We find ourselves close to Hallow’s Eve, thoughts drifting in air, caught in rustling leaves and in journeys that commence; drifting through the town, between the paths laid by ice (melting) and by testimony (sanctuary).
“Why do people think that we’re degraded when we’re examining positions of degradation, or examining the cycle of our own degradation?” Chris Kraus
We find ourselves as witness to this beginning, three actions in parallel, in public and in private, unfolding poetics of history and testimony, of hope and confrontation, of dystopia as paradigm shift.
(The power of bringing the private into the public, and of blurring those distinctions that are maintained on the basis of inequality and invisibility came up repeatedly during the symposium, and continues on in the work of the evening).
En Masse, as witnesses to confrontations on colonialism, the empire, class and race politics, the ill body, ecology and climate change.
Latai Taumoepeau’s Ocean Island Min – a ceremony, journey and repeated gesture. Quietly public, dressed in a disposable white suit, dragging a shovel loudly hitting the floor, ferrying ice from one end to another, Taumoepeau (Sydney-born, of Tongan ancestry) draws attention both to climate change (in reference to the Pacific, but unfolding globally), as well as the material histories at play.
Her measured pace and guided walks are a gentle confrontation, a gestural poetics; they speak to the interconnectedness of the physical and material, of labour and bodies in power. There’s a subtle dialogue between traditional and contemporary practice in Taumoepeau’s piece, which takes its time to echoe, to take shape, to instil itself in the public space.
There’s an interesting resonance between the specific local that the piece references, and our encounter with it in Ipswich; it speaks to the circulation of ice in the Pacific, as much as a wider poetics of Empire and culture, of formation and attack. (Tonga was under British rule for a long period of time, although it is importantly one of the only Pacific nations that governed itself; it did not gain independence until the 1970s, and is a Commonwealth nation. Australia holds a significant number of Tongan-migrants, who started arriving there in the 1970s and 1980s).
In the meditative hall of the Unitarian Meeting House, candlelit and wooden-panelled, Elaine Mitchener moves between body and voice, speaking of the removal of names of Africans during the slave trade as a complex process, a shared, difficult and global history. An interplay between testimony through vocal resonance and gestures, image-making and action-focused meditation, the piece stretches and deconstructs this act of erasure through the body, reflecting on history and remembrance as well as the body as a site of recall and reclaiming. In the background, a list of names, gender and value (Diana, girl, 20 pounds), echoes quietly, resonating between vocal rhythms and movements.
The Unitarian Meeting House dates from the 18th century, and provides an apt setting that places the work in conversation with colonial rule, with the British involvement in the slave trade, and with participating and authoring a history that still lacks visibility socially, educationally and politically. But Mitchener’s work is gently confrontational; the body shifts positions, images and undertakes vocal stretches, a kind of testimony we witness unfold. This is as much an embodied meditation on re-naming and loss, as it is an engagement with communication and ownership.
The work is part of Sweet Tooth, a collaboration between Mitchener and historian Christer Petley, a project that explores the history of slavery, and is oriented around Jamaican sugar plantations at the end of the 18th century, though stretches more widely to the slave trade, and relationships between Jamaica and Britain in this context.
[Names] relies on Mitchener’s vocal language, inspired by a gosel, jazz, classical and sound poetry, to name a few, as a way to situate and localise these expressions, but also articulate them through movement. The work, although focused on the removal of names, on the violence of re-naming, is deeply embodied and exists on a threshold between the past and present, its contemporary utterances and shifts, that which remains unaddressed and unspoken.
The Unwell shifts gear, occupying a playful and timidly subversive space, presenting an apocalyptic landscape where the unwell have taken over; they walk like zombies in abandoned car parks and empty suburban streets, loiter in the dark and drag their ill bodies across abandoned subways. In one scene, someone is crouching in the bushes in the dark; in another, a body drags itself across the floor, covered in cable-ties and dirt and dried blood. Place is fundamental here: it is both explicit genre reference (the abandoned Brutalist buildings, passageways and dirty landscape ) but it also contributes to the playfulness of the piece; it is an occupation and a deliberate appropriation.
The zombie is a being that is neither dead nor living; it resides in this productive space between illness and fear, between the sick body and death. The concept of infection and its taboos, of the agency of the ill body and what delineates it as a specific experience to be contained, not confronted or explored, runs throughout this film, and it does so through the actions that O’Brien, as the unwell in their various guides, performs. There’s an aesthetic timidity, a re-iteration of this idea through the various scenes of the piece, as the unwell cough up mucus in measured ways – but the cough itself becomes a powerful soundscape to the whole film, and possibly, the most resonant in its specificity, repetition, proximity, undeniable intimacy in the cinema space.