PART 2

ABOUT OCCUPATION

“Settling into a new country is like getting used to a pair of shoes. At first they pinch a little, but you like the way they look, so you carry on. The longer you have them, the more comfortable they become. Until one day without realising it you reach a glorious plateau. Wearing those shoes is like wearing no shoes at all. The more scuffed they get, the more you love them and the more you can’t imagine life without them.” - In Arabian Nights, Tahir Shah, 2007. 
"The girls dormitory was divided into three parts, in the middle that is where the nuns stored and repaired clothes. There was a sewing machine there. To the right was the big girl's dormitory and to the left was the little girl’s dorm. If we misbehaved they cut of our hair as punishment."

I come from a culture with fundamental beliefs in the importance of institutions. They govern and informs all aspects of life. These institutions have followed me all through my existence. Born in a hospital, growing up as a small child in a single family house surrounded by identical single family houses. Each one occupied by nuclear families with very similar backgrounds, each house had a kitchen, bedrooms, living room, TV-sets, children, housewife, a garden. Later I went to pre-school, then school, church, police stations, a military barrack. I worked in a factory, then I went to university and for the last twenty years I have taught at universities and as an architect I design public spaces, schools, libraries and art centres. As an artist I have exhibited and worked with many museums, galleries, art centres and theatres. My children are born in hospitals. The only thing that is constant is the institutions, they divide time, they make for ends and new beginnings. They are built to discipline and organise behaviours, to inform us what is expected from us and control us. They are hardwired into our society. The institutions are machines of knowledge, and machines of war.

For me the institutions have always been there. I might not have always enjoyed them, as a six year old I remember me and my friend going down to an old creek instead of going to school, but I never really questioned them. They were just something given, something natural. Talking to the older artists at Warlayirti Artists about the old mission time I understand that to them it was different. The institutions were forced upon them, and their parents, and grandparents. As the first missions were established through the western deserts, people displaced by land grabs, cattle stations and pastoral leases came to the missions to look for refuge. Children were taken from their parents and put into dormitories. One of the artists told me that she remembered crying all the way in the truck going from her parents living at Billiluna station to the priests and nuns at Old Balgo Mission. Thinking it would only be for a short while – it turned out to be forever. Children that were taken to the missions were only allowed to see their parents for a few days around Christmas. The institutions became their new parents. Many that I have talked with have very fond memories of life during the old mission times. They were well fed and looked after by the older children and nuns, they had clean clothes and many friends. Still, underneath it all, there was an occupational force at work. Together with the school, dining hall, clinic, bakery and the store comes the will to replace one culture with another. A culture of man-made institutions.       

"The saddest thing of all isn’t anything but sadness. It’s too big to see or name. Approaching it’s like seeing God. It makes you crazy. Because as you fall you start to feel yourself approaching someplace from which it will not be possible to retrace your steps back out — it’s much too large and ancient. There are too many parts of other people in it for one person to absorb. Grief is information." - Aliens and Anorexia, Chris Kraus, 2000. 

Back in 1974 Henri Lefebvre's book Production of Space was published. It is an attempt to entangle the forces underpinning how social space is being constructed and how it affects everyday life. He breaks down the production of space into what he calls "three moments of social space" – conceived, perceived and lived space. These fields are to be understood as overlapping and interacting with each other. In short conceived space is an abstract space, it is the space of mathematics, organisational rules, symbols and idealism. The representation of space as in the practice of architects, planners and engineers belongs to this field. Perceived space is a material space. It is the field of labour, money, information, and it is also the space where social practice happens. It is physical and indifferent. Finally there is lived space, this is the field of human experience, imagination and feeling. It is a subjective space of less formal, or more local forms of knowledge. Social space is to be understood as an outcome of the dynamic interplay between these different fields unfolding over time. So what can a French Marxist theorist from the seventies tell us about what goes on in Balgo, Western Australia? A key concept for the "three moments of space" is how it divides that which can be known to that which always remains unknown. The fields of conceived and perceived space are all about information, we can read it, translate it and measure it. Lived space on the other hand is very different. Even though we live on familiar terms with people around us, and this impression of familiarity leads us to believe that we know them; however, the familiar is not necessarily the known. We can know everything there is to know objectively about how it was to live in ancient Rome, in the rain forests of the Amazons or in our neighbours house, but we can still never understand the realm of lived space. So instead of acknowledging that which we cannot know, we use our own experiences to define them and we believe that they see themselves through these same experiences. We not only define, but we also judge them, either through identification or by excluding them from our world.

