Dear reader, thankyou for coming along with me thus far, and I hope my writing has served you well. Current affairs have been moving at an incredible pace, and I am having a hard time keeping up. Although I had originally intended for two more instalments of Isolation Haibun, it has been difficult to produce such work at a moment where it feels it is only serving to suppress black and Indigenous voices. So-called ‘Australia’ always was and always will be Aboriginal land, and we settlers must continually challenge the white supremacist order we benefit from.
For this reason, I have decided to step down from my platform and offer my final blog post to my friend and colleague, Jenna Rain Warwick, who I am very grateful to for sharing their work at such late notice.
I was born in the middle of cyclone season in Northern Queensland onto Kuku Yalanji lands and moved to the suburban south east coast onto Kabi Kabi Country at 7 years old . I am the great great granddaughter of Lily “Sporty” Tinjinjaljalpa, Luritja woman of the Western Desert region. I hold all my ancestors close, seeing this affinity as spiritual work. The women in my life are the keepers of spiritual way, women that have withstood and thrived in housing commission, on the Dole and up against the criminal justice system of so-called “Australia”. This short story is about my mother Kerryn, who at 16 became pregnant with my older sister, at 18 became the sole guardian of her younger brother and dealt with my father being sentenced to a stretch in prison. Initially dropping out of high school at 15, she would later become a university graduate with a Bachelor of Early Childhood Education.
She often says to me, “Bub … I’ve been looking after kids all my life,” a destiny for many Aboriginal women. That’s not to say it’s a burden, but rather it is simply a fact of being. Despite this predicament, my mother worked hard so that I might find choices where she did not. She recently co-authored Young Children’s Community Building in Action that reimagines concepts of citizenship and community as they apply to young children. By examining the ways in which indigenous understandings and practices can be applied in early childhood settings across Australia and New Zealand, mum’s work encourages young children to demonstrate their care and concern for others and so, in turn, perceive themselves as part of a larger community. Indigenous women hold families together because the reality of being torn apart is all too real.
I’ve been witness to the strength of Indigenous women all my life and am constantly in awe at the duality of both their strength and tenderness. I am also aware that we often don’t get a choice in the matter, having to survive has made us this way.
Her hands were soft white and pink topped with dark brown that willed sunlight to diamond and rainbow. She rubbed the saltwater out of my eyes and taught me how to do the same before I could string a sentence together. After the beach with her son Noel, my friend, we would sit in the sun on a sarong to dry. When I swim in the saltwater I think of Paula, I think about her hands.
When my mum would work I would go and stay at Paula’s and play with Noel. Her husband was a woodworker, having made the bed I slept in from a tree in his yard. It was exactly my size. We didn’t stay in contact, which I felt odd about because she and my mother had found refuge in one another – the way you do in a far North Queensland town.
I loved the way she twisted her hair, Iike eggs laid by mother afro. They raised children and talked about doing other things, which led to both enrolling in a Bachelor of Early Childhood Education by means of distance. They travelled together from Cape Tribulation to Sydney’s Macquarie University twice a year for a couple weeks.
This meant that my mother was either studying or working for what seemed like all of my childhood. Her suitcase would slowly be packed over a week or so – I dreaded when that red suitcase filled with books that took my mum away. I missed her…
My father boiled all the vegetables until bland and pressed too hard when cutting my sandwiches. His voice was too loud. His love bounded around our small house just as his footsteps did.
I found out not long ago that Paula had stopped her studies after just one year. My mother resented her for it, for not wanting more.
I think of Paula and her husband Ray and their son Noel. A familiarity of family, of knowing one another’s mother and the way her voice felt. Noel’s mum’s hands looked like my mums’ hands – her laugh was louder though, and her teeth whiter. A closeness that I never felt was matched with any others.
When we moved further south, no one would come into our house as they pleased anymore. The hands of my friends’ mothers never brushed my hair and braided it into matching nested eggs. I stopped seeing my mother in the faces of my friends’ mothers.
Only clean feet enter their homes. Their dads don’t use their hands to build things out of wood, and their mums can’t tell where we are by the sounds of the birds. But I also understand wanting more.
each with a number
to remind you
I was in a loving relationship for the better half of a decade. As with any close bond, we had formed odd rituals, in-jokes that served a micro-history kept only by the two of us. Days of intellectual labour gave way to evenings cooking together, switching off in a warm bundle to Antiques Roadshow. When the holidays came, I would frequent op shops searching for the perfect object to decorate our house. From this arose an odds and ends collection of handmade ceramics, brilliant and clumsy in their amateur modelling. There was also my desk lamp, a dated folding plastic design, as well as a number of other objects devoid of any sense of a congruous collection. Whilst visiting the Blue Mountains with my mum, I searched through all of the antique shops for a token of my feelings toward my love, and the home we had created together. Finally, I stumbled upon…
battered and blue, filled
with dried out jasmine
Cloisonné inlays are the sort of technique I can stare at as long as I please and still not understand how they are made. I have no interest in being told. I enjoy such empty, harmless mystery. The vase sat on my window sill undisturbed, years after we’d parted ways.
The other day, I threw out the jasmine for want of fresh flowers. I left the house barefoot, turning toward the end of my cul-de-sac, where a warehouse imposes itself firmly above a tree withering into sticks. There is a plaque announcing this nothing space as some sort of reserve with a white man’s name, and it includes a sizable empty lot of asphalt where drivers do U-turns to get back out to the main street. A fig tree leans out from an old nonno’s yard, so the space is littered with decomposing figs half snatched up by birds. Passing by, I made my way through a hole in the fence. A second opening once existed here, leading out to a large athletics field where my housemate would take their dog, but the fence has been repaired and access is no longer available. A shrubby wattle tree sits beside the dead one, and I snapped off a limb of yellow flowers. Now the vase sits full of wattle on my studio table. The dint, that imperfection that made it affordable, faces the wall.
A strange obsession
grasping for poems as if
only to sit
watching them wilt
My partner and I lived in a shed at the end of the garden of our sharehouse, past a large wattle tree. During regular inspections, when the real estate agent would bluster in, we had to give the impression that our shed was not a home. On these days, we would prepare by taking all the boxes from beneath our bed, placing them on top, and trying not to disturb the particular dust that would gather naturally the week before. This dust, made from piled up wattle debris, would gather on the roof of our drafty tin shed, eventually settling across our bed and furniture. Then, approaching winter, plumes of vibrant wattle would fall apart in the wind, attaching themselves to the washing, littering our adhoc home, and even blowing inside the main house. Of course, being sandwiched in dusty leaf litter had its advantages – together we paid $400 a month. It was freezing in winter and stunk of heat in summer, but the back opened out to a hidden overgrown laneway locked off from the street.
gather beneath grey skies
in the apple flowers
In two days, I will have spent four weeks in isolation. The weather is turning, bringing winter and rainstorms that will inevitably linger for days and even weeks.
I stare at my ceiling, the sky, my window, the screens…
a whole flock of birds
sing songs I don’t know
“Happy Easter,” they say at the deli.
Shopping is stressful now. In before times, I would often carry cash in case my purchases were less than a $10 Eftpos minimum, lazily circulating the grocer to conjure my evening meal from ingredients that took my fancy. Now this process has been compressed, and I have to get a lift with my housemate, sweating as I return with weeks of meals. I wear sandwich gloves, quickly disposed of when leaving the last store. The face mask slips on too, old and useless but visually soothing.
At home, I’ve got bored of cooking projects. Some kind of indigestion comes in waves every few days, sparked by I’m not sure what, but I am now apparently rather sensitive to chilli, despite having been capable of eating it whole and raw. Despite my preparations, I doubt I could survive a month or two on the food I’ve bought. That’s okay.
I think about the partner I do not have, about prospective partners and ones long gone. I think about my friends and how often I forget their importance, lost in my saturated obsession for partnership and sickly sweet love. While swirling my tongue around mounds of dead skin from mouth ulcers, I think about mistakes and flaws. I think about when this moment will feel small, and other big moments that have shrunk to scale beneath this one now.
Easter marks a year since I started dating long distance with a new partner. We broke up the other day. I am unsure which point to nominate as the most lonely in my life.
I am drawing flowers in my book to quiet my mind. This time last year, I filled a whole screen with flowers for her. It was thrown out in the printmaking room by accident.
Back then I wrote,
spread across my desk,
my delicate touch
is cautious not to wrinkle
my devotion to you
I am not here to tell you how everything is different. If you would like to hear that story, I’m sure you could find an abundance of places where you might listen.
I am not interested in discussing prospective futures stemming from this event anymore than they pertain to my own here and now at least.
The exhaustion I feel toward that ongoing and vital conversation reminds me of the end of an acid trip; the world is wild enough for me today.
I would like a cup of hot tea and to sit in silence.
This is a moment where isolation has accelerated our atomised lifestyles further toward pure solitude. With that being said, I encourage you to leave.
There is too much to read, and I don’t mind remaining in that too much.
I have nothing to say about what is coming for you right now, what circumstances your health or house might be in, what the state of emergency means to you.
I am sitting out on my porch drinking hot tea, and if you would like to join me for a moment, feel free.
While I am
living at home
and wasting time
This was supposed to be the year I got a studio.
