Change our minds

By Margaret Hollis

In the Macquarie Point vision, David Walsh and Leigh Carmichael have started, among other things, a conversation about how a public space might appropriately refer to the history of Tasmanian Aboriginals, and the relationship of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians. The Mayor of Hobart recently said, after some back and forth, that she would ‘welcome the precinct being renamed to an Aboriginal name, with a sentiment such as “walking together,” recognising that we are all Tasmanians walking together on a path toward the future.’

That’s a beautiful vision, yes? I bet the Mayor wishes she’d said that first.

Fifteen years ago I resigned my lucrative law partnership in Vancouver, sold my house, kissed my sweetie goodbye, and moved to Nunavut, Canada’s newest territory, the Inuit (Eskimo) homeland, genuinely excited by the prospect of working with legislation and a justice system that Inuit themselves were building within the framework of Canadian law, in their own state. Let me tell you what I’ve learned.

I was welcomed in Nunavut. Nobody could doubt my good faith; nobody did. But regularly—sometimes daily—I said things that, although they made perfect and uncontroversial sense to me, caused my listeners to wince, and furtively look at each other wondering how to tell me just how totally fucking wrong, stupid and offensive I had just been. And whether they took me on front and centre, or remained silent, or something in-between, I never felt good about it. I had to learn a new way of talking. I had to learn a new way of listening. I still make people wince, sometimes. I’m still learning.

Pronouns, for example. The politically-correct obsession with pronouns can seem absurdly pedantic. After all, once you’ve mentioned any group by name, ‘they’ is the grammatically correct short form.

But that is not the end of what ‘they’ means. Forgive me for stating the obvious: ‘they’ is not ‘I’ or ‘we’ or ‘you.’ In social terms, ‘them’ is the opposite of ‘us.’ It’s hard on anybody to hear themselves constantly referred to in the third person, neither addressed directly nor implicitly included in the speakers’ point of view. It’s excluding, diminishing.

One of the things the Mayor first said was, ‘Whether they want this to be a shrine, [or] equally if it’s just a place where they can explain their culture and show off some of the things that they do that are very significant to them, well I’d be very supportive of that.’

Out of forty-three words, five are ‘them’ or ‘they.’ Every eighth word or so reinforces the message that Aboriginals are Other.

I repeat: I have myself written sentences this offensive. And then I revise them: ‘If this is to be a shrine, or a place celebrating and exploring Aboriginal culture, well I’d be very supportive of that.’

I’m not saying the rewrite would meet with agreement all around. Taking out the othering effect of the third person and changing ‘show off’ to ‘celebrate’ doesn’t render agreement on the function of the place. It just lets the conversation move forward more easily.

Every time I realise I’ve done something like this—and yes, I still do—I get angry, defensive. It means the same thing! Fucking pronouns! Why does this have to be so picky! We all know I mean well! I climb down gracelessly, blushing… because it doesn’t mean the same thing. It really doesn’t. What makes me so damn uncomfortable is that I have to recognise the difference comes from something in me, something that isolates a group of people who are very different from me, and makes assumptions about ‘them.’ ‘I am not racist!’ I scream inside.

But there it is: like it or not, I occasionally default to assumptions that I have consciously rejected, that I have worked hard to overcome not just in myself, but in laws, institutions and infrastructure design.

No doubt there is survival value in distrusting the stranger; we seem to be hardwired for it. And distrusting someone who has a legitimate grievance against our ancestors… definitely not irrational. But not always useful.

We tend to dehumanise strangers, the people we do not know. The first humanity denied is complexity, individuality. ‘They all look the same.’ We expect a group of strangers to share a worldview and speak with one voice, as though the trait by which we identify them, the difference (Aboriginal, immigrant, gay, whatever) determines their whole being. This just does not work. Defining any person—much less a whole bunch of people—in terms of a grudge I assume they hold against me or my ancestors, for example, is inevitably going to be a huge mischaracterisation.

All of us—all colours, all labels—have to get past our xenophobic assumptions and habits of speech if we are to make things better, and the only way I know is to keep trying. Because every time I rewrite a bad sentence (or, even more embarrassing, have to correct myself in front of live people in real time) it rewires my brain a little bit. It’s humbling.

After fifteen years of this process, I read a sentence like:

‘It’s a place where we just simply acknowledge a tragedy that happened two hundred years ago,’

and I hear:

‘Okay, okay, we acknowledge that a tragedy happened two hundred years ago. Briefly. Simply. And that’s one tragedy, not multiple tragedies; don’t make this complicated. And it was two hundred years ago. Nothing since then, no Aboriginal tragedy since then. Shut up. Shut up. Shut up. I have my fingers in my ears. La la la, lalalalalala.’

(I’m not saying that’s how it would sound to any Tasmanian, Aboriginal or not. I don’t know.)

Now when I read,

‘Whatever happened two hundred years ago is really, really sad, but lots of atrocities have happened. People came away here in ships, torn away from their families for stealing a turnip,’

I note that although we are supposedly discussing an acknowledgment of Aboriginal people, only the non-Aboriginals get called ‘people,’ and have families, even turnips! The embedded message is that the acknowledgement of non-Aboriginal tragedy need not be simple, and is an appropriate topic—even in an exhortation to keep the acknowledgement of Aboriginal tragedy simple.

I repeat: I have used words that way, thoughtlessly, tone-deaf. Of course the Mayor knows and believes that Aboriginals are people. Thoughtless, tone-deaf comments do not mean the speaker is racist.

When policy is intentionally built on xenophobic assumptions around race, when somebody actively advocates that approach to policy making—that’s racist. My assessment is that most old (and some new) legislation and institutions in Canada include xenophobic assumptions about aboriginals. The most adverse impacts are in infrastructure policy and planning, which can crucially affect quality of life. I’d bet that’s true in Australia, too, because of the giant-sized geography and colonial history. What I know from experience is that those assumptions have to be opened up and aired for the policy or institution to change in any meaningful way.

