Following drownings and violent beatings along urban rivers and cliff edges, this article is driven by the question of how to memorialise LGBTQIA+ histories, marked as they are by silences and omissions, while maintaining the complexity of the cultures and the individuals involved.
Black and white footage, soft with age, records the body of Dr George Duncan, fully dressed and waterlogged, being hauled out of the River Torrens. Three people immersed up to their necks alongside him propel the body towards dry land, where it is dragged onto a grassy riverbank with belated care. The camera recording the scene continues to pan up the riverbank to an awaiting vehicle that stands ready to transport the body, before cutting away. The act witnessed must be considered a performance, as it was a re-enactment (for the camera, late to the scene), of the same action executed by those men just moments earlier. As such, this is an artefact that potentially shows desecration of a corpse as well as indexing a story of many hands pushing and pulling Duncan from the river. Included among that inventory of hands may have been those of vice squad members who allegedly grabbed and threw him in the water during the previous night. Filmed by the media in 1972, this horrific encounter between the public and Duncan’s murdered body, along with a wave of activism, propelled South Australia towards becoming the first state in Australia to decriminalise homosexuality, with some other states closely in tow.
As I write this article, the cliffs surrounding Marks Park at Bondi Beach and hemming the edge of the Pacific Ocean, are being traced and replicated. Fashioned from soft pink travertine (a type of limestone), they will form a staircase that climbs gently towards thin air. This upward trajectory, more stage than monument, will stand counter to the memory of cliff edge violence where bodies were thrown toward the ocean and that four men were murdered in the area amid a wave of hate crimes between 1970 and 1990. The recent commissioning of Rise by artist John Nicholson and Urban Art Projects (UAP) as part of the Bondi Memorial Project brings renewed focus to how memorials and artworks in the service of memorialisation activate and address archives (that is, their omissions and concealments) in relation to LGBTQIA+ communities. Rise will be unveiled to the public at around the same time this article goes to print, thus rather than linger at the site, I treat the Bondi Memorial Project as a catalyst for artistic strategies and cultural theories that seek to create counter-memories. This article will think through projects where personhood and events are rendered with complexity (beyond the rigid confines of identity politics) and in ways that exceed the familiar paradigm of victimhood and criminality that too often identifies the entry of LGBTQIA+ bodies in official records.
The conflict zone arising through the policing of heteronormativity, institutionalised homophobia and antagonism between the police and queer communities, is nation-wide and historically poorly documented. In NSW the work of bringing forward detail and context of hate crimes at Bondi can be found in Bondi Badlands (2007) by Greg Callaghan; in sustained reporting by Sydney Morning Herald journalist Rick Feneley; the documentary Deep Water: The Real Story (2016) produced by Blackfella Productions; and in Getting Away with Murder (2017) written by former NSW police officer, Duncan McNab. Over fifteen years, these books, documentaries and articles expanded the awareness of readers and complicated the perception of the picturesque cliffside dog park. The commissioning process for the Bondi Memorial Project was prompted and co-funded in 2014 by the AIDS Council of NSW (ACON) with Waverley Council undertaking a detailed program of community consultation, an exhibition, talks, screenings and public events that brought forward experiences and community priorities. Ultimately, six shortlisted monuments were judged by the public, with the resulting one percent difference in the vote between all entries a heart-warming indicator of a diverse community that resists singular representation.
