Category Archives: Australia

South Ways – art undercurrents across the South

Paper for South-South Axes of Global Art (Paris, 17-19 Jun 15)

Context

I present this paper as a curator, more concerned with opening up a space for new possibilities than analysing the past. My purpose is to present alternatives to the biennale model that are conducive to horizontal south-south exchange. Presenting these here, in the cultural capital of the North, affords a critical space to consider its limits and potential for further development.

Before I begin, I need to account for my voice as a citizen of Australia. Australia is an extractivist settler nation that has largely ignored its position in the South in favour of models inherited from Europe and North America. Until recently, the colonial imagination was fired by nationalist tropes like ‘Downunder’, the ‘Great Southern Land’ and ‘Southern Cross’, but these are mere clichés in a neoliberal state that is more concerned with the people it can exclude than the shared stories it can generate from within.

Charles de Gaulle was rumoured to have said of Brazil, that ‘it is a country of the future, and always will be’. So in Australia, our place in the world remains, paradoxically, a distant horizon. But as Paulin Hountondji remarked ‘culture is not only a heritage, it is a project’ (Sahlins 2005). The South is our project, to be more than a colonial outpost. Australia’s distance from the centre has potential to open a space for new possibilities.

Also before going further I should clarify my use of the term ‘south’. Though it seems uncomfortable in a globalised world to offer spatial limits, I do use ‘south’ as a political reality, more than a convenient trope. Jorge Luis Borges proposed that ‘universal history is the history of various intonations of a few metaphors’ (Borges 1973). Derrida proposed light was one of these key metaphors (Derrida 1978), evident since Plato in the symbol of knowledge as enlightenment. South could be considered among these key metaphors. The meaning of South is predicated on the concept of a vertical hierarchy, where value lies above. It is more than just a trope—an improvement on ‘Third World’, but not as incisive as ‘Majority World’. South cannot be readily transposed. South is a real fixed phenomenon, what Ricoeur calls the vestricktsein, ‘living imbrication’ (Ricoeur 1984, 75). By convention I fly up to Paris, despite that our experience of the world is as in the long run as an even plane. ‘Going south’ has become synonymous with failure. This is a phenomenological function embedded in how we see the world. We live in metaphors, which suits some better than others. Just as blackness is historically tainted with ignorance, so ‘southern’ is by default lowly.

The biennale dream

The story begins with the quest for civic identity. Sydney and Melbourne are Australia’s rival cities. Missing the nature-given attractions of Sydney, Melbourne identifies more with man-made elements, such as its architecture. Through its Major Events strategy, Melbourne also seeks to feature in the international circuit through programs like the Formulae One Grand Prix. But an important piece has been missing. Though originating many of the artistic movements in Australia, Melbourne lacks a place in the international visual arts calendar. Finally, in 1999, it acquired its first, and only, visual arts biennale. Mostly praised by local critics, the event proved a financial disaster. In the end, the Melbourne Biennial didn’t receive the same kind of international funding support that was already directed towards Sydney, one the oldest biennales. At a forum in RMIT Gallery, the godfather of biennales, Rene Block, explained cruelly that there was just ‘no room on the carousel’ for Melbourne. It was too similar to Sydney, which was already established, and did not have the exotic appeal of new members like Istanbul or Gwangju.

This led to many discussions about what it meant to have a biennale in Melbourne. Was there an alternative model? Brisbane had shown how it was possible to consolidate a place in the international calendar outside the carousel, in the Asia Pacific Triennial. Rather try to inveigle oneself into an existing circuit, the Art Gallery of Queensland had created a new set of exchanges framed by an east-west dialogue between Australia and the cultures of its region. At a public discussion at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art in 2000, the Brisbane model was explored and the question asked—what new international space could Melbourne help open up?

At that time, the democratic turn in many countries in the South were relatively fresh. Nelson Mandela had just stepped down as President of the new South Africa. In Latin America, countries like Chile, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay had broken with the military dictatorships of the 1970s. The 20th century story of the South as a region of tin-pot dictators and banana republics was no longer relevant. Boycott was no longer the most appropriate ethical engagement with the South. In this context, it seemed that a triennial style event in Melbourne could provide a new space for trying out exchanges with these reformed countries along southern latitudes.

South Project

In 2003, the South Project was initiated and heads of the city’s cultural institutions came together to endorse a future APT style event in Melbourne. In the meantime, however, most of the leading visual arts organisations like the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art reverted back to architecture as a forum of ambition. New buildings like Federation Square testified to Melbourne’s cultural value. It was left to a relatively marginal organisation, Craft Victoria, to carry the South baton. For a craft organisation, the South Project offered not only the potential to forge south-south alliances, it also provided a way to engage with craft practice in an otherwise highly conceptual visual arts scene. The rationale for this came from the relative importance of craft as a means of both livelihood and cultural identity in many countries of the South.[1]

Rather than see this developmentally as evidence of a cultural backwardness, the challenge was to integrate crafts into the platform. This was framed as a democratic issue. Craft helped ensure that this exchange was not simply reproducing the cultural elites that normally ride the carousel, but embraced also those in townships, slums and poblaciones.

The democratic framework was attempted in three ways. The first was to include where possible a local indigenous welcome alongside the inevitable meeting of dignitaries. While now a common feature of public events in Australia, it was still a relatively new component in other countries, particularly South America.

The second was to include practical workshops alongside the standard format of talks and exhibitions. Fibre crafts played a leading role, including Australian Aboriginal techniques in Johannesburg and Māori basket-making in Wellington. This offered craftspersons and artisans with a more direct benefit in attending, as well as opportunity for the university educated participants to engage in a dialogical space was did not privilege their cultural capital.

