New one!

Hey look, I made a new blog post and it’s over here.

Still figuring out the subscribe stuff, but will be on that presently.

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Hey! You! Look over there!

In an effort to be more professional about things, I put together a little website. It’s made up of a series of very responsive  boxes that change colour when you roll your cursor over them. It also contains more of the articles I’ve had published in magazines and journals and through street press.

Over the next little while, I’m going to be moving some of my favourite blog posts from here to over there – dusting them off and tidying them up. And I might even make an attempt at some sort of regular blog.

Go have a look. It even has a teal sidebar.

(My immense thanks goes to Bruce, who designed it, and Mum, who made me a logo. Creative families rock.)

Black Swan Rising

(First Published in The Big Issue, 24 May – 6 June 2013.)

Perth, as a city, is blooming. I hate to use cliqued seasonal metaphors, particularly at a time of year when most things are going to seed, but I can’t really think of a more appropriate term for it. Things are happening here on a wider, more comprehensive scale than I’ve ever seen, at a rate that seems sudden. It’s like I’ve detected slight movement in Perth out of the corner of my eye, and I’ve turned to find some crazy, sparkling parade sprung from the dust.

Not long again, it was habit and hobby for locals to regularly announce things to each other like, “Nothing ever happens here,” or, “Perth is boring, what a crap place,” or, “Stuff it. I’m moving to Melbourne…”

I went to high school in Fremantle. About 30 minutes on the train from the centre of Perth, Freo is technically an outer suburb, but it exists in its own safe little bubble and feels like a lot more like a small town than a part of the larger metropolitan area. When I was in high school, months could pass between trips to the city – a pointless and often harrowing exercise with very little reward, and one which would usually only take place under extenuating circumstances. Northbridge, where the few venues and bars were, was dangerous and dark, while the CBD was soulless and transitory, deserted on the weekends. So, instead of going anywhere, we just experimented with drugs and roamed the nighttime streets of Palmyra or Beaconsfield or Hamilton Hill, while all the bright young things around us finished year 12 and, disillusioned with their hometown, moved to Melbourne. And so, at the end of my gap year, I went ahead and did the same.

A little over seven years later – after four years in Melbourne, a bit of time back in Fremantle, and the other two or so travelling and living overseas – I have returned, most likely for a while. This ‘while’ has grown longer every time I ventured into Perth to see a Fringe show, concert or other arts event. Our prodigal bright young things are returning, full of knowledge and inspiration from cities more culturally developed, and Perth has become a place of arts, music, film festivals, small bars, impressive venues and decent places to eat.

This year was the second year that Perth had held a full Fringe festival, which ran for a month, starting mid-January. There were over 200 shows, with a good portion of those selling out. The Perth International Arts Festival (PIAF) last February had a program any city would be proud of.  And our music scene is spilling out nationally and internationally successful musicians. As for bars: in an interview on RTR FM, WA Minister for Sport and Recreation Terry Waldron said: “When I took over there were only 12 [small bars] in operation. Now there are 65.”

There are probably a few causes of this mutant-speed cultural growth spurt, not the least of which would be the money. We’re freaking rolling in it. Thanks to the mining boom, Western Australia is now one of the richest places on earth, let alone the richest state in Australia, with an economic output hovering around $236 billion. Mining accounts for about 35% of that. This, then, means a few things. Mining, oil and gas companies wanting to improve their public profiles from “insatiable rapers of the earth” to “good guys buying people in the capital nice things” have been shoving their wallets towards the arts to forage reputations as cultural supporters. So the PIAF Festival Gardens has become the Chevron Festival Gardens and the Rio Tinto logo pops up on most Black Swan Theatre Company productions.

More than this, though, the mining industry is bringing us an audience. There has been an influx of mining company employees and their families who have suddenly found themselves working and living in this strange, incredibly isolated city at the bottom of the earth (or on the other side of the country, if they’re coming from over east). They make good money and most of them are used to festival-a-minute sort of cities, with strong cultural scenes and plenty to do. They have provided the demand. Perth, cashed up and growing like a teenager, has supplied.

Earlier this year I was wandering around the CBD with a few friends, looking for a place to drink. We had just attended the spectacular PIAF opening, an incredible display of fireworks and industrial French drummers, and had found ourselves in the new Brookfield Place. Staring in at the bars and restaurants – far too swanky for us to drink in, dressed as we were – my friend turned and asked, “Are we in Perth?”

