Vengayam – Solo performance installation at Critical Animals, This Is Not Art festival, September 29th, 2018

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Vengayam (‘ven-gaah-yum’) – meaning ‘onion’ in Tamil – is a performance installation that investigates the constructs of identity as traced through the signifiers of citizenship, migration and nationalism. Responding to a recorded bilingual critical essay and the personal reflections of the artist, the installation attempts to dissect and understand relationships between the project of nationalism, neoliberal capitalism, and the dictates of culture as they play out upon contemporary generations of Australian immigrants.

The work traces the journey of citizenship across three nations (India, Singapore and Australia) using markers of the artist’s birth certificate, passport, citizenship document and visas. Through this process, it explores transnational sources of ideology that govern the dictates of ‘Indian-ness’ and the paradoxes therein, whilst also highlighting the expectations of contemporary Australia upon the assimilated model minority, and the dysfunctions between these two spaces.

These pathways and their associated provocations are an attempt to articulate and communicate the complex psycho-spatial landscape of identity-formation for contemporary generations of Australians. It also aims to better understand how the expression of individual identity is vulnerable to the dictates of political and cultural hegemony.

Vengayam will be performed as part of Critical Animals in the This Is Not Art festival in Newcastle, NSW in 2018.

Location: The Lock-Up
Date: 29th September
Time: 12pm – 12:50pm
(Panel talk on identity at 3pm)

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‘Lisboa is not for sale’: Lisbon, July ’18.

“LISBOA IS NOT FOR SALE”

The words are stencilled across the side of an alley wall along the main drag of Rua Sao Joao in Cais do Sodre, downtown Lisbon. It reminds me of something that I have seen, and I cast my mind back to the previous day when I wove through hoards of ambling tourists encrusted upon the sidewalks of Alfama, fixated on capturing tiled facades or brightly painted trams in the midday sun. As I recall this, I realise that it was not the stencil I saw, but the overwhelm I felt. Lisboa may not have been for sale, but there were certainly plenty of impulse buyers.

Anthony Bourdain really changed things for us. No… really.

My friend’s gaze appears almost incredulous, as if the immense impact of the late travelling chef’s dozy and romantic jaunt through Lisbon streets seven years ago is still a cause for awe. Gone are the quiet expanses of stone-checkered neighbourhood squares and relaxing afternoon alleys – at least for six months of the year. The droves of visitors from across Europe and the usual tripartite of British, Australian and American tourists have caught wind of Lisbon’s charm, and they are – for the most part – unabashed in the taking.

A native Lisbonite, the visible concern of my friend echoes the many others I have spoken to about the impact of tourism over the last ten years. There is pride in how the country chose to buck the trend of austerity and invest in itself at a time of crisis across Europe, and most people agree that things are better than they used to be. But there is also a palpable caution in viewing the possible trajectories the city could take.

I worry we are not going the right way. He says. We need to remember who we are.
We are losing our identity. That is not something we can ask the tourists to do for us. That is not about them, it’s about us.

His words bring to mind the plight of other tourist-heavy destinations I have visited; the unrecoverable wastelands of Calangute in Goa, India – Koh Pan Yang, Thailand – Barcelona, Spain.

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In some neighbourhoods near the city centre, cafeteria-like pastelarias normally a fixture on every street corner are fast being replaced by crisply designed coffee shops and brunch cafes, complete with Scandinavian designed furniture and 9euro eggs Benedict. As I seek out the former and mumble my way through ‘un cafe ii pastel da nata’, I realise the threat of losing these local institutions is more than just aesthetic; these normally family-owned businesses are the meeting place for locals to have their daily espresso and a yarn. They are a habit of the young and old; an open invite to the resident drunk and the white-collar worker to wish each other bom dia and sit alongside one another on old metal chairs and wobbly plastic tables as equals. It is – with 60 cent espressos – a neighbourhood lounge room, where the members are not divided along the lines of class or economy. The decline of such places is surely a concern, not just for lovers of a solid dark roast, but for social cohesion, integration and the community relationships that are a backbone to the Portuguese identity.

You are one of us.

I am a little startled by the comment.

Goa is one of our colonies. When people here see you, it’s no big deal. You are Indian, one of ours. We made you.

As an Australian citizen of Indian descent who has never been to Portugal this is an unexpected sentiment with which to be received. Nevertheless this woman is beaming at me like a kindred spirit, her own skin so tanned as to make her racial identity ambiguous, her own features a concoction of influences like so many I meet here.

Such perspectives are likely the exception, not the rule, as although Portuguese are welcoming, they are also notoriously conservative. Nevertheless, I do find it easier to slip by unnoticed here than in other European cities. People tend to address me in Portuguese or Spanish, unless my confused expression gives me away. I start to notice what would normally be considered ‘Indian’ features upon the faces of locals; the brows and bridges that fray between the beginnings and endings of empires.

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Further up town between Martim Moniz and Intendente, police casually patrol the streets and ambulances wail not infrequently throughout the day, articulating the blurred boundary between the newly paved Largo Intendente square and the rest of the old neighbourhood. Painted tiles gleam upon cafes, artist studios and restaurants, and the shadowed veins of smaller alleyways lead to former havens for drugs and prostitution. Intendente is being forcibly made-over by the government in an effort to combat the historical penchant for crime in the area. Buildings are thick with scaffolding as their facades are renovated and more and more Airbnb accomodations are cropping up. But such changes graze skin-to-skin with an immigrant working population from African, South Asian and South East Asian descent that has carved out a neighbourhood in which they can afford to work and raise their children.

A Muslim man in his crisp white attire and cap is standing out front of his halal butcher, eyeing me with some surprise before I realise I’ve perhaps wondered too far. Looking up, the balconies and window arches have shifted from the picturesque to functional. Every inch of available clothing line is used; heavy sheets and the billowy sails of selwar kameese, saris, turban cloths and thobes rustle overhead like unquiet histories.

 

In the breezy backstreets of Graca, I am given time to contemplate such frictions. The houses are aged and laneways lead me to forgotten ruins overlooking million dollar views of the city. A woman trudges past me carrying bags of groceries to brightly-painted apartment blocks. Graffiti hangs thick on the walls.  As I wind my way down the streets back towards town I see elderly men milling around hole-in-the wall barber shops, muffling quiet discussions to their friends and watching me with interest as I walk past. Doorways lead to dusty stores laden cool in the shadows. They are full of watch accessories, used cutlery, painted ceramics and espresso cups nestled quietly among kindred bric-a-brac. Ladies with soft arms hang their wrists over balconies and natter to those on other floors as though on the phone. I potter along and try not to slip on the oily stoned pathways as those above take me in quietly. Here too there is the odd art studio, the hipster cafe chalk board offering avocado toast. The young woman inside smiles at me, and another sits focussed on reading her Macbook screen. I find myself thinking I would like to go there sometime and wonder what it is that makes it different to the inner city coffee shops I so adamantly loathe. It is, I decide, its subtlety. The humility and non-threatening of its presence among an old neighbourhood of locals. (Or so my idealistic perception narrates).

Rua de Escola Politecnica bustles with traffic throughout the day and the night. Bordering Principe Real Gardens, the area is a hot spot for tourists and travellers as well as trendy local yuppies, with concept branding stores, specialty gin and wine bars inhabiting the innards of the heritage buildings dotted across the neighbourhood. The gardens themselves, like those arising every kilometre or so across Lisbon, sustain a hive of activity throughout the day, with crescendoes in the early evening hour as beers and wines cluster upon tables to end the day’s work. On weekends these gardens also house fruit and vegetable markets, speciality olive oil and even home-made bread, paying homage to the quality foodie culture for which we love such European cities.

