The Gold Rush

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I think most of us accept – embrace even – branding, that branch of marketing concerned with differentiating goods and services in the market place. But how prepared are we to extend the logic of branding to actual human beings? 

Writing a professional development workshop a couple of weeks ago on the subject of 'branding and online marketing for artists' got me thinking about this issue.

Mostly I was faced with my own discomfort. While I admire the inventive way that the mega famous engage with their own 'brand' (crossing over to a place where they talk about themselves in the third person – Hi Taylor! Sorry you had to kill Taylor – or creating a multitude of personas like Beyonce aka Fierce just to manage the internal stressors and/or respond creatively to dealing with their own image dominating global popular culture) what does any of this have to do with those of us more ordinary? I'm talking about regular creative peeps, those still doing their own shopping and most of their own chores.

But with my tween headed to 'VidCon' conference this weekend where teenagers will be signing up for sessions with the titles along the lines of  'Building Your Brand: Growing Your Audience' moderated by those in their early twenties I realise those reared in the age of social media consider this kind of thinking old hat, even obstructive.

What is the promise? What is the opportunity? Manage your online and social media presence well and you will get noticed. With a bit of patience and hunger you can monetize that attention. No study required. 

Sure, it's designed to do your nut in. Capitalism as it intersects with online culture is a confusing landscape, to be sure. Community and competition are difficult to distinguish. Same goes for authenticity and a carefully crafted self presentation. Freedom and enslavement, ditto.  

A digital detox is out of the question – social media is a garden that needs constant tending – but if things go pear shaped by all means get some fresh air. I find a podcast can get me over a hump. Just don't leave it too long, ok?









20th Century Women

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Though I've long been obsessed with American culture of the late 1970s and the very early 1980s – in terms of cinematic mis-en-scene, particularly costume and production design – I've never seen a film that addressed it directly. Mike Mills' new indie feature, 20th Century Women is set in Santa Barbara, California in 1979. Mills takes this historical moment and unpacks it with loving attention to the behaviours, attitudes, politics and cultural markers of the time.

While the film ostensibly tells the story of a single mother Dorothea Fields (a glorious, radiant, wry chain-smoking Annette Benning) and her teenage son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) as they negotiate his growing independence, it's also a loose portrait of women in his life – these are the 20th century women of the title – his childhood crush and object of affection (Elle Fanning) and their housemate, a twenty-something budding artist going through a personal crisis (Greta Gerwig) weathering it in the safety of their rambling mansion, a grand old building being restored by a middle-aged hippy mechanic (Billy Crudup).  

Overlook the slightly contrived set up; it doesn't make much sense. Mills is not a director all that interested in plot but what it lacks in narrative momentum or sense of urgency it more than compensates with a loose, open-ended energy and a commitment to exploring age, especially middle age, and the internal and external forces that shape us. He has an eye for dramatic images – a car sitting in a parking lot in flames, Jamie elegantly and perilously skateboarding down steep Santa Barbara boulevards – that render the ordinary poetic. 

Teenage Jamie likes to repeat that Dorothea was born in the Depression, a shorthand way of describing their difference in age as well the changed world he is coming of age in. When the motley crew sit down to watch President Jimmy Carter's speech on the 'Crisis of Confidence' about the rise of materialism in America Dorothea is the only one who agrees with its sentiments. But in many other respects she's a woman of her time: taking wealth creation into her own hands with a stocks portfolio, a professional job, and, in one very funny scene, cutting a dinner party short when the conversation steered by the younger women veers towards the subject of menstruation. 

While Dorothea worries about the kind of man Jamie will grow to be, Jamie concerns himself with what he perceives as Dorothea's loneliness. But is she lonely? I wasn't so certain. Jamie's worry exposes the difficulty of their relationship, the mutual love and worry that underpins it. I loved 20th Century Women's tenderness and claim it makes for the importance of sharing the things that excite us –  music, books, ideas – while maintaining that the very things that shape us also set us apart. And then there are the shirts. In its loving homage to the late 1970s it rifles through the wardrobes from the era and pulls out not one or two but too many good shirts to mention. 





