Protest Aesthetics

Last week I attended a rally in Berlin to draw attention to the longstanding issue of Aboriginal deaths in police custody in (so-called) Australia. It followed on from mass protests in Australia in affiliation with Black Lives Matter. At Platz der Republik, directly in front of the Reichstag, the organisers had set up a small but effective sound system, consisting of a self-powered speaker on wheels, above which was raised an Aboriginal flag. Coincidentally, the colours of the Aboriginal flag are also those of the flag of the Bundesrepublik. A placard proclaiming ‘Stop Adani’, a mining giant planning set to build one of the world’s largest coal ports on the Great Barrier reef, was strapped to the bamboo flag pole. Two soundbwoys (soundboize, to be gender non-specific?) hunched behind the speakers, fiddling with smart phones and wireless microphones shielded from the light rain under a lime green umbrella.

The ad-hoc quality of this installation was reminiscent of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra. The make-shift embassy was first established under a beach umbrella on the grounds in front of Parliament House in 1972 by a group of young activists, many of whom were part of the Black Theatre in Redfern, Sydney. Artist Richard Bell, who is of that generation claims, it is possibly the first and longest-standing piece of durational performance art in Australia. So it seems apt that its envoy in Berlin would be compact, portable, and also expandable—taking up space as material (flag) and as sound; piquing my interest in sound as ‘public address’ in making space, and indeed in taking space.

A small crowd lingered on from a rally for gender justice and trans rights that had just taken place on the other side of the Platz. When given the OK by the police, the organisers turned on the music, signalling that the demonstration would soon begin. I was curious to observe how music calls people together; sounds out, signals, perhaps interpellates and certainly corrals those gathered into a temporary attentive community. The music that came out of the speaker was a track that I could not name, or could not honestly say that I had heard before, but was nevertheless familiar. A thumping four-on-the-floor dance rhythm underpinned a swirling didgeridoo or yidaki sample, that mingled in the same frequency range of a looped sample of people chanting in a language I cold not recognise. The track was punctuated by a startling sample of a kookaburra laughing, quantized to the beat the bird call rings the alarm, like police sirens might do on productions composed of more ‘urban’ sound palettes. It’s a kind of music I associate with ‘bush doofs’; outdoor dance parties often held in remarkable and often secret locations in Australia. Part of cultural phenomena I associate with movements that emerged in the 1990s and early 2000s like ‘Reclaim the Streets’, psy-trance parties (often organised by Israeli expats who had spent some time after their compulsory military service decompressing in Goa) and Rainbow Festivals, alongside blockades such as Jabiluka. It’s a sound that on reflection brings together a number of interests that have informed my politics; right to the city activism, Aboriginal land rights and anticolonial activism, Blak and Green solidarity and psychedelic hedonism (and associated interests such as neuroplasticity, trauma and transformation).

I was video-documenting the event at the Reichstag, and some days later Shazaamed the track, turning up Kookaburra (2014) by the Coober Pedy University Band, a duo of Tom Wallace and William Paxton. The first release of the Animals Dancing label, it is listed under the genre of ‘tribal house’ with the endorsement of being ‘a bit too mental for me’. The Melbourne-based producers describe their collaboration as Krautback (I suppose a reference to Krautrock), so there is some sense of completion when bringing their bush aesthetics (or a simulacra of the bush) to the German (cultural) capital.

While the track brought a knowing smile to my face, and I shared some knowing glances with others at the protest, it left me wondering about its politics. Who are the voices chanting? What are they chanting? Isn’t the track ultimately a kind of kitsch — Aboriginalia?

Arguably to a DJ, such music are not songs per se, but tracks; DJ tools to be mixed and potentially subverted (depending on context). Kookaburra also brings to mind Yothu Yindi’s Treaty (Filthy Lucre remix) (1991), yet without, at least explicitly, making the same political demand. Nevertheless, here in Berlin it was put to use to call attention to Aboriginal rights and ongoing colonial genocide.

Thinking about it further brought up a memory of a road trip from Sydney to Alice Springs with some friends from an inner-city warehouse community. We bought a second-hand station wagon and drove for three days west and then north, where we met up with some friends just south of Uluru. We transferred across to a fleet of ‘troopies’, former army-service four-wheel-drives, and drove to the edge of the Simpson desert, where three states meet. Amongst the crew were Izzy and Marc from activist hip-hop outfit Combat Wombat. I learned on that trip that Izzy and Marc first attempted to escape Melbourne in a reconditioned army tank powered on bio-diesel. Their second album Unsound System (2005) was recorded on the road using solar-power.

One night, it might have been a full moon, we camped out near a water hole and danced to rock ‘n roll under a desert sky. Chuck Berry and Little Richard blared out from the troopie’s speakers, and probably not so far from a US military base. The vehicle was parked on a road of loose pebbles, which we kicked up as we danced. They would scatter and collide, sparking off each; bright, brilliant flashes about the troopie’s twin beams of light.

To think further about DJing as a political practice, I want to turn attention to Berlin-based ‘post-club’ producer Ziúr, and specifically a mix from the 2018 Soft Centre Festival at Casula Powerhouse in Sydney. Clearing the space with a sequence of juddering digital noise and tweaked urban field recordings, Ziúr then raises the voice of actress Rosalie Kunoth-Monks (star of Jedda (1955)) lifted from John Pilger’s documentary Utopia (2013), punctuating the elder’s jeremiad with bursts of arrhythmic digital percussion.

Ziúr’s mix points to issues for further investigation concomitant with the ‘decolonial turn’ in art and about curatorial practice as activism. Are such practices another trend of aestheticising or performing politics, including discursive trends, or evidence of the politicisation of the arts. If so, towards what ends?

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