A conversation about race and colonialism is never going to be completely easy or comfortable. But as we partake, we evolve; and as we come to know each other better, distrust abates. Nobody held my stupid comments against me, once I saw how stupid they were. I usually didn’t even have to apologise. Something along the lines of ‘D’oh!’ or ‘uh… that came out wrong’ tended to suffice. Nobody held my ancestors against me, ever.

Although this conversation often provokes anger, anguish, guilt, embarrassment and frustration, those feelings are incidental to the conversation, not its substance or essence. Yeah, guilt happens sometimes, when I realise what privilege I have, and how I have taken it for granted, but usually it’s more like sadness. All of us discussing these fraught issues, Inuit and non, struggle with emotion sometimes. Emotion has to be acknowledged, even honoured. It abates, if not resisted or denied, and then we can get back to the agenda. Of course, we don’t always manage that process as gracefully as we could wish; we’re human. To quote Samuel Beckett, ‘No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.’ Sometimes after a bit of a break.

And although the conversation about race, resources and colonialism must involve some consideration of our conflicted past, the past is not ultimately what is most important. What’s important is who we are now, in all our complications, and what we do now and for the future.

I can point to good policy and programs Nunavut has designed through these conversations; that makes the whole damn thing worthwhile for me. When one of those good things is taken up across Canada, to our national benefit, I know it’s worthwhile for all of us. I grossly underestimated how much work there was to be done fifteen years ago. But I am at least as optimistic now as I was then, because I know it can be done, and I know how: by speaking carefully, listening respectfully, honouring the silences. By allowing for the possibility that conversation can change our minds, where all change starts. It is conversation—that difficult, uncomfortable, illuminating conversation—that builds the path on which we walk together toward the future.

Rendering: Fender Katsalidis Architects with rush/wright associates and SCENERY

Rendering: Fender Katsalidis Architects with rush/wright associates and SCENERY

The exploded infant

By Robin Fox

‘… sit[ting] within a huge all-color jewel while this every colored jewel spoke the music of one’s soul ….’
—Mary Hallock-Greenewalt on the experience of playing the colour organ

I don’t have synaesthesia, or at least I don’t think I do, but it has been in my life since the beginning … before the external beginning, even … since the womb. My mother was a synaesthete. She associated colour, numbers and sound (particularly pitch), so my joke now is that I couldn’t burp or fart at the dinner table without her telling me it was the number ten, a slightly murky orange and a B flat. We could always test the latter at the piano but the other two seemed peculiar to the rest of us and a deep truth only to her.

I didn’t think much of it over the years of my youth; it wasn’t important to me that my birthdays always had colours attached and that the numbers that mum had for notes didn’t match their position in the diatonic scale. I was busy in headphones thrashing away on my cheap drum kit trying to play Def Leppard’s Hysteria album with one hand tied behind my back and committing far more to the aesthetic of self destruction that came with bad hair metal than to the rudiments necessary to actually get any good on the skins. But I remember the music that she composed and that she sang. She became interested in atonal music when I was a child, so I have memories of her rehearsing Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire (her score is one of my more treasured relics from her life) and, more importantly in relation to synaesthesia, she loved to sing the Klangfarbenmelodie (sound colour melody) of Anton Webern; melodies constructed from timbre difference. The timbre is often called the ‘colour’ of sound. In the early eighties, she made computer music on mainframes when computers were the size of apartments and the turn around on six seconds of sound was twenty-four hours in the lab. In some of these works she would morph her voice into the sound of a bird attacking a beetle, among other things.

But I digress; this is becoming a eulogy. I guess what I’m saying is that all of these factors contributed to my obsession with joining the senses of sight and hearing together in my work. There were other factors of course. When I was studying composition at university I was in the odd position, eventually, of being able to compose music without really being able to read it. Weird? Maybe. But it’s a language like any other and you can learn the rules of construction and say intelligible things etc., etc. In the end, the linguistic side of music didn’t sit well with me and later in my degree I branched off to write about visual notation, graphic scores, musical gestures represented in abstract visual gestures rather than notated instructions. I guess I was moving toward a situation where the relationship between musical and visual gesture wasn’t causal anymore, but so simultaneous that you couldn’t separate the two. I found this symbiosis through electrical signal, but it has just occurred to me now that what I am talking about is the essence of live performance—that essential link between physical (visual) action and sonic outcome that allows for virtuosity through the constant challenge to the limits of these physical systems.

The way that the sound and light equivalence started for me was with the Cathode Ray Oscilloscope. I was making some quite harsh, angular noise pieces years ago and I happened to have a CRO in my studio. I had heard that you could feed sound into them and ‘see’ the results so I plugged the left channel into the X-axis and the right channel into the Y-axis to see what my noise looked like. For the most part it was pretty uninteresting and unsatisfying … except for one three-second snapshot where the sound and light locked together and I felt like I was looking straight at the geometry of the sound signal. It was a ‘eureka’ moment for me and has defined my audio-visual work since. I studied that three seconds and started to build a library of sounds and techniques that had interesting visual outcomes. The results fascinated me. The more harmonic the spectrum of the sound, the messier the visual result. Pure tones worked beautifully and distortion (overloading the system) was amazing. The important revelation for me was that sound is geometry, not in the ‘Bach-ian’ sense either of geometric patterns composed as pieces of music, but that sound is geometry.

Take the building blocks of electronic music for example. The sine wave. Take time out of a sine wave and fold it on itself and you have a circle; take time out of a square wave and you have a square; a triangle wave … you get the picture. What it means is that when we make sound we are producing complex combinations of these flowing geometries in the form of sound waves. Of course, this wasn’t a general revolution, it wasn’t entirely new at all (people had been working with optical soundtracks, for example, for decades) but it was new to me and it blew my mind and changed the way I worked with sound to this day.

