Reimagining Australia: solidarity with Indonesia and Indigenous representation

December 9, 2016 § Leave a comment

indonesia_calling_128480x48029286b0b06d5ca4909a223c77f41144a091329In Indonesia Calling and other stories, Ariel Heryanto spoke on the extraordinary moments of solidarity between Indonesia and Australia in the 1940s – moments which have been almost entirely erased from the memory of both countries. Heryanto argues that this may be because remembering would involve acknowledging the past power of the left in our region. He discussed Joris Ivens’ film, Indonesia Calling, which gives the exact opposite message of the one he was commissioned for: it envisaged a future of an Australia with strong ties to an independent Indonesia. The making of this film was also surrounded by the growth of different links and networks of solidarity, but these has been largely forgotten, and aren’t referenced in current discussions of the relationship between Australia and Indonesia. The military regime in Indonesia is one of the many factors in the forcible erasure of this history of solidarity.

The Indigenous Representation, Politics and Recognition panel opened with Sharon Mascher and Simon Young‘s work on Re-Imagining Australia’s Constitutional Relationship with Indigenous Peoples: Lessons from the Canadian Experience. They noted that while there are important lessons to be learned by making comparisons, we should be cautious about trying to transplant bits of law between different contexts. The Canadian experience is very striking, especially the scale of the initiatives taken in 1982, and Canadian constitutional reform has had interesting (and sometimes unexpected) effects that are worth examining further.

Angelique Stastny spoke on Stereotypical representations of settlers and Indigenous people in school history textbook then and now. Stastny asks whether revised history has translated into new modes of knowledge and a critical shift in the representations of settler-Indigenous relationships in textbooks, or if old colonial tropes have emerged in new forms. Looking at Australian textbooks over time, the proportion of material addressing settler-Indigenous relationships is reasonably steady. Most textbook authors are male, though with a growing proportion of female authors. Textbooks only started including Indigenous sources from around the 1970s, though there are still a small proportion of sources. Content names few women (either Indigenous or non-Indigenous). Almost all textbooks mention violent conflict between settlers and Indigenous people, and this makes up a significant proportion of the content. In the 1960s to 1980s, content shifts from describing Indigenous people as threatening and politically distinct – around this time, there’s a shift to describing them within frameworks of dependency. What is at stake might be not just how Indigenous people are represented, but also who does the work of representing.

Finally, Michael R. Griffiths presented on the Distribution of Settlement: Indigeneity, Recognition and the Politics of Visibility. He notes the forcible making-visible of Indigenous tropes through white Australian creative writing: a kind of appropriation of Indigenous history as a way of Indigenizing settler culture. The presentation focuses on Indigenous writers’ work, which often responds and critiques these trends. Griffiths asks how settlers read Indigenous writing today, and how Indigenous writers navigate the politics of visibility in their writing. He draws on theory about the engagement that comes with refusal, the tension between the politics of visibility and the right to opacity.


Reimagining Australia: Islamophobia and reimagining landscape and sustainability

December 8, 2016 § Leave a comment

dummyRanda Abdel-Fattah: ‘Racial Australianisation’ and the affective registers and emotional practices of Islamophobia
Abdel-Fatteh talks about the ways in which the Lakemba area has been racialised as a dangerous, Muslim space of otherness. Even a modified shop dummy becomes a symbol of threat. Racial meanings have been embedded across a range of symbols, including halal certifications, particular food, clothing, and Arabic script. This needs to be understood in the context of Australia’s history. We also need to understand Islamophobia as a range of practices: a problematisation of Muslim identity that we can see as related to the history of whiteness in Australia.

Interviews displayed the ways in which white Australians set themselves up as arbiters of Australian identity: interviewees emphasised that they saw Australia as having Judeo Christian values, and that they felt they could ‘read’ the affective gestures of Muslim Lebanese around them (and could identify Muslim people specifically through their affective gestures). Over the last years, attention to Muslims (or people seen as Muslim) has become ever more sharply trained in Australia, through the lens of Islamophobia. We’ve seen a socialised affective practice around the understanding of Islam, a belief that white Australians know the real essence of Muslims (a similar process to that around anti-semitism). White Australians ‘stick’ the label of could-be-terrorist to all Muslim bodies, which also implies a constant fear of all Muslims.

The question for anti-racist activists is how to intervene in these affective associations. We need to create processes of unsettlement. This needs to go beyond myth-busting: Islamophobia can’t be challenged only through the provision of facts. Islamophobia isn’t a Muslim problem, it’s an Australian problem.

