Elizabeth’s critical writing has focused on developing a critical theory of late settler liberalism that would support an anthropology of the otherwise. This potential theory has unfolded across five books, numerous essays, and a thirty-five years of collaboration with her Indigenous colleagues in north Australia including, most recently, six films they have created as members of the Karrabing Film Collective.
Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism was the 2017 recipient of the Lionel Trilling Book Award and The Cunning of Recognition was an Art Forum Best Book of the Year.
Karrabing films were awarded the 2015 Visible Award and the 2015 Cinema Nova Award Best Short Fiction Film, Melbourne International Film Festival and have shown internationally including in the Berlinale Forum Expanded, Sydney Biennale; MIFF, the Tate Modern, documenta-14, the Contour Biennale, and MoMA PS1.
Elizabeth Povinelli’s work has been very impactful and influential on a couple of Sipakatuo contributors for several years. It was a very exciting prospect to share her work with the others over the course of the research and exchange process, and even more so to get to speak with her in person.
Firstly, the work of the Karrabing Indigenous Film Collective has consistently proposed alternative narrativities and film forms that challenge euro-centric and normative filmmaking standards. There’s something exciting and freeing about the way Karrabing make films and construct worlds, whilst still being politically challenging and commanding the viewers attention. The example they set is one of formal freedom and radical engagement with one's environment and ancestral present (see below for more detail) within the practice of ongoing decolonisation.
Elizabeth’s written work and theory have been equally eye-opening. Some of the concepts she explores in her work have influenced not only our approach to creative practice, but more broadly on the way we consider our position as arts facilitators and cultural actors. The concepts of “stranger sociability” and the “quasi-event” for example, both also detailed below, have sharpened our attention to the everyday dynamics and infrastructures that determine the way we act and are able to interact with structures of settler and racial powers. These concepts and social dynamics have great potential for artistic and cinematic translation and expression.
Though asked late in the discussion, and perhaps not explored in as much detail as we would have liked, Elizabeth addresses her ideas about the feedback loop, as it relates to the archive. Her description is a great articulation of the notions we’re trying to explore in our creative work, as it pertains to DSTVs pivotal role in Torajan social and cultural fabric, in their crucial contribution to Torajan collective memory.
It was a real pleasure to speak with Elizabeth, and we’re deeply grateful for her time, openness and good humour.
Sam: We've been really inspired by a lot of your writing, interventions and work. But sometimes we find it difficult to communicate your ideas and concepts with people for whom English is a second language. So, please excuse us if we are asking questions that you have already addressed and answered in your writings.
Elizabeth: I will be the first one to say I write too much. It all presupposes what I've already written. No one should have to read everything I've ever written. They’re concepts so they can be endlessly unpacked. So absolutely, ask whatever you want, I always say there's only good questions. And I mean that.
Sam: Well, that's certainly reassuring! To begin with, we’d like to ask you about your conceptions of what post-colonial or decolonial archives look like functionally and operationally.
Elizabeth: I use ‘decolonial’ and I use ‘decolonising’, I'm very much on that page. That it's a process, it's ongoing. Depending on where you've been situated within the wake of European colonialism in the Atlantic and Pacific and West African enslavement, depending on where you are located in that, your obligations and tasks are different. So, I would lean on the term decolonising.
You catch me at the very beginning of a new, well newish, project that I've been calling ‘the ancestral present inheritability’, or I sometimes call it ‘heritability, survivance and the ancestral present’. It's still in the beginning, so even what it's titling will be is not clear. But the structure of it is pretty simple, and I think it speaks to the practise and practical natures of decolonising.
The project does in some ways a very simple thing; it takes two sets of clans. One set comes from my family. That's two clans, the Simonatz-Povinelli’s and the Bartolo-Ambrosi’s, and those are the clans of my paternal grandmother and grandfather. These clans emerged in what are now the Italian Alps in the 15th century. And on the other hand, the clans of the Karrabing film collective, whose country stretch along the coast, the northwest coast, just down from Darwin. So, you’ve got coastal clans and alpine clans. What the project does in a very simple way is it says let's look at literally the descent of these clans, taking particular moments in time, and there are these nice parallelisms, not surprisingly, for reasons I'll say, and look at how their passions and their strategies of survivance get absorbed into the infrastructures of colonialism. Leading to extraordinarily different social outcomes, so that by the time I arrive at Darwin in 1984 and I meet the parents and grandparents of current Karrabing film collective members, we might in some abstract way share a lot of common elements. But concretely, our clans have been completely differentially absorbed and treated absolutely differently, which has led to extraordinarily different outcomes in the two clans by the time you get to us.