The third involved exchanges with children. The South Kids program featured the story of an emu that wanted to fly. A kit including the toy emu and camera circulated around schools in the South, enabling children to document their worlds. In Soweto, this was a pretext for praising the capacities of the ostrich, which though unable to fly has unique features such as physical beauty, useful eggs and impressive running speed. The story of the flightless bird was a predicament seen to typify the South, as a region lacking the capacity to share its unique features with each other.

In the end, the South Project did not achieve its grand ambition to establish a triennial in Melbourne. While this was partly the consequence of internal political factors, it was not helped by the relative lack of economic opportunities for Australia across the South compared to the Asia Pacific.

Nonetheless, the South Project left a residual network and a trail of unanswered questions. What does the South share in common, besides a shared opposition to the North? To what extent is the focus on the South reproducing a post-colonial dynamic where indigenous cultures are defined by their oppression, rather than in their own terms? What would be a space such as the South that didn’t need the North to define itself against? A kind of Hegelian dialectic had been initiated to discover an autonomous identity for the South.

Southern Theory

Meanwhile, there emerged a call in the academy to broaden the purview beyond the trans-Atlantic north. In 2007, the book by Australian sociologist Raewyn Connell was published, titled Southern Theory: The Global Dynamics of Knowledge in Social Science (2007). Connell addressed the degree to which the discipline of sociology was built on a set of interests that were particular to the northern metropolitan centres. She argued that the theories of Marx, Durkheim and Weber did not account for the experiences particular to the periphery, especially that of its subaltern majorities. Rather than the universal systems offered by those theorists, Connell advocated for a ‘dirty theory’ that takes into account the particularities:

The goal of dirty theory is not to subsume, but to clarify; not to classify from outside, but to illuminate a situation in its concreteness. And for that purpose — to change the metaphor — all is grist to the mill. Our interest as researchers is to maximise the wealth of materials that are drawn into the analysis and explanation. It is also our interest to multiply, rather than slim down, the theoretical idea that we have to work with. That includes multiplying the local sources of our thinking, as this book attempts to do. (Connell 2007, 207)

While concerned particularly with the institutional production of knowledge, Connell’s work paralleled others that have recently used the South within a framework of critical social theory. This includes Enrique Dussel’s work constructing a discipline of liberation philosophy (Dussel 1985), which evaluates ideas according to their impact on social justice.  Such a philosophy takes geopolitical space seriously. As Dussel writes, ‘To be born at the North Pole or in Chiapas is not the same thing as to be born in New York City.’ (Dussel 1985).  This drive has been continued by thinkers and activists such as Boaventura de Sousa Santos, whose epic ‘epistemologies of the South’ (Santos 2013) aims to deconstruct universalising gestures.

There is much diversity among the theorists framing their work in a Southern context (Rosa 2014). But they share the key principle of place as a valid framework for the production of knowledge. This means working in the South can be more than just a second best option, indicative of failure to succeed in the North.

Southern Theory and visual arts

How might Southern Theory apply to the visual arts? Within an ecological framework, ideas are evaluated not only for their internal consistency but also the greater world they make possible. We may thus look at anthropology not as the disinterested study of an exotic tribe for the production of academic knowledge elsewhere, but as an exchange involving solidarity with the aspirations of the community under scrutiny. While Southern Theory is predominantly a matter of reflecting social realities, in the case of creative practices it is more about constructing alternatives to the world as it is.

Walter Mignolo is one theorist who has extended the southern perspective to the practice of visual arts and design (Kalantidou and Fry 2014). From an academic base in Hong Kong, Mignolo has led a group of scholars to develop a ‘decolonial aestheSis’ (Mignolo and Vázquez 2013), which critiques Western aesthetic categories like beauty through practices of juxtaposition or parody. Mignolo highlights the Sharjah Biennial (Mignolo 2013) as an example of radical decentring. According to Mignolo, this event ‘turns its back on the intellectual Euro-American fashions that have dominated, until recently, the “biennial market place”’ (Mignolo 2013).  For Mignolo, the value of Sharjah is a matter of its content; the countries and artists that participate represent an alternative ‘cultural cartography’. He notes that of the 100 artists, only 2 were from the USA and 20 from Europe. However, he refrains from mentioning any work in detail. The works are seen to illustrate a particular world view that is independent of the West. An example of one ‘illustrative work’ is:

Nevin Aladag, Turkey, Session (2013). This video triptych shot in Sharjah brings together the topography of the city and percussion music composed with Arabic, African and Indian percussion instruments. The video triptych invokes the spirit of re-emergence in that it works with musical instruments that elude the European renaissance. At the same time, that the instruments are played by and in the environment of Sharjah, cultures once disavowed by western hegemony ‘re-emerge’ with the force and the confidence of pluri-versal futures. (Mignolo 2013)

While its subject may seem non-Western, the format is readily assimilated into the dominant model. It is a ‘white cube’ work, detached from the work, where the visitor is an anonymous viewer. Apart from its geographic location, this work reproduces the biennial model of the world as spectacle.

The current Venice Biennale curated by Okwui Enwezor has brought the concerns of Sharjah to the centre. The majority of works offering a political critique of capitalist hegemony. But as noted (Cumming 2015), there is some irony in an event that is resourced and enjoyed by the very elites it attempts to critique. While some may argue that the carousel is opening up to the South (Gardner and Green 2013), there is no guarantee that it extends beyond the strata of cultural elites found in almost all countries. The challenge is to consider platforms for art making that go beyond reflecting the world as it is, and instead offer alternative pathways for creating a world that might be.

