Conversations and Correspondence: Wit Alana Hunt Interview

As part of The National 2021: New Australian Art exhibiting artist Alana Hunt will be Carriageworks inaugural Writer in Residence. Working progressively she will publish Conversations and Correspondence—six texts that take as their starting point the bodies of work All the violence within this and In the national interest both exhibited as part of The National.

For the sixth, and final piece, in the series, Wit, Alana Hunt is in conversation with Ross Gibson, who makes books, films, and audiovisual installations, working in cultural institutions such as the Museum of Sydney and the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. He is currently Centenary Professor of Creative & Cultural Research at the University of Canberra.

Ross Gibson: Two different types of image are offered here.

Image Type 1) Figures in a Landscape—Intruders dallying in a pristine environment. As an exception to prove the rule, there are a couple of images of a child—someone who might not be an intruder, who might actually belong there already, or who will grow to belong.

Image Type 2) Land is presented as a blank sculptural element that can be machine-shunted into vast, tectonic forms that are appalling but that could also appear kinda breathtaking (if you could anaesthetise yourself against the ‘attack’ that has been visited on the Country).

On first impression, the two types of picture seem to have nothing in common. But with further thinking, all the pictures begin to refer to the one same thing: all the pictures shine light on the refusal to know and show the depth of human feeling that has actually soaked this Country.

In the first type of picture, the intruders could not go about their recreational dalliance if they had any awareness or concern for the ‘thickness’ of the human history that infuses the place. And with the second type of picture, the motivation for the land-sculpting and resource-extraction is financial rather than aesthetical; to feel an aesthetic response, you would need to suppress fellow-feeling with Country; and to feel the financial animus, once again you would need to suppress fellow-feeling with Country.

I think all these pictures are indirectly (and therefore quite slyly) concerned with the amazingly ‘thick’ and deeply affecting human presence that actually saturates the land. There is something powerful about showing presence by absence.

Perhaps there needs to be just one key given to the viewer, some kind of key that can unlock the shielding sheen of ‘uncaring’ or of absence, some kind of key that can help people sense the flood of feeling that wells up when the viewer understands that people have received and given thanks for the gift of life from this land for more than 60,000 years. For some viewers, the realisation may occur simply by hearing that fact. But most people will probably need some other way to start appreciating and feeling the awe-inspiring fact of human preponderance in this seemingly ‘sterile’ and ‘empty’ Country.

For example, for me, I received such a lesson via an indirect route. (And I don’t mean to imply that I am now fully enlightened.) Here’s the story. In my youth I spent more than a decade researching a huge archive of crime-scene photography from my home-town of Sydney. As the years reeled by, I felt a deep emotion soak into me. It was a mix of feelings: sadness plus astonishment plus concern for all the yearning, pain, aspiration, meanness and vengeance that attach to the pictures and to the locations depicted in the pictures. This muddled and overwhelming emotion came into crisper focus one day when I was interviewing an old detective who took some of the pictures. I asked him why he moved away from the city once he had retired. He paused and then explained. He said he had worked in the detectives’ department for 40 years. Every working day he attended at least three crime scenes. (‘Three per day’ was a conservative estimate.)  Each crime scene was a place where at least one person’s life had taken a vehement, wrenching turn. If you counted all the scenes—3 scenes multiplied by approximately 250 days multiplied by 40 years—that’s at least 30,000 lives with whom he had come into contact. 30,000 lives soaking the city that he had to move through every day. This meant that by the time he was ready to retire, he felt that the city was alive with the dead. And he knew these dead very well. ‘Some people find that fact wondrous somehow’ he said; but for him, it was just too much, just too haunting and too exhausting to pay regard to all those lives.  He decided he needed to move away from all that spiritual power, mess and debt.

