What did this year mean? What does any year mean? What makes meaning?
There are many modes of reflection that characterise my understanding of the world. The most constructive ones happen unexpectedly, demanding attention and care, and inspiring productive reinterpretations of the familiar and the known. Art, travel, politics all pose new questions, new ethics, new workings. Some are playful, some are rigorous, or formal, or collaborative, or light. And others hit me like a missile to the gut.
Kat Muscat. Armando Montilla. Shannon Hayes. Pippa O’Sullivan, who wrote as Grace Bellavue. Sam de Brito. Nicola Andrews. Stella Young. And there are more. The unexpected deaths across the past twelve or more months of powerful voices have broken so many of us, forever characterising 2015 as a year of loss. And yet, of course, we have come together in powerful ways. For me, Kat’s suicide and Armando’s accident have been chilling. Each shock has taught me something new about myself and the people I love.
The news of a death is always a deeply personal and isolating experience, triggering a complex flood of inarticulable traumas that attach to the body’s insides and cling cruelly, violently. I have learnt new ways to talk about death, because Armando and Kat had already taught me new ways to talk about life. To live. The finality of death invites us to make meaning in more determinate ways – until we come to realise that the only such finality is our own death, because we continue to know someone even after they are gone, and they continue to connect us to people who mean a great deal to us. To live.
Gloriously sharp inhalations to Skye Gellmann’s body reinterpreting the streets of North Melbourne… I can still feel my body’s response. Being enveloped by Speak Percussion‘s soundworld. The force and the truth of Elbow Room’s We Get It. Floating through Pierre Huyghe‘s landscapes. The memory of Margaret Cameron in Grave Listening. Chamber Made’s continued rigour and experiments. Shen Keyi’s Death Fugue. Uncle Jack’s Going Through at the Castlemaine State Festival in his old jail. RKM Collective’s Roadkill Mausoleum, also at the Festival. The always amazing Telia Nevile in Poet vs Pageant. The Necks, always The Necks. Gulumbu Yunupingu: her immense vision, her sensitive touch. Zoe Scoglio’s epic: sharing spiritual communion at the speedway by the freeway at Mass. Solitary spiritual communion with James Turrell‘s monuments. Unexpected communion while walking with Hany Armanious. Palimpsest Mildura. The Powerhouse Choir’s High Voltage Rock n Roll at Nati Frinj. The majestic sound of Present Tense’s Ricercar. Elizabeth Gertsakis’ Outrage, Obscenity and Madness. Sean Hogan’s delicious Mind Set. Nathan Gray‘s gestures and James Geurts‘ flood. Delight and discovery in Work With Me Here: reprogramming my body one sunny afternoon. The welcome focus of Independent Convergence, whose politics was both more understated and more powerful than its curators could possibly have imagined.
Art as embodied experience is one of the things that makes me a feminist. Every single one of the other things played out this year in many ways. Beautiful ways. Horrible ways. Instructive ways.
The New Matilda disappointment reminded us that editorial decisions can belie a gross lack of feminist understanding and respect, even in publications characterised by a cultural sophistication. Instead, a calculated click-baiting strategy on the part of the editor to troll his audience insulted feminists both male and female, degraded other New Matilda writers, and deliberately exploited a young writer in the process. In 2015, this was the feminist event that offended me the most. And in the Tony Abbott, Donald Trump year that was, that’s not a shallow pool. In this age of highly concentrated mass media ownership hard set on a race to the bottom to avoid rethinking their news values, we need independent media we can trust to maintain their integrity.
Can men be feminists? Of course. Can non-scientists discuss climate change? Of course. Can non-scientists advocate climate change denial without one iota of self-awareness? As surely as feminism can be Abbottsplained and asylum policy Trumpsplained. Knowing the power of your platform, and when to stand aside, is as feminist a realisation as the embodiment of your experience. Just ask Deb Verhoeven.
