What would Peter Singer Do?

By David Walsh

A note from Elizabeth:

I asked David to write a blog about the refugee crisis because I felt I didn’t know enough about it to do so myself. He replied, ‘I don’t know enough about it.’ We then simultaneously started writing blog posts that included the phrase ‘What would Peter Singer do?’ So, you know, snap.

I’m going to use his, and not mine, because he has a far greater readership and it will reach more people.

You see, the reason I wanted to write something is because I want to share this link – an overview of how you can help, by donating and so forth. (Although after reading David’s post maybe it should be this link instead.) It seemed disingenuous – as my colleague Anna told me – to just post the link to our Facebook page, without offering some sort of explanation of our ‘stance’.

I know she is right in this, and I know, furthermore, I am a victim of my ‘cognitive biases’, exactly as David outlines below.

I’ve been prompted into action by the picture of the dead child. He looks just like my boy looks when he’s asleep, you see.

I turned to Peter Singer for this; what he ‘told’ me is more simplistic than what he ‘told’ David (possibly because I don’t have the kind of technical mind to think through all the implications, as per below). What he told me was that we have to use our ‘cognitive biases’, our ethical weakness – in this case, to care for those like us, and to ignore those who are different – to our best advantage. We have to know ourselves, and use that as a basis, a starting point to reach a higher place of empathy and generosity.

So I feel bad about my ‘cognitive bias’, and not bad, all at once. I was asleep to that suffering, and then I woke up.

I was right, I don’t know enough about the refugee crisis. Why would she ask me to write about it? I live two kilometres from where I was raised. The most adventurous trip I undertook as a child was to the caravan park next to Mona, for a four-day stay. So I said no, after running in circles muttering Monty Python-esque quips about ‘bravely avoiding confrontation’.

Peter Singer recently published The Most Good You Can Do, wherein he advocates effective altruism, the idea that it is incumbent on all of us (at least anyone with the opportunity to read a blog) to live inexpensively, and to benefact causes that spend the donations in ways calculated to do the most good. In the case of human-centric charities, that means saving the most lives (getting the least bangs for your buck, in the case of war charities). One of the meta-charities he supports suggests that saving a life for less than $5,000 is money efficiently spent.

Among Singer’s assumptions are that every life is equal. He introduces a concept known as Quality-Adjusted Life-Years (Qaly). A Qaly is a year lived with no disease burden. Many people would opt for a shorter life rather than suffering. If you would choose to live half as long able-bodied as bed-ridden, for example, then you are giving being ‘bed-ridden’ a Qaly rating of 0.5. Although this kind of analysis of contentious (not least because in a hypothetical scenario people overestimate how many bed-ridden years they would surrender), it does provide a quantitative method for assessing the value of ‘doing good’. Singer advocates (I think) trying to achieve the most Qalys for your donated dollar. I have a long list of issues this potentially raises. For example, effective altruists are directly manipulable by rich sociopaths: I could tell Singer that if he doesn’t start eating meat – a significant abrogation of his principles – I will withdraw donations that achieve more than he achieves by being vegetarian. My reservations (and sociopathic status) notwithstanding, his model is the best presently available, and I’ve tentatively accepted it. Hypocritically, I haven’t accepted it as my life process: sold my museum, and downsized my life to avail me the opportunity to do the most good I can do.

Some of the people Singer lauds in his book choose to pursue potentially unethical (or neutral) careers so as to maximise the money they have at their disposal, with which to be effective altruists. I’ve inadvertently done that in reverse: having made money gambling I felt guilty and tried to do some good. Not much good, Singer would say. A few years ago we asked him to write an essay about Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca (the poo machine). The tone of his reply made it obvious he thought money spent in this way lay somewhere between frivolous and reprehensible; he demanded a ridiculously high fee – which he intended to donate to an effective charity – for his essay. By the seamless logic of his life he had little choice: he had to work out the expectation of his fee (money multiplied by probability of achieving it) such that he maximized the donation he could make. In the event, Delvoye checked him out and vetoed the essay.

In The Most Good You Can Do, Singer analyses the very act of building an art gallery (or at least a wing on one) to see if it’s ethical. Unsurprisingly, he finds it wanting. Let me paraphrase his argument (his text is too long to quote; he would be ethically bound to sue me for copyright infringement because he could do good with the money). But first, a digression:

A gambling collaborator of mine worked on the Deepwater oil spill settlement. The compensation process required people to assess their loss of utility for not being able to go to the beach. There is an assumption that they lost something even if they never go to the beach, because they have forfeited the benefit of being able to contemplate going to the beach. The assessors might go somewhere they see as equivalent, and conduct a survey, asking, ‘How much would you need to be paid a year to give up your right to go to the beach?’ For those who never go to the beach, the amount is, of course, not zero. And the average amount enables an assessment of harm done. This approach caused a few problems for those with a superficial overview. The upshot was that there was more economic damage done to people in Florida, where many beaches were damaged by sludge, and there are lots of people, than in Louisiana, where some suffered a huge amount, but fewer through these indirect modalities. In assessing whether galleries are effective, Singer used this type of assessment, and the same caveats – that people overestimate an assessed value to them in a survey – apply.

I built Mona at a cost of around $75m (ignoring the art). It’s quite possible that Mona will eventually be profitable, and I could use the profits to fund effective charities. Even if it never becomes profitable, Access Economics have assessed its net benefit to the Australian community to be around $70m per year; those making that money could be donating it to charity, although the portion would be tiny. And the visitors spent their money here, when they might have donated it. So we will proceed, as Singer did, to analyse Mona’s contribution as if it were only a benefit to those that visit (and also not those who benefit from contemplating visiting).