South Ways

It was with the aim to develop alternative platforms that a project was formed last year within the Southern Perspectives, a network of writers and artists that continued after the South Project. The aim of South Ways was to initiate development of platforms for art that act in the world. The process involved roundtables that brought together a variety of voices from those involved in creative practice. Four roundtables were held in different cities of Australia and New Zealand reflecting a diversity of perspectives. To provide a simple pragmatic frame, the seed for each roundtable was provided by a single verb that reflected a distinctive mode of engagement found in the South.[2]

I will provide a brief overview of these verbs and an example of their use.

To bestow

The first roundtable was held in Wellington New Zealand and included a mix of Māori and Pākeha participants. The verb to consider was ‘to bestow’ reflecting the traditional Māori practice of koha or gift giving in art practice and the emergence of Pākeha jewellery forms of engagement involving gift exchange. The main challenge concerned the vulnerability of such practices when exposed to consumer capitalism. Even in biennales, the freebie expectation means that gifts offered as part of the art world are rarely taken in the spirit of exchange. The task was to develop a platform that fostered trust and reciprocity between artists and their audiences.

The project Joyaviva was an exhibition where artists developed prototypes of modern amulets. This drew on the South American tradition of public shrines that receive ex-votive offerings. In the exhibition format, visitors were offered plastic flowers to adorn works and encouraged to reflect on the impact of these amulets on their lives. One of the participants, the Māori artist Areta Wilkinson, integrates koha into both her art work and academic research. For Joyaviva, she featured an initiative to support a Māori community devastated by the Christchurch earthquakes, which included a Matiriki brooch symbolising the Pleiades constellation that signals the New Year.

To open

Melbourne was the site of the second roundtable. Initially, the verb to open related to the work of artists like Nicholas Mangan who chose to expose sites of production in art galleries, such as guerrilla supply lines or factory assembly belts. Present were some of the artists who had chosen to boycott the Sydney Biennale because of its association with Transfield, the company commissioned to manage offshore detention centres. As befits the birthplace of Julian Assange, the Melbourne gathering advocated for a radical transparency, which would highlight the economic value that artists contribute for sponsors to major art events. The proposed WikiLeaks style of platform has yet to emerge.

But one initiative that does aspire to this is the Sangam Project. This platform emerged from the context of the practical workshops in the South Project, where North and South sometimes met in the process of product development, where designers and artisans sought to build creative partnerships.  The program attempts to use the new e-commerce platforms as a means to give economic value to the information about the maker, otherwise unacknowledged. This aspires to platform that is alternative to the commodity circuits that occlude the means of production.

To swap

In Sydney, the verb ‘to swap’ was set up to reflect the phenomenon of reverse primitivism in which Southern artists turn the exotic gaze back on the North. In the end, the subject of contention again was the biennale. In this case, the issue was the way the carousel privileged the art of international relations, rather than local practices that draw on urban nature and community histories. The proposal was a distributed biennale which spread its program across local sites in different cities.

An existing example is the project Minga Sistemas de Trabajo Colectivo in Santiago, curated by Angela Cura Mendez and Felipe Cura (Donoso 2015). Minga is a precolombian term for collective labour. In the island of Chiloe, it often takes the form of a Tiradura de casa when the community gather to move someone’s house to a different location. Working with the community of artist-run art spaces in Chile, this exhibition involved gathering more the spaces themselves than work within them. Maria Gabler re-constructed the walls of Galería Tajamar, which exists in a public housing estate, within Galleria Gabriela Mistral in downtown Santiago. This Minga of contemporary art enables a concentration of work that still retains its locatedness within its home community.

To glean

The roundtable in Hobart was concerned the practice of recovering what is left over, ‘to glean‘. This reflected not only the arte Povera practices such as El Anatusi, granted the Golden Lion in Venice for sublime recycling, but also recovery of cultures lost during the process of colonisation, which was particularly dramatic in Tasmania. The discussion eventually led to the revival of the idea of a Museum of Southern Memory, initially proposed in the first South Project, reflecting the common experience of Apartheid, Stolen Generation and the Disappeared. This museum will not be a physical structure, but a network of individuals and groups that sustain a story or cultural practice through use.

This year, the project of a Social Repair Kit involves re-modelling traditional forms of conflict resolution through blood money. The ‘sorry object’ is the subject of workshops in Bogotá, Santiago and Melbourne. The focus is the injury sustained by conflicts such as the Colombian civil war, coup against Allende and last year’s Sydney hostage siege and consequent islamophobia. Rather than reflect on these conflicts, the aim is to draw inspiration from traditional modes of conflict resolution, such as the Palabreros, in order to develop objects that can be introduced into the communities to facilitate apology and pardon.[3]

Conclusion

South Ways is a scattering of seeds, each with a kernel of action. Of course, we need to be realistic about the likelihood that these proposals will flourish, given the kind of soil in which they are planted. Stepping off the carousel means leaving behind the capital which it has proven effective in gathering. The success will depend on the strength of solidarity rather than self-interest of participants. But if South is to be more than a primitivist mirror to the North, it needs to be a space were we can test out other ways of being.

Notes

[1] See (Skinner 2014) for a more developed framework for the importance of craft in a settler colonial art history.

[2] The theoretical framework for this use of verbs is Actor Network Theory, which offers a flat explanatory structure that does refuses the mimesis and instead identifies the effects that accompany representation (Harman 2014). Accordingly, the dominant verb in visual arts is ‘to explore’ or ‘to examine’. This colonial mode entails a distance between the active world of the artist and unknowing object of knowledge. Viewed in this way, the challenge becomes identifying alternate actions in the world.

