Category Archives: Paul Allen

Art and Aesthetics

There are many ramifications of Dr Lynne Kelly’s research. Foremost is the impetus to question our modern ideas about the level of knowledge and intelligence of indigenous people.  As with any historical inquiry the insights derived often tell us more about ourselves than the traditional cultures under examination. In particular, exposing the level of hubristic self-importance we attribute to the technological advances of the modern world and our condescending attitudes towards those we deem as less sophisticated, ‘primitive’, and therefore inferior. We tend to equate the ‘modern scientific wonders’ that surround us with the teleological notion of progress and the inevitable improvements in the human condition.  As if the slow unfolding of human history is akin to the dawning understanding and maturation of a child as they grow to adulthood. In a sense we have conflated the notions of the natural ‘state of grace’ of childhood with the concept of ‘the noble savage’.

Dr Kelly’s research not only refutes this view of ancient and contemporary indigenous cultures, but inverts these concepts entirely. It is our present day globalised Western culture that acts as the child, while the adults among us are those many cultures that precede our own by millennia. Cultures with their own highly sophisticated non-literate technologies, knowledge and profound insights into the natural world. And yet, like petulant children, we refuse to accept how much we have to learn from them. Blinded as we often are by the arrogance of our own self defined cleverness.

For myself personally, the primary insight relates to matters of (capital A) Art and how it is currently perceived within the context of the modern Western world. Much has been written that both praises and derides current manifestations of Art and artistic practice. This short blog is not meant to recapitulate these issues, rather to overstep them entirely by acknowledging the different purpose Art serves, and the context in which it is created, in ancient and contemporary indigenous cultures. A purpose that offers much to us in the modern world by grounding art (with a small a) within the concrete reality of every person’s life.

As Dr Kelly puts it herself,

“In the western context, the primary measure of art is aesthetic. In non-literate contexts, the primary motivation is didactic.” (Page 41, The Memory Code, 2016)

Or to put it in less measured terms, in the contemporary world art serves little more purpose than decoration, whereas in traditional cultures art has always been a means of teaching and aiding them in their learning and understanding of the world. Contentious as this may seem, since there are many examples of Western art that serve the purpose of didacticism, it draws the broad brush stroke of delineating the different purposes art serves in these different manifestations of human society.

With these thoughts in mind let us turn our attention to how we, as modern Western citizens, have been taught to look at the art of ancient and contemporary indigenous cultures.  Trained as we are to look for variations in line, the juxtapositions of colour, or the compositional elements of symmetry and balance, we have no conception of the artwork’s meaning beyond the parameters of these limited aesthetic considerations. An analogue of this is to consider a masterpiece of Western literature in the same light. Just imagine a book collector buying the complete works of Shakespeare based entirely on their attraction to the decorative attributes of the binding! Never is it imagined that there is a meaning and purpose that lies deeper than the mere appearance of the object in their hands. In a similar sense, ours is a culture that judges art only by its cover. Of course a magnificently bound book is a beautiful thing to behold, but this aesthetic experience is incidental to the essential purpose the book serves in the first place.

The artworks of indigenous cultures across the world certainly are aesthetically beautiful, but they are also purposeful in their creation. Just as those who have no knowledge of literacy cannot possibly conceive of what lies between the covers of a book, we too are unable to conceive of the rich seam of human knowledge and understanding that is hidden beneath the surface of these artworks. Yet even the illiterate are aware that a book’s primary purpose is to be read, regardless of their inability to read it for themselves. As a modern Western literate person myself, I am only just learning the same is true of much ancient and contemporary indigenous art.

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“Pod”, by Paul Allen, 2010. How would you associate this artwork with the Unites States of America?

As a result of these musings I was intrigued by the observations I made of how attendees at our first workshop related to the artworks used as markers for the preliminary memory trail. Sculptures that had been made for the sake of aesthetic consideration were being utilised solely as a visual or conceptual link to the piece of information that needed encoding. Aesthetics had very little to do with the purpose these artworks currently served. Thus there was no question of being able to appreciate or comprehend the Art, and so no preconceptions tainted the experience of actual observation.  The viewer’s gaze was seemingly more objective and I wonder, as a consequence of this type of contemplation, if the sculptures acquired more meaning, more relevance, and were thus more memorable?

