Butler, Octavia E. Parable of the Sower. New York:
Four Walls Eight Windows, 1993.
I’m late to the work of Octavia Butler, having put the other Butler (Judith) ahead on my reading list. While I haven’t made it much beyond introductions and crib notes with Judith (whose teachings on gender have anyway passed into a realm of ambient collectively held truth), my OB curiosity was cultivated by the respect and interest she inspired in my partner and other life teachers such as author, podcaster and healer adrienne maree brown. Also, it doesn’t take much to get me to read sci-fi (see Muñoz for related thoughts on futurity). Parable of the Sower was the first in a never-finished trilogy of novels by the renowned Black American novelist (1947-2006) and charts the journey and philosophical reckoning of young empath and emerging leader Lauren Oya Olamina as she survives a wild and dystopian future America. It needs a strong trigger warning for themes of violence and trauma, and holds profound and disturbing lessons on power, solidarity, love, connection, gender and difference. It is also unusual in that it looks to and not away from violence. A significant part of the teenage Olamina’s survival under unbearable circumstances is due to the religion that she creates – Earthseed – to make sense of existence in general and god in particular. The book opens with one of Earthseed’s most memorable verses: ‘All that you touch / You Change. / All that you Change / Changes you. The only lasting truth / Is Change. / God is Change.’ This aphorism has stayed with me as a reminder of agency, interdependence and accountability.
Gott, Ted, ed. Don’t Leave Me This Way: Art in the Age of AIDS. Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 1994. Exhibition catalogue.
I don’t remember when this exhibition catalogue came into my possession. Definitely after the exhibition opened at the National Gallery of Australia (I was sixteen); probably after I moved from Newcastle to Sydney in 1999; some time before it spent five years in a box while I was in Germany (2010-15). So, it would have been in the decade I came out. But what it meant and means to me has much more to do with my father’s story. At the age of twelve, I didn’t have the foresight to accept my stepfather’s offer to drive my sister and I overnight from the Central Coast to Melbourne to attend my father’s funeral the next day. Just as this exhibition tried to register the personal, social and political effects of HIV/AIDS through works of visual art (created for the most part by the gay and lesbian community the epidemic disproportionately, and most publicly, affected), the catalogue’s role in my life was to be a kind of ersatz memorial to my father, Dale, who had died from AIDS-related illness four years before the exhibition and book were created. Its compact design, red-on-black floral cover1, and weight are satisfying to me. Its pages are full of artistic and written responses to the crisis mainly from Australia and the US: evidence of a strong community, who – unlike my mother and stepfather – were not silent about the cause of my father’s death. It wasn’t until I moved to Melbourne in 2019 for work that I began to understand why knowledge of this shared history was important to me personally, and I can assume by extension to others. Together with the literature and films dedicated to this loss of a generation, and the small miracle that is the friendships I’ve since formed with two precious men living near to Melbourne who knew my father well, such cultural work of remembering and awareness-raising earns my respect and will always feel a little like home.
Richard Grayson (curator), 13th Biennale of Sydney: (The World May Be) Fantastic, 2002, multiple venues, Sydney.
Aside from two trips to the Art Gallery of New South Wales as a teenager in the 1990s that left vague visual impressions (Surrealism: Revolution by Night, 1993 and Art Express, c.1995), the first exhibition that I clearly remember was the 2002 edition of the Biennale of Sydney, titled (The World May Be) Fantastic.
I had returned to study after completing a Bachelor of Visual Arts degree at the University of Newcastle some years prior and may have needed to review an exhibition as part of my Art History and Art Theory coursework. I visited only two of its nine inner-city venues that I recall – the Museum of Contemporary Art and nearby Customs House at Circular Quay – but the diversity of expression I encountered transported me into its micro worlds. Impressed that this sprawling feast had been curated by an artist (the first time in the Biennale’s history) and ever drawn to the ‘something more’ that art, and particularly contemporary art, promised (why else had I gone to art school?), the exhibition’s premise of the collision between the real and the fantastic and its ‘unusual readings of the “normal”’2 intrigued me. Looking back, I wish this ‘first’ was one that my 2022 self could better appreciate. It took me many more years to begin to see the visions of white English men as among the many patterns of asymmetric power in the art world. Yet, I can even now place my body in the upper level of the MCA weaving through Susan Hiller’s installation of small dangling speakers relating true stories of UFO contact, and Luke Roberts as Pope Alice thrilled me for reasons I wasn’t yet quite conscious of.3
Harney, Stefano and Moten, Fred. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study. Wivenhoe, New York and Port Watson: Minor Compositions, 2013.