I came away from the meeting deeply affected. The detective’s mathematical exercise, I realised, could be applied to any stretch of Country in Australia. Not just crime scenes. ANY tract of Country. For example, take the stretch of Country represented in your photographs. Let’s make a conservative estimate. Let’s say that at any one time there have been about a thousand people living on the tract of Country that you have photographed. Now let’s say that a new generation of those people has been bred every thirty years. (In other words, over a thirty year period, two people meet and breed two children from their liaison. A conservative estimate.) And now let’s remember that human inhabitation on this tract of Country has been uninterrupted for 60,000 years. Do the maths: every 30 years, there’s a new batch of one thousand lives; in other words, there’s been 2000 generations of people soaking their lives into that tract of Country. That’s 2,000,000 lives just in that relatively small tract of Country. That is not empty, sterile, lifeless Country. It is teeming with human life, even if the Country can be made to appear as if no-one is there, as if it is empty and has no human scale or value.

If you do the maths for the whole of the continent, you get numbers in the billions—all this thronging human history; all these ancestors. There’s a hugely significant portion of human history, soaked into the Country. This is no ‘empty land’.

Maybe for you as an artist who is trying nudge people toward a more informed mode of thinking and feeling, the key is the couple of images of the child. The image that makes the viewer stop and think that there are people who belong here, people who are not intruders and who know the richness of the place.

I think this is the BIG question behind almost all creative work in Australia: how to help the majority of people to feel the awesomeness of longstanding human presence in this place? How to help people sense how wonderful this human presence is. I mean literally wonder-full.  Millions upon millions upon millions of intense and inventive and prodigiously energetic lives have been soaked into the entire, vast expanse of the continent. It is one of the most intensely LIVED and humanly ALIVE places on earth, ‘this ‘empty’ and  ’arid’  country. How to help people get this feeling? How to help people grasp this fact in such a way that leads to a feeling of wonder. And then a feeling of respect.

Alana Hunt: This morning, as I drove into Kununurra, I was overcome, for the first time, by this feeling that I didn’t want to be here. It was a feeling that came from things I could not unsee, resonating in some ways with those experiences of the detective you met.

There have been quite a few deaths since I returned home to Miriwoong Country from Sydney/Gadigal land. They were all Aboriginal people who died before they should have, and all in ways that can be traced to the heavy arms of colonisation—chronic health conditions, suicide, car accident, alcohol.

But for me, this human loss is also entangled with the ever expanding infrastructures that literally break apart this Country; the weight of a whole town that tramples on and displaces the thickness of human life you so beautifully describe, rendering it a comfortable home to people like me.

There are new gravel pits, on the road between home and town, that weren’t here before I went to Sydney. The roads have been widened too. Storm water drain maintenance has seen cement laid over an ochre source we used to visit with an old lady who has since passed on; my partner, Chris, says casually the flood water will wash the cement away and we’ll access the ochre again. Such a precious and solid belief. As I am writing this to you, I check my phone, only to encounter a fitting meme re-posted by Keg de Souza:

If you add two pounds of sugar to literally one tonne of concrete it will ruin the concrete and make it unable to set properly which is good to know if you wanna resist something being built, French anarchists used this to resist prison construction in the 80s.

Settler colonists in Kununurra often lament the “crime” and “youth” problems of this town, without pausing to take note of the fact that in many ways our very presence here is the crime.

In his review of The National 2021 Tristen Harwood described my work as sitting “on the periphery of the action, as if surveilling a crime scene.” I think about this phrase a lot; I am examining the crimes of my culture, often in their most banal, seemingly innocuous and contemporary forms. And I do this in the hope that it will lead us closer to what you point to, not the crime scene as such, but what exists before and beyond and inspite of the crime. A place thick with life and wonder and respect. The paradox is that it is only knowledge of this that enables one to see the crime scene for what it is.

For decades now, crime scenes have been a constant thread running through much of your work, woven in with colonisation, or perhaps this is all better described as the encounters that arise through colonisation. But in a sense, your recent work, ASIO_Dream-mixes, is more about the potential for crime, or the search for crime, or the absence of crime, than any actual crime scene. But what if we start to look at these not through the spectre of communism with which they were filmed, but through colonisation. Then these people, like ourselves, suddenly are the crime scene—their daily movements, their struggles, hopes and dreams become a kind of weapon, or tool.