 

In the contemporary world we may never be entirely certain of how to correctly ‘read’ indigenous artworks, but we can at least learn to acknowledge the alternative purposes they serve in the cultures from which they derive.

Paul Allen

Our First Memory Workshops were wonderful

The first Memory Workshops run by The Orality Centre were a huge success. We want to thank all those who came – especially the enthusiastic participants who travelled all the way from Queensland and New South Wales.

Details of the workshops on offer are in the previous post.

The Orality Centre Staff

The staff (L to R): Paul Allen, Lynne Kelly, Alice Steel, Damian Kelly

 

 

Lynne Kelly

Lynne Kelly gives the opening address.

Paul’s two Memory Palace workshops ran morning and afternoon. Participants were guided through the crucial skill of how to link seemingly unconnected concepts to places. Initially, they linked the 20 largest countries in the world to different abstract art works.

They did it brilliantly! 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And this is the type of thing they were puzzling over: Paul’s sculptures! Participants linked this to Thailand.

Paul’s abstract art at the location for Thailand.

 

 

At the end of the workshop they could name the first 20 countries despite not having thought about them for a few hours.

The Memory Palace workshop then went outside to use a memory trail in the landscape to encode information of their choice.

 

Inside Alice ran a Winter Count workshop in the morning and a Memory Boards workshop in the afternoon.

The memory boards are based on the mnemonic device of the African Luba people known as a lukasa.

Lisa Minchin (right) encoded the local wattle species to her memory board. Rumour has it that her partner has since been treated to numerous enthusiastic demonstrations of her knowledge of the first 20 countries and the local wattles.

We will be running Memory Workshops in schools and other locations. Please email info@theoralitycentre.org for more information.

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Memory Workshops – Saturday 17 June

The first  Memory Workshops will be held at The Orality Centre in Castlemaine, Victoria, on Saturday 17 June 2017.

Dr Lynne Kelly will give a short talk to all participants about the background to the memory methods. But most important will be the practical workshops. Lynne will oscillate between parallel workshops to be led by Paul Allen and Alice Steel.

BOOK HERE: Workshops can be booked through this link

You do NOT need to do two workshops, but are welcome to come morning or afternoon only.

Morning: 10 AM to 1 PM  $60 per workshop.
Memory Palaces OR Winter Count (Tea / Coffee / Biscuits provided)

Lunch: 1 PM to 2 PM Optional. Main course and desert for $20 catered by Caroline Cook. (Lasagne (meat or veggie) & salad OR Pumpkin Soup & bread then Sticky Date Pudding OR fresh fruit platter.)

Afternoon: 1 PM to 5 PM  $60 per workshop.
Memory Palaces OR Memory Boards (Tea / Coffee / Biscuits provided)

Memory Palaces (also known as the method of loci or memory trails)
A workshop on Memory Palaces has been the most requested workshop, so it will be run twice, from 10 AM to 1 PM and then again from 2 PM to 5 PM. No materials are required for this. Paul Allen will lead the workshop. The memory palace consists of a sequence of locations in which information is stored by linking it to the physical properties of the location. It is the single most effective memory system known, used by all indigenous cultures (such as Australian Aboriginal songlines and Native American pilgrimage trails). They are best known from the orators of the ancient Greeks from Homer to Cicero. All contemporary memory champions use this method.

Paul will teach the method using the example of the countries of the world in population order. The workshop will then adjust to working with participants to encode the information of their choice to the memory palace. Participants will need to bring their information with them.

Winter Count
Winter Counts are best known from the Sioux Indians of North America. The Sioux add one image per year, decided at the first snowfall of winter. The image represents the most significant event of the previous year. Tribal history and learnings are then attached through story to that image. By retelling the stories, the information is retained. The Orality Centre has been discussing recent research about the impact of dementia and feel that one component may be our lack of links to the stories that define our history and identity. By creating a personal TOC-WinterCount participants will discover how effective this method of storing information can be. As a bonus, participants will have the fun of creating a beautiful object to be constantly updated and valued by their family. They will need to bring dates for defining events of their lives. This workshop will be led by Alice Steel and will certainly lead to a great deal of discussion.

