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.
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…
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.
When I was a child I kept a series of scrap books. In them I’d paste images cut from magazines–travel brochures and National Geographic were my favourite. I’d write my favourite quotes from the many books I’d read beneath them. And I think that is what set me on the path of studying photography, anthropology, and writing.
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.
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….).
Of all the advice I’ve been given, there is only one I find easy to follow:
Surround yourself with people smarter than you are.
It’s inevitable really; I know some damn smart people, and besides, the way I see it, my knowledge is pretty limited so everyone is smarter than me in some area. And I’m always keen to raid their specific type of knowledge and pilfer their smarts.
But recently, I’ve had the chance to learn from some amazing and talented people.
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.
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?
Children run barefoot through the late afternoon light. Their shadows stretch before them like stilt-walkers at the circus. Chalk trails in pastel arcs down the bitumen behind them, circling the well-worn couches and chairs arranged on the roadside.
“Dou venons nous? (where have we come from?)
Que sommes nous? (what are we?)
Ou allons nous? (where are we going?”)
…These were the words scrawled in the corner of Gauguin’s Dou venons nous?
It was it to be his last work: upon finishing it he swallowed a bottle of arsenic.
But he survived…and painted many more.