So what does it mean to decolonise? To decolonise is not to find places in which the abstract “you are or are not similar”, like “my clans are similar to their clans”. In some ways they are; they are subnational, the Simonatz-Povinelli’s and the Bartolo-Ambrosi’s were clan based subnational forms of governance in the Alps. Then they were dispossessed by liberal, proprietary imaginaries, and they go sailing off in the 1870s to the US, Australia and New Zealand because they are dispossessed, but they take advantage of other people's dispossession. Our family goes to Seneca lands, Buffalo, and then other Bartolo-Ambrosi’s go first to Australia, then to New Zealand. So, they're also taking advantage, and they slowly get absorbed into whiteness. Practically, it's how you are situated relative to this history, so not looking at the ancestral past, but looking at the ancestral present.
As a film practitioner, say, in Karrabing, we share a history since 1984. We feel like family, but we also put up front that we're not treated the same. In practise that means financial. The way we actually make the films is affected, so we all vote. For instance, should we have Beth pay for the film since she accumulates, as a white person, value differentially, and we all vote yes. We make the films within a budget that we can scrape off me, but then the funds we make from them are directed not into making more films, but into making land based activities that we can get young people out, so it's a redirection. It’s a practise of relationality, differential obligations based on the history of the relationality and then an attempt to redirect values from their usual infrastructures, in which the clans are an example of, like value just keeps on going into white infrastructures and not into indigenous ones.
In terms of my thinking, in 1984 when I first went to Belyuen they needed an anthropologist, and at that time there were only white anthropologists they knew of, because of the legal infrastructure. They were involved in a land rights case and I was a philosopher and they said “would you come back and be our lawyer?”. I said “I don't want to be a lawyer, I’ll be something else.” And they were like “what about an anthropologist?” I said “what is that?” And they say “white people studying us.” I was like “you want me to do that?!” And they said “we don't want you to study us, we want you with us to try and figure out what's the trick here.” Basically, you have settlers saying, we want to recognise your traditional ways, but everyone could tell it was a trick. Because they were saying our traditional ways are this, and the law was saying, no, we don't recognise that they have to be this, aren't they this? What the law wanted folks to be were property based units that could be absorbed into what Aileen Moreton Robinson and others call white possessiveness.
As an intellectual, what decolonising means is to move away from what I found out what anthropology was, a very traditional idea that “we represent and translate people”, which is a big no! Our intellectual mission, if we have one, is to work with people to try and analyse the structures of settler and racial power. In other practises, like film practises amongst others, we try to help change the direction of the value infrastructure machine. It's practise, what decolonising means is; where have you been situated in this history of infrastructure? Are you part of the piping in which the values flows into you? Are you part of the piping in which your values are being sucked out for others? Thus, you have to help redirect it, very concretely, it's what your mind does, what your money does, what your obligations are. It's a whole practise that won't end.
Our intellectual mission, if we have one, is to work with people to try and analyse the structures of settler and racial power. In other practises, like film practises amongst others, we try to help change the direction of the value infrastructure machine.
Sam: So in that case, the idea of a decolonial archive requires an understanding of what the archive serves, for what an archive is used for.
Elizabeth: That's right. For example, that’s one of the reasons I'm doing this two clan thing. It's very visual, it's very archival, that's why I'm learning Italian, because I have to go in there. White people literally have it still drummed in their heads that they were a clan from a place that was subnational. Even someone like me, cannot go into the archive and use it to show that “you too were indigenous”. But who gives a damn that “you too were”, right? It's about what is now, that's why we say the ancestral present. What is it to be a Simonatz-Povinelli now? Well, that is basically a white settler. But, because of ethics and habits, you might be open to align with others to help decolonise against your own self.
What we see now, especially in Australia, in Europe and in the US, what white folks are doing is they're going back into the archives to produce a statement that goes like this; “we too were, we, too, had our own, we too were shamans, we two were Nordic, we too came from somewhere.” In Australia or America you get the “we too came from somewhere” and then try and figure out where they come from, they try and reach before slavery and colonialism. Why do they do that? Because they don't want to be responsible. They don't want to have the resonsibility that colonialism and slavery built into the world. It's used in order to circumvent the ancestral present. What it shows is that decolonising, decolonising critique and decolonising practise is working. Because suddenly white people think that they need to also have been something. They also need to have had a culture, a precolonial, even pre-Christian, indigenous-like culture. That means that decolonising as a practise is working. You see why it's working? So a lot of whites are engaged in what I've been calling a “cultural counter-reformation.”