Entering my sixth year of art school, I had spent only one with a studio. I would finally be shelved into the institution with a proper location, so that other data enthusiasts like myself could visit my receptacle. Studio practice is littered with clichés – of garbage everywhere, the excess and waste materials, abundant as the artworks rise like cream to the surface and are scraped away by lucky investors.
Peanuts and peanuts,
tossing their shells
into a pile
in a bowl on the floor
I just wanted my kettle, tea caddy and books. The messiest part of my studio would always be myself, my trans body and the strange intersections it forms with others. University is a space for conversation. Through my transition, I relied more than ever on my art school networks to meet my social needs. Spending hours working my way from studio to studio, doing informal crits, joining conversations at the smoko, then occasionally inviting someone for dinner, attending openings or meeting them out at a club… I decided after a while, this social space was integral to the formation of my work.
I give critique
wishing you’d hold me
Chunxiao, a student in the Honours program, and I would picnic in the nearby oval after class, eating snacks and fruit over smuggled cigarettes. Their poems, for her, would roll off the tongue, bright lights flickering at each turn of a sentence. Now, during isolation, she finds her process stilted, as though the gift has left her.
In the middle of a Zoom tutorial today, something went wrong with the server and students were abruptly shut out. We were then reconnected, now into a room with only 4 of the more than a dozen members of the class. We spoke awkwardly in this halfway space for a moment about how telecommuting affects our education. Then with a jump the group reunited, with a few less members after they tried rejoining too many times and gave up.
Not enough time
to unravel the roll
of toilet paper,
just float away
I miss my community.
After class I call new classmates I’ve met in person just once or twice, if only to try and foster some sort of hope. We have no communal place to debrief, nowhere to express cynicism or joy; the solidarity of art school students all scorning the same professor, holding KeepCups huddled in the smokers just outside the official part of campus. I once asked an elderly white male lecturer how his position and privilege might affect his practice. His response was bizarre and obscurantist. Afterwards, a student thanked me for asking the question, because it demonstrated how flawed this biennale-hopping artist’s approach was. Now, conceding to my exhaustion, I help my friend Anita with their Masters’ presentation from the bath.
long hours telecommuting
break as I smoke weed –
after eating noodle soup
shave my ass in the bath
The first weeks of isolation passed by trying to grab a hold of whatever was left. I did three days of 8 hour telecommuting shifts just trying to get to know peers and staff, while also staying in touch with friends and taking class. I worked adhoc from the kitchen table or on my bed. On the last day the library was open, I cycled into the city to avoid public transport and picked up 4 reserved books of translations and theory by my favourite poetry scholar. None are available for “virtual loan” online. Last year, after often reserving from the collection, I remember visiting the cramped aisles of Clayton’s Matheson Library. Finally I was able to see all the excess that hid from my keyword searches but remained evident when organised in Dewey Decimal. Now, I hunt popular torrenting software, a prominent secret ‘reading group’, abandoned poetry websites, and a Russian pirate library – all to satiate my research obsession for haiku and tanka.
your old miso paste
of a cauliflower head
snapped off and disposed
slow sobs even before
I have set up a study against the back wall of the kitchen. It has my ‘tea caddy’, a shabby wicker piece of furniture I found on the side of the road, stuffed with an amalgam of tea ware and a collection of oolongs, pu erhs and a few other teas left over from Kuala Lumpur, and more recently Taipei. Leant against the caddy is my small collection of library books, alongside Hito Steyerl’s Wretched of the Screen, two issues of un Magazine I keep putting off reading, a translated copy of Farid Ud Din Attar’s The Conference of the Birds and my diary. Atop the caddy, there is a large piece of modular origami I made and painted 3 or 4 years ago, standing over an austere brass Buddha and a pinecone. A small folding lamp, with plastic 70’s aesthetics immediately reminiscent of op-shop miscellany, radiates warmth from a globe I do not know how to replace. Beside this, a dented vase carries a drying plume of wattle. In the right-centre of the desk is this object, the laptop I’m writing on now, with signs of use like any other part of the kitchen.
I need to finish
my first taste of sun
as evening chills
This is as close as I’ve come to the studio-making experience since leaving a formal studio in the printmaking department at RMIT, several years ago.
This studio is in the decentralised epicentre of a dull yet historic moment. Its secluded perspective, adrift from the community and art school, will be flawed and incomplete. There is a pervasive sense of not being able to identify exactly what it is that’s missing. Through isolation, I have developed a sharp intolerance to chilli and have had to stop making many favourite dishes because I lack my previous tolerance. I have stopped reading the news altogether, checking in with only my favourite podcast hosts once or twice a week. Following a segment about the relativity and social manufacturing of our current standards of time, Bob Garfield, host of American podcast On The Media, pondered the ways Covid-19 has affected the gravity of time. He then abruptly admitted he’d been crying a lot. As lockdowns set in, there was an initial burst of triumphant excitement for the possibilities of learning with this crisis. This gave way, for me, to an immense grief, mourning the world I had just lost. I ordered a McDonald’s double whopper meal for the first time since adolescence, and with the processed meat hanging from my mouth, stared out at the Melbourne skyscrapers sobbing.
Back problems –
eating sunflower seeds
my writing has rarely
been so candid
In the coming days, my music taste shifted entirely, always a sign of adjusting to a new set of circumstances. It rushed out of experimental electronics into the depths of folk, blues and more traditional songwriting. I broke up with my long distance partner, in part because the likelihood of her return had seriously diminished during this global pandemic. I called my mum everyday, sometimes even twice a day, until the news cycle calmed down. Slowly, I let this virus change me, in diffuse and abstract ways, giving in a little more with each day. I backed away from connections with others, or finally got in touch and felt privileged for the immense warmth we could share. Tears flowed without warning, before teaching a workshop; after a consultation or tute; as I walked home with groceries through the rain; when looking at my friend’s tortured Instagram stories… Crying and then feeling relieved, again and again. As my friend Anita described it, “3 days of okay, 1 day of hell.”
If only I could
pile all of my waste
I could pray
I am going fine, relatively. I’m okay.
Each night, I pass out around 2 or 3 watching dozens of Youtube videos while messaging my girlfriend. I feel my skin for an itch. In bed, the algorithm recommends a variety of video essays. I fall asleep to video game criticism, LeftTube politics, mainstream news, Fantano… I fall asleep after long bouts of distraction, lost amidst flickering pixels on my phone as ads open within the ‘most addictive’ mini-game. In the morning I find spots of blood on my pillow. It is late semester. I am too busy and overwhelmed to deal with it. The itchy rashes have crept up slowly over months, mistaken at first as a symptom of changing medication. One day, from my ad hoc milkcrate bed base, I take from storage an old diary. Upon opening it, I find eggs lining the edges of all the papers, infesting the spine, and sometimes nuzzled into the folds. A brief period of shocked denial ensues, feeling too flustered to confront the issue, before coming to terms with what I am dealing with. More and more of their bodies arrive in my sheets. I squish them between my fingers and throw their tiny corpses behind my bed. I am disgusted and embarrassed. I must have contracted them from my friend’s second-hand bed – I didn’t know what the stains were, assuming it was just ordinary grubbiness. Over the course of a single day, I evict myself from my bedroom and do my best to rid myself of them. They’ve thoroughly infested my possessions, which I don’t have the money to replace, so I assume it’s more than likely they’ll return. Perhaps I have spread them to others, but I’m fairly sure they haven’t infested any of my housemates’ rooms – at the end of the day, I have not the time, money or energy to care. Holidays come, and I am whisked away to Sydney to visit family.
In a shabby rented inner city house, an antique cabinet carries a small flat screen. My parents ogle over it from their vermillion sofa afront busy, gaudy wallpaper. Most days, the TV recedes away into the cabinet. Today however is both holiday and emergency, so the dark room glows with news. The 24 hour stream blurts into the space intermittently so we can assess the ongoing events as they pertain to friends and family. I find myself in the claustrophobic position of having to momentarily repress my feelings about the current atmosphere of despair. My mum can sense this too, setting up tasks and games to busy ourselves with distraction. Alone, I take regular walks out along the highway toward the city, inspecting graffiti and rubbish along the way. I’m increasingly aware that my peers – wherever they are in the country – are beneath these same skies yellowed with ash. I anticipate that my return to Melbourne will stimulate new emotional labour as I confront the climate catastrophe anxieties manifesting in my friends and my share house. Landing, on the 6th of January, the intestine-like air bridge immediately smells of smoke. From luggage collection, I peer out to the forecourt veiled in micro-particulates blown from Tasmania, Gippsland and elsewhere. On the second story of a double decker Skybus, I thrash Bleach by Nirvana until my phone dies. Ahead of me, a girl looks out over the congested highway, rearranging her hair around her P2 mask. Then, on a train home exiting a tunnel, the man beside me exclaims at the insidious smoke while people around press their phone cameras to the windows. I get home and my housemates have hastily sealed each door with taped felt. I haven’t slept properly and fall into bed hoping for a deep sleep.