Around 350,000 people visit a year. They have all made the choice that it is worth visiting, and some 80 per cent of them actually like it. Many people visit many times a year – they must actually like it a lot. You are a reader of my blog, and are therefore more likely than most to be a fan. You plan to visit this year. But, it turns out, one person a year will be blinded for visiting the gallery (bold art intervention? Likely terrorist attack using chemicals? God hates degenerate art? Peter Singer’s rational intervention to maximise charitable donations?). Would you still go if your chance of losing your sight was one in 350,000? Probably you would: you drive (or are driven), and a life is lost every 250 million kilometres on the road. That costs you about a half a year of life expectancy, but you still do it. If you ride a motorcycle everywhere, you cost yourself about a quarter of your life expectancy. A few of you do that. Smoking – and, astonishingly, there are still some smokers – costs you ten years.

But that was one in 350,000. What if one person per day lost their eyesight as a result of a visit to Mona? That’s about one in 1,000. I’d say you probably wouldn’t take the chance at those odds. So, forty years (say you’re halfway through an eighty year life expectancy) of eyesight is worth more than 1,000 visits to a (potentially) good gallery. The capital cost of Mona ($75m investment annualised plus losses) is about $15m a year. So you think that: a year’s eyesight is worth (15m/(40*350)) or more than $1,000. That’s kind of obvious. But you also think that the opportunity to visit Mona is worth less than $1,000 a year. That might be obvious, too. Another way to look at it: you think that the benefit that 1,000 people derive from visiting the gallery is less than the harm inflicted on one person being blinded for forty years. That assumes, and Peter Singer does assume, that a benefit to one is exactly 1/1000 of the same benefit to 1,000. Sometimes benefits accrue in a non-linear way. Cities become more innovative a lot faster than their population grows. A thousand people visiting an art gallery are clearly more likely to collaborate than one such person, and – who knows? – they might find a cure for blindness. A doctor visiting Mona noticed that the Rafael Lozano-Hemmer artwork that measures heart-rate could be used to construct a test that was a lot cheaper than the existing one, and he launched it as a product, expecting it to prevent many heart attacks. But let’s proceed with Peter’s assumption of linearity, for the sake of clarity, and computability.

It’s hard to reduce all the potential ways to help and harm to numbers. And that’s what you are probably thinking now. This is all so reductionist, and doing good is good, however inefficient it is. As I said, most likely you are a fan of Mona, and that means that you think Mona is good for you, and good for society. Peter Singer’s approach, which is the best mechanistic approach we have, draws the opposite conclusion. Are you prepared to put your wishy-washy emotions up against his elegantly reductionist logic? Am I? If you are, can you expect others’ morality to be congruent with yours? One thing I can say for sure: it can cost less than $1,000 to cure certain types of blindness. And that’s not just for a year, it’s for a lifetime. A WHO study of trachoma treatment in Nepal reached this conclusion:

The societal cost of mass treatment per one percentage point decrease in prevalence among 5,200 children screened was 32,400 NPR (ca US$600).

That was in 1998, so in Australian dollars, now, that might be $2,000. The kind of trachoma that likely results in blindness (intense inflammatory trachoma) has an incidence of about 4.3 per cent in Nepal, or 223 cases that will result in blindness. A one per cent reduction prevents 2.23 cases of blindness, so curing blindness comes to – voila – 2000/2.23, or around $900.

$1,000 for a one fifth of a life. Less than $1,000 for sight. Or a good time for nineteen people (0.8*350000)*(1000/15000000)? Should I close Mona down and give the cash to Peter Singer to do with as he will?

If you have been paying careful attention, you may recall that this blog is supposed to be about the refugee crisis. And it is. All this posturing was to create a framework that allows some sort of assessment of what’s going on, and how to make sense of the way we react to these appalling events.


As many as seventy migrants have been found dead inside a parked truck on a highway in Austria, according to police.


Photo of Aylan and the Syrian refugee crisis

Is it the image that made the world react to the plight of refugees in Europe? There were no images from the truck in Austria, but photographs can’t capture noxious odours. The last person to die in that truck: is his or her life worth as much as this child’s? The reaction to media coverage would suggest the answer is no. Why? (And why, if you were at the beach, is your first reaction to take a photograph?)

From the beginning of 2014 to mid April 2015, 254,000 refugees made it to Europe, while 5,100 died trying. So 2% of attempted entries died (ignoring returnees). So if your Qaly was less than 0.98, then it is worth the attempt. And in war-ravaged Syria, how could that not be so? Further, about 200,000 of 22m people have died in Syria; pretty close to 1%, which means that the damage to your life expectancy attempting to find a better life in Europe is less than one year. Before I did the research I assumed that desperation was the driver of refugeeism, but those seeking a better life in Europe are completely rational. Here’s my entrant in the most contrived statistic competition: since about 43% of Syrians smoke, but 27% of Europeans, if the Syrian refugees acquire European smoking habits, this alone would compensate for the risk they engaged by becoming refugees (and therefore, of course, they should really come to Australia, since smoking prevalence is lower than in Europe).

But that doesn’t explain why we care about the picture.

I was just talking to my mate Mohammed, and he told me he was going to the pro-immigration rally in Sydney’s Hyde Park. I checked out the rally Facebook page and they led with story of Aylan Kurdi, the child in the photo. I’m sure the promoters know what works. But why do we care more about one than one million? And why does Peter Singer’s carefully reasoned abject objectivity curry very little favour with the broader community?

When we were first trying to win on horse races I found that our models, taking into account form and jockeys and tracks and breeding and lots of other stuff, did not outperform the public, even though the gambling public is just a bunch people voting with their pocket and then being aggregated (it is, incidentally, a rousing endorsement of the democratic process). It was only when we included the public assessment in our models that we could win. Essentially, the public is better at calculating the odds than we are, except that they make consistent mistakes that we can exploit. One such consistent error is called hot hand bias, which is exemplified by the fact that when a basketball player makes a few three-point shots in a row, everybody thinks he is going to keep making them. He won’t; he will make his career average. There is no such thing as a streak. But we believe there is. And the reason we believe there is is evolutionary. One hundred thousand years ago in the African Savannah our ancestors foraged. Foragers were better off returning to where they found food than searching at random, and that provides selection pressure in favour of hot hand bias. Bees also exhibit hot hand bias. It’s a good thing near the hive, or in the Savannah, but it’s a bad idea when betting, or thinking. Mistakes of this type are called cognitive biases. And our appalling treatment of refugees, I think, results from some of these cognitive biases (the conflicts that cause people to flee may also have their genesis in some of these biases).

