Languages

Interview: Forced Closures

Richard Bell, "Larry", 2015, film still. Courtesy Milani Gallery.

What's in a closure?

What are the narrative and material forces that maintain the opening of certain possibilities and the closure of others? Many of the European institutions of L'Internationale confederation have faced the threat of closures—of exhibitions, research departments, discursive programmes etc. These destablisations act through the winding back of essential support in terms of finance, at the level of professional independence and in the disciplining of social narratives.

The neoliberal politics of closure echoes the modern biopolitical regime of enclosure. Here, formerly productive parts of civil society become rezoned as waste to be shed from the social body. Regionally and globally what patterns do the pressure lines of closure form, and what picture do they offer of ongoing frontier processes?

Throughout 2015 the motif of closure has been writ large over the Australian political landscape in particular. The closure of its borders to asylum seekers has escalated, most recently with the revelation of payments made to people smugglers to "stop the boats". Numerous contemporary art institutions may also face closure following an unprecedented appropriation of over one third of the budget of the Australia Council for the Arts — redirected towards a discretionary fund under the oversight of the Attorney General, Senator George Brandis.

Most dramatically, tens of thousands of people have mobilized in the streets of capital cities and regional centres opposing the proposed forced closure of 150 remote aboriginal communities by the Western Australian government. The neoliberal dramaturgy of closure and opening is underscored by the recently announced plan of a $5billion fund towards infrastructure in far northern Australia to, in Treasurer Joe Hockey's words: "open our northern frontier for business".

This entry to L'Internationale Online arrives marking the third global call to action against the forced closures in Western Australia taking place 26-28 June, 2015. The contribution takes the form of a short questionnaire to an activist, a historian and a critic on possible readings across these occurrences, as well as an artist contribution by Richard Bell from his latest film which charts the exploits of a fictional entrepreneur gallerist "Larry".

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Mitch Torres is one of the main organisers of a campaign group based in the Kimberley (north-west Australia), known on social media as #SOSBlakAustralia. Torres is also a writer and director, know for films including Jandamarra's War (2011) and Whispering In Our Hearts (2001). Further information on the #SOSBlakAustralia campaign is available in an interview with Torres by Solidarity Online, 20 June 2016: online here.

1) What do the proposed Forced Closures indicate about Australia's liberal democratic state and is this significant at a global level?

In my humble belief it demonstrates a lack of human caring for the way people chose to have a choice about how they see themselves in a dominant ideology with it's top-down policy of dismissing what is different and as part of this great push for full assimilation of the sovereign people of this country, now known to the world as Australia.

This goes against the UN statutes that should be about protecting the lives/way-of-life/culture of all indigenous people globally. Until the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is made domestic law here in Australia we will see our Human Rights as Indigenous peoples from one of the world's oldest living/surviving Cultures be continuously dismantled.

This is very significant at a global level for all indigenous/sovereigns of the lands they still live on. There is a global push to further marginalize indigenous nations and peoples to the edge—forcing a culture on them by a foreign occupation. We as indigenous people have never left our sovereign domiciles but we are being pushed off them by capitalist greed for natural resources and total domination.

2) The proposed Forced Closures are occurring at a time when the Australian Government is also expanding its programme of offshoring asylum seekers through increasingly controversial measures, to say the least. It happens that this also occurs at the time of an extraordinary withdrawal of support for independent and small practitioners in the arts by the Federal Government. Do you think that there can be meaningful alliances across these fields, and could or should this be meaningful to museum institutions in particular?

We have in Australia a heartless Government to put it in simple terms. As a 'white' culture that has it's roots in being boat people, many of us cannot understand this push not to be open to helping people who are seeking asylum—many of us are also concerned about our neighbors in West Papua New Guinea—and the deafening silence from Australia and indeed the UN.

As a practitioner in the arts in film I have certainly felt the cuts to our industry and the restructuring of having to fit into a paradigm of making safe stories for visual consumption by the wider community because our stories may offend in their truth. So in a sense we are being vetoed for wanting to tell stories of our struggles, history and the solutions to what we see as concerns.

Museums have a big role to play in giving back our stolen artifacts. This cannot be underestimated about the empowerment it can give to our people. To hold our history in our hands without being told why we cannot access it must stop now. It is our history that will empower our people to rebuild our story of our identity, which for the past close-to-227 years has been systematically dismantled with the intent to destroy.

3) The title of this blog thread is Decolonising Practices. Is that a term that is significant regarding the proposed Forced Closures, and what would it mean for cultural institutions to undertake decolonizing practices in particular?

For decolonising to happen the colonisers must first decolonise their own processes and ideologies.

We must also understand that there is no post-colonial period—we are still being colonised right now. The threat of closures to remote communities is still a part of the colonising process. The Northern Territory is also moving people off country and in forcing them to follow what the dominant ideology wants them to be is colonising in the now. I see all these processes as part of the assimilation process of a foreign power on sovereigns, which is resulting in the linguicide, ecocide and genocide of my people.

