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Un Magazine 13.2

We smell the sulfur: institutional extraction, student bodies, Indigenous lands

Carol Que and Joel Sherwood-Spring

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6/16

Article

Vernon Ah Kee, 'tall man' (2010), multi-channel digital video, colour, sound, 11:07 minutes. Courtesy Museum of Contemporary Art, Australia, and Tate, purchased jointly with funds provided by the Qantas Foundation, 2016.

The words below form multiple threads of preliminary thoughts shared between Joel Sherwood-Spring and Carol Que from December 2018 to August 2019. Both young academics tenuously located between the institution and their creative and political work ‘outside’, the conversation here spans lands, architectures, gentrification, and education. Joel’s words are indented and Carol’s are left aligned.1

Joel got me to watch the Vernon Ah Kee video work tall man (2010) at the Museum of Contemporary Art, while I was in Warrang (Sydney) mid-July of this year. It was about the Palm Island riots in 2004, where First Nations peoples burnt down the police station following Mulrunji (Cameron) Doomadgee's death in police custody. On a personal level, witnessing this work brought me to connect with a lot of the fucked things happening around us, fires to put out constantly in this settler colony. When we first started talking about writing something together, I remember that Joel wanted to use drought as a metaphor, in a way to connect the Walgett and rural New South Wales (NSW) water crisis. Without reading too much into our star signs (Joel is watery with air elements and I am earthy with fire elements), we’ve recently come to talking about how fire is cleansing. We use fire to cook our food and fire has been sweeping through this sovereign, unceded land for as long as it has existed. In the words of Indigenous fire practitioner, filmmaker, and educator Victor Steffensen: ‘Fire should be like Water, it should trickle across the landscape.’

There is sometimes this sense of being overrun by floods of emotion, working within academia and against it. But, so often there is also the sense that our hearts are set on fire, this political passion, love and, ultimately, our faith dampened and strengthened over and over again.

In occupying the role of educator within a University as a First Nations academic and student, facilitating work centred around Indigenous perspectives and issues, you are quickly exposed to the double bind of your position within white institutions. The unrecognised and unpaid labor of educating your coworkers and—more often than not — your superiors is the defining trope of many First Nations academics’ experience within their educational careers. Uncompensated labor demanded either through direct request or more often as direct intervention to another's actions, usually met with silence or exacerbated by skepticism.

These tensions play out not only within tertiary institutions, but also within activist spaces, grassroots organisations and interpersonal relationships. Despite being ubiquitous, these issues are ill-defined or disguised as a necessary obligation within intellectual engagement.

In early 2019 I was, in part, facilitating a series of public program talks associated and organised within Melbourne Design Week, a festival of ideas and exhibitions funded by a state art institution to explore ‘the role design plays in everyday life, and showcase the ways design is helping to tackle the challenges of the future.’ Gen and I, as part of the architecture firm Future Method, were invited to host a set of discussions about ‘whatever’ we wanted. The more exciting prospect was redistributing institutional resources to Aboriginal speakers, to invite those I respect into discussion and pay them for their thoughts, labour, energy. The prospect of settlers learning something was an additional bonus from my perspective, but not the goal.

This all took place during a week of heightened stress for the now-fourteen month long protest on Djab Wurrung country focused on protecting sacred landscapes, with VicRoads and Victoria Police threatening the removal of not only those protecting the trees, but also the trees and land itself. It seemed like the responsibility of all involved to acknowledge the injustice taking place 200 kilometres north-west of Melbourne Design Week and the injustice of NSW restricting water from communities with majority First Nations populations. Extractive structures are well designed, their solutions are not, and their alternatives are ignored. Colonialism redresses First Nations relationships to land (e.g. native title) to give way to future acts of wealth extraction. And the institution redresses First Nations relationships between individuals, using their social and cultural proximity to extract further from individuals and communities.

If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, what should you do when you start smelling sulfur?