References

Borges, Jorge Luis. 1973. “Pascal’s Sphere.” In Other Inquisitions, 1937-1952, translated by Ruth L. C. Simms, 1st British ed. London: Souvenir Press.

Connell, Raewyn. 2007. Southern Theory: The Global Dynamics of Knowledge in Social Science. Cambridge; Malden, MA: Polity.

Cumming, Laura. 2015. “56th Venice Biennale Review – More of a Glum Trudge than an Exhilarating Adventure.” The Guardian. Accessed June 14. http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/may/10/venice-biennale-2015-review-56th-sarah-lucas-xu-bing-chiharu-shiota.

Derrida, Jacques. 1978. “Violence and Metaphysics: An Essay on the Thought of Emmanuel Levinas.” In Writing and Difference. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Donoso, Diego Parra. 2015. “Cuidado: Zona de Autogestión Apuntes sobre Minga en Galería Gabriela Mistral.” Revista Punto de Fuga. http://www.revistapuntodefuga.com/?p=1774.

Dussel, Enrique. 1985. Philosophy of Liberation. Vol. 1. Maryknoll, N.Y. : Orbis Books, c1985.

Gardner, Anthony, and Charles Green. 2013. “Biennials of the South on the Edges of the Global.” Third Text 27 (4): 442–55. doi:10.1080/09528822.2013.810892.

Harman, Graham. 2014. Bruno Latour: Reassembling the Political. Pluto Press.

Kalantidou, Eleni, and Tony Fry. 2014. Design in the Borderlands. 1 edition. New York, NY: Routledge.

Mignolo, Walter. 2013. “Re:Emerging, Decentring and Delinking.” Ibraaz. August 5. http://www.ibraaz.org/essays/59/.

Mignolo, Walter, and Rolando Vázquez. 2013. “The Decolonial AestheSis Dossier.” Social Text. July 15. http://socialtextjournal.org/periscope_article/the-decolonial-aesthesis-dossier/.

Ricoeur, Paul. 1984. Time and Narrative Vol.1. University of Chicago Press.

Rosa, Marcelo C. 2014. “Theories of the South: Limits and Perspectives of an Emergent Movement in Social Sciences.” Current Sociology, February, 0011392114522171. doi:10.1177/0011392114522171.

Sahlins, Marshall. 2005. “On the Anthropology of Modernity, Or, Some Triumphs of Culture over Despondency Theory.” In Culture and Sustainable Development in the Pacific, edited by Antony Hooper. Canberra: ANU Press.

Santos, Boaventura de Sousa. 2013. “Public Sphere and Epistemologies of the South.” Africa Development 37 (1): 43–67.

Skinner, Damian. 2014. “Settler-Colonial Art History: A Proposition in Two Parts.” Journal of Canadian History 35 (1): 131–75.

 

[3] I should also mention a more dispersed project drawing from the Melanesian language of silence to develop a platform outside of discourse. Vakanomodi project is named after the Fijian practice of deep listening to the land.

Image is from the exhibition Mirador, de María Gabler, en Galería Tajamar, Santiago de Chile, 2015. Foto: Sebastián Mejía

Nicholas Mangan–recreate the past for the future

Installation shot from Nicholas Mangan 'Progress in Action'

Installation shot from Nicholas Mangan 'Progress in Action'

Nicholas Mangan is a Melbourne artist with a strong interest in the material histories of the Pacific. His previous show at Sutton Gallery Nauru, Notes from a Cretaceous World concerned the history of phosphate mining in the remote Pacific island, which had become a processing centre for asylum seekers (see article). His recent show, Progress in Action, concerns struggle in 1988 by the Bougainville Revolutionary Army to close the Panguna Copper mine which was polluting their island.

Copper plate from Nicholas Mangan 'Progress in Action'

Copper plate from Nicholas Mangan 'Progress in Action'

Mangan’s strategy is to re-stage the BRA’s attempts to cope with the blockage of food and energy by developing new modes of self-sufficiency. Locals took to the ubiquitous coconut as a resource to sustain their existence (as told in the film Coconut Revolution). Mangan learned how to extract oil from the coconut which could then be refined as a fuel to power a generator. This energy was then used to project a film documentary montage from the time. Alongside the installation and performance were copper plates, reproducing publications such as the Bougainville Copper annual report.

Mangan’s work follows that of others who seek to re-enact past struggles, such as Tom Nicholson. What’s particularly interesting here is the contemporary relevance of the energy system that he re-creates, showing the way in which the necessity of deprivation can lead to the invention of renewable energies. As Mangan says,

Beyond the politics or history for me it always comes back to the core materials that are formed or sculpted by an ideological determination, like copper being used for capitalist extraction or the coconuts being used as the agency for an eco-revolution.

In Australia, this has particular meaning as a challenge to the way neighbouring Melanesian region can be dismissed as an ‘arc of instability’. It ranks alongside the television series Straits as a way of imaginatively connecting the continent to the oceanic web in which it is embedded.

Installation shot of documentary projection in Nicholas Mangan 'Progress in Action'

Installation shot of documentary projection in Nicholas Mangan 'Progress in Action'

Mangan’s work also opens up a particularly southern strategy for art making, in revealing the means of production. Exposing the supply chain works against the commodification of art by revealing the process that lies behind the product. It sociology it demonstrates the kind of creative potential in the ecological knowledge outlined by Boaventura de Sousa Santos.