Within a few streets of the gardens there is Thai, Mexican, Japanese, Italian, and even Spanish. (Portuguese too, if you look a little harder). After three weeks in Europe, I opt for Thai and my friend Leif and I tetris ourselves into the tight configurations of yellow table cloths and brass cutlery around 9pm for a reasonably good Thai meal. By the time we re-enter the street at 10:30, it is a bloated, beer guzzling, zoo of an Irish/English/American/
Australian/French/German bucks night. Groups teeter outside bars holding two or three cups of beer, eyes delirious and searching out cheap feeds and cheaper booze. Some are on pub crawls and others have fashioned their own. We make a bee-line out of there, bumping shoulders with dark skinned hawkers making their way into the mess with forearms full of fluorescent plastic sunglasses, lighters and disco light halos. Revellers – local and foreign – will holler drunkenly through the backstreets until the late hours of the night. By morning the cracks of the stones will be studded with cigarette butts sealed in with dried vomit and decorated with crushed plastic cups.  It will be removed diligently by street cleaners in preparation for the next night’s affair.

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The elderly couple who own the tabacaria downstairs from my apartment teach me new phrases each day I am there. We make our way through from ‘good morning’ to ‘good afternoon’ and ‘good night’, from ‘see you later’ to ‘are you well?’. He counts my change out loud and lays out the notes and coins in a row, guiding me to repeat the words with him. They respond to my greetings in earnest, a teacher’s pride present in their beaming faces.

Most locals in the city speak English, Portuguese and Spanish, often reverting to English when they hear me stutter my way through an order. But I implore them to persist in teaching me Portuguese, and if they have time, they do.

We are a generous people. And this is what I worry about. That this generosity will be taken advantage of, and that we will lose our kindness.

Ingrid takes the 28 tram to work every day. It used to take her 15 minutes. Now it takes her 40 as she has to wait for a tram that is not filled with tourists. She and Tiago tell me of this and other worries, but nevertheless they house me, feed me, and tell me emphatically that I should return to Lisbon.

With the second-lowest birth rate in Europe (after Italy), embracing newcomers is part of a larger national plan to keep this flourishing city as a forerunner among the EU’s own brand of Tiger economies. The fruits of such awareness, alongside a conscious effort to attract skilled foreign immigrants, is evident in the emergence of bustling hubs of co-working spaces, artist studios and state-funded estates of entrepreneurial creative industries. Innovators from across Europe, the West, and Portugal collaborate with an emerging generation of Lisboetas, driving a surge in start-ups previously unseen in these parts. There is a palpable energy in these spaces; a tangible aspiration for change.

It takes week of being in the city to realise that what is unsettling me is the light. Accustomed to the charcoal alleys of Melbourne and the shadows expected of big cities, to be surrounded with pastels and light refracted off the oily Lioz stone suspends me from gravity somehow. Some afternoons, the undulations of pathways and the echoes of sunlight feel to be some secret alchemy, washing the streets with liquid footsteps and a sense of imminent possibility.

James leads the way, and Leif and I follow. It has become later than expected and the three of us are slowly rolling down the incline of the loose alley grids. A poster boy for what is possible in a city like this, the success of his start-up has connected him not only to the businesses in the city, but intimately to the people seeking to live and work there. There is no separation between client and friend; a loving kiss for each cheek as is the Portuguese way.

As we walk James points out different areas and directions, naming the estates that are going to be built. The design hubs and artist centres. His eyes glint as he talks.
You’re sort of building your own community here, aren’t you?
I try and quiz him on his vision but he shirks me with a gentle smile.
Anything is possible.

When we get to an old Art Deco building he presses a buzzer and a short shrunken faced man with white hair and an old fashioned concierge-style cap opens the door and eye-balls us dubiously. James does the talking – in Portuguese – and soon we are nodded in. It is dark and soft inside, the glass doors are gold detailed, the parquetry immaculately maintained, and heavy wooden tables shine glossy with the faces of somnambulant ‘50s dames. I realise during my time there that a few of such places are hidden throughout the city, defending themselves against tourist debauchery, one shrunken Portuguese doorman at a time.

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Over at the Padrao dos Descobrimentos a cascade of 33 giant explorers push artfully over one another as Henry the Navigator looks out to sea to lead their next expedition. Completed in the 1960s, the monument celebrates the ‘Age of Discovery’ throughout the 15th and 16th centuries when Portuguese colonies and businesses were established throughout the Atlantic, the coast of Africa, India and Spain. Fixed to the northern bank of the Tagus river, the stunning structure of steel and cement perfectly captures the hope and endless possibility that those first explorers likely felt – though the view of the bay alone conjures a similar exhalation.

We are open. We are used to having mixes.
She says this to me when I tell her how welcomed I have felt.
You know we were not like other colonisers. We intermarried.
Some part of me wants to add, ‘yes, you raped’, but I don’t because I don’t mean it with malice. I am only alluding to the fact that Portuguese methods of colonisation – such as intermarriage – likely had their own ethical or moral concerns, rather than being due to open-mindedness or inclusivity.
Actually, you have very European features.
She says this as though it is a compliment. I smile politely, thinking about the power of stories.

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When I go to meet Mauro on the street he is in a metal chair on the footpath drinking a beer. In Portuguese, beer is a woman and wine a man, but I don’t like beer and so I order coffee. The man behind the counter recalls me from the day before. His English isn’t great so we gesture at each other, unfolding an elaborate sketch of animated hellos and goodbyes.

This is something that I notice. A sense of familiarity that arises so quickly from the faces I have passed through the illusory expanses of the city. After just a few visits, I get familiar nods from the people at the garden kiosks, or the old men at the pastelarias. The city may be adjusting to foreigners, but its people do not want to yield to such othering. It knows itself and asks you to know it too. It asks, but does not demand.

Such intimacies are often what city-dwellers get misty-eyed about when recalling their last trip to Europe, or a little town in *insert romantic getaway here*. Back home, our streets become more dense but we seem to be more foreign to one another. I buy coffee at the same place every so often over the last year, but it’s busy and it’s a tourist attraction and the staff always ask me ‘what’s your name?’, but they want to know so they can type it into the screen for my order, not so that they can know me and say good morning.

I recall my friend’s fears of his city losing it’s identity and I wonder if it is the loss of these small connections that start to chip away at a communal bloodline. Pleasantries offered as a formality for transactions, or faux propriety, replacing the intuitive micro-transfers of acknowledgment that fulfil our human needs for belonging; for connecting to the shared strata of place. There is something in our tone, a subtle but definite difference. The lines blurring all the time.

Leif relocated permanently from New York six months ago, and even though he is learning Portuguese, people often still treat him like a tourist.
They take one look at me and then speak to me in English.
I express my commiserations, as we both quietly acknowledge the handicap of blue eyes, fair skin and a ginger beard in a place like Lisbon; it is undoubtedly hard for white Americans to shake the foreigner stigma. The same stigma, he tells me, that finds him incessantly propositioned on the streets of Thailand or heckled with aggression by racketeering taxi drivers in Cambodia.

We do not often think about these inbetweeners in the spaces of travel. There are tourists and residents, and of course the old question of ‘are you a traveller or a tourist?’ (cue adventure tourism advertisement). But increasingly there are those transitioning from tourist, through traveller, into resident, negotiating the jagged edges of isolation that can exist in those same impossible vowels I find so intimate. In a world that is increasingly absurd, it is increasingly normal to pick up and start elsewhere. And when a country beats its drum the way Portugal has, no doubt that those longing will come for it. The question remains of what constitutes enough, and whether that clarion call to growth and progress will yield to the lessons of other places like it.

This is my favourite spot.
There is a mild breeze at dusk and people are gathered on the large stone terrace looking out at the view across the harbour. Even though there is so much history in the buildings around us, there is something youthful about the city. Giddy with a sort of juvenile excitement. As though it doesn’t know what it is yet.

