Reimagining Australia: language, decolonisation, borderscapes, and belonging

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

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.


AoIR2016: Forced migration and digital connectivity in(to) Europe – communicative infrastructures, regulations and media discourses

Mark Latonero (USC Annenberg School) spoke on they ways in which data is being collected around forced migration flows. Latonera is interested in the technologies that are being used to track and managed refugees’ movements across borders. People were stopping at the short border between Serbia and Croatia for a variety of reasons, including to get medical treatment, food, money transfers, and wireless access.

wifiAs we research these infrastructures, we also need to examine which actors are inserting themselves into these flows (or being drawn into them). Platforms like Facebook, Whatsapp, and Viber are being used to organise travel, while others, including Google and IBM, are developing responses aimed at supporting refugees or managing refugee flows. Coursera is offering online study for refugees, and there are also other edutech responses.

Aid agencies like UNHCR are teaming up with technology companies to try to develop support infrastructures: the World Food Program, for example, is coordinating with Mastercard. The ‘tech for good’ area, including techfugees, is also getting involved. Latonera is deeply doubtful that a lot of the hackathons in the West are going to produce systems that can help in meaningful ways.

We need to think about the social, political, and ethical consequences of the ways in which these technological structures of support, management, and surveillance are emerging.

Paula H. Kift (New York University, NY) In search of safe harbors: privacy and surveillance of refugees at the borders of Europe

There are two important EU regulations: Eurosur (drone and satellite surveillance of the Mediterranean sea), and Eurodac (which governs biometric data).

At the moment, the EU engages in drone and satellite surveillance of boats arriving, arguing that this doesn’t impinge on privacy because it tracks boats, not individuals. However, Kift argues that the right to privacy should impact on non-identifiability as well, and the data currently being gathered does have the ability to identify individuals in aggregate.

There are claims that data on boats may be used for humanitarian reasons, to respond to boats in distress, but the actual regulations don’t specify anything about how this might happen, or who would be responsible, which suggests that humanitarian claims are tacked on, rather than central to Eurosur.

4639Similarly, biometric data is being collected for indefinite storage and collection, and this is justified with claims that it will be used to help deal with crime. This is clearly discriminatory, as refugees are no more likely to be involved in crime that citizens. Extensive biometric data is now being collected on children as young as six. This is particularly worrying for people who are fleeing government persecution.

The right to privacy should apply to refugees: blanket surveillance is discriminatory, has the potential to create serious threats to refugee safety, and is frequently being used for surveillance and control rather than any humanitarian purposes.

Kift suggests that the refusal to collect personally identifiable information can also be seen as problematic: states are refusing to process refugee claims, which creates further flow-on effects in terms of a lack of support and access to services.

Emerging coordination with tech firms creates further concerns: one organisation suggested creating an app that offered to give information on crossing borders and resettlement, but actually tracked refugee flows.

Çiğdem Bozdağ (Kadir Has University, Turkey) and Kevin Smets (Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium and Universiteit Antwerpen, Belgium). Discourses about refugees and #AylanKurdi on Social Media

After the image of Aylan Kurdi was shared, research showed huge peaks in online discussions of refugees, and searches for information on refugees and Syria. However, these findings also raise further questions. Did this actually alter the debate on refugees? How did different actors use the impact of the image? And how did this take shape in different local and national contexts?

This research focused on Turkey and Belgium (and specifically on Flanders). Belgium has taken much fewer refugees than Turkey, but nevertheless there are significant debates about refugee issues in Belgium. In Maximiliaanpark, a refugee camp was set up outside the immigration offices in response to slow processing times.

In the tweets studied, there were a lot of ironic/cynical/sarcastic tweets, which would be hard to code quantitatively: qualitative methods were more appropriate to understanding these practices.

6748738-1x1-340x340Among the citizen tweets studied, the two dominant narratives were refugees as victims, or refugees as threats. In Turkey, anti-government tweeters blame the government for victimising refugees, pro-government tweets blame the opposition, Assad, or humanity as a whole. In Belgium, refugees were mostly seen as victims of a lack of political action, or as the victims of instrumentalisation (by politicians, media, and NGOs). When refugees were seen as a threat, in Turkey this focused on Aylan’s Kurdish ethnicity, whereas in Belgium this drew on far-right frames.