I read The Undercommons over the course of several months in 2018, slowly and out loud, taking turns with a small group of others who had shared a run of reading groups with me that year at Sydney’s not-only-artist-run-initiative, Frontyard. As with the best and most satisfying (theory) reading groups, we co-laboured over the dense text and its application to our lives. The authors are former classmates and frequent collaborators whose coming together yields more than their respective fields might promise: Harney, who teaches in Strategic Management Education at Singapore Management University, and Moten, a poet and theorist teaching in the department of Performance Studies at Tisch School of the Arts, New York. The spell cast by this book has never dissipated. Or maybe more accurate to say that it arrived, much in the way of a significant event. Drawing on the ‘theory and practice of the black radical tradition’, each of The Undercommons’ collected essays and texts are for me as enjoyable aesthetically as they are intellectually. I would not like to define it as either poetry, theory or social justice treatise, as the texts have a musicality and cadence that dance them away from being a ‘single thing’.4 It is more clearly a critique of the present. For Harney and Moten, the book’s key concept – the undercommons – is a space (and a people) that registers the persistent, ever-present antagonism that marks it (and them) with difference. Its meaning is gleaned gradually over pages and pages of discussion about institutions, governance, policy, administration, credit as control by debt, shipping, slavery and blackness, and in reference to philosophers like Hegel, Fanon and Foucault, theorist-activists like Gayatri Spivak and Angela Mitropoulos or jazz musician Les McCann. The undercommons is not exactly oppositional or separatist, but its relationship to institutions (whether the university, the state or prisons) is unapologetically one of siphoning resources and squatting land. Of this book’s pearls, I love perhaps most that Harney and Moten re-map the word ‘study’ to engage the forms of intellectuality that are always-already part of everyday life; as they articulate in the long interview that closes the book, study is ‘what you do with other people. It’s talking and walking around with other people, working, dancing, suffering, some irreducible convergence of all three, held under the name of speculative practice.’ There are no standards of quality or measures of outcome that apply to these activities in order to rise them to the status of intellectuality. There is no presumption, either, of a class of people for whom academia must provide ‘access’. This idea of study works against the forces of individuation that are so prevalent under neoliberal conditions, and what Harney and Moten characterise as the ‘negligence of professionalisation’. That phrase alone is a decades-worthy source of contemplation.
Macneice, Louis. Louis MacNeice: Poems Selected by Michael Longley. London: Faber and Faber, 2011.
The poem is the author’s realisation that one thing is different to another. What’s more, these different things exist side-by-side, sharing codes, carbon and contexts; they are in and of the same stuff, of the same world. (But so different!) In January 1935, in the lull between the World Wars, at home and I assume at leisure by a crackling fire, the Irish poet – as the poem tells – was struck drunk by a quick violent perception of both the kinship and incompatibility of the falling snow and the huge pink roses on either side of his bay-window. ‘World is suddener than we fancy it.’ He peels a tangerine, separates its parts, spits out its pips and is dizzy with the notion of ‘things being various’. ‘World is crazier and more of it than we think, / Incorrigibly plural’. To me the poem has always transported a flush of sense-data, cold, crackle and bloom, a call to sense this very moment, to sense more (now, reader) richly.
Muñoz, José Esteban. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York and London: New York University Press, 2009.
Claiming queerness, for me, has not been straightforward. ‘How can I own something I can’t define?’, my subconscious mumbles (an ego’s diversionary strategy of false protection). I’m not alone in this; writer Ariel Goldberg spent three hundred pages gnawing on the protean category in their 2016 book The Estrangement Principle. A caress to my ambivalence, the opening of José Esteban Muñoz’s introduction to Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity assures: ‘Queerness is not yet here... We may never touch queerness, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality.’ The book-long argument of the late Cuban American scholar of queer politics, performance and aesthetics departs from the ideas of German philosopher Ernst Bloch about hope, and argues against negativistic narratives of queerness that reject the future (such as theorist Lee Edelman’s refusal of the reproductive patterns of straight time). Muñoz fills the book with loving characterisations of works of art and literature that provide ‘blueprints and schemata of a forward-dawning futurity’ – examples that by their once-existence promise a return somewhere, sometime, in the not-yet-here. Like Frank O’Hara’s upbeat poem ‘Having a Coke with You’. Dancer Fred Herko’s too-brief incandescence. Being moved by ‘ghosts of public sex’ in Samuel Delany’s memoirs and Tony Just’s auratic photographs of New York men’s rooms shuttered by the AIDS/HIV health crisis. Above all, Muñoz stresses the limits of the here and now. Understanding the aesthetic as the realm of mapping new worlds is a powerful call against settling for the majoritarian ‘tolerable’.
van Neerven, Ellen. ‘The Only Blak Queer in the World.’ in Throat. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2020.
When I pulled out this book I found that someone had left an unlit match at ‘A ship-shaped hole in the forest’, a poem by Mununjali Yugambeh and Dutch writer Ellen van Neerven that aches for trees and forests still in recovery and ruin from colonial-capitalist endeavour. Each one of their poems is, actually, like a match waiting to be struck. They are funny and feeling and activate soft, sharp and dull edges of love and learning. The collection elicits the kind of feelings that spring moist into your eyes, focus your wits and lodge in your belly. I turn back the pages to ‘The Only Blak Queer in the World,’ a work that is one of the most beautiful evocations of coming into a sense of community, belonging and acceptance that I know. When I first read van Neerven’s poetry, I was trying to form thoughts about language as more than a neutral carrier of meaning – not just a characterless technology but something situated and inflected (with pre-loaded concepts, with cultural information, with chosen and unconscious inheritances, etc.). Language also, of course, has power. For reasons that have to do with being a queer, cis, white person of settler heritage in Australia, van Neerven’s poetry and this poem in particular form in me shapes of both identification and education. Some of this poem’s teaching power is its message of overcoming feelings of isolation by ‘learning the words’ of the ‘continuing poem’ that is your history.
Melissa Ratliff is an arts worker of settler ancestry, currently reading, writing, editing and curating on Gadigal, Wangal, Boonwurrung and Wurundjeri lands. She has held the role of Curator Research at Monash University Museum of Art since 2019.
[^3]: Roberts’s playful provocations to religion and gender were on the other side of a fence that I hadn’t quite yet crossed. His performance persona made me nervous.