Arts and education institutions are trying to extract the literal cultural capital of Indigenous folx and people of colour, in the name of diversity and inclusion. While people do temporarily benefit from the glory of being ‘invited’ to participate in the institution, the arts industry voraciously consumes visibility politics and the aesthetic economy of marginalised struggles, while the University co-opts the knowledge economy around resistance history on multiple levels. The Arts West building at The University of Melbourne, a $55 million redevelopment that incorporates ‘impressions of five selected artworks and artefacts fundamental to knowledge,’ for example, is manipulatively designed to position the white colonial University as ‘coming from’ all these diverse histories and cultures. So often these different experiences of racialisation between First Nations and migrants are spoken about as separate issues of white-Blak/settler-Indigenous race conversations because these convos are very often gatekept by white people in Australia. This is white supremacy’s divide and conquer strategy working exactly as it is designed to.

For both of us in academia, we uncomfortably straddle an intermediary space. It’s true that many times you feel used, rinsed for being that person doing the bridging. I occupy the role of educator and student as a non-Indigenous Chinese woman. Working in a largely white context, it is exhausting and anxiety inducing to bring up race in meetings, or to respond to comments laced with subtle-but-not-so-subtle racism. This is, too, a form of extraction, masking itself as diversity work, as Sara Ahmed would call it. But still it’s worth qualifying that I take up a different position in the University as a migrant settler. We can go back to Roberta Sykes for this, who talks about the very deeply entrenched ‘historical basis and contemporary manner of maintenance’2 in how migrants are afforded opportunities to climb that ladder via a structure that has been established through continuous delegitimisation and destitution of First Nations’ right to land. In The White Possessive, Goenpul scholar Aileen Moreton-Robinson writes that non-white migrants to Australia ‘can belong, but they cannot possess.’3

From the arrival of colonists in 1788 until 1830, the productivity and labour of expelled convicts and entrepreneurial free men was concentrated towards agricultural production and cultivation of the land in south-east Australia. The dispossession of Indigenous peoples’ land was legitimised through the overwriting of Country with land tenure systems, property laws and resource production that operate with a two-fold logic. The introduction of Western techniques by foreign bodies is a structure of violence towards Indigenous peoples, rendering the foundational actions of settler- colonialism conditional upon the elimination of Indigenous practices.

These attempts at eliminating Indigenous land management systems with white colonial ones did not create financially stable or sustainable systems of land management. Instead, what resulted was a set of extractive relationships to natural resources such as water and land, as well as labour, that underpinned and set in motion the economic development of the colony for the next two centuries. Ongoing struggles against the below modalities of extraction include the Walgett water crisis that has now spread into other rural towns of NSW, the Djab Wurrung fight to protect sacred landscape and trees in Victoria and many others that are led by First Nations peoples surviving and fighting at the frontlines.

There are four main modalities of extraction in so-called Australia:

  1. Agricultural production was linked soon after the colony’s inception to the colonial global economy—seen in this way, it has been a pattern of Australian land politics ever since.
  2. Mineral exploitation through the discovery of minerals such as gold, copper and, later, coal.
  3. Property development and speculation, cities and the buildings that make up their centres became key in storing and accumulating surplus value, with finance capital operating as the dominant influence in the built environment to this day.
  4. Education, now Australia’s third-largest export sector and the country’s leading service export sector overall.

When education is one of Australia’s biggest exports, the student ‘body’ is extracted from in various ways. Here I’ll talk about how international students not only make up a large portion of University revenue, but also how Universities are part of their marginalisation—feels obvious to say, but not all international students come from new money and wear Gucci.