Of course, it could go further. The exhibition itself is lacking a relational dimension. There is no active role played by people in Bougainville today. If only Mangan had the opportunity to visit Bougainville himself, and find ways in which they might like to become actively involved in his work.

Fortunately, the project is far from over. Mangan is in the process of shipping the installation to Brazil, where it will feature in the Mercosul Biennial at Porto Alegre. According to the curatorial statement, the biennial

gathers works together that explore different kinds of atmospheric disturbances propelling travel and social displacement, technological advancement and world development, vertical expansions in space, and transversal explorations through time.

This seems a perfect fit for Mangan and an important opportunity to have an Australian artist represented in this key South American event.

The Cultural Cringe and Social Science

There is a problem about intellectual work in settler-colonial societies that deeply affects social science.

The problem was named “The Cultural Cringe” by the Australian critic Arthur Phillips, in a pungent article published in 1950 by the new literary magazine Meanjin. Phillips diagnosed “a disease of the Australian mind”, an assumption of inferiority vis-a-vis England, a deep dependence on imported judgments and tastes. Phillips shrewdly observed that this resulted in “the estrangement of the Australian Intellectual” from Australian society, a disdainful attitude that equated the rough, the uncultured and the local.

Phillips was talking about literature and art, but the same issues arise in science. The Beninese philosopher Paulin Hountondji described the situation in his important 1997 book Endogenous Knowledge. There is a global division of labour: data are gathered in the colony, but theory is made in the metropole. Scientists from the global South travel to the USA and Europe for training and recognition, learn Northern intellectual frameworks, try to get published in Northern journals. Hountondji calls this attitude “extraversion”, being oriented to external sources of authority. It is found both in settler and colonized societies.

What Phillips called a disease is better analyzed by Hountondji as part of a global economy of culture. It’s structural, not personal. Ultimately it has to do with the way the public realm is created in colonial societies.

The colonizers claimed to have the true religion or a superior civilization, but what they crucially had was warships, muskets, cavalry, cannon, steam power and the ruthlessness to use them for conquest. As Hilaire Belloc observed,

Whatever happens, we have got/ The Maxim gun, and they have not.

Imperial force enabled settlement, up to the point of demographic dominance over indigenous people, and demographic dominance was mainly achieved by immigration. The colonial state achieved local order, so far as it could – the colonies were violent places – through imperial law and bureaucracy. Settler schools and newspapers were modelled from the start on those of the home country. When the colonists felt they were up to universities (the 1850s, in Sydney and Melbourne) they imported both the academics and the curricula direct from what was, without irony, called the mother country.

Settler colonialism thus produced a truncated public realm. The leading institutions and technologies were developed in the metropole; most of the capital that underpinned colonial development came from the metropole; and key political decisions were also made there. In 1939 the Prime Minister famously announced on radio that “Great Britain has declared war on [Germany], and that, as a result, Australia is also at war”. The gesture was repeated as recently as 2003, when the Prime Minister of the day sent Australian troops into Iraq.

For social sciences in a settler-colonial society, this produces an “as-if” form of knowledge. Research is done as if the researcher were standing in the metropole, or as if the society being studied were part of the metropole. Thus, Australian psychology is full of experiments using scales developed in the United States, Australian economics is full of models developed in the United States, Australian sociology is full of concepts developed in France.

When these studies are published, there is normally no discussion of whether such ideas really apply in a settler-colonial context. What might be called the productive arc of methodology – the movement of thought in which concepts and methods are generated from actual social experience – is missing, in settler society’s truncated public realm of social science. That arc was traversed in the metropole. Its results, packaged as theory or methodology, are simply imported.

To extraverted thought, what is imported from the metropole simply is theory or method – no other meaning for those terms is recognized. So, on the rare occasions where an Australian journal conducts a conceptual discussion, it is conducted wholly within European or US parameters, and often by invited European and US writers, at that. Australian social scientists writing theory usually do so by commentary on European and US theorists.

The fact that the settler population is mostly white, English-speaking, and has European ancestors creates an illusion of identity. Politicians encourage this by constantly talking of Australia as a “Western country”, a nonsense term that a surprising number of social scientists still use.

Current trends in universities are worsening the problem. Neoliberal policy-makers drive Australian universities and academics to compete with each other. The key metrics for this competition involve recognition in the metropole, especially, publication and citation in highly-ranked metropolitan journals. Since metropolitan journals operate within metropolitan intellectual cultures (we can’t expect them to do otherwise!), the message for Australian scientists is clear: do it the US/EU way, if you want promotion and grants in Australia.

Social science in a settler-colonial society therefore tends to split between an abstracted theoretical discourse, conducted as if in the metropole with little or no local reference, and an applied social science in which methodologies developed in the metropole are applied to empirical studies of local social problems.

The social problems – class, patriarchy, racism, environmental destruction, and more – are all too real. But the methodologies are rarely sufficient to understand them in depth. Why? Because the social problems of settler society partly arise from the nature of settler colonialism itself, especially from its truncated public realm. When key determinants are located in the relationship with the metropole, or in the dynamics of the world economy, a social science using methods and concepts developed for the metropole to describe itself, and constantly looking for authority to the metropole, is in a specific way displaced. Like the literary culture criticized by Phillips, though trying to describe local society it is estranged from it.