Not all cognitive biases once conferred an advantage. They are heuristics, short cuts which allow speedier processing of complex data. Mark Changizi, in his wonderful The Vision Revolution, points out that the more complex our environment, and the more novelty we face, the more compromises our neural processing has to make. We live a little bit in the future because the brain takes time to do its processing; but if we live too much in the future, our neural forecasts are more often incorrect (that’s when we are deceived by an illusion). So we want to be as quick as possible to make our future forecasting not too distant (it seems to be about half a second) and short-cuts, mental rules-of-thumb, are required to get the job done on schedule. These approximations, in my opinion, account for most of our cognitive biases. The need for dealing with novelty also accounts for our large brains. We could be smart more slowly, and do it with smaller brains, if we didn’t have to deal quickly with situations that we have not, hitherto, encountered.

So let’s look at a few of these things, these biases that fuck us up, that make difference repellent, and bigotry and selfishness attractive. If it could be demonstrated that these traits really are the result of cognitive bias and thus induce systematic error, then correcting for them might set us on a better path, in the same way that, when betting on a horse race, correcting for biases allows a more accurate assessment of the odds.

We identify with those in our in-group, and often reject or even despise outsiders. Prior to the evolution of speech the maximum number of individuals that could cooperate was about 150. Cooperation is useful: a pack of hyenas can bring down a lion, but coordination of large groups is difficult. Chimps attack other chimps as a group, and bonobos in-group activities are well known. Speech enabled larger groups, but that means there may be too many members of a group to remember. An un-counterfeitable way to recognise friends and enemies is needed. Race provides an easy one. It’s hard to fake the colour of one’s skin (or gender, but in-groups and out-groups often have the same gender distribution). Religious affiliation, and political persuasion, and sports affiliation, and parochial leaning are easier to falsify. Unless we commit to beliefs that are so ridiculous or heinous no one would voluntarily fake them (virgin births, Nazi atrocities, team song bonding, Australian flag bikinis). All this means that we commit to the in-group at the expense of the out-group. That might be where headlines like this come from:

Refugees in Europe: Christians welcome – Muslims keep out…

Another bias, out-group homogeneity bias, is relevant here. The name says it all. We tend to assume that the groups we know are diverse, but that outsiders, within their group, are all the same. A few Islamic terrorists make stereotyping easy, provided we see them as all the same. In fact, Islamic countries often have low homicide rates (Iran lower than the U.S., Saudi Arabia lower than Australia). This type of misperception recently gave Donald Trump the ammunition he needed to stigmatise undocumented Mexican immigrants in the U.S.

If you are sceptical about in-group identification and out-group demonization, consider some studies conducted by Henri Tajfel. He assigned random subjects in his studies to groups, in some cases by coin toss. Those involved quickly started accepting the group they were assigned to as objectively superior. This, despite the fact that the experimental subjects knew they were allocated to their group at random.

I’m starting to bore myself. But in the unlikely event that anyone is still interested by this point I’ll plough on.

Another significant group bias is the ultimate attribution bias, which Wikipedia explains so well that I will be lazy (as I say, I’m starting to bore myself) and lift the text:

Ultimate attribution error arises as a way to explain an out-group’s negative behaviour as flaws in their personality, and to explain an out-group’s positive behaviour as a result of chance or circumstance.

Relatedly, just-world bias is the view that those suffering fortune or misfortune brought it on themselves because the world is fair. Amongst other things, this yin and yang view enables rich fuckers like me to avoid donating to charities by believing that they worked hard for their money and they deserve it. The poor, of course, also deserve their lot (and that’s not a lot). It also contributes to explaining why seventy-one corpses in the back of a truck doesn’t cause uproar.

But it doesn’t explain the photo.

Most cognitive biases allow us to get through analysis quickly, but some also allow us to avoid the uncomfortable state known as cognitive dissonance. When we have multiple stimuli that are contradictory, we quickly assume that the information which are most aligned with our personal biases is correct. When exposed to suffering, externalising by locating it in an undervalued out-group is easy. Except when that stimulus is baldly biological, and triggers those protection mechanisms that evolution has amplified within us. We need large brains, in part because we evolved intelligence, and in part because of the required speedy response time to novelty. But kids need to pass through the birth canal, and that means their heads can’t be too large. Fifty days ago I watched my daughter, Sunday, emerge for the first (and only) time, and it reinforced my notion of how risky birth is. But small heads mean undeveloped babies, and that means a long childhood, and a great need of nurturing. Children are cute. It must be so, because they are hard to keep alive, and so we need incentives. A suffering child, therefore, sets up a very strong cognitive dissonance. And a dead child doesn’t offer mental exclusion as a solution because the dominant biological impetus is protection. There is no way out but remorse. One dead child makes us all responsible.

What about a million anonymous dead children? The advertisements for charities tell you how many children die each minute of preventable causes, and despite the good intentions of Peter Singer and others like him, we do nothing. It isn’t that the problem is too large. The lack of direct exposure allows us plausible cognitive denial. We can resolve our dissonance by ignoring the stimulus. The children aren’t right there, so our biases can be employed to save us from suffering. But that only makes those who we could have helped suffer more.

In the ten minutes it has taken you to read this far, seventy-five children have had their lives ended by preventable causes. And three hundred people have become refugees. Now let’s have a beer, or watch reality TV, while our biologically biased brains decide that it ain’t so. See if you can remember these numbers tomorrow.