You describe the gravel pits I’ve photographed as being driven by a financial animus. While that is true, there is also a territorial motivation operating, a territorial motivation which also underpins the images of recreational “dalliance” (I like your use of this word here very much). You can see this same territorial impetus operating in Kashmir, where Indian colonisation moves and asserts itself through infrastructural development and tourism, just as it materialises in Australia’s dreams of “developing the north”, a place also described as “the last frontier”.

While the nature of the ASIO footage imbues all the people moving through each frame with mountains of suspicion, it’s startling, and slightly humorous, that so very little about the people being filmed is actually revealed in each shot. This seems like a form of surveillance almost akin to judging a book by its cover; it produces a terrifying amount of space for fabrication.

It contrasts almost completely with the depth of surveillance available now, as we’ve seen through The Pegasus project. A surveillance system seeded in something as seemingly benign as a missed call on your mobile phone. Arundhati Roy notes: 

It’s more than having a spy in your pocket. It’s like having the love of your life – or worse, having your own brain, including its inaccessible recesses – informing on you.

And what I find particularly interesting here, if I have my facts right, is that you have produced these videos, working with ASIO archives from the 1950s, on your own mobile phone—the primary source of surveillance today—which is also your preferred means of viewing. Were these connections present for you in the making of the work?

Ross Gibson: The mobile phone is a vile thing; the mobile phone is a wonderful thing. True. Both. At the simplest level, these kinds of contradictions are inherent to being alive. As we grow out of infancy, we learn to live with such contradiction. For example, simplistically: we know we are going to die and, simultaneously, we ignore this fact in order to get on with living. In a related way, I can’t think of any product or service that’s pure, that’s not tainted by exploitation and damage. Again, Exhibit A: the mobile phone. The task is to shrink the quotient of malevolence and increase the quotient of benevolence. So, use the phone creatively.

The way I see it, everything in the universe is sliding back and forth along a spectrum ranging between ‘increase’ and ‘entropy’ (in the realm of physics) or between ‘kindness’ and ‘cruelty’ (in the realm of morality) or between ‘curiosity’ and ‘denial’ (in the realm of psychology) or between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ (in the realm of metaphysics). Which is not to say that everything is half good and half evil. Or that everyone is equally able to govern their placement along that scale. Obviously some stuff is 99% malevolent. Obviously many people are oppressive; and many people are oppressed from the get-go. Obviously political expediency and colonialism are rife the world over. Once again, to say it simplistically, the point is to know this and to get on with living in some way that supports the forces of increase, kindness, curiosity, goodness. Therefore, as much as one has some degree of freedom and agency within this mess, one has to ask oneself: “Where do I stand along this sliding scale … for me AND for others?”  “How can I act in a way that supports wit, fecundity, resilience, love? For me AND for others.” That’s the question: “what am I able to contribute, with my characteristics, with my skills, with my afflictions, with my advantages, in my context? Is there some way I can cause increase; is there something generative that I am especially well set-up to do?”  Even if only incrementally. I think this is important too: not to be stymied by the feeling that one’s contribution is tiny. I think this is the role of the artist: to contribute to an atmosphere or a social and psychological climate that is conducive to wit, to increase, to ingenuity, to curiosity, to kindness, to love. This contribution is real and important but also almost impossible to quantify. Sometimes the tiniest contribution ramifies enormously. Take the example of Blind Willie McTell. Statistics would indicate that he was a minor, almost unknown blues singer; but his impact is as big as the world, because Bob Dylan heard him and thereby understood the style of songwriting and singing that was right for him. McTell sold a few thousand records; Dylan a few billion. You don’t get Dylan without McTell. That’s how this system of cultural increase happens sometimes.

So, you do what you can do. Some people are able to operate on an enormous stage. Big political actions. Some people are not cut out for that. Some people operate at a microscopic scale. No matter—in each case, the question is: are you working for WIT; or are you working for IGNORANCE?

With the crime-scene works, I’m almost always trying to stimulate wit, to help people flesh out an evermore rich and wondrous world, to stage scenarios in which curiosity and imagination get to range more broadly and more freely than they could have without the artworks, to set up a scene in which the positive action of ‘world-imagining’ is expedited, encouraged, rewarded. This is why poetry still matters. This is why the un-limitable activity of art-making still matters.  It’s why a thousand flowers still should bloom — PERMISSIVELY — even as we should always also be asking—JUDGEMENTALLY: “does this work empower, or does it impede the manner in which the long, moral arc of the universe can bend toward JUSTICE?” (to contort, lovingly, the words of Martin Luther King).