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Gary Foley was born in Grafton (1950), northern NSW of Gumbainggir descent. Expelled from school aged 15, Foley came to Sydney as an apprentice draughtsperson. Since then he has been at the centre of major political activities including the Springbok tour demonstrations (1971), Tent Embassy in Canberra (1972), Commonwealth Games protest (1982) and protests during the bicentennial celebrations (1988). Between 2001 and April 2005 he was also the Senior Curator for Southeastern Australia at Museum Victoria. Between 2005 and 2008 he was a lecturer/tutor in the Education Faculty of University of Melbourne, and in 2008 took up a position as Senior Lecturer in History and Politics at Moondani Balluk centre at Victoria University in western Melbourne.

1) What do the proposed forced closures in Western Australia indicate about Australia's liberal democratic state & is this significant at a global level?

They're entirely consistent with virtually all government policies since Federation in 1901. The broader problem crystallizes down to the deeply embedded white racism that pervades Australian society, and that has been a major issue since before 1901.

2) The proposed Forced Closures are occurring at a time when the Australian Government is also expanding its programme of offshoreing asylum seekers through increasingly controversial measures, to say the least. It happens that this also occurs at the time of an extraordinary withdrawal of support for independent and small practitioners in the arts by the Federal Government. Do you think that there can be meaningful alliances across these fields, and could or should this be meaningful to museum institutions in particular?

I personally don't see the forced closures as being one of the major issues in Australia at the moment. To me it's a regional thing that will, up to some point, sort itself out in a relatively short time. Whereas issues such as the incarceration rate of Aboriginal peoples and imposed historical poverty and ongoing appalling health statistics are more important as major national issues. Furthermore, the underlying fundamental injustice created by theft of Aboriginal lands and wealth and the refusal of all Australian governments since Federation to address these problems are the major issues of today, yesterday and tomorrow.

And the most significant thing is that all of the problems come back to an issue that is the subject of constant denial in Australia, which is the deeply embedded white racism that is evident daily in the farce that passes for political debate in Australia today.

On the question of whether "there can be meaningful alliances" develop, I believe such alliances have and will continue to be developed but with museums and other cultural institutions being apathetic and disinterested bystanders. It is my opinion that there is little chance that this will change in the foreseeable future.

3) The title of this blog thread is Decolonising Practices. Is that a term that is significant regarding the proposed Forced Closures, and what would it mean for cultural institutions to undertake decolonizing practices in particular?

They only way one can decolonise institutions is not to merely pretend to listen to our voices in a condescending and meaningless way, but rather to empower our voices by enabling us to curate their own exhibitions. To allow Aboriginal peoples to decide and control the manner and content of Museum representation of ourselves. Simple as that.

The Melbourne Museum attempted to do something like that fifteen years ago, and with some success, momentarily. Then when the practices and demands of the Aboriginal curators became a threat to the British Museum it came to an end instantly.

I'm not sure that museums as cultural institutions are genuinely capable of decolonizing. The idea of "decolonizing practices" should be to relinquish all control of the representation and exhibition of Aboriginal stuff, and place control of the specific Aboriginal mob whose stuff it is. And, where the issue of repatriation is raised by Aboriginal peoples, then not to hesitate or vacillate, but to step back. To put it more simply, "get out of the way".

I would have thought that such a proposition is so alien to the underlying history and philosophy of Western museums that "decolonizing practices" remains a complete impossibility, even (or especially) in those institutions that consider themselves to be at the more "progressive" end of the spectrum.

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Elizabeth A. Povinelli teaches in anthropology and gender studies at Columbia University. She was previously editor of Public Culture and her most recent books are The Empire of Love (2006) and Economies of Abandonment (2011). Her writing and filmography focuses on the conditions of otherwise in Late Liberalism. She is a founding member of the Karrabing Film Collective.

1) What do the proposed Forced Closures indicate about Australia's liberal democratic state and is this significant at a global level?

The Western Australian government's proposal to forcibly close numerous rural and remote Indigenous communities by defunding infrastructural support—their power and water—has to be understood in a broader late liberal policy environment. The forced closure proposal was announced as the Western Australian government more quietly changed the definitional criteria of a sacred sites, demanding every site conform more tightly to the practices and activities of religions of the book—that they be a holy site in the sense of a place where worshipers come and practice the tenets of their faith. Wherever two or more are gathered constantly and regularly, now there is a sacred site, and thus banished from legislative protection is a core Indigenous ontological analytics—that it is the place that contains and concentrates the energies of the land and that constitutes the world whether or not humans are there one moment to the next.

These changes to sacred site registration and forced closures are occurring at the tail end of the mining boom, the moment the intensive labor input necessary for the construction of mining infrastructure gives way to the increasingly automated nature of modern mining. A vast evacuation of Indigenous lands is underway that is being made to give way to the machinery of national and multinational mining and the material fuels that drive our immaterial information economy. A new form of terra nullius is underway—the forced emptied landscape of power and meaning and people such that the material scars of pure profit never appear to be perceived or conceived. These are not deserted lands; these are desecrated lands being made into deserts. They are expressions of geontopower—the management of life and nonlife, what must be made into inert in order to continue to fuel capital. The deserted terrains of late liberalism's governance of markets and of difference is eventually an actual desert filled with the power of sand and wind and dryness to defeat those things of water that created it.

