Warwuyun (worry) in the age of the selfie

The affective power of a photograph is perhaps never more potent than when the subject is a lost loved one, as Roland Barthes famously discussed on contemplating a portrait of his dead mother.[1] This appreciation of the role of photography is harnessed in a new digital artwork by the Miyarrka Media collective which uses family photographs, including many images of deceased family members, as the basis for an interactive digital artwork about the importance of family and feeling in an age of interconnection. 

Warwuyun (worry) is a digital artwork composed of 50 individual photo‑collages made on mobile phones by members of an extended Yolngu family. These images have been remixed, resized, and repurposed by Miyarrka Media in collaboration with HAWRAF, a team of coders and designers from the New Inc. creative incubator established by the New Museum in New York. The result of this production is a giant interactive touch screen, an algorithmic assemblage of photo‑image grids that form and disperse in an ever‑changing, and never repeating, array of colour and pattern. Yet, for the members of Miyarrka Media there is nothing random or, for that matter, inherently digital at work here. Rather, as computer code generates pattern out of pattern, individuals and family groups become visibly located in a wider matrix of belonging.

Miyarrka Media, Warwuyun (worry), 2017
Miyarrka Media, Warwuyun (worry), 2017, screen shot of transition state. Image courtesy of the artists

With each new pattern, a new configuration of the relationship appears for those able to see the underlying connections between individuals and clans. One pattern might foreground relationships between groups that have a yothu‑yindi (child‑mother) relationship; the next might highlight a märi‑gutharra (grandmother‑grandchild) relationship; while the next might juxtapose images in ways that make visible a number of relationships between individuals, families, clans and country. Because of the selection of images from closely interrelated family lines, there will always be at least one key relationship affirmed and enlivened by the pattern that forms. Herein lies a source of deep pleasure for its makers. When Yolngu look at this screen they see gamunungu, an art of lines and story, colour and light, shadow and belonging akin to the ochred designs painted directly onto bodies made ready for ceremony. These patterns in turn trigger culturally specific ways of attending to the difficulties of loss and separation from kin and country. 

Miyarrka Media’s co‑founder and leader, Paul Gurrumuruwuy, endorses both the formal and personally affective dimensions of the work in these terms: “This is a new kind of art. It might look different to a bark painting to you, but we see them the same way. Because first we added in light and colour and make those separate, separate bitja really deep, really rich and full of energy. Then we made this touchscreen to make these patterns stronger. To connect wider and deeper. At the same time, we want to draw you close, so that you might be surprised and interested in our Yolngu family life and stories. Come close, touch the screen, spend time with our families, our stories, our country. Maybe, as you look, you’ll think about your own loved ones. Maybe you will cry with us.”

This explicit invocation of the power of feeling as a means of mediating intercultural relations has been central to Miyarrka Media’s project since the collective formed in 2009. Working under the leadership of Gurrumuruwuy, a senior member of the Dhalwangu clan, and in association with the Gapuwiyak Culture and Arts Aboriginal Corporation, Miyarrka Media uses digital media to enable new forms of creativity as a means to promote Yolngu social values and address contemporary concerns. Gurrumuruwuy describes the guiding ethos as dhäkayanawuy rom, an expression that loosely translates as “the law of feeling”, but might better be expressed as the power of feeling to connect the world. 

As a collective of Yolngu and non‑Indigenous artists and filmmakers, Miyarrka Media varies in size and composition according to the skills and energy required for each project. This project has been undertaken by Paul Gurrumuruwuy, Enid Gurungulmiwuy, Warren Balpatji, Meredith Balandjarrk, Kayleen Djingawuy and myself in collaboration with HAWRAF and the Colombian–US artist, Santiago Carrasquilla with whom we are collaborating on a book project. The artwork we call Warwuyun (worry) is the most recent iteration of an ongoing project with mobile phone media that also has a film and several exhibitions. 

The images that provide the basis for Warwuyun (worry) were made between 2009 and 2017 specifically for circulation amongst Yolngu kin networks. Individually striking, they feature cut‑and‑paste families assembled from family snaps, ethnographic collections and Google image searches, arranged together onto backgrounds like sunsets or coconut‑fringed beaches.[2] Created on mobile phones with basic apps, these images attest to a distinctive Yolngu knack for embellishing the relational power of photography.[3] Each image emphasises a specific constellation of relationship between clans and country. Overlaid with a sparkle of light, or a name that ties an individual to their homeland, or simply an expression in English like “Family only”, this phone‑made photo art has become a highly valued form of visual culture made, shared and collected from phone to phone. Deeply sentimental, these images strike complex emotional chords to invoke specific sensorial processes as Gurrumuruwuy’s eldest daughter, Gurungulmiwuy explains: “You see with your eyes, then you start thinking, putting that bitja (photograph) into your ngayangu (heart‑stomach‑organ of feeling) and start crying. Because you have to start seeing, thinking and feeling like someone lost.” 