A few hours later, my sleep is interrupted. My body crawls with angry hoards of bed bugs famished after my fortnight away. For the first time, I cannot even sleep in my bed. Outside, the bushfire smoke is worse than it has ever been. I cannot see to the end of my cul de sac. Smoking on the front porch, an unfamiliar neighbour, face shrouded in black, also smokes in her yard. Our basic greetings quickly develop into a conversation about the fires. Over several more cigarettes, our train of thought splays out toward the state of the world then nervously withdraws into the distraction of minutiae. Each day I post meme after meme about the fires and their effects, all the while cleaning frantically, dragging my infested double bed out to the back alley. I sleep on a thin foam mattress out in the lounge room, and in the morning I obsessively investigate the seams of my sleeping bag for any bugs. I can never quite tell when they are on me, and when they are not. Mostly not, but often enough to make me feel disturbed. My sleep is interrupted in the mornings when my housemate leaves for work around dawn. Outside, ongoing construction noise carries on as the NBN is slowly installed into our neighbourhood. Meanwhile, I systematically freeze every book in my collection to kill any eggs laid. I gather my clothes in garbage bags and leave them outside in the full sun until the bugs die of heat death. I spray poison across my bags, the edges of my bedroom and gaps between the floorboards, in an effort to deter them. I scrub the floors with hot water and disinfectant, and vacuum the house multiple times.
I invite a friend over and they laugh at the ridiculousness of me hosting them in my deconstructed, semi-infested room. They ask if I’m sure I have bedbugs, whether I am just being paranoid. I have no proof of bed bugs at hand, but nearly cry with insistence that they exist. The doubt gets to me all the same. A set of bushfire survivors, on ABC News, suggest now that their native plant nursery has burnt down, it will be an opportunity to relocate and travel more; I think of them as I convince myself I’m just having fun, rearranging my bedroom. The trail of bed bug eggs leads far up into the back of posters a metre or two above the bed. I evacuate every shelf and inspect every object carefully, knowing that my vision alone is not a reliable indicator of whether they still exist. Rifling through my bag for something while socialising, a juvenile bug crawls across my hand and I crush it before anyone notices.
I speak to my counsellor about the paranoia the bugs bring about. Before the next session, he calls to check if I have resolved the issue for the safety of other clients and practitioners. He offers a phone appointment if not. Eventually, I tell him about this strange poetic irony; being forced from my bedroom into the lounge room by bedbugs, just as my activist intuitions had come to the fore. The emotions ricochet, as my current events trigger overwhelming connections with previous Occupy traumas. This all occurs whilst sleeping 4 or 5 hours a night, a stark reminder of my body’s limited ability to make sense of this situation. The brief shriek of bushfire apocalypse is drowned out by an exhausting wave of paranoia caused by bedbugs. Were the bushfires ever really that serious? Did they warrant the extent of panic I gave them? I ask myself questions like this regularly, in an attempt to not let anything blow out of scale.
I come in from outside sweating a little and catch my breath. The music, buzzing through headphones, is a full reality in my ears. My body is cast into shapes and forms according to this pulse created by another. My feet move frenetically according to long chains of muscle memory developed over many years. I come down into my hips, bending my knees and gyrating against the air. My eyes get intense and my breathing becomes measured. I have spent irredeemable lengths of time goading myself into increasingly dense rhythms that take hold of my nervous system, guiding my body as though by design. When the music really gets going, I forget I am anything but it, inseparable from the bass line that wobbles within my stomach. I come in from outside and catch my breath. In the bathroom, I switch on the light to reveal a wide mirror reflecting my image. The shapes continue to possess me. I look devilish staring down at myself. I mouth melodramatic performances of lyrics, each word casting new light on my identity. Cooling down, I cover my face in a hot cloth and peer out curiously. What is beneath all this? I rub prepackaged clay facial mask on my face, then along my day-old jawline stubble, where it becomes hard to apply. I do not recognise her. Or him. Or them. The apparition in front of me seems quite empty as it interrogates itself in the mirror. But I am trying to wrestle something from this reflection. I reassure my femininity with a pair of sky blue glasses, staring in the mirror until it looks like me. Does it ever? Sometimes I forget how the grip of dysphoria controls how I see.
The mail arrives under my dead name. I have to correct call centre staff because the name they have registered is not how I like to be addressed. At the pharmacy, my prescription has me registered as Dead “Real Name” Name. Often they call an amalgamation of the two when I collect my hormone replacement medications. When a teacher refers to me by Dead Name their apology is long winded, laced with attempts to assert that they are supportive of the queer community. The real estate agent calls asking for Dead Name and I struggle to explain that this is not my name, despite being my legal name. Actually, the only reason I haven’t changed my name legally is because of a lack of identity documents in one particular bracket, the very document I would receive if only said real estate agent would approve my bond. More mail arrives for Dead Name. On my passport, I have a big beard. One day, during a medical emergency, I have to explain my transness to two health professionals while yowling in pain. The way my name is registered in different offices is inconsistent, often prompting a search for my bureaucratic data existence while my fleshy existence ambles anxiously. Is this really a problem? I drop my bankcard while at a party and a person busts into each room shouting, “Is anyone here Dead Name? Dead Name??” I wait until he is about to leave then rodent-like covertly grab it off him. What is the sane way to feel about this admittedly strange state of affairs? What amount of anger should I display, feel in private, or even allow in my life? To what end is this agitation I feel?
There is an inherent difficulty in prizing from our collective neurotic confusion a coherent reality. But never have I doubted my own intuition more than through my transition. I now live with the awareness that for nearly a decade I held the sincere belief that I was a deep explorer of myself, constantly diarying, developing my understanding of the world and embarking on meditation or psychedelic journeys with intrigue. Without any of his awareness, beneath him was a woman who would emerge into prominence and restructure his whole existence as a pile of shedded skin that had served its purpose to protect her from trauma. Bopping at 3am in a nightclub dressed in skimpy athleisure wear, my view of myself is entirely renegotiated. Will this upheaval repeat itself in years to come? How do I live knowing my future selves might disavow the very path I propel myself down today?
As I walk the street (or more often than not dance), the reaction I provoke from others is well beyond me – does my loud presentation stimulate further acceptance of queerness? Or does it only serve to alienate me further? It is a germ of the sublime as micro-interactions between my person and the public shimmer through the system like light passing through water. Just because I do not understand how I affect this world, or vise versa, does not mean that the effect does not exist. We exist as reflections of ourselves within (and far beyond) our communities. Inevitably, our bodies leave impressions – in the conversations of friends, in their dreams, in bureaucracy and statistics, media and data. Some perspectives declare (parts of) my body a material to make a map I will never be privy to. For others, my body’s outward stream of complex coded rituals, gestures and sounds interject or harmonize with their map. This text is a map of my second-guessing, my experiences of being gaslit and the resulting paranoia.
I need to make an allegiance with my heritage of paranoia. We are living through eerie times, where due to exceptional technological growth our civilized way of life has drifted out of sync with our bodies natural rhythms, a “phenological mismatch” as James Bridle languages it. I am not of the opinion this incongruence is inherently wrong or unnatural. After all, it’s always hard to really know that much about existence, a phenomenon far beyond human comprehension. Anyway, I wouldn’t even be a fragment of myself without this sphere of post-Fordian-slow-motion-ecopocalypse-digitised-reality enveloping me.
There is no going back to a state of ecological harmony, destabilised hundreds of years before I was born. Rather, we deserve compassion for our inability to adjust to our circumstances. As Franco Barardi informs us, compassion means “sharing our common inability to submit chaos to [our] will: sharing passion, sharing passivity.” Even as the insidious effects of ecological collapse become normalised, we must commit to acknowledging our collective trauma. Maintaining a coherent worldview, regardless of political affiliation, will be an increasing challenge as we move forward. Valuing this work as part of our human condition allows us to better articulate the ways in which our will must submit to this chaos. Our whole lives have been a preparation for the unfurling of horrors manifested in this season’s bushfires. After the adrenaline subsided, it gradually dawned on me that I had been anticipating a multitude of collapses my entire life. Hey, I might even make more sense in an apocalypse…
In 2011, I was arrested for wearing a tent. If you search YouTube, you can find one single video of me surrounded by at least a dozen police, several council workers and another dozen or so associated protestors. In the video I yell at the top of my teenage voice that the police and council workers were acting without my consent, and that they should “let go right NOW!!” I was arrested and put in a divvy van, where I distinctly remember singing to myself for hours on end to ward off panic attacks. I was given bail conditions that included reporting to the police twice a week and remaining outside the CBD for three months. In order to challenge this, the case would need to be brought to court, but it was past 5pm and I would have to spend the night in holdings if I wanted to do so. At a tender 18, I decided to sign the unreasonable bail conditions in order to get out as soon as possible. This particular form of activism in our Melbourne encampment led to several arrests, enough of a shockwave to warrant a a Washington Post report on “tent people”. It was a tiny bulletin in a worldwide movement, Occupy, whose most prominent contribution was a meme: “We are the 99%” – five words! It took two years for me to have the charges dropped, during which I was often housing-insecure, unemployed, manic and suicidal.