The Dream State

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Image: Sean Meilak,  Purple and Orange Arrangement , oil on linen, 51 x 51 cm, image courtesy of the artist and Niagara Galleries, Melbourne. 

Image: Sean Meilak, Purple and Orange Arrangement, oil on linen, 51 x 51 cm, image courtesy of the artist and Niagara Galleries, Melbourne. 

In Sean Meilak's recent body of work Europe and intergenerational bonds loom large. It’s in the family history, roots that reach from Malta to Italy and the city of Tripoli in Libya.

Across the Mediterranean Sea in the city of Bologna the painter Giorgio Morandi sits in his studio arranging vases, bowls, cups, candleholders into intriguing and affecting tableaux’s, putting paintbrush to canvas. His still life paintings – modest, metaphysical works filled with quiet intensity – emerge from this soil.

Post war, emigration, from the Old World to the New.

Italy, 2013. The ruins. The ruins started something. The Forum, once the centre of Roman public life, a place where civic life unfolded, now a collection of architectural pieces, fragments sitting in the earth. In their midst, a reckoning with mortality. What do they recall? The chalkiness of bones. And the bones? The chalkiness of plaster. From the ruins, but possibly from elsewhere – who knows? – emerge architectural fantasies like metaphysical dreams. They return as fragments: elegant arches, columns tipped on their side like cogs, stairs.

The cast objects are many and varied. Their idiom – an austere formal language of rectilinear and curved shapes – is enlivened by a playful engagement with scale, the inclusion of found objects. A feather. Wire. Cork. The palette is soft: pinks, greys, sand, stone. Muted shades. These elegant assembled configurations invoke a kind of wonder. Is that the effect of the miniature, uncanniness, appeal to the unconscious, their invitation to play? 

Like dreams, they cast shadows. 

Pencil on paper. Drawings zero in on materials and render them in micro detail. Another iteration of scale. On the sheet, ripples, waves, lines, approximate a kinaesthetic energy. Movement in mono. 

Milan, 1981. Ettore Sottsass founds The Memphis Group, a design and architecture collective, that releases colourful, decorative, playful objects: furniture, fabrics, ceramics, glass and metal that alludes to previous design and art movements, the Antiquities, the Bauhaus. Some write it off as pastiche.  

The paintings. In them elegant formal investigations have come into contact with the detritus of life. The mundane and the precious assume a similar importance: a cylindrical cardboard roll wedged against marble. A crumpled plastic bag resting on a plinth.

What lessons are there in the cinema, in Red Desert (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1964) and Querelle (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1982)? Is it the way these films utilise mis-en-scene? Their scenographic mastery? Certainly they share an understanding in which the physical world is moulded to reflect the interior psychology of the performers. In Red Desert Guiliana (Monica Vitti) lies in her bedroom, its walls, floor, every object, every feature a gradation of pink. In Querelle the desperate protagonist stands in the desert. What has Antonioni done but painted the desert, literally painted the desert, a lurid colour. Oh, the emotion of artifice.

Circle back to the New World. A funeral. Father and son face one another, a casket between them, as it is lowered into the earth. What acknowledgement passes between them? A life. One life. Vitae.

– AZ

(This essay appears in Sean Meilak's catalogue for Marble Park)

Marble Park
Sean Meilak
31 January – 25 February 2017
Niagara Galleries
245 Punt Road Richmond VIC 3121


Our hearts that beat as one

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I always undertake a period of reflection at this time of year. It's not exactly circled in the calendar, in fact it's largely an unconscious process. But I can roughly break it down into 'giving thanks' and 'getting sad', followed by a sense of gratitude. 

Giving Thanks. Picture me driving with the windows down handing out large Toblerone's and bottles of Moet to those on the fringes of my friendship circle that displayed generosity and kindness. This year it included a school mum with a home yoga studio who invited me to use the space as often as I liked and the excellent Nat Thomas, whose blog Natty Solo, a natural born investigator and agitator that has taken a blow torch to the gender inequities of artworld in true style.  