The Reimagining Landscape and Sustainability panel opened with Zafu Teferi and Paul Newman’s work on Indian Ocean Settlements. Teferi’s research on Addis Ababa slums includes a recognition of the sense of community and social solidarity in these informal settlement. Rather than destroying slums, it’s possible to think about how to renew dense informal settlements and provide decentralised infrastructure without destroying them. This will require new systems of governance based on the already-existing community structures. While the context may be very different in Australia, the White Gum Valley demonstrates some important links, including a focus on community-focused sustainable living with a distributed infrastructure.

Gary Burke spoke on Re-Imagining Economics: sustainability-information economics, accounting, taxation and narrative to foster creative well-being. Economics is a mythology, rather than a science. We need to think critically about economic systems, and about how we understand sustainability. Neoclassical economists construct analysis as if economic activity is a machine: this means reframing the issues to suit the existing conceptual paradigm.

Danielle Brady’s (co-authoring with Jeff Murray) Reimagining Perth’s Lost Wetlands tracked the history of draining, filling-in, or reducing Perth’s wetland areas. Not only have these wetlands physically disappeared, even the memory of their presence and effects on the development of Perth are also largely forgotten. Brady presented while wearing a ‘Say no to Roe 8’ shirt, noting that as she was speaking others are involved in an effort to save the Beeliar Wetlands: protesters are being issued move-on notices, with threats of arrests to follow, and there are calls for support, including to phone the Premier. We do have wetlands left in Perth, and knowing their history may help us in imagining a future version of the city that incorporates and values wetlands. This also needs to be linked to processes of decolonisation.

Finally, Andrea Gaynor talked about Re-imagining Australian wheatlands: heartlands to artlands? Gaynor is asking whether art can help build sustainable rural communities, putting the question in the historical context of rural depopulation, efforts to bring ‘culture’ to the country, and changing configurations of community and belonging. While we sometimes romanticise rural Australian life, we should remember that rural communities have been build on the violence of colonisation, and that rural community built hierarchies of belonging and control.

rusty-cockatoo-by-sean-meany-1-768x512Large international, externally-run part projects, like the silo art trail, have the potential to contribute to building more sustainable rural communities, there are also important limitations to what they might achieve. The silo art project was developed without consultation with local communities. The idea was that people from the city would drive out on a rural art project. This might be seen as part of a broader trend: the commodification of nature within the global tourist economy, and one shaped by metropolitan sensibilities rather than building rural community and artistic expression. There are other art projects that are community-driven, drawing on farmers’ skills to create art, like the one in Lockhart.




Reimagining Australia: language, decolonisation, borderscapes, and belonging

December 7, 2016 § Leave a comment

This conference creates an important space for reflecting on key challenges in Australia today, and for thinking about alternatives. My notes are quite partial and rough, so I encourage you to look for more information on the speakers (and the panel sessions I couldn’t attend) on the conference website.

57d09b5469f52_getimagecontentuedfmbs8_1bt16p1-1bt16qkKim Scott spoke in ‘Circles and Sand and Sound’ about the growth in support for the Noongar language, which is reflected in breakout text in the InASA conference program and the names of conference rooms. Despite the hostility of settlers to language, Noongar place names and language continue to inform the vernacular of the southwest where we live. We can bring the language alive by making ourselves instruments for it. His plenary threaded through the history of settlement, and the histories of Noongar culture and community, survival and the resistance to the boundaries drawn in sand by colonisers. We need to recognise that this land which we are on is stolen country, and has been through a long period of an apartheid-like regime, and there are now spaces in which Noongar culture and language is being celebrated and cherished. There is a power in sharing language and culture, but we also need to understand Noongar (and other Indigenous) peoples’ reluctance to do so.

Decolonising Australia: Reimagining and Reinhabiting opened with Mike Heald discussing his poem, ‘Land Grab’, a reflection on colonisation (and decolonising):

2016 and here I stand, here my house stands,
and my son-grown-tall, in Ballarat, in the aftermath,
on the ground-almost-zero
of pre-colonized plenitude, the last stands
of Swamy Riparian, Herb-rich Foothill, and Plains Grassy
Woodlands huddled along rail tracks and roads,
or captive in the deserts of private property
with a knife at their throat.

Soenke Biermann followed with Decolonise Australia: Unwinding Settler Coloniality. Biermann’s teaching, research, and community praxis is concerned with how we unwind privilege. In Australia, there seems to be an absence of words to talk about race. It is hard to unsettle privilege, and hard to navigate white fragility – many white students lack resilience when it comes to managing their discomfort around discussions. It’s important to understand the link between whiteness and possessiveness in Australia, as well as the processes of racialisation and whiteness that have shaped migration to Australia. Coloniality is upheld by different structures, including systems of knowledge production: we need to think about how this works in academia, through our research and our teaching. How can we shift our teaching practices and set up safe spaces without reinscribing privilege? Encouraging students to reflect on their own experiences, and to link them to theoretical perspectives, can be helpful.