I’ve heard varyingly that Lisbon is a place that will reflect whatever you throw at it back to you.  I can’t help but wonder what it means for me. In the few weeks I am here I ingratiate myself to its charm, trilling bom dia at every corner, whilst complaining hypocritically all the while about the impact of (fellow) tourists. I try and know the city, wink at its corners and beckon it to tell me more. But it is coy and discerning. Flirtatious but firm. Somehow it knows that I am seeking. That I am curious to know more.

On my last night there  James, Leif and I have dinner at an Israeli restaurant and go for a drink at Fox Trot. It’s late and the moon is full. Afterwards we smoke cigarettes on the street, and I linger as the night ends.

When we say our goodbyes, I feel the sudden weight, and think it must be that of departing.
But then James calls out after me: Lisbon will miss you.

And as the words leave his mouth, I realise I will too.

 

 

Venetian masks: Venice & Bologna, July ’18

His name is Victor. He is sitting by the step and I amble nearby waiting for my friends to come out of the shop. I’ve been seeing others like him since Bologna. They stand on street corners – stand, not sit – holding hats and beanies. Some of them, more industrious, will weave through the streets and offer an open hand as though they are an old friend checking if you have any change. They sometimes say ‘please’, or utter a few words I can’t understand. They sometimes look urgent and fearsome. But they are not like the ‘beggars’ that I know of. Their demeanour, the square of their shoulders, the weight of their stance, does not suggest to me that they are surrendered to their situation, to this place in society. Some of them bounce on their toes, flicking their caps up and down quickly, as though rapping an absent finger against a desk or a thigh. This is what I sense: restlessness, an impatience to move on from this place and to the next. An energy that shows this situation has not yet been accepted, habituated to.

His name is Victor, and when I drop a coin into his cap he looks at me, eyes wide, an emphatic ‘thank you’ and a shake of the head in ode to the exasperation of this vocation. I have been waiting for a chance to speak to one of these guys. To feel comfortable enough to reach out despite everything that women are told about speaking to strange men who are asking for money in foreign countries. I have been waiting for a chance to verify whether the things we read about in Australia, that we see in documentaries and news reports about the European refugee crises, equate to this. Is this man a refugee? An asylum seeker dumped here in Italy with no place to go? Is he fleeing civil war? Persecution?

His name is Victor and he is from Nigeria. He came over four years ago on a boat of 75 people. The boat left Libya at 10:30pm and by approximately 7am they were breaching the shores of Italy’s south coast. This route is among the most treacherous reported by Amnesty International. Victor says they call it the ‘journey of no return’: either you die, or you get to the other side. Either way, you don’t come back.

Why did he come?

Everyone tells me: you are from Nigeria? Such a rich country! Go back to your country! You are not a refugee!

But Victor cannot work in his country any more. There aren’t enough functional resources in his town for him to run his phone accessories shop. The less than two hours of electricity they receive each day is dwindling as grid power is sold to neighbouring countries, and increasing corruption means a man like him can’t get a job. He has a wife and a four year old daughter: her name is Desdemona.

His friend made the trip to Italy and found a job in Venice. He was lucky. Others, not so much.

People here are racist. Even if you do the work, they don’t pay you, they treat you badly. It is better to do this, he waves his open cap, than work for them.

But your friend got a job? I query him. He rattles off a phrase I don’t catch and holds up four fingers. I look at him puzzled. You don’t understand? He smiles.

You cannot judge a hand by each of the fingers. You get what I am saying? My friend was lucky, so far I am not, but I have faith in God. I pray and have faith that things will get better.

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One of the things I love about visiting places like Italy is seeing the wear of time upon the architecture, the gradient colours formed when plush age-and-sun-kissed palettes of terracotta, plum and pink are bled upon by mysterious moistures and decay, abstract water paintings unveiling themselves on street corners and by the piping of air conditioners. Stems break through cement window sills, stubborn on their venture, and cracks form as extensions of the loping eaves. There is a continuity to the discord. A seeming affection to the way in which the old is overcome by the new, and the aesthetic of time-passing is reflected upon passers-by.

Such beauty is the stablemate of the continent. It’s reliable postcard offering. An old-world charm lives on through the thousands year old histories frozen into deep archways and dramatised bodies raised and gazing over cities and streets in testimony to a faith and culture still exoticised across the West as the visionaries for the greatest of romance, culture and art. But what interests me most is the questions that are confronted when these buildings begin to crumble and hollow of their use: what should be changed and what preserved? Is the function – ergonomic or aesthetic – of the past more important than the present? Is it better to live among the tenets of a bygone era or construct a reflection of the contemporary? What else is implicitly being decided when a decaying wall is lacquered? When a quiet church is converted to a retail fashion outlet? What does it mean when political slogans taint the facades of cultural icons? Is it not the living friction of time passing; the embodiment of multiple histories fighting for the space and matter upon which to be seen?

These questions heighten my awareness to the patterns of social cohesions and those of slight and fracture that occur alongside these spaces; the sub-economies of these terrains otherwise arranged to fit the eye to the nostalgia that we have conjured for so long alongside Bohemian novels and Hollywood. It is easy to forget, when idolised, that these places and stories too must grow into and out of the things that we ask of them. That their characters, like the buildings, decay and ruin, and devise themselves anew. Scribbled upon the walls and arches are the catch cries of emancipation demanded from new generations disenfranchised by the bricks and mortar of their city. No matter where in the world you go, the quest for agency from the past persists. In some cases, it is the quest for agency from one’s present.

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It’s only 10 days old, he remarks. We look upon the sleek exterior of the elegant black gondola, golden angels affixed to its edges, head and tail, as though an emblematic jaguar jutting from a car bonnet. When I arrived I was frustrated that they all looked so new. I wanted to find an old one, an ‘original’. I wanted it to feel authentic.

Tomasz is 26. He wears a black and white striped t-shirt, like all the gondola men along the canals of Venice. It is a uniform, a costume, denoting both function and a homage to a caricature that they all attempt to fulfil. The character that we come to Venice expecting. Some of them add to it with a straw hat, whilst others nonchalantly disrupt it with a visible Nike tick across their sneakers. Most of them live at least 20 minutes away, he tells us. The ‘locals’ that is. The city is sinking by two to four millimetres each year, making a future inheritance dubious to young Venetians. And anyway it is too expensive to sustain a home or livelihood within the city walls.

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We listen as he rows, but are soon lost in the beauty of the city. It is undeniable. The enchantment of ever shifting water whispering down each corridor, echoing against doorways of aged and weathered wood offering ornate brass faces with which to open them. We shrink willingly beneath the storeys of Moorish window panes and wall-to-wall decadence of wrought iron fixtures against rich hues, magenta through forest green. We drink it up and twinkle child-like, warbling in the cool shadows, before the narrow boat is released out into the main canal, the Adriatic turquoise expanse glistening magnificent in the peak of afternoon sun. Domed giants teeter at the edge of the water and micro-figures cluster and splay beneath their shadows. A golden wind-teller holds his flag, swivelling with the gust.

One of the mornings I rise early and make my way through the streets, hoping for an espresso and sweet Italian pastry to start the day. It is 8am and only a few shops are open, but I find one and eke out a corner for myself among tables aligned by the window. Sellers are arranging their wares and dusting the glass in preparation for another day of the performance of this city. Dark-skinned men push large curtained carts heavy with Venetian masks, key chains and assorted souvenirs through streets.

It brings to mind the crew back stage at the theatre, pushing about the props and lights ahead of the performance. Most who come to Venice can agree that that is what it is: a city that performs itself, crafted upon centuries of awe-inspiring beauty transmitted through the eyes and mouths of all those lucky enough to witness it. Our gondola driver Tomasz, and no doubt so many of the locals that have left the city, are clearly resigned to this unstoppable phenomena. The city has transcended itself, become a gestalt with only limited agency over the stories that are told of it. Some relish in its myth, while others endure it. But certainly those who keep this fairytale moving have come in from far and wide, inserting themselves into the ornate supply-chain that keeps the enchantment churning for its visitors, one laughing mask at a time.