While I tend to be skeptical of Western media representations of Chinese intrusion and ‘invasion,’ I’m still trying to think through the following relations between Chinese settlers on Indigenous lands, and what I do recognise as Chinese capitalist power. It’s hard to ascertain what’s real in mainstream media, at this point, with politicians saying that international students are spies for the Chinese government, a threat to the ‘Australian way’ of freedom of speech and academic freedom, while also claiming concern for students who are intimidated and supposedly monitored by the Chinese government in University classrooms. Notably, these articles tend to centre the ‘concerns’ of Liberal Party politicians, who—in the same breath—claim that international students should be sent to rural areas because there’s too many of them in cities. For those who overstay their visa, they can also be incarcerated in Australia’s detention camps. This all occurs as Universities continue to increase their international student intake, with exorbitant fees that are triple the amount local students pay. While the Chinese government is indeed draconian, oppressive and extractive af (Shenhua coalmine on Gomeroi lands, Chinese imperial infrastructure work in African countries, concentration regimes to ‘reeducate’ Ugyhur people, etc.), I also struggle with the violent rhetoric enabled by the media here and don’t yet have the language to describe what’s happening. One thing is clear though: criticism of the Chinese government is valid, while conflation of their actions with Chinese people are not.

For a while I felt stuck with these thoughts. Throughout the editorial process of this article, Hugh Childers, who first introduced Joel and I last year, suggested that perhaps there is a clash of sovereignties at play. That of Indigenous sovereignty, the perceived hyper-sovereignty of the Chinese state and the fragile white ‘sovereignty’ of the Australian government. Iyko Day, in her book Alien Capital, talks about how the Asian embodiment of economic extraction threatens the concrete human values invested in traditional white settler belonging, and how contradictions of multicultural belonging in settler colonial societies is enacted through the ‘inclusion’ of Asian working class and professional labour (from indentured labourers to gold rush miners, beginning from the mid-nineteenth century).4 This has the effect of removing the concrete associations that align whiteness with property and belonging. Day uses the portrait work of Ken Lum, Nancy Nishi, Joe Ping Chau: Real Estate (1990), to discuss the white imagination of Asian capitalist expansion, psychologised to present the foreign investor as bad capital.

While migrant dreams of upward mobility via education towards a good stable job and property or home ownership certainly exist, media discourse has tended to conflate the Asian settler migrant with property market discourse around foreign investors, usually Chinese. On the contrary, the residential property price growth experienced in recent times does not appear to be attributable to increased foreign demand, despite the racialised public discourse around foreign investment and real estate speculation. Immigrants and international students, especially those coming from China, challenge whiteness because of perceived material wealth and media representation of the Chinese (alien?) threat in acquiring land and property. White people are scared of the very material challenge to their supremacy. But at whose cost? First Nations peoples, young students, migrant workers, of course ...

Settler-colonial cities continue to be colonised. For First Nations peoples, who were brutally displaced from their historical lands and dispossessed by the colonial order of property, gentrification is the continuation of colonisation. Gentrification is the combination of neoliberal and colonial motives, framed within the ‘colour- blind’ logic of economic development that targets the poor and the colonised. In the absence of land rights or the institutional recourse to even claim land rights in many parts of urban Australia, First Nations communities are the most vulnerable to cycles of redevelopment on their land. While gentrification cannot be stopped, we can respond to it better. Universities and cultural institutions are complicit in—and regularly driving—the processes of gentrification. As benefactors and enablers of gentrification, they appropriate the existing identity of the area they settle in. Universities, given their place, have become key actors in shaping and reshaping urban redevelopment in our cities.

Since the 1960s, Redfern was the crucible of Indigenous self-determination in Sydney and a site of significance in the formation of the contemporary political consciousness of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Spatially, Redfern housed a community of 40,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the 1960s and as a result was the site of the first community-run organisation dealing with the health, legal and political issues of First Nations peoples of this country. The historical importance of this space is felt across the country, though in the imaginary of the wider population of Australia, this is collapsed into a location colloquially and universally referred to as The Block. The traditional owners of the area are the Gadigal people, yet historically the Indigenous population is culturally diverse, as a result of colonisation, segregation and displacement brought on by forced assimilation. The Block, being a primary site of Indigenous resistance and living knowledge traditions, shows how a community maintains its identity despite ongoing colonial and neoliberal forces of housing evictions and racial descrimination.