Finally, Samya Jabbour spoke in Decolonizing the multicultural landscape about connecting her sense of hurt at Israeli satellite ‘management’ of the land her father was forced to leave to her understanding of what ‘land management’ means in Australia. The myth of terra nullius that underpins settler-colonialism in both Israel and Australia supports ongoing violence, and means that land management is a practice of dispossession. Decolonization requires embodied, collaborative work. Jabbour’s work attempts to come into a respectful relationship with land and with Indigenous people. She has found it hard to navigate her role as a ‘non-indigenous’ Australia: much of the privilege of whiteness is conferred on her, but the legacies of settler-colonial violence and dispossession also shape her life. Many of us sit in this liminal space: outsiders-within. We inhabit interstitial sites that might allow new practices and alternatives to emerge. There is also a bravery and power involved in privileged members of settler societies confronting the violence done by their own families.

7590683Suvendrini Perera’s plenary Reimagining the Borderscape was anchored around seven key images that return us to the water. Drawing on John Bulunbulun and Zhou Xiaoping’s Dialogue, Perera talked about the ways in which borders have crossed and divided Indigenous people, and noted that the drawing of a border around ‘Australia’ forcible merged many different peoples into the grouping ‘Aboriginal’. Thinking about these histories and images allows us to understand the centrality of carceral islands to Australia.

Rather than operating as a singular and static line, the border is constituted through a multiplicity of shifting practices and institutions. In Australia, this creates a violent and unstable border zone, in which some geographical and temporal areas are excised and classed as ‘not Australia’ for migration purposes. At the same time, this zone becomes subject to increased surveillance and other forms of control in the name of protecting Australian sovereignty. The borderscape is a term that allows us to understand the various forms of direct and indirect control being exercised over the region.

The logic of deterrence, like the logic of excision, doubles back on itself. The development of an expansive and expensive model of deterrence actually supports the ‘people smugglers’ it is claimed to oppose. While deterrence is justified through claims that it will save people from deaths at sea, the lifejackets memorialised in Alex Seton’s someone died trying to have a life like mine remind us of deaths that were caused by active policy choices: members of Australia’s border force knew of and were monitoring the boat, and made the choice to let those on board die.

The Multicultural Encounters through Memory, Storytelling and Art panel drew together literature, art, poetry, and theoretical reflections. Speakers in this panel made powerful connections that were difficult for me to capture, so please excuse these brief notes! Rashida Murphy spoke on her use of autoethnography and the ‘masking technique’ of a reading group to explore migrant women’s stories. Murphy ended her discussion of her writing process by reading from her book, The Historian’s Daughter. Nadia Niaz talked about her current project, tentatively titled My Australia, which reflects on migration to Australia, language, and belonging. Niaz spoke beautifully on some of the ways in which we construct belonging, including the necessity of forgetting in projects of nation-building (as we ‘forget’ inconvenient histories). Leonie Mansbridge spoke about Place Ma(t)ps, her art practice exploring mixed identity, space, and place. Burcu Simsek’s use of digital storytelling as a feminist method use voiceover and images to explore new sources of connection and belonging. Through workshops, Simsek has been providing opportunities for women from different generations and migration experiences to share their stories. Finally, Matt Roberts reflected on his family history as white English-speaking South Africans, who migrated to Australia in 1989. (Odd for me to listen to, with my white Afrikaans family history, from which I’ve been largely disconnected, with my family who moved to Australia around 1989.)

28. Zürcher Theater Spektakel 2007: 'Marrugeku' (Australien)The final plenary session of the day, Kimberley Cultural Renewal: Unsettling the Dynamic; Reimagining the Future, from the artistic directors of intercultural dance-theatre company Marrugeku, Dalisa Pigram and Rachael Swain, who were joined by writer Steve Kinnane. Pigram and Swain talked about using their art to address traumatic histories, with the challenges that come with navigating the politics of representation. In Broome, much of dance culture has been lost, but through respectful collaboration with elders Marrugeku choreographers learned movements that they could use. Pigram and Swain emphasised the need to understand the histories of suppression of dance practices in Australia, and to build dialogue in developing works. Now, through Cut the Sky, the company is exploring new ways of relating to country, regenerating, and healing.