But crucially, here’s where I always try to make sure things stay ‘real’ somehow. The old Marxist/Leninist question—‘what is to be done?’—I think this question never goes away.  Yes, the world is poisoned with colonialism, with cruelty, with systematic greed. So, what is to be done? What am I especially well set up to do? How can I contribute to the forces of  INCREASE, rather than to the forces of entropy? Basically I always endorse WIT, imagination, world-making, the poetic impulse, the narrative impulse. But in doing so, I also try to be FORENSIC, I always try to call for accountability, I always want to test the world-making, I always want to test for PLAUSIBILITY, always insisting that the world that has just been imaginatively made must be compared to the world as it seems to be, the extant world viewed from as many actual/accountable perspectives and as many actual/accountable vantages of power as can be accessed. Thus we get imagination twinned to accountability. That’s the engine I am always trying to drive: imagination twinned to accountability.

Maybe this rant is a million miles away from what you were wanting to talk about?

Alana Hunt: No, not at all. It is exactly what I would love to talk about. One of the most precious things I’ve encountered through Conversations and Correspondence is the disparate tangents each text crafts.

All of what you have mentioned, entangled with the breadth and depth of everything you do, is why I’ve always felt drawn to your work, and to your way of working.

Do you remember we first met when you were conducting Conversations II throughout the 2008 Biennale of Sydney? I had just completed a residency with The Sarai Programme in Delhi, and would return back to that same city a few weeks later to commence my Masters at Jawaharlal Nehru University. A world formed for me during those years.

I always knew conversation was central to Cups of nun chai, as a discreet, albeit decade long and evolving, body of work. But it is only now, through this process with The National 2021 that I am coming to recognise how vital conversation is to my practice as a whole. No doubt Conversations II nourished that.

You mentioned earlier the need for a key to unlock aspects of these images. I think, in some ways, these texts are that. I was reading over your notes on Conversations II, and you stated that “the project is not explicitly an artwork, although it is certainly a sustained creative act of some kind.”

When I first arrived in Delhi, straight out of art school in Sydney, I gave a presentation at Sarai about my work. One of the academics from the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (which hosts Sarai), said that my practice was not “art”. I was a little dumbfounded, and his comments stuck with me. At the end of my stay with Sarai I gave another presentation summing up my experiences during the five month residency. This time, a theatre practitioner who was in attendance asked, what would you say to someone who said that what you are doing is not art at all. I replied, I don’t mind how people want to define what I am doing. I really just want to do it.

So, your reference to “a sustained creative act of some kind” is an ethos that really underpins all of my work, and many of the practitioners, from all sorts of disciplines, whom I adore. These images of mine, their installation, these words—they are not disparate things; one the ‘art’ the other something else. Instead, to me these texts work to make the photographs whole. But how to bring that into form?

I asked about your use of mobile phones, in part because circulation—the transmission and distribution of our work in the world—is something that interests me greatly. It is why I am drawn to the internet, to newspapers, books, radio, and conversation, among many other things. While circulation has been something I have worked hard at in Kashmir, it is something I tend to struggle with where I live now in the north-west of Australia.

You’ve written about how events and histories infuse our behaviour, lingering across time—in Queensland, for instance, via your book Seven Versions of an Australian Badland (2002) and in the early days of Sydney, where “suspicion, distrust and lack of friendliness” ran rife. We spoke recently about this too. It is something I feel profoundly in Kununurra.

But my view of this town was preceded by five years in Warmun, a small Aboriginal community of around 400 people 200 km from Kununurra. In Warmun, I entered the world of some wonder-full and wise Gija artists who welcomed me into their Country in a way that felt like I was going through another kind of university, in the way it impacted my view of the world.