It also led me to the rich history of artists working to forge a connection between sound and light. The ancient Greeks mused on it, and after Newton’s treatise on Opticks there was the sense that light and sound could share properties through wavelength and frequency. One of my favourite examples of an artist attempting to forge a connection is Louis Bertrand Castell’s Ocular Harpsichord (c.1730). It was basically a harpsichord but each key was attached to a system of pulleys that would open a small curtain to reveal a candle shining through coloured glass. Although beautifully simple, in modern OH&S parlance he had created a fire hazard and perhaps it is no surprise that there are no remaining physical examples of the instrument. Other pioneers in the field include Mary Hallock-Greenewalt, whose visual music phonograph (1919) was a record player with accompanying light show, and Thomas Wilfred, whose Clavilux Junior (1930) was definitely a psychedelic pre-cursor to the Xbox. For me, the grandfather of my work is Jules Lissajous, a French mathematician (1822-1880) who, in order to tune his tuning forks, devised an ingenious method for visualizing sound waves. He created a focused beam of light by placing a cover with a pinprick over a candle, then bouncing that light off tiny mirrors attached to the end of his tuning forks. He could see the reflected waves on the wall.  He essentially created a crude prototype of a laser projector.

What I produce when I make works where you see and hear the same electrical signal at the same time is a manufactured synaesthetic experience. There is no causality; the two things happen simultaneously so you don’t have time to think about which came first. Sight and sound become the same thing in time and space, like Lissajous’s patterns on the wall. This seems fascinating to non-synaesthetes. Why is that? Margaret Hollis alluded to one possible answer in her essay from the previous Synaesthesia program. I’ll restate it here in my own way. One theory of synaesthesia is that we are all born with it. Imagine a pre-language state (impossible, but try), what Lacan might call the condition of the ‘exploded infant’. All of our senses are one. Vibration in the form of sound, light, smell, even touch, swarm into us as an undifferentiated mass of pure experience. Gradually, through repetition and the establishment of concrete neural pathways, we segregate those sensations and attach perception to them, developing, in the end, our ‘sense perception’. Perhaps works of visual music or synaesthetic artworks draw us back toward that pre-language state, to a neural recklessness where everything is thrown in without deference to the emergent synaptic bureaucracy that parses our senses into organised and functional blocks. People frequently recount to me a sense of euphoria, ecstasy and the feeling of a chemical high after seeing synaesthetic artworks. I’ve certainly noticed that a much broader demographic of punters will sit through (and even enjoy) the kind of noise I generate in my shows when it is accompanied by its direct visual correlate.

Oddly though, one of the most interesting things about synaesthesia is its idiosyncrasy. Each synaesthetic person experiences it in a unique way. It’s an intimate condition, born of the interior and unknowable to others, private. By claiming to manufacture it homogenously in a group of people, am I some kind of cross-modal fascist? Before she died I had the chance to ask my mother more probing questions about her condition. Though it had clearly been a huge aid to her in her musical life, guiding her through fiendishly difficult atonal vocal works, she spoke of it primarily as an affliction, a chorus of often unnecessary and unwanted correlations that she could never switch off. So maybe synaesthesia is something wonderful to behold and to experience from the outside. A fleeting reconnection of now disparate parts of the brain, but would we want it all the time? I’m not so sure.

Audio-visual artist Robin Fox is a repeat performer at MONA FOMA and Dark Mofo. We can’t wait to experience his latest offering at our two-day sound-art spectacular, Synaesthesia+, at Mona (where else?) on August 16 and 17, 2014. Did you get this far without realizing this was a plug? Get your tickets pronto.

Synaesthesia Photo credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin

Synaesthesia, 2012
Photo credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin

Dark Mofo Winter Feast 2013 'White Beam', Robin Fox   Photo Credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin

Dark Mofo Winter Feast, 2013
‘White Beam’, Robin Fox
Photo Credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin

Going out with a bang

By Luke Hortle

And, behold, I come quickly.
– Revelation, 22:12

So reads the back of this year’s Dark Mofo staff hoody. It’s from Revelation, the last book in the New Testament, which speaks, among other things, of the imminent apocalypse (literal or metaphorical—the jury’s still out) that will be unleashed with the Second Coming (Jesus: SURPRISE! Me again!). Revelation continues: ‘I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last. Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city.’ The grandeur of such proclamations has always stunned me; it’s like something out of a Michael Bay film. But we’re accustomed to this kind of thing, wallow as we do in pop culture’s hot mess of apocalyptic imaginings. No one’s exempt; the metaphors will always out, despite the pretensions of high culture and militant snobbery.

Dark Mofo Staff Hoody 2014

This revelatory snippet on the staff hoody—it has me thinking. It heralds the end of the world, instantly recognisable as a story of persistent human curiosity, but one that is endlessly open to interpretation. It proclaims the apocalypse, yes, but also confesses a propensity for premature ejaculation—a perhaps ‘world-ending’ event for some people and of a different variety. In perhaps not an entirely unpredictable manner, our interpretations of death—both big and little, planetary and personal—echo and warp as we mobilise them. Our photographer suggested the phrase for the hoody design, having seen the slogan adorning a painting of a lion and a lamb at the Odeon Theatre, before Dark Mofo took up residence there, when the theatre was home to a born-again Christian church. (Food for thought, perhaps, when you’re mid-debauchery at the Odeon for Dark Faux Mo. Remember, God’s always watching #catholicguilt.) The slogan has an irony in this churchy context, but I’m not going there. Self-deprecation is the order of the day, and it’s certainly not the first time MONA has co-opted a belief system for its own purposes (and I doubt it’ll be the last). In the painting, the mature-looking lion gazes fondly at the fluffy young lamb (would it be wrong to describe the lamb as nubile?), as ‘Behold, I come quickly’ intimates his intent (apocalyptic, carnal or otherwise). Poor little beast. Coincidentally, a Dark Mofo sign at the waterfront flashed, ‘WATCH FOR PEDS’, for the duration of the festival. Bright lights, creep city.