Steve Kinnane talked about the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre (KALACC Culture Camps), which aim to rejuvenate law, people, country and creativity. Kinnane noted that while there’s often a perceived divide between work to rejuvenate traditional knowledge and contemporary work like Marrugeku’s, in fact they overlap significantly: Aboriginal cultures are living, changing, creating cultures.


Precarious Times: Precarious Spaces

December 6, 2016 § Leave a comment

92574855-cef3-43c7-baa7-12f938433f19-620x372Beyond the edges of the map: The ghost city of Ordos Kangbashi – Christina Lee, Senior Lecturer, Curtin University
The ghost city phenomenon in China first came to international attention in 2009 in an Al Jazeera report. A combination of different factors, including the ways in which state planning works and the global financial crisis, led to Ordos Kangbashi being ‘stillborn’ as a city. The international reporting on Ordos Kangbashi and other ‘ghost cities’, however, frequently fetishised these cities, with reporters and academics visiting them during the earlier phases of their construction and ignoring the people who actually live there. Lee talked about exploring Ordos Kangbashi, seeing people – and signs of people – who lived there, and were perhaps experiencing a very different temporality.

lps19-980x1470Attending to Spectral Traces and Wounded Places – Karen E. Till, Associate Professor, Department of Geography, Maynooth University, Ireland, with Gerry Kearns
Till’s work looks at ANU Productions‘ performance Laundry (2011), linked to one of the Magdalene Laundry sites. Women used to do sex work in the area, but moral crusaders and police undermined their attempts to survive this way, and many sex workers ended up in Magdalene Laundries. These laundries drew not only philanthropic donations, but also the unpaid labour of the inmates. The performance drew participants into women’s experiences of the site, including the humiliation, gruelling work, legal confinement, forced removal of babies, and loss of identity. It made visible the physical and psychological torture that women experienced, asking participants to remember Ireland’s haunted past. This production, and others that make the histories of particular places visible, help us come to terms with the need to recognise and mourn suffering that was previously deemed unmentionable.

setonSea Passages: Between trauma, reparation and recognition – Susannah Radstone, Professor of Cultural Theory, University of South Australia
Radstone discusses Alex Seton’s work at the 2014 Adelaide Biennial, someone died trying to have a life like mine, which consists of a series of lifejackets sculpted in white marble. This work opens up complex questions about how we witness trauma, and what that witnessing might achieve. Seton argues that the title of his work tries to create a bridge of empathy between the viewer and those who experience trauma. But drawing on Suvendi Perrera’s work, Radstone asks whether Seton’s piece does actually bind viewers together with asylum seekers, or whether it allows for a distancing and mastery over a tragedy only viewed from a distance. Radstone explores Seton’s work in the context of histories of art and media coverage – as well as processes of reparative healing – around shipwrecks and trauma.


Precarious Times: Banal Precarity

December 6, 2016 § Leave a comment

The symposium opened with a panel on Banal Precariousness.

978-0-8223-5562-5_prAnne Allison, Professor of Cultural Anthropology, Duke University, spoke on “Cleaning up dead remains in times of living/dying all alone: social singlification in Japan”, building on her book, Precarious Japan. As demographic changes happen in Japan, many older people have become worried about dying alone rather than with their families, and about not being mourned. Companies have emerged that “help in your move to heaven” – wrapping up loose ends, disposing of (or ‘ordering’) deceased people’s belongings, and providing a sense of care and respect. The labour of this is both material and affective.

There’s a growing economic sector around ‘the business of the end’, catering for people who don’t have family, or feel their families would be burdened by caring for them and their possessions. This can also be seen as part of a neoliberal shift towards individualised responsibility: an expectation that the individual will take care of themselves, including in the moment of death. There’s a lot of reference made to ‘the stink of a bad death’ – a sense that individuals need to ensure that they don’t leave a mess (literally and morally) in dying. Companies manage ‘special cleanup’, burial, mourning, and in some cases are encouraging people to make ‘grave friends’ – people who they meet before death, who will be buried nearby, so that they won’t be lonely after death. Companies will perform mourning ceremonies for your possessions, too, while you’re still alive – Allison wonders if this allows people to grieve themselves by proxy, as even mourning becomes an individual responsibility.

Tanja Dreher, ARC Future Fellow at the University of Wollongong addreswhichlivesmattersed Precarious Attention. She opened by acknowledging that thinking about precariousness benefits from centring Indigenous experiences in settler-colonial states. Dreher’s research has been informed particularly by work by Indigenous women in Australia, including Amy McGuire, Marcia Langton, and Celeste Liddle.

