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By Luisa Mitchell
In our continuing effort to speak to various former Guild personnel that have made Curtin and the Guild what it is today, we found ourselves chatting to Matt Giles—the former Editor of Grok Magazine in 2005. While Giles has since moved away from his university roots of music and journalism and on towards law and union representation, he still remembers his time at Curtin and the experiences that would shape his career and his life.
When were you at Curtin and what were you studying?
I started studying at Curtin in 2001; I was studying a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in Creative Writing. I was there until 2005, but because I was doing Grok my studies dropped off a little bit and I didn’t end up finishing the degree at that time, and then I dropped out to be a freelance writer. I ended up not being that into freelance writing as a career, so I went back to uni around 2007, and then I finished my degree in 2009 at Curtin.
What are your memories of Curtin and the Student Guild?
I did Cultural Studies at the time and I really liked that degree and the staff as well. There was a very passionate staff, and the degree at the time was very good as a kind of broad-based, critical theory degree. I ended up teaching at Curtin for a little while after that, and it ended up becoming a lot more vocational oriented. Whereas, while I was studying there, it was a lot more theoretical.
I started working at Grok in a kind of interesting time, because around 2001 the Editor had a conflict with the Guild. The Guild wanted to run a McDonalds ad in Grok, and the Editor objected to that on political grounds, and there was some sort of scerfuffle [between them]. They ended up not having a student editor of Grok, they had a professional journalist as the editor [instead]. So, I became the Deputy at that time, and I was the most senior student staff member of Grok.
I’m not sure what it was like in the Guild generally speaking, but I know in Grok it was a time of transition. They were trying to turn it from a typical, tabloid-paper-style, politically-oriented student magazine, into more of an entertainment-style magazine.
So, did you become the Editor then, and did you agree with those changes?
I was Deputy in 2002 until the end of 2004, and then I was the Editor in 2005. That [change] was what I wanted, I guess. The guy who was the Editor at the time was this guy called Ron Schop, and he had his own ideas about what the purpose of a student magazine was. He thought it was just to be very puerile, apolitical and starting shit. And because I was just a young impressionable guy who wanted to be a writer, I went along with it. By 2005, when I was the Editor, I wanted to do my own thing separate from him, but the style [I pursued] I think was pretty much the same—I didn’t want to take [it] in more of a political direction [either].
Do you remember what you were writing about as Editor?
I wanted to be a music journalist, so I did a lot of music writing. At the time Vice Magazine was really popular, and it’s very different to what it’s like now. Gavin McInnes was the Editor, and now he’s obviously the guy who founded the Proud Boys—so it’s a whole other thing.
I was more into irreverent comedy stuff, and I also kind of agreed with Ron that I didn’t want to treat it very seriously politically. But I remember there was this guy who was like a prototypical men’s right’s activist, who would walk around Forrest Place at the time and would stand on a literal soap box, and spew men’s rights stuff. He wrote a letter to all of the student papers about how the family court was doing wrong by men. I remember writing a very long, sincere objection to that because of my personal experience growing up with a single mother. But apart from that I didn’t really write very political stuff.
We did have a lot of content, like it was a really big magazine at the time. That’s probably what I remember most about Grok—that I just wrote so much every month. I wrote, like, between 10 and 20,000 words a month—just by myself. We had such a large number of pages and students would drop out, and then I’d have to write 2000 words to make up for the pages that they had for us. I remember writing things that didn’t require any research. I wrote an article called “Great Fires Throughout History and Why They’re Funny” [laughs]. I wrote it in a very short amount of time, but I got so much positive feedback on it.
But you were mostly in the music scene. What happened with your career after Grok?
Yeah, I kind of used it to leverage a career in local music, which is what I ended up doing. I wrote a local music column for The West Australian for about four or five years. I don’t know, it’s not a very inspiring story. I got the job at The West and after six months I was like, “this sucks, I don’t like it”. Because writing music articles for The West was kind of like writing ad-copy. I didn’t find it very fulfilling.
