Abandoned Brisbane: Presence and absence in an in-between city

This is a piece I wrote in 2013 that never found a home in print. I recently uncovered in the jumble of thoughts and images that is my computer hardrive. It is interesting to see how my interest in presence and absence–central themes of current PhD thesis–have preoccupied my thoughts for so many years! As always when looking back on old work, I found parts of this rather cringy (I was going through an experimental writing phase), but I hope it is of interest to some. A huge thankyou to Dr Stuart Glover for his feedback and mentorship on this piece. 

PART I

Bianca Jane Insane’s had her eye on a few places for a while now. She knows what she’s looking for. The long grass. The decay. The public notice for development.

She weaves her BMX through the Fortitude Valley traffic, threads around pedestrians and the midday drunks. You follow at some distance. Your bike clatters with every inch forward, screeches when it should stop.

Bianca shouts a running commentary on the buildings you pass, a tangle of things she’s learned from textbooks and from spending a lot of time stoned in derelict buildings. Her words catch on the wind, fragment, float back to you as part of the city’s synesthesic song. A tapestry of heat ripples, jasmine flowers, requests for ciggies, and the guttural wrench of beat-up Fords.

There’s an awesome…seventies style…used to go there a lot…art deco windows… a squat, man…

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BLM, anthropology, and the shadow of settler-colonial dreams

On a Saturday in June 2020, as I was drawing together the disparate themes of my PhD thesis, I took a break from my writing to stand with some 30,000 other people in Brisbane’s King George Square. The protest against structural racism and Black and Indigenous deaths in custody was part of the Black Lives Matter movement, which, on the crest of social media, had swept the globe in the weeks following the death of African American man George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.

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The vulnerable ethnographer

The drive was twenty hours. Long straight stretches of bitumen and heat-hazed horizons, interspersed with the occasional dirt road and the odd truck stop. At the end I’d begin my fieldwork. Partly to stay awake, and partly to stave off my sense of dread (what the hell does ethnography even mean? What do I do when I stuff up? What if I’m not emotionally tough enough? What if I end up hating my research participants? Is it too late to bail? ), I started to listen to an audiobook a friend had recommended.

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Mise en abyme

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Lately, I’ve been thinking about stories within stories.

Actually, I’ve been thinking about it for a while– as an art model, I occasionally sees photos of myself looking at a painting of myself (a painting done while I look at the painter and the painter looks at me). It’s bound to come up.

But the real reason I’ve been thinking about nested narrative (mise en abyme, or “placed in the abyss”, if you will)  is Ryan Gossling. And Macauley Culkin. (What’s sacred and what’s profound in this theory/movie star confluence is up to you….).

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A silver brumby taught me…

The books we read, the stories we tell, the narratives we allow to furnish our inner theatre, can—I believe—form the cosmology of our innermost self. We are a network of stories without beginning or end. We are a mass of tangled, interwoven texts. But there must be some foundation for this creationist tale of ‘I’. There must be, at the beginning, the stories of our childhood: stories that give meaning to all stories that follow.

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“I see”, said the blind man who could not talk: Knowing the sensory world

Often, as Western speakers, we say ‘I see’, when what we really mean is, “I understand”. It’s just another of the many dead metaphors we kick around. When I was child, I had a friend who would take such a pronouncement of “I see” as an opportunity to interject with “…said the blind man who could not talk”.

While my childhood friend intended this a nonsense quip, her joke highlights an important question: how is it that an individual might ‘see’—that is, understand—their environment and cultural world through different faculties of sense, particularly if those senses are not, as Western thought would have it, primarily linked to sight or sound? 

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No Peroratio, No Exordium: Notes on New Years Eve

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Notes on a new year’s eve.

Calendar of Scents

When I try to think of what happened in 2012, I am lead through the rooms of my memory palace by the scents: the flowers, the mangroves, the rain, the grass seeds. These scents lend a succession of fragrances to the passing months. Later, I can match the fragrances I evoke so clearly to dates that quickly become blurred.

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In his 1906 ethnographic venture into the Andaman Islands, Radcliff-Brown noted much the same thing.

“The Andamanese,” he wrote, “[mark] the different periods of the year by means of the different odoriferous flowers in bloom at different times…their calendar is a calendar of scents”.

*

A calendar of scents.

The scents of experienced moments.

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In places like the place where I grew up, people still keep a calendar of weather and seasons. My mother calls me and speaks of the rainy season. In my memory, this is the time of year that comes after November and before February that smells of eucalypt, petrichor, mud drying on boot heels, and damp horsehair.

But the reality is, I grew up in a drought. I only experienced a few of these rainy seasons in my mother’s home. There is a gap then, a period of time, when the calendar of scents failed to match the passing years. The Gregorian calendar flipped its numbers, seven years, but the wheel of my year did not turn.

Often, when I catch a hot dry wind, I feel as though the drought is following me, and I know that the things I learned then have shaped who I am today.

Other times, other experiences, other scents, make me think it is I who have shaped the season.

Or at least, how I remember the season.

There’s a time in my memory where it is always late spring or early summer, always too hot and always just about to rain. There the jacarandas are all in bloom, and we eat jasmine by the hand-full as we wallow in sweet oleander milk and watch the humid silence suspend the seasons. I was so terrified, so excited, so confused by this that I was always on the verge of tears. When I think about it, this was actually about 3 years in total. Of course, it couldn’t possibly have been summer the entire time. But in my memory it is.

There’s another place in my memory where it is always cold. When I talk about this time, I say it rained for a whole year straight. No breaks. No deluge. Just a constant downpour that amounted to nothing.

Obviously, this too is impossible, if only because this time also overlaps with some of those other times when it was always summer and always right on the verge of rain.

There’s the calendar year and there are these other times, these other experiences, that seem too vivid to ever be contained in dates. The two don’t match. I can’t see where one year turned into the next. All I know is that there were certain things I experienced and they had a certain season attached.

In my memory we raise our hour glasses to the denial of dates and drink deeply.

*

In the 1980s another ethnographer, Vishvajit Pandya, also spent time studying the Andamanese. He found that the Andamanese still viewed time as connected to scent and the wind. But he found something else too. Their concept of time is not linear, but “rhythmic”, subject to the same caprices as the constant winds that pass through their island. In such a way, they do not see time as easily divided, but a continuation:

“Both past and present are apprehended within the present, and this experience of time is described as totekwata. The past is seen as an experience that has gone by like the winds, not as something left behind for good any more than the winds leave the island permanently. The winds return but when they come from new directions they bring different experiences, leaving places “wet and cool” and at other times “dry and hot”.

*

The wheel of the year turns, and sometimes, on night like tonight say, we might try to look back and see how things have changed. We see, through the clairvoyance of hindsight, the signs, the antecedents, the consequences, the dreams, the realisations. And yet, like the Andamanese, it is difficult to see it  merely as crossed out calendar dates. These are experiences that stay with us, that drift to us again, like the scent of phantom flowers on the wind.

So maybe New Years Eve is a little arbitrary, just a commemoration of some celebration we had on this date last year. Nothing is new, just a continuation of what’s already been, just another experience to add to the multitude we experience all at once.  We watch the seasons change. We watch ourselves change. But we see this is an ongoing process that can hardly be confined to a calendar year.

On New Years Eve we celebrate that, while the succession of scents or dates might not play out as we think they ought to, we have experienced 365 days worth of moments, and these moments roam free on the changing winds.

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