There’s a great deal of science and technique that goes into the design of speaking panels. Somewhere in the background behind Tony Jones, there must be an army of ruthlessly efficient producer types whose job it is to ensure that Janet Albrechtsen and Bob Brown can be arranged in such a way that one camera can capture both their glares simultaneously with a snide tweet running across the foot of the screen. It’s an artform all its own.
Here at Great Ocean, we prefer to recline in the comforting arms of serendipity. So it was that, five minutes before we kicked off our second Creating on the Coast night last Friday, this time at Patagonia’s store on the Corso in Manly, we stood in a huddle and wondered out loud about how to arrange our five panellists. “I know,” said someone. “We’ll put Nick Carroll (male, exact age unknown but well north of fifty) next to Bec Olive (female, academic feminist, well south of forty and writer on gender and localism).
Then we’ll put Jon Frank (bleak, hilarious and unpredictable) next to Ted Grambeau (sunny, optimistic and wise)…
In the midst of it all we threw Mick Sowry, artist, filmmaker and storyteller, with specific riding instructions to leap the table and engage if the whole thing descended into a brawl.
Lastly, by way of catalyst, we plied the guests with alcohol (thanks 4 Pines!) and encouraged them to ask questions, and then had Chris and Jeremy from Nikon hand around a couple of dozen of their latest cameras so everything was captured for posterity. With a light breeze fanning through the louvres onto the base of this pyre, we had created a flammable mix. Steve, Murray and Amanda edged towards the fire extinguishers as we pushed the audio sliders to ‘10’ and tapped the microphone.
Good evening everyone…
Under the guise of talking about “creating on the coast” (which, let’s face it, is the broadest banner heading ever conceived), the sparks flew from the outset. Bec Olive elegantly wove through the first array of bear traps: “You’re an academic writer about gender relations and a blogger about almost anything that enters your head. Are there two Bec Olives?” Startlingly, controversially, Bec suggested that living on the hilltop above Raglan with an unimpeded 180-degree view of the ocean from your desk could be a distraction from getting things done. She described the way it feels to be the only female in the water among male surfers (“We know you’re looking at us.”), and reflected that maybe creativity resides in looking outwards at others, rather than the constantly-invoked mantra that we all have to look inside ourselves. “I live with myself almost all the time: to be honest, I’d rather learn about you.”
Nick Carroll adopted the pragmatic approach of deliberately setting off every landmine he could find: (“I’m unreconstructed. I mean, really, really unreconstructed.”) He told us about the uncanny level of understanding a world champion surfer reaches (“There are no secrets left out there for such a person. I mean none”). He talked of the addictive beauty of offshore paddling (“Gannets are…gannets are completely NUTS.”). He explained the history of hard rock music in Australia, by way of alerting us to his next project (Blood and Thunder, airing on ABCTV in July). He spoke of the invariable rule that brilliant competitors come from broken homes, described his mother’s lingering death and praised Bec for providing an alternative voice against the macho “wannabe ironic” writing that dominates ocean sports.
Jon Frank told us of the genesis of his latest project, Australians: a three-year odyssey all over the continent to capture ordinary Australians going about their lives. He told of the pain of being rejected by a publisher, and just in case anyone started feeling sorry for him, he responded to a question about how he dealt with that pain by saying “I kind of enjoy it in a sick way.”
We laughed. He saw us laughing so he pulled the rug from under us again: “But I get it, okay. It’s the kind of work that people look at and think ‘Anyone could’ve taken that…’ It’s like looking at a Rothko and saying ‘Eh, I coulda done that.’ I’m removing all the tricks and flashing gadgets…stripping everything away and getting to the crux of it…” When Jon saw that he’d induced reverential silence, he sidestepped again.
I mean, some of these people were difficult subjects to shoot. I had to defend myself against…pensioners!
Ted Grambeau looked on at all this with an inscrutable smile half-drawn on his face. He’s seen careers rise and fall, and he’s also seen more of the face of the earth than almost any of us. He talked of how he studied economics and nearly fell into a life as “God, I don’t know, a banker or something…” He modestly recalled the most challenging of life choices: of leaping headlong into a career – surf photographer – which essentially didn’t exist, and then making a living out of it. And surprisingly, perhaps, he told us that despite being a man who veers perilously close to having no fixed address, he has a keen sense of home; and despite being horrified by his country’s politics, he finds Australia an inspiring place.
Ted tackled the big questions that surround photo-journalism now, in an age when everybody feels entitled to have a dilletantish crack at it:
It’s a hard act to come up with something that’s real, to find images evoke an emotional response. And to identify that difference between journalism and art.
Somewhere in the midst of all this, an insightful question came from the audience: a reference to the “polar bear moment” in Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth: best summarised as a heartbreak that acts as a catalyst for change. What was the polar bear moment in each of your lives?” asked the questioner. What followed was a poignant exploration of love and death and the implications of both.
Mick Sowry explored the intricacies of his orchestra/film project, The Reef. He’s a man undaunted by the prospect of working with talents like Derek Hynd, Jon Frank and Richard Tognetti (which is perhaps why this panel didn’t overawe him…). On the theme of creativity, he told us it’s about risk. About Hynd’s decision to take the fins off his board and learn surfing all over again. “Or about selling your house and making a film.” The story of Mick’s projects – Musica Surfica, The Reef, and Great Ocean itself – is ultimately a reassuring one. It tells us you don’t have to have the master plan; you only need to keep putting one foot in front of the other with a sense of conviction that you’re onto something.
Great Ocean Quarterly would like to thank Steve and Amanda from Patagonia Manly for hosting us so generously; Chris and Jeremy from Nikon Australia for bringing their gear and adding a fascinating technical dimension to the night; 4 Pines beer for doing so brilliantly that magical thing that beer does; and Murray Fraser for the photos above. And thanks to all our guests for getting into the spirit of things with such enthusiasm.