Today, The Block is a construction site, ‘breaking ground’ on 26 March 2019 to begin construction of ‘The Pemulwuy project’: a three precinct plan proposed by the Aboriginal Housing Company (AHC) with the help of student housing company Atira. The AHC had announced the building of sixty-two affordable housing units financed through a deal struck with Atira. What was originally proposed as an eight-storey student housing tower to provide an ongoing subsidy to affordable housing has grown to twenty- four storeys, with an additional 442 beds to the originally planned 154. The ongoing struggle to secure sufficient and equitable financial support is a trope of First Nations- led initiatives across the country, since it is the function of these colonial institutions to extract and force marginalised communities and individuals into trade-offs that are unethical or at the very least unequal. Similar to ARMs, in the Barak building on Swanston Street in Naarm we see the names of leaders such as William Barak, Pemulwuy and, in this specific instance, Col James (look how they own!) given to objects of capital as they precipitate of conflict. Here again we see how the University industrial complex further meshes with property speculation and redevelopment, and the way it weaves international students into its colonising processes, presumably without their full understanding of what is actually happening for First Nations peoples in Redfern.

Seeking strategies to instrumentalise oppressors in service of the oppressed.

A friend once said to me: ‘Collect for yourself all the ivory from the ivory tower.’ But this capital accumulation cannot go on forever, even for migrant settlers trying to prove ourselves to our families (a whole other can of worms). Those of us in academia who are committed to that broader project of justice must get out to redistribute it, since the University isn’t a sphere separate from the material consequences of the world outside. Moreover, academic institutions can afford to redistribute money on a larger scale— paying the rent is care and justice work. This means seeking out ways to actively divert funds as academics, and institutionally divesting from corporations involved in prison, detention, occupation regimes, military industrial complexes and fossil fuel involvement. This is not about academic or cultural institutions feeling good but, rather, their role in resourcing social change beyond the critical visioning work done in classrooms and among our communities.

So the terms of address are key, as opposed to a framework of recognition. Discourse on the struggles of students of colour and international students cannot exist without centring the struggles of Indigenous students and academics in the University, who pretty much almost always experience this shit before anyone else. There might not always be parallel or comparable narratives in experiences, but the common focus is, in the words of Yigar Gunditjmara, Bindal, Yorta Yorta person Tarneen Onus Williams, burning the white supremacist state to the ground, and/or drowning it with our always moving, always passionate bodies.

This article was written collaboratively with a peer and fellow academic, a reminder that fugitive spaces exist in the University: classrooms, reading groups, random unexpected conversations and chance meetings, the student encountering a transformative text, educators and friends who embody that fugitivity, too.5 Otherwise, why else would we be trying, if not for each other?

Carol Que is a first-gen child of the Chinese diaspora, a writer and educator living on unceded Kulin Nations land. Her PhD research is on anticolonial boycott and its discourses, practices, visualities and affects.

Joel Sherwood-Spring, a Wiradjuri man raised between Redfern and Alice Springs, is a Sydney based Masters of Architecture student and interdisciplinary artist currently focussing on the contested narratives of Sydney’s and Australia’s urban culture and Indigenous history in the face of ongoing colonisation.


  1. Paola Balla, Maree Clarke, Fran Edmonds, Sabra Thorner, ‘Maree’s Backyard: Intercultural Collaborations for Indigenous Sovereignty in Melbourne', Oceania 88, 2018. 

  2. Roberta B. Sykes, Black Majority, Hudson Publishing, 1989, p. 20. 

  3. Aileen Moreton- Robinson, The White Possessive: Property, Power and Indigenous Sovereignty, University of Minnesota Press, 2015, p. 6 

  4. Iyko Day, Alien Capital: Asian Racialization and the Logic of Settler Colonial Capitalism, Duke University Press, 2016. 

  5. Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study, Minor Compositions, 2013