Saturday 18 June 2016

shuttle 2: look again

A long day of meetings during which, at times, inevitably my attention drifted. Exhaustion rather than boredom took me elsew/here, into the refuge of daydream. At one point, desert memories unfolded in the overcast Surrey afternoon - rather different 'meetings' - in particular, during one hot afternoon in February 1985, driving yee-haa on an ochre dirt road north of Coober Pedy on the way towards Alice Springs, kicking up billowing clouds of dust. Then a blow-out, skid, judder to a halt, engine cut, sudden silence: the second puncture of the journey, no more spare tires. Oh shit. Within half an hour or so, P hitches a ride with a passing truck; R and I sit in the car on the side of the track with all of the doors open, seats angled back, shades not quite up to the glare off the bonnet. It is unbelievably hot and still. Not even a fly.

After a while, off to one side we watch a willy willy move langorously across the desert scrub, then wind its way towards us: a dust devil tilting and flexing like a tree in light wind, a spindly beige Giacometti figure leaning slowly one way and then the other. It is beautiful, and oddly funny; and we are hypnotised by it, transfixed - not even moving when it becomes apparent that it is heading straight at us. I am struck by the fact that this particulate whirlpool is revolving anti-clockwise. With a sudden roar and sand-blast sting, it passes right through the centre of the car, in through one door, out the other - right through us - whip-snap-ripping clothing and plastic bags and a hissing newspaper and a map and my hat, which fly up and out in a vortex of grit and dust like a great co(s)mic spin dryer before being deposited with apparent care over bushes and sand and road in a wide arc of perfectly spaced debris. The dust settles. Without a word we sit in the car covered in a fine layer of crystalline red, astonished, watching this tiny tornado wander off and finally, mysteriously, dematerialise.

In the rear view mirror, way in the distance, I see the rippled dust cloud of an approaching vehicle. We get out to watch its approach, shaking the sand out of our shorts and hair. Then more wide-eyed astonishment as a startling electric pink Holden ute flares into view: a grinning aboriginal driver with his foot flat down on the accelerator, two boys with him on the front seat, a group of women and kids standing on the flatbed, riding it like pony trick riders or surfers. We wave excitedly. They slow for a moment as they pass us, shouting, waving, laughing fit to bust a gut. Clearly we are the funniest thing they've seen for quite a while. Then they too disappear in a fleeting conjuror's fog, like a glorious rose space ship trailing clouds of glory, and the air is full of dancing ochre ...

Later I remember that there are also dust devils on Mars ...

The following text is taken from a longer polemical piece on place, originally written in Australia and published in 1998. Although many things have moved on significantly in the intervening years in Australia, the song hovers and lingers still. In what follows, I take ‘Australia’ (like ‘America’ or ‘Europe’) to be both a geophysical site and a set of ideas or constitutive myths jostling for position. 

'The more our desert, the more we must rage: which rage is love' (James Hillman)

In traditional Aboriginal cultures in Australia, in which identities are inseparably imbricated in places, one’s ‘country’ constitutes a series of texts, mappae mundi of lore/law. Creation myths, sacred teachings, cultural histories and geographies are inscribed on the ‘maternal’ body of the land itself. Physiographic features record the exploits of totemic ancestors, which may be read, like Braille, and re-animated in the present. ‘Here and there they discarded pieces of their body – organs, limbs, hair, lice, skin, nails and teeth which metamorphose into physical features of the landscape’ (Mundine 1996: 46): rock formations, trees, river courses, waterholes, and so on. 

In Pierre Nora’s formulation, such interconnected features comprise ‘milieux de mémoire, real environments of memory’, rather than ‘lieux de mémoire’, isolated monuments (Nora 1989: 7). For journeys through these places, with the narrative song cycles that articulate their numinosity for the initiated, constitute performative re-makings, re-earthings, re-memberings of originary happenings here now, fusing place, body and spirit at the intersection of secular and sacred time. To walk the story is to revisit and rehearse corporeally the itineraries of a tradition that maps the complex interrelatedness of cultural spaces and identities, pasts and possible futures. To walk the story is to privilege the route, to inhabit the space between here and there, between dwelling and travelling, and to respect its ‘logic of intensities’: an ‘eco-logic’, the evolutive process of which ‘seeks to grasp existence in the very act of its constitution; it is a process of “setting into being”’ (Guattari 1989: 136). To walk the story is to attend to landscape as inscape, and to take (a) place in the world.