So, I went back to uni because I wanted to do something different—I wanted to finish my Creative Writing degree and become an academic. I ended up getting a PhD scholarship to do that at RMIT university … I didn’t finish that degree, so I went off and did law instead, and I finished my law degree this year. Now I work for the trade union that represents state public sector employees.
So that’s where you went … when I looked you up online the most recent thing I could find about you was your Love is My Velocity Cookbook that you published in 2007?
Yeah, after Grok, myself and Katie Lenanton—who was the Editor after me—formed Love is My Velocity, a record label that made 7 inches. Then we also made these two cookbooks by the same name that were like a series of pads that had recipe cards, which were contributed by bands, and then on the other side was an image that had been created by a Perth artist.
Do you think you’re the same person you were when you were at Grok?
I’m extremely different. I think that just occurs when you get older. But then again, I think working for Grok was definitely a big change; I was a very shy person, but I was a good writer. If you’re a good writer then it’s very easy to distinguish yourself at a student magazine [laughs]. You can kind of overcome having poor social skills or not being very assertive, and that’s exactly what I did. That enabled me to do a bunch of things that I wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise, and even though I’ve kind of left it behind me, I think it was a good thing to do; they never tell you, but writing is always useful whatever job you have. No matter what I do, I always get told that my writing is really, really good [laughs]. It’s one of the few compliments that I can take without having to downplay it.
How about the “uni life” now—do you think the student experience or student issues have changed since you were at school?
It’s really hard to say. I went to Curtin first as a student, and then I started teaching. I feel like students get an extremely bad deal at the moment; the way universities are set up, the demands of the business model that tertiary education places on teaching staff and research, and the way that that guides research and shapes what types of school’s universities have, results in students having a very poor education in terms of teaching them how to think about their place in the world.
I also think when I was teaching that students were a little less interested because there was such an emphasis on getting a job, because the economic conditions are so different now than when I was at uni.
It’s an extremely different time. When I first started going to uni, Youtube didn’t exist. I remember using the computer labs and I overheard someone talking about Youtube and I was like, “what’s that?”
Grok’s also gone through a lot of changes. We’re still figuring out our place as a student magazine in relation to the Guild and to the students. Where do you think Grok should go in the future?
While I was there, I remember Ron [Schop] was very adversarial with the Guild, ‘cause the Guild was always trying to get him to run things to promote things that they were doing, and he objected to that. He believed that in order for it to be a good service to students who are paying for the magazine to be produced, it needed to be an entertaining read. Now that I think about it, he always said, “it has to be a great read.”
But as the uni does now, I have the opposite opinion. I feel like the union should have a lot of influence over the magazine, and actually use it … but whether the union would use it in the student’s best interest is another question. Student unionism sometimes boils down to putting on events and having some mild form of advocacy with a student executive. Whereas, if you can try to use the magazine as loaded activism, I think that would be a good thing.
Yeah, I’m going through Grok’s editions from the ‘70s at the moment. There’s a really nice balance of Student Guild members presenting the issues of the time in Grok, but Grok journalists simultaneously holding Guild members accountable.
Yeah, that’s interesting. I think the ‘70s were such a different time in how art and politics were expressed, especially in a kind of irreverent way, whereas, nowadays, it can be quite hard to get those two things right. I think in the ‘70s you had a genuine subversive culture. Whereas, now, that subversive culture is something that only exists when there’s like, a very homogenous mainstream. One of the things that’s occurred with the advent of the internet is that you don’t really have a homogenous mainstream anymore, you just have kind of an obliterated subculture, so that it’s hard to have a genuine counter-culture when everything is so easily co-opted.
Very true! And what can we expect to see Matt Giles doing in the future?
I don’t see why anyone would see me because I currently don’t do anything whatsoever [laughs].
Just eating your lunch in your cubicle?
[Laughs] Yeah, pretty much.
No, my goals at the moment are being a very good unionist and representing the members at my union to the best of my ability and trying to achieve the aims of social change that my union is committed to.