Aesthetic perception is necessarily historical.
— Leela Gandhi
We’ve got to play ordinary venues at the moment but I dream of playing the rubble of London’s palaces.
— Anwen Crawford
We met as workers in a Middle Eastern restaurant. We worked less for them and more with them. You on dishes after the day's art and me on the floor after writing. We’d work and drink arak, we’d brood and talk, all together. The war in Syria was like molasses on our brains, the syrup of geopolitics over everything, kitchen music surging out into the dining room, turned down only to riff over George Wassouf, Fela Kuti or Oum Khaltoum. They put so much labour into the food, so much care. Down the road their compatriots opened new shops named after mothers and grandmothers with murals, neon, laminated menus. People would come to eat and make demands assuming we’d please them. Turn the music down! You should have EFTPOS! We were encouraged not to adjust to patrons’ expectations. I was born here, to migrant parents, and hadn’t known you could be that way, had only known to be polite until you had to fight. You had come up rural, had only known the $14 jumbo kebab combo in Albury and the man who rolled them in paper wearing a fingerless glove.
I heard it suggested the body shocks when food is bitter, momentarily thinks it's dying. Over time it stresses less, associates the bitter taste with mustard leaf, espresso, kimchi. Recognition prefigures digestion, the body strung with tiny wet memory banks. Over a life, food vouches for other food. Olives say try the artichokes; sharp cheddar recommends the blue. Gut flora develops tastes and buds follow suit. At one scale we’re combined affect; at another, squirming quanta. Another still, reactions and catalysts. When we say metabolism, we say all scales at once. When we say metabolism, we gesture towards an im/material cartography — we invoke the chemical processes converting our breakfast into a customer-first approach and the interminable logistics slinging mushrooms, butter and bread across the continent. If metabolism is conversion — conversion of energy, wealth, desire — when we say metabolism, we say all of time.
In order to metabolise, what processes permit entry? Someone DMs my friend asking if they can upload pictures of her paintings to their website where they’ll be sold for a 40% cut. With no infrastructure to speak of, or perhaps an infinite surplus of infrastructure — the online gallery can sell millions of artists all in the same room, all at the same time — we wonder what the 40% might be for. In the end, her paintings are uploaded; the muddy prints on the sides where grimy fingers moved the canvas and the brush-furrowed dabs disappear, flattened out of the material world. We wonder what’s next now that the online art shop, dependent on artists’ precarity, has been inculcated as viable gallery.
I give all my paintings away eventually. Which is more a result of viewers’ disinterest — I have shows but no one asks to buy the works — than a calculated refusal of their commodification. It means I don’t have to talk about money, which is managements’ dream, the principal artillery of the bourgeoisie. We used to work at a distillery, our friend still does. We’d pass bottles around a six-person station — the first person fills them with spirit, the second affixes caps, the third foils the caps, the fourth runs them through the labeller, the fifth hot-glues boxes together and the sixth fills the boxes with the full, sealed, labelled bottles. In the morning we’d be coffee-ed up, joke and share music. As the day dragged on people would go quiet, fall into the repetitions, headphones inserted. Finally one of us would intervene, hand out morale boosters, play beats from the speaker for the home stretch. Often, we’d take home a bottle, told by supervisors to keep it discreet. Now the limit is two a year, even as revenue explodes. Our friend who stayed on realises he’s getting underpaid so he alerts his colleagues who discover their pay is off too. Our friend emails payroll, explains the situation. On Monday he is hauled upstairs, reprimanded for breaching contract: employees are forbidden from discussing their pay with each other.
Occasionally I’ll make a painting as a gift. I did this for your daughter’s first birthday. In the accompanying letter I told her some of the painting is of ‘kahvalti up close and some of it is of some ceramic accoutrements up close; two things that are important to your respective parents, and things I’m sure they’ll share with you throughout your life. Some of it is of other stuff and it’s all been coalesced to form a new image. That’s how I think about painting at the moment — as this space where you can take images within images and combine them to make a new one, with its own images within the image.’ This is its own kind of metabolism, not just the painting but the production of the gift. How do we decide what is appropriate or desirable? How is a gift made for a cousin, housemate, comrade, lover? For an anniversary, a milestone, a new job, a thank you? In your culture it’s easy: flowers or baklava or gold. Your grandfather the beekeeper sends you honeycomb.
Where I live group gifts are commonplace. The collection text goes out almost every month requesting contributions for a birthday. With each donation we become further enmeshed in an ascending generosity. Each gift eggs the next gift on. On the one hand, this means gifts can be furnished for those who otherwise couldn’t afford them: electric pianos, Kitchen-Aids, stereo systems. On the other hand, the gift is conjured by one or two people and everyone else just buys in. While the gift circuit widening suggests a growing camaraderie, adding your name to the birthday card increasingly feels like an alienated form of friendship insurance. Having been a recipient and having benefited from the circuit, it becomes difficult to exit the process even as it careens. People are questioning the requests for contributions now, returning to analogue gifts, making mugs, embroidering linen, cooking up meals.
