Media Life

Media are places where connections are made, relationships developed, and where emotions are felt and lived out. Cities have traditionally been the media where contact is made with strangers and with strangeness, where competing visions of the world enter into productive conflict; but cities are folding into digital networks, redefining how we understand and experience private and public spaces, and what it means to be together, and alone.

Our public conversation is changing, not necessarily for better or worse, but changing radically, and quickly! This essay explores our relationships to each other in urban spaces – the paradox of ‘aloneness’ in crowded places.

An important creative restriction I placed on this work is therefore to avoid any focus on individual faces. My interest is not ‘the lonely person’ but, rather, the habitual comfort of our parallel solitudes. This essay has also generated a radio documentary for ABC Radio National, exploring these same ideas, which I am currently producing for 360 Documentaries. The images are a mix of high-res jpegs (Canon 5D + 35mm f1.4) and panoramic b+w film (Hasselblad xPan + 45mm).

 

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matt nicole

 

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Haste

Waiting for a train for Sydney’s South Coast line, I watch peak-hour commuters scamper uncomfortably for a train on the adjacent platform. Bags swing, heels scrape and business suits constrict the fever of furious motion. I look at the announcement board to see that an identical train arrives in four minutes, and another five minutes after that. And I ask: What critical degree of haste have we reached when four minutes is too much to spare?

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Daybreak

Paul wakes daily in the brief period when stubborn stars cohabit the sky with the first colours of dawn. Before breakfasting and showering he walks his dog through a park near the ocean. Paul says Good Morning to others who share the streets and parks at that hour, and they return his greeting.

Later, after his morning routine of toast, coffee, juice and newspaper, Paul makes his way to work. He no longer greets the people he meets, and he arrives at work without receiving a greeting. The city has already awoken from its slumber, and the community of early-risers has long since dissipated with the rising urban tide.

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Liber

Liber’s name is a contraction of the Spanish word for freedom, libertad. He arrived in Sydney one year ago and since then has busked regularly, playing his accordion in the pedestrian tunnel that runs beneath Sydney’s central railway station, the same place I met Alexander.
In Chile Liber was also a street musician, but there he performed on the guzzling yellow buses that traversed Santiago’s sprawling suburbs, singing to and for a captive audience who was also the subject of his songs, in the tradition of la canción social.
In Sydney the dynamic is different. People walk past his music, and few can understand his lyrics. Yet busking is how Liber has found a place in Sydney that feels useful, for nourishing his hunger for social interaction. The expression, ‘to busk’ comes from the Spanish buscar, meaning ‘to look for’, and in Sydney Liber is seeking a way out of isolation, for himself, and the rest of us. His music is a tool of interruption, the opposite of what I sought with my classical guitar ten years ago when I practised on a Chilean park bench. Our meeting feels like the closing of a loosely drawn circle.
We talk about life in Sydney and Santiago and attempt to make sense of the way societies construct meaning through communication, including the communication of shared, consensual silence. When Marshall McLuhan said ‘the medium is the message’, he wasn’t just talking about television, newspapers and radio, but about all things capable of carrying meaning. Songs performed on a bus are not heard the same way as songs in a tunnel, and not just in relation to acoustics, but also in terms of concentration, movement and attentiveness. Beyond the bus and the tunnel are vast urban spaces that shape and mediate our perceptions, conversations, expectations and desires.
Liber says that even friendship feels different in Sydney. “People here get together once every couple of months, and they’re friends,” he says. “They communicate via Facebook, or on the phone. It’s more distant. And it’s also because the houses here are bigger. In Chile I spent half my childhood on the streets because there was no room in my home to play, or in my friends homes. If we wanted to play, it had to be on the street.”
Economics, architecture and climate all mediate the way we live together in cities. Modern motorways can be read as metaphors for a society more focused on destinations than journeys, and cars, our dominant medium of transport, as metaphors for privacy, freedom and short-term efficiency. Cities speak in a cacophony of voices, but messages emerge.
Recently I was walking with my wife through a densely populated urban quarter when storm clouds broke and rain began to pour. We took partial refuge under a large tree, until a stranger opened the door of his home, offered us each a towel, and invited us inside for coffee and biscuits.
Had we have been in Sydney, and not Medellín, I would have been surprised. But, despite its ongoing history of violence, Colombia’s ‘second city’ lends itself to a climate of hospitality. People have time for each other. We are strangers, but we are welcome strangers. Before the tropical rain began falling we had strolled past innumerable house-front shops selling washing detergent by the cup, cigarettes and eggs individually, and cooking oil by the size of the flask that one arrives with. Such shopping reflects the precariousness of local household economies, but also a spirit of cooperation and intimacy that exists parallel to, and arguably outside of the logic of industrial growth.
Like Liber, I find it hard not to compare Latin American cities with Sydney, to compare poverty with wealth, mountains with beaches, uncertainty with triviality, and a culture of ‘come in and have some coffee’ with one of isolating efficiency. Liber grew up in a Santiago barrio, a word that translates to ‘suburb’, or ‘neighbourhood’. The difference in meaning is subtle, but important. Liber’s barrio was a neighbourhood.