In 2016 I moved from Warmun, where Gija people were the majority on their own Country, to Kununurra a township that had rendered Miriwoong people a minority on theirs. In this sphere, suddenly, my eyes were acutely aware to the presence of my own colonial culture, in a way I would never have otherwise been. At times it feels like there is an overwhelming sense of suffocation here. My partner tried to describe this to me before we moved here, to this town that he grew up in, but it is only now I sense it too. And this feeling is flooding into much of my work.

I would like to circulate and share this work locally, but the process through which to do this has not become apparent just yet. In that sense, I live in a bit of obscurity here. My work holds a degree of invisibility; most people don’t quite know what I do. In some ways this is unfortunate, but invisibility is also something Lenka Clayton, an artist and mother, once described to me as a superpower. And perhaps in that reimagining of invisibility as a superpower, lies the ground for the fecundity, the resilience, the love and wit you speak of. Something James C. Scott might refer to as a ‘weapon of the weak’.

Ross Gibson: I do remember that first encounter during the ‘Conversations’ project. Among other things, I was struck by how often I was crossing paths, at that time, with people who had interacted with Sarai. It felt good to sense that the smart young people were engaging with the world through a completely new ‘node’ of sophisticated learning—via that cross-over between deep and ancient Indian erudition and the dramaturgy or ‘stagecraft’ of the community-based activist/aesthetic projects. I recall too how these kinds of projects were being branded too glibly as ‘relational aesthetics’. Maybe we spoke about this in our conversation, I can’t recall. But I do remember thinking about the necessity for AESTHETICS to be involved in any ‘relational aesthetics’ activity. By this I meant (and still believe) that the project MUST  ‘activate the senses’ if it is to be worthwhile as an artist endeavour. Another way to say this would be to borrow the Welsh poet R.S. Thomas’s dictum that poetic (or artistic) force arrives at the intellect by way of the heart. If a relational activity does not have that aesthetic tingle whereby the senses get agitated or quickened so that the mind feels compelled to understand what has just been felt, then I reckon the piece is a social-work exercise rather than an artwork. I remember trying to get all that clear in my heart and head at the time.

There’s an axiom that one often hears in pedagogy seminars: ‘people rarely remember what you have told them, but they will always remember how you made them feel’. So a good teacher should help people feel the excitement of acknowledgement, to feel the zing of coming to an understanding of something that they had not previously been aware of. It’s similar with effective artwork. Once again: the crux of the matter is this tingle of feelings, this aesthetic pulse. With a good artwork there’s a zing of energy that can cause change in a perceiver. And ART, after all, is a process of CHANGE, a turning-point, an ARTiculation. I do believe that if one’s work as an artist (or as a teacher—but I am not suggesting that artists are just teachers, or vice versa) can cause a lasting change in someone’s sensibility or emotional patterns, then that artwork has been worthwhile and will abide for a while. The novelist Don Delillo has said that, at the most basic level, he writes for a kid in Idaho, a kid whom he does not know, a kid whose grasp of the world might get shifted by the encounter with a Delillo book in a school library or a coffee-house or a secondhand bookshop.

Thus we bump into the circulation issue. Thinking about my own processes, I could work a lot harder to advance the circulation of my work. But with formalist interests and the themes that I find compelling, I am never going to be ‘popular’. Plus, I have no control over when and where and how often that artistic turn will happen inside someone. The only control I have is to make the work as aesthetically and thematically compelling as possible, so that the work can ‘lie in wait’ for the people whom I’d like to touch and help change. This is a reason why I still like producing books. Books last a long time. There is a true chance that someone might bumble across a book of mine in 50 years time. Impact can operate through extended time like this.  People get so focused on making sure the work gets out to a huge audience when the work is first published/performed/proposed. My main hope is that the work will be encountered productively in decades to come.

Also, the slow emergence of a work’s force can be a good thing. To borrow a wisecrack from the American critic Dave Hickey, most art doesn’t make you feel anything in particular, but some better art makes you go ‘WOW!’ as soon as you encounter it. Such work stands out from the morasse. But even so, Hickey says, most of that quick-impact art actually makes you go ‘WOW  (tick tick tick) …. huh?’ or even worse: ‘WOW … (tick tick tick) … meh, who cares?’.  The best art, the art that really matters, Hickey says, is the stuff that makes you go ‘HUH? (tick tick tick) … oh … WOW!’. At first it is confounding, and then after a period of puzzling and thinking… the power of the work comes into focus. You FEEL the process of acknowledgement. Often the  best stuff gets overlooked at first. Which is why good critical writing is so important: to help make sure the good stuff does not disappear during its first season. Or to make sure that some overlooked thing from the past can get properly appreciated sooner or later. Clarice Beckett. Hilma af Klint. They are ‘Huh … WOW!’.  Overlooked at first, but strengthening through the ages.