Afifah: A cultural counter-reformation?
Elizabeth: Yeah, the Counter-Reformation came out of Trent in the 1500s. The Counter-Reformation was a way of trying to save Catholicism in the face of a bunch of reformations, new non Catholic Christianities. What I see is this white nativism both on the left and right as a kind of white counter-reformation in which whiteness is being saved by going into the archives in order to find a “once we were a...”.
Sam: When you say archive, what are you referring to specifically? Are you talking about history with a capital H? Or are you talking about a building with texts and documents and maps and family trees etc.?
Elizabeth:This question of “what is an archive”, as you guys know, is a huge, really interesting debate. You have the old fashioned archive, which was a collection of papers that has long been critiqued because it's like it erases memory in the preservation of something. The state constitutes its history by not collecting, it's the Derridian absence. And then folks like Vanessa Agard-Jones and my former colleague Michel Rolph Trouillot and many others, have tried to think not only how do you constitute an archive of absence, but also how do you look at other forms of materiality as an archive. In some ways, even somebody like Freud was talking about an archive when he was talking about the formation of a psyche.
So, we could say our bodies, our languages, our environments are all archives insofar as they are the sedimentation of… I don't quite know how to put the word together, but they're the ancestral present sedimentation, the sedimentation of the ancestors in the present. Ecologies, terrains, material ecologies are that, psyche's are that. They hold and make it difficult to see what's been occluded, they both are there and not there at the same time.
I know the debate and I'm really big with it. The project I'm doing now has all of these arguments. It takes into account very specific kinds of psychic, subjective, affective habitus and also just paper. What was photographed, what was written down, why was it written down. If you go to north Australia, in relation to indigenous folks, it's what we see in the administration of people. We have administrative documents and we have court documents, so where people show up. But if you're with Karrabing and we're walking down the beach, we see particular kinds of shell middens, and that's an archive because we know what it means. We see the shape of a creek and that's an archive because we know what made that.
If you're with Karrabing and we're walking down the beach, we see particular kinds of shell middens, and that's an archive because we know what it means. We see the shape of a creek and that's an archive because we know what made that.
Afifah: I have read some chapters from your book Geontologies, and am fascinated by it, but I'm still a bit confused with some terms. I'm very interested in this concept of exclusion and what you said about ‘stranger and kinship sociability’, in regards to a particular archive that you discuss in one particular chapter. How are those kinds of algorithms important to postcolonial digital archives, specifically the idea of ‘stranger and kinship sociability’?
Elizabeth: The problem of the archive has always been front and centre for me because of my white family. Then it became really interesting because of the different ways in which archives govern different kinds of people differently.
At this point, if I want to go back to my village, up in the Alps, if I had the money, I could buy a house, or buy a flat. It's very expensive because now it's a big, rich ski area. It used to just be a poor region. Before the 1800s, if someone wanted to come and live in the village. The ‘vicini’, the neighbours, represented by the capi familia, the male head of the family, were autonomous. They would get together and decide, can this person come in? Can this person not come in? If they come in, they are going to have to give us money. Who are they related to? Why are they here? And so on. So, it wasn't based on ‘stranger sociability’, it was like, so-and-so has married into the village. Or so-and-so was the godfather or the godmother of this kid in another village, now, this kid wants to come up here, right? So the relationship between place and people was based on kinship and religion. The vicini, the familia, the five or six families decided who and how people could move through their country. Say, if I want to take my cows through, I would say “I'm from the next village, but you're married to my sister.” And they're like “oh, yeah, of course.” And so you can literally move through space based on these kinship marriages and religious connectivities. It wasn’t like “you don't know who I am, but I got the money. I can do whatever I want.” Everything's alienable now through commodity exchange. Today, if I want to go up there I don't have to prove who I am to get my land back. I don't have to do anything, I just buy or not buy. So, the archive for someone like me, for the Simonatz-Povinelli’s, the Martinelli-Povinelli’s, the Zola’s or whoever, the archive just sits there as a place in which I can constitute identity. I accumulate a certain kind of ethnicity, but it's not even ethnicity, it's too small. Let's just say I accumulate identity, but it has no bearing on how anyone is going to make decisions about my ability to be or do something. You see that?