I have tried to tell this story many times; it is not an easy story to tell. It was “in-tents” (intense) my friends have joked a few too many times. That’s as deep as one can go sometimes, in the realm of another body’s trauma. Similarly, my own Occupy experience is a germ of what others experience/d being violently occupied, my three months of activism barely worth regarding as a tribute. Deep wounds in another’s life provoke the development of a grotesque armour at once understandable yet no less incomprehensible. One can acknowledge, but remain entirely distant from, the bodily sensations such trauma provokes. For example, I lived and slept within the Occupy protest for 3 months. Afterwards, many of my friends were former Occupiers. As 9/11 coloured my youth, so too Occupy pervasively affected my adulthood. It is a story still developing, a reflection of the past still present today. As I mature, forgotten memories come to the fore, while previous narratives I’d developed wobble tentatively under the weight of fresh insight. It is memory-as-map, capable of enlightening, triggering, distracting or inspiring. It is a secret history, a bewildering story to share privately with friends. On darker days, it is a burden I cannot absolve that isolates me.
My interest in Occupy Melbourne stemmed from AdBusters’ coverage of the Wall St encampment. Despite my enthusiasm for the global movement, I thought the local encampment looked sloppy, poorly conveying its message to the public. From this critical stance I became increasingly involved. City Square, since closed to make way for the Town Hall Metro Tunnel station, was the initial site of Occupation. The public plaza had an ironic history checkered with protests, the site’s heritage of 60’s anti-war rallies slowly subdued by cafes, bars and a hotel. Blocking the clear street view of these spaces, we would gather around tents and adhoc structures for workshops and daily meetings. Interest groups would talk through the day in order to propose strategies at the evening’s general assembly, which would then be followed through the next day. Standing at the front of the assembly, an Occupier would call out a phrase for the human microphone, crowd-come-chorus, to repeat in unison. Consensus would be established via votes measured by raised hands, guided by the principle of direct democracy.
Meanwhile across Collin Street, the opaque stone chambers of Melbourne City Town Hall exerted its authority over our dusty tent city. Consultations with police became increasingly hostile as the state insisted we had ‘made our point’, proclaiming one evening that we must pack up or be evicted. The next morning protestors disassembled all non-essential components of the camp then locked on around the kitchen tent and were picked off slowly as the morning went by. By midday, the message had got out to anyone involved that eviction was taking place, drawing a crowd significant enough to shut down Swanston St. Meanwhile, from his lofty Town Hall window, Mayor Robert Doyle looked down as peaceful protestors were trampled by horses, thrown in their manure, pepper-sprayed, crushed and arrested. The eviction of Occupy Melbourne’s tent city had exposed the very problem it was protesting against; so-called representative democracy was silencing the people it claimed to represent.
The sublime spectre of the eviction dwarfed the months of occupations following. Eviction was for many a heroic myth of subjection to blatant police brutality, if only for a day. My time with Occupy however was a creeping absurd tale of bureaucracy slowly saturating and absorbing the camp’s vitality. The public was generally timid while interacting with us, but protected within their cars or high apartments, they would hurl “Get a real job” several times an hour. Our camp was raided daily, with council workers deeming our protest signs a form of illegal advertising. We were fined for illegal camping under the guise of an anti-homeless bill, thus quashing protestors from drawing attention to the very system that caused homelessness. At dawn one morning, the Sunrise news van drove up. Asked why they were visiting, they told me they intended to interview protestors. After spending a suspicious length of time in their vehicle, a dozen police cars arrived without warning. Channel Seven’s cameras rolled as we locked on around a final tent full of supplies. Our arms were forcibly pulled apart, arrested one by one and taken to mobile holding cells. Inside the truck, I comforted two other anxious teenagers for several sweaty hours before being released with no charge.
In spite of an increasingly sophisticated police surveillance and interference campaign, Occupy Melbourne persisted. At Treasury Gardens, our longest site of protest, eviction became so commonplace that we – the hardened lunatics focussed solely on Occupying – resorted to increasingly creative and comedic strategies to endure the extreme monotony of the police campaign. In one instance, we cleared the site, leaving only throwaway broken tents that harboured large stockpiles of rubbish – the council, ready to remove all offending property, conveniently took our rubbish. In another, empty tents would be carried off by protesters as a line of police officers tailed behind us. Months of eviction led to pragmatic innovation, the camp eventually designing hacksaw tarp and PVC piping tents that could sleep 20.
By our third month we had relocated to Flagstaff Gardens where the police installed a 24/7 monitoring van with at least two officers staffed outside at all times. Protestors monologued at them for hours about the violence they were complicit in. Surrounded by apartments, well-dressed court staff and police, the tent became central to our identity. This was the flimsy shelter for our utopic vision, provoking an absurd and expensive campaign of oppression by police and state. In desperate resistance, we tore the fabric of our tents open to make way for our bodies to occupy them. The tent became a uniform, our argument being that you couldn’t confiscate our clothing. That night, a ring of police surrounded three of us in our tent-uniforms. Each time we nodded off, the police approached the tent to arrest us. Exhausted but determined, we responded by lightheartedly dancing about. Approaching dawn, we thought we had outwitted them. Quite suddenly, police grabbed hold of the protestor beside me who had padlocked the doors of her tent. Police broke the poles to force her semi-naked body from the tent. The Tent Monster was born.
The next afternoon, having worn the tent most of the day, a council officer lunged at me and grabbed my tent. Police officers engulfed me, then protestors, as I screamed for help. Amidst the scuffle, I was forced out of my tent into the police’s mobile surveillance office. The inside looked like something between a camper van and a cheap motel, a lifeless halfway place stacked with bottled water and bulk muesli bars. My time sleeping in tents was over. What followed was a drawn out court procedure, dependent upon Occupy Melbourne’s Supreme Court Case results. Each time we were called in and told, most likely, we would be granted an extension on the case until the case up high was decided. However, as our pro bono lawyers often warned, this was dependent on the temperament of the judge that day, making any decision possible. Each time I had to steel myself against the possibility that a judge’s whim could decide my fate. I was called in more than half a dozen times over two years, the courtroom’s judgment constantly hanging at the back of my mind. I developed an anxious avoidance toward checking messages, in fear of receiving something ominous from the government.
Concurrently, public transport ticket inspectors campaign against the poor riled up, and I gathered many fines beyond what I could afford. One night, I was dragged off the last train on the other side of town for not having a ticket, and handcuffed past midnight until they released me with no charges. My heartbeat would shoot up seeing a group of ticket inspectors – only to realise that they were high school students. Fear of authority had become muscle memory, a dark joke hard to share with my peers: cringeworthy, sincere, terrifying, forgettable. Having seen out my commitment to Occupy Melbourne, I vowed against activism, redirecting my energy toward creativity.
She walked with a sort of pomp in her step, born out of a confidence that was imperative to her survival. Or was it the other way around? Did she reek of exaggerated confidence that endangered her? She didn’t know exactly – surely it was a bit of both. Regardless, it would not be up to her as to how it would be decided or by whom. It could happen at any time, judgment could be considered or arbitrary, without regard for her frantic schedule.
She lived in the eyes of others, for better and worse, going past their conversations, their gestures and rushing through their stares. Late at night, the day’s wandering attention brewed a subtle trance across her mind. It wasn’t one you could ever really have words for, except perhaps once you’d long ago left that time for good. Otherwise it was sublingual (beneath the tongue), subcutaneous (beneath the skin) and so much more spectacular jargon that offered alphabet letters as tributes to the void.
“Void of what, exactly?” she murmured in the upstairs bar, sheltered from the rain. Levitating above the cruelty of day-to-day life had become a routine, reliving traumatic memories more times than they occurred so that the raw experience was evenly dosed across a long bland serve of abstraction. Words, photographs, paintings – anything empty enough to hold form would be used appropriately. The problem was when this careful process of navigating trauma was interrupted. She would be yanked from this lull of confidence into a stark list of often contradictory demands.
Some weeks would have to pass before the feelings were digested, and the whole process could be narrated as though it was far away. Was it? Yes, but also certainly no. What else could she have done though? Almost separate, almost free, but always demanded back occasionally – sometimes quite a few times in one day – to explain herself.
Explain herself to who? More often than not, it was the voices in her head. They murmured words, the ones implicit in the tone of a voice or said after departing the room, chattering with each other endlessly. Doubt was enough on its own, but to double down and doubt doubting itself, and so on, wondering all the time what exactly her feelings were in service of… well, she decided, that was certainly torture.
Around when I was 10 (2003) I used to carry National Geographic magazines to school in my backpack. One issue in particular provoked my strongest intrigue. Atop Unmasking The Skin (the issues cover story) a red triangular banner of capitalised Impact font alerted you to a Special Report on Weapons of Mass Destruction. I sat on the step looking out toward the playground, the magazine splayed across my knees, looking at a map of nuclear stockpiles. Just like I would with toy cars, I used the map to stimulate the most rambunctious chaos of finger dances and mouth sounds I could imagine. I now think back to this time as the earliest I remember cluing in to the idea of Mutually Assured Destruction. As I entered the West’s new campaign of paranoia, the War on Terror, I passed the last generation’s ghost.