Hansie Cronje, the South African cricket captain who fell from grace after taking bribes (and who later fell from space), had WWJD tattooed on his knuckles. This stood for, ‘what would Jesus do’. I doubt Jesus would have taken the cash. Let’s contemplate, for a moment, WWPSD (what would Peter Singer do)? The strict application of his principles might suggest he would ignore the plight of refugees, since it’s cheaper to save lives that are more directly threatened by disease, or starvation, or nature. It costs more than $5,000 to save a refugee. The off-shore detention centres (prisons?) that Australia employs as staging posts to sending the suffering home to suffer more cost more than $100,000 per year, per person (inmate?). Of course, those who get into the community probably pay their way. In fact, the very people with the balls to take on such high-level risk might be the ones who could get things done in a community. Perhaps it is cheaper to allow refugees in than to send them back. If each new resettled refugee contributes to the community, does it matter if it opens the floodgates? Factoring the long-term return on investment, allowing refugees to settle reduces costs to below the Singer criterion of efficiency. That is: the money must do the most good it can do.

James Newitt, a Tasmanian artist, gave people in the streets of Los Angeles a dollar for their story. He got his money’s worth. Here’s one:

I left Africa because I wanted to go to Europe, because I had dreams. So I went. I never had enough money to leave Cameroon directly to the US, so I left Cameroon and went to Nigeria – the neighbouring country – and worked there for a couple of months, and from there I went to the next country – Niger – and I worked there for a couple of months, and to Morocco, and from Morocco I went to France. From France I saved enough money to finally come to America, my final destination. I’ve been here for three-and-a-half years now, so you count the three-and-a half years back and I was doing that journey.

I used to think that maybe it was different, you know, money-wise. I know I can make money but it seems to be more competition, you know? Not that I’m discouraged, you know I’m still just working hard to make it like everybody and it’s just a matter of time, I just have to keep working hard.

We are all machines processing stimuli. But we are slightly lop-sided machines, and we pick things more easily on the side (geographically or socio-politically) nearest to us. (This is not just a metaphor: right-handed bias is prevalent. The word ‘sinister’ comes from the Latin for ‘left’, and dexterous, from ‘on the right’.) Our short-cut cognition leads to error, and that error leads to persecution of those most different from us, even if the difference is arbitrary. With effort, we can counterbalance and correct. Most of what I’ve presented in this unwieldy blog I’m not too sure about. But I know this: with effort comes understanding, and with understanding, tolerance.

Sincere apologies for the mum-and-pop psychology.

Introducing Sunday

By David Walsh

Gros Michel bananas

Gros Michel bananas

These are Gros Michel bananas. Unless you’ve carefully sampled exotic fruit varieties in Thailand, or are over seventy, you don’t know what they taste like. Gros Michel comprised the bulk of all bananas sold in the world until the 1950s, when a fungus almost wiped them out. Now we mostly eat Cavendish bananas, but they are also threatened by disease. Banana varieties are clones. A single variety has no genetic diversity, and can thus be threatened by a single disease or parasitic species.

Komodo dragon

Komodo dragon

This is a pathenogenic (‘virgin creation’) lizard, a Komodo Dragon. It is non-obligate, which means that individuals of this species can also reproduce sexually. In the short term pathenogenesis offers significant advantages. For the Dragons, who are island dwellers, it seems a great way for an individual to start a new population on its own. Obligate pathenogenic species have the significant advantage of not having to locate mates. But obligate pathenogenic species don’t last long. They suffer from the ravages of rapidly evolving parasites, and they don’t have the genetic diversity to express a sufficient range of phenotypes to respond to changing environmental conditions or inter-species competition. Asexual reproduction is a dead end. Fortunately, no man is a banana. And no little girl is a Gros Michel.

David and Kirsha

David and Kirsha

These are two examples of a mammalian species that employs only sexual reproduction (despite one or two outlier claims). Unlike obligate pathenogens they have engaged in mate location. They did that because searching for a mate is fun. It’s fun because if it wasn’t they wouldn’t do it, and they wouldn’t pair-bond and they wouldn’t breed and they wouldn’t love and they wouldn’t care enough to provide enough care, and they wouldn’t have their children grow up to love and care for their children and their species wouldn’t abide. These two individuals, having been assigned (and in one case re-assigned) names due to social convention, are known as Kirsha and David.

So Kirsha and David, each found a lover, found each-other, became bound to each-other, became mutual care-givers, and made another. And as members of a species within which individuals possess self-awareness, viewpoints can be expressed. Such viewpoints are typically congruent with biologically normative exigencies, but are expressed as if the social domain is dominant. This engenders a first-person narrative style.



This is our freshly minted little girl. The physical manifestation of our evolutionary drives. We think she is beautiful, but we would, wouldn’t we? Evolution sees to that. And evolution, often through concealed agency, sees to it that we express, or attempt to enhance, our social status by communicating our great good fortune at having a healthy by-product of our pair-bonding, and of our love. I could shout it from the rafters, or hand out cigars, but a blog should do the job.

Heide Museum

Heide Museum

This is Heide Museum, near Melbourne. One of the reasons Kirsha and I have experienced a productive pair-bonding is that our biologically expressed but socially mediated interests are aligned. Sharing interests allows one to select appropriate mates, but it also allows the signaling of appropriate bonding mechanisms. If I liked hotting-up cars, say Toranas, then conspicuous displays of my Torana prowess, say a donut demonstration, would reduce the amount of resource expended on testing inappropriate mates with inappropriate interests. But I like art and, using my collection and the construction of a museum, I gave off signals to which Kirsha was apparently receptive. And so I took her to Heide. I saw, in Heide, the birth-pangs of Australian modernism (presently an uncomfortable metaphor). Kirsha saw in it a kindred spirit to her art garden projects –  in New Orleans and now in Hobart. John and Sunday Reed made Heide, and thus might been inadvertently complicit in the tenuous chain making our relationship. And, of reeds – ‘Man’, said Blaise Pascal, ‘Is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature, but he is a thinking reed’. That may be so, but our joyful little bundle of biology is female, not yet thinking so much, but already employing her natural gifts to elicit our love, to prevail on us to preserve her from breaking in the breeze. Our reed will be called Sunday. Never shall be Sunday too far away.

