The following is a series of transcribed and edited conversations between producers of ‘Facts on the Ground: a situated reading group’ Hannah Ekin & Jorgen Doyle and Apmere angkentye-kenhe project artist Beth Sometimes.
Apmere angkentye-kenhe - which translates to ‘a place for language’ - is an artist-led social project made in collaboration with Arrernte people in Mparntwe/Alice Springs. The initial intensive period of activity in June – July 2017 physically transformed a disused shed in the middle of town, repurposing the space and opening it as a site where people could come together and participate in exchanges that prioritised Arrernte knowledge. The ‘yellow shed’ hosted events such as ‘Fifty-words-everyone-living-in-Mparntwe-should-know’, challenges that tested audience knowledge, Arrernte language film screenings, a panel discussion on contemporary Arrernte language issues, Arrernte story-telling events and early-childhood education sessions. The interior displayed a legacy of local Arrernte language work including audio and video content, plus specially created elements including a large topographic map of Mparntwe with audible site names, a language learning audio tour available for collection, a ‘no-shame pronunciation booth’, a range of physical learning resources and a mini library.
The project operated in two complimentary ways. Firstly, as defined by Arrernte senior language custodians, activity sought to create space for language knowledge transfer within Arrernte families and communities. Secondly, the project sought to examine the potential of language encounters to affect settler relationships with place, people and power.
‘Facts on the Ground’ was a weekly site-specific reading and discussion group that took place over June and July 2017 in five historically and culturally significant and contested locations in Mparntwe/Alice Springs. The texts chosen address colonial ideologies of land use, their legacies in the racialisation of Australian urban space and how the political claims of subordinated groups can make space public to challenge these legacies. Members of the public were invited to read and discuss their surrounds in light of the issues brought up in the texts.
In this conversation piece, we use three of the reading group texts as starting points to discuss Apmere angkentye-kenhe — a project that embodied and experimented with many of the theoretical concerns addressed in the texts. Acknowledging that Arrernte ontologies continue to be enacted in Mparntwe/Alice Springs despite their devaluation by dominant settler-colonial power structures, we discuss the potential for creative and political alliance between artists and subordinated groups to define and publicise political claims that have been persistently undermined. The conversation focuses on the possibilities for Arrernte language learning to open up a space for these claims to be both articulated and heard, promoting critical reflection on the ways settler and Arrernte cultures encounter one another.
You can read Part I of the conversation here.
Hannah, Jorgen and Beth in conversation at Melting Pot Cafe, Yogyakarta, 27 July 2017
Text: Kurt Iveson, ‘Making space public’ through occupation: The Aboriginal Tent Embassy, Canberra. Environment and Planning A, 49(3), 537-554, 2017.
Jorgen: Reading the Kurt Iveson text, there were two things that I thought were relevant in relation to Apmere angkentye-kenhe. The first was the notion of a counterpublic as developed by Nancy Fraser. She explains counterpublics as:
“'Parallel discursive arenas where members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counter-discourses, which in turn permit them to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests and needs.’1
The second thing that I thought was interesting to think through in relation to Apmere angkentye-kenhe was the particular potency of the prefigurative act of asserting the right to fulfill a basic need in a way that speaks to a larger public.
Hannah: What do you mean by prefigurative?
Jorgen: That you're not just fulfilling that need but you're sort of emphasising that the need hasn't yet been fulfilled. You're making a statement out of the act of fulfilling the need, rather than just fulfilling the need.
Beth: I realized somewhere along the way that in the lead up to making the space I was trying to describe what it was going to be to people and found that it was sometimes hard to explain what the project was attempting to do or what it was. But then once it was up and running, so many people commented upon coming into the space that they couldn't believe it hadn’t happened twenty years ago. It became so apparently obvious to people what it was, without the need for explanation.
Jorgen: And that it was much needed...
Hannah: It’s funny that it was obviously needed, but no one could really think of it until it was there. I think that is an example of making a claim through fulfilling a need — you're saying, ‘this is the kind of thing that's needed’, but you need the act of imagining that need before it can really exist.
Jorgen: But was it only whitefellas who expressed this need?
Beth: Nah, not only whitefellas! I mean the Arrernte team almost uniformly expressed it — as evidenced in their desire for the project to continue. What Sylvia Neale, an Arrernte woman in her seventies who’s been involved in political spaces for many years, said at the NAIDOC forum was really meaningful to me:
“Government has spent millions of dollars on ‘reconciliation’ and ‘closing the gap’ ... this here [points at yellow shed] — with the amount of people that have come — that’s reconciliation at its best. And that’s where we need to spend the money.
Jorgen: And maybe that's an example of a need that was inchoate, undefined, sort of murky, becoming crystallised and becoming clear.
Beth: I think we also need to think about collaboration between groups. I mean, as a member of the dominant group you know some things about what a people or a place might be ready for — what language or aesthetics and what, as an artist, you can offer in that realm that might help construct a claim.
Jorgen: This makes me think of that Bruce Pascoe quote that you had by the door, which speaks to something that's not just about the needs of the subordinated group but a need that's shared by settlers alike. Do you think that's also where the project risks becoming too nice?
Hannah: Or more specifically, do you think there’s a risk of the project fitting too easily into a liberal multicultural framework that ‘celebrates diversity’ but doesn’t challenge the English-speaking, white mainstream?