The entire nation breathed a sigh of relief when astoundingly pre-feminist Tony was finally put aside, but the damage was already done, with a cacophony of chauvinist and racist public voices emboldened. Worse, the leadership style that made a plaything of the nation’s values spread across government, undermining all of the public goods that government exists to uphold. Health, education, science, research, welfare, asylum seekers, the environment, the public media and the arts were all attacked with no justification, simply for the enjoyment of their attackers. A year of senseless loss. With the Rudd years over, it had seemed unthinkable that Australian politics could sink further into self-absorption, and yet Abbott remains all too eager to follow in his footsteps. It will be interesting to observe what misogyny the commercial media will have left for a Bishop prime ministership.
In Greece, they do politics a little differently. Yet while the current government is grounded and confident, old interests continue to prevail. This year’s crisis showed how deeply the politics of face-saving is implicated in decisions that can plague an entire nation for generations. That Greeks continue to welcome asylum seekers by the day is testament to the new schisms deepening their marks on a country so multiply divided as to be barely recognisable as one Greece.
And yet while investment in the arts continues to grow in Greece, including by philanthropic families such as Onassis and Benaki at pains to outdo one another, in Australia the arts is under continued attack, with philanthropic families expressing their dismay at the government.
A respect and a collaborative nurturing of the independent arts is something that has characterised the arts in Australia for some time. This year, the personal whims of elected representatives have rejected arts policy expertise and evidence to disrupt that ecology in favour of those personal whims. A senseless loss whose impacts continue to be felt. I have written and spoken and contributed a great deal on this throughout the year, and look forward to collaborating on reinvigorated advocacy in the coming year. With thanks to people like Stuart Harrison, I am giving advocacy a lot of thought. With a federal election due in 2016, a fresh look at public values and public goods will be vital.
Indented Head. Castlemaine. Canberra. Portarlington. Shepparton. Ballarat. Swan Hill. Lake Boga. Ouyen. Mildura. Avoca. St Arnaud. Sydney. Flinders. Chicago. New York. Healesville. Port Fairy. Beaconsfield. Natimuk. Wodonga. Bonegilla. Athens. Kalamata. Skortsinou. Diros. Paris. Sierre. Vercorin. From my Melbourne home I have ventured across the world, by road, sea and sky, for art, friends and family. Travel has long been very important to me. I am writing this today from Paris, where I am resting between cities visited for personal and professional reasons, because it’s a city in which I’ve always been able to write to a comfortable rhythm. A walkable city reframes the thinking mind.
In my professional work I create constructive contexts; in my creative work I experiment with these. Travel, as both transit and destination, sets the body in motion across contexts entered voluntarily and involuntarily, such that the mind resets its languages, its modes of being, its scope of possibility. Travel means as much to me as a strong sense of home.
The traumas of unexpected deaths, political attacks on public goods, the deepening crisis in the fatherland… More time devoted to actively considering wellbeing, as well as critical reflection on practice, has been essential as a strategy for making what’s most meaningful more local, more tangible.
In my own practice I have been indexing the past twenty years of my notes, mindmaps and journals. My work spans a broad range of disciplines, and I’ve long had an interest in creating and understanding the frameworks from which new thinking and new work emerge. To turn that approach to my own work has been edifying, especially at a time when I’m already focused on understanding my artistic leadership. In conversation with Angharad Wynne-Jones for Fleur Kilpatrick and Jana Perković’s Audio Stage, I was able to think aloud about responsibility and integrity in ways that made new sense to me – and I’m still thinking that through.
What did this year mean? Meaning and its making are what powers us – and what exhausts us. Among senseless loss and beautiful connections, it’s been a year of profound experiences. Perhaps, once again, I have discovered the power of honesty, seeking it out in new work, speaking it now gently and now ardently and now with care, and finding it close to my heart. These are mere notes, reference points, reflections on surfaces I continue to sketch and explore and plunge through.
We make what we mean; we mean what we make.
The making of meaning is an artform and a politics. A necessity and a contingency. An arbitrariness and a life.
IMAGES: Armando Montilla (photograph by David Dudar). Mass: Site is Set. Holding my grandmother’s hand. >One-term Tony. Silo at Natimuk. Index-System. HEADER IMAGE: the ceiling of the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. All photographs by Esther Anatolitis unless credited otherwise.