Just as I'm gearing up for Christmas Cheer and Getting Jolly, confusingly I find myself Getting Sad. This always takes me by surprise. I usually cotton on when I catch tears leaking down my face for no apparent reason. But this year there are reasons a-plenty to cry. The feature length film script that didn't make it into production -– only fourteen years of hopes and dreams in that 90 pages – now consigned to the metaphorical trash. And children who are properly unwell. 

This was a year when I stepped off the hamster wheel and into deep time or 'only being' in the parlance of wellness guru Elizabeth Lesser by way of Albert Einstein. Just being. There was no other way. 

It was a year in which I often felt isolated; bad times can be like that. Sharing problems felt like a risky proposition. For every friend who met my woes with an open heart there were just as many who looked at me with pity, glad that misfortune had not visited them. 

It was a year in which I became softer – and a year in which I toughened up. 

Once my tear ducts, the very ones that had put in touch with my feelings of disappointment and pain ran dry, I wandered into the living room where I found my man playing the bass guitar.

Thump, thump, thump. 

The sound was like a beating heart. My heart. His heart. Our hearts. 



Nocturnal Animals

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Tom Ford’s second feature, the wonderfully named Nocturnal Animals, confirms him as a filmmaker interested in exploring interiority by paying close attention to the surface of things. Though I haven't revisited Ford's debut A Single Man since it screened seven years ago, I recall being struck by the beauty of its costumes (no surprise there), interiors and cinematography and Colin Firth's moving performance as a British widower in the grips of depression and suicidal ideation. The film's pedantic attention to mis-en-scene articulated not only a aesthetic sensitivity but also a compelling sense of interiority that deftly shifted between on the one hand a crushing melancholy and on the other, a kind of wonder.

In Nocturnal Animals, also an adaptation of a novel, Ford shifts his attention to a haunted American; in this film the tone is considerably darker. Amy Adams plays Susan Morrow, a successful but fragile gallery owner whose marriage to an emotionally unavailable alpha male is in difficulty. She receives a package in the mail from her first husband, the 'sensitive' Edward (Jake Gyllenhall), who Susan left in her mid-twenties because he could not fulfil her material ambitions. 

The arrival of the package, which contains a proof of his soon to be published novel, provokes a crisis in Susan. The film unfolds in noir fashion, as a film within a film, cutting between the present, the world of the novel and the past. 

The novel casts Susan and Edward as parents to a teenaged daughter on a road rip that ends in a run-in with a car load of hoons in the dead of night on stretch of lonely Texas road. I found viewing this sequence harrowing, not simply because it draws out the victimisation of its female characters but for the film's preoccupation with Edward's inability to protect his wife and daughter. In short, it calls into question his masculinity. When he is taunted by his adversary, he is called a vagina. The fictional scenario imagined by Edward is a masochistic reimagining of Susan's rejection of him. This is not a film in which anyone moves on, so to speak. Instead it seems to be in the thrall of the agony of loss, and where that leads. Nowhere healthy, is the short answer. Given the constraining ideas that the film exhibits in relation to gender – how it is felt, lived and performed by men and women – Nocturnal Animals makes an argument that the injured ego retreats to the symbolic. In its preoccupation of what it means to be a man, and by association a woman it feels strangely rigid and inflexible.  

At its most engaging Nocturnal Animals arranges the events of the novel, Susan's memories of the past and the demands of her present life to intersect in a fragmented reverie. But it's not without its oddities. Ford is a Romantic; he is very invested in Susan and Edward's first marriage and very hard on Susan for not believing more in Edward's promise. But is it cause for revenge? I had a hard time buying it. 



What Happens Now?

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I spent each Saturday between the ages of 12 and 18 at the Vic Market. It was here that I discovered food pretty much, formed an idea of the person I might be when I grew up observing other shoppers while I waited with a second hand copy of a James Balwin novel in my hand, boxes of fruit and vegetables at my feet, for my parents to return with the car. 

For this very personal reason I'd been following the development of the City of Melbourne public art commission event, What Happens Now? closely.