Estrangement of intellectuals is recognized, indeed a cliché of Australian cultural history. There are also well-known responses to it. One is the angry rejection of the cultural cringe in the name of an anti-imperial nationalism. That was the note struck by Bulletin school of writers in the 1890s, especially the radicals who associated English culture with a despised upper class in the colonies. Settler intellectuals don’t have Aboriginal culture to fall back on, though the “Jindyworobak” movement poets of the 1930s tried – the result being an arrogant act of colonial re-appropriation, as well as some interesting poetry. Some go into exile, but in a way that inverts the exile stories known since Ovid. It is exile to the metropole. The result can be the haunted double vision of the world seen in The Man Who Loved Children, the great work of Australia’s first modernist novelist, Christina Stead, who wrote it in exile in the United States.

These responses are available to social scientists too, and we can trace them through the history of social sciences in settler societies. The greatest social scientist Australia has produced, the pre-historian Vere Gordon Childe, went down the track of exile, working in Europe for most of his career from the 1920s on. He came back to the Blue Mountains near Sydney to die.

The problem can’t be solved on an individual basis. It requires collective and institutional change, on a scale that is only now becoming clear. It requires, in fact, a re-making of social science on a world scale. It is worth enquiring whether there is a specific role for settler-colonial intellectuals in that re-making.

Raewyn Connell is Professor of Sociology at University of Sydney – see www.raewynconnell.net.

What it takes to tango

Opening of 'Make the Common Precious' in Santiago, 2006, showing links between art from everyday materials in Australia and the poetry of Pablo Neruda

Opening of 'Make the Common Precious' in Santiago, 2006, showing links between art from everyday materials in Australia and the poetry of Pablo Neruda

On 29-30 August 2012, the University of Melbourne hosted a two day event Melbourne-Latin America Dialogue which was designed as a ‘space for high-level exchange of ideas and experiences that brings together Latin American and Australian experts from scientific, technological, artistic, business and educational fields.’ It was indeed an intense series of events, with up to two hundred people, including the full contingent of Latin American ambassadors and many caped volunteers.

After welcome and opening remarks, the dialogue began with a focus on resources, including professors of mining and representatives of business. This marked the main theme of the dialogue – economic opportunities provided by the growth of Latin American countries. Of particular interest was the $65 billion privatisation process recently announced by Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, offering a significant opening for foreign investment.

By the final session, ‘Opportunities and challenges for the Australia-Latin America relationship’, participants were very upbeat about future partnerships. But there were issues to overcome. Ronaldo Veirano, Honorary Consul of Australia to Rio de Janeiro and Executive Director of the Macquarie Funds Group, pointed out the obstacles in the way of realising these opportunities. For many Australian businesses, they still see Latin America as a politically unstable continent, while for Latin Americans Australia is barely visible.

Given that cultural stereotypes were raised as a major issue in development partnerships, it was odd that there was no session devoted to culture, arts or ideas in this dialogue. The more or less exclusive focus was on economic opportunity. While this is clearly a limited range of engagement in terms of broader international relations, it is also fraught within its own terms. If the aim is to expand business activity into Latin America, it seems critical to change these stereotypes through broader cultural exchange between Australia and Latin America.

In the final session, Jose Blanco, the Chairman of the Australia-Latin America Business Council, spoke about team Australia-Latin America in competition with team Australia-Asia. If this is indeed the scenario, then it is worth looking at how the competition have been building up their capacities. Ever since the Asian focus was elevated when Paul Keating was Prime Minister, it has been seen as important to develop our regional identity through cultural programs – sending a diverse range of Australian exhibitions and performances to Asia and hosting Asian artists here. Both the Asia Pacific Triennial and Asialink were established as necessary platforms to pave the way for future economic ties.

Much of the exchange currently is being handled by the Council of Australia Latin American Relations. This is largely a back-room body, supporting individual projects. Those businesses that are keen on Latin America could do worse than the Myer Foundation, who largely funded Asialink, and help establish a public body to foster cultural ties. Like Asialink, this could be done through a hosting of exchanges and visitors, publishing thought pieces, and nurturing a broader narrative about cultural partnership.

There are some obvious common interests across the Pacific:

  • the place of Indigenous cultures in a contemporary context
  • impact of globalisation, particularly on cultural diversity
  • intellectual property in the information age
  • impact of mining and development on communities
  • multiculturalism
  • relationship to nature
  • gender in society

There are immediate opportunities for business across the Pacific. But if these are to grow into long term partnerships, then an understanding of common interest would need to be developed.

It may take two to tango. But both have to learn how to dance first.

Kim Scott: “Language & Nation”

An important event not to miss if you are in Melbourne on 25 July:

Kim Scott: “Language & Nation”
Hosted by Australian Indigenous Studies, School of Culture and Communication, Faculty of Arts

Professor Kim Scott of Curtin University is  one of Australia’s most signi?cant authors.   His major works That Deadman Dance (2011),  Benang (1999) and True Country (1993) have  received a host of literary prizes including the Miles Franklin Literary Award, Victorian  Premier’s Literary Award, Commonwealth  Writers Prize, and Western Australian  Premier’s Book Award. Professor Scott has also been named West Australian of the Year  2012 for his work in Indigenous language regeneration as well as his contributions to Australian literature.

Professor Scott’s fiction is uncompromising in its identification and contestation of  reader expectations of Indigenous writing  and authorship. His command of Nyoongah,  Aboriginal, Australian and English literary forms produces complex narratives about  intimacy, identity and history in the Australian context. This combined with his work in the  area of Indigenous language revitalisation creates new possibilities for communication  and expression. Professor Scott’s masterful use of genre and social commentary calls  for a new type of reader who is willing to engage in breaking down existing codes of  representation, politics and repression that  continue to operate in contemporary Australian  society.