I can’t remember which came first: the magazine issue, or my (now long digested) anxiety of anthrax attacks striking my local McDonalds. I had almost certainly seen the fast food restaurant on a news show, and immediately thereafter couldn’t ever quite de-couple “McDonalds” from “anthrax”. In the shadow of invasive war campaigns, it is too easy to neglect the sincere speculative horror that lingered in the fall of the Twin Towers. The creeping sense of an erosion of normalcy was pervasive: if they could do this, what next? One tower being hit was a tragedy stretching a New Yorker’s capacity to comprehend; the impact of the second plane, and the towers’ collapsing, pushed far beyond accident into sublime violence. The dust cloud in the aftermath blew so far it was capable of inducing a young child (me) into a fit of horribly illogical, but nonetheless nightmarish, fear. “Terrorism,” as they called it, saw neoliberal structures turn upon themselves, leaving in their self-destructive wake a struggle to reclaim safety and meaning. You couldn’t board a weapon, could you?
After 9/11, bus routes in Sydney that once travelled inside the Sydney Opera House now redirected to Circular Quay, to prevent terrorism. I learnt to play pool in the Opera House green room, as my mum made bread-and-butter musician wages singing old European classics to crowds of wealthy Sydney socialites. On other days, I remember wasting time away in books and toys in the backrooms of the ABC Radio Studios, as she recorded choral music. Approaching early teens, I began riding public transport alone and was already accustomed to flying to visit my dad several times a year. In 2005, the London bus bombings occured. Anxiously aware that I occupied “dangerous spaces”, I developed an expectation, only partly conscious, that it might one day effect me. I expected it to happen, so strongly in fact that when it whimpered into existence in Australia, I laughed at how pitiful it was. Let us remember: he walked through Martin Place, past multiple national level banks and a Channel 7 studio then, spooked by someone noticing his gun, held up a Lindt cafe. The terror wet dreams of my naive child death drive would never come about.
In dream space, I wandered fallen cities, abandoned skyscrapers with broken windows where I had sex as a growing light obliterated the horizon. As a teenager, I would skip class to haunt the abandoned Rozelle Tram Depot; amidst overgrown weeds and abandoned industrial waste, I threw bottles at the wall and recklessly experiment with paints I stole from renovation sites. At home, my step-brother and I both read 1984. With a second hand typewriter, he created alternative fictions based on Big Brother and victory gin. In 10th grade, I was taken aside as a gifted student to do a special project, and I decided to focus on literary depictions of dystopia. Some years later, in an especially memorable dream, I visited a Kodak store in a penthouse space of the WTC. Looking out toward a plane, I remembered the date, and remarked to myself, “Oh! It’s time for the plane to hit!” Naturalised. Anticipated. I aimlessly trick chained my way through Tony Hawk’s American Wastelands, the title openly declaring LA a dystopia. The tram yards, a collaboration between a neglected public infrastructure project and teenage destructive angst, was gentrified by Mirvac. The wasteland was replaced with high-class restaurants, some areas explicitly framing the vandalism as part of the historic intrigue.
Around the age of 12, a family friend returning to Japan offloaded her excess luggage to me: a large puffy jacket. It was camouflage print on nylon, a byproduct of petrochemical processes. Visiting the Power House Museum a few weeks later, I noticed a see-through model of the same jacket. “Final Home,” read each jacket’s matching logos. Printed on a patch in the bottom corner beside a zip, the logo sat beside a blank form ready for your name, address, bloodtype, contact information. It was worth four or five hundred dollars – to this day my most expensive garment – explicitly designed to be stuffed with rubbish in case of ‘natural’ disaster or worse, the apocalypse. It was far too big for me. I wore it over bubble gum pink jeans with buckle straps covering the legs. Of course I got bullied, I’d come to internalise. Sneering metal boys informed me my teenage love Nine Inch Nails’ dystopian alternate reality, Year Zero, wasn’t hard enough. Jaunty, compressed drum sounds punctured distortions hisses and beeps, as a paranoid white man yelled over a 4/4 pop song. I was a tiny, scruffy queer child in jacket bracing for the collapse of civilization. (Much later on, a friend on Facebook called out white people wearing camouflage clothing for their tacit endorsement of the military.) Even as a teenager, arguments about what future was arising and how best to prepare oneself were essential.
As a high school student, I was privy to many of these conflicts. Outside Sydney Town Hall, 9/11 Truthers handed out home made DVDs claiming insidious government-led mass murder campaigns. In 2007, The Chaser’s War On Everything led an infamously fraudulent motorcade through multiple security barriers at an APEC summit, where eventually Chas Licciardello – lazily costumed as Osama Bin Laden – disembarked from the convoy, in front of the Intercontinental Hotel, where President George Bush was staying. For another night’s entertainment, my family gathered to watch science teacher Walt ‘break bad,’ living secretly as a drug lord. The Dark Knight saw its own league of anti-heroes, with Batman embracing mass surveillance technology to strike down the villain. On my iPod Classic, the rapper MF DOOM, known also as the Super Villain, covered himself with a repurposed Gladiator mask, ironically posturing as the very tyrants he had been oppressed by. Another mask, that of Guy Fawkes from V for Vendetta, came to life via 4chan as Anonymous, an early instance of meme-as-political-movement.
A new wave of distrust slowly lodged itself into my world. Up until I was 14, for as my memory served John Howard had been Prime Minister. The momentary election of Kevin Rudd at last provided an interruption; this foregone moment of political potential now seems laughable. Thus began a spell of Australian prime ministers whose control of government was disrupted by Murdoch media disinformation campaigns, inspiring party in-fighting and cynicism. The public then followed, losing focus after consecutive party emergencies. Energy moguls destroyed more environment; Indigenous communities and their sovereignty continued to be neglected; refugees were forcibly detained offshore; arts, education and public broadcasting’s funding was gutted further… As all of these actions continued, Australian small ‘l’ liberals could nonetheless comfort themselves with flattering comparisons to American gunlaws and healthcare, British austerity measures, and the relative ease through which we passed the ’08 financial crises. Trouble was elsewhere.
At 17, in pursuit of personal freedom, I moved out of my parent’s house to Melbourne. In my first bout of naive adulthood, I inversed my sleep cycle, haunting the 24 hour study spaces of UniMelb. My burgeoning adult masculinity was a gothic sort of gender to inhabit, littered with presumptions and performances of something far outside my body or experience – this was many years before realizing I was trans, of course. I bought a cigarillo and coughed furiously trying to take webcam photos of my first time smoking. Thrashing Death Grips’ Exmillitary, I stole milk and bagels from pretentious cafes before they opened. Over filter coffees or mulled wine, friends and I would pontificate what would be the most hipster expression of style. We settled upon a disavowal of hipster trends entirely, dressed something like a businessman and boring as hell. The hipster as a social category was a seemingly insatiable beast capable of devouring any style, any position. What could ever follow the hipster phantasmagoria of every decade before remixed into one? “Hipster” was self-aware, like dust in the archives or the effect old mediums of photography have on how we view the past. It was an ahistorical moodboard and parties themed by decade. The vivid crises of history happened somewhere else, sometime else, viewed at a safe distanced removed from any sense of urgency.
Toward the end of my first year of independence, my bedroom window was broken into with a marquee umbrella, splaying glass across my bed. My adhoc milk crate storage structures were emptied out in someone’s aimless hunt for value. All of my possessions were in disarray, across the floor and over my bed, littered in glass. I lost my first job waiting tables at a tourist’s arcade café. In a rush to find something else, with limited hospitality experience, I tried to become a call-center marketer. It didn’t last very long…
Paranoid Trans 2020 will continue with Part 2: Tent Monsters later in the week.
In light of Covid-19, it seems easy to forget – at least momentarily – the months before. For the first time in my memory, ecological collapse announced itself with smoke choking the two cities I am most connected to, Sydney and Melbourne. It is my strongest assertion that these events foreshadow decades to come. I hope that by reflecting more broadly, beyond this current pandemic, we can better understand how entangled these crises are. I believe that through acknowledging and processing our emotional responses, our trauma and grief toward ecological collapse, we can begin to learn and adapt to these harsh new conditions.
It is with this in mind I introduce my first week of writing, beginning with today’s Facing The Smoke, a flawed testimony of my own experience during this year’s bushfire season, written in January. In the following month I then produced a series of writings, Paranoid Trans 2020, honing in on the psychological space of emergency in such crises. In my second week, I will address more recent events in my collection Isolation Haibun. A haibun is a Japanese hybrid form combining prose and verse, which I use to try and bring forward the emotional space of enforced solitude and unobtainable yearning provoked by lockdown.
With a yellow cloth
I have been instructed
by my mother
to wipe her lemon tree’s leaves
of all the bushfire soot
I think I am having an identity crisis.
This Christmas season I decided, for the first time in five years, to visit my mother’s. Nearly two weeks on, mum is in the next room praying for rain to the generic yoga-internationalist’s shanti shanti refrain. It is her belief, and she is joined online and by phone, that the weather will be stimulated by a collective meditation on rain. I don’t always agree with mum’s spiritual beliefs, and make as much apparent on a more ordinary day, but I respect that it fulfills her and provides solace in a moment of such crisis. Nonetheless, I can’t help but simmer in a degree of cynicism and frustration. That which has become a destination for her life is, by no choice of my own, where I began; where I cannot help but depart from.
