by Anna Gibbs
Writing, art and performance are increasingly intertwined in new forms of creative cultural activism. Writing is central to our understanding of images, and of art – even art that is not text-based. Even if visual experience can’t be reduced to language, language nevertheless plays a key role in configuring our sensory experience and enculturating our perception of it, as art theorist WJT Mitchell has shown. And new forms of interaction between writing and image are also having an impact on the literary, the shorter forms necessitated by it often giving rise to more experimental modes of writing. Jenny Brown’s work, ‘Solastalgia’, uses writing as a form of integration of concepts and visuals in several different ways, some more recognisably literary than others.
‘Solastalgia’ is a term borrowed by Brown from the philosopher Glenn Albrecht. While ‘nostalgia’ refers to something – for example, a homeland – lost or left, ‘solastalgia’ captures the very particular form of psychic pain produced when the environment is changed around them while the sufferer is still in situ. This is the case with the slow destruction of communities, towns, districts and environments by mining which contaminates water, and produces amounts of dust, noise and vibration that make it impossible for some residents to stay in towns they might have lived in for generations.
The town of Bulga, NSW has recently been in the news because the encroachment of mining threatens its very existence, but the tiny town of Wollar, about 50 kilometres north-east of Mudgee, has already been all but destroyed as properties have been bought up by the US company Peabody Energy, owners of the Wilpinjong open-cut coal mine which holds an exploration lease over the area and is massively expanding its activities there. Wollar and its fate is the particular focus of one segment of Brown’s multi-part work. I’ll return to this.
Another component of the work, ‘Bayeux capitalism: A portrait of Edward Bernays’ constructs a (very short) history of contemporary western subjectivity in a series of brief statements that work as captions to a collaged timeline of tapestries and templates for tapestry and needlework. Bernays was Freud’s nephew, and, as the inventor of public relations, played a seminal role in developing the idea of a mass psychology that could be acted on to ‘crystallize public opinion’ – an idea taken up by Goebbels in the service of Nazi ideology, and also by the CIA as it sought to effect regime change in Guatemala and elsewhere in Central America.
Perhaps most far-reachingly, though, Bernays’ work was taken up by advertising to shape new generations of consumers, targeting women in particular. Smoking, for example, was promoted as a form of liberation for women. As people are increasingly treated as consumers rather than citizens, democracy is reduced to consumers’ freedom to choose between brands of the same thing, while voters are targeted according to ‘lifestyle’ categories and governments become increasingly focus-group and poll-driven.
The emphasis on producing consumers is the result of prioritising economic above all other relations, and government policy in the US and elsewhere devises social policy accordingly, regardless of the consequences for individuals – or indeed, whole populations. This point is expanded and elaborated on in another part of Brown’s work, one where a more explicitly literary dimension of it comes to life in a performance component that centres on the fate of the tiny town of Wollar.
At dusk on the last night of Cementa15, we travel a few kilometres up the road to Clandulla, where Brown’s train carriage home installed on a small block of land holds an exhibition detailing the plight of Wollar, all but destroyed by mining. A prototype for a board game about the stakes of mining is also on display. A video replays a mash up of excerpts from the film of Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451 and interviews with residents of Wollar, and articles and stories about the town are available to read. Outside, we can see images of political protest projected onto the windows of the carriage which form a backdrop for a series of ‘talking books’, extracts from which are presented by a number of performers, each of whom reads in turn, so that a complex montage of text emerges and builds to raise a series of questions about the relationship between the triumph of the economy and the repression of critical thought and the nature of collective responsibility in the face of this.
First up is a poem by Jane Wilde, mother of Oscar, and an activist for women’s rights and for revolution in Ireland in the wake of the Potato Famine, not so much an act of nature as a result of British policy which diverted food to export and to production of alcohol, illustrating the point about the way social policy is trumped by the economy and the profit motive:
THE FAMINE YEAR
Weary men, what reap ye? – Golden corn for the stranger.
What sow we? – Human cor(p)ses that wait for the avenger.
Fainting forms, hunger-stricken, what see you in the offing?
Stately ships to bear our food away, amid the stranger’s scoffing.
They’re a proud array of soldiers – what do they round your door?
They guard our masters’ granaries from the thin hands of the poor.
While some texts are taken from the Mudgee Guardian and others from sources such as Sharon Munro’s Rich Land, Wasteland – How coal is killing Australia, the most potent comments are forged from extracts of more literary texts. From Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, for example: ‘If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none’. This is followed up with quotations from German romantic poet Heinrich Heine’s 1823 work, A Tragedy: ‘It is there, where they burn books, that eventually they burn people’ and German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution: ‘Collective responsibility involves something I have not done, and the reason for my responsibility must be my membership in a group, which no voluntary act of mine can dissolve’. Then Bradbury again: ‘Somewhere the saving and putting away had to begin again and someone had to do the saving and keeping, one way or another, in books, in records, in people’s heads, any way at all so long as it was safe, free from moths, silverfish, rust and dry rot, and men with matches. The world was full of burning of all types and sizes’.
As this part performance comes to an end, the audience is invited to help participate in its own act of burning by setting alight a pile of ‘Tony Abbott Yule Logs’ (pine logs anointed with Clandulla wattle, wine and oil). Here burning becomes a kind of cleansing, a joyful activity cementing solidarity with some of the residents of Wollar present on the night. And performance has revivified literary works, bringing them to life by highlighting their relevance in contemporary contexts.