Making fun: Mona and Buchel

– By Elizabeth Pearce

The Christoph Buchel exhibition closes next month. It’s notable that it made it thus far. Buchel was incensed at our decision to remove the ‘Are you of Aboriginal descent?’ faux-genetic testing, which he felt damaged the artistic integrity of the project; at one point, it looked like we might have to deinstall the lot: the Southdale shopping centre, the C’MONA Community Centre, and the installation in the south-west national park. (It was too late to consider pulling the Australian Fair for Freedom of Belief and Religion. Did you realise that was part of Buchel’s work as well?) Obviously we didn’t want to cut short the exhibition, not only because we think it’s excellent, but because its genesis was so painful for everyone involved. So I’m happy to say our curators, Nicole, Jarrod and Olivier, worked it out with him.

During the multi-phased debacle, David made it very clear the genetic testing would not be reinstated. I agree with that. However, I don’t think we should have taken it down in the first place. This is not because I’m concerned about Buchel’s artistic integrity (if he was so worried about that, he should have let us name him as the artist from the outset instead of letting David and the curators cop the flak) but because I think the genetic testing is satire, and effective satire, and that Aboriginal people and history are appropriate subjects for satire in some contexts, as I will explain below.

In the days after the exhibition opened, we were moved by feedback from some Tasmanian Aboriginal people that the genetic testing was hurtful because it objectified them, and shocking because they had not been consulted. I was (and am) deeply sorry for the offense. Buchel had high-tailed it back to Europe, our sense of abandonment assuming a distinctly postcolonial air. This – Tasmania – is our community, harbour of our dark history, much as we machinate our legitimacy with European art-world credibility. David did not deliberate: the work was taken down. I wasn’t asked for my opinion, but at that time, it concurred with his. (I’ve since changed it. Why is changing your mind considered a weakness, in our politicians for instance? As David points out in his blog post apology for the genetic testing incident, single-mindedness is an arsenal away from totalitarianism and dystopia.) When we opened the museum in 2011, we expressly wanted controversy, and as you know, we didn’t get any. But this was shaping up to be a thin kind of controversy, unsatisfying for us, in the sense that we were conflicted about parts of the project in the first place. If David had believed from the start in the artistic merit of the genetic testing, neither he nor it would have budged an inch.

So common among us at Mona was (and is) a desire for solidarity with the Tasmanian Aboriginal community. But you and I know – as thoughtful, postcolonial citizens – that ‘the Tasmanian Aboriginal community’ is not a monolith, no more than ‘the Swiss’ or, indeed, ‘the staff at Mona’. If this slipped my mind momentarily, I was promptly reminded of it by the strong, varied response to the removal of the work and to David’s abovementioned apology. He was criticised on multiple fronts: for permitting the erection of the work in the first place (hurtful), for authorizing its removal (patronizing), and for censoring the artist’s message (draconian). Greg Lehman is right: the affair is a ‘measure of how tender the wounds left by the British ­invasion of Tasmania still are’. But so, too, is it a measure for the importance of representation of self and others in the process of healing those wounds. For me, this comes down to the right to engage with conventions such as humour, satire, hyperbole, irony, farce… no mere literary trifles, but rather, central modes of human identity-construction and expression. I believe it is appropriate to engage Aboriginal experiences in a satirical mode because those experiences are not tangential to, special cases of, the human experience. We should not be afraid to include Aboriginal people when we make fun of ourselves, and in doing so, come to see ourselves more clearly. Indeed, maybe ‘making fun’ is a measure of our humanity.

Further, the satire’s surrounding context establishes a productive, as opposed to malicious, intent. The Buchel project is about the nature of ethnicity; it pivots on the irony of Tasmania’s history of displacement and erasure (the fantasy of terra nullius was no where more bloodily enacted) alongside the dream, courtesy of one Critchley Parker, to replace the traumatised Jewish people in the wake of the holocaust. The Critchley story also feeds into the great Australia tradition of dying in the bush, itself a part of the man vs. nature drama at the heart of our national identity. In the past that drama has precluded Aboriginal presence, or subsumed it into the ‘natural’ forces to be overcome; the possession of the ‘empty’ Australian landscape has itself been cast as part of the natural and inevitable march of human progress. Buchel knows this and incorporates it into his broader intention, which is to juxtapose the absurdity of the Critchley dream with the silent horror of holocausts both near and far, the Jewish-inflected commercial imperialism of the shopping mall, and the ambivalent idealism of the community centre at the heart of the Mona enterprise – itself an impossible dream come true, but one that, some argue, has its own cultural imperialist implications for Tasmania. I believe, in this context, that the point of the satire is not Aboriginal identity itself, but the absurdity of trying to abstract, quantify, and objectify that identity – which is precisely what non-indigenous Australians have sought to do, in one way or another, since settlement.

My reading is consonant with my interpretation of other elements of the project. Consider C’MONA. On opening night, a colleague came streaming out of the Community Centre declaring offense on behalf of the persons participating (performing?) within. ‘They don’t know they’re a work of art,’ she said. ‘I am offended by that.’ She was referring to the people who had responded to our invitation to take part in what our website describes as ‘a fully functioning community centre… located on the bottom level of the museum’. ‘We seek to engage the full spectrum of the Tasmanian community,’ the brief continues (I know because I wrote it), ‘and invite proposals for workshops, events and activities representing a broad field of engagement and endeavor, including art and craft, discussion and debate, education, music and dance…’ There’s a St Vinnies, a library, and a children’s playground (my friend took her toddler there and sardonically enquired whether letting him wriggle down the slide was akin to artistic exploitation). The enthusiastic response includes groups like Students Against Racism, Community Health Knitting Group, the Tasmanian Suicide Prevention Community Network, and many more. On opening night, I was thrilled with unease as I toured the C’MONA ‘exhibition’. At first I thought it was because of the creepy-comical simulacrum of ‘the real’ that was taking place: C’MONA emphatically is a real community centre, and at the same time, a work of art, because what – after Duchamp – determines something as a work of art, other than its presence in a gallery? But my colleague’s expression of distaste – her sense that the participants were being objectified – has gradually revealed to me the depth of my ambivalence, and of C’MONA’s artistic significance.