I don’t see Victor again, but the next time I see someone like him standing with an open cap I pull my coins out in advance. Some part of me feels like I know a different back story now, and maybe it is not the story of every one of these men, but it could be.  I drop the coin in his cap and he beams at me in surprise and gratitude. Good luck.

Later in the main square we see tourists crowded around the railings of a bridge giggling and taking photographs of an impressively large piece of graffiti tagged onto the side of a building in the canal. It reads “Bombing for peace is like fucking for virginity” in capital letters.

If not for these small indentations upon the narrative, it is easy to fall in stride with the beauty of a place like Venice. It’s narrow corridors preach quiet solitude, it’s canals a reflective relaxation, it’s windless squares are restive. The architecture almost breeds passivity. Time passes as though it cannot be acted upon by force or will.

Nevertheless, most people who visit Venice don’t feel the need to visit again. It is a novelty. An exquisite dish that excites the palate, but dissipates with no aftertaste.

How many places around the world must feel this way to us passersby, who will come home and reaffirm hundreds of years of its tales, in turn sending another hoard of us to its shores. Our ability to believe an enchanted past, despite the rumblings of uncertain present, a trick of history and mime, like so many gondolas glistening upon the canal.

 

 

 

 

(Re)negotiating identities: Hippie, what? Goa, 18 (II)

They are a parasite, he says.
They find a host tree that they like, grow around it and suck up all its nutrients, strangling the tree and taking over its shape. They’re basically killing the tree.

They’re suffocating it.
That’s the only way they can live.

/

Sunrise vinyasa, Hatha, Iyengar, Ashtanga,
Pranayama, Tantra, Osho meditation, Ayahuasca,
Reiki, Hula, Poi, DMT, 
Lomi Lomi, Ayurveda, Mud-bath,
Pancha Karma,
 Uropathy, Acupuncture, Buddhist chanting,
Kambo frog medicine
, Erotic dance, Wild women circle, African drumming…

I peel back one of the signs to see what is beneath: The symbol Om is printed in the corner. A small body soars across its page. I can make out the words “TANTRIC MIDGET TOSSING, 500 RPS PER MIDGET. 200 RPS PER DOG”. A phone number is listed.

/

Appearing like something out of Where the Wild Things Are, they emerge in all sorts of places along the streets of North Goa, their sinewy frames simultaneously haunting and enchanting, knuckles and boughs smoothly imitating the tendons and nerves of the human body as though a million men writhe beneath their bark. Tendrils reach from their archways and sway weighty in the wind, whipping the faces of those who ride through.

* * *

In the photographs, a few hundred young men and women roam a pristine coastline, dressed variously in elephant collared shirts, neutral toned linen and leathers, and the trademark Bohemian garb of the Woodstock generation. Palm trees lean cinematic behind their silhouettes, captured in various states of wandering, dancing and conversing. One shows a woman sitting before an open shawl housing small balls of what looks like animal droppings (it is hashish). Her handwritten sign reads: MANALI SHIT. She is almost stoic beneath her matted locks, surrounded by revellers hazed and languid. It is the late 1970s in Anjuna Beach, Goa.

Image by Jacque Lastry

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The girls at Twice the Garden look the part but their feather earrings are made of plastic and cost Rs.50. I know because less than a fortnight ago my own faux-feather earrings revealed their bleached veins to me and I rued my juvenile Ishka-buying ways. Swaying along to a bassy Om Namashivaya remix bellowing from a speaker mounted by a plaster-cast Natarajah’s feet, I inadvertently catalogue my way through the outfits around me, recollecting the festival gear frenzy of Melbourne over summer. Most of the tie-dye clothes and tribal accessories I see can be bought at the local shops along the main drag in Arambol; Ali Baba pants made of cheap cotton, acid-wash polyester t-shirts screen printed with images of Shiva, Buddha and Ganesha, crop tops and strappy dresses of viscose  and pleather in earthy maroons and mustards. Detailed with Rajasthani patch-vests, semi-precious stones, and hard-scavenged nomad treasures, many almost look the real-deal.

/

‘Australia!? I’m pretty good aren’t I? See how I could guess?’

The lanky fellow speaks to me across the windy upper berth of a bamboo-built eco-cafe; a regular haven for the wifi needy of Ashvem beach. His accent is British, but he quickly informs me that he has some Spanish-Moroccan ancestry, the whites of his eyes glinting against his otherwise liberally bronzed and sand-dusted skin.

Max is a yoga teacher. He teaches a new kind of yoga that only a few people know how to do. He has been practising it for years. One of his key contributions to the development of the practice – reportedly rooted in an Indian lineage somewhere – is that one must drink all liquids through the nose. It’s a yogic practice, he informs me. A woman woven with leather straps and feathers giggles in the crook of his arm as he tells me. ‘She’s from Germany. We met last night at the Holi party’. The woman smiles at me. ‘Actually, she met me drinking red wine through my nose’.

* * *

In early 2014 I travelled India solo.

I’m not sure if it was three weeks in low-season Rishikesh, waking to the glacial Ganga every morning and reading scripture and philosophy that I had never before had the interest, nor maturity, to absorb. It could have been the immense clarity brought on by a 10-day Vipassana in the foothills of the Himalayas in Nepal and the intense relationships and transcendental experiences that followed. It could even have been the simplicity and synchronicity that only a place as full of chaos-forced harmony like India can deliver. But more likely, or perhaps in equal measure, it was the fact that I had packed my bags in Melbourne with an intention of finding something true of myself – something that years of cynicism and depression caused by corporate Western city-living had all but erased. I went to India to be saved. And perhaps because of this, India saved me.

Street art – Rishikesh 2014

Is it an illusion? Is it something of the soil? Is it the weighty and ornate presence of idols and worship forcing trespassers to question their faith? Or is it the desperate need for the insulated Western citizen to experience a terrain of raw anti-fragility in order to know they are alive?

Whatever it may be, India’s lore precedes it’s travellers, hundreds of thousands whom make their tracks across this bloated and burgeoning country in seeking. And consciously or not, we follow the paths of those others who came before us. We cash in our privilege for a few months, or a few years, roaming the city-pockets we can afford on the cheap, finding hilltop labyrinths that serve meditation and yoga, (and bang lassi); places that allow us to live an alternate life to one ruled by Western values of propriety and culture;  that allow us to forget the known version of ourselves, and create, discover, (or forget again) a new meaning for our existence.

That/this. It does not happen by accident, but out of necessity. Out of a deep existential despair of humanity to break the bonds that dictate its being – a trait shared along the continuum of those who trek these paths.

/

I look at the photos I find on the internet of the paradise that Goa appeared as in the late ‘80s. The hues of oceanic blues and earthen reds beneath the nostalgic tint of the film romanticise the characters in the images. I look at them and feel a sense of the ‘good old days’, the original rebellion, the Woodstocks and Ginsbergs and Stones, the Lennons and Yokos and No War in Vietnam. I look at the clean beaches, and rue what it has become, questioning the doctrine of the modern-day “hippie” – and of myself here amongst it.

I want to believe we are just at a different end of the timeline, but I wonder if it is more than that. Could it be that the tenets of spiritual belief that were sought and interpreted for the world by many of that pioneering generation have not been diluted with a lesser, more corporatised brand of spiritual consumerism? Those places once considered a mecca for wisdom, becoming outlet malls for self-help?

Image by Jacque Lastry

Or did they too came to India in seeking, only to find themselves constrained by the inability to actualise spiritual beliefs without corrupting those of the host country? Full of ideals of ecology and sustainability, only to be sadly mocked by their tendencies for consumption and comfort.

