Culturing the Body: a social experience

Article  /  BehindTheScenes
Published: 26.01.2006
Roseanne, BartleyFoto Bartley Roseanne, Bartley
Foto Bartley

Roseanne Bartley

Culturing the Body was an opportunity for members of the public to gather in an urban setting and participate in something larger than themselves—an organised event that was not an orthodox political rally. The labels located abstract and politicised concepts within the realm of the personal; they were the catalyst in a social process.
I will begin this paper by outlining my project Culturing the Body, a socially interactive jewellery and silver-smithing project held in Melbourne, Australia. The project involved over 100 participants, who subscribed to wear a silver label for a period of a week. The project explores craft’s ability to unite people in shared experience; it was expressive of a particular period of time and speaks of, and to its own region. I will give an interpretation of the context in which it occurred and provide cultural or vernacular translations where appropriate.

Culturing the Body was predicated around objects crafted in silver, the scale and design of which replicated forms of mass-produced ephemera. These objects were incorporated into the project in two ways; firstly the mobilising of a community through the wearing of text imprinted labels and secondly as an exhibition of objects located in windows around inner city Melbourne.

The objective of the project was to stimulate engagement, through craft, with concepts of nationhood. The project engaged with the stereotypes, clichés and conventions of Australian culture. The process was mobile and intimate, providing a subtle way in which to explore how dominant cultural and political paradigms are upheld or contested, within the spatial context of the body. Culturing the Body was timed to coincide with the 2002 Australia Day celebrations. My intention was to investigate how my craft could be active in the critique of what it means to be Australian at the beginning of the 21st century.

Firstly I will talk about the silver labels. These emblematic forms were imprinted with words, including ‘aussie’, ‘battler’, ‘digger’, ‘ordinary Australian’, ‘mateship’, ‘pioneer’, ‘queue jumper’, ‘sorry’, and ‘unAustralian’. I chose these words for their cultural specificity. Their meanings had evolved either as definitions of the archetypal Australian character, for example battler or digger, or in association with more recent Australian debates concerning national identity.

Language is universally connected to the assertion of cultural identity. In Australia the vernacular is central to the constructions of nationhood. As a signifier of belonging, Australians have formed an emotional attachment to the vernacular—perhaps a cultural peculiarity that reveals and hides much about our selves. An example to illustrate this occurred in the 1940’s, when the ‘Australian way of life’ was seen to be threatened by a rapid influx of immigrants. The migrant population was necessary to sustain the post war surge of industrial expansion. This period of national growth was defined by the White Australia policy; an assimilationist policy that promoted a criteria for selection of migrants, those who could ‘become as much like us as quickly as possible’. The then minister for immigration Arthur Calwell stated ‘All newcomers of course, will have to learn to speak Australian.’ During this time social psychologists proposed a ‘slang test’ as a method for measuring the Australianness of new migrants.[1] The ‘slang test’ was devised to test how well ‘new Australians’ had learnt and could speak the lingo. Fortunately the test was never applied however it under scores a belief that what we say and the way we say it is our badge of identity.

Our national consciousness is signified in the vernacular, it suggests a shared understanding of a communal knowledge that applies to our land and our people. However this assumption is conditional. It is premised on an underlying insecurity, the origins of which can be traced from the establishment of European settlement in Australia. Historically our social parlance asserted the growth of our character as distinctive from our British forebears. The ongoing reliance on colloquialism as suggestive of nationhood can be tracked through times when we have needed to identify ourselves in relation to significant groups who are perceived as ‘other’.

The words I selected for the project labels were prominent in the public and political consciousness during and prior to the project time frame. They were used to paraphrase or manipulate ethical issues and public sentiment. They occurred in relation to issues such as; reconciliation with indigenous Australians, immigration and the treatment of asylum seekers, the celebration of the Centenary of Federation, Australia’s push towards a republic, and its position within global politics and economy. The project development occurred post Sydney Olympics and September 11, a period of hyper-nationalism. The Howard government’s re-election policies capitalised on the perceived threat of invasion by asylum-seeker’s, or ‘queue-jumpers’ as they were described in some parts of the media. It was a time defined by a lack of vocalised opposition or debate particularly amongst ‘ordinary Australians’, and a heightened sense of political correctness was evident in the choice of language used. The idea of a society negotiating differences through political contestation was eroded, replaced by a divisive conservatism reflecting a ‘you are either with us or against us’ attitude. The term ‘unAustralian’ was frequently used against those who raised questions or rubbed up against this attitude.

