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Regional Art Stories Each one carries its origins into its designated future. One produces dirt, one water.

by Tristen Harwood for Regional Assembly

Each one carries its origins into its designated future. One produces dirt, one water.[i]

It’s December here, or they say. I work where I eat, I write at the table. In this room a window looks onto the whitewashed concrete wall of a terrace next door. It’s weirdly kind of beautiful, water stained. In places the white paint rises and creases, is discoloured, tracing a vine that once crept up the wall. Cracks running up the wall mimic the vine’s ghost patterns, co-conspirators in the concrete’s inevitable decay. All this is coloured by the crystalline grey sky. Maybe it’ll rain or storm later (it’s only the morning), but right now white and grey cloud magnifies the sun.

At this time of year, on Woi Wurrung Country and across the lands of the Kulin Nations, in Garrawang or kangaroo apple season, it’s normal and common for it to storm. It is warmer—apple-berry, white elderberry, kangaroo apples appear and begin to ripe, manna can be collected from beneath wurun (manna gums). Summer here, is an abstract imposition making sense in a European context but cannot even begin to describe seasonal and climatic variation in this country.

The other day, it was raining and cold here. I got a notification on my phone, the news telling of an ‘extreme heatwave’ that was forecast for the Kimberley. I thought of the others in Regional Assembly who live out around that way, Alana Hunt and Katie Breckon, what would they do? Would they be at a pool, a waterhole, most likely it’d be too hot for that, and they’d have to bunker in their homes with air cons and fans – sometimes in heatwaves the power goes out, what if that happens?

It seems obvious to say that because Regional Assembly is spread over vast distances that we each experience weather and the seasons differently but it is exactly this specific localised difference that terms like summer and winter, even hot and dry – which is used to describe Top End seasons – interdict. Regional is another term like this.

Often I’ve sat in this room where I write and where I connect in with our monthly Regional Assembly and seen into the living rooms, bedrooms, offices and other quiet spaces that people go to have their Zoom meetings in houses that are populated with other people’s movements and sounds. And I’ve wondered at what it might be like down the road or street. Would it be quiet, when they needed food, would they walk down to a busy market, drive to one of those remote supermarkets where everything is perennially passed its ‘use by’ date, or are they in places where they have their own garden? I don’t know.

Even as we have shared in each other’s artistic practices, and I’ve learned in detail so much about others in Regional Assembly, there are these details, the mundane and the bureaucratic, which evade and captivate me at times.

Uzma Falak recites one of her poems as this text lingers on the screen:

“Memory is home

till home is only a memory.”

She is reading, “I’m walking home from school, a boy wants to walk home too but he is precious so many shoulders carry him. I have just my feet.” It’s a poem, this is how I hear it not how it is written how spaces, breathes and words find their way onto the page or the screen. The gendered, racialised, contested nature of space of regions, the regional, mediates how your body moves and is moved. Distance covered or not is in this way what marks us.

In so-called Australia, regional has a specific definition. The Regional, Remote and Metropolitan Area (RRMA) divides the country into three zones and seven classifications. The RRMA doesn’t reflect population growth, which is to say from a statistical perspective it doesn’t reflect peoples’ lives and movements. It is a classification that is used to make policy and programs related to rural and remote areas.

Most of my childhood I spent moving with my mum and six brothers between the regional town of Northam and metropolitan Perth’s outer suburbs. I always felt so much more isolated in these metropolitan suburbs than I did when I was living in my regional home. Northam had things, a river, trees, shops too, a pool, school, a hospital. In the outer suburbs there was none of this, except trees, the endless repetition of plantation pine. I heard things about the pine forest, it was where nasty things happened. It was here where I felt infrastructural violence more than anywhere else.

My experience is just one permutation of the regional, I’ve been to and through other regional areas where I’ve felt and heard of infrastructural violence – the deprivation of telecommunications, energy, calories, water – that was more severe than I ever could have imagined back when I was feeling stranded in the outer suburbs of Perth.

Permutations. In Italo Calvino’s Invincible Cities (1974) Marco Polo describing the imagined city of Despina to Kublai Khan speaks of two travellers, one who arrives overland and the other by sea. Over the horizon, the first man, a camel driver sees the distant city as a ship that will take him away from the desert. And as the coastline of Despina appears to the second man, a sailor, he thinks of the city as a camel that will carry him away from the ‘desert of the sea’. Each traveller projects onto the city the reverse image of the desert that they have travelled through, a fantasy which entails the travellers being carried by the city away from itself, into the ‘unknown’. In this sense, the city emerges as a frontier interstice, a mediating fantasy that as it materialises represents endless potential.

Approaching fantasy differently, Roland Barthes in Empire of Signs (1983) speaks of the way that the reality of Japan, once the tourist was there, could only ever betray the fantasy that the visitor had of the place. Barthes realisation brings into relief the intense epistemic violence that is required to project and maintain fantasies – I’m thinking specifically of settler-colonialism here – that contradict the experience, knowledge, and world of local people and ecosystems.

Regional Assembly is all about local understandings, the way spending time in a place shapes people, it’s as much about where we are as where we aren’t and the alterity that arises in our shared negotiations of location and dislocation. It is about the impossibility of frontier, of ‘empty space’ where fantasies can be projected and fulfilled, because such notions are always inherently colonial.

Tame Iti (Ngai Tuhoe/Waikato/Te Arawa), “is known as many things… Activist, Artist, Terrorist and Cyclist.” He lives in Aotearoa. He spoke to Regional Assembly of his extensive and radical lifelong work as an activist and his art, which for him is all about provocation. He spoke of how people are like the river, describing the way a protest march moves like the river’s water moves. The river moves like the protest march. Both living moving things, with will and direction, never singular but constituted by ecological communities.

In a choreographed digital exercise or dance, Zoe Scoglio has the Regional Assembly participants stand. Soon after, she notes the body’s connection to the earth and the sky, the pull of gravity, she directs the participants to do the same. On the ground and in the river the body is pulled, floats – it is a fluid thing – made of water, mostly – but it’s also static, kind of unchanging and you can see that as all these bodies stand in view of their computer’s camera. The river, when it’s flowing is in constant renewal, both itself and something new. You can’t step in the same river twice, but some protests must be marched again and again. This might be something like what moves us across distance and with difference, in Regional Assembly.

[i] Adapted from lines in Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey (2013). Wave Books, Seattle, Washington.