When I get to Australia and it's 1984, they've asked me to do this thing and come back and then I've been going back and forth ever since (except right now I'm stuck since February). And, over time, I've accumulated all this crap. The older folks that I have been accumulating it with, from, or whatever, they're passing back into the earth. And I'm like, hey, whoa, what am I supposed to do with this stuff? Because by that time, we also know that their lives are constantly being judged based on the difference between what was and what is. Their truth is in what they were prior to the settlers invading. My truth can be whatever I want it to be, I just float off, I’m white, I can be wherever, I can be the past and future. But their truth, for my indigenous colleagues, is always “how much have you deviated? i.e. How not indigenous are you?” Here, the archive becomes this whole horrible thing. At once, really great, because how did they do it back then, but on the other hand someone's going to go through it and say, “see, you don't do that anymore. See, you've changed. See that?” This happens in law all the time, in land claims and native titles. People are held up against a frozen past.
The archive in the wrong hands is extraordinarily dangerous. And yet archives, as a state function, are considered just history accumulating. It shouldn't belong to anyone. Of course, after ’76 and land rights, they started saying only these kinds of people can look at this part of the archives. The archive was considered in terms of paper, films, photographs, that is the stuff the state has collected. Universities (when I say “state”, I mean institutional forms) they start using the mechanisms of liberal cultural recognition and saying “we're going to sequester some of this stuff so only this folk can look at it or those folks can look at it.” So, the state archive, the documents, the films, the photos, the object collection, the whole thing, the state starts saying accessibility isn't going to be based on stranger sociability, which means “I don't have to know you to do anything”.
For example, if I'm in Belyuen and I want to go to another community and I meet somebody, and I don’t know them, one of the first things I’m going to ask is what do I call that person? i.e. What's my relation to that person? If they say they’re a brother, I’ll call them brother. If I call them panen or nihra, those are different languages, i.e. my fathers mothers kids or my mothers fathers kids or extensions thereof. I can play with that person, kid around with them because we’re marriageable, we're playable, we can joke with each other, we touch each other. If they want something, you can hand it to them. If it's my brother or sister, I've got to hand it to someone else to hand it to them. But when I go to a store, I don't say, hey, what do I call you before I give you my money.
Capitalism and liberalism operate on the basis of stranger sociability, it operates on the basis of, other than a really shrunken down family, we treat everyone as strangers, even our family we start treating as strangers. There's no obligation I have to you, you're a stranger to me. You're anybody, you could be anybody. In terms of practical use and touch and movement. That’s one of the hard things in a liberal capital exchange, because you have to! If someone's working at a store, say, in Belyuen, and a particular person comes in and, say, Shorty’s at the till, one of my daughters, and her brother comes up to pay for something. What's going to happen? Shorty would say that's my brother, you do it, get someone else to do it, but the white supervisor would start getting angry and say at the shop that stuff doesn't count, so it's wearing away.
First the archive was just treated as strangers were, anybody could go in there. It's information, it's data, it's free, it's part of liberal knowledge production. Then the state, under pressure from indigenous activists and others, said, OK, now we're going to say that the archive, that knowledge is not abstracted. It is within and thus has to be operated by kinship or clan or language obligations. Then the digital stuff gets really interesting. When digitalisation started happening, people were saying we can digitalise these social relations. But one of the things I try to say in that chapter is that the coding itself operates on the basis of stranger sociability. The substructure has already alienated the social.
Sam: And does this relate to the idea of endurance, a recurring idea both in this article we’re talking about, as well as throughout your work.
Elizabeth: The focus on endurance has come because of this, what we're talking about. It's not “have endurance and then have the things we're talking about”. It's because of the things we're talking about, the question of endurance, survival, survivance and heritability and all that come to the foreground.
Let me use another example. Gavin Bianamu, whose nephew was about 20 at the time. So Gavin, Rex Edmunds, who I called dad, though he’s a little younger than me, and myself and a colleague from Sacred Sites were travelling in Europe in 2017 for the Contour Biennale, up in Mechelen in Belgium. We went down to Brussels for an event in this gallery or museum. Someone asked us why we make films, a good question. Gavin said: so that what we say matters, matters, in the sense of creating matter. It creates a thing or a knot, as we would say people turning towards something creates a kind of knot, you create a ‘here’, if you turn away, you dissipate that ‘here’. I want to create something that, by people turning toward it, creates a place that matters. But also ‘matters’ in the sense of accumulating force. Because, he said, “when we didn't make films, everything was just like sand in the hand. And I want this to matter, I want it to endure, I want my way to matter, it has to endure. It has to continue, it has to constantly hold on.” That's decolonising, that effort of keeping this ‘turning toward’, this mattering, this matter, it matters forth. Mattering is mattering forth, why? To keep it going. What is that? Enduring. In Economies of Abandonment, I say enduring because it's the mattering. It's the making of matter over time, it’s the mattering forth.