I read Daniel Ross who reads Maurice Godelier who reads Marcel Mauss. They tell me that for traditional societies the gift sat between the sacred object and the commercial object, it was charged with energy and was transactable, serving to generate beyond its material limits.1 When we interpret early forms of exchange as barter we remain bounded by utility, missing the significance of the gift for the social imaginary. Today, absent of the sacred, my friends and I contend with the near-incalculability of the handmade gift and the brute calculation of pooled cash. What do we really mean when we say it’s the thought that counts? When we make mugs for your twenty-seventh birthday we cast knowledge into mud, inscribe matter with spirit. Bernard Stiegler reads Mauss and says the gift opens the gap between drive and desire; which is to say, it initiates the postponement of the drives and differentiation of the desires.2 Is this deferral of energy into matter not where art in all its forms derives? We come to know ourselves in the external object, the hum of the Kitchen-Aid, the constitution of the darned sock.
‘[C]apital is not a thing but a social relation between persons which is mediated through things,’ says Marx reading E. G. Wakefield, whose analysis of the colonisation of America helped set the agenda for land policy in Australia.3 On the American frontier, settlers stole the land they wanted, meaning they had less incentive to sell their labour, could become independent producers. The shortage of wage-labourers became a problem for capital, contributing to the intensification of slavery and the brutal dynamics of the American system. In the southern colony the British state reserved land, set the price high enough to tie migrant workers to the wage for longer.4 Today, on realestate.com, we continue to re-enter the epoch of ‘primitive accumulation’ as asset prices spiral up, wages stagnate. We send reparations back home, repress dreams of return. My mum sent her family money for thirty years after migrating. Before she did that, before she took a job, she and her siblings made audio tapes for their grandparents in Turkey, sang songs, talked of new days and kangaroos. My uncles worked in abattoirs, my grandma in the KitKat factory, my grandpa dug the city loop. We have lavish feasts, make ends meet. The migrant worker leaves to bring it all back one day, but confronted by their own shame they remain in exile, can’t bear to walk back into the village with new shoes.
I remember the first time I saw a guitarist take a pick from their pocket and play someone else’s guitar. I thought that was the coolest shit, to keep your tools close. I learnt guitar but never charmed the party. My family, decades on, are still in guerrilla mode; we have to survive in this country. I carry a backpack, a Swiss Army knife on my keyring, a packet of Fisherman’s Friends in my breast pocket. My socks are always impeccable. The primal scenes of my suburban childhood: flooded toilet, keys locked in car, flat tyre, dead battery. When that car battery gets depressed it doesn’t need space, it needs a friend. You hail another car, grab a neighbour, call a comrade and they edge their car into yours. The love I have for jumper cables, you wouldn’t believe. Bonnets ajar, cars connected, a prayer, a rumble, thumbs up, the rugged woo-hoo. Recently my dad, who taught me to jump start cars with pride, bought me a battery pack which jumps my car without the need for another. I keep the battery pack in my boot alongside the old-school jumpers but I still want to nudge up against you if I can.
In the kitchen where we met, we worked alongside an Iranian man whose Master of Engineering, completed in Tehran, the Australian state refused to recognise. That lack of recognition constitutes a defiant bolstering of the national apparatus separating certain bodies from certain labour or, to put it differently, a capitalisation on ‘the production of race for the use of others as surplus.’5 Our comrade in the kitchen didn’t want to repeat his education at an Australian university so considered a career change, talked about opening a bakery. During one shift we were gutting quails. I’d never gutted an animal, not even a fish. I was shown the technique, encouraged, teased. He selected three hearts from the bowl of scraps and slid them onto a skewer, placed it on the hot grill, turned it twice then offered them to me. I accepted, having never eaten offal. The comradeship figured the ingestion.
How do we claim what we like to permit entry, what we accept as par for the course? How do we forge a diet that surprises and delights us? In Affective Communities (2005), Leela Gandhi points to Derrida’s encouragement: ‘let us say yes to who or what shows up, before any determination, before any anticipation, before any identification’.6 In the introduction she quotes Edward Said to remind us of ‘the fundamentally static notion that identity has been the core of cultural thought during the era of imperialism.’7
Identification converts subjects into surplus, fabricates national culture. We see this in Australia’s metabolising of subjects overseas in consort with the UK and the US, converting people, not least of all through invasion and extraction, into refugees upon whom a border can be shut in the service of manufacturing an external threat, a culprit for the discontents and violence produced, in actuality, by the settler-capitalist state. As Aileen Moreton-Robinson reminds us, we see this identical process inflicted against First Nations people: the conversion from subject to threat.