Back to Balgo in 2017. The conceived and perceived spaces of the community of Balgo are thoroughly White, Corporate, Christian, and Australian. All the way from the layout of the horseshoe plan (apparently Father McGuire was a big fan of horse racing), via the material and layout of each individual building, to the opening hours of the store. But even with these structures penetrating all details of everyday life and being an inescapable fact for everyone, lived space still holds out the possibility of its own transformation. In the daily refusal to comply with the imposed cultural protocol, there is an ongoing resistance. And is it not with precisely this resistance on the horizon that we should interpret and understand the intervention strategies and the cashless welfare cards from recent years? As attempts to control more and more aspects of everyday life? As part of the ongoing assault on the right to cultural difference?

“What really matters are the countless small deeds of unknown people who lay the basis for the events of human history. These are the people who have made change in the past, and they are responsible for making change in the future.” - Howard Zinn. 

Balgo today is about one thousand five hundred meters long and seven hundred and fifty meters wide. Its central part is organised in the shape of a horseshoe with a ribbon of institutions such as a community office, store, clinic, adult education centre, school, kindergarten, church and the parish house surrounding a central open space mostly occupied by a gravel footy oval. Around the central part lie three main residential areas, bottom camp, top camp and middle camp. To the north, and the first thing you see, is the police station and compounds for mostly white workers separated by a small industrial area. Balgo is a deeply segregated community. A place where white workers mostly live in compounds behind high fences and barb-wire. They are for the most part here temporarily, and many of them are obliged to wear some sort of uniform during work hours. This physical separation – today justified on the basis of security – is seldom raised as a topic during conversations. It is seen as normal, this racial segregation is an integral part of the history of Balgo. It has always been the norm. In my interactions with other white workers, I have for the most part met with highly dedicated, informed, sensible and respectful people. At the same time I believe that the architecture and the planning of Balgo has a substantial and corrosive effect that counteracts a lot of the hard work and dedication that people put into the community. I have also experienced two very different places where these protocols are put into question. Sites where other relations are possible. One such space is the bush trip and the other the art centre. They are spaces of knowledge, country, and culture. To me these bush trips and the everyday life in the art centre are places that challenge the segregation. They are spaces where there is always a willingness to share, to teach, to discuss and to listen. Places to get to know stories about history, country and everyday life. To me these spaces and activities are what seems to be best working in Balgo. They are also the ones truly influenced by aboriginal culture, and run by aboriginal people. If anything I hope that these sites will continue to be developed and grow and that they in time will get more recognition. There is no future down the path of outside intervention, it can only come from local determination. 

ENDNOTES

I wish to thank all the artists and staff at the Warlayirti Artists Aboriginal Cooperation. Thank you for sharing all your stories, your paintings and your time with me on the veranda. Thank you for all the bush trips, the kangaroo tail, kumpupatja (bush tomato) and karnti (bush potato). I will miss the walks through the desert and cannot wait to come back.
Tor Lindstrand, Balgo, 13 August 2017

part 1

WARLAYIRTI ARTISTS BALGO, 21 AUGUST - 7 SEPTEMBER 2016

“To think in architecture, but never be an architect. To always paint, but never be a painter.”

Architecture and the use of space is both a response to our surroundings and a cultural construct, it gives shelter and transcends time connecting the present with our historical path. Too often architecture is merely understood as an object - a building. But architecture is, more importantly, an on-going process, it changes over time, transforms as it is used and alters by shifting contexts. Architecture is something we perform.