In June the organisers were hosting a 10 day "lab" with the shortlisted 14 artists who had been whittled down from 150. The warehouse location at the edge of the Queen Victoria Market site was facilitated by a team spearheaded by Lab curator Natalie King, UK Public Art champion Claire Doherty and ideas man David Cross along with choreographer Gideon Obarzanek, historian Robyn Annear and artist Veronica Kent. This approach, designed to challenge existing approaches to commissioning public art, focused on engaging the artists in the stories, histories, materials and sounds of the Queen Victoria Market site by way of 'Triggers and Provocateurs'. If that sounds worrying, the artists I heard interviewed on RN's Books and Arts were surprisingly exhilarated. They obviously didn't mind having to dance for their supper.

Curators and arts bureaucrats like to talk about public art as 'activating' spaces, arguing that that artists and artwork contribute to creating new understandings and new ways of seeing. Those not familiar with the Vic Market might not appreciate how 'activated' it is by its everyday economic activity and exchange.  It is a vast sprawling collection of sheds, halls, stalls, stuff, smells and noise where produce, product and sellers exchange goods for money with the public. This is a place with a lot going on. Just ambling along, even without a shopping list, can be intense. What happens when you come across art in this context? I was curious to find out.

What Happens Now? largely features works by artists engaged in a practice that is participatory. Immediately this makes sense. Of course, it's a market.  

Hiromi Tango's textile work titled Wrapped that combines ideas about brain health and yarn into performance workshops that on the final day included musician Dylan Martorell and dancer Benjamin Hancock (on the day that I visited the work rested like a sleeping dragon on trestle tables), Isobel Knowles and Van Sowerwine's stop-motion animation screening amongst metal storage boxes while the artists recreate and sell market wares in miniature along side. And at Over Obelisk, a response to the John Batman monument by SIBLING, the duo have created a complex mobile hoarding that encases and frames the original monument in a variety of ways to 'reveal its contested histories'. 

I didn't get to everything. There was a wait for viewing and participating in the biennials most intriguing work, A Centre for Everything by Gabrielle de Vietri and Will Foster. This hands-on guided tour took the hand gestures and cultural codes used by stall holders to communicate with each other as its starting point. I was immediately drawn to the sight of drawings of hands pinned to a makeshift partition. It reminded me of the cartoon portraitists that plied their trade in the halls.

A bit tuckered out I passed Field Theory, a fruit box clad van broadcasting non-stop radio for 9000 minutes. No one was going home there. They were bunkered in for the duration of the biennial. Like kids on school camp they were pretty lively. By mimicking the colour and matching the noise level of its surroundings Field Theory worked on the principle of amplification. And it worked. I literally felt my mood lift.

Back in my car, I was glad to be out of the wind. I felt glad to have visited. I hadn't known it two hours earlier but quite possibly I was parked on an unmarked indigenous grave, a disturbing discovery thanks to Steven Rhall's subtle, formally complex work in M Shed. Why didn't I know that? It's easy to feel sceptical of the rhetoric of contemporary art and yet events like this can produce moments and insights like that. 

Image: Anna Zagala and Katrina Raymond viewing the sweet, sad Out In The Open by Isobel Knwles and Van Sowerwine. Photo by Bryony Jackson.

What Happens Now?
Public Art Melbourne Biennial Lab
17-23 October 2016
Queen Victoria Market



Jason Bourne

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The mixed reviews had reached me before I had a chance to commando roll into the cinema for the latest instalment of the Jason Bourne films tidily titled, Jason Bourne. But with a sizeable wait, seven long years, for director Paul Seagrass to be reunited with Matt Damon as ‘everyone’s favourite assassin’[Amazon] I was more than willing to open myself up to the risk of disappointment. 

My feelings for Bourne Identity (2002) and Bourne Supremacy (2004) run deep. Deep enough for me to forgive the off piste Bourne Ultimatum. After all this was the series that through its verite-style camera work, rapid editing and melancholy European sensibility had single-handedly revitalised the action spy genre.

Time has wearied Jason Bourne. Played by a now middle aged Damon his youthful sinewy body has given way to the physique of a stocky boxer: barrel chested, thick necked, a tough ruin of a human being surviving on the margins in the Balkan states. He is the definition of isolation: alone, stateless, at the mercy of intrusive traumatic memories that literally stop him in his tracks.