In a wide-ranging address Professor Scott will bring together his concerns with Indigenous cultural renewal though language revitalisation and the role of literature in an evolving vision of Australia in the twenty-first century. 

Wednesday, 25 July 2012
7.00pm – 8.00pm
The Basement Theatre
Spot Building
The University of Melbourne
PARKVILLE  VIC  3010
Admission is free. Bookings are required. Seating is limited.
To register visit: http://alumni.online.unimelb.edu.au/kimscott

Southpaw released

Southpaw is a new literary journal of writing from  the global south. It is dedicated to the idea of  ‘south-south’ dialogue: to conversations between  writers, artists and readers about life away from  the metropolitan centres of power and culture. It is a literary left hook from the south features fiction, creative non-fiction, poetry, essays, reviews and  images.

Southpaw issue 1 is focused through the theme of  displacement. Writers from South Africa, Indigenous  Australia, Philippines, Colombia, Suriname, Angola,  Indigenous Japan, China, the Horn of Africa, Tunisia,  New Zealand and non-Indigenous Australians write fascinating stories and reflect on home and eviction, migration and asylum seeking, cultural diplomacy  and political oppression, cross cultural dealings and cultural reclamation.

Including:

  • Kevin Murray on the idea of south,
  • Danilova Molintas on the city of Baguio, Kendall
  • Trudgen on diplomacy in East Arnhem Land and
  • Martin Plowman on UFOs in South America.
  • Fiction by: Karen Jennings, Tony Birch, paulo da costa, Ruth San A Jong and Paul Maunder.
  • Non-fiction by Yeeshan Yang, Karen Lazar, Batool Albatat and Aliza Amlani.
  • Reviews by Alice Robinson (Tamil pulp ction), Justin Clemens (Mapanje), Bernard Caleo (Ubby’s Underdogs), John Hughes (Planet B) and Vicki Crowley (Indigenous sexuality).

South Paw Order Form

Indigenous Knowledges in Latin America and Australia conference

Please note the upcoming Symposium that SURCLA is organising: Indigenous Knowledges in Latin America and Australia | Locating Epistemologies, Difference and Dissent | December 8-10, 2011.

The symposium will bring together Indigenous educators and intellectuals from Mexico, Argentina and Chile to Sydney to meet with interested Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander educators, scholars and activists, as well as non-Indigenous practitioners and allies, to discuss different models and approaches of Indigenous Knowledges and Education in the tertiary sector and beyond.

This project aims at helping educators and researchers in the Higher Education sector of Australia and Latin America to identify opportunities for integrating in their research and teaching and learning relevant aspects of Indigenous Knowledges in the areas of culture, education and sustainability.

Apart from the symposium itself, academic publications, public lectures by distinguished visitors and the creation of a website, the project will stimulate debate on Indigenous Knowledge and film production in Latin America and Australia by hosting film screenings on the topic.

For more information, visit the website.

From Tasmania to Patagonia

 

28 years ago, the Australian Supreme Court banned the construction of a hydroelectric dam in the Franklin River, Tasmania, in a case which came to be internationally known as Tasmania v. Commonwealth.

At the beginning of the 1980s, the unemployment rate in Tasmania was 10 per cent (the highest in the country), and the local liberal government together with some big businesses and industries saw the construction of the Franklin dam as the remedy for all evils. This, however, required the flooding of a unique ecosystem, which had been declared as part of the World’s Natural Heritage by UNESCO. Against the plan stood the members of the Wilderness Society and the nascent Green Party who, joined by a number of community associations and independent citizens, proposed a different path to growth: one based on the respect for nature.

Eventually getting the support of the national Labor Party, those opposed to the dam generated the largest environmental campaign in the history of this Southern country. Their main argument was that the dam would not only violate the country laws, but also international agreements to which Australia had subscribed. After five years of protests, lobbying and media work, they triumphed and their story became one of the most quoted in the history of environmental litigation.

I cannot help comparing this case with HidroAysén, a project from the Spanish multinational Endesa (subsidiary of Italian Enel) and Chilean Colbún, which involves the construction of five dams in Chilean Patagonia, to generate 2.750 megawatts –fifteen times more than the aborted Franklin Dam! Whereas the energy that was meant to be produced in Tasmania was at least destined for local consumption, in the Chilean case it is not the Patagonians who are going to get the benefits, but the capital, Santiago, and the big mining industries in the North of the country. After the controversial approval of the Environmental Impact Study of the dams last May, what is now under discussion is the other half of the project: namely, a transmission line of 2.300 kilometers that would cut through six national parks and 11 nature reserves, and would mean chopping over 20 thousand hectares of forests. If approved, this would turn out to be the longest line of direct current in the planet (and probably one of the most inefficient, losing an estimated 10 per cent of the energy on the way).

Some people are more prone to be convinced by arguments, while others are more easily persuaded by shocking images, powerful slogans and even musical jingles. The No Dams movement in Tasmania worked on both fronts effectively. On one hand, they won the support of public figures and intellectuals who repeated the message of what would be at stake if the dam were authorized. Together with the organizers, they led the protests, rallies and road blockades, and they even ended up in jail, together with hundred other campaigners. (At the peak of the movement, the Tasmanian prison system simply collapsed, unable to fit them all). Thanks to generous donations, the No Dams campaign could also be heard on the radio –Let the Franklin flow–, but arguably the most effective way to raise the public’s attention were the spectacular photographs taken by Peter Dombrovskis: emerald waters flowing down a rocky patch of the river, surrounded by dense forests and half covered by the early morning mist. “Could you vote for a party that would destroy this?”, was the question posed under the picture by the Labor party, in the federal elections of 1983. Few voters dared to answer in the affirmative, and Labor won with a large swing.