Is it possible to be proud of a city? The concept sounds a little silly and condescending in the face of something so big and complex. But to be from a place that has gone from being a dusty, isolated outpost, to a city with a cultural arsenal ranging from $15 fringe shows to $82 quartet performances – it’s pretty exciting, anyway.

I’m proud to be a part of that. And I’m happy to be home.

Fire, Tango and More Submissive Female Leads: Bilbobasso Comes to Freo

Bilbobasso

First Published by Lip

There is a scene in the headline act of the Fremantle Street Arts Festival, a show by French company Bilbobasso, where the leading lady dances for the leading man, trying to convince him to come back to her. She dances with what look like the bones of two enormous metal fans, a series of lit cylinders at the tips, which send out fine showers of embers as she moves. He – a gangster in a purple suit – sits at a front corner of the stage. He is illuminated by a small fire at his feet, and he keeps his back to her throughout. Behind him, she is a bird absorbed in a mating dance, aware only of her body and her mate; the lights are down and we can see nothing but her silhouette moving among elaborate patterns of embers, and his bored expression. When she is done, he strides past her towards his new woman, his shoulder hitting hers and swinging her open like a door.

The description for the Bilbobasso show in the program suggests that the attraction between this ‘mysterious young woman’ and her ‘ruthless gangster’ is doomed for failure, and then wonders whether the dance might save her. It cannot. Boy meets Girl; Boy discards Girl for another; Girl tries to win back Boy; Boy rejects Girl a number of times while spending lots of time with other Girl; Girl is driven to Boy’s older, softer associate; Girl and older associate endure a fraught courting process; Girl tries to win Boy back a couple more times; Boy, Girl, other Girl and older associate all dance together in a finale; and then older associate either kills or destroys Girl, though that last bit isn’t really clear.

It’s probably not completely clear, and the above synopsis potentially not altogether accurate, because the story is told entirely with Argentinian tango dancing and rampant pyrotechnics. The narrative is really only there to provide the frailest of bones for the fleshiest of visuals – in every scene there is elaborate dancing, and in every scene many things are set on fire. They have this brown dust that, when lit and thrown, explodes in a great puff of flame, and they use this liberally. As well as throwing it, they spread it through the sand on the stage, light it, and then kick it around, until the very ground on which they are dancing is alight. They tango dance with lit poi draped over their arm and have conversations while their hats roar with flames just above their faces. During the courting scene between the leading lady and the older associate, the two of them pick up coffee pourers filled with some sort of flammable liquid, light the spouts, and then swing each other  around in circles pouring the liquid out around them in fine ribbons of blue flame. It’s pretty spectacular. Narrative is clearly not the point.

Still, it was the narrative that bothered me. Usually when gender within narrative bothers me, it’s because the men are perpetually holding the leading, activator role, while the women are prizes or mothers of children or token side-kicks, if they are present at all. This especially seems to happen in spectacle-based performance works or street theatre shows, which use simple, generic storylines as racks from which to hang their tricks. Who hasn’t seen the one where the male street performer picks a pretty girl from the audience to woo with his skills and charms?

What bothered me about Bilbobasso’s show was that although Girl was the main character – the story was clearly hers – Boy still had all the power, and Girl still held the submissive role. It bothered me that the women in the story were items to be consumed and then discarded. It bothered me that Boy was clearly an arsehole, yet Girl still pursued him like a beaten dog, hungry for his attention.

Plus, the men weren’t sexy. Both women, of course, were young and stunning and they danced accordingly. Their legs, hairless and smooth as carved wood, licked in and out of dresses split to the crotch. Their movements were sensual, controlled and they glided over the stage boneless and muscled as tongues; the men, meanwhile, though technically probably good dancers, were not sensual. The purple-suited gangster was greasy-headed and square, sharp in his movements, while his associate was in his 40s or 50s, white haired and balding. He had a fatherly loveliness to him, but he was not sexy, not like the women. The chemistry was absent. The women were beacons of sexually-charged beauty begging at the feet of unattractive men. It only served to intensify the power imbalances already in place and objectify the women further.

If you can make dust explode in the air, you can write a good story to go with it: practitioners of street theatre really need to start progressing with their narratives as quickly as they’re progressing with their presentation of spectacle. A show wherein the narrative is secondary can still pull itself out of easy generics without sacrificing simplicity. Expose the gangster as weak. Have the other woman reject the gangster. Get the older associate to become besotted with the leading lady and then have her discard him. Make them human; create power play, conflict the audience’s opinion of the characters. If the women are sexy, the men should be too – it’s only fair. Fuck with some gender roles. Powerful men and submissive women – we’ve seen that already. We’ve been seeing it for centuries. You can light shit on fire all you like, but if you’re going to have a story, at least make it interesting.