Behold I come quickly picture

But recently the apocalypse, and its related scenario of a threatened and vulnerable world, has taken on a different texture. Politically, environmentally and geologically, the planet is being reframed, as humans rethink how they read the globe’s skin and viscera. ‘Welcome to the Anthropocene,’ proclaims The Economist, reporting on the early twenty-first century uptake of the term originally suggested by atmospheric scientists Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer in the early 2000s. Basically (and I’m cheating—it’s not basic at all; it’s vast and complicated), the Anthropocene describes how Earth has entered a new geological epoch. Following on from the Holocene, the Anthropocene recognises the human species as an influential force of nature. Imagine a future where humans are extinct, goes the anecdote frequently used to describe the Anthropocene; if there was a geologist present in such a future, they would be able to trace the lasting human impact on the planet. Our marks, as they are, are here to stay. How do you like that for your vanity?

This is not to suggest that the Anthropocene explicitly envisages apocalypse (although, it is interesting to consider how that anecdotal extinction might eventuate). Rather, it frames a whole swag of political agendas1 and cultural fantasies2. But why imagine the end of the world as we know it? As a species, maybe we’re just plain freaking morbid, intent on sharing the love with an hysterical death drive. Freud might agree, which is alarming in itself.

The pay off, surely, is some sort of projected collective solace. Getting in early, before one hell of a punch line. On the opening night of Dark Mofo Films, I went to see David Michôd’s post-apocalyptic road movie, The Rover. Guy Pearce, with that hypnotic gravelly voice of his, posed a question to Anthony Hayes’ character:

‘Feeling the air when you wake up in the morning, when your feet touch the floor, or before that, when you’re lying there, thinking about your feet hitting the floor—the feeling you have. What does that feel like for you?’

Maybe it was just Guy’s voice. Or maybe—forgive me—it tapped into something incisively and embarrassingly human. The desire to apprehend, and be apprehended by, another person. To escape your personal neuroticism and self-obsession, to imagine (if only for a moment) what it is like to be alive as somebody else and in their particular version of a material human body. It’s darker than empathy, somehow. And far more interesting.

Deep. Apologies. Is there anything more awkward than the expression of sincere sentiment?

I’m in the museum and I’m standing in front of Patrick Hall’s artwork, When My Heart Stops Beating, and it seems appropriate3. It’s my favourite work in David’s collection. Visitors to the museum have gotten engaged in front of this artwork, which I cannot for the life of me comprehend—do they see a hopeful sense of romance here?—because When My Heart Stops Beating seems to be more interested in the past than in an anticipated future. For me, it’s irreconcilably creepy and sad, and touching in a darkly bittersweet way. But it’s more than any ambivalent mess of feelings I might experience in front of these gleaming cabinets. It’s about what is no longer around and coming to terms with that; it’s an attempt, if you will, to rectify such a predicament. Absent speakers intone their disconcerting chorus of ‘I love you’, just as absent writers reveal their intimate stories on the cabinet drawers (drawers that open like those of a morgue). The sense of loneliness is shocking, and it really hits me given the sheer constructed-ness of the artwork itself—those intricately built drawers and the façade of the cabinet fixed upon the wall. I’m embarrassed, now, to admit it’s my favourite. I sound like a total emo.

When My Heart Stops Beating, 2008 to 2010, ©Patrick Hall Photo credit: MONA/ Rémi Chauvin

When My Heart Stops Beating, 2008 to 2010, ©Patrick Hall
Photo credit: MONA/ Rémi Chauvin

It’s like bearing witness to something, absent now whether through death, apocalypse or otherwise. I indulge myself even further, and imagine I’m that future hypothetical geologist, witnessing the earthly marks of the Anthropocene with its indelible remainders of previous lives. Marking time is a peculiar thing, whether romantic and sexual, or geological and planetary. A flippant, throwaway remark comes to mind, and it’s not so flippant anymore; it’s a genuine question, posed to the possibilities of a quickly coming future: ‘Who gives a fuck?’

1Here’s lookin’ at you, Tony.

2For example: cli-fi, or climate fiction, is an actual thing. What an unfortunate abbreviation.

3The other week, I went to MONA’s new community centre, and saw that When My Heart Stops Beating is no longer on display. Go home, Southdale, you’re drunk and you’ve ruined my blog.

Useless as tits on a bull

By Luke Hortle

So the Skywhale has gone viral. (Let’s all say it together now: hashtag Skywhale! Yet again, the Twittersphere has doled out some sort of bastardised and populist cultural legitimacy, in a move that is equally liberating and terrifying. I don’t understand Twitter. For me, it’s in the same category as Sydney, Bob Katter and quinoa.) Gossip about Patricia Piccinini’s government-commissioned work has become contagious; it’s airborne, both figuratively (the goss) and literally (the art). And now this titted behemoth has arrived in Hobart, swinging mammaries and all that delicious confusion (‘I thought they were penises,’ said Mum. Thank you, Mother, for that screaming Freudian subtext). Which is kind of the point, isn’t it? Because it isn’t just chit-chat, this inescapable talk (whether positive, negative or ambivalent); it’s indicative that this artwork has taken that perplexing leap from the tired category of art into the bustling cultural imaginary. And on a national scale too; it was commissioned by the ACT government to commemorate the centenary of the nation’s capital, Canberra. Christ knows what the connection is. Best not to tug on that thread too strongly. (And really, who cares anyway?) Regardless, with all this questioning and bafflement, we’ve all come together to suckle, so to speak, at the teats of the Skywhale, and who can say what her nourishing milk will provide?

Skywhale Cake

Skywhale Cake

For me, it’s this hyperbolic expression of the shock of reference, between my present experience and whatever my brain idiosyncratically connects to that particular moment. The other night I was walking home up the hill, scarf-muffled and icy-fingered, when the breeze changed and something, the shift in scent and temperature perhaps, took me back, immediately and violently, to dusk in London. I was floored by it, inexplicably upset. Bounded by circumstances and shocked to realise so. It was really self-indulgent.

Bear with me.