About ten minutes ago, I overheard her brother on the phone. Coming to 60, she takes every call on loudspeaker, and I don’t have the heart to make sense of whether this is technological inneptitude or a lack of hearing. Her brother’s voice, like many others in my family, is one that I recognise as somewhat similar to my mums and my own. Nonetheless, this familiarity affords little more depth as we have been scattered, mostly across Australia, my whole life. What for them was a family within one community has, in my lifetime, become a ghost to be heard in the next room, or down a low quality video call. My relationship with family was maintained in large part beside my mother. Occasionally I would see them, but it was hard with distance to develop any further relationship beyond ‘family’. A few years ago, mum asked if I would attend my grandma’s funeral if she died and – aware that it would cost close to 3 months rent – I promptly replied, “No.” She was right to be offended.
Tomorrow is a 40 something degree-day in Sydney. My uncle this morning evacuated his property in Tilba and left for a nearby beach town. Today’s phonecall began with sobs from a grown man who rarely cries – or so mum told me. Afterwards, mum mentioned that she had been researching the mudbrick walls of his property; apparently they’re quite fire retardant. She had familiarised herself with an online map of the area and, at every interval, could be found either with the radio or TV checking for updates on the fire. “I’ll only say this once,” she told me alone in her car yesterday, “If he loses his property, I really think he might lose his will to live… I don’t know how he’ll go on.” This was now the ninth loved one of hers who, this summer, had fled their homes because of bushfire – two in WA, five just outside the ACT, and another two in regional NSW.
The ecological collapse we now face has a way of abstracting itself beyond recognition; this hyperobject, as Timothy Morton termed it, is one we exist within and thus it is hard to explicitly address from the outside. Despite this difficulty, we must strive to recognise this hyperobject of ecological collapse. To effect change requires a greater understanding of how we are entangled in this collapse, both as perpetrator and victim. This had been in large part a wonderfully fascinating abstraction for me, learning terms akin to ‘hyperobject’, like ‘disaster capitalism’ or ‘ecofacism’, as preparatory speculations. It was as though I was gathering a toolkit, trying to anticipate issues before they occurred, and helping spread awareness so as to mitigate the worst effects. I learnt the ways in which climate change was founded upon colonialism, and how it would reify pre-existing oppressions; how centering indigenous practices could offer new relationships with the land, with pronounced implications for agriculture and food politics; how intersectional feminism could uplift and educate the public, in turn affecting carbon consumption, etc etc. I was attempting to bring some sense of hope to what otherwise seemed irredeemable. The future had, for many of my peers, reduced itself further and further toward a singular event of apocalypse. As I learnt more, I tried to prompt the possibility that our knowledge was incomplete, and there might be many apocalypses, but never – at least in our lifetime – this absolute, singular apocalypse.
This last week, a Rural Firefighters Service firetruck was flipped by a fire tornado. I learnt on Instagram that meteorological events such as these still defy scientific understanding, as they are hard to simulate and have rarely occurred. As my elderly grandmother was evacuated at the beginning of this bushfire season, I remarked to a friend – as if bragging – that the bushfires had resonated down the phone through my mother’s distressed voice. I felt her emotion’s significance, predominantly, at a concerned remove while she managed her concern for her far-off mother. Over the coming weeks, approaching my visit, Sydney was shrouded in bushfire smoke in a way that had never occurred before. The yellow sky and P2 dust masks, repurposed from renovations, were quickly deemed apocalyptic. Mum went stircrazy in the house during the worst times, stuck inside for multiple days concerned the smoke would affect her sensitive throat that was vital to her livelihood as a singing teacher. The Sydney skyline was stolen away behind bushfire smoke, and people hid in airconditioned malls without considering the irony.
As I write this my mum walks past like a ghost, worn of all emotion, and tells her husband, my step-father, that she donated $20 to an animal protection service. Her concerns with the bushfires have found form in a strong sense of grief for animals affected. She remarks, “Mum says she read an article that apparently the animals are going down to the beach to die.” At Christmas dinner, my step-sister lamented the displacement of her mother’s farm’s sheep. How dare I want to qualm with what on face value appears so plainly a tragedy? And yet I – as both a contrarian asshole and studious genocide and trauma nerd – cannot help but desperately want to. The spectre of violence from one event is focused upon to draw attention away from another. The perpetrator claims victimhood, allowing their emotions to capture all oxygen in the room. The rupture of genocide bursts out from denial, into the spotlight, where it is promptly misconstrued as an ahistorical event…
“But what would that have to do with climate change?!”, I condescendingly assume some might say. In the 21st century, violence has been abstracted, systemised, diffused. This might have always been the case, but these systems now so accessible, at play in this very writing, are more concentrated in fewer hands than ever before. They have achieved this through the use of force, each event building upon the last so it becomes hard to locate exactly how they are entangled – for example, the partition of India; the algorithmic promotion of the alt-right in the 2016 election; let alone these bushfires. “But here’s the thing,” I remark with the confidence borne of white skin and a bloodline connected to Welsh royalty, “these fucking white men have no clue what their talking about!” Whether inconsiderately dividing up the Punjab and the Bengal, or in divising socio-political mega platforms from super-privileged IT labs in California, each are founded on the arrogance that there is an objectively correct way, and only one perspective could be trusted to discover it: the Eurocentric Masculine.
He arrived on the shores of this land, defined Aboriginals out of existence, and with complete naivety (and surely some degree of denial) interrupted ancient cultures practices of cultivation and land management. Disease was spread, languages were eroded, forests were cleared, sacred sites were defamed, species were hunted out of existence, children were seperated from their parents, alcoholism was encouraged, on the list goes. Call it accidental, decentralised or unconscious, the material outcome is clearly that a colonial flag and all it represents hovers firmly above all happenings in this country. In localised and chaotic ways, this process was repeated across the globe such that it became impossible not to participate in some way. The genocide(s) that occurred here disenfranchised traditional owners of the land such that multinational interests could move in and capitalise upon the resources that in part fuelled our unsustainable global economy. The project of colonialism established a global networked capitalism, from which the unprecedented bushfires threatening my uncle were just one of a myriad of symptoms.
My family’s emmigration here was also a node in that project. Mum described snakes slithering away from newly developed suburbs, their houses built atop the sand dunes. We were not a rich family – in fact, my grandma made the decision based on the upward price of living in the British county of Surrey – but nonetheless, we were complicit in continuing the presence of this colonial project, Australia. It was normalised to such an extent that, to this day, reconciling her own privilege in this position is somewhat off-limits to mum; bullied at school for her posh accent, she sees herself as an outsider, a foreigner to more established settler customs. But I have been led to believe, being in the generation and communities I’ve come of age in, even this experience is a privilege when others were denied such for the pigmentation of their skin. My uncle worked in a cheese factory, which was eventually centralised and relocated from his country town, and has struggled with employment since. The cynical decolonialist in me retorts that it never should have been there in the first place, that cow-methane slave labour does not belong on this land, and was a prominent contributor both to the deforestation and monoculturalisation of Australia, as well as to the ensuing problems of climate change. But that was never my families decision. My family were not the first, the galvanising difference between colonial cow Australia and something else.
In fact, no-one’s family quite was. Some of colonialisms most damaging effects occurred early on before any direct intent whatsoever. Before its colonial weaponisation against Indigenous communities, diseases also spread simply through contact. A small ice age in the wake of abundant death, as noted as an early incident of climate change in James Bridle’s New Dark Age, was actuated by the Spanish venture into what is now the Americas. On this basis, one can assume that whoever first thought to answer, innocently, “What’s on the other side of that sea?”, had the capacity to fundamentally alter the course of the planet’s history. Why white people, and eventually white supremacy, took on this domineering role at that time remains a tautological mystery: we can trace the past millennium or so of contingent power structures, but beyond that, who can really tell why something is the way it is?
So here I am at my mother’s house eating her cheese, utterly dependent on this grand history of colonialism I have been born into. As much as I’ve tried to pull out every root through my idealistic early twenties, here I am realising my helpless hypocrisy. In this humid Sydney heat, my skin bubbles and itches. I wish I could get outside of this, yet I can only express those feelings with this tirade of English affirmations of the fragile Western ego. The bushfires are here, in me and my language. As the bushfire transforms a car’s function of transport, of escape, into its raw state, a heavy shell of explosive material, internal contradictions are revealed. That process is far from contained, exposing in all of us our individual connections to this colonial project, and our inability to prevent (or willingness to deny) the current state of emergency.
The burden of communication inspires an anxiety in me I try to contain. I try and alert others to the fact I lack the capacity to hold their emotions, and in doing so inspire a burst of anger the splitting image of what I’m trying to avoid. I try to stay with it, not give up, remember past instances of hopelessness. But in moments like these, they seem to reduce the present to a heavy necklace of events tracing deep into your childhood – it is as if there could be no other way. I want to reach out and ask for support. All those around me are equally affected by this moment of Australian history, in conflicting ways that cancel each other out so that all parties sink into themselves. Is this what my future will look like?
My head is spinning. A self-destructive voice looks to flatten every flaw and mistake I’ve made into an alluring darkness. Another barks back that it would be cowardly, that it would only further the burden on others. So the fight continues, back and forth, on this 40 something degree day, going stir crazy as the heat pressures me within the dark confines of my parents notch in the grid. I feel trapped and out of control. Even trying to put words to this makes me feel guilty and entitled. Every action has a reaction, choiceless choices that cannot be weighed against each other. Frankly, I just wish I was with friends, where I could exist within as narrow a reality tunnel as possible while having my comfortable truths affirmed. All the work I’ve done for a future that (at least for this week) is violently present seems hopeless. As though I was only sustaining a dream in order to not entirely lose hope.