It is in this way that controversy is valuable to us as consumers of art: because in the fallout, we clarify what is important to us. But is C’MONA art? Perhaps the question gives words too much power. It is what it is, whatever we label it. But then again, we need to answer the question in order to locate the power exchange that’s taking place. If C’MONA isn’t art, there is no abuse of power taking place, no exploitation or objectification; the people participating are not serving themselves up as fodder for us gawping art-world types. If it is art, that’s because it is located at Mona, and not in a town hall in Bridgewater (or wherever). The participants were not duped or blindfolded; they know where they are, and why. What makes us think they are not entitled to participate in their own objectification for the purposes of artistic expression? Why, again, is satire – or more specifically in this case, the use of metaphor – reserved for the elite? Or: does the permission to use and exploit the power of metaphor (C’MONA at once ‘stands for’ a community centre and actually is one) confer elite cultural status in the first place?

When it comes to a painful past – the fingers of which stretch out to hold us in the present and the future – satirising, objectifying, making fun, are fraught. But so, too, is not making fun, locking members of our (human) race into a stagnant, stultifying, straight-faced literalism; not permitting them the privilege to laugh and to be laughed at, nor to turn the painful joke to political use. I have a sneaking suspicion, and not for the first time, that the joke is on us – Mona. Perhaps this is overdue. And perhaps it is the kind of controversy we’ve been wanting after all.

Christoph Büchel, Land of David (C'Mona - Community Centre)

Christoph Büchel, Land of David (C’Mona – Community Centre)
Photo Credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin


Christoph Büchel, Land of David (C'Mona - Community Centre)

Christoph Büchel, Land of David (C’Mona – Community Centre)
Photo Credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin

Christoph Büchel, Land of David (Poynduk)

Christoph Büchel, Land of David (Poynduk)
Photo Credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin

The truth about Cinderella

By Elizabeth Pearce

I have stepchildren, and I am one. I suppose it is for this reason that I picked up The Truth about Cinderella: A Darwinian View of Parental Love, by Martin Daly and Margo Wilson. According to the authors of this potent little tome, a child is one hundred times more likely to be hurt or killed by a step than a genetic parent; this fact has been aggressively shushed, they argue, in an apparent attempt to suppress unpalatable truths about parental love. Lacklustre investment in non-genetic offspring makes good evolutionary sense. Parenthood carries with it an onerous commitment; the genes ‘for’ indiscriminant nurturing could not be favoured by natural selection. Indeed, infanticide is a regular feature in species such as langurs and lions. In humans, the ambivalence and conflict that tends to characterise step-relationships is

the predicable consequences of putting people who [have] no human reason to love one another into a relationship that [is] structurally analogous to – and [has] to serve as a partial substitute for – the most intimate of loving relationships, namely that of parent and child.

Ouch. I appreciate the urge to suppress such sentiment. In my early step-days I picked up a book, a manual of sorts, and was so traumatised by the terrible things it told me about step-life that I burned it.1 Had I encountered Daly and Wilson’s book at that time I probably would have had some sort of emotional and psychological meltdown. Most people, as they are quick to point out, try really hard to be good to their partner’s sproglets, and most feel bonded to them at least some of the time. No one wants to be told they are a stiff breeze away from bludgeoning them to death. (Actually, I did tell my step-sproglets about the likelihood of me bludgeoning them and they thought it was brilliant, and immediately set about brainstorming ways to ‘set me off’.) There is an argument – empirically unsound, but perhaps defensible on grounds of human sensitivity – that we’re best not to talk about such things. Stepfamilies need all the help they can get. ‘Cinderella’ – and the plethora of similar tales that exist in cultures the world over – doesn’t help.

To say, in those early days, that I had a lot riding on getting along with the sproglets is putting it mildly. Of course my nascent family harmony was at stake – but so, too, I felt, was my very human decency. And in hindsight, I was right. It was. Not because step-parenthood is (or should be) the same as the ordinary variety of parenthood (which was what I believed at the time), but precisely because it is different.

Common wisdom dictates that genetic parenthood is an expression profound selflessness, an apotheosis of sorts. Even Daly and Wilson describe it as ‘the most nearly selfless love we know’. I don’t get this. For me, motherhood is distilled selfishness, in the sense that I am slavishly following the dictates of my most basic desires. The outcome looks selfless in that it benefits my child at apparent cost to myself, but that ‘cost’ is really my own benefit. Such is the circuitousness of human motivation. Motherhood, while intensely pleasurable for me, has not improved my self-esteem so far. Step-parenthood, on the other hand, has been an unequivocal source of pride for me personally, and a well of assurance about the basic goodness of human nature in general. You see – and sorry to state the obvious – humans are not langurs and lions, in that our complex social lives necessitate a keen awareness of the consequences of infanticide and other gratuitously self-serving behaviour. More than that, we are powerfully driven – again, by natural selection – to want to do ‘the right thing’, whatever that might mean at any given time and place. To that end, it is just as ‘natural’ to overcome ambivalent feelings towards step-kids, and to offer them kindness and companionship, as it is to have those ambivalent feelings in the first place. The fact that there’s a step (ha) in between (or up, if you will)… That’s the real apotheosis, and one that we, people, can be proud of.

1I didn’t burn it.

The wrong order

By David Walsh

Tim, my brother, died over twenty years ago. Some of my earliest memories are of him writing poetry. Before he died he had a plan to get some of his poems together for publication. But he didn’t have time. Between diagnosis and death he had only a few months. And morphine and suffering kept him busy.