The project methodology entailed inviting members of the public to participate, this process occurred by word of mouth or through editorials in community and daily print media. Subscribers were asked to select a label and wear it in their day to day environment surrounding Australia Day. I anticipated a hundred participants but close to double that amount subscribed. On the night of the project launch, subscribers were processed through a checkpoint and photographed wearing their label. This ritual initiated participants as hosts, they had become, through an unconventional set of criteria, a group of ‘significant others’.

Culturing the Body was an opportunity for members of the public to gather in an urban setting and participate in something larger than themselves—an organised event that was not an orthodox political rally. The labels located abstract and politicised concepts within the realm of the personal; they were the catalyst in a social process. Textual signifiers were tethered upon the body and subject to interrogation, both introverted and extroverted, to test out assumptions and perceptions around concepts of cultural belonging. Participants were asked to feedback on their experience of hosting the label. They responded by e-mail, fax, or post and the style of their responses extended to include poems and video. These experiences were collated and printed in the project booklet—a document I have made available for any one who is interested.

The concepts of experience, participation and exchange were central to this work. My craft was not concluded with the realising of the object. Rather the project extended the established relationships between object, maker and viewer/wearer, to include the experiences generated through interaction. This interaction was confronting for some, liberating for others and, in some cases, apparently non-existent. Participants reported their eagerness to engage and to be engaged and public transport was a popular venue to test out responses to the labels. There were reports of being observed, receiving puzzled expressions, of people peering closer, and even the reception of unsolicited, sometimes less than flattering, comments from strangers. For some participants the labels had talismanic qualities giving them licence to behave in a way they wouldn’t ordinarily. One participant reported ‘I found myself doings things like giving directions or maybe not paying for a tram fare and then wondering whether this fitted the “unAustralian” tag’. Another participant commented we ‘Decided not to pay entry as we felt we could enter as a convict descendant and a “Pioneer”. Unstoppable, we proceed into the beautiful parklands.’

Jewellery is a communication device, a cultural signifier through which notions of individuality or communal identity can be transmitted. It is an intimate broadcaster, often employed as a decorative lure, or an indication of social consequence. But in this setting it provided a democratic medium through which to survey the body politic. The style of the labels was less declaratory than other politicised forms of adornment such as medals or badges or even more contemporary signifiers such as t-shirts and bumper stickers. The subtlety of their design and relationship to the body necessitated a more intimate form of enquiry with their host.

The activity of hosting a label for a week created a challenge, for some participants it provoked a sense of risk-taking or movement outside the comfort zone. The project initiated discussion and reflection upon the politicalisation of language, how identity was constructed in response to it, or how the experience of wearing a label created a new, or different, comprehension of social awareness. The project proved most meaningful for those who could identify with others involved. The strongest reaction reported by participants to wearing the label was the sense of being in a ‘tag club’, a community of sympathetic supporters of the project, its issues and objectives. It became clear from reading the feedback from participants that the feeling of solidarity was a primary satisfaction: in the words of one participant ‘I was conscious of being part of a project. It created a force, like an army of civilian soldiers.’ Social interaction with craft and through crafts provides us with a tangible experience of living culture, a concept that is sometimes lost in modern society.

For the second aspect of the project I produced a series of objects fabricated in silver which were placed at three locations around inner city Melbourne. Site one displayed the series ‘a packet of cigarettes’; a ‘takeaway spoon’ and a ‘drink can’ exhibited with a ‘heritage object’. Site two displayed ‘a fries packet’ in an intimate window located coincidently just around the corner from MacDonalds, and site three the ‘sorry word dispenser’. The street windows were within five minutes walking distance of each other and were located in the central shopping and business district of Melbourne. They could be chanced upon, or navigated with the project map. A guided tour and barbecue were held for participants and the general public on Australia Day.

The project was intentionally timed as an activity around the Australia Day celebrations. Typically this occasion is promoted in the spirit of ‘mateship’: family picnics, sporting events and street parades are encouraged. Formal events include flag raising, naturalisation ceremonies and the awarding of the Australian of the Year. The principle of ‘Mateship’ is quintessential to the mythologising of the Australian character; its overtly masculine virtues are heralded as the back-bone of our national type. In contemporary use it emphasises male fellowship—typically of the out doors, sporting, beer-drinking kind.

In just over two hundred years of nation building, other myths and icons have also been established. Australia’s unique flora and fauna and pioneering heroes are stereotypes we typically use to define and promote ourselves. The prevalence of these stereotypes could be witnessed in the opening and closing ceremonies of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. During these celebrations, representations of the ‘real’ Australia or ‘typical’ Australians—for example dancing kangaroos, stockmen on horse back and Kylie surfing on a thong—reached hyperbolical proportions. Publicly we go along with the selling of these images as representations of ourselves. We continue to invest in them because they are a familiar part of our colonial imperial past. They present us in a palatable, unified form that provides us with a sense of security and stability. However, the confluence of significant events around the turn of the new millennium saw jingoistic representations of national selfhood reach saturation point.