* * *

Ashvem beach is usually nicer than the others in the North. It is quiet and clean with good sand. But now you need a special ticket to cross the bridge from the river, and glass bottles and plastic rubbish wash up on the shore overnight from the earlier revellers. It’s the worst on Mondays, probably because every Sunday night Riva has a party and everyone goes. Poi and hula hoops are rife on the lawn as the DJ spins psy-trance and Indian and Nepali men in starched whites serve barbecued burgers, salad and cocktails. The cost is Rs.100 to get in.

The main supermarket has a fridge section almost completely labelled in Cyrillic. The grocery seller a few doors down has honed his Russian to a finely nuanced tongue over the last seven years, rebutting his customers playfully in intimate phrases. In some areas of the strip, you would swear you were in Eastern Europe, were it not for the coastline and the sun.

On the day of Holi the main street turns into a rave. Revellers who have been going almost all night are a slicked mess of colour and alcohol by early afternoon. The 24-hour bar is pumping dubstep loud enough to send a vibration down each end of the street. The next morning the remnants of this mindless debauchery is strewn across the paths. Dark-skinned women with bejewelled blouses and multi-coloured cloth tied around their heads will pick through the rubbish, collecting plastic water bottles and other worthy recyclables that can be exchanged for money.

/

We live in a cottage by the river which runs inland near to the beach. Pigs and palm trees cluster across the hilly expanse of reddish dirt, dry grass and brambles between us and the bridge to cross the river. There are four or five houses that run along the make-shift dirt suburb. They were designed by a Danish woman who first came to Goa in the nineties, and has been returning every year since.

When we move in, Aggie – a Goan man, whose wife and family have been running the property for years – comes to greet us. He tells us about the space, about his children who run about (his daughters are both in need of eye surgery in Chennai). He tells us that he takes care of everything and we should invite others to come and stay too. ‘But only nice people’ he says, with a cautiousness of ‘you-know-what-I-mean’. ‘Only smiling people’.

A few doors down, Johnson invites us over for omelettes. He is wearing a checked towel as a lunghi whilst making his coffee, and his large belly protrudes as he greets us jovially with his wide Austrian accent. The wooden sign above his verandah entryway is decoratively painted with his name and his partner’s. They live here six months of the year and have done so for 10 years. Together with Aggie they have expanded the homes, paid for renovations, tended to the animals. ‘Have you seen my dogs?’ he asks us gleefully, as three stray puppies and their mum come nipping at our feet from inside.

/

I came here because I thought it would give me a chance to really look at this. 
To really deal with it, you know?
As she speaks, she self-consciously tucks her hair behind her ear.

I tell her that I do know. I tell her that it can feel crippling, and a I tell her what I do to try and deal with it. We talk of our struggles, our families, and the things we read to help along the way.

Out in front of the sun-beds, women are sitting in lotus and meditating towards the water, as others take photos in yoga poses, and write words on the sand: ‘SHANTI’. It means peace.

/

We rise at 6am to make it to class, dodging school buses and airport pickups across a decrepitly pot-holed road. The early sun imprints a near-fluoro red circle upon the sky. It crests behind the palm trees and paddies that sprawl between homestead restaurants and random shops and pharmacies. Bound against the crisp wind in a scarf and cardigan, I pathetically try and capture it on my phone. But the elation can only be felt in person, zipping through the unwieldy mosaic of facades somehow a reminder of your wholeness amidst the chaos.

Mats in-tow, we walk up the front path without speaking. The stillness of the surrounding foliage, thick and live, seems to sand the wear of the street from our pace.

At its end, a vast red clay-cement platform with angular white pillars and Portuguese-style roof tiles hums a silent welcome. Inside its walls, there is only breath: 40 – 50 bodies on rows of mats not 30cms away from one another, each making their way through the Ashtanga primary series in absolute solitude.

My mind strays with chatter as I wait at the back of the class. I think about Melbourne, our bodies stiff in the car as we try and beat morning traffic to make it to the studio. I think about how long we might stay here, about where we’ll go next.

I look at the outfits people are wearing, their physical feats of strength, their tattoos, their vulnerabilities, the stories I imagine for them, the questions I have about what brought them here.

I sit, and I wonder.
But then she calls my name, as she will each of the others,
and I unfurl my mat,
so that I can stop,

if I am to begin.

* * *

Commonly known as the Ficus, or Fig tree, the Banyan tree cannot spread its seed independently. Rather, the animals and insects that live within its branches and hollows must carry its seed to a fresh host tree in order for it to procreate. The tree is unique in this way: it is not an independent entity, but one that requires carriers of different species in order to spread its seed, and relies upon another tree sacrificing itself as the foundation. The tree itself, cannot survive without this cooperative synchronicity of occurrence. This emergent multi-species collaboration occurs again and again; this gathering of insects, plants and animals of different description recurrently partake in a concerted cycle of biodiversity that allows the tree to survive and grow ever larger, breeding more of its own kind, and assuring a home for those who rely upon it and whom cannot live anywhere else. It lives through this co-creation, while ultimately destroying – or transforming – that which gave it landing. And this process underpins a cyclical chain of regeneration that is vital across soil, insect, animal, and air.

* * *

Lord, have you forsaken me thus? – concept exploration on residence with Art Ecology, Bangalore

This piece was created during a two week residency at Good Earth Enclave in Bangalore, in association with the Art Ecology initiative (co-founded by Veena Basvarajaiah).

An experimental medium, Lord, have you forsaken me thus? is a query of nationalism, religion and identity, as viewed from my perspective as a first-generation Australian of Tamil South Indian descent.

 

Points to note in viewing this work are as follows:

1. The reference to ‘falling between nations’ in the first part of the piece refers to my unclaimed citizenship status at the time of my birth: as per my birth certificate, I was not deemed a citizen of Singapore when I was born there to my Indian parents (who were not Singaporean, but Indian citizens). However, due perhaps to bureaucratic processes, I was also not given an immediate status as an Indian citizen. Rather, it was specifically cited that my birth occurred within the Indian mission of the hospital. For a period of several months therein, my status buoyed untethered between these two nationalities. This is an occurrence I find curious and rife with questions, particularly considering the untethered statuses of so many people that are born in circumstances of severe displacement and humanitarian crises. How does this bureaucratic displacement at the time of birth impact a longer narrative of opportunity and identity-formation throughout ones life? More importantly, how many are born untethered that never receive citizenship? What does that make you? What have we learned this means?

2. The terms ‘new Gondwana-lands’  refers to the name of an ancient supercontinent from the Neoproterozoic period (550 million years ago), from which Australia and Antarctica are believed to have broken off from during the Cenozoic period. This reference is used rather than the term ‘Australia’, in homage to the ever-changing nature of nation states, land masses and continents, which are determined first and foremost by nature.

3. The format of the work is a poetic homage that addresses God (or the idea of God) directly, and via complaints to the ‘Sakhi’, or friend. This format is borrowed from the class of Bharatanatyam dance known as Padams. Padams employ the Sringara Rasa, and denote an emotional tone/expression of romantic love with God. Hence terms such as ‘Petal-lipped One’ or ‘Rubied Saviour’ are used in endearment towards the Godhead, as is commonly articulated in Tamil/Sankrit – English translations of Carnatic music. In this way, the poetry here mimics an English translation of an Indian song that has never existed.

A Note on Process:

Reflecting on my first video art piece, I am keen to improve my technical abilities in shooting and editing for future work. I am also interested in exploring possible narratives that can be articulated in the cross-section between prose, improvisation and video.