The documentary Deep Water starts with an account from David McMahon (a Marks Park hate crime survivor). Notable and affective is the choice to bring forward his detailed, sympathetic account of beat culture. McMahon remembers the excitement and fear of anonymous sex, describing interactions that started with the brushing of a hand against body in the idyllic park environment, where danger and pleasure were accompanied by the sound of the waves. He completes his account by suggesting that this was not romance, but rather was something close and just outside of that term—its own thing. José Muñoz in his book Cruising Utopia (2009) looks to decipher the ways in which ‘public sex—ostracized by many “legitimate” factions within the queer community—is still a foundational presence/anti-presence that performs the illicit and helps these conservative factions formulate a “legitimate” sanctioned gay world.’ Here Muñoz outlines a dilemma for the makers of permanent hate crimes monuments who might bow to pressure to make artworks palatable to the wider public. The risk of sanitising beats involves missing the radicality implicit in different (queer) ways of being and adding to pre-existing trauma by creating erasure afresh. Work to unearth stories of sex in public has been done by historian Liz Crash and writer Jinghua Qian who take listeners of their podcast Underfoot to the invisible (formerly Napier Street) Mechanics’ Way public toilets in Footscray, where soil, bitumen and grass now cover the entrance, providing a fitting analogy for queer histories haunting public spaces. The toilets were buried following council discussion of them as a ‘pestilent vice hole’ and ‘education centre for perverts of the future’. The podcast leads listeners to think around these statements in order to imagine the lively beat community that must have existed there.
The ghosts of public sex that Muñoz encounters in his writing are ones that haunt the memory of pre-HIV era spaces remembered in ‘back rooms, tea rooms, movie houses, baths; the trucks, the piers, the ramble, the dunes’ in a time and place when untamed sex was everywhere. What is at stake here, following both the AIDS crisis and the late 20th century epidemic of hate crime in Australia, is not simply the loss of wild or risky public sex, but of other worlds of sexual possibility that cut through normative structures. For Muñoz, beat culture and sex in public perform future-making operations whereby desire is a disruptive force and moments of pleasure provide critical affective intensities which could propel us towards a utopian queer horizon. His future-making operation reminds me of the film Head On (1998) directed by Ana Kokkinos, in which the character Ari (Alex Dimitriades) spirals vertiginously through family and conservative cultures towards the queer intimacies of his newfound sexual communities. The film begins with Ari leaving a wedding to have a sexual encounter in a public toilet, and soon after enjoying oral sex with his back against the wall of a street market, tucked just out of view of daytime shoppers. He looks skyward and mid-orgasm, makes eye contact through the camera’s lens: from this movement of private feeling made public runs an affective jolt—a moment of intense sensation and shock which exceeds the film’s narrative and perhaps performs the kind of disruptive future making operation Muñoz describes.
Much has been written on the radicality of queer sex. The decidedly lesbian Eros of Audre Lorde’s Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power (1978) finds disruptive potential where a form of power comes from sharing deeply with another person, radical because it contributes to the reconfiguration of individualist modes of being. Just over two decades later in Counter-sexual Manifesto (2000) Paul Preciado takes a dildo to the heteronormative colonial regime with the aim of reinstating ‘the living being’s radical multiplicity and forms of production of desire and pleasure’. The dildo is used to break things apart because it is located outside a binary genital system and in the realm of self-determining posthuman technologies. Queer theory abounds with disruptive strategies to challenge dominant structuring of relationships, bodies, technologies and relation to time and productivity. These disruptive instincts are intrinsic to a position that sees the force of change beyond winning acceptance in oppressive regimes (or normative cultures)—where seeking parity risks only endorsement within the systems that marginalise such minorities.
In the Australian political system where so much hard activist work has been done and change achieved by increasing visibility, the suggestion that silences and opacities have an important role to play in making futures might seem counter intuitive. In Sex (In Public) (2006) artist Henrik Olesen argues that American composer and conceptual artist John Cage’s silences, both in his minimalist sound works and his public silence regarding his lifelong relationship with dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, were modes of resistance to the homophobic company of the New York abstract expressionists during the 1950s and 1960s Cold War era. Revisiting Cage’s work from this standpoint, his silences—with 4’33” a significant example—teeming with activity, take on agency anew as loud refusals. Staying with early entries into queer theory, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet (1990) suggests homosexuality has an inexorable relationship to silence, where the speak-able is always hand in glove with the unspoken.