I’ve written previously on this blog about my reaction to a lecture given by Ellen Dissanayake about the evolutionary origins of art. (Her thesis, in a nutshell: that the behaviour of making art plays a part in better-adapting humans to their environment. Those groups and individuals who practice what Dissanayake calls ‘making special’— of which art is an important element—are better placed to survive and procreate than those who do not.) Overall, it (my argument) wasn’t great; I got a bit ranty and tangential. A few days after it was posted, someone asked me if the main reason I had a problem with the lecture (note: I had many problems with it) was because I may not procreate, that I may not participate, genetically, in the perpetuation of the human species. She was worried about offending me; she didn’t: I’d been wondering the same thing myself, in much less obvious terms—the ‘X because of Y’ phrasing made it sound petty and hard line. As a gay guy1, I keep revisiting this angst-y existential dilemma of not wanting to be, or end up as2, a genetic cul-de-sac.3 Sexuality is relevant to this discussion, although I’m not sure to what degree of relevance it can or should lay claim. In the context of popular reproductive politics, it certainly goes some way to explaining the increased use of the derogatory term ‘breeder’, where reproductive propensity is mobilised primarily against a heterosexual middle class. Note the term’s mocking gesture to animal husbandry (thanks, Urban Dictionary).

I get confused, though, wondering if my angst has a genetic undercurrent. In other words, apart from wanting kids for the conventional reasons, both immediate and distant (family, warm fuzzies, minions obliged to take care of you in your dotage), I’m unsure if this angst is also indicative of a subconscious burning need to pass on my genetic material. Currently, I don’t care about the means by which I could potentially have children (two of my nearest and dearest have offered me rental of their wombs—what do you do, pay by mileage?—it’s all so sci-fi). There are obviously innumerable reasons why people choose to have children in the ways that they do, and I would rail against any kind of artificially imposed hierarchy of the best ways to do so. ‘Naturally’ always seems to come up trumps, with its attendant cultural value offering a swift kick to the teeth of many.

And this is another reason why my particular anxiety (re: becoming a genetic cul-de-sac) makes me uncomfortable: it doesn’t match the position I’ve reached logically and politically. This kind of genetically based anxiety is frequently dismissed, arguably because socially constructed experience has become far more culturally and politically trendy following the identity politics boom of the 70s, 80s and 90s; it seems like we might only just be emerging from that particular hangover now. Many of my friends have begun to talk, winsomely and often, of marriage and babies.4 Discussing my worries with friends, I’m often met with a general response of, ‘Don’t worry; you’ll have kids somehow.’ I’d like that ‘somehow’ qualified, thanks5. Is that too much to ask? I’m aware, too, that if my sisters have children, then some of the genetic material I share with them will be passed on to their offspring. (Game of Thrones obsessives take note: I make this point not in the manner of that blonde twit, Viserys Targaryen; ain’t nobody gonna mess with Daenerys, am I right?) Richard Dawkins writes about this in his book, River Out of Eden. He describes how

Worker ants, bees, wasps and termites are sterile. They labor not to become ancestors but so that their fertile relatives, usually sisters and brothers, will become ancestors. […] To summarize, genes can buy their way through the sieve, not only by assisting their own body to become an ancestor but by assisting the body of a relation to become an ancestor.

No pressure, sisters dearest, but you could be my genetic Get Out of Jail Free card. How else am I to deal with such doleful condemnation from a figurative deck of Chance or Community Chest? ‘Go to Jail. Do not pass Go. Do not collect two hundred babies.’

For better or worse, these worries have been taking up a lot of my time. I’m still wrangling with them, and I will for a while yet, trying to reconcile where and how to put this particular brand of anxiety to bed. A necessary and timely thought process, or just self-indulgent, emotional and intellectual hot air? It’s easy, sometimes, to feel like the only Skywhale in the village. Inflatable and vulnerable to puncture. An effectively empty sack, already delimited within its predetermined arc. Where is the grace in that?

So there you go. Fuck you, Canberra. Fuck you, Patricia. Fuck you, Dark Mofo. Thanks for all the existential angst.


1 For the record, I don’t want to become one of those people who begin every sentence with prefacing fragments such as, ‘Speaking as a gay man … ‘ or ‘Given my raging and all-consuming homosexual identity …’ It’s a behaviour too resonant with that of feminists. And mature-age students. But you need it as context. So let’s all cringe together, and move on.
2 Oh the oblique rhetoric of that foul thought experiment, where you imagine yourself hurtling irrevocably towards your own culminating point of being a productive, aspiring human being. ie. Must have this job, that salary, that partner and those kids before this particular date, or I will be, effectively, doomed. NO PRESSURE, OK. It’s the bildungsroman gone unashamedly and hysterically histrionic.
3 I’m paraphrasing Bernard from Black Books here. Side note and name drop: Dylan Moran really loves Sidney Nolan. He told me so.
A clarification: I’m not entering this discussion within the terms of infertility, which obviously poses its own particular issues to those it concerns. Or not; it would be a gross generalisation to assume a uniform response to any of these experiences. It’s the particularity that matters.
4 Yes, yes, I’m aware I’m entering familiar territory of the single twenty-something, but I’m curious: when do discussions of these kinds of topics become normal and to be expected? It’s a different kind of thought experiment and a perplexing one, because I’m often unsure how to participate.
5 By whom, I’m not actually sure. The stork? By me? Christ I hate being an adult sometimes. Perhaps those wonderful people who wrote Where Did I Come From and What’s Happening to Me? could pen a follow up, So You’re Worried About Ending Up as a Genetic Dead End?

Is that subtext, or are you just happy to see me?

By Luke Hortle

Throat-clearing.
Last night I went to hear Ellen Dissanayake’s lecture, ‘The Deep Structure of the Arts’, which was about the role of art in human evolution. I went because I thought I should, cringing slightly because the whole thing sounded too damnably Mona-ish, and left feeling awkward—not because of the lecture or Dissanayake’s ideas (which were methodical and measured, although I craved a more emphatic statement of her argument), but because of the awkward atmosphere of the question time that followed. Awkward, because the long-winded monologues were not questions, and setting them loose in the lecture hall shifted the mood. The air between people thickened. It felt compromising to be situated within a group of other humans. A caveat: I’m not sure if this awkwardness was objectively so, or more a self-absorbed by-product of my own thought-stream, which is decidedly awkward and neurotic anyway, regardless of any objective social scenario. Performing the opposite of that state of mind is probably a necessity of contemporary social interaction, unless you’re a ‘creative’ and can get away with a whole lot of really irritating shit while other people make excuses for your unconventional and fucking vexing disposition. (Also, I didn’t take a pen and paper.)

