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?