As a reality-check, I should say that because I have been able to earn a living as a teacher and a museum director (largely as a result of my writing and public speaking), I have not been obliged to earn serious money from my creative work. So, I get it, that IMPACT and REACH are important for many people who wish to earn a living via their artwork. But I do believe that work that really lasts is work that makes people feel the process of acknowledgement rather than work that makes people money.

I can only imagine the complexities of earning a living in your particular context. Does all this stuff about ‘trying to make work that sticks around for the future’ sound merely self-indulgent to you? When I see the really effective circulation that you have mobilised around Cups of nun chai, I have to admit that I just don’t have that kind of talent; I am not able to work so hard and ingeniously on the circulation. So, maybe my ‘50-years from now’ talk is just me trying to construct an alibi for myself. You say there’s a big difference in the way you circulate work in the South Asian context compared to your present context in the northwest of WA. What is the main problem? Is it the physical isolation? Is it the lack of a big crowd to circulate in? Or maybe it’s the troubled position that you occupy: intimately allied with the Indigeneous world but descended from the invasive world? This might be none of my business. Ignore me if this is something you don’t want to discuss in public.

Alana Hunt: I love the idea of work that lies in wait for its people; but where will it lie while waiting? From what I can sense, that is the ground we need to prepare as artists. I think a library is a wonderful place to wait.

When I speak of my preoccupation with circulation, I do not at all mean to speak of popularity. A work’s impact and reach do not necessarily equate with being loud, or widespread, or immediate. They can also be accumulative and growing, specific and private. I am interested in finding ways for work to move towards, and with, the people we want to touch. This could be now, as much as in the near or distant future. Yet often, these people are not moving within the spheres of the ‘art-world’, so, if we are to reach them, we must work outside the box a little.

How can I expect my work to touch people in the suffocated political and cultural space of Kashmir if it is only featured in exhibitions in far off cities? I remember, a decade ago, seeing video art shot by foreigners in Kashmir being screened in exhibitions in Europe and America. I am not opposed to exhibitions in themselves—they offer their own unique set of possibilities—but I felt clearly that if I were to make something about Kashmir I wanted it to also move in Kashmir. So, I began to quietly mobilise one on one conversations, then the internet, then the newspaper serial, and now the format of a book—things which not only move between people, and across borders, but also, as you say, through time. Combined with the work itself, these forms of circulation have helped to give Cups of nun chai a sense of life. And it feels like magic to me, when something you make starts to take on a life of its own, however small or specific that may be.

In terms of the money equation, I think it is important to address, mostly because I can’t afford not to. I would absolutely love to make a living from the things I make, earning enough to continue making the things I want to make. But how exactly, is an eternal question.

It is a question, made more urgent, by becoming a parent, the rising space between the rich and the poor, the unaffordability of housing, and the gender pay gap. Perhaps if I lived in a city I would have fallen into institutional or university teaching roles, which you mention. But this has not been possible due to where I live. While this is difficult, it is also something that once again forces me to think outside the box. I’ve crafted my life in a way that is low-cost, which gives me some degree of freedom to pursue the work I want to pursue. I’ve also been good at working and budgeting since I was a kid; I had my first job at the age of 10. Now, I piece together a living from artist fees, writers fees, speaker fees, from a part time job coordinating Regional Assembly, other forms of freelance work that pops up, the occasional art award and a fellowship I am very thankful to receive at the moment. But how to sell the work I make, is still a work in progress. Sometimes I get nervous, when I think of the future. But then I think to myself: did Patti Smith ever worry about superannuation? Do you think that is naive, Ross?