In an essay entitled ‘Teatrum nondum cognitorum’ (‘Theatre of the not yet known’) about the limits of cartography as representation, Paul Foss proposes a psychogeography of Australia in terms of its early explorers’ and colonisers’ dis-placed relationships to their spatial environments, and the subsequent cultural impact of their narratives on modern Australians (Foss 1981). Foss describes a constructed ‘antipodal space’ – the other hemisphere, the place of the other – as being historically defined in terms of void, lack, or absence: a non-place, a tabula rasa on which to project anxieties and fantasies. From the moment of so-called discovery, European explorers chose to perceive this ‘Great Southern Land’ as a place of no visible contents, no inhabitants, no water, no inland seas, no songbirds: a stretch of nothing, a scorched and smouldering vacuum, a place of disappearance, a vanishing-point. Terra nullius, they called it, ascribing its features with names that memorialize their own sense of being ‘out of place’: Mount Misery, Cape Catastrophe, Lake Disappointment and Useless Loop.

In such a limbo, there could be ‘nothing out there’. Ideal for castaways – or for penal colonies to rid the so-called civilized world of its ‘waste’. Imperial history taught Australians to view their island as a ‘waste-land’, an excess of space, way beyond the comprehension and possessive hunger of the representatives of an expanding empire. You can’t possess it, went the story, but it may just possess and consume you – like so many of its early explorers, who entered this lacuna in the assumed order of Harmonious Creation and ‘died of landscape’ (Stow 1969).

Contemporary Australia is an island continent – a term which in itself, of course, infers both isolation and size – within which urban places still cling to the coastal strips: ‘to the outer rim as if ready to depart’ (Ireland 1980: 310). For Australia is built around an interior that, through European lenses, remains unplaceable (atopian), unknowable, terrifying, to be kept outside: the ‘out-back’, the ‘dead centre’. Culturally, it seems, many Australians feel obliged to look ‘out’ rather than ‘in’, thereby privileging insularity to the detriment of interiority and futurity. As novelist David Ireland wrote in A Woman of the Future: ‘Australia sits … on the comfortable coast of life, where its settled nature is steeped in the past. The future is the greatest problem. The future is at the centre of Australia’s problems’ (Ireland 1980: 187).

Over the last 50 years or so, this central ‘void’ has been increasingly colonised – by British nuclear test sites, American tracking installations, multinational mining concerns, vast properties – then abandoned to create new wastelands, toxic no-go zones like Maralinga or Wittenoom. Meanwhile the notion of an empty centre of deserts, desertion and desolation stubbornly persists, despite the fact that this is only a simulacrum of the void, a construction. Of course countless peoples, cultures, creatures, places do exist there; it is not empty at all. 

‘The very habit and faculty that makes apprehensible to us what is known and expected dulls our sensitivity to other forms, even with the most obvious. We must rub our eyes and look again, clear our minds of what we are looking for to see what is there’ (Malouf 1994: 130).

If they remain largely ‘unseen’, as do Aboriginal peoples and their claims to the places and lives stolen from them for so many on the ‘comfortable coast of life’, perhaps this lack of recognition stems from more than blinkered or flawed perception. It relates to a refusal to look in, or behind, to the enduring shadows. To listen to the ‘empty space’ at the heart, and to apprehend it as a dynamic place for re-reading and re-writing histories and geographies: a theatre of the not yet known, where everything is (to be) decided. 


Foss, Paul (1981). ‘Teatrum nondum cognitorum’, The Foreign Bodies Papers, Sydney: Local Consumption Papers, Sydney University

Guattari, Félix (1989). ‘The Three Ecologies’, trans. Chris Turner, New Formations 8 (Summer)

Hillman, James (1989). A Blue Fire: The Essential James Hillman (ed. Thomas Moore), London: Routledge

Ireland, David (1980). A Woman of the Future, Harmondsworth: Penguin

Malouf, David (1994). Remembering Babylon, London: Vintage

Mundine, Djon (1996). ‘Without land we are nothing. Without land we are a lost people …’, in V. Somerset (ed.), Spirit + Place: Art in Australia 1861-1996, Sydney: Museum of Contemporary Art

Nora, Pierre (1989). ‘Between memory and history: les lieux de mémoire’, Representations 26

Stow, Randolph (1969). ‘The singing bones’, in A Counterfeit Silence, Sydney: Angus & Robertson 

Originally publication: David Williams, ‘Frontwords’, Performance Research 3:2, Summer 1998 (‘On Place’), v-viii

For Arizona storm chaser Mike Olbinski's extraordinary timelapse images of the Phoenix Haboob of 5 July 2011, see here. For other timelapse sequences of dust storms, supercells etc., see Mike's website here.

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