The guts of it.
Dissanayake argued in the lecture that art, or ‘artification’ as the behaviour of making art, has a deep structure, and one that is comparable to the deep structure of language advocated for by some linguists and psychologists. She claims that this behaviour is essential and intrinsic to being human. That it’s innate and natural. That it’s universal. She argues that this behaviour has evolutionary benefits. Apparently, behaviours such as singing and dancing with other people produce a hormone called oxytocin, which is also elicited during sex. One of the benefits of oxytocin is that it counteracts cortisol, a stress hormone. I’d like a clarification though. Do you only get the oxytocin hit if you’re having sex with another person, or can you replenish your hormonal stores by treating yourself (singular) to a nice night in?

***
Interlude: A masturbatory call to arms

No one ever talks interestingly about masturbation. Faux Mo flashback: I’m in a darkened cinema and it’s black-bruised-red like the insides of a vital organ. A woman is dancing naked in front of hundreds of pissed people, alternately with a black sack over her head or wearing a gorilla mask. I’m trying to work out what to think of it, when a young balding guy, not unattractive, stands next to me, grinning, and asks, ‘Do you reckon she’s going to flick the bean?’ Oh Christ. If this is indicative of masturbation discourse (and I suspect it might be) then I’m putting a call out for people to lift their game. Pun entirely intended.

***

I can’t comment on the scientific validity of Dissanayake’s claims; I don’t know enough (read: not much at all) about evolutionary biology and I’m not remotely interested in making those kinds of comments about her work. It’s boring (that kind of discussion; not her research, necessarily). My main problem with the lecture was her use of the word ‘human’. It became an oblique invocation of the term, which was disappointingly predictable. Using ‘human’ in such a way is commonplace, but that shouldn’t equate to an excuse. ‘Human’ has a subtext. An uncontainable one. Bare it. Refusal to do so turns use of the word into an act of effacement. It becomes another form of exclusory language, and one that relates only, within the parameters of Dissanayake’s argument, to those types of humans that enjoy regular heterosexual sex and the possibility, and propensity, for procreation. Speaking of the human, and using the term in a critically savvy manner, has to be provisional. I suspect I’m against its use as a commonplace and absolute term because it kills my identity politics boner. Yours too. Oh, the critical impotence. Humanness, particularly in the context of evolution, is anything but a constant or endpoint or intellectual dead-end. If we’re speaking of evolution (and we don’t have to be, not really, not if you don’t want to, but we are), then using ‘human’ as a static term sets up a disconnect with the premise and ideological underpinning of the subject matter. Being human is a state of modulation, of unfinished-ness, regardless of how aware we are of this process. Being human isn’t, and shouldn’t be, a matter of common sense. In other words (and with some quite unrelated, juvenile, yet suspiciously apt imagery), it’s an intellectually stimulating cock and it’s happy to see you.

It boils down to this: given the broad and fascinating cultural implications of Dissanayake’s research into the origins of art as a human behaviour, with art seen as a shaping force of humanness, linguistic and experiential invocations of the ‘human’ demand to be given the commensurate critical attention they deserve.

Death illiterate.
As an English graduate, I’m supposed to be interested in how being human is culturally produced, rather than how it is inherently and essentially substantiated. I get trapped between thinking about myself as a culturally and linguistically realised entity, and the biological reality of my humanness. Because if I’m biologically and genetically human, if I am irrefutably so, then why am I even talking about this? Why are discussions of humanness, life and species booming in politics, the arts and that ever so sexy world of critical theory? Are we just a narcissistic species?

It’s particularly pertinent now, in this contemporary moment, to think about this. Contemporary anxieties, and the various discourses they infiltrate, are underpinned by an almost unspoken fear of extinction. (I could be inflammatory and drop the ‘C’ bomb—climate change—but I won’t.) Perhaps it’s the reality of living out our humanness, the reality of being a species—to be perennially haunted by various other states, those innumerable modes of not-life. The bottom line: we face the fact of our own death, and perhaps our broader concerns with extinction work to absolve personal responsibility for having to deal with the relatively imminent occurrence of our own dying. An implicit choosing of collective anxiety over the personal realities of being a fleshy composite with an expiry date.

I don’t know how to think about my own death. The pure facts of its reality are subsumed, immediately, by the romance of the language I use to talk about it. The word itself, ‘death’, is shockingly seductive. And biologically, I’m at a loss. The biological facts of my bodily aliveness refuse to cross the threshold of my conscious awareness. I can’t ruminate on them. They might enable my consciousness, but they never become usable and recognisable terms within that swarming and personalised mindfuck. Biological subtext, rather than readable narrative. Ungraspable, even in their physical immediacy. It’s terrifying.

Synaesthesia

By Anica Boulanger-Mashberg

There are so many ways a thing can make you shiver. A cello in a crowd. A chorus in a stairwell. A story about a child who didn’t stand up for another child. The fury of chilli and the honest, expected loyalty of a potato. A single note. The memory, a moment later, of that same note.

Morning. In the sun.

Conversations about heels.

Elizabeth wears them because Kirsha told her she should. And then because she discovered she loved them.

Angela doesn’t. She feels like a politician.

I always fall over. Lizzy thinks that’s a myth. Maybe it is.

Inside. The Void.

The first thing that I love:

A cello.

Pulls my guts out through my lungs and, coated in tears, drags them up my throat in a gasp and there’s everything I once thought I’d have and then thought I’d never need and now here it all is.

I want to drink the cello forever and already I’m sick of my own linguistic synaesthesing. But I do want to drink the cello.

At the beginning of this thing, and longing for the saturated, sleepy exhaustion of midnight.

And then a man in a black t-shirt, new for the day, towards me against the salmon-tide:

‘And so it goes’.

Later.