Tim Walsh Tim Passes, Dark Mofo 2014

Tim Walsh
Tim Passes, Dark Mofo 2014

After he died I set about locating all the worthwhile material I could. But, to my continuing shame, I managed to lose a folder which contained a number of bleak, beautiful poetic capitulations to his condition. His cancer didn’t come out of the blue. He had a congenital condition, choledocal cysts, which had been operated on when he was just six months old. The result was arguably positive, death was deferred thirty-three years, but through those years Tim endured severe, chronic pain. The site of this type of surgery, it turns out, often becomes inflamed, and that led to his symptoms, and that led to his cancer. For some reason nobody told him that might happen. He, nevertheless, often speculated that he would die young. He didn’t think his body could sustain the repeated insults.

I know where I left the folder. On the stereo cabinet. And I know what was playing when I put it down. It was Paul Simon’s ‘Most Peculiar Man’.

And all people said, what a shame that he is dead.
But wasn’t he a most peculiar man?

I went to get the folder the next day, or the day after that, and it wasn’t there. It hasn’t been there, or anywhere else as far as I can determine, for those twenty years. So, just like Tim, that time has passed. There won’t be a book of Tim’s poetry. I only have a few poems left.

Forty years ago.

Tim was a little older than me. He read widely, mainly poetry: Shelley, Shakespeare, Betjeman, Byron, Tennyson, Masefield, Hopkins, Wordsworth, Whitman. And because I didn’t know any better I read them too. He taught me stuff I didn’t want to know then, but am very grateful for now. He showed me how to write amusing little ditties. This one he wrote when we were still children.

I wrote a simple poem.
A simple poem but mine.
And the words on every second line
Always seemed to rhyme.

And it parted in the middle.
Two verses my poem had,
But it finished on the eighth line,
And that kind of makes me sad.

He taught me about iambs, the stresses on every second syllable that Shakespeare used to astonishing effect. And he taught me about enjambment, running a sentence over the end of a poetic line, used to best effect with rhymes at the line breaks. Thus I wrote:

Playing with some stressful iambs
The line ran out before I could
Finish. I asked myself what would
Shakespeare do? And then I knew.
A ploy poets call enjamb-
Ment. When I write myself into
A corner. I escape just like Ham-
Let. That’s as tricky as Harry Hou-

Two years ago.

As a surprise for my fiftieth birthday, some friends commissioned Dean Stevenson to set a couple of Tim’s poems to music, and to play them at the party. It went well. One poem he chose Tim had written for my twenty-first birthday. He had been in hospital having another round of surgery, and was mindful of his mortality. Thus it began:

Time passes, and we being mortal, think of death.

The songs went so well, in fact, that Dean asked for more poems. But there are no more, he had already been given the eight that I know of. Those eight were, apparently, enough. Enough for this concert, at least.

Twelve years ago.

Mum died in 2001. Every night between Tim’s demise and hers she read a poem before she went to sleep. James, Tim’s son, wrote in the note he sent to Dean when they colluded on my birthday present, that ‘Dad… composed this for my grandmother Myra, to help her feel some joy in his memory’.

When thine eyes have lost their soft dream shine
At pass of years and loss of time
And you are old and grey and full of sleep
When your heart is sad and your soul is deep
Stop. Reflect. Wipe away your tears
And think of the joys of bygone years
Think happiness. Friends and laughing lovers
Think of good times, come, think of others
But should no joy come from your past time
Take down this poem and read its rhyme
Hold it tender, close, and near to thee
Think of one friend. Think of me.

Twenty-two years ago.

When Tim went into hospital he was already dying, but we didn’t know. They opened him up, confident they could fix him. When a mooted four-hour operation took fifteen minutes we knew something was wrong.

So all the interventions became palliative. A nurse was assigned to show Tim how to use oral morphine. Tim said, ‘I know all about that, I had to administer it to my son, Billy’. Billy was born with disabilities, and dead at eight months. Dad said, ‘We die in the wrong order in this family’. Dad was already seventy-five, but destined to live another eighteen years. They sent Tim home.

At home Tim played his girlfriend and me a song, ‘Stuff and Nonsense’ by Split Enz. The chorus goes:

And you know that I love you
Here and now, not forever.
I can give you the present
I don’t know about the future
That’s all stuff and nonsense.


Dean Stevenson and the Arco Set Orchestra will perform Tim Passes at Dark Mofo on Thursday June 12, 7pm at the Odeon Theatre.
Buy tickets

Me boss’ missus

By Elizabeth Pearce

Me boss and his missus are on their honeymoon in Istanbul. Which reminds me: I told me boss’ missus I was planning to write a blog about their wedding, which I attended in March. Here it is.

Kirsha hasn’t changed her surname to ‘Walsh’, but has kept it as Kaechele (KASH-el-a).1 This is not for feminist reasons. She didn’t like the harsh repetition of consonants: KirSHA WalSH. Her august mate, David, was against Kirsha changing her name, but for more politically motivated reasons: apparently patriarchal re-naming is perniciously retrograde. My own view is that our cultural lives are rich in retrograde gestures, especially where ceremony is concerned. The etymology of the word ‘woman’ is itself profoundly sexist: from the Old English wimman, meaning ‘woman-man’. In other words, ‘man’ is the neutral designation, the standard human, and everything else is an add on, an exception. (‘Wimman’ also seems to be an alteration of wifman, meaning female servant. Even worse.) To call ourselves ‘womyn’, as some feminists advocate, is a token gesture, and token gestures are worse than nothing, the noise in the machine that doesn’t disrupt its operations. Ross Chambers argues that empty oppositional gestures actually strengthen inequality – contribute to the machine’s smooth running – by fooling us into thinking we’ve made a real difference, and hence falsely satisfying our sense of social responsibility. (And he said that before the advent of Facebook ‘share if you agree’ campaigns.) I feel the same way about those bullshit ‘I just want to acknowledge the traditional owners of this parking lot/cinema/primary school…’ that accompany civic ceremony. If you really want to acknowledge the traditional ownership of the land, get off it and give it back. I am comfortable to call myself by my husband’s name (getting married is in itself ludicrously old-fashioned) because I know in my heart and in my behaviour I am womyn, through and through. I haven’t asked Kirsha, but I suspect she feels the same way. For her, though, aesthetics wins the day.