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journalism’s other crisis – time

Against all advice I have just written a post on this blog that exceeds 1000 words. How many characters does it have…?… Does it matter?

Maybe.

The dominant paradigm for online journalism is that short is good. Words on a screen are less comfortable for the eye than words that are printed on a page, attention spans are diminishing in inverse proportion to the number of tabs we have open on our Internet browsers, and we are more exposed to information than ever before.

Short therefore makes sense, but not for all stories, and especially not for the types of journalism that are inherently complex, nuanced and colourful. A 6000-word investigative story that is truncated to 1500-words for publication purposes invariably loses complexity, the colour of its characters and the nuance of their ideas.

The false binaries that the media produces are a product of this process. Is the movement against genetically modified crops really ‘anti-science,’ for example?

Some types of journalism are fast. Others aren’t. Empathy and imagination can’t be rushed. Journalists therefore need to find ways of producing long-form journalism in ways that are engaging for an online audience. The alternatives are socially unacceptable.

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On Community

Growing up, my mates and I made our pocket money at the local Coles and Kmart. Stocking shelves, swiping barcodes, searching through morning mist for abandoned trolleys up and down Katoomba Street. That’s how I met Ahmed, ten years later.

“I used to collect trolleys,” I say, battling to make myself heard over traffic and the catastrophic clang of my trolley linking up with thirteen others.

“You? Really?” Ahmed replies. His eyes search for the right words, but a broad smile shows he understands. In hesitant English, Ahmed says he’s from Egypt. He is 24, and came to Sydney two years ago to study business. Since finishing the diploma he has worked collecting trolleys at Northbridge Woolworths seven days a week, travelling 90 minutes to work from his Punchbowl home in Sydney’s southwest.

Ahmed says Sydney and Cairo are not that different. “They are both big cities,” he says. I ask if Punchbowl is very different to Northbridge?

“Yes,” he says. “Punchbowl is a village, Northbridge is a city.”

I look around. Northbridge, in Sydney’s lower north shore, is one of the city’s oldest and wealthiest suburbs. Even from the carpark I count more trees than vehicles. At home in neighbouring Castlecrag a kookaburra named Frank visits me most mornings. He sits on the peak of the Hill’s hoist looking on suggestively while I eat breakfast.

“A city?” I ask. “What do you mean?”

“Kids don’t laugh and play here. People don’t talk,” he says. “Not so much community.”

Ahmed’s workmate, Zach, approaches driving a blue trolley tractor. He is 54, from southern Iraq, and also lives in Punchbowl. Ahmed says something funny in Arabic, and Zach laughs. Their days begin and end in Arabic; they buy groceries, newspapers and Halal meat in Arabic; work, pray, think and love in Arabic. Like Ahmed says, they live in an Arab village.

Inside the supermarket, Sweata, Shabnam, Abdul and 12 other Bangladeshi checkout chicks pack food for locals. But at day’s end most of them buy their own food elsewhere. They live a long way away.

Northbridge Woolworths is staffed by people who don’t live in Northbridge. The same applies to other supermarkets and nursing homes throughout Sydney’s lower north shore, and other community services such as garbage collection, council work and home maintenance.

Villagers have travelled to cities to sell their produce and labour for as long as cities have existed. In Sydney, today, people travel to offer low-skilled labour in exclusive suburbs where the local community would come to a standstill without them.

“It would be impossible to fill the supermarket with local workers,” says Lyn Wilcox, services manager at Northbridge Woolworths. I ask Arlie Ambas-Scott if many locals work at the nursing home she manages in Roseville. “No, none,” she says laughing. “People travel from as far away as Newcastle and Cronulla, five days a week.”

But what strikes me most about Ahmed’s statement is not that he and many others live in ‘villages’, but the idea that I live in a ‘city’.

People are the defining element of so many parts of Sydney with a distinctive, binding flavour. Chinese, Indians, Italians, Vietnamese, Greeks, Persians, Latinos and Arabs all have their suburbs, or ‘villages’. But it strikes me that perhaps it is trees, birds and shiny sports coupes that define the north shore, not people.