Another important point is that it was understood from the beginning that the decision whether to approve or reject the Franklin dam was not technical, but political. The solution could not come from a mere cost-benefit analysis, because what was at stake was something priceless, namely, what Tasmania wanted to be and to become. The Green Party and its founder, Bob Brown, clearly saw this and, after the battle was won, remained as crucial actors in the Australian political scene: today they are part of the governing coalition, and Brown is one of the most popular senators countrywide.

Finally, the campaign was not so much about opposing, but overall about proposing an alternative path to development. The No to the dam was a Yes to sustainable growth. Three decades later, the decision has proved to be correct. Today, tourism is the second major economic activity in that state, and gives jobs to half a million Tasmanians, it generates a billion dollars annually and it attracts almost a million visitors. Moreover, Tasmania is Australia’s leader when it comes to the production of renewable energy, which amounts to 87 per cent of its total. This comes mainly from wind farms and hydroelectricity (yes, hydroelectricity, but not from large dams, but from run-of-the-river power plants for local use).

How should the Tasmanian story illuminate the Chilean case? To start with, the Patagonia Sin Represas campaign has powerful arguments on its side. Among them, firstly, that what looks like the cheapest option in the short and maybe medium term will be the most expensive in the long term. Secondly, that HidroAysén is not the only alternative available to solve the country’s purported ‘energy shortage’, because we have other options in abundance, like wind, geothermal energy and sun. Thirdly, that if HidroAysén benefits anybody, it is not the Patagonians. And fourthly, that a number of recent studies show that big, old-fashioned dams like the ones planned are not the clean energy that they claim to be (given increased sediment build-up, the fragmentation of the river ecosystem which results on the massive death of fish, etc.). Patagonia Sin Represas has used all this arguments effectively, and it has also appealed to our senses through powerful images, like those of the beautiful rivers Pascua and Baker, where the dams would be constructed; the huemules, our national emblems who are now an endangered species and many of whom live in the five thousand hectares to be flooded; and the dramatic effect that the transmission line would have on some of the most pristine landscapes in Chile and the world. Moreover, just as the No Dams campaign, Patagonia Sin Represas has progressively won the support of the general public, transforming itself from a narrow environmental movement into a social one. The best example of this is that, after the initial approbation of the dams by the government, on the 10th of May, 30 thousand Chileans gathered in Santiago to march against the decision. In every regional capital from north to south, this support was replicated.

The battle so far has not been easy, though, and will not be. Whereas in the Tasmanian case the company which proposed the project had limited resources to promote it, HidroAysén, backed by the multinational Endesa, has spent millions of dollars lobbying for and publicizing its cause. An important part has been to infuse fear in the population, through threats such as that we are going to be left in the dark, or that the country will not be able to grow if the project is not carried out. Against this, the only option for Patagonia Sin Represas is to stand as a truly social and political movement with the legitimate support of the citizenry. Regarding this point, another important difference with the Tasmanian case is that, while in the latter the political parties swiftly took sides for or against the Franklin Dam, the main political parties in Chile have only made lukewarm declarations in support or against the project. Discounting a couple of independent senators and representatives, it looks as if our politicians are dragging behind the times, unable to take a stance on the national problems that really matter. In the background, members of the right-wing government have been explicit on their support to HidroAysén, and have had no quibbles to use their position of authority to put the message through. Moreover, no Green Party has been born to work for this and other pressing environmental and social causes (whoever the Greens are in Chile, so far, they have not managed to capitalize on the many voices of discontent).

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HidroAysén has still a long way to go before its definitive approval, and it is in the meantime that those who oppose it have to come with concrete alternatives. Together with the No to the dams in Patagonia has to come a Yes to other paths not only of energy production but, more widely, of development and even property rights over common goods (under Pinochet´s dictatorship, the Chilean waters were privatized, and it was thanks to this law that Endesa could acquire a significant amount of the water rights, especially in the area of the project). What is at stake here is not only one of the most pristine landscapes in Chile, but in the planet. The conclusion should be obvious: One Patagonia is worth more than a thousand dams.

Author: Alejandra Mancilla, Chilean Journalist and PhD candidate in Philosophy, Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics (CAPPE), Australian National University, Canberra. www.alejandramancilla.wordpress.com

Southpaw–a literary left-hook from the Global South

Issue 1: displacement

Southpaw is a punchy new literary journal that will feature the voices and perspectives of writers from the South. Entering into dialogue with artistic communities across the South, it means to develop links, provoke conversation and share knowledge. Launching in 2011 from Melbourne Australia, it will feature fiction, creative-nonfiction, cultural commentary, essays, poetry, drawings and other graphics from writers and artists in the South.

Southpaw is currently looking for submissions in each of the above categories: short fiction, creative nonfiction, commentary, poetry, drawings, and essays up to 3000 words.

The first issue of Southpaw will be shaped by the experience and idea of ‘displacement’ – a theme with which Southern communities are especially familiar. But this is not necessarily to imply a negative encounter with change or trauma: displacement (in practice and thought) also suggests new possibilities and positive challenges that enliven thinking and burst into creative expression. Southpaw is looking for contemporary voices in all forms of writing. The energy of the South and the alternatives its many cultures and individual creativities offer today will be a challenge and antidote to the traditional sources of cultural influence and activity.

Please make your submission in Word by 30 April 2011.

Email your writing or drawing to: [email protected]

Alison Caddick, for Southpaw editorial group