River Stories and Dirt Songs

I love staring at water. A lot. I especially love how late afternoon sunlight catches the surface of a slow rippling river and refracts a myriad of colours into separate pooling planes. Liquid mobile multiple colour.

I sat staring into my local river for a couple of hours last Saturday evening.

Most of the afternoon was spent navigating her banks with the Bent Kranks cycle tour. A large posse of lycra-clad queers rolling on rubber tubes along smooth paths and dirt tracks, as the Maribyrnong glistened beside us, or beneath us from a stunning view of a northern escarpement.

Post Footscray Pho, I navigated the demolition site of Footscray station to roll down the hill to the Community Art Centre, for the matinee performance of Hunted/the Hunter.

There was enough time before the show to plonk myself in one of four large leather armchairs, and circle around the four screens of Blak Side Story catching the tales of three Western Melbourne elders as well as a patchwork of impressions of Aboriginal identity from local Aboriginal folk.

Annette Xiberras presented a narrative of growing up black in Braybrook of the 1970s – an evocative Kaleidescoping off Alice Pung’s more familiar writings on the area. Union activism, cultural survival, economic survival, institutional racism and isolation segued into a traditional story about the Maribyrnong bunyip – located in a tunnel north of the station and the continuous retelling of this story as a way of stopping kids straying into the night. Her story brought to mind my personal memories of night riding along the river, through the spooky swamp land north of the rail bridge tunnel before the opening out into the park path…

This story was still reverberating within me as I wandered into the performance space. Noting the presence of Uncle Larry, offering his seat and standing during the performance, as well as Rachel Maza, I took my seat in the dark, waiting as Anna Liebzeit’s calming thrum created an audioscaped vestibule for the start of the performance.

Hunted is based on another Bunyip story, coming from north Queensland and written by Cameron Costello, where the shadow of an outer menace creeps into the present of an urban man in the grips of ‘the horrors’. But how paltry is this kind of diegetic summary for what was an incredibly complex, multilayered, and profoundly affecting piece? I know Liebzeits work as a voice and video artist, and delighted in the way she danced with sound and with the projection of shapes onto and across Kirk Page’s mercurial body. Words shattered into glossolalia, shimmering as the shredded fragments of newspaper descending from above, coating and scooting across the moving bodies and forms below. With two bodies, and three props: strip lit blackboards, both performers allowed words, scratches, scars, movements, stabs, light, projections, refraction and distortion to recreate a profound sense of time shattering apart, and the world opening up to the stranger forces of poetry.

Or that was my interpretation of it at least, as I staggered out blinking in the Reflect exhibition, to stare at the Kopi mourning caps collaboratively produced by Maree Clarke, and then blink my tears away at the tree photographs of lost country on the facing wall. After chatting with a couple of familiar faces, I wandered down to the river with my backpack and bike helmet, stonkered.

I sat on a pier, wondering if the tunnel heading into the Port Melbourne container terminal was the Bunyip lair of the Boonwarrung tales, and stared up and down the river, noting the rivercraft of Saturday night suits having a lads night out (CUB alert), and the old man whose dog swims across the river ‘2 or 3 times a week’ apparently. As the goldening light started to glimmer everything, and the inflatable screen cast a cold shadow over me, I climbed back up, noting the HORDES of people that had gathered on the lawn. There must have been a few thousand people, of varying hue of blak, brown and beige, but they didn’t resemble the Footscray I know, of the markets and trains and Barkly street or the Paisley street bus stops. So this was a surprise, a gathering to the Wominjeka or ‘welcome’ festival, possibly summonsed by the Melbourne Arts Club post from a week earlier.

I’m acutely aware of the colour of my words, typed by pale beige hands on a laptop in a rapidly gentrifying suburb. I’m aware of how my voice resounds amidst the chorus of so many other white bloggers of Footscray, as we overlay our cultural practices and stories onto so many that have been and continue to be told and retold along the river in languages I’ll never hear, no matter how often they resound around me. I’m still wrangling with how to evoke the effects/affects of such work on myself as an audience member, a viewer, and a participant, without falling into the familiar cultural practices of containment, or representation that reinforce a type of white that I don’t want to do any more.

Looking at the river, I think of the white produced by the spinning pinwheel, where colours mix to form a beige blur. The homogenising of colour into a pale beige that is called white, evokes a nausea – the giddiness of spinning, of confusion and conflation and the heady boringness of consumerist modernity. So – I’m interested in ways of looking where colours refract and reveal themselves as distinct and enmeshed, and mobile, motile even, as in the colours of the river in late afternoon sunlight, light and colour dappling and eddying amidst the flow. OK so this is a crude analogy for cultural difference, but I don’t know how else to paint it. Yet.

I sat on a patch of grass, catching the last rays of warmth, before being coaxed back towards the water and the front of the audience area by an acquaintance – who led me to a scattered posse of what I call the Melbourne matriarchs; the radical dykes who are roughly 20+ years older than my cohort. Many of them are known to Sir, and I was obliged to explain hir absence to them. I had the pleasure of sitting near dyke historian Jean Taylor, (author of the Fabulously titled “stroppy dykes”) who told me about how where we were sitting had previously housed the Women’s Circus and hosted the Lesbian festival before that.

I was struck how the herstory she was describing was not that long ago – within my lifetime, and within my queer lifetime of the past twenty years – and yet – it seems so remote. Queer sexuality and identity politics have moved so far beyond the category of “Lesbian” as a world-changing call to arms, and yet there is something in the desire for uncompromising radical social change that I deeply love, and that I deeply rejoice in when I see older versions of my gendered body as active, engaged, critical and difficult beings. This is the queer kinship I am interested in. Who I adopt as elders, as I age and become an elder for others, and what kinds of his/hers/hys/hirstorical threads we make across the spaces we inhabit. Because identity is always linked to place, and the spaces where our bodies effect and are affected by the stories and bodies around us, and neither can be separated from the other entirely – they always touch, we always touch and are touched by others, and the condition of alterity itself.

My post-cycling stonkering was refreshed by these herstories, as I sat and listened and watched the pink and lavender sky and water, waiting for the concert to start. Gum leaves were brought out, and Uncle Larry welcomed everyone, and introduced Lou Bennet, who introduced Carolyn Briggs who in her possum cloak, welcomed us to country, in the language of this Boonwarrung country, where I sit typing on my laptop, she said words that have been spoken here for over thirty THOUSAND years, and which I recognised “Wominjeka” (welcome) and “Mariby” (something to do with Maribyrnong), and then Lou Bennett started singing, and so did other singers whose names I don’t know, but there were many, many aboriginal languages and words and images, and sounds that resonated across my skin, and under my body through the ground, through the dirt that sang, and maybe this review of Dirtsongs explains it far better than I could anyway….

Shaking, tears, smiles, hums, goosebumps, texts to friends lost in the crowd, fumbling in the dark to the toilet, and to my bicycle as the last songs resounded across the riverbank. A happy rich belly humming of a cultural feast, where I was welcomed into something much larger and stranger than anything I can ever comprehend, and yet I feel so delighted to be connected to. I wheeled my own path home along the western train line, feeling happy about this new place I call home.

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