If local workers do not create a community in the north shore – because their communities are elsewhere – what, or who, does? I’ve only lived in the area for a few years, but looking up and down my street, I realise I know more about what my neighbours own than who they are.

I think about something that social commentator Clive Hamilton once wrote: “It is necessary to judge someone by the type of car in their driveway only if you have never actually met them,” and with this in mind I walk next door, up the driveway past the familiar grey Mazda van with a child’s seat in the back, and knock on my neighbours’ heavy wooden door for the first time. It’s 6pm. “G’day,” says Diana, in a broad Kiwi accent. She invites me in. They’ve just had dinner and her two superheroes, four and six years old, fly up and over high-rise furniture in the living room.

I mention Ahmed’s comments, but Diana doesn’t feel alienated as a city-dweller. “I think there’s a strong little community here,” she says. “We’ve got the kids, so we know other parents in the area, and there’s a community newsletter that comes out monthly. I really like that.”

Dianna’s husband, Greg, is an online services manager at a major bank. “He won’t be home until after eight,” she says. “I know he doesn’t feel as much a part of the community as I do. He doesn’t have time.”

A lump of plasticine kryptonite lands on the table. Fearing for my life, I say goodbye.

I look over the fence to where my other neighbours live, but the latest model red sedan isn’t in the carport yet, so I wait. At half past eight I ring the doorbell. Judy, 32, opens the door. We look at each other as complete strangers. She stands with hands akimbo. I stand uncomfortably on the ‘welcome’ doormat.

Judy is wary, understandably, but I explain my mission and she warms to the topic. “Brendan [her husband] and I both work over 50 hours a week to pay our mortgage,” she says. “When we get home we just want to rest, and on weekends we see friends from work, or we work in the garden and clean up the house. We’re both professionals, so I guess our community is based more around work than home. We come home to escape,” she says.

Many local residents are old-timers who are firmly planted in the community garden, having lived in the area most of their life. “I could tell you the history of this block for the last 40-odd years,” says Christine Cooper, 80. Her mum bought the house she lives in, and she feels a strong sense of community. “Of course there’s community,” she says.

But houses in ‘The Crag’ are not easy to buy. No prices are shown in the window of Castlecrag real estate, but a cream skivvy displayed in the window of a neighbouring boutique costs $770, and I suspect the sales lady doesn’t describe it as a cream skivvy. Rents, I’m told, don’t fall below $1000 a week.

About one third of Australian adults now work 50 hours a week or more. Like Judy, Brendan and Greg, few of these workers find time for community activities, and fewer again find time for community work. I look in the North Shore Times for Castlecrag sports teams or competitions, book clubs, dance classes; anything that would put me in touch with the community. Although I later discover that Castlecrag has an active ‘progress association’ that publishes the aforementioned newsletter, I don’t find anything in the paper. I do see, however, that four Castlecrag families are looking for nannies.

Cycling to uni the next day I pass a contract worker having morning tea beside a stretch of road being repaired. “Could you tell me the way to Artarmon station, mate?” I ask. “Nah mate, sorry, I’m not from around here.”

I continue pedalling and think how often I hear people say the world is shrinking. ‘The world’s a small place,’ we say. But Sydney is huge. It’s a labyrinthine conglomeration of villages, and, despite its cosmopolitan, multicultural fame, most of Sydney’s population lives in safe, gated little pockets, many of which are internally homogenous.

“Do you know where Dharruk is?” I ask a random shopper outside Northbridge Woolworths.

“I have no idea, why?” she responds with a puzzled frown.

“It’s where Michael lives, the tall Sudanese man who collects trolleys here. It’s just west of Blacktown.”

“Goodness. That’s a long way away,” she says.

It is. And when I go there, it seems as much a city as Punchbowl, Parramatta, Castlecrag or Northbridge. Perhaps the locals converse more, often in a mother language that is itself a common bond. But, to an outsider, any suburb that isn’t home can feel rather like a city. And that, I think, is what Ahmed was getting at. Northbridge is a long way from home.

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Attentiveness #2

Outside a suburban café a man sips a strong coffee and rhythmically pushes a stroller that he has placed between our tables on the pavement. Two tiny feet in yellow slippers lie motionless in the stroller, protruding from beneath a dark cloth. The man lifts the coffee to his mouth and smiles, eyes closed, relaxed. Tiredness hangs from his face like ripe fruit on a generous tree. His posture is bent with its weight.

From the adjacent road a glossy four-wheel-drive demands our attention, its engine revving as it is forced to slow behind a cyclist. The driver honks her horn, once, twice, three times, and beneath the shade cloth the little yellow slippers begin to move. The man watches his daughter’s feet, then looks to the sky with an expression of disbelief as she begins to cry.

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