If we take Derrida’s prompt to say ‘yes’ before identification, what kinds of sociality does that make possible? If our metabolism is guarded by a series of recognitions or identifications premised on the accumulated actions, events and infrastructures that inform and enable their successors, can that inheritance be refused, exceeded or remade through what Gandhi calls the ‘unmediated or immediate and extreme forms of relation between beings with “vastly different phenomenologies and ontologies”’?8 In short, can friendship change the menu?
I used to think professionalism killed, coerced forms of interaction, reduced imaginative possibilities, regulated modes of care. Stefano Harney suggests otherwise:
[T]he capitalist corporation … is held together neither by formality or informality (whether called strategy, professionalism, or bounded rationality), but by coerced and congealed labor, differing largely from the experience of the U.S Communist Party only in the degree to which labor is aware of itself as labor. In this sense, the U.S Communist Party and Shell Oil are separated only by the opportunities for labor to experience itself critically. The more that labor is encouraged to speak about its product or restricted to that language, the more the product comes to resemble the form and the real form escapes, marked only, as Marx said, by the residue that is that product. 9
This residue is what we aim to refuse in acknowledging material and procedural infinities, the endless combinations and complications of cells, violence, supply chains, microbes, strategies, bacteria, theft, deeds, chain reactions, blood. The energy we enjoy drawing from our muesli bar is a smear, the paw print of a loping nexus. When we ask what’s next, we not only anticipate another venture bent on exploiting ‘infinitely adaptable’ artists, we also anticipate the continued mischaracterisation of residue as form.10
Energy is never-ending conversion and procession through different forms. Metabolism is characterised by ends. A process is manifest as product. The teenager’s poached eggs clinch the 100m sprint. Our underpaid friend turns his gestures into someone else’s profit. These notched conversions are the residue. We invoke scale to remind us that the form isn’t final. In this way, we understand Australia to be an illegitimate colony, the residue of a congealed labour in overdrive, producing the logic that produces itself. It fronts as complete, desperate to maintain what Harney refers to as ‘the ideology that state work is involved with circulation not production.’ 11
Perverse logics permeate the circulation of goods. Melons are grown 378kms north of Alice Springs on Kaytetye Country. Once harvested, the fruit is trucked down south to be processed and then trucked back up north all the way to Larrakia Country to be sold, passing the farm where they were grown as they retrace the continent’s latitude. We're given a tour of the Coober Pedy desalination plant. The tour guide points to different cylinders and explains their purpose, runs us through the chemicals that help transform water drawn from the Great Artesian Basin into something not only drinkable, but palatable. ‘Tastes better than Adelaide’s,’ he reckons. We’re provided with an anecdote about a part of town that complained about low water pressure. When the council installed a new pipe to resolve the problem, that part of town became the site of highest water usage. Our guide explains the occupants were accustomed to turning their taps full bore when the pressure was low; once fixed, their behaviour didn’t adjust. ‘Habit becomes expectation.’
Which is perhaps the perfect expression: water is transported and transformed, melons lap the Stuart Highway, all the while the metabolic rift is exaggerated, each iteration naturalising the next. Every condition or event influencing our appetite is in equal parts a consequence of the rift and a site of its replication. In a small undoing of the bind coercing the shape, feel, time and duration of our metabolic processes, Elena Gomez considers ‘portable & diverse / snacks as the precariat food source or / snacks as post-revolution family structure to replace the / sturdy & historically stable MEAL. Snacks & their position / in a hierarchy of nourishment are you standing all day or / moving round are you a still sitter.’12 When the snack is given it becomes an agent of care, a figure for the methods we employ to surpass the conditions of our work, a trajectory towards the rubble of London’s palaces.
Georges Bataille wants us to think of the sun for a moment. The sun gives without ever receiving. Classical economics doesn’t want to know this, is wrought from the palace and into our bones, wants us to think scarcity and accept austerity while the organisms of Earth live in solar superabundance. The sun and the gift work in double articulation to stretch us towards a horizon beyond the morass of exploitation, out of the mire of bank accounts, picket fences, national borders. My daughter and I read books about feelings and friendship, then read books about dinosaurs and space. When we study the map of the world and point to Turkey, to England, to Lithuania, to Western Australia, we begin an encounter with political economy, with historical context. Classical economics has a lot to say about the sale of wheat but nothing about human sacrifice, the construction of a church or the gift of a jewel.13 Which is to say, nothing about love. Bataille’s call is for a thinking of the general economy, one without externalities. Brunswick alone is home to an estimated seven thousand olive trees — pips scatter the ground, the picklers cannot keep up, herbs grow.