Working generatively with silence and ambiguity, Drew Pettifer’s installation A Sorrowful Act: The Wreck of the Zeewijk (2019–20) enters spaces of pause and omission in historical archives. His creative research follows an account of two young men from the Dutch ship Zeewijk who were marooned on separate isolated islands in the Houtman Abrolhos Archipelago off the coast of Western Australia in 1727 after they were caught ‘committing with each other in god-forsaken way the gruesome sin of Sodom and Gomorrah’. The centrepiece of Pettifer’s response is Untitled (Journey), a single uncut shot of open sea, suggestive of the distance between the islands where the men perished alone. The names of the islands were not documented, and so begin the gaps in the historical record that Pettifer enters and elongates with newly wrought silences. The resulting real-time work (filmed at the speed of a longboat) becomes a navigation of lost information and an interval that is nonetheless charged with mourning and desire. Here working with pauses become a valuable strategy for disrupting assumed totality of knowledge as Pettifer holds incomplete archives open in a way that brings attention to their gaps, while the spaces become active as sites of meaning. The installation includes maps and other original items from the Zeewijk, alongside videos Untitled (Roel) and Untitled (Bram) made in the Netherlands where Pettifer sought out young men who may be distant blood relations of the sailors. Bare chested, they stand and look directly at the camera, creating a moment where past and future form a messy struggle, desire seemingly carried through time in their disquieting gazes.
The problematic tendency of memorials or archives to tidy up disorderly memory is identified by Avery Gordon’s Ghostly Matters, which considers how to reckon with that which modern history has rendered ghostly. Ghosts seem an appropriate approach to histories full of omissions; where the happenings of LGBTQIA+ histories are concurrently present and undefined, and sometimes urgencies come forward like bloody spectres. Gordon acknowledges that patriarchal capitalism has thrived through practices of erasure (an assertion that rings loud and familiar in our Australian colonial varietal of capitalism) and often by making a situation seem transparent. Artworks, like Pettifer’s, grow between points in archives, making records messy and bringing visibility to absences, without claiming to speak for the silences found therein. Such artworks produce affective paths to knowledge, creating counter-memories with the potential to lead to better conditions in future communities.
Using their bodies to address knowledge gaps, Jess Miley and Derek Sargent stand to attention in the place where they find incongruities in public records. Growing from researching the missing information in the biographies of known LGBTQIA+ public figures, The Grave Project (2019–) traces their omissions through well-kept avenues of European cemeteries. Performing to camera for an archive of single channel videos, the artists stand to attention at the graves of notable queers, impeccably costumed and staring down the lens. Their performances are intercut with historical footage, literally inserting their bodies as markers to absence, to create a living archive that acknowledges history’s instability. The artists, both Australians living in Europe, describe the project as tracing a lineage of those public figures, (intellectuals and performers), influential to their art practices; thus, their graveside vigil is perhaps also a celebration of success and arrival of a freer generation. Their performances are playful and funny (never grave), a reminder of the value of silly and comedic modes of resistance that form an undercurrent in Jack Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure (2011).
Where silliness, humour and failure can provide a place for counter-narratives to safely flourish outside dominant modes of productivity and success, Berlin artist Judith Hopf prefers the term stupid. In Hand and Foot for Milan (2017) a big, silly immovable hand and clumsy foot made from oversized red bricks signal aimlessly to each other across a neat lawn in a vast public space. The foot is a permanent failure, too heavy to drag and comic in its larger-than-life scale and cartoon-like proportions. The fingers form a slight wave, an inconsequential hello of the sort one might give to a barely remembered acquaintance. Hopf, who has a record of choosing irreverence in the face of power, describes her embrace of the stupid as a method to counter academic systems of knowledge, where ‘not trying to view the situation from on high opens up possibilities.’ Her objects critique institutions from the inside by confidently refusing the expectation of art to carry decodable meanings.