Enough of that. I think what Kirsha would really like (I’d like to write something nice for her. I like her, she’s my friend. And my patron’s mistress, let’s not forget) (I mean ‘mistress’ to mean ‘a woman in a position of authority or control’ rather than a participant in adultery)… What I think she would like is a description of the lascivious and licentious – positively salubrious – succession of ceremonies and celebrations that accompanied their exchange of ‘I do’s. This is not mere sentiment: Kirsha is what she calls a ‘life artist’, which means that she practices a sort of boundless aestheticism that gathers around acts of personal and social significance. In more practical terms: she turns events like dinners and parties, as well as more modest community-based gatherings, into living installation art, as well as bringing together art, architecture, commerce and ecology in projects such as the Heavy Metals campaign and, of course, the Moma Market.

It also means that her own identity, on a day-to-day basis, is often shot through with performance. One of my favourite memories of her (that sounds weird, like she’s dead, but I’m not sure how else to phrase it): in Versace, Fifth Avenue, on a work trip to New York when we were supposed to be looking at the Whitney Biennial. (We did later and it was horrid. I hate art.) Kirsha put on a stellar performance of the spoiled rich man’s wife, throwing a pretend tantrum (although the sale’s assistant was none the wiser) because David would only agree to buy her one dress, not two. ‘This is abusive!’ she squealed, stomping her stiletto. ‘I can’t believe you’re doing this to me!’ Another time, at the Birdcage Bar at Wrest Point Casino, Kirsha and her super hot Yankee friends were playing dumb for a large group of drooling, dorky conference scientists. ‘Tell me, Michael’ (batt, batt, batt go the lashes): ‘what exactly is surface chemistry?’ Somehow, someone ended up flashing a nipple. Not sure how it happened. Next thing, we were being thrown out, the whole hot-Yankee contingent, for improper exposure (it really was just a lonesome hot-Yankee nipple, nothing more); in protest, Kirsha and her friends did a full Spring-Break style topless parade around the bar and back before being manhandled out onto Sandy Bay Road. It was gold. I’ll wager that not a day goes by without those surface chemists thinking of it.

Here are some photos of the wedding (I’ve never been much good at descriptive writing). Have a nice life, Mr. and Mrs. Kaechele.

Kirsha Kaechele and David Walsh Image credit: Jonathan Wherrett

Kirsha Kaechele and David Walsh
Image credit: Jonathan Wherrett

Kirsha Kaechele

Image credit: Jonathan Wherrett

Bridesmaids and bride.

Image credit: Jonathan Wherrett

Kirsha Kaechele Image credit:  Jonathan Wherrett

Image credit: Jonathan Wherrett

David Walsh and Kirsha Kaechele's wedding.

Image credit: Jonathan Wherrett

David and Kirsha's Wedding.

Image credit: Jonathan Wherrett

David and Kirsha: the reception.

Image credit: Jonathan Wherrett

David and Kirsha's Wedding.

Image credit: Jonathan Wherrett

Party. Image credit: Jonathan Wherrett

Image credit: Jonathan Wherrett

David and Kirsha's Wedding Party

Image credit: Jonathan Wherrett

Kirsha Kaechele

Mrs Kaechele.
Image credit: Jonathan Wherrett

1Later she corrects me: KE-sha-la. Basically I have no idea to pronounce her last name. Or her first, let’s be honest.


By David Walsh

There is a lot to protest in Turkey. Injustice is rife, with crony capitalism at its heart. Geza Park, one of the last remaining green spaces in European Istanbul, was earmarked to be sacrificed for a shopping centre, and the company awarded the contract has links to the government. And then there was the mining disaster, which happened shortly after the opposition party complained that safety standards were being flouted.

So last night tens of thousands of people marched up Istiklal St, towards Taksim Square and Geza Park. Kirsha and I were there too. We had gone, not to check out the action, but to find a dress for Kirsha that is Islam friendly, not a feature of her regular wardrobe. We arrived before the protestors marched. There were armoured vehicles and police everywhere.

After a drink at in a rooftop bar we returned to the street. By then the chanting crowd was moving up the street, making an enormous racket. Many were wearing mining hats and gas masks, a reference, I assumed, to the dead miners. It was all rather exciting. I asked an English-speaking onlooker what it was all about. He told me it was ‘political’.

Kirsha wanted to go further up the street to Taksim Square, the obvious centre of the action. I thought that unwise. While we were arguing a young lady told Kirsha to cover her mouth, since the police had started using tear gas. I found a raised vantage point, and I could see the water cannons further up the street. The crowd careened down the hill. We soon felt the water cannons, and saw the sparks and heard the snare drum crack of the tear gas canisters being fired. Moments later we tasted the canister’s rather unpleasant contents. So we became part of stampede. We tried to hide down a side street, but it proved to be a dead end. As we returned to the main thoroughfare the surreality of our predicament was both underlined and alleviated when a taxi disgorged a passenger on the corner. It must have battled up the hill against the human tide, the driver doing his job as always, facing yet another of the apparently surmountable obstacles that the Istanbul streets presented.

So we got in the taxi. The driver headed down the street at the same speed as the panicked protestors, and even though the tear gas was choking us he (nonchalant as the best taxi drivers around the world always are) drove with his window down, down the hill to safety. As we crossed the Golden Horn, the gas in the air dispersed until, halfway across the bridge, the protestors gave way to elderly fisherman casting their lines into the Bosphorus hopeful of reeling in their dinner, while history passed them by, as it always has.