Research also looked at reasons given for the refugee ‘crisis’: those who are against migration tended to focus on economic pull factors, those in favour tended to give more vague reasons (‘failure of humanity’). When solutions were provided, those employing a victim representation called for action and solidarity, whereas those seeing refugees as threats called for measures like closing borders.

When the image of Aylan emerged, it was usually incorporated into existing narratives, rather than changing them. The exception was ‘one-time tweeters’: people who had affective responses (a single tweet about their sadness about Aylan, and then returning to their non-refugee tweets). Both Belgium and Turkish users tended to see Gulf countries as bad ‘others’ who do not take refugees. There was little focus on Daesh.

Twitter users who were opposed to immigration tended to employ the clearest vocabulary and framework: there were very strong in oppressing what they saw as the problem, and the solutions.

Unfortunately, the conclusion is pessimistic: the power of this image (on Twitter) is limited: it didn’t disrupt existing discourses, and there were also great similarities with how refugees and refugee issues are portrayed in the mainstream media.

Eugenia Siapera (Dublin City University, Ireland) and Moses Boudourides’ (University of Patras, Greece) work looks at the representation of refugee issues on Twitter.

There are two important theoretical frameworks: digital storytelling (Nick Coludry) and affective publics (Zizi Papacharissi). Affective publics both reflect and reorganise structures of feeling: the culture, mood, and feel of given historical moments. The refugee issue is a polymedia event, but this research focuses specifically on Twitter.

What are the affective publics around the ‘refugee issue’? There wasn’t one debate, but overlapping rhythms. Here, there were four key events: the Paris attacks, the Cologne station sexual assaults, the Idomeni crisis, and the Brussels bombing.

This research used large-scale capture of relevant tweets across many different languages. The overall story is about crisis, about European countries and their response, about chilrden and human rights told in many languages. It concerns political institutions ad politicians, as well as about terrorist attacks and US right-wig politics. Canada and Australia are also very much involved.

Incidents in particular countries rapidly become entangled with narratives elsewhere, as they were incorporated into national debates. There’s a tendency for discussions on Twitter to fit into existing narratives and discourses.

Kaarina Nikunen, University of Tampere. Embodied solidarities: online participation of refugees and migrants as a political struggle

By drawing together the public and private, campaigns build affective engagement that can be thought of as media solidarities. This research looks at ‘Once I was a refugee’, where refugees use their own voice and bodies to embody solidarity.

In Finland, the refugee population is very low: since 1973, the country has only 42,000 people with refugee status. In 2015, 30,000 refugees came, which was a significant change. The refugee presence in the public debate is very small. Debates are really between politicians, and some NGOs. Refugees are silent in the mainstream media.

‘Once I was a refugee’ was initiated by two journalists, following from examples in other European countries. It began in June 2015, which was crucial timing: August and September saw attacks on several reception centres, and anti-refugee rallies calling for borders to be closed. Public debates focused on the economic cost on Finland’s welfare state. The campaign tried to build a counter-narrative to these claims.

11951262_1648702685410427_3715380495121936746_nWithin a few days, many young Finns shared their photos on the site: there are now 172 stories on the Facebook site. The format for stories is the same: “Once I was a refugee, now I’m a …” The site gained national attention, including in the mainstream press. It provided alternative images of labour, education, and value. The narratives are united by optimism: while they may have a sense of struggle, they highlight successful integration.

Most end with gratitude: “thank you, Finland”. This highlights the sense that refugees had (and have) of having to earn their citizenship. Uniforms are used to signal order and belonging. In particular, there are many images of people wearing army uniforms – these also gain the most shares. This can be seen as an attempt to counter claims of ‘dangerous’ refugee bodies.

Responses sometimes drew divisions between these ‘acceptable’ refugees and the need to refuse others. We should also recognise that the campaign requires former refugees to become vulnerable and visible: this is clear from the ways in which images become the focus of discussion for those against immigration. The campaign didn’t disrupt the narrative of refugees as primarily an economic burden which needed to be dealt with (merely promising

However, ‘Once I was a refugee’ did open space where refugees spoke up in their defence (when others weren’t), emphasising their value and agency, and engaging in the national political debate.