By Zoe Barron

 

FIRE IN THE HOLE!

Does it matter if you get deported if you’re going home anyway? So, when everyone’s scattered in all directions away from the cop cars and the fire trucks, and you’ve ended up riding the backstreets at 3am with this guy you’ve never actually met before because that’s who you happened to follow when chaos happened, and the backstreets you’re riding belong to some suburban section of LA  you don’t know at all – to the extent that if the guy were to suddenly vanish there’s no way in hell you’d actually be able to find your way back to your friends or the place you’re staying – should deportation be the first practical concern to spring into your head? Or is the look he gives you when you say, “Fuck, if I get caught, I might get deported,” entirely warranted?

Just a few days prior, you’re driving up from Yuma; getting used to driving again and to everyone around you speaking English. The road along the border and all those signs pointing back to Mexico, you are thinking about home and trying not to turn back. Then those weird roadblocks, with the United States Border Patrol Protecting the Homeland Since 1924 Terrorist Threat Level signs. Your car in a line-up of cars, culminating in some deadpan border guard with a buzzcut and a black uniform peering through the window, seeing blonde and white and female, waving you through.


Next, the hills. Huge hills and green after desert. Then the civilisation of Santiago, billboards and exits to Wallmart, and then the sudden expanse of a military base, dark falling, the wide empty landscape loaded with authority. No stopping, authorised vehicles only. LA appears on the horizon like a pillow of lights and you tense up and pay attention.

You stay where you stayed before, with that weird, sprawling bicycle collective, in their warehouse in the dodgy suburb of Inglewood. They’re building their tall bikes like before and you’re eating free from the dumpster dive fridge and they’re teaching you how to weld. On an afternoon, you play bike polo with them in the park, talk about going on a ride in a few days, sit on the concrete drinking and blending in. They’re talking about the South by Southwest Festival in a month too, and they want you to come. They call it South-by and you hear it as South Pie. They want you to come but you know you’ll be home by then, even if you could – and should – go if you wanted to.

And how about that time you go to church? When you go with Dario because you’re curious; because, you tell him, we don’t have God in Australia really. Not like here. And you get there and everyone is on their feet with their hands floating up and down like they don’t weigh anything. You’re the only white person in that whole dim, badly carpeted community centre room, buried so deep in outskirts suburbia it’s almost industrial, but nobody notices and the man at the front has a microphone and his preaching is almost in song. Then the band strikes up and the man with the microphone is singing, and everyone else is too. God is just an excuse for celebration. Church is just an excuse to get excited about being alive. And even if you don’t really believe in the excuse, you believe in the celebration, and, especially right now, you believe in what is being celebrated.

So you’re kind of glad that Dario’s not there the night of the ride – considering what the mob does later. At the start you’re looking for him, but he’s got confused and hasn’t followed the group. You’re all on bikes, maybe ten of you leaving the warehouse, maybe five on tall-bikes – those strange contraptions constructed from frames welded together and up, like stilts on wheels. You watch their riders grabbing hold of street signs and traffic poles at the lights so they don’t have to come down from their great height.

There is a guy in the carpark – the whole carpark filled up with bikes like that – who has an entire roll of Buy Me I’m Cheap stickers, and he’s wandering around sticking them on everything. He’s sticking them on the bikes and on the people standing in circles around the bikes talking. He sticks them on the tall-bike riders as they return to the ground to greet the people in the carpark, who are still strangers to you. He sticks one on you, too.

And then you’re riding, all of you. Riding out of the carpark all together into the LA streets, and you are only one bike-person combination in a great stream of chains and spokes and tires and frames and the legs and bodies that power them, one in the long blur of red lights flashing ahead, and white lights flashing behind. It is dark and late already, the streets are lit by street lamps, your friends on tall bikes are floating above the mass of it, and there’s that little bottle of liquor keeping you warm for now.

You haven’t been riding long, though it would be hard to tell caught up as you are in the novelty of it, when the head of the great snake of bikes turns down a hidden sort of gravel road, turns a few corners, and splashes into another group of bikes and riders at a cluster of construction site demountables behind some empty lots. There is a DJ playing, his decks and sound system mounted onto a cargo bike so that later he and his music can also join this strange parade. Before him and around him people dance or stand and talk. Their bikes are propped up in piles. The construction site is not a construction site anymore. You immediately bum a cigarette and tell stories with people you have only just met. It is chaos and it is intoxicating. There are people everywhere.