What point is there in expressing all that? What on earth am I doing?
Suddenly in smoke
when exiting the train
we improvise masks,
an ad reads “Tasmania:
come down for air”
The train is filled with more passengers than it had in last several weeks. More families are on street and at the park. I am breathing a pleasant view rendered in golden autumn colour and sensing an approaching familiar future. Soon, I will be able to sit at a café and order a cup of coffee. Soon, I can borrow books from the libraries. Soon, I can be disappeared in the audience at a cinema. Soon, visiting my grandmas, one lives in China, the other is in the U.S.A. will be possible. Soon, railway stations will be occupied by the rush-hour travellers. Soon, my day will be made of different locations, trips on PT and conversations about where my next destination is. Soon, I will be drowned in the fast flow and expectations of a city life.
But the future can not exist in the past. The norms have already been shifted. I have already transformed.
In a shrunk life under COVID19, I have broken and been dissolving inside the internet cable networks. The quotidian engagement with my phone, iPad and laptop, registers me as sequences of data, and feeds bits of me to multiple authoritarian tech avenues. If death could be reinterpreted as a digitalisation: turning everything about a person, including the physical condition, social networks, knowledge etc, into data, the process of dying has begun to me.
I am not only cooking for the spare time that I have gained and nowhere else that I could go to eat these days, but also for a project #tasteYourMemories that I initiated during the COVID19 life. In this project, I cook others’ favourite childhood food according to the recipes that they send to me in exchange of mine. Then, I talk with them online after we have cooked and ate each other’s favourite dishes. I am collecting recipes, tastes, memories and narratives of various identities. After inhaling different flavours, swallowing down someone’s childhood memories and imagining cultural attributes of the food, I wonder what I will become in the end of this project.
The recipes that I have collected and sent off so far can be viewed on my blog:
I have read this message few times in my social media arena saying that one of the symptoms of coronavirus infection is loss of the sense of smell. Putting aside how true it is, I have started to be aware of the scents around me.
Sitting at the desk in my living room, I could hear the council’s lawn mower roaring on the street. Twirling within the small green islands in the middle of the street, it jetted out green dust and also a pungent grassy smell. This freshly-cut-grass smell came in through the windows and cracked open the in home ‘castle’ that I was currently besieged in. It informed me the lacks in my present #iso life: the nature – an open view of the horizon, the air that is filtered through the organic net of the bush, and the crunchy sound of stepping on dirt and twigs.
I read an art news article once that someone/some company made a digital simulation of living grass with an intention to mend the broken link between a city life and a nature world. The article pitched this project by addressing the innovative use of an advanced digital technology and its great marriage to the art. The visual content of this article was stuck in my mind. I remembered in an image this computer generated ‘living’ grass was presented on multiple large screens on a huge wall of the lobby in a business building. Through the back lit screens, the ‘grass’ looked bright, sparkling and oily green. It was far more attractively beautiful than real grass. The viewer looked up at the grass, like ants or bugs. The view was immersive. I wondered what it would be felt like to walk pass this ‘lawn’ in-between business appointments, and if seeing this ‘living grass’ would keep me staying in this business building or drive me off to the ‘true’ nature.
Although I was impressed and felt left behind the times by this project, I couldn’t help to also see a bleak apocolyptical digital future projected by this digital immortal grass. I thought the biggest flaw of this project would be the exclusion of the scent of grass. Without the smell, this ‘grass’ only could be known, dead and viewed like another animated representation with additional information about its digital driving force.
From google, I did find an information about the grass smell. An article published on www.metalflass.com and written by Matt Soniak back in 2012 explained the ‘fresh cut grass’ smell signified trauma of the grass. “It’s the smell of chemical defences and first aid”. When the grass got hurt from either a lawn mower or someone’s steps, it would release smelly chemicals to call for actions for reproduction, prevention of unwanted bacteria or protection form unwelcome caterpillars.
According to Matt’s explanation, I took a great pleasure from grass’s trauma. Where should I draw my moral line? Nevertheless, I had learnt that scents could be a sign to indicate the dead and the alive. The story about coronavirus seemingly instantiated this belief.
In a shopping trip for hand sanitisers, I bought a roll-on Nivea deodorant, called #everdayactiveFresh. It was an unusual item in my shopping list. I never had a habit of wearing deodorants and Antiperspirants, because I had a blind ‘racist’ confidence in my odourless Asian body. I really couldn’t explain why I bought it at this time. Maybe I was creating an excuse to shop longer at the pharmacy; maybe I finally smelled a non-fresh smell under my armpits; or maybe I just wanted to be #everydayactive and #everydayfresh; or maybe I subconsciously weaponised myself to check my ability of smell and if I was on the track of staying alive or being sick or dying.
As a tool for introspection, scents might not be so difficult to understand. The cognition would be taken place inside me and between me and the subject of a scent. But, once a scent becomes a social subject, it appears problematic. How do people communicate about scents? How could I make you understand the scent I smell and know? How would I know if you have the same understanding of a scent as I do?
We use emotions: like, dont like, to adjust distance and relationship to other people; we use the knowledge about the things that have relatively consistent scents, like most of flowers, wood, fruits or any food, to reach a common understanding about a smell.
Years ago I heard a Japanese entrepreneur proposed an idea to create underpants that filter farts and turn them into various fragrances. I wondered if such products had been out at shops by now. I googled again. Instead of finding anything from Japan, I did found out a British company Shreddies and a British entrepreneur, Paul O’Leary had invented fart-filtering underpants.
Are we all going to fart in fragrances in future wearing these underpants? Do these underpants drive us further from a life based on truth? Do these underpants push the current “sugar-coated” life style that has been propagated in the capitalist socio-economic structure, to another level?
On abc #iView, Villanelle was on top of Eve, face to face, demanded, “Smell Me, Eve.”
It was a scene in the episode 3 titled “Smell Me” in the new season #KillingEve. Prior to this scene, Villanelle, a sociopathic professional killer, went to a boutique perfume shop in London, and said to the perfume maker “I want to smell powerful. I want to make people gag with it”. After rejecting the floral smells that the perfumer cluelessly suggested, she specified what she meant by the powerful with a narrative: “I want to smell like a Roman Centurion who’s coming across an old foe, who in battle once hurt him greatly. But since then, the Roman Centurion has become emperor, and is now powerful beyond measure.” Then, the episode got to the best part. The perfumer was perplexed and replied, “Maybe something more woody?”
One of the reasons I love about this show is how accurately it projects the logics of many women’s behaviours through the two main female characters. There was a conversation many moons ago between my female friend and I about the difficulties of getting a right perfume and requesting it at the shop. I also went through a sequence of narrative words for this distinctive scent that I would like to put on me and represent only me. I used the words: sharp, the stainless steel shine, and the top point of a right triangle. It was so hard. How would you tell another person about a scent that embodies a concoction of meanings and desires? How would you know if that person gets it or not?
The essential problem of perfume is that it creates a delusion. Even though a person luckily finds the right scent to wear, like Villanelle did, the characters that are connoted by the scent are still the subject of an internal cognition. Only Villanelle knew she smelled like a Roman centurion, because she would never know what she would be in Eve’s perception. But she believed that Eve saw a Roman centurion in her through this scent. I guess the unavoidable slippage in reading a scent is indeed the marketing strategy for perfume products to allow individual to customize the scent that only belongs them.
Representational scents for a characteristic identity do not have to be as complexed as Villanelle’s Roman Centurion, for instance, Kramer’s #theBeach perfume in Seinfeld. In fact, the idea of #theBeach perfume would be the best summary of what I have said about the grass smell and perfumes. This scent of #theBeach does not only gives a person an identity – it would be an upper middle class, educated and fashion savvy NewYorker, but also is seen as a solution to repair the disconnection to the ocean for the city dwellers in the winter.
When I put the perfume scenes of #KillingEve and #Seinfeld together, I have found that they are converged at many points.
1) After Kramer came back from swimming in the beach, he arbitrarily asked George and Seinfeld to smell his arm. It is like Villanelle forced Eve to smell her.
2) When Kramer tried to pitch the idea to the CEO of Calvin Klein to make a perfume of the scent of #theBeach, the CEO, like the perfumer in #KillingEve, failed to see the point that Kramer proposed, and gave him a loathing rejection. Maybe there is a universal comedy patterns for jokes to follow.
I would like to share a couple of notes I found in my phone recently. They recorded my previous brief thought on scents.
Another note found in my phone on June 25, 2019. On this day, I was in Berlin and trying to draw my travel route by recording the scents I inhaled along the way. But I discontinued after writing down a couple of scents.
A sweet creamy smell — from the girls passed
A rubber burn with a hint of plastic – U8 train to Boddinstrassa.
This will be my future project to follow up after this #iso life.
‘Thursday the 9th of April 2020
Woken up by a bursting and sore bladder. My body had warmed my ‘sack’ for the whole night. It would feel miserable to get up.
I was telling my body to hold on for few more minutes.
“Just keep the eyes closed, keep dreaming, keep holding… ”’
These days, all the surfaces in my flat, walls, doors, cabinet doors, couch, bed, bed sheets and chairs, bounce my sensory tentacles back onto my body. I start to “see” this biological entity that I have inhabited and ignored, though I still couldn’t cast the full view on it.