There are key long-term concerns of media studies that underpin work on precarity that come in part out of Judith Butler’s work. Vulnerability, grief, and value are unevenly distributed. From Black Lives Matter to social media memes around terrorist attacks, there is a politics emerging around the grieving of particular lives (and the failure to grieve others). Some lives are produced as more grievable than others, which enables the ongoing prosecution of war. Media is a key factor in this process, and therefore also an important site of struggle.

Dreher notes that often understandings of uneven attention and concern are framed within visual metaphors. Auditory metaphors can also be useful, however. We can think about calls for attention to different tragedies, and calls for listening to different voices, including those of Indigenous women. It is a political act to struggle against the configuring of particular kinds of suffering – and the suffering of some groups – as banal and unworthy of comment or grieving.


Photo by Nagarajan Kanna

Finally, Susan Leong, Research Fellow at Curtin University, spoke on ‘Banal Precariousness: a Daily Prayer’. Much of our precariousness is related to work. Guy Standing talks about the growth of the ‘precariat’ as a new class in the making. ‘Precarious’ comes from the Latin root which means both a prayer and petition. Leong spoke about different metaphors of precariousness: rather than standing on a precipice, we might think about climbing constantly-shifting sand dunes in the wrong shoes and clothing, without hopes of being saved. It might be banal, if it weren’t so fundamental and essential to our experience.

In Australia, the Turnbull government is creating a situation of ‘churning innovation’, in which we are expected to be nimble, agile, and flexible. As many as 40% of Australian jobs could be replaced by automation over the next decade: in higher education, we see the shift to sessional employment, and shifts in teaching delivery like MOOCs. We need to understand the technologies that perpetuate and facilitate – and sometimes allow resistance to – banal precariousness. Ideas are fragile, according to Mary Douglas, and they require support to travel, grow, and rest. Leong notes the time it’s taken her to work through these ideas around banal precariousness, particularly as traversing the precarity of research within academia.


Intersectional feminism and online harassment

November 4, 2016 § Leave a comment

Thinking Beyond ‘Free Speech’ in Responding to Online Harassment just came out in issue 10 of Ada: a journal of gender, new media, and technology.  This article is an attempt to consider what it might mean to take the possibilities and challenges of intersectionality seriously in our approaches to online harassment/abuse. In particular, I argue that it means being prepared to question whether ‘free speech’ should be the unquestioned basis of discussions about online safety.

Issue 10 of Ada also has a bunch of other great work, including articles on ‘revenge porn’, Black Lives Matter, the politics of Black visibility online, rap music, dating, university life, online dating, and superheroes. I’m looking forward to reading through it.

Overlapping edges

October 13, 2016 § Leave a comment

Over the last few days, I’ve been thinking more about the idea of ‘belonging’ in academia, following on from my reflections post-AoIR. The converse of not having a single place that feels, unproblematically and fully, like my academic home, and the place where I belong, is that I get to have many spaces where I get energy and inspiration, where I connect well with a few people, and where I find ideas and frameworks that stretch me to think about my research in news ways.

I think about the activism and academia pre-AoIR satellite event, where people were crossing different approaches (the gaps between ‘activism’ and ‘civil society’; between anti-capitalist and more reformist perspectives; between different ways of seeing governance). About conversations I had this year at AoIR about content moderation, feminist research methods, teaching, and finding different ways to fit within academia. About the first time I went to AoIR, and my excitement at finding so much space for critical methodologies, and for women’s voices, and for connecting the personal and the political. About last year’s AoIR, and the attention paid there to how we engage with the broader politics of the world (also a theme this year).

Every conference and symposium I’ve been to has had these kinds of moments. Sometimes it’s only a few talks that shift my understanding in a key way, sometimes I meet people who are working on radically different areas but still offer me a new way to think about research, or about my negotiations with academia. Collaborations that help me link my work with others.

And then there  interviews and protests, where I get to learn more about how activism works in practice. Or workshops where my research intermingles with people’s daily experiences, and always changes. Talking at a huge event in Athens, and dancing with friends there afterwards, because that’s important too. Adacamp and Barcamp unconferences, World Social Forums, and other events. And threaded through them all, conversations with people who are changing the world in so many ways.

And, when I go home, my department, and my gradual exploration since returning to Perth of the other researchers at Curtin who are working on overlapping areas. Because Internet studies is a jumble of areas, I’m often working on very different issues to my colleagues, but I’m learning so much from starting to read more of their work. More importantly, it’s been a space within academia where I feel like I can be honest about who I am and what I care about, and where I can find support.

I may not have a clear academic home, but I’m grateful for all these overlapping spaces.