Revisiting the franchise Seagrass has said that the world would need to have changed sufficiently to warrant reprising the character. Social media and data hacking whistleblowers like Snowden and Assange have furnished the film with techie atmos and context though the film is preoccupied with one story, uncovering Bourne’s true identity and the origin of his transformation from civilian to killing machine.

An hour in to the film, in the nanoseconds I wasn’t in a state of high excitement or high tension, I silently congratulated the creative and logistics team for the thrilling ride: an aerial tour of Iceland, Greece, Germany, England, the USA, a vertiginous number of chase sequences and teams of grey and navy suited analysts chasing Bourne down while they tap at keyboards.

They are overseen by Tommy Lee Jones’ as the sinister CIA boss whose deeply etched and craggy face is offset by his protogee (Alicia Vikander) a gorgeous smooth skinned Princeton graduate with a hard to place accent and a deep commanding voice fulfilling the CIA’s directive to “bring Bourne in” while off-the-books operative Vincent Casel is taking a different set of orders.

There is less self examination in this instalment, fewer pieces of puzzle for Bourne to assemble and reassemble, less ‘down time’ for Bourne to tend to his wounds, no moments of tenderness or affection. If Bourne is compelled by anything it’s the forward momentum of revenge, the only course of action left available to him.

Seagrass’ talent for staging large action sequences with a cast of thousands is in evidence. A chase sequence set against the backdrop of an austerity march that has erupted into violence in Athens is a tour de force. By Las Vegas 90 minutes later, I was tuckered out. What defined the Bourne Ultimatum and Supremacy films and held so perfectly in balance by them – the thrill of the chase, surprising and brutal one-on-one combat in domestic environments, moments of vulnerable reflection – felt somewhat out of balance in this instalment. 

When Cassel and Damon confront one another in the poorly lit sewers of Las Vegas at Jason Bourne’s end I was feeling nostalgic for something more ordinary, a suburban Berlin townhouse or an elegant apartment in Paris perhaps. Bourne was so young and hopeful once. There’s no denying his will to survive in 2016. The question is, what for?

Can We Talk About Poland?

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Lindsay Goldberg, David S from   Tales of Renewal  , Poznan, Gdansk, Wroclaw, Krakow, Warsaw, 2013–15. Collection: Jewish Museum of Australia, Melbourne

Lindsay Goldberg, David S from Tales of Renewal, Poznan, Gdansk, Wroclaw, Krakow, Warsaw, 2013–15. Collection: Jewish Museum of Australia, Melbourne

The fraught relationship between Poles and Polish Jews is the subject of a major exhibition by the Jewish Museum of AustraliaCan We Talk About Poland? features the work of two Melbourne-based artists, author and photographer Arnold Zable and photographer Lindsay Goldberg. A period of two decades separates their encounters with Poland; Zable undertook his first journey in 1986 in his early forties; Goldberg made several trips between 2013 and 2015 while in her late teens and early 20s. The photographs bring together two historical periods capturing the internal dynamics of the different life stages of the photographers in a penetrating reflection on identity and place.

Zable travelled to Poland in 1986 by way of the Trans-Siberian railway on what he describes as a “personal quest” arriving in the Eastern border town of Bialystok; the town is the birthplace of his parents, grandparents and forefathers. Over the course of several months he visited the surrounding area and explored the cities of Krawkow and Warsaw where he met, amongst others, four of the last pre-war Jews living in Bialystok, young Poles rebuilding the Tykocin synagogue and activists in the Solidarity movement.

Zableʼs colour photographs document the countryʼs rural life – both its bucolic landscapes and material deprivations – as well as the vestiges of Jewish monuments and decaying Communist infrastructure. Using a SLR camera and shooting in colour, Zable's analogue images have a blown-out quality that infuses them with a woozy softness.

For Zable visiting the country for the first time was a personally transformative experience, one that he subsequently shaped into narrative for his award-winning memoir Jewels and Ashes, published in 1991. At the time of the bookʼs release some 25 years ago now, I attended an emotional book reading and signing by Zable held by the Australian Institute of Polish Affairs (also cultural partner of the exhibition). It was one of the first meetings organised by the organisation, who were part of a broader global movement seeking to create dialogue and engender understanding between Poles and Polish Jews. The relationship, centuries old, was ruptured in the wake of the invasion of Poland by the Germans in 1939, the subsequent establishment of death camps and murder of 6.1 million Jews (3.5 million of them Polish Jews) on Polish soil. For many Holocaust survivors and their children – and for Poles themselves – it was still the recent, unspeakably painful and traumatic past.

