either lived or spent time in.

There were beautifully lit spaces such as the never ending pool hall, the exterior of the old tango bar with its fluid graffiti under yellowed street lamps… Regrettably, to my horror the next morning, I would discover that I’d left my camera, a Canon Powershot SX1 IS, in a taxi.

I still can’t believe it’s out of sight. Keep thinking it’ll turn up in my hotel room, that I’d wedged it between something, but alas not. It’s gone. Lost in Buenos Aires forever. Unfortunately it’s not insured for forgetfulness.

Feels like I’ve lost a travel companion, but in a strange way, I find I’m more disappointed  at losing all those photos I’d taken that evening… But it does point to the fact that I’m not cashed up to replace such integral items to my work. I’m travelling on a bare bones budget, picking up gigs here and there, selling a CD here and there, but not enough to replace a camera let alone purchase an Argentinean made guitar, of which I am surrounded!

A hard lesson learnt – don’t go out at midnight after a feast of wine and meat with an early morning start scheduled in the midst of a Board meeting. But in Argentina, this kind of pumped living is normal… people take dinner at 11pm then go out. Given I rarely get a decent nights sleep and that I’m often awake till 4am, I took my chances.

I’d lso lost 2G and 32MB SD cards, full set of rechargable batteries, lens cleaning kit and an ergonomic mouse stashed at the bottom of the camera bag along with a small note pad! Not happy, but surprisingly calm.

Christmas in stone


It gets dark here around 4pm so by 5 one can be easily confused if you’ve been in doors too long. It could be 10 and as cold as any night can be in central Europe.

The city is lit up for Christmas and I love it… It is cheerful, inviting and the commerce is no where near as crass as it could be.

Tourists, mostly Italians and Russians, flock to the city centre this time of year to sample the hot gluwhine and folk-art stalls that are in abundance. during the day light hours Russians buy up clothes, often Chinese made labels, which tend to be a kind of Ikea for fashion.

I watched the reflections of Christmas street lighting in shop windows and the against architraves of churches. decorative projections added a wash of colour to buildings otherwise sombre in their evening stone Gothic. trams drew all ends of the city together, from across the Mur to where I stood, listening to church bells sound on the hour.

And it was at some such a quadrant, amidst old stone, the sound of an accordion nearby, that I was reminded of Prague, May 1994, and the urgency of those times when I wrote God’s Tear’s Europa and Gone to Stone.

Here’s a performance of God’s Tear’s Europa from my first of the several Fierce Throat choirs I would put together in the years since Trance Plant… The Brisbane Power House never looked so good.
God’s Tears Europa from andrew garton on Vimeo.

On Graz

Riverside apartments

Riverside apartments

I have been in Graz, Austria, since the end of September and will remain here for at least another two to three months. For such a relatively quiet city, it has much to offer those of us who tinker at our words, sounds and ideas from dusk to dawn, from dawn to dusk.

Graz has been described as boring, inspiring, conservative, liberal and in parts, unpredictable and dangerous. The people are said to be supportive, encouraging and in general, helpful and curious. It is known as the retirement village for the post-war generation and the first school of jazz in Europe was founded here.

There are its many festivals, jazz venues, electronic music events and a community radio station. The University for Music and Performing Arts, the Institute for Electronic Music and Acoustics and University for Applied Sciences are just three of the important learning centres that draw musicians and composers the world over to this city.

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