Édouard Glissant’s theorising of ‘opacity’ has provided a circuit breaker of sorts within discussions of identity politics as it identifies the rigidity of identity created when minority groups are constantly asked to speak from given positions. The notion of communication with another without having to fully understand them might at first seem like ‘barbarism’, but in his work becomes a powerful way to approach the right to difference. He identifies the mechanics of ‘transparency’ where disempowered people must articulate their identity in order to have their measure taken by the dominant order and thus to be admitted, by comparison, to systems of power. Opacity is not obscurity, but rather the right to be respected while not being fully understood and having the confidence to know another without certainty. In this framework, identity is understood as fluid, multiple, and not even fully known to oneself. Glissant’s Poetics of Relation imagines that we might seek out the other and ‘tremble’ with them and with the world. This tremble thinking, a shaking of thought that refuses to systematised knowledge, might include a kind of knowing that honours bodies and unstable states, celebrating multiple ways to connect to the other.
I find generative opacities within the sculptural practice of Matt Huppatz, whose gleaming reflective surfaces on upward-thrusting architecture seduce viewers toward artworks that contain carefully wrought refusals. In SOTTERRANEO (UNDERGROUND) (2013) he repurposed a set of doors leading into a riverbank. Using a neon sign, paint and a low-cost stereo, the site was transformed, literally, into an underground club with doors that never opened, leaving visitors craning towards obscured, barely audible music.
In closing, we return to where we started on the banks of the Torrens River, where just a little further along from Huppatz’s temporary public artwork, a modest plaque marks the site of Duncan’s drowning murder. Over the last 49 years—annually on 10 May—people have gathered here to stand together. In 2020 the Adelaide City Council added an interpretive sign detailing the hate crime, making this longevous vigil an example of bodies maintaining knowledge held outside conventional public narratives. Keeping knowledge safe in bodies might best be a strategy familiar to communities that have asserted their existence via walking street protests and parades—perhaps where the Bondi Memorial Project finds its great strength. By climbing the travertine steps, visitors enact a physical reversal of the movement of the men who fell to their deaths. Visiting the memorial asks for bodily connection to another, creating an interval in which to remember or to tremble with those beaten bodies. I imagine that future visitors to Rise will climb the steps, sunbathe, get married, mourn, sit in quiet contemplation, protest or even cruise there—in any case the structure is a platform for action—with gestures, counter-memories and futures to be imagined by the bodies yet to come.
- ^ I acknowledge the sustained research undertaken by Tim Reeves to document and share the case of Dr George Duncan, in particular his lecture ’Dr Duncan – His Death and its Impact’, presented by the South Australian History Festival, 10 May 2021
- ^ While the term hate crime has been used to identify victims from many minority groups, in this article, as in much common usage, the term refers to victimisation of sexual minorities
- ^ The Australian Hate Crime Network (via University of Sydney) undertakes research, distributes information and advocates for law reform with publications accessible through their website: https://www.sydney.edu.au/law/our-research/research-centres-and-institutes/australian-hate-crime-network.html. Accessed June 2021
- ^ Elizabeth Reidy, Waverley Council, in conversation with the author, 10 June 2021
- ^ José Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 46
- ^ Underfoot, Track 4: ‘Vice Hole’, https://lizcrash.com/underfoot/ Accessed June 2021
- ^ Muñoz, 34
- ^ Muñoz, 3
- ^ Paul B. Preciado, Countersexual Manifesto, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018), 20
- ^ Henrik Olesen, Sex (In Public), self-published, 2006
- ^ Cited in Drew Pettifer, A Sorrowful Act: The Wreck of The Zeewijk, (Perth: Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, University of Western Australia, 2020)
- ^ Avery, F. Gordon, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 18
- ^ Jack [previously Judith] Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011)
- ^ Dylan Kerr, “Judith Hopf on the Importance of (Occasionally) Being Stupid”, Artspace, 13 February 2015, https://www.artspace.com/magazine/interviews_features/meet_the_artist/judith-hopf-interview-52612. Accessed June 2021
- ^ Kerr, 2015
- ^ Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1997), 189.
Sasha Grbich is an artist, independent writer and a teacher at the Adelaide Central School of Art, living and working on Kaurna land.