This workshop will be held in the morning, 10 AM to 1 PM, so the conversations can continue over lunch. All materials will be covered by the $5 materials charge.

Memory Boards
Memory boards are incredibly effective portable devices and found in various forms right across indigenous cultures, from the songboards and birchbark scrolls of Native Americans to the tjuringa of Australian Aboriginal elders. We will model our memory boards on the well-documented West African lukasa of the Luba people.  In its simplest form, the lukasa consists of beads and shells attached to a piece of wood, just the right size to hold comfortably – which we will call a TOC-lukasa. A personal TOC-lukasa is a gorgeous object which is hugely practical as well.

Participants will encode information of their choosing and design their memory boards accordingly. Please bring information for any topic with you. We will also have examples of suitable information on offer. The TOC-lukasa at right is encoded with an entire field guide to the birds of Victoria.

A charge of $5 will cover all materials needed. The workshop will be lead by Alice Steel from 2 PM to 5 PM.

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The Malmsbury Rapscallions

Our founding school in The Malmsbury Project is Malmsbury Primary School in rural Victoria. One of our first tasks was to develop rapscallions with the students. We will be dealing with two forms initially, personal rapscallions and those we are making in class for the entire school.

Personal rapscallions are any character who already exists for the student – a toy, pet, or tree. (More about the trees in another post). We have yet to find a student who doesn’t have at least one rapscallion in their imagination already. This is a natural thing to do!

As part of the art curriculum, students are learning about sculpture. But the sculptures they are creating will then form a pantheon of characters which can be used in the stories which will tell of the knowledge from all aspects of the curriculum. These rapscallions will talk about science, be the audience for persuasive text – and the creators of alternative persuasive writing. They will perform mathematics and debate spelling. We are just beginning to see the potential. But first we need our rapscallions.

Art teacher, Paul Allen, has devised a sequence of steps to create varied and animated characters. First the students draw the character they wish to create. That is all students from Preparatory year to the Grade Six.

Designing a rapscallion.

Students then use bits of small branches from the local trees. This ensure that they have strange twists which become striking characteristics.

Adding the skeleton to her rapscallion.

A rapscallion ready for the next stage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Making sure we understand the action of the rapscallion.

The skeletons are then wired into place. Paul does this for the younger students, but the older students can do it themselves.

Then they start adding the ‘flesh’. Paul has them bulking out their rapscallions with paper and tape.

The rapscallions are already gaining individual character and the students are already talking about the way they want to paint them and what their personalities will be. We have people and bears, horses and skull-headed critters. We have trees and angels and fairies and … a whole pantheon coming into being.

Unlike art projects which then head home, the rapscallions will stay at school to be learning tools. But it is only Week Two – we have to give them skin and paint them first. That will be another post.

Rapscallions everywhere

Paul Allen talks to the class about making rapscallions while two of the completed rapscallions chatter away.

We love rapscallions. That is the name we are using for the characters we are creating to populate our stories. All Indigenous cultures use a pantheon of characters whose stories, or ‘teachings’ as our Aboriginal Advisors have asked us to call them, tell vivid stories which are far more memorable than a list of facts.

Contemporary kachina from New Mexico and the Pueblo cultures.

Haku, our youngest Student Advisor, discussing the concept with a crowd of potential rapscallions.

We are adapting that approach to memory from Australian Aboriginal teachings of their Ancestors, the Native American Pueblo teachings of their kachina (also spelt katsina) and similar examples from across the world. The Pueblo use dolls and other representations of their Kachina to establish the characters and the knowledge they represent for children from a very young age, but these are not playthings. They are central to learning.

Alice Steel with some of the puppet rapscallions she has created. We will be experimenting with many forms.

It would be culturally insensitive for us to use any of the terms for these sacred beings from any indigenous culture. Consequently we have decided to use the word ‘rapscallion’ for our characters. They are appearing in many different forms but the most exciting at this moment are the rapscallions being made by the students at Malmsbury Primary School. That will be the subject of the next post.

For children and adults, having characters tell the stories and create teachings will always make information more memorable. This is a key component of the work of TOC.