Having recorded the key movement aspect during a casual improvisation, with no intentions of using it for this piece, I am struck by the way in which performance and art-making practices speak to each other over a non-linear continuum and address the intention of the artist in unexpected and unplanned ways (that too, often subconsciously). Therapeutic art process often refer to this phenomena as ’emergence’ or ‘content-in-process’, whereby unbeknownst to the art-maker, a medium acts as a reflection or further of a sense or idea that is present within the artist.

Recording the secondary figure, depicting Bharatanatya mudras and movements, and adding this to the interaction with the primary figure, the relationship between the two bodies further serves to articulate the binaries within the performance of identity/ies. In this case, it is the propriety of the moods of ‘classical’ Indian dance in opposition to the casual abstractions of improvisation. Upon my first attempt to perform the piece entirely in a deconstructed Bharatanatyam style, it felt inauthentic to the work. Rather, the focus on my unconstructed self, my placid, introverted and ‘non-trying’ self, spoke to the intimacy of the subject-matter.

These thoughts fuel my ongoing inquiries into what this space of creation offers.

(Re)negotiating identities: Curious gazes, Goa’ 18 (I)

It’s the dogs that keep me awake. Otherwise, I can stand the heat, and the rumblings of traffic that pass from time to time. But it’s the dogs. They bark and bark, aimlessly, for the sake of complaint, or so it sounds. I toss and turn, and pretend it doesn’t bother me. And as though it knows, one will always respond to my attempted nonchalance by stretching its bark long, melodiously like it is the end of its ballad, burning and grazing its call into a mournful low.

***

We amble on the dirt-road outside our compound, waiting for the call-taxi to find us. My room mate – a French-German political science intern – has flagged down a boy from the street to explain where we are to the driver. He is probably not more than 18 years old, as guessed from the younglings of a moustache sprouting above his lip. He starts walking up to the main road and we follow him. His red polyester track pants shine radiantly against the bland dirt road. Every so often he turns his head backwards as he is talking and glances at me, curious. I am familiar with this gaze, though I do note that the gaze is for me, not my fair-skinned room mate. The twins from the compound keep tailing me until I reach the car, their small gold drops dangling by their buzz-cut bobs: ‘Aunty! Your pant is torn!’.
I know, I want to tell them. I spent $190 on these jeans.

The driver pulls up, mildly irate from not being able to find us. He unloads his navigational complaints on the boy and clocks me with a passing flick of his eye as I climb in. But once we start moving, he turns back and has a proper look. There it is again. That curious gaze.

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It occurs to me then, that my tall-haired French-German room mate standing on the road in full salwar kameese is a sight that the locals can blink away. The possible narrative arcs of her presence – and others who appear like her – are well-known, predictable, and accepted without threat. But I am a subtler discrepancy. As I’ve been told before, the styling of my thin glossy hair, the shape of my eyebrows, the gleam of my skin and my sartorial preferences are more difficult to reconcile once noticed. Perhaps because, for all intents and purposes, I am Indian. For what reason, then, could I appear this way?

I imagine myself lean over and touch him gently on the shoulder, my chubby-faced driver with his headphones in. I imagine saying: it’s okay. It’s okay that you can’t understand what I am. It’s okay, really. Look again, and let’s both accept it.

/

It must be strange for you.

She says it sincerely, looking up at me from the day-bed after the seller-women have passed. They heckle all of us to buy beads and sarongs, but when I say ‘no, thanks Ma’am’, they give up sooner, though their gaze upon me trails on behind their steps.

It is. I reply. It’s like, I’m definitely not one of them, but I’m not fully Australian either, you know? On both ends, I am…exotic, or strange… something. I float between the two spaces, like bubbles at the top of a soda.

She is silent, but I feel her nod in understanding. We look up towards the water, letting the thought rest. I unfurl my legs and splay out on the day bed, opening my Kindle and sipping a Coke.

/

Thamizh pesuvela?: Do you speak Tamil?

I always ask eagerly. I am glad when the back of his head nods in response. Thamizha?

Aanh: Yes.

That’s right. I am Tamil.

It is late afternoon and the auto rolls and grinds through Bangalore’s nightmarish after-work traffic. The driver, Samir, pleather-clad with the dark-lined doe-eyes of so many Muslim boys in the district, drops in questions as they come to him.

Where are you from? What do you do? Do you like Bangalore? What’s it like to live in Australia? Is it hot like this? Is the traffic like this? Do you have a husband? Was it a love marriage? What art do you make? Could I live in Australia?

We talk and I titter happily as he compliments my fluency and laughs along with what I tell him. He stops several times to check the route (I have no address, only a hotel name to give him), but he is young and earnest and assures me we will get there somehow. I think to myself that I will tip him for all this effort.

But there is no need for me to make such considerations.

40 minutes later I will walk into the hotel, stuffing my notes into my purse, flustered and upset. I will retrace the steps of our conversation, trying to sift authenticity from our communication. I will berate myself for assuming foreign rules of politeness in engagement. I will block out that moment where his tone changed to begin his bidding, the moment I realised my Tamil lacked the vocabulary to fight back. I will quietly be reminded that I am a foreigner in sheep’s clothing. And I will give him 170 rupees.

***

The family down the street has purchased a Saint Bernard. It is monstrously large and chained up in the front verandah, ogling strangers and no doubt keeping local dogs away from the chickens. There are other special breeds around too: Chow Chows and glossy Cocker Spaniels are walked by familial servants in white half-sleeved shirts. The strays don’t go near these dogs when their minders are around. Looking at them, you can see in the sheen of their coats that all they know is the care and luxury of high-class domestic living.

***

The waiters at the Taj mostly stand in a semi-bow, a state of cat-like readiness should they need to greet their patrons with practiced servitude. My friend’s partner, an Indian expat himself, attempts to joke with them, but they receive his humour as reflecting dissatisfaction and, apologetically, only work harder to please.

Neatly dressed Indians, expats and foreigners alike are arrayed across the settees, ordering grossly overpriced food and cocktails with careless flicks of the hand. I realise that I receive no curious gazes here. Instead, an unbreakable hierarchy is at play between guests and staff; it is impolite, insulting even, to try and interfere with its order. It is articulated at all times between wait staff and patrons by a measured distance of standing. It recalls its own caste system, reminding me of my last trip to a temple in Chennai where a “low caste” man humbled himself to the ground for nearly bumping into an Iyer priest.

We eat dinner and the bill comes to Rs.6400.

My earlier folly begins to sink in and I quietly acknowledge Samir and his bidding.

/

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Thankyou.

Welcome.

I am too engrossed in typing to look him in the face, and frankly, he doesn’t give a shit. I am the only Indian-looking person at this place, and I have to accept what that makes me; or is it what I am? Whatever the case I resume my focus and order a soda water to pass the time.  I am a patron at this beach side restaurant in Goa, and that’s all I need to be.

The bikini-clad Europeans tanning on the sun beds barely flinch as the local seller girls walk up to them. One woman asks to take a photo and the two Goan girls pose for the camera, before resuming their bidding. I see them shaking hands and smiling. A good price for my friend.

Down by the shore a stout middle-aged caucasian man plays soccer with the local boys. His skin is sun-drenched, camouflaging him momentarily, but he can’t be missed, carefree in play as his dirty white jocks jiggle their wares.

Occasionally, men high on bang and whatever-else stream down from further up the shore, trying to ‘befriend’ the tourists sun-baking in their petit two-pieces. For a culture submerged in principles of modesty, this is an overwhelming feast for the eyes. But the lifeguards come down from their post to shoo them away, as burly Russian men raise from their tanning to bark their disdain.

/

When I was younger, my relatives in Chennai would lend me their children’s clothes, and I would fade into the background of 40th street in Nanganallur. Except when I would beckon a stray puppy to follow me home, or a calf at our gate would bring me running from the verandah, calling for a banana to slip onto its sandpaper tongue. The women of the street peering down from their balconies would smirk, bemused, as they combed their long oily hair. She’s Lakshmi’s girl: my Aunty would call. Australia lenthu vandirka.