Preparing for my first visit to Warlayirti Artists Aboriginal Corporation I made some research about indigenous architecture in Australia. The most common understanding still seems to be that indigenous Australia historically existed without architecture. A statement that only makes sense if architecture is defined from a strictly western cultural perspective, as preposterous as the colonial claim of Australia as a Terra nullius. Research from the last decades have shown a rich cultural history of building activity (Paul Memmott et.al). What I started to learn from spending two weeks in Balgo, having the opportunity to share the workspace of the artists at Warlayirti Artists, is of a fundamentally different, and complex understanding of landscape, time and lived space. It is important here to acknowledge that I have a very shallow understanding of indigenous culture in general and even less of the specific culture of the Tjurabalan people from the Tanami and Great Sandy Deserts. The observations made here are subjective and comes from a very short visit.

I spent most of my days at the art centre, helping out with little things such as making tea, stretching canvas and mixing colors. I quickly found out that there is little point in asking too many questions. The artists all work very hard, and have little time answering uninformed questions. Most artists paint sitting on the floor, so the best idea was to just shut up and sit down, and with time I got to hear more and more stories. About country far away in space and time, about rockholes, soak waters and living water, about the Rainbow Serpent and the Luurnpa (Kingfisher), about everyday life and religious happenings. As many indigenous art centers, Warlayirti Artists play an important part in the economy of remote communities. Warlayirti Artists is the main source of income in Balgo, standing for seventy percent of the total revenue stream in the community. And yet, even though paintings are constantly being produced, I never once heard or saw anyone taking their work lightly. As the paint is being laid down, with brushes or sticks, it is done with the highest degree of focus and concentration. My interpretation is that what is going on is in fact not the production of images or art objects as commodities, that is (however important) just the business side of it. What really goes on is that country, often far away, and the history of that country and the people living there past and present is being re-activated and re-lived. The way of applying color, often layering with small movements done over and over again, seems to amplify the meditative state of making. The core activity is not in the production of objects, the culture really exists in the repetitive doing. Landscapes, country and history cannot be laid down once, as in the western tradition of writing (religion, law, science), but it has to be activated again and again to be kept alive. Because of the historic background of Balgo, a mission that became home to some of the many people being displaced as a result of the aggressive colonization of Western Australia, many stories also stories about loss. Loss of country, loss of family, loss of culture. The painting seemed to me to be an activity of memory, of reconnection with all that has been lost.

Apart from doing little chores around the art centre, I got sucked into the landscapes of the desert. Most artists at Warlayirti Artists uses acrylic paint, but some also uses red and yellow ochre gathered from the desert. When first coming down the Tanami track thanks to a team of researchers and art conservators from the Grimwade Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation at Melbourne University, what struck me was the size of the landscape; big skies, red dirt and Spinifex stretching from horizon to horizon. As i started to do longer and longer walks in the desert around Balgo, I discovered that the desert is full of colours. The ancient ocean floor of the Tanami Desert is layered with white, black, yellow, green, purple and endless ranges of red. I got permission to pick up and use rocks and plants to extract pigments and produce colors, a long-standing tradition in aboriginal culture. I also gained knowledge from the art conservators doing work at the art centre. To me this was a way to become more familiar with the surrounding landscape, but most importantly an activity to carry out side by side with the other artists. Trying my best to resist doing a project, and instead do the doing.

Finding yourself in new environments, in foreign situations meeting different ways of life, the sheer amount of information often seem to take your breath away. As you lose your balance, you try to hold on to things. To me this holding on became to compare, to look for similarities, common ground, to make things symbolic to translate experiences into something more theoretical, more abstract. As for the continuation of the project I will try and come back more open to differences. I believe that the production of new knowledge lies in being open to difference, and if there is anything I take back with me to my country it is all this new knowledge that everyone around Warlayirti Artists so generously have been willing to share. Hopefully what I can bring back next time can also be productive to the people at Warlayirti Artists and the extended community of Balgo.