Which reminds me of the last time we worked together for a boss. There were palms, figs and pomegranate trees in the courtyard. It was a private school. Very few staff or students touched the fruit. We might’ve been the only ones climbing the fig tree. We were maintenance workers — we preferred the term ‘caretakers’. The school was the second or third costliest in the state, the student body composed of scions of industry, the offspring of moguls and magnates soaking in a liberal education. There didn’t seem to be a spare surface without a plaque commemorating some philanthropy or ceremony. Bob Hawke opened the swimming pool as leader of the ACTU. As Prime Minister, John Howard spoke at assembly. We raked leaves, unblocked toilets and helped buses reverse. When we could disappear, we sat in the windowless lost property room and read. You, Elias Khoury’s Gate of the Sun (2005). Me, John Berger’s Art and Revolution (1969). We had keys to everything except the gun cupboard, and we would slide into the art room sometimes under the cover of table repairs. There was a pile of books taken from library chuck-out which they used for collage. One day I found Volume 1 of Marx’s Capital in there, Karl’s profile embossed in the blue leather cover. Published in Moscow in ’54 it was last stamped Dec. 1991, the time of the Soviet Union’s dissolution. There was no question, I seized the means, saw it as a sign, vowed to bring it back into the social body.
After you’d left, converted agony hours into a Forester for the desert, I was stacking 120 chairs alone with a podcast in my ear. The artist speaking had taken scholarship money from an oil giant, vowed to make that dirty money clean. I wondered what Marx would have thought about that. We felt dirty and were trying to make it clean: self-publishing our books, making music, being artists in the night. Perhaps only the librarians, the reverend and the cleaner took to us, showed interest in our writing, saw us as comrades. We knew the situation was bad for us. Like the asbestos during demolitions, like the security guard who stabbed you with a tactical pen, like the disc that collapsed in my back, like the glyphosate used on the grass, like the tradie who routinely called you UC — useless cunt — because he had no racial slurs for you, like the boss who never used my name but called me Turk, like the role of terrorist and intruder we had to play for security drills. What came to decimate our morale also leached in slowly. You got promoted, slightly, and became mean, got frustrated with other workers, replicated the hierarchies bearing down on us. Maybe you were right when you said we had no skills for the job, that’s why we couldn’t ever feel good.
We did whatever was thrown at us and no one ever cared even when it didn’t get done. We hung on because we wanted to work together, or we worked together because we needed to hang on. We dug holes and stained wooden benches, agreed on some things, argued about others. We’d drive to work before sunrise drinking Thermos-ed coffee in silence. We ate falafel with the lifers, broke down cardboard boxes in the bin bay because everyone else refused to, ignoring the sign you’d made. Austerity would never exist there, they didn’t care for us, and the answer for us was not to stop caring but to stop caring for them — and in the meantime remember that we had to care for one another. So we took what we could. From the skip bins too; violins, microscopes, furniture, even a clam shell paddling pool for my daughter. You know the sleeping bag you sleep in when you visit? I took that from lost property.
The loot is the residue of a certain communion, a residue that promises further communion. I sleep in that sleeping bag on your lounge room floor. In the morning I play with your daughter, drink coffee with you, and in the summer she cools herself in the clam shaped pool. The unclogged toilet and the bottle of liquor with its label askew have little to do with our work, though they are residue too. The only difference is perhaps the one Harney offers us, the possibility of experiencing our labour critically. If we labour only towards the product our talk is restricted to that product, and so is everything that follows. So we strive to remain in the form of our labour. Taking what we need, giving what we have.
Are the shared snack and the friendship and the prefigured ‘yes’ and the handmade gift and the unshown painting ultimately modes of sensuality? It may be impossible to escape networks of influence, naturalising what we take in our mouths when we feel like each event is created for the next. To that end, we look for actions that are enjoyable because they rupture organising principles and so reveal organisational possibilities, not because they’re tasty. We look for actions that make available sensations that make available sensations that make available ever wilder combinations of sensations. We look for actions against logistics, strategy, the funereal. We look for gravel spun off tyres as a car pulls onto the shoulder to charge our batteries. We listen for the truck’s hydraulic brakes fissing on every street as they stop to see who wants a melon. We strain for the go-slow and the strike. We smell for books in the bin. We labour over tender gifts with love. We touch flesh feeling for cashews in our colleague’s outstretched palm. We taste the dinner on the table set for more than the residents. We sweat for kitchen jams and lock-ins, all welcome. We sense gut biomes and the extraordinary work of roots and the kalamatas composting across your driveway. We search for the back of paintings and we search for each other. It’s late, but you call me anyway.