/

She says, Don’t stretch your hand to him, as I move towards Gundu, opening my palm. He is barking and trembling, fiery eyed.

He used to be a stray before we adopted him. When you offer him your hand, it triggers some sort of trauma for him.

I coo at him naively, but withdraw my hand and back away as he watches me wearily.

/

At some point I have to give up. Give up attempting to know the unknowable systems and spaces that I inhabit here. For all of it’s difference, my status as an anomaly – as the bubble rising to the top of the glass, neither part of the water nor the air – is shared across millions in our diaspora. These small unfoldings I observe are but the fractured splays of colonisation, immigration and capitalism. It’s not something I can reconcile, although I’d be lying if I said it didn’t bother me sometimes.

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***

‘Now, and the Mind Tears’, immersive installation at Agency Agency, Nicholas Building, Melbourne

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Now, and The Mind Tears

you walk down the street 
youve stared too long at nothing
something steps your miss
you are where?

An installation exploring the existential quandary of the city-dweller, inquiring into apathy and conscious renunciation as a response to the chaos of contemporary life.

This work intersperses writing from the Hindu scripture known as the Avadhut Gita (Song of the Freewith reflections written by the Artist.

The Avadhut Gita is poetic scripture based on the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta (non-duality), which posits that the individual soul is comparable to the highest metaphysical reality.


‘Nectarean’

Of Nectar; ‘life-giving drink of the Gods’

Compound of
     ‘Nek’- coming from “death” (necro), and
‘tar’- coming from ‘tere’ to cross over, pass through or overcome:

– that which overcomes death

 

ARTIST STATEMENT:

I present this work as my first public installation, inquiring into how the themes of poetic verse can be communicated through immersive and experiential means.

You are invite to enter this work and make your way through to the centre, reading as much or as little of the text as you would prefer.

I am curious about the potentiality for non-traditional readings to communicate new messages and would love to know about your experiences should you wish to share them. Please find some pages for you to leave your thoughts at the back of the room on the ledge.
 

About the Avadhut Gita:

The Avadhut Gita is believed to have been anonymously written during the 9th or 10th Century BC. Later accreditations to the author as ‘Sri Dattatreya’ have been proffered, but historians cannot validate this character. The poetic translation used in this work comes from Swami Abhayananda.

“Throughout history, it has been the contention of the mystics of all cultural traditions that the “vision of God” reveals man’s essential oneness with Absolute Being, awakening him to his true, eternal Identity. Prior to such divine illumination, say these mystics, man suffers under the mistaken illusion that he is a limited and finite being, separate and distinct from other beings, who possesses his own individual identity.”

The Artist and Agency Agency would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation, and pay our respects to their elders past and present.

We note that this performance takes place on land that was appropriated violently and against the will of the First Australians. We also acknowledge that sovereignty has never been ceded and the Australian Government continues to systematically persecute and abuse Aboriginal people in Australia.

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THE STUDIO: AGENCY AGENCY
Agency Agency exists as a place of space for provocateurs of the unconscious. Double-agents of agency Dario Vacirca, Nick Roux, Nithya Iyer and Ching Ching Ho operate in service of the proverbial people, creating and facilitating critical media, reflections and manipulations for individual and mass de-sedation. Agency Agency can assist with locating one’s agency, ensuring all holes in the matrix are quickly exacerbated, and calculated ruptures to modus operandi are executed. “On-world” services include experimental performance and arts-inquiry, intercultural theatre arts translation, sound and video design, critical writing, research and scholarship, and all other forms of creating. For more information, insert message through the space-time continuum here, or alternatively phone/email as follows.

 

 

 

Apathy & Democracy: Reflections on a Sunday of protesting Manus

The following reflection was written whilst sitting on the tarmac outside Flinders St station, Melbourne, with protestors from the Artists Against Abuse initiative. It was the third protest against the treatment of the refugees in Manus held that day and it was also the smallest, commencing with a performance outside the National Gallery of Victoria to urge the termination of their contract with Wilson Security – a company involved in running our detention centres.

—–

I guess this is the closest I am going to come to being in a conflict zone. (Ha. Sheltered much?) I’m sitting on St Kilda Road outside Federation Square and Flinders Street Station alongside 100 or 150 protestors who are also sitting or standing, and some of whom are singing. Opposite them on the road are what feels like nearly 100 police officers, eight or ten on horses. People of all ages and backgrounds.

It never occurred to me until just now that this is where protest ‘ends’ – in attending to the final picket line and the stalemate that happens when the protestors and the police meet and it becomes a wait out. Who will last longer? How will the protestors be removed?

I am shocked by the level of police force that is being shown. I can’t understand it. I feel like there was less police force shown at the Australia Day protests, which had thousands more people. Later people will tell me that it’s because of how big all the other protests have been, or a show of force for the media, or that it’s to quash any attempts at violence, or out of genuine concern for how big the rally could become (no one knows).

There is also the absurdity: The protestors carrying banners reach within half a foot of the police blockade and then… nothing. They stand. Onlookers pause, probably waiting for the scenes they have observed so often on television of screaming protestors being dragged from the street. But it doesn’t happen. Cigarettes get passed. People take turns carrying the banner. After a while, the grim looking police with their hands clasped before them start to loosen up and chat amongst themselves. (This makes them lose the veneer of ‘evil oppressor’ somewhat.) Protestors attempt to keep holding up their gesture, fists crossed at the wrists above their heads, but we are hot and tired and it doesn’t last long. There is a palpable sense that no one knows what comes next – some of us are beginners, adhering to our roles in this strange theatre of democracy. We the people object, here we are objecting, and then…..?

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Artists Against Abuse picket line.

3:16pm: the refreshments are being brought out. Umbrellas, Starbursts, muesli bars and sunscreen for the protestors, bottles of water for the police. Everyone is woefully underprepared for a long-term sit-in (a knowledge that tinges the environment with a sense of idiocy). I assume I appear on the side of the protestors, and I am too , but at the same time the reason for my presence has morphed. I am here because I am curious about the state of the Machine – how is this supposed to work? How is this accommodated within our system of governance and democracy? The half a foot between the protestors and the police is a chasm quickly filling with questions. In this scenario, there is the unspoken but overwhelming evidence that eventually the protestors will leave (they do) because they are not equipped to take on 100 police and 10 horses. Perhaps, though, the protestors don’t care for that; perhaps they just want to stall city traffic for four hours on a Sunday afternoon – a fair disruption some might say. But what each person wants to do, what each person expects, how far each person is willing to go – this is a mystery. It wasn’t on the Facebook event: “must be willing to get arrested”. The only certainty, it seems, is that the police will win.

I wonder: What if there was 10,000 of us? What if St Kilda Road was packed solid with our bodies? What then? How would we be cleared off? How would this affect the choices made?

It is tense.

//

(I think about how Police States begin. I think about how revolutions are started. I think about my partner, and safety, and moving to Portugal.)

//

I regret that at some point I will have to leave. I am not willing to be arrested or forcibly removed. I am too scared. After all, I only just started my career as a reporter 15 minutes ago after getting spooked by the police presence. And now, embarrassingly, I am captivated by the drama.

I wonder how many artists and protestors came today with the intention of staying all day, of sitting in all day. I wonder how many are prepared to be forcibly removed or arrested.

//

A thought gnaws: The fact is that the protestors cannot overthrow the police in this State, no matter the injustice we are protesting. The fact is that we cannot (or just have not been able to) disrupt to the levels that would be necessary in order for citizens to form the kind of threat or volatility that would actualise a change in law or national policy. This one fundamental hinge of democracy has seemingly been dismantled in Australia. The might of civil society, moderated through “anti-terror” laws and protest regulations, seems almost ornamental. Are we pretending to have a democracy?