In the first week of the isolation, the relationship between me and my body was intense. I was sick. The fear of coronavirus infection magnified my focus on my biological self. Three times a day, I studied my pulse and measured my body temperature. I listened to my chest through breathing, searching for the hissing sounds. I recorded my appetite at every meal. I had certainly gathered a lot information about this 40-year-old body. But I was still estranged from it. I cared for it as if it was an external subject, a patient whom my existence was dependent on.
I watched the live recorded National Theatre’s Frankenstein on YouTube. It made me think about the contemporary TV shows, like Black Mirror (Netflix), Years and Years (SBS) and Westworld (HBO). They depicted a kind of detachment between the soul and its body. The differences might be that the latter was to put a soul inside a ‘body’ together to construct a human. The former (Years abd Years) is to transport the consciousness out from a body – to deconstruct the traditional idea of human.
“21 Oct 2019. on the train to work
The bits on my ankle started itchy again. I rubbed against them with the other foot. I managed to scratch the bites with my toes and nails. These mozzies bites I had had almost week ago, like zombies, came alive again and attacked me! I didn’t remember they were this itchy when I first got them. My body seemed to have a very delayed reaction and affected me with a delayed irritation. The foul feeling transmitted from the less-than-1cm circle of my body surface, had transported my mind to the moment when I was bitten. I was in Darwin. There was a long conversation outside in a front yard. I remembered the fear of having my skin exposed in the open air of Darwin. I remembered that I wished badly to end the conversation and go inside to put Aerogard on. But I didn’t. I kept talking and listening. I remembered that I had sensed or imagined the mozzie’s thin sharp needles piecing through my skin and injected bug juice inside my body. This a-week-ago moment liked a film-flash back projected in my head at this moment that I was on the train to work.
It wasn’t just a momentary scene composed with a location, people and a time, that boomeranged back in my head, but also a complexed feeling of revisiting a familiar place where I was out of touch for years. It was the contradictory feeling puzzles: I was in a place, meanwhile out of the place.
It wasn’t a particular feeling that I wanted to experience again. But my body, under the operation of a biological logic and mechanism, tied me down with it. I wished for a detachment between my body.”
In considering the long history of the discourse about the relationship between the soul and the corporeal body in the Western culture, I search for equivalent ideas and thinking about consciousness and body in the Chinese art history. Not sure I could find any good instances, except that in many folk stories, ghosts and gods interfere the human world by possessing human bodies. In these cases, a human body is a disguise of an alien soul. The original soul is repressed by this alien being. It’s not so much about separation. I guess, to the Chinese unless you were dead, your soul and body would always be seen as a whole.
One perception of human body that I learnt from growing up in China is that my body is a detector medium for warning me about a positive or a negative future.
‘Saturday the 18th of April 2020
My right eye has been twitching from time to time since last Thursday. It is the Chinese superstition that the twitching right eye spells bad luck. Every time I feel a twitch on my right eye lid, my heart is squeezed.
How bad would my life be?
I should force myself not to believe it, so that I wont be affected by its curse?
But I know it is too late. The memory about the misfortunate events that came after my right-eye twitching moments in the past is showing me a strong evidence to the truth in this superstitious saying.
My right eye has been twitching three days already. It must be a very big one. I probably wont get the grant that I recently applied for. Or, I might get coronavirus? Or maybe it would be about my family? Or I would lose money? The misfortunes, like luck, always come in a surprising way. Although it is completely useless to think about them, the more possibilities I could come up with, the better I could manage my fear and anticipation…’
’15 April 2020
Yesterday, I learned about physiognomy from the latest youtube episode of a Taiwan beauty TV program. In the program, a physiognomist explained how facial features determine one’s personalities and fortunes, through few Taiwan celebrity faces.
“Plump lower eyelids on a female face indicate her romance and marriage.
A wide nose would bring many good opportunities.
A mouth that has the even size of up and low lips, will give a person a balanced life. A big and full lip indicates that person is brave, decisive and good at making ideas into actions.
It’s better to have a mole around your up lip than on your chin….”
I examined my face. It became a collection of reasons that had caused problems of my life. I could only be saved by plastic surgery.’
YouTube sends me the facial exercise videos from 川島さん channel these days. The videos teach audience the result-driven massages, such as how to make your up eyelid lifted up for an energetic look; or how to make your face slimmer, or how to burn the fat around your jaw … They all sounded magical.
In川島さん’ videos and the video of the Taiwan physiognomist, human body is presented as an adaptable and mouldable subject that defines and shapes a person’s fate and fortune. It is a social property and its appearance is determined by a society of others.
I start to do exercises at home by following a couple of YouTube workout channels. My body fills up a small open space in my living room. I feel my core, my legs and my arms. I learn about the limits of my body. My breasts often are found on my way to make a pose. The fat on my waist makes impossible for me touch my toes when I lie down. I cant swing my legs together up and down because my back bone makes clicking sound when I do it. This is a 40 year-old body.
To this week, it is about a month from the time that social isolation rule has been implemented in Victoria on account of the COVID 19 pandemic.
When you place a month on the scale of the time, it is like a blink of an eye. Yet, when I try to recall what life was before, before March, before the 1st news about COVID19 and before 2020, this passed month has felt like as long as a reincarnation. And my memory become hazy due to this rebirth.
//***** Where was I before March? What did I do in January and February? Did I make a new body of works? Did I attend to the opening of my exhibition? Was I going to catch up with Andree at a Chinese hotpot restaurant? Did I plan to travel to California, the United States of America to visit my grandma who is over 90 years old? What was the last movie I saw at cinema nova? What was like to sit down for a cup of coffee at a café in the morning? *****//
Facebook continues to pull me back further to a random point in a history that is stitched from a reservoir of my previous posts. In many mornings, it persistently asks me if I could like re-post a text, or a photo, or a text+photo that I leashed out 1, 9, or 10 years ago.
⇡⇡ Swiping up. 👆
I have lost the capacity and freedom of exploring the past. The disconnection between the life before and after COVID 19, like Grand Canyon, traps my mind to boomerang back and forth from the start of the isolated to NOW.
The past right now is the memory of a stream of emotions.
😧//The panic – when my heart beaten too fast and my body temperature raised too high.
😳//The anxiety – when I had to wait for my symptoms to get worse to be tested for coronavirus.
🥺//The guilty – when I thought of my own potential death and the possible deaths I might have caused to others.
😨//The fear – when I heard that my Dad had bad coughs, the skyrocketing death toll around the world, and Asian looking people were bashed up and verbally insulted in the public in U.S.A., in UK, in Italy, in Span and here in Australia by racist attacks.
😥//The worry – when my work place didn’t think masks were the essential projection wear in the job where personal carers were delivered to people intellectually and physically impaired.
🙄//The incertitude – when I thought about my independent artist career that I could barely make a living in, about the age of 40 that I am living, about the disadvantages of being a female and about my solitary life.
😊//The relief – when my Dad and I were recovered from our sick bodies.
😍//The warm- hearted – when I received the food, medication, toilet paper and love from my friends and my parents.
A month later, the calm is restored to the present. I have accustomed myself to the new norms.
//It is normal to see your friends as a bunch of flat and pixelated images;
//it is normal to share a view of my bedroom at a public meeting;
//it is normal to ‘socialise’ without putting my bra on;
//it is normal to cook three meals a day at home;
//it is normal to binge watch online dramas for days;
//it is normal to be poor;
//it is normal to not feel guilty to drive, especially when the petrol cost is plunged below $1;
//it is also normal to use plastic bags again because it is easier to disinfect them with alcohol wipes.
In these days, the news program urges the listeners to think a life ahead. On the radio, they talk less about the infection and death rates, more about the recovery plans for the national economy. The old ideological propaganda comes back too after a brief interruption when the whole world focused on stopping the death from coronavirus. With recalcitrance, the old norms squeeze back into this new life and enhance the anxiety of envisioning a future. Avoiding the thoughts on future would be a practice of self-care and keeping sane for now.
The double blockages to both the past and the future jam my mind in-between the small discontinued and fragmented moments at the present.
//when I had to leave a zoom meeting to turn off my oven when the timer alarm beeped.
//when I answered the door bell when I was attending a public talk on zoom.
//when I disinfected every single item that I just purchased before entering home.
//when I lost the words from the person whose image was distorted on my screen because of the bad internet connection.
//when government’s coronavirus message was interrupted Spotify’s coronavirus self-isolation playlist.
//when the notifications of coming messages from the social media appeared inside the screen of a Korean drama that I was watching on the iPad.
My attention is constantly redirected inside my home, and my memory is patchy. The world outside my home is rendered into a digital reality. The video conversations, meetings and talks are remembered like the moments in dream. The digital text contents are quickly forgot when my eyes move away from screens. The engagement with the digital world excavates holes in my memory and inform me digital dreams.
Last night, I dreamt I was lying in a soft massage bed in a luxury bathroom. The bathroom was lit in a soft yellow light, that is reflected from the polished marble walls and floors and golden metal surfaces. The room was filled with ivory and red ochre colours. I felt safe, relaxed and satisfied.
Was it real or just another reality I visited in the night?