I find a room full of the throbbing, hypnotic reassurances of Philip Glass. Rhythmic certainties interrupted by uncertain pauses, and a mobile phone announcing some urgent communiqué from the world outside. The electronically generated xylophonic trill weaves itself easily into the milky notes of Glass’s intent, and I enjoy the absurdity of it.

Between Glass dances, the organist frantically shakes his wrists and fingers out, and the plants grow quietly in their wall-pockets at the other end of the room.

Later.

Five synaesthetes walk into a bar.

I’m not sure what comes next. But I think the joke is possibly arcane and probably offensive, and I decide not to pursue its invention.

Later still.

I think of a flautist I once knew, who had given up a professional career because her synaesthesia made performance (and especially rehearsal) too unbearable for her.

I wonder if this performance – in front of the busy Nolan snake, and splashed with cycling coloured light – is unpleasant for a synaesthete?

The subjectivity of humanity begins to preoccupy and mildly terrify me. I start scribbling incomprehensibly into my medium brown notebook. I write pages and pages and pages during the Mussorgsky, and it is so boring even I can’t bear to read it over afterwards.

Late evening. The Organ Room.

Kate Miller-Heidke is a glistening-polished jelly dessert with familiar and never-before-tasted tropical fruit. More saccharine at first than you think you wanted but then you discover you’re in love and, in all the sugar, what you taste is the whole world: the rind and the tang, the moon and the seas, the loss and the first times, poisons and wild animals.

She has a voice that doesn’t make sense coming from her small body. She sings about the past and about herself and about nothing sometimes, and she tells stories like she wants us to rise up and respond, or laugh at her, or be shocked, or maybe buy her a drink. She fills the already crowded room. She is bigger than herself. She becomes a way into the world.

Home
I’ve started to forget what I know about things. Or what I’ve heard. Started to think I’m making them up. Is there a story, for example, about David discussing the logo design, and saying ‘fuck it, let’s use fluoro pink: no-one uses fluoro pink’, and that’s how it came about? No? Well. It sounds plausible though, doesn’t it.


(De)Gustation

Saline

I saw a ghost and an angel while the chorus were painting the stairwell in Bowman and green and in blue light and in open vowels and in blood pooling softly across my chest.

He was magnificent and ordinary and dressed in white and in need of a haircut and the shape of a man and with eyes filled in sorrow and the everyday. He stood at the top of the stairwell and we made no contact and I stood near the bottom and by the Sanctus he was gone. I didn’t see him leave but I know he walked, down those back stairs, slipping quietly or with an excuse me, and the knowledge of him comforts me in no way you can imagine.

She was a sketch and a shadow and almost invisible amongst the resonance of the chorus. That chorus, haunting through the museum: cobwebs and sheets adrift in a hot, airless house. She slipped amongst them and was a shiver across their shoulders as they sang for us, sang for themselves, never once sang for her, sang for their childhoods and their immortality and their impossibilities.

And you didn’t see either of them.

Sour

I create restore points in time. I click something, somewhere, and I imagine that one day I’ll look back to this moment and I’ll try to re-feel all of it – someone I love sitting beside me, the air slightly cooler than my skin, the relentlessly gorgeous same-and-changing Glass patterns, the contented memory of kimchi, chilli, wasabi.

I wonder how long it would take me, in this space, to lose everything and become a throbbing, visceral echo of myself. Not long, I think. And what stops me? What holds me here? What holds you? What holds the ones you love? Is it the same thing that binds us all?

If this is the rabbit hole, I am already here. I’ve forgotten what I was following.

And the longer I’m here, the more uncomfortably mundane it all becomes. I see through the cracks and around the corners.

You can only eat so much, you know. It says a lot about a person, how they eat at a dessert buffet.

I met Alexandria at a dessert buffet. We were both standing beside the mousse, agonising. It said a lot about her, to me. And I suppose it said a lot about me. To her. I’ve never asked her, actually. I should. Should have.

See, if you know you love – and I mean love — the chocolate gateau, why would you go back, when you’re almost full and the party’s almost over, to try the passionfruit gelato? Just on the off chance that you’ll love it. Love it more than the chocolate gateau. Which you can never have again, by the way, because you’re full and the party was catered by a retiring pastry chef.

After a while, I start to wonder whether it matters at all.

The Messiaen is beautiful. So what if he saw golden Fmaj chords when he wrote it, and I don’t see them now?

Sugar
I’m holding your breath.

Bitterness

What if each time someone said your name, my mouth was filled with the idea of strawberries? What then? Or what if it wasn’t strawberries? What if it was the bitter disappointment of a lettuce leaf left too long before picking? A small, dark leaf perfectly formed, but carrying only ugly in its flavour? A tightening, lingering, wild-chicory of a bite. What if that metallic taste of regret was what accompanied you? Could I still love you?

Every touch of you is somehow unbelievable. Every brush of your tannin-tainted tongue is something I once longed for and now has no meaning. Where do such hauntings come from? Who turned us into this? I think there was a moment when I could have stopped it. This brakeless tumble towards loss. I remember. It was a winter morning but the sun was cruel against the tight cotton of my jeans. Your children were asleep – both of them, what a wonder. We sat together in their treehouse with a teapot full of sand, and we talked about politics and linguistics and the weather patterns of the antipodes. Something. I remember you opening the toy teapot and sliding one finger through the sand – I didn’t even know the children had a sandpit. I had only visited you in your house twice before, and both times in the unmooned darkness. This day, there was quiet in the air and the sound of the sand against your dry knuckles was remarkable. I listened as you warped that finger in and out, down through that multitude of crushed and infinitesimal fragments of things that once were, between the specks of abstraction.

And, you see, I knew then that I could love you more than you loved me. I don’t know why, but that’s when it was. That moment, your finger in a teapot full of sand, your children asleep, your words meaningless, your pulse at your throat contorting your profile, your treehouse around us and above us and below us, and the astringent taste of something familiar in my mouth – that moment. It was when I made the decision that swept me to where I am now. That moment was when I kissed you and you touched the side of my cheek with your finger sugared in sand, and the breath of you filled me up and emptied you. That moment. That was when I could have chosen no and I chose yes.

