Wednesday, 25 November 2015

The Melbourne Tour of All Tours: where are the indigenous Australians?

I was invited to Melbourne to make a tour performance as part of the exhibition Performing Mobilities at RMIT Gallery. It was an ambitious exhibition and performance programme that, among other things, looked at people's mobility in a local and global context and then how artworks and performances incorporate mobility within their formal structures. Given how the Syrian refugee crisis has unfolded recently, this was topical, even if the way this has played out in Australia is quite different to how it has impacted Europe. That was just one of the wider frames; locally, many other issues and practices seemed to also inform the work I saw, the conversations I had and my creative responses.  It was a quite ideal frame for The Tour of All Tour which was made in response to the tours I found and the wider life I encountered in the city of Melbourne. 

We started at RMIT gallery and headed out into the city-centre. I find my tours of tours are always more lively when we get to see some other tour groups in action rather than just hear about them through an abstract commentary. We were in luck today: we bumped into Technopia Tours. The previous day, when we were a small group, we even stealthily joined another tour for 5 minutes in a practice I call 'tour surfing'. No chance of that on this tour, we were too much of a group with our own gravitational force.

The State Library of Victoria has a number of galleries displaying artworks that are in some way part of the story of the state and its people. Particularly interesting for me were the paintings showing the genesis of Melbourne at the end of the 1830s. These paintings showed hills and trees punctuated by the log cabins and tents of the early settlers. The landscape was somewhat familiar; I had already seen it when I was taken out into the forest with the Walking Club of Victoria. One of the things that struck me was the depiction of indigenous Australians: two or three men huddled around a fire on the edge of the settlement. In this version of events they were marginal but present. These pictures were historical recreations of the scene painted 40 years after the city's founding, that is to say, when Melbourne had already established itself and was looking to develop its own mythology.

When we came to Chinatown I had to stop outside some of the Chinese tour agencies and point out their packages. One of their 'hot tips' was a trip to Sovereign Hill, a gold rush theme park where some enterprising Australians recreate the mid-nineteenth century by dressing up in period costume and taking visitors down mines before making a high-tech sound and light show in the evening. It is amusing to imagine a kitschy Australian theme park from a Chinese tourist's point of view but, when I stopped to do this, I realised there was something disconcerting. Seeing it through this frame, I imagined I was looking at the 'Australian people' as an ethnic group dressed in their traditional costumes. Completely absent within this frame were indigenous Australians; this was a history which they had been written out of entirely. Not having been to Sovereign Hill myself I cannot say if that is the experience of seeing it up close but I did read that it most surely is how it is in a similar historical recreation park in Australia. The paper, Colonialism's Past and Present, makes the point that discrimination is perpetuated and enshrined in popular memory through inaccurate historical recreations. One of the conclusions is that while tourist sites are primarily run as businesses, sites such as these do also have a historical and educational responsibility that is not always being fully met.

Since we were walking through Chinatown, we made a stop outside the Chinese tax free shop where it was possible to go a bit further into some of the patterns of Chinese tourists. Part of this was the way students act as the driver for parental holidays and then we got onto the gift culture and some of the more exotic items that this shop specialised in: skin cream made from sheep placenta.

I gave this tour a number of times and it was interesting to note that when we were a small group it was possible to have much slower and more interactive tours where each stop was, in a sense, a prepared conversation starter on different topics broadly within the politics, culture and experience of tourism in Melbourne. When we were a larger group, however, it became a show where timing was essential and the conversation took place much more within the audience as we walked from stop to stop.

We had our moment with the selfie stick and shortly after our tour experience was on social media. 

We came across two works of Invader on our tour making a neat link to East London where these space invader mosaics are also to be found and feature in a tour of mine. One of the things I am attuned to, having made tours in different cities and countries, is not only the portability of tour formats, but also the duplication of sites. This is something that I typically associate with corporate structures like Regus: they produce similar rented workspaces around the world, one of which I took a tour of and reviewed here. In street art this is less typical; I am aware that there are some taggers who operate on a European-wide scale but very few spread themselves quite as far and wide as Space Invader who operates on multiple continents.

Naturally, we stopped off in the street art zone. Because many of the people on my tour were just visiting the city for the symposium and not from Melbourne, the cameras came out and the performance became near identical to the tours I was talking about. Street art, no matter if it is good or bad, seems to have this effect.

At the age of 16 I had dreamt of moving to Australia and getting away from all the things that upset me in the UK, which were a great many. This stay in Melbourne was my first visit to Australia and so my week of taking tours around the city was an opportunity to consider how my life would have been different had I moved all those years ago. My conclusion was that I did not know at the time what I would have been stepping into and making that move now would be an uneasy one since, as a British citizen, I feel a weight attached to the colonial history of settlement. 

At the Performing Mobilities symposium, I gave a talk in which I floated the idea that the tourist gaze has spread far and wide, well beyond the realms of the tourist industry alone. City branding, wedding photography and outdoor sports are all areas where the tourist eye has started to extend and establish itself. It also, I believe, can be seen in mobile art projects, though here it is often an unconscious and unacknowledged presence, seeing as it is viewed as a negative thing. These are, in fact, ideas I will be developing and presenting at the end of March in Taipei in a talk I am preparing called The Emancipated Tourist. The symposium proved to be rich, varied and offered some welcome optimism. I had been troubled by the near invisible status of indigenous Australians in the tourist sector as I had experienced in the days before, but here in the symposium, that was far from the case. Aboriginal elders were treated as guests of honour, their ideas and culture valued, and a serious effort made to move forward together. I was very grateful to end my visit on this more constructive tone; it genuinely transformed my stay by addressing the thing that I had been sensing all week, giving form to my feelings and offering a model of how to integrate communities that history has previously set apart.

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