And now one of the guys you’re staying with, one of the figures so high up who has come down to earth from his tall-bike, is wheeling a wheelbarrow full of combustibles over to the skips near the fence. And you’re climbing up and into one of the skips, tottering over the top of its contents arms out like a scarecrow, throwing down more combustibles, and the fire is growing taller than the people, taller than the tall bikes, bigger than the wheelbarrow. “Fire in the hole!” they yell whenever they throw aerosol cans in. “Fire in the hole!” and everyone jumps back.

At some stage in the evening (either before the construction site, or after you all pack up and leave that fire to its own devices before it starts to draw attention), everyone, the whole wheeled mob of you, stop at a 7Eleven for more booze. Another carpark fills with the likes of all of you. A guy from the warehouse sells grilled cheese sandwiches for $3.50 each from the portable griller he has been towing around behind his bike. At some point you lose your wallet and someone finds it and you and gives it back. You buy a hot chocolate with the money in it. At some point you pee behind a building in an empty lot.

But it’s the next bit, the bit in the church that looks like an old grey office building, that the real part of the evening begins. You are almost the first one there, and the building has been mostly gutted. There is a great big digger in the middle of the place like a brontosaurus and people are already climbing up over its tread and into its cab, up its great sloping neck. What’s left of the floors from the upper stories sag down from where they have been severed, almost to the ground, almost low enough to climb up. But not quite so you climb up the walls instead – the demolition wounds scored into them for a ladder. At the top you find boxes of bibles and theology texts, you find laminated sheets summarising bible stories for children, you find cassette tapes with sermons on them. And from up there, watching the bikes and all the people stream in, you see them discover the cross, you see them wheel it out into the centre, and you know this won’t last long.

Friendlies

All of the sudden, everyone is white and speaking English. The flight attendant performs the safety demonstration like a presenter on Playschool, the pilot announces the flight details like a sports announcer, and I’m not sure if it’s just because I understand what they’re saying that they seem strange, but I don’t think so.

Then Mexico is gone and we’re flying over Pheonix – a flat landscape of lights all in a row. I learn that Phoenix Airport is America’s friendliest airport. You can volunteer to make it friendlier. The people who do wear purple uniforms and overblown lapel flowers. They stand at mildly complicated corners and guide people around them, smiling fiercely.

“That’s seriously one of the most fucked up things I’ve ever heard,” Nina writes back when I tell her about them in an email.

I can have idle conversations with strangers, and I do. I can eavesdrop. In the customs line at the Phoenix Airport, I listen to a group of people around my age discussing how they’re going to get into town, what they’re going to do when they get there, and I’m fascinated. I try hard not to look like I’m listening.

In my bag are Nina’s Mexican things. She wanted to send them back to Australia for her sister to sell – Frida Kahlo bags, intricately painted ceramic skulls, beaded jewellery, embroidered cheesecloth dresses – and considering Mexico doesn’t have a postal system, I volunteered to ferry them home for her. So this is where my favourite idle conversation with a stranger comes from: at security, with the man behind the x-ray machine.

“Nice skulls,” he says, watching my bag slide back out of the machine.

“Thanks,” I say.

I have two hours in the Phoenix airport before my flight to Yuma and, though it is a friendly place, it is definitely not an exciting one. I wander mildly, then I go to my gate, where the flight leaving before my flight is being evacuated back into the airport.

As they are evacuated, the passengers sit heavily back down in the boarding lounge. They’re supposed to be on their way to Palm Springs by now.

“I dunno, maybe she’s just like that. I mean, I don’t want to judge people or anything,” says a lady on my row of seats. She has a thick southern accent. “But. Well, she was havin’ trouble. I’ll just say that.”

“Nope,” replies another lady. “She was drunk.”

The people in airport uniforms are looking very serious. There is an announcement over the gate loudspeakers apologising for any inconvenience the delay may have caused, but assuring us that safety is their primary concern and all staff must be breath-tested before passengers can be permitted to re-board the plane. This should not take long.

A little while later, a female flight attendant, crying quietly, is escorted from the plane by the pilots, past everyone in the boarding lounge, which has gone very quiet.

Colette and Marcel pick me up from the Yuma airport and take me back to the RV. They are happy to see me. I have to tell them that I’m really sorry but I can’t stay for the New Orleans Gumbo Dinner at the Park tomorrow night with all the Park People, that I’d really love to, but I have a friend in LA who’s only going to be there for a couple of days, and I haven’t seen him in years, and he lives in Melbourne so I probably won’t get another chance to see him any time soon, and he’s just got married so we have a lot to catch up on. But I can stay for a little bit tomorrow. I won’t leave until the afternoon. We can have breakfast. Alright, Colette says, but she’s doesn’t hide her disappointment.