But this wasn’t supposed to be a story about love. They’re never supposed to be stories about love. What would I know?

Something else

‘What colour is silence?’ a woman asks the synaesthete.

A long pause.

‘I’ve never seen true silence,’ he finally says.

Later
The museum has absorbed all the synaesthetes and the nonaesthetes and the syn-curious into its skin like rain into an anonymous, quiet earth.

Synaesthesia returns August 2014: Synaesthesia+ 16-17 August 2014. Get your tickets pronto.

New York I love you, but you’re making me cringe

By Luke Hortle

A while ago, I met a photographer from The New Yorker at the museum. I can’t remember his name because I was too busy swooning (he was European and painfully handsome in that rugged and forlorn manner that Europeans often are) and feeling inadequate, because we didn’t have a book with kangaroos in it. But this sensation of inadequacy (and it was a sensation, a bodily one; I could feel it drenching my limbs) leached beyond this one apparently minute interaction. Horror of horrors, I felt grateful to have met this man. Not because of his aquiline features, but because of all that other cultural currency that he’d brought with him, from Europe, from New York, and now he was talking to me, in Hobart, on this island, and I felt inferior, somehow ashamed, immodestly thrilled. Enter the cultural cringe.

At MONA FOMA last year, I went to see PJ Harvey. In a break between songs, clouded in the beer-breath and radiant bodily steam of PW1, Eleanor whispered to me that seeing PJ perform was ‘like a religious experience.’ I thought she was being overly dramatic and told her to finish her beer. This moment has been nagging me ever since, the implication being that we were somehow not quite worthy to be in the presence of this woman wreathed in feathered black. That we ought to have been grateful. This really pissed me off, because I wanted to be in thrall to PJ Harvey (did you know that ‘thrall’ comes from an Old English word for ‘slave’?) and not think about the experience in terms where I came off with an inferiority complex. Later that night at Faux Mo, I kept hearing people say things like ‘Are we still in Hobart?’ And I was guilty of thinking similar things. I couldn’t comfortably integrate where I was with what I was thinking. (What I can remember from Faux Mo: You’re in. Bass thumps skywards, leaching out of the winding alleyway; who even knew it was there? Bulging lights bloom in the brickwork. You manage to jump the line. Paris Wells is there. The really hot guy from BalletLab is there, sans feathers and twigs. You think that BalletLab was great, but so fucking weird. You should definitely be drinking gin. Bordello-red flickers against crumpled aluminium curtains. People are dancing like it’s windy.) The city, the island, kept intruding in my fantasies, fantasies which constantly gestured away from where I was, geographically, culturally, far-flung connections sketched with alcohol-induced similes.

PJ Harvey at MONA FOMA 2012. Photo credit: MONA/Remi Chauvin

PJ Harvey at MONA FOMA 2012. Photo credit: MOFO/Rémi Chauvin

I can’t seem to escape the fact that geography matters. It’s dished up to me on a daily basis. Customer after customer will find a way to tell me, as they purchase their catalogue, postcards, cunt soap, whatever, that ‘this [museum, art, estate, the whole deal] is a great thing for Tasmania.’

A brief interlude from that guy in the bookshop

‘Do the postcards come with envelopes?’
No. Of course they don’t; they’re fucking postcards. From Wiki: ‘A postcard or post card is a rectangular piece of thick paper or thin cardboard intended for writing and mailing without an envelope.’
‘Do you have a book on the architecture?’
No. We really don’t. I promise. And (shockingly, eye-poppingly shockingly, I know) you are not the first person to ask for one. And even if you do tell me for the next half an hour how great such a book would be, and how you can’t believe that there isn’t one for you to take home in your eager paws, I still won’t be able to provide one for you. So fuck off already.
‘Do you still sell the angina soaps?’
No words.

Invariably, their assessment of the museum becomes inextricable from its geographical locale. And inherent within these assessments of the museum is a commensurate assessment of Hobart and Tasmania more broadly; that we’re lucky to have the museum where it is, because of the entrenched view that the state is culturally inferior, a backwater, next stop Antarctica. And now I’ve just gone and written that and perpetuated the stereotype in print. Oh great. Maybe this doesn’t matter though, and maybe I’m just projecting my own (recently discovered) cultural cringe onto these social interactions. It (projecting potentially/completely incorrect assumptions onto a situation/conversation/relationship) does sound like something I would do.

I can’t seem to write about this cringe response without falling into the trap that the very construct tries to describe: ie. I end up cringing, through my attempts to elucidate what was happening when I met that photographer. (Clarification, obfuscation; potato, po-TAR-to.) My point: I live on an island, and sometimes this fact, and its corresponding sense of islandness, of being so bounded by a place, by a body, is suffocating.[i] Maybe this is my postcolonial penance. It’s undoubtedly constitutive too, which makes me uncomfortable (which is weird, because I’m an identity politics enthusiast). I’ve been told I can be quite neurotic (‘amazingly’ might’ve been the word used, actually) and maybe this is why I like reading The New Yorker. But I suspect it’s also a reaction to where I am, geographically and culturally; as I hand over my cash, I know I’m buying into a particular type of identity, a particular type of self-image. It’s a performance, one in which I’m friends with Lena Dunham and live in a loft with Paul Auster and/or Oliver Jeffers and/or Michael Cunningham. Even as it’s a performance, it’s one performed from my particular moment in time and space, my ‘here’ and my ‘now.’ But I’m not completely shallow; I do enjoy reading the magazine. I just want people to see me reading it as well.

Luke once ran over a Blue-tongued Lizard with a lawn mower. It was awful, like a scene out of a Tarantino film. He still feels queasy/guilty about it. Luke works in the Mona Bookshop.


[i] I recently read a couple of pieces from an edition of Island magazine, an essay by Adam Ouston and a short story by Ben Walter. They’re great, they really are. You should go read them, right now. What I do know is that they made me feel better about being a man living on an island.