I’ve also produced art in ways that are low-cost. While Cups of nun chai was time consuming, the conversations, the website, the newspaper serial all cost very little actual money. The book was a different matter, but we secured funding for that.

There is definitely a politically and culturally active community around Kashmir, that my work has been shaped by, and moved with. Some of this fervour circulated rapidly online in 2010 and was captured in Sanjay Kak’s edited volume Until My Freedom Has Come: The New Intifada in Kashmir (2011). Though over the last decade government surveillance, censorship and oppression stemming from people’s activities online has increased, so many people I know who were once very active on social media platforms have now left them altogether, others have joined, crafting new spaces on and offline. Just like this, our art needs to be adaptive and responsive to the contexts it moves within, carving out new forms when others become redundant.

In the north-west of Australia, I feel the absence of a creative or political community much more profoundly, and increasingly so since Covid. Beyond my in-laws, many of whom are wonderful Miriwoong artists, I find myself connecting more with people in other parts of the world, digitally. It is something I am thinking alot about at the moment. There is fragmentation in the social fabric of this region. Perhaps part of it is distance. Another part is the racial division. And without doubt the way history shapes an anxious, uncertain, territorial present. A curator just called me today, and she said (in a kind-hearted way) that I was an anomaly. Maybe that is ok, maybe it is not. Maybe this tension—my love of this place and certain people battling out with varying degrees of uncertainty, sorrow, and disgust—is something valuable to feel, to live. 

Ross Gibson: Sorry to conflate circulation and popularity. I think I was mainly thinking about ‘reach’ and ‘parochialism’. ‘Parochial’ tends to be a dismissive or derogatory term. But I like to think about the word in its original meaning: ‘something from a specific parish’. In this sense, parochial work is concerned with intimately known details, the details that one parishioner could know about another parishioner; closely observed care (and suspicion!). On first thought, parochial work would seem not to have much ‘reach’ or wide circulation. But often this kind of work becomes ‘universal’ because it hits on closely observed truths that tend to be true in many human cultures, or truths that help people see the differences between one culture and another. I love this kind of parochial work. Consider someone like Cesaria Evora from the Cape Verde Islands; or someone like Charles Portis from deepest Arkansas—these kinds of artists produce works that have a pungency of voice or pointedness of perspective, something that skewers particular aspects of humanity in particular conditions or contexts. Anyway, I was thinking about how at a certain time, Evora’s music or Portis’s novels did not circulate widely, but they have lain in wait for the whole world.

I guess I was thinking about your NW of Australia work in this way—parochial in the best way, and therefore pointedly informative and true and therefore of interest to people outside the parish too. It all starts from addressing the parish first. That’s where the strength of the work comes from. It’s the same with your Kashmir work—the work speaks widely because it first speaks pointedly to and with a particular community or affiliation-group.

One person might call you an anomaly. Another might call you the best kind of parochial—focussing on a very special place that seems atypical at first, but that actually tells some universal truths and draws some revealing comparisons not only about capitalism and colonialism but also about family and personal aspirations, dreams and innovations. One person’s ‘anomalous’ is another person’s ‘special’ or ‘distinctive’.

On the naivete or otherwise of not chasing superannuation, what do I know? I bumbled through with no proper plan or strategy, other than to investigate things that are fascinating and feel urgent. But I do reckon that if one is an artist, then there’s no getting away from it. The vocation tends to insist itself, such that one cannot be happy unless one follows the calling.

My hope is that so long as the bastards don’t completely dismantle Medicare, then all people with some degree of agency or autonomy (regular people AND specially-placed people) can still pursue their vocations and can still sit congenially with their own true souls. Basically if a superannuated job smothers your soul, well it’s just not a good job, or a good life. So it’s probably still the best path: to follow one’s calling, so long as the voting public continues to punish any politician who espouses the dismantling of Medicare. And as I say this, I am aware that many people simply don’t have the luxury of choosing their preferred path.

Of course I don’t have a clear view into the specifics of your world, and I certainly can’t and shouldn’t advise, except for declaring that there is great value and rarity (without the work being in any way ‘exotic’) in the ‘remote’ and ‘parochial’ and ‘particular’ worldviews that you are able to occupy and witness and present both to your parish and to the wider world.