This is a personal history of the intersection of colonial anthropology, creative practice and migrant ethnography. By way of setting the scene, I refer to Vincenzo Volentieri, a hoax ‘genius’ I invented for the 200th anniversary of Australia’s white colonisation: Volentieri is a parody of migrant precarity and creative resourcefulness, uniting mishearing, mimicry, multiple role-play and a constitutional reluctance to settle down (and in) to suggest a new world concealed inside appearances. It is an easy-to-read introduction to the experience that lies behind the creative encounters discussed in Translations. After a non-allegorical summary of the following chapters, two contrasting mythological frames are presented: a creation narrative told by Kulin Nations of the Melbourne region; a re-interpretation of Sophocles’ Oedipus trilogy. The conjunction of stories from different cultural matrices typifies the self-division/self-doubling nature of migrant place-finding and storytelling: both have in common the idea of the journey as a continuous, ever unfinished, creative translation.
One object of a migrant ethnography is to establish migration as an end in itself: the migrant generates the meaning of a life from the quality of the journey, not from its beginning or ending. A corollary of this is that the migrant’s identifying ‘story’ is not given: it is produced by the journey, here imagined as an endless translation and its concomitant performances. The migrant who goes back brings with him the experience of distanciation; the primary ‘break’ is treated as constitutional, offering a critical perspective on mythic constructions of the ‘old country’ that depoliticise its history of organised land theft and institutionalised exile. I illustrate these propositions with the personal example of the Bronze Age hill figure, the Uffington White Horse, dear to me from childhood. Here is an archetypal ‘connection’ to an ancient ‘sense of place’: how is it renewed? James Dawson returns in this chapter in a new guise: showing how his Aboriginal interests were connected to his pre-migrant family interests in Scotland, he becomes my historical ‘native informant’, showing how ‘the Break’ (as poet David Jones calls it) is historical, internal to the culture. The new outsider is uniquely qualified to bear witness to this.
The migrant, differentiated from the colonists by a willingness to acknowledge their foreignness, recognises that (self-)becoming at this place depends on creating ‘a space of (co-)appearance’. ‘To appear at all it was necessary to invent a host able to form a relationship; without this creative ethnography, the human encounter was, for the migrant, impossible.’ Hunting my anthropological, ethnographic and creative interests is the lost subject whose very homelessness shatters the mirror state of a nation constructed around binary exclusions. I cite a number of Aboriginal ‘orphans’ whose fate anticipates the migrant’s always imminent deracination, and discuss how a permanent sound installation, The Pipes, approached the representation of a forgotten Kaurna woman, Kalloongoo, aka Charlotte. The Pipes drew on a sound composition called Cooee Song. This chapter concludes with a reflection on the significance of the word-sound ‘cooee’ throughout my work. ‘Cooee’ is the archetypal unit of a migrant poetics: its two syllables, like the two halves of the symbol, embody the migrant’s destiny, the twinned desire of being lost and being found.
If migration recapitulates colonisation, migrants live like the rest of white Australia in a dream world where Aboriginal sovereignty is denied: across the divide of incommensurable realities, belonging is ethically impossible. Learning how to belong involves a critical reinterpretation of colonial anthropology (and its non-relations). It demands a creative migrant ethnography able to embrace coming from elsewhere as the foundation of arrival. But it also requires a symbolic literacy, a capacity to think relationally, to communicate mythopoetically (through constantly reinvented stories able to navigate turbulent counter-realities and find in them the common ground of mutual recognition). To illustrate these points, I introduce another personal story. It concerns the multiple meanings ascribed to a ‘dragon’ figure during the implementation of a ‘creative template’ in Western Australia. The cross-cultural ‘passages’ opened in this metaphorical exchange are compared to the opening in public space created by the public artwork Passenger at Yagan Square, Perth.
Translations is a personal history written at the intersection of colonial anthropology, creative practice and migrant ethnography. Renowned postcolonial scholar, public artist and radio maker, UK-born Paul Carter documents and discusses a prodigiously varied and original trajectory of writing, sound installation and public space dramaturgy produced in Australia to present the phenomenon of contemporary migration in an entirely new light. Rejecting linear conceptualisations of migrant space–time, Carter describes a distinctively migrant psychic topology, turbulent, vortical and opportunistic. He shows that the experience of self-becoming at that place mediated through a creative practice that places the enigma of communication at the heart of its praxis produces a coherent critique of colonial regimes still dominant in discourses of belonging. One expression of this is a radical reappraisal of the ‘mirror state’ relationship between England and Australia, whose structurally symmetrical histories of land theft and internal colonisation repress the appearance of new subjects and subject relations. Another is to embrace the precarity of the stranger–host relationship shaping migrant destiny, to break down art’s aesthetic conventions and elide creative practice with the poetics (and politics) of social production – what Carter calls ‘dirty art’. Carter tackles the argument that immigrants to Australia recapitulate the original invasion. Reflecting on collaborations with Aboriginal artists, he frames an argument for navigating incommensurable realities that profoundly reframes the discourse on sovereignty. Translations is a passionately eloquent argument for reframing borders as crossing-places: framing less murderous exchange rates, symbolic literacy, creative courage and, above all, the emergence of a resilient migrant poetics will be essential.
Migrants live ‘in flight’, inhabiting the in-between of dialogue where sense never settles down but is continually reconfigured. In this sense, migrants do not ‘arrive’; their destiny is to live in the mid-stride of always arriving. Canetti alludes to this fate when he characterises migrants as walking in single file. In this chapter I discuss some high-profile commissions that have used this mise-en-scène critically and creatively to articulate a new, distinctively migrant identity. Works like Lost Subjects and Light recall the public performances of the medieval Miracle Play. The remarkable installation, Raft, based on anthropologist T.G.H. Strehlow’s memoir of his father, Journey to Horseshoe Bend, forges (literally) a craft of translation where the ‘destination’ is incorporated into the work of passage. An effect of these and related dramaturgical engagements, including the dance works Jadi Jadian and Old Wives’ Tales, is to unravel the ‘line’ into its constituent threads and, as the Sydney Olympics commission, Relay, illustrates, have the single file fan out to produce a new, distinctively migrant crowd of voices, connected, turbulent, different.
COVID-19 has reinstated the sovereign enclosures of corpse management that mothers of the disappeared had so successfully challenged in the past decade. To explore how moral duties toward the dead are being renegotiated due to COVID-19, this article puts forward the notion of biorecuperation, understood as an individualised form of forensic care for the dead made possible by the recovery of biological material. Public health imperatives that forbid direct contact with corpses due to the pandemic, interrupt the logics of biorecuperation. Our analysis is based on ten years of experience working with families of the disappeared in Mexico, ethnographic research within Mexico’s forensic science system and online interviews conducted with medics and forensic scientists working at the forefront of Mexico City’s pandemic. In the face of increasing risks of viral contagion and death, this article analyses old and new techniques designed to bypass the prohibitions imposed by the state and its monopoly over corpse management and identification.