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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.
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.
Migrant identity is defined by movement. Migration is usually portrayed as an external pressure applied to an otherwise static subject. This chapter posits a predisposition to flight, illustrated in my own early identifications with birds and balls. This thought suggests another: a migrant prehistory begins in an account of the impersonal movement forms that have shaped the lives of generations of forebears. There are two sides to this: the ‘dream’ in which my great-great-grandfather Joseph Terry made his way (industrialisation of the trades and waterways of Yorkshire’s West Riding) and which my Carter forebears endured (land enclosure and smallholding expulsion); and their continuously creative adaptation, characterised by political utopianism and religious radicalism. Illustrating the point that ‘Australia’ begins within, as a projection of historical necessities, the chapter concludes with the story of Buscot Park, near where I grew up. In this picturesque Eden (so it seemed) I used to study bird migration; later, I discovered it was largely the creation of a mid-nineteenth century Australian immigrant, a curious hybrid of home thoughts from abroad.
The ’native informant’ is an essential figure in colonial anthropology. My radio work The Native Informant gives a migrant twist to this ideal translator, showing, in a different context, that she or he is a projection of the host’s narcissism. In a number of high-profile art commissions, I have been cast as ‘native informant’ to the Australian public. My poetic responses restage the enigma of communication where the parties have nothing in common, deriving from the culture of guesswork a migrant poetics. James Dawson, whose 1881 publication Australian Aborigines, is rich evidence of this differential power politics (and perhaps incommensurable expectations) in action, is introduced. As a colonial ethnographer and linguist, Dawson is unusual in laying bare the dialogical dynamics of language-getting. He establishes what every migrant also finds, that improvising rules of communication precedes any intellectual exchange: externalising the desire of communication exposes fundamental presuppositions about the other and the enigma of mutual encounter opens up the possibility of a new poetics able to escape the native informant double-bind.
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.
Migrant sense of place radiates from the concrete site of first encounter. Material thinking, the signature of my creative practice, also extrapolates from the particular. These related propositions fuse in a discussion of a major wall work, Rival Channels, commissioned for downtown Brisbane. Features of Rival Channels accurately depict the inner landscape of migration, which is not linear but involuted. The turbulent flow paths modelled in the stone relief tap into an environmental unconscious – in my case associated with oolitic Cotswold stone whose turbulent history is amplified and glorified in the Kimberley sandstone of Rival Channels – but identified in Central Australian Aboriginal art with periodic inundation and its depiction. Staging the turbulence of coexistence (like another river work, Mirror States), Rival Channels evokes a primary environment where signs are ambiguously auditory and eidetic –the inclusion of a sonogram alludes to the totemic custodianship of the site (the Brisbane River) and my words allude to change as return: ‘The strings of shadow creep / underneath where I keep my eggs the water laps / it is rising like the future under the present.’
In migration the production of space is ontological: the ground is not given (the host faceless, Indigenous sovereignty unceded), the imagined community and its habitus are projects rather than realities. Another way to say this is that the representational space of democracy is suspended. The work of a migrant artist does not represent anything: it aims to produce a new situation. Such art is ‘dirty’, intervening in change rather than offering an aesthetic equivalent. These considerations lie behind a series of ‘creative templates’ or dramaturgies of public space devised for major urban redevelopments in Melbourne and Perth. Characterising the new spaces of public encounter as an endless compilation and renewal of lines and knots (visualised as a flexible string figure), the ’creative template’ reconceptualises ‘public art’ as the unscripted performances of public space that reclaim it as a place where something happens. The ‘something’ is likely to be the return of the repressed history of colonisation, as our work Sugar, devised for the Liverpool (UK) Capital of Culture festival, illustrates.
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.
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.
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.