Woomera: An Artist's Response

When I mention the name Woomera, a notorious refugee detention camp, there are several immediate reactions of note in the Australian cultural scene. The first is an assumption that I am reviving the lineal pamphlet, the protest poster of activist art. The artificial conflict between formalist art with its hermetic integrity and content art with its higher purpose of social change seems to be evoked. Within the commercial and state gallery art scene, now both so market-orientated, social concerns and figurative narrative are things long forgotten. Harold Rosenberg argues that revolt today has no more content than buying a bus ticket, and that any genuine attack on society must occur on the level of abstraction – the credo, the slogan, and the symbol. Within our late capitalist culture, the complexities of social relationships and moral stance in our society cannot be thought of only in terms of activist art and formalism. Ambiguity in language must be addressed.

The second reaction I have seen is the artist’s uncertainty about how to represent correctly such issues. There seems to be an unfounded fear of loss of identity by deviating to another aesthetic. Many are so conditioned by the discourse of the star system and acceptance of the exploitation that it entails, that concern for other issues seems impossible. For many of my peers, it seems to be easier to take refuge in the fantasy that the personal is political. There has been an almost complete silence on social issues for many years.

Alberto Moreiras and Slavoj Zizek argue that late capitalism disavows the experience of the other. The erasure of the public and the private domains makes it very difficult to remain open to the other. We are conditioned not to act, not to intervene, and not to change. Instead we have pseudo-radical topics, frenetic humanism, liberal paranoia, commerce and passivity. In this paranoid universe of ours, capitalism legitimises itself through anti-capitalist ideology: renounce the endeavour of relating to the world, have control through indifference and distance, reject upheaval as foreign to our inner selves. To be dehumanised buyers, full of choices is our noble work in the spectacle of our real world.

In Australia today we have concentration camps for the indefinite detention of refugees, of which the remotely located Woomera is the one whose conditions have attracted most publicity and political debate. We demand that the refugees justify themselves. We have created a modern master and a non-modern slave. Ashis Nandi says that the slave “represents a higher-order cognition which perforce includes the master as human, whereas the master's cognition has to exclude the slave as a thing. Ultimately, modern oppression, as opposed to traditional oppression, is not an encounter between the self and the enemy, the rulers and the ruled, or the gods and the demons. It is a battle between dehumanized self and the objectified enemy, the technologized bureaucrat and his reified victim, pseudo-rulers and their fearsome selves projected on to their subjects”.

Australia is joined with the USA in an obscene pact of military bonding – the war of Western civilisations against the barbaric others. As Moreiras and Zizek argue, it seems that our culture requires for its survival a vilified figure like the refugee. He or she seems to be complete and that is intolerable, since they inhabit the borders of capitalism. We disavow their lack. We steal from them (their rights, their freedom, their name, their family) to pretend that they are indeed complete. We are in love: we steal what they do not possess. We dupe them, we put their symbolic treasure in circulation for political gain, to confirm the need for the virtual spectacle of war. Like a commodity they are outsourced. In a mass delusion we use deception in the guise of truth. We delegate belief to the politician's discourse and deprive ourselves of the naïve belief in the other.

As artists we should remain open to the question of how such events in Australia are to be symbolised. Rather than taking refuge in the benevolent boredom of Australian culture and its refusal to deal with history and memory, we should propose an enquiry into the psychological forces that support and resist this horror.