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GetUp! protest at Federation Square earlier in the day.

//

I come home and tell my partner about everything that has happened and we research more about Manus, about Nauru, about Christmas Island, about detainees being beaten and murdered or sewing their lips together in protest, or killing themselves; about almost 2000 refugees awarded compensation for ill treatment by the Australian Government from the High Court; about women being raped by employees at detention centres; about ex-military open firing on refugees; about Medicine Sans Frontiers being denied access to the men currently held on Manus; the list goes on. We look up these places and they.are tiny little islands, forgettable to the rest of the world, dotted across the northern shelf of Australia. I wonder how much money has been paid to them, I wonder what they have consented to, how they were duped into this agreement. I think about John Pilger and about A Secret Country and I wonder where we actually are living.

I think about what it means that an anti-abortion bill was voted down 31 to 21; that 21 people voted for an anti-abortion bill and that is nearly half of the total count and that is terrifying. I imagine protesting for the rights to my body, and standing at a picket line and knowing I will lose. I think about what happens when it gets to the point where the extremes are more extreme and I wonder if something ugly will have to happen here before something good can come.

//

The previous night I am at a party with my best friends. One of my friend’s is in drag, his checked shirt tied at his belly and his shorts folded up to his thighs. He is wearing red lipstick and an Akubra and playing cricket in his cowboy boots. We drink and laugh and sing and we are as we are, all happy and lost and all nowhere, in a backyard in Coburg with our gaping mouths thrashing out the songs of our youth in some voracious catharsis of living.

Some part of me thinks: this is Australia. And I don’t know what exactly that means and I try to locate it, but it is this indiscernible, ungrounded quagmire of being, where we hold on to the threads of community that we can muster from virtually nothing, thread our sense of displacement into the greater lattice of everyone else’s seeming displacement and hold on to each other, muted to the absence of connection. This is what it seems to me it is to be “Australian”. To go ever deeper into the bland oblivion of an identity that cannot authenticate itself, and cannot recover itself in the face of a globalising world as anything more than a pawn colony for America and Britain. A country with so many secrets that patriotism can only be upheld by shallow and loosely strung tenets of shared suffering and compassion, rather than an acknowledgment of humanity.

I wonder if any immigrant ever knows what it means to move to a Western country. Falling over themselves, we line up and “jump queues” and pay and negotiate to drag ourselves and families and children faraway from homelands that are slowly being ravaged, or that were once so violently raped they remain in disrepair. The spoils are sold back to us by the very countries we now seek protection within; this in itself a delayed act of refuge; a sickly, transnational Stockholm Syndrome. Such genius then, to shower us with comfort, sedate us with economic insulation, assure our loyalties with privilege, and as a last test of allegiance, swear us to believe whatever we are told: cross our hearts and hope to die.

//

I used to pretend to be a social justice activist. I didn’t know I was pretending, but I was. I am not brave enough, passionate enough, selfless enough, faithful enough, to really put my life on the line. I have blinked away hundreds of injustices and gone on with my life of excellent coffee and food and friends and unbelievable privilege. When it gets too much I am empowered to turn the feed off and withdraw. And it’s not because I don’t care: it’s because I am sedate with comfort and assumed powerlessness. This, if anything, is Australia’s disease.

//

Later I am having a drink with a fellow documenting straggler at the protest. We both sense the mounting tension and decide to leave before we are forced. He has a camera and a gorgeous Japanese Akita named Aki. He was around for the anti-apartheid protests of the ’80s.
“What did you do?” I ask him.
“We fought.” he says. “We wore helmets and we organised and we fought. You can’t do it if you can’t get people on the street.”
We both look up at the people celebrating at the Greek festival being held in Federation Square – all of whom have no idea of the protest happening a few hundred metres from them. A newly married couple, glistening in their finery, walk through the square with their photographer.
“I don’t think anybody knows that there is anything to fight”. I sip my drink.
“They’re too comfortable. This country has had too many decades of uninterrupted wealth.” he says emphatically. ” The GFC happens and we roll right through and everyone thinks its going to be fine forever.”

//

Neoliberalism says otherwise. Climate change says otherwise. Populist politics says otherwise. History says otherwise. And any time we do our own research, it says otherwise. But we don’t raise a fuss. We don’t panic. We just carry on. She’ll be right. She always is (right?).

//

No one can force you to protest. You have to want it yourself. And you have to want it because you want to know for yourself whether there is any sense to what we call a society. Whether we are all pretending that this works, or if it actually does. And if it doesn’t, then what? You have to want the answer to that question, not because you’re morally superior, but because you are flesh, and blood and life and your purpose here is to live. And if we are all pretending that this works when it doesn’t, then we need to acknowledge that wilful blindness – even if it is the only coping mechanism we know. We have to acknowledge the reality of how we are governed, and that we consent to it when we are silent. As it stands in this country, 2 + 2 = 5, and one day we might turn around and not see anything wrong with that.

//

I don’t think I have been reformed as an activist. I think, rather, that this small and tame display of what happens when people confront the State machinery, considered against the factual history of this country and its current politics, has put a tangible sense of reality in me. One so sharp that the cushiony goodness of my privilege can’t seem to suppress it.

As I said, no one can force you to protest. But it’s important to know that no matter the petitions that are signed, the phone calls to Ministers made, the long rants on social media, the shares and the cares, change is articulated when actions occur in real time. Possibly when 10,000 or 100,000 people organise effectively and sit on a street refusing to budge until those who govern us exchange ideas with us meaningfully. Until such acts occur, the sentiments we express remain theoretical. For a generation consumed by media and wracked with increasing levels of anxiety, the notion of reality becomes fluid and illusory. It is perhaps because of this that actualisation – of what you claim to believe, of the values you think you uphold, of the humanity you feel in yourself – is where our greatest salvation lies.

At least this is what I think. What about you?

 

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Artist Against Abuse protest at NGV

MOKITA – a secular grieving ritual.

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A durational performance, a ritual, and an invitation, MOKITA is mourning in motion. Exploring grief, and the complex emotions arising from, but not limited to, environmental collapse, Mokita is a participatory, immersive and meditative experience where attendees are invited to submit their grieving to the space and to share in the catharsis

A Kilivila word from Papua New Guinea, meaning ‘the truth we all know, and have agreed not to talk about,’ MOKITA is a performance work that seeks to create a space dedicated to grieving, and asks how we maintain our humanity amongst a time of rapid destruction and change.

Performed by Luna Mrozik-Gawler, Nithya Iyer and Devika Bilimoria, accompanied by sound art by Amy Hanley, and supported by Nardine Keriakous, MOKITA considers the global, environmental and personal grief arising from the  urgent and distressing circumstances that we are surrounded by everyday.

It considers the absence of contemporary, secular spaces to confront difficult emotions such as melancholy, rage or grief.

As Facebook-feeds flood with images of war-ravaged communities, beached whales, nuclear spills, screaming cattle, burning forests and rising waters, how are we to acknowledge this collective emotional trauma? Where are we to put this grief?

MOKITA aims to create a secular contemporary ritual space that answers this need.

It exists as a salve for those unable to process or release their own sense of grief; whether it arises from situations commonly associated with mourning, such as a death, or is a result of any kind of change, or ongoing anxiety.

On the day of this seven hour ritual, participants are invited to confidentially offer their grief into the performance space to be carried through a meditative performative process.

The grief will be individually placed in native seed mottled clay by  participants, and at the conclusion of the ritual, will be planted in the soil surrounding Birdlands Reserve in Belgrave Heights.

In this way our grief, individual or collective, small or insurmountable, will be offered back to land as a contribution towards ongoing revegetation of the site.

MOKITA - HillsceneLIVE Festival 2017

Image by Devika Bilimoria