12/17/2007

Curtin House: The Dictatorship of Irony

Curtin House is Melbourne's ultimate beacon of vicious irony. Often referred to as a 'horizontal laneway' it was built in the 1910s, originally named the Tattersalls Building and housing an upheel gentleman's club inside its walls. One of the components of the modern laneway, The Toff in the Town bar, with its top and hat monocle logo, is a conscious nod to the building's early century incarnation, a simultaneous revelling in and mocking of the snobbish grandiosity of the gentleman's club. The idea seems to be to replicate the splendour of those clubs (the private booths, a lift operator) but with a distinctly 21st century accessibility (serving cheap(ish) beer, the lift operator is a biker). And yet the Toff in the Town does not point to a new egalitarianism, but to a new and subtler form of socio-economic exclusivity. Bouncers man the entrance to the building in the evenings, ready to turn away anyone simply because they don't like the look of them (a privilege they share only with officials in military dictatorships) and the crowd is overwhelmingly white, young, middle class and painfully hip. Cultural codes of music and clothes make sure that those who do not belong are aware of it. The building has been claimed by a elitist cliche of fashionistas. This phenomenon is not new of course, punks, skins, glam etc all operated a similar ethos, but in this case it is not a banding together of the powerless, but a junta of Gen Y funkster yuppies; skateboarding CEOs, investment bankers with i-macs, PR executives who take pills and various forms of the same Nathan Barley wanker from the "creative industries". Cashed up and clued up with quasi-degrees (Master of Retail Management, anyone?) the new breed bourgeoisie are much more effective than their Toffish predecessors, and they keep their hands clean too. Of course you can come in, if you want to, technically, its not our fault if you don't want to or the bouncers won't let you, we're not exclusive.



Below stairs, while the neo-Toffs get off on their ironic displacement of the old order and social ascension, the wankery continues in the uber-trendy Cookie. Cookie looks like the half-baked brain bastard of a mouthy, over-the-hill promoter and a Media Studies undergraduate. While the bar serves ridiculous and expensive drinks alongside laughably pretentious snacks ("Hmm, what to have with my $10 beer? The Bettel Bliss Bombs DIY or the Drunken Prawns with garlic, coriander and Mekong whisky?") grating Latino house music seeps from the walls and silent films are projected without a soundtrack, serving only as preposterous decor, devaluing them almost beyond rescue. In the midst of all this, the dancing clowns strut in their Soviet kitsch shirts and badges. Quite what the building's other former tenants, the Communist Party of Australia, would make of this we can only imagine.

In 1940, the Australian government outlawed the Communist Party as a subversive force (this was before Uncle Joe was attacked and had a change of heart) and pitched battles were fought on the stairs of the building, as government agents tried to force their way in to arrest organisers and confiscate literature. It was a bitter and vital collision of political principle; those who saw themselves as the defenders of civilisation from Asiatic barbarity versus those who saw themselves as the servants of history, wiping away oppression. Neither position means anything now, not to the nu-aristocrats of cyber-capitalism who can appropriate the top hat and monocle or the
hammer and sickle just as easily as each other, because they view both as below serious consideration. The re-naming this former-Communist HQ after a Labor prime minister was a point of political ownership (social democracy over Stalinism), but it made the mistake of taking its opposition seriously. By so overtly suppressing the past it gave political credence to that past. The power of the new masters is in their ability to co-opt the once potent symbols of potential enemies and drain them of meaning. Neither patrician nor proletarian symbolism denotes a serious political reality any longer, and so neither can begin to challenge the media oligarchy; the future is a pair of Vans stamping on a human face forever.

I for my part have decided to salute the forgotten idealists of Curtin House with a tribute to the tragic dream of the Mighty Soviet Union. Watch in admiration or disgust, but please, without irony.


UPDATE:

As I write, the agents of ironical fascism will be preparing for the new season at the Rooftop Cinema on the top of Curtin House. Ready to chatter like apes and bask in semi-fictionalised nostalgia with screenings of The Goonies (SOLD OUT!!), Labyrinth and The Breakfast Club. While genuine classics of cinematic art (Metropolis, Battleship Potemkin) serve only as amusing wallpaper, the 80s fetishists gawp with brainless giggles at average documents of a barely remembered decade, manufacturing memories in their Mr T-shirts. Baudrillard was right, fool!

13 comments:

Gervy said...

A lovely analysis.

Jasmine Proust said...

i was just curious if you are perhaps a little bitter, really smart and or being paid by the aforementioned fathionistas for promotional duties of toff and cookie?

judy b said...

I really hope someone with your energy and intelligence is active somehow. I feel a great anger in you. My father was a communist and I am left wing - and very green and I have found the only cure for frustration is to DO - and really people having a good time eating and drinking in bars is Ok - it is a pity the building has not got a good storyboard explaining its history

Anonymous said...

before Curtin house was re-developed, it was home to a very dear friend of mine, who lived with others on the same level as Cookie is now. The parquetry you can see on the facade of the bar was once the floor, the interior design of cookie was done by a few of melbournes well respected and successful designers, and I think it is a fantastic representation of a certain sub-culture, that has become available for many to experience and appreciate. The dj's that play in both cookie and toff are the best you will find in Australia, and the pear and avocado salad and the fried chicken are both great, chill out and enjoy it for what it is.

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