In the morning, the trunk of my car is broken. The button in the centre console that is supposed to open it, won’t open it. Neither will the key. I pull all the stuff out of it and climb in from the back seat, start trying to feel around in the latch, just lie there in the dark pushing at the roof. Soon, there are three or four Park Men standing around it with furrowed brows, and I am watching with Colette from behind the screen door of the RV.

They part, and it is fixed. I hug and kiss everyone goodbye, we all make some vague promises, and then I get in. The car’s been sitting there for three months without so much as turn of the key but the engine goes without hesitation. I back out, drive the speed limit out of the park, and out and up and North.

Cutting Balls from Dogs

When I get back to La Manzinilla, the weather has turned. It’s raining daily, like it never does in the Dry. The bus drops me off at the turn-off and I hitch a lift into town in the back of a ute; by the time I get back to Jeanne and Brian and Glen’s place, I am soaked through. Warm rain, like a water heater running out of hot. Nobody’s home, so I towel off and wait under cover, and when they do come home, everyone’s very happy to see everyone else.

They hadn’t been there when I arrived, they explain, because they were volunteering at a pop-up dog (and cat) clinic in town. Twice a year the clinic happens, when volunteer vets are brought in to neuter or spay every dog and cat, factory style, owners can be convinced to bring in, and there are a lot of dogs and cats in and around La Manzinilla. I imagine a little vets office, with volunteering gringos sitting with a handful of subdued animals, maybe running flea combs through the animals’ fur until they wake up. When I go to volunteer the next day, however, I find that it’s a much bigger operation than that.

On the first day I volunteer, they chop the genitals out of almost seventy animals. The entire town hall has been commandeered for the operation, a space about the size of a school gym. To the right, there are a line of those carry cages you take pets to the vet in – all sizes, an enforced queue of dogs and cats waiting to go in. When cage and animal reach the front of the line, they are stuck with a needle of general anaesthetic, then carefully caught and spread out on the operating table when they fall fully under. The are laid on their back, four legs bound to each corner of the table, belly and genitals to the air.

The vets do it all for free. The clinic is five days, starting from around 8 in the morning until often more than 12 hours later. There are three of them, and the work is assembly line. They work in a separate room at the end of the hall, but the two spaces are connected by windows, so I can stand and watch if I want as a vet slices into the sac around a dog’s testicle, then presses at the sides until out pop the two white balls, one by one. I feel sick but it’s very, very hard to stop watching.

The next bit is where we come in. The left side of the hall is the recovery area and, still in the grips of the anaesthetic, the dogs are carried in by their legs, tongues lolling, and laid down on towels and mats on the floor. The cats are placed on tables closer to the door. I was right about the flea combs, though with the sheer magnitude of fleas present, they are rendered largely ineffective. And then there’s the mange, the ticks burrowed into ears, the clumps of missing fur, the ribs pushing out at the sides. This is the bit when you realise why this clinic happens. And there aren’t the packs of dogs roaming the streets like there used to be, either, I’m told.

So it’s our job to ease the animals back to consciousness, to catch whatever fleas we can before they get there, to check their ears and between their toes for ticks, and to feed them the bright pink liquid worming medicine when they start to come to. The dogs take half-an-hour or so to rouse, the cats take three. The cats and the smaller dogs, at risk of losing body heat, get those little rice packs you warm up in the microwave. The cats have crosses of tape over their eyes – cartoon for dead – because the anaesthetic makes them especially sensitive to light.

Sometimes the job is cradling a kitten in a towel, or returning a litter of puppies to their comatose mother. Sometimes it’s mopping up extra shit and blood that happens to slip out. Sometimes it’s convincing a confused and frightened dog in a cage to stop, please stop, bloody barking. By the end of the day, it feels very much as though you yourself are irrevocably covered in fleas.

One Mexican farmer drives around to all the farms in his area, picks up his neighbours’ dogs, and brings them all in at once – ten or thirteen of them, all tied up in the back of his ute. A couple of extraordinarily cute kittens, freshly de-sexed, play in a cage beneath a ‘Free to Good Home’ sign. In the back of one ute, a freshly neutered male tries his best to mount a freshly spayed female, as yet unaware of the change that has been inflicted. It rains, it stops raining, it rains again. I fall in love with cute animal after cute animal and, back at the house, finally book my flight to Arizona.