As a nation we are hiding the contradictions that lie in the foundations of our iconography. They are flawed, fabricated on a history that proffers a sentimental, idealised image of the continent, whilst submerging the conflicting emotions that are inherent in our relationships with indigenous peoples and the ecology of the land we occupy. The annual celebration of Australia Day provides an example of our willingness to cooperate in what is essentially pretence. Historically this day marks the landing of the First Fleet and subsequent British sovereignty over Australia. Coopting of the public attention in a national celebratory spirit disavows the alternate histories of Australia. To the indigenous population, Australia Day is known and primarily mourned as ‘Invasion Day’.

Like many others in Australia I am not totally satisfied with the underlying contradictions in our national identity and Culturing the Body was an opportunity to explore my response to it. The series of objects I exhibited were posed in static preciousness, materially elevated in contrast to their idiosyncratic function, mass-produced forms convenient for consumption and disposability. While the objects packet of cigarettes, takeaway spoon and drink can aren’t generally considered as authentic Australia icons, setting them with the heritage table card presupposes my fundamental questions about authenticity.

The concept of national identity is bound by competing identities, and is continually being fractured, questioned and redefined. Australia’s story of nation building is an interesting journey and like many post-colonial nations around the world, the question of contemporary identity is a confronting one. In Australia we indulge the products that symbolise homogenised global culture; we ingratiate them as temporal fixtures of our daily lives. Our appropriation of these symbols is a form of cultural anaesthetic. Symbolically they take us some where else, identifying with a global homogony appeases any underlying misgivings that we might harbour about our own culture.

Historically, academia or the cultural elite have contributed to or influenced the moulding of ideas around national identity, but more recently national image making has become a government sponsored corporate exercise. By locating it in a craft context, I was interested in creating an alternate forum for the issues to be represented and interacted with. Culturing the Body didn’t offer up new icons to replace outdated ones. Rather it questioned the process by which we arrive at the images we are currently characterised by and offered an opportunity to consider how they are imposed and whose interest they serve.

The third object in this series, ‘sorry word dispenser’ tackled the concept of nationality in a slightly different way. The word ‘sorry’ is highly politicised in
Australia and is associated with the issue of reconciliation, in particular the failure of the Howard government to formally apologise to the ‘stolen generation’. The ‘stolen generation’ are the Aboriginal children who were removed from their families and placed into orphanages or foster homes, a practice continued up until the 1970s. In the late 1990s thousands of people across Australia were unified in their desire for the government to formally apologise to the ‘stolen generations’. They attended rallies, signed ‘sorry’ books and marched on the streets in every capital city, even successfully blocking access to the Sydney Harbour Bridge. It had been some time since the emotions of a great many Australians had been galvanised in this way.

Prime Minister John Howard refused to use the word ‘sorry’, as its utterance would have politically compromised the hardline position of his government. I felt disappointed with how the ‘sorry’ word has been dispensed with, because I feel like Katerina a participant who wore the word as a label, ‘on a personal and political level I really believe in the power and grace of saying sorry’. Unlike most countries in this position, for instance New Zealand and Canada, Australia has not prioritised the reconciliation process as part of a 21st century nation building exercise. Instead it has been treated with short sightedness and handled as an issue to further polarise the community.

I would like to pose the question, can craft help heal a conflicted nation?

The inclusion of interaction as part of my process pokes a hole in the paradigm that I was educated and practice within. Craft in its modernist condition often defines itself through the skill of the maker and the virtuosity of the object—qualities that I have the greatest respect for. However, in revering these qualities above others Craft, perhaps I should qualify this by saying Craft in Australia, has been displaced from its function in the social and cultural psyche of our nation as it is competing with products that are more symbolic of an identity informed by status, competition and consumption. In the uncertainty and dislocation of the post modern/post colonial world, I would assert that craft, through its physical and conceptual materiality, has the potential to function as an expression of cultural cohesiveness and by extension an agent for social change.

Culturing the Body is one example of how this might occur.-2016-2016

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A project for tagging citizens with charged labels takes jewellery to the streets of Melbourne, 2002.
Roseanne Bartley is a Melbourne jeweller
Roseanne Bartley Culturing the Body 2002.
Roseanne Bartley Culturing the Body 2002

© By the author. Read Copyright.

© By the author. Read Copyright.
Roseanne Bartley. : Sorry Word Dispenser. silver. Roseanne Bartley
: Sorry Word Dispenser
© By the author. Read Copyright.