Beth: Yeah that’s it! I think we know that politically at the moment mainstream Australia is possibly a bit more ready to support certain aspects of indigeneity, and language is part of that. So on that level the project sits fairly nicely with the broader political context. But there’s a risk that languages aren’t supported to hold political discourse in a way that actually means something to a broader political scene. It’s all very well to acknowledge that ‘language matters’, but to say ‘we need the infrastructure to make bilingualism viable' would actually require a really huge shift in the way things are and I think that pointing to the need for the infrastructure to support a multilingual governance system sits less comfortably within the dominant way of viewing things. And perhaps one purpose of all the focus on language is to emphasise what a monolingual governance system looks like. The conversations about bilingual education, use of interpreters and kinds of systems and signage - it's about all the ways you might shift and change a system to reflect a more plural approach to understanding place, people, systems, relations.
Jorgen: In his text, Iveson draws a lot from Nancy Fraser’s work on ‘counterpublics’ and on the public sphere. One of the main ways in which the boundaries of the public sphere are policed is by delineating what are considered private affairs and what are considered public affairs. Private affairs are relegated out of the public sphere and therefore not up for debate. I think that discourse has often been present in the agenda of bilingual education — it is argued that Aboriginal people can still speak their language at home, that they have every right to speak it there and teach it to their children there. In some ways the task for Aboriginal people who want the right to bilingual education is to insist that this is a public matter of common concern, not a private one. How do you combat the idea that language is outside the realm of politics?
Beth: Well, that relegation to the private is wrapped up in the hegemony of the English language in Australia being the dominant language, the economic language.
Jorgen: And that really links in well with the liberal notion of a single, enormous public sphere that includes everybody — the correlation between a ‘national language’ and the notion of a single, all-inclusive public sphere not constituted by exclusions is quite exact.
Hannah: I think that's where you do really see that an argument for bilingual education is an argument for decentralisation. It is inherently an argument against one public where everyone can speak in the same voice. You’re never going to have everyone in Australia learning all of the Indigenous languages and so it's always going to be an argument for decentralisation.
Beth: Yeah — support for languages is then linked with support for self-governing communities generating specific responses that come from the grassroots — in contrast to mainstream approaches to policy.
Hannah: And this is where the politics of language is interesting; when you think about what supporting multilingualism actually involves, it really does question a core principle upon which Australia is based - a centralised liberal state.
Jorgen: It also challenges a pretty central part of the Australian narrative, or the Australian psyche, about being able to go anywhere and experience everything, to comprehend the vastness of the country somehow. This is where an argument for a multilingual society really hits a nerve and becomes quite threatening for many, I think.
Beth: Like that whole thing that came out with Optus, remember Dan from Optus!?
Jorgen: Shall I bring us back in with a Nancy Fraser quote? She says:
“Where societal inequality persists, deliberative processes in public spheres will tend to operate to the advantage of dominant groups and to the disadvantage of subordinates. Now I want to add that these effects will be exacerbated where there is only a single, comprehensive public sphere.
“In that case, members of subordinated groups would have no arenas for deliberation among themselves about their needs, objectives and strategies... This would render them less able than otherwise to articulate and defend their interests in the comprehensive public sphere. They would be less able than otherwise to expose modes of deliberation that mask domination by absorbing the less powerful into a false 'we' that reflects the more powerful.^2
Hannah: The first thing this makes me think of is Beth’s comments about the difficulties in preventing a situation where whitefellas are taking up too much space in the conversation. About the need to quite explicitly have a designated space to avoid the ‘we’ becoming... a false ‘we’, I suppose.
Beth: Yeah, but alongside that, I'm so constantly terrified of a false ‘we’ that sometimes I forget that it's also potentially useful to form a group that is mixed, and that maybe it’s important that the idea of a counterpublic includes not only the marginalised people but also the allies. Something like a community group - people making a certain claim together, acknowledging that they're coming from different positions and are operating in different ways for different purposes, but with some shared common goals and some disparate goals. Although that's not necessarily what she's talking about.
Jorgen: Perhaps on a more methodological note in relation to your collaboration, in Judith Butler’s book Notes Towards a Performative Theory of Assembly she talks a lot about the kinds of collaboration in movements such as Occupy between many different people who she identifies as, in one way or another, precarious. She acknowledges that they are differentially made precarious, that some people are much more precarious than other people, but she's still quite adamant that a shared sense of precarity is something that brings those people together and encourages them to make a collaborative claim. I assume the way you see the situation here is different than that — you talk about yourself as a member of the dominant group, and of having methodologically divested yourself of power. But is there also some sort of shared sense that allows you to empathise, some sort of shared positionality with your Arrernte collaborators?
Beth: Well that gets at something a bit... personal I guess. As somebody who is over time becoming aware of the power relations in operation and my implication within them, I feel embedded in the situation. In the place itself but also with the weight of particular knowledge relating to that place and people and the dynamics. In my twenties it might have felt different but I guess the series of decisions that I've made have to some extent, despite some obvious privileges I carry, kind of hardened into a political identity that is no longer a decision, as such. Particularly after burning out pretty hard and wanting to die for some time as a result of that feeling, then trying to figure out how to act in the wake of that.
Jorgen: Maybe that is the important difference between precarity and marginality. Perhaps the notion of precarity makes more room for recognising existential realities such as these, and the political decisions that might come out of them as intrinsic aspects of your position within society.
Beth: In another sense, a shared position has become something that I’m more comfortable with since the project has been seen both by me and by others as a success. It’s demonstrated that there's a usefulness in me, an outsider to the Arrernte world, being part of a broader Alice Springs community. As someone who’s lived there on and off for fifteen years, wanting it to be different, wanting the place — which to an extent I call home — to be different is different to being an ally, it is my interest.
Beth Sometimes is a Pakeha New Zealander based in Arrernte country in Central Australia and Hannah Ekin and Jorgen Doyle are white fella Australians based in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.