“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.
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