So Gavin, and Natasha Bigfoot Lewis and Sheree Bianamu, Gavin’s sister, they were all so young, I think they just turned 18 and 19, they got on a plane and they went to Jerusalem. I was supposed to meet them at the airport there, but I got stuck in Rome. It was their first time out of the country, first time out of the community. So we're in Brussels, and Gavin says “when I was getting on the plane, I looked at the ticket, and the ticket said I had to sit next to my sister. So I said to the stewardess “I can't sit next to my sister.” And the stewardess said “why can't you sit next to your sister?” and he said “In my way, I can't sit next to my sister.” And she said “I don't know what you're talking about, but this is an aeroplane. That's your seat. You have to sit there”. Then they eventually just swapped seats around, but what Gavin was saying was that we have to figure out a way of mattering forth in these big infrastructures in which every day every little thing is trying to wear it away, saying it doesn't matter. “I don't care if he's your brother, just take the money and give him his coke” or “I don't care if she's your sister. Just get on the seat next to her, we have to take this plane off” or even “I don't care if you have your own land and it's connected by these totemic sections, just sign the contract with the company for your bounded area and just keep going”. Every day there are these massive capital infrastructures that are constantly eroding the effort to endure, the effort to go on, because at some point you just go “fuck it, I’ll sign anything”.
Capitalism and liberalism operate on the basis of stranger sociability, it operates on the basis of, other than a really shrunken down family, we treat everyone as strangers, even our family we start treating as strangers.
Sam: Is there a difference between endurance and perseverance or preservation? I guess, when I read endurance in the context of your writing, sometimes I think of preservation.
Elizabeth: I don't like the word preservation for a lot of reasons. Preservation has too much of a connotation for me of preserving the past. Preservation is vitrining, like putting something in a jar.
Sam: Which I feel is perhaps what the popular understanding of an archive is.
Elizabeth: Exactly, and as a matter of fact, preservation is one of the excuses of some of these very wealthy (or not even so wealthy) galleries that hold the stolen things and relations of so many different people. The rationale they have for not giving it back is “you won't be able to preserve it.” Well, if it rots in the ground, it'll be in that ground where it should be. What they’re saying is they have to preserve their power over it.
I think in that chapter that you raised Afifah, I think I say there that I had a big pile of stuff and I was going around asking what do I do with this? One of my friends, I can’t remember her name, she would call me Mum, she told me to dig a hole, put the stuff in there, burn it, bury it and do a dance on it. What she was saying was to do a mortuary service for the archive. So, I was super white, I was like “oh, no, that’s knowledge, it could be useful in the future!” And the next day she said “Mum, don't do that, just wait and see what happens.” But it was interesting, because if it went into the ground, like she said, that's where it would belong. It would be still here, but it would be in the ground.
That's why I don't like preservation, I find it one of those words that just condenses the lie. When we say for us to really deal with the pools of toxicity that capitalism has made, those whose skin and environments have been kept clean have to take a little bit of the load, they’ll say “that's terrible that you're talking about some imaginary zero state, everyone should be able to have the good stuff we have.” But I think, no, you just don't want to give up anything, so you’re using them as an excuse so you don't have to give up anything. If you took some of your stuff and gave it to the people that you stole it from, then they would be able to have something better, you would just have less. So that's how preservation sounds to me, too. That's what's going on.
Of course you can disagree with me and say, I don't like that idea. You know, if you want to, I’m not a delicate flower!
Afifah: Doing these interviews, talking with a variety of cultural agents about ideas of archiving, the word preservation comes to mind when I think of archiving. So it's an interesting notion that you’re proposing.
Elizabeth: Well, it might mean something different where you are, but if you're sitting in a white institution, preservation means something very particular.
I'm always against hope, I'm for stubbornness, and I was having this really interesting conversation...
Sam: You're against hope and for stubbornness?
Elizabeth: Yeah, stubbornness enduring, all those things. But, I was having this really great conversation with a West African curator and he was like, “I totally get it Beth, but one of the things that's really interesting is that if you're sitting like I am in the black Caribbean, is there a way of hoping