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Regional Art Stories Behind the Scenes of The Phone Booth Project Redux

Behind the Scenes of The Phone Booth Project Redux with Curtis Taylor and Lily Hibberd

Initially produced by Curtis Taylor and Lily Hibberd on Martu country in 2012, The Phone Booth Project Redux is currently being re-distributed in early May 2020 as part of the Prototype Care Package a rapid-response series for lockdown that delivers new, remixed, re-edited and under-seen works direct to subscribers' inboxes weekly, in essence making video art and experimental film accessible to interested audiences no matter where they may be.

Curtis Taylor, Lily Hibberd and the team at Prototype have generously shared this conversation with Regional Arts Australia—which provides personal insight and historical context into the making of this seminal video work.

The Phone Booth Project was originally co-commissioned by Fremantle Arts Centre and Martumili Artists for the exhibition We don’t need a map: a Martu experience of the Western Desert.

Between 9—16 May 2020 you can view The Phone Booth Project Redux co-presented by Prototype and PICA.

Lily Hibberd: This project took ten months to create, two visits working and filming together in the communities, about two months of intense editing. Our first trip to Parnngurr and Punmu to collect phone booth stories was in April 2012. For the first few days, we hung around the phone booths in Parnngurr, hoping that people would come to us with stories. But it was not that easy. Initially, nobody saw anything significant or unique about the phone booth. It was an ordinary object, like any other practical tool.

Curtis Taylor: So we asked: “Come and share your stories with us because we think that this object has, in the last 20 years, shaped contemporary Martu culture; how Western Desert communities and Martu communities communicate with each other, in a different way.”

Lily: The phone booth was just one form of communication in a long line of technologies that they’d seen arrive and had adopted over their adult life. When we asked them about the phones, they took it as an opportunity to tell a far more crucial story about self-determination in the context of colonisation.

Curtis: A lot of the kids and even the adults were thinking about the ways they used the phone booth. And this could be applied to any of the new things that come into Martu life or community. They were remembering the time that they first saw it, touched it, held it, heard it, and found a way for it to benefit them. They recalled the last ten or twenty years, not only of Western Desert history but remote community history; how they communicated with different people across vast distances. Whether they be on stations, or in communities, or in town and making day-to-day decisions in their lives; whether it be for their welfare or for their house.

Lily: At first we did not see the common ground running through all the accounts documented at the time but, as we reviewed the recordings over the coming months, we saw a very powerful thread: the phone booth was a container for a narrative that had not been told before, and whose significance was probably not even apparent to the tellers until they saw their disparate stories come together in the final work. Their memories of the various telecommunication tools are nonlinear in the same way that the evolution of technology involves a network of simultaneous devices and practices, regardless of cultural difference. Rather than seeing Martu peoples’ use of Western technologies over the past hundred years as exotic or intriguing, Curtis and I rapidly realized that the question we needed to ask was not how but why.

A fact worth knowing about Martu is that they were some of the last Aboriginal Australians to hold out against dispossession, only slowly coming in from the desert at the culmination of a devastating two-decade drought. Having studied the colonists’ exploitation of the land and its resources, Martu and other desert people set about quickly to participate as equals: establishing tin mines, organising large-scale strikes, and taking over the management of cattle stations, if not on their own country, on neighbouring country in consortiums with other language groups, all enabled through shortwave radio, overlapping with two-way radio, and later on landline telephones. The Phone Booth Project offered a way to recount how telecommunications had supported these struggles for self-determination over the decades.

Curtis: It's still relevant. The climate we're in now, more people are wanting to stay connected to each other. Phone booths in remote places have and will continue to remain a portal to the wider community, an important part of the tapestry of contemporary Martu Western Desert life and a very important part of the story of homelands movement – until the day there's network coverage covering all places inhabited by people. [Only then do] I see them as becoming a relic.