A few years ago, I thought of writing an essay for the Australian magazine, The Monthly, titled, "The Australian Taliban." The context would have been the then recent destruction of the Bamayan Buddhas and the international outrage that accompanied their destruction and the lodgement by the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority of a desecration lawsuit against OM Manganese Ltd, a subsidiary of OM Holding, for deliberately damaging an Indigenous sacred site, Two Women Sitting Down, at its Bootu Creek Manganese mine. The case pivoted on whether OM Manganese intentionally wrecked features of the site when it undermined its foundations. Given that both the anthropological report and the legal judgment consider Two Women Sitting Down a geological formation represented by a human narrative, it perhaps goes without saying that the lawsuit was not prosecuted as manslaughter, attempted murder, or murder but as a "desecration" under criminal liability law. But Two Women Sitting Down is not inert even if it refuses to be alive under the conditions late liberalism demands. It will spread its fractured existence paying humans back in the form of toxic pollutants.

Nor are those men and women and children first fenced in these same deserts and now on boats overcrowded and dangerously teetering at sea inert. The federal government can build a saltwater to the moon but the walls themselves will construct the forms of their own crumbling.

This, it seems to me, is the condition not merely of Australian late liberalism but late liberalism more generally, namely, the increasingly unavoidable conception and subsequent hysteria of the double binds of governing markets and difference. Thus, I don't think a grand unified and coherent rationality sits behind these policies. Instead, as my colleague, Tess Lea put it, these are the wild policy fields that late liberalism sprouts.

2) The proposed Forced Closures are occurring at a time when the Australian Government is also expanding its programme of offshoring asylum seekers through increasingly controversial measures, to say the least. It happens that this also occurs at the time of an extraordinary withdrawal of support for independent and small practitioners in the arts by the Federal Government. Do you think that there can be meaningful alliances across these fields, and could or should this be meaningful to museum institutions in particular?

In all three instances—forcible closures, deregistration, and off-shore processing—late liberalism needs to create zones of abandonment where alternative social projects must ingest and digest small and large scale forms of toxicity to endure, understanding that to endure is not remain the same but to remain with the energy to express an otherwise. Of course, the arts would need to undergo the same effort to create abandonment. Nothing can remain as witness or writer of what is going on all around us but sequestered from most of us. Small and independent are what the government actually fears—not the big army, the big terrorist group, but the lone wolf and lone artist critically crying out in the desert that late liberalism has made.

Monday, ABC Radio broadcast a show about the art alliance between Antony and the Johnsons and Martu artist Curtis Taylor to bring attention to the plans of Cameco Australia to build the Kintyre open-cut uranium mine north-east in the Pilbara. The program used a fairly simple rhetorical framework to mobilize and canalize attention — how did a Manhattan based experimental musician such as Antony and the Johnson wind up in the Pilbara? But the trick worked — a radio program was authorized, produced and broadcast. And at least a bit of critical thought cut through mainstream media.

Of course, the mainstream media is only a part of the ecosystem system authored. Decades of analogue and then digital infrastructure allowed small, local and independent critical Indigenous arts, film, television and radio a kind of authoritative leverage that it didn't have. We are here. We see what is happening. We can image and reimage these happenings and we can circulate them through our communities and into broader circuits of attention.

Arts defunding, site deregistration, and community closures are overlapping gale winds directed at the source of this leverage. Eliminate the material condition of the capacitation of other thoughts. Eliminate the embodied nature of perception, of eyes and ears and noses and skins that can experience and thus conceive the gutting of landscapes that create the factories of overseas capital that hemorrhage refugees.

3) The title of this blog thread is Decolonising Practices. Is that a term that is significant regarding the proposed Forced Closures, and what would it mean for cultural institutions to undertake decolonizing practices in particular?

I would love to have a contest, well, perhaps several contests, of the sort that corporations, nations and states have when they issue a public call for the branding of some event. Send us you idea of what we should call "x." We know that these calls are not primarily intended to create and then chose the best of all possible proper names, but mobilize and channel attention such that a public for the event is in place to consume the event no matter what its name or image end up being. Indeed, a widely acknowledged badly chosen brand can serve to channel attention just as well as a widely acknowledge good brand.

And thus the end of my contests isn't really concerned with the name per se as much as the pragmatic effect they would produce. My public call would be for the best name for what this period of liberal governance and the best name for its otherwise. I don't really have to issue such a call. We are in a swell of conceptual tests—decolonization, settler colonialism, geontology, biopower, pragmatology, relational ontologies... I myself would probably not use decolonizing practices simply because the "de" would likely conjure a return to some state prior to colonialism rather than to the radical experiments of endurance and maneuvering that are the real object of the conservative government's concern.

Richard Bell, Larry, 2015, film still. Courtesy Milani Gallery.
Richard Bell, Larry, 2015, film still. Courtesy Milani Gallery.
Richard Bell, Larry, 2015, film still. Courtesy Milani Gallery.
Richard Bell, Larry, 2015, film still. Courtesy Milani Gallery.
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