Miyarrka Media, Warwuyun (worry), 2017
Miyarrka Media, Warwuyun (worry), 2017, close up, zoom interaction. Image courtesy of the artists

What Gurungulmiwuy is describing here is the affective labour of warwuyun. Yolngu generally translate warwuyun into English as worry or sorrow, but a better gloss might be the work of feeling into absence. Warwuyun foregrounds the lurch of separation and then works with it. There are many moments that invoke practices of warwuyun in Yolngu life. A rainbow, a sunset, a bird call ... any of these can be experienced as a call to relationship that in turn activates warwuyun. Through warwuyun attending to disconnection becomes a means of activating and affirming one’s links with country and kin, including those who have passed away. Yolngu value the sometimes‑painful invocation of absence as socially generative, rather than necessarily private and individual. For warwuyun is not a preoccupation with death. Or even loss. It is concerned instead with feeling into life. Life and its capacity to restore, renew, and connect. Warwuyun first recognises and then remediates estrangement. It does not seek to dwell in it. 

In recent years, and especially with the arrival of mobile phones, photographs have become a powerful medium for warwuyun precisely because of the ways they enable viewers to trigger these processes of envisaging and feeling at will. However, as Miyarrka Media’s Kayleen Djingawuy explains, this has only become possible with a profound generational shift of attitudes towards images of the dead: “A long time ago when someone passed away you couldn’t look at bitja (photographs), or couldn’t say their name. But these days you can use your phone to look at photos and video and pull those loved ones rali (towards you), bringing them closer to your heart and mind. Before people had to be careful. They put that photo in a suitcase or safe area, until after two or three years you could look or give it to family again. My grandmother was thinking that way. That time my family didn’t have cameras. Now if someone passed away they just put that picture in the phone, thinking reflecting, remembering what they were doing in their lifetime, worrying for them. You still can’t say that name. But these days people feel closer with their pictures in their phone.”

Warwuyun (worry) was motivated by a desire to do something more than simply create an archival record of these photographs. After working with the images for print, we were excited to remediate them on their own terms, harnessing the digital energy of remix and the haptic intimacies of touch screen technologies. The aim was twofold: we wanted to show ancestrally‑ordered kinship as the enduring foundation of Yolngu life—while simultaneously drawing non‑Aboriginal people into a new kind of relationship with Yolngu. As their creators never initially intended these bitja to circulate further, a key stage in creating this work involved an extensive consultation process with both the artists and the families who appear within the individual images. Though it proved difficult in this early stage for these participants to envisage the final result, in all but a few instances, permission was granted with interest and enthusiasm. 

In all these ways, Warwuyun (worry) offers something much more complex, and perhaps more elusive to non‑Yolngu audiences, than an invitation to witness suffering through the medium of photography. What surprised me most in the process was that Gurrumuruwuy and others expressed no hesitation in offering up these family portraits for Balanda to touch, move and examine at will. Rather, the dynamic intimacy allowed by touch screens—the medium by which images were assembled and viewed in the first place after all—makes a particular sense as a formal dimension of the work with its invitation to a new kind of intercultural connection. “Full of colour, full of pattern, full of meaning, full of fullness … full of feelings” is how Gurrumuruwuy sums up the effects in the short video that accompanies the installation. That said, we are all aware that it is likely that strangers to this new form of Yolngu visual culture may at first struggle to see beyond the dazzle of digital effects. At this level, this artwork acts as a testimony not only to a specifically Yolngu form of generosity and social optimism, but the enduring significance of specifically cultural ways of seeing and self‑presenting in the age of the selfie. 

Miyarrka Media, Warwuyun (worry), 2017
Miyarrka Media, Warwuyun (worry), 2017, screen shot. Image courtesy of the artists

Footnotes

  1. ^ Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, New York: Hill and Wang, 1981.
  2. ^ Jennifer Deger, ‘Thick Photography’, The Journal of Material Culture, vol. 21:1, 2016, pp. 111–132.
  3. ^ See also Gurrumuruwuy and Deger, ‘Mobile phone remix’, Artlink Indigenous_Northern, vol. 36: 2, pp. 85-87.

Jennifer Deger is a founding member of Miyarrka Media and Research Leader in Creativity and Innovation at the Cairns Institute, James Cook University. Warwuyun (worry) was commissioned for the exhibition Group Therapy: Mental Distress in a Digital Age, UNSW Galleries (20 September – 11 November 2017) in association with the The Big Anxiety. The work was created by Miyarrka Media in association with Nicky Telsa and Andrew Herzog (HAWRAF) and Santiago Carrasquilla (ART CAMP) with support from the Australian Research Council.

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