The complex nature of the relationship is reflected in the exhibition itself and the care with which it has been curated, the excellent didactic panels that go to great pains to offer a fair appraisal of history and it extends to viewing the exhibition. The title of the exhibition, itself an open question, contains the recognition that for some Poland will never be a safe subject. It re-examines the relationship that many have with a country that is both “home” and a place of horror. For some, like Zable and Goldberg, and Polish Jews returning to the country of their forebears, developing a relationship with the country has been an enriching experience and brought about a closeness to both Polish and Yiddish culture. For others – captured in excellent filmed interviews on several screens throughout the exhibition – the return has been traumatic and confirmed their worst fears.

The invitation to take part in a dialogue – to converse, discuss, explore – is at the very heart of the exhibition. It is reflected in the organisation of the space; the photographs form the middle section framed at the entry by a textual component detailing the thousand-year history of Jews in Poland, including a section devoted to the present situation in Poland. Visitors are also encouraged to leave reflective comments about the exhibition and their own return journeys. The public programs, over two dozen events scheduled over the duration of the exhibition, have been a critical part of extending the conversation.

The importance of dialogue underscores Goldbergʼs photographs. Her black and white work focuses on portraits, with a particular emphasis on environment. She uses the form of the diptych, usually a person alongside a photograph of their home, school or town. Traversing the country, she has documented young Poles and Polish Jews, labelling the photos according to the first name of its subjects “Hanna”, “Estera”, “Eliza”, “David” and adding the location such as Warsaw, Krakow, Gdansk, Poznan, Wroclaw, followed by the date. Goldberg invites her subjects to write something in Yiddish or Polish about themselves and their experiences. Their handwriting digitally transposed onto the image adds a diaristic overlay. By allowing her subjects to speak and incorporating their words directly into the works, Goldbergʼs photographs are a powerful expression of young people exploring their Jewish roots and culture. Her works embody the importance of language to not only give shape to the past but also to create a future.

To view the published review please visit the Artlink website here.

Can We Talk About Poland?
6 March - 31 July 2016
Jewish Museum of Australia,
26 Alma Road, St Kilda, Vic 3182


Holding on/#cockfest

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Glenn D. Lowry, Director, MoMA, The Hon. Premier Daniel Andrews and Tony Ellwood, Director, NGV with Umberto Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1913 (cast 1931). Photo: Scott Rudd

I'm no physicist but even I'm wondering when the heck the NGV will catch on to a cultural tipping point (to refresh: the point at which an object is displaced from a state of stable equilibrium into a new equilibrium state qualitatively dissimilar from the first).

The gallery recently announced it had secured 150 master modern and contemporary works from New York's MoMA for its Masterpiece exhibition slot in 2018. You would think this would be cause for celebration, right?

The MoMA collection holds a special place in my heart and history.  It was at MoMA in a small room devoted to the works of the Russian Constructivists that I had a lightening bolt style epiphany that changed the course of my life and led me to train as a graphic designer. 

But even this piece of 90s nostalgia did not temper my physical recoil at the news. I am not exaggerating. Actual recoil. I might have noted, though only subconsciously, that the long list of greats - other than Lyubov Popova - was made up of men.

But it was the photo of the power elite – establishment heavy hitters Tony Elwood, MoMA's Glenn Lowry and State Premier Daniel Andrews –  standing in front of the Mark Rothko that did it. Most likely they were celebrating. For the rest of us, the men and women dreaming of a different world, one where women's work and achievements are celebrated and where women are visible, and participate – maybe even take the lead – in decision making, it was a moment of despair. 

The sheer fact the NGV released the photos for press, without embarrassment or reserve, is a revealing admission on the part of this state institution which is happy to parade and promote white male privilege. Go on, broadcast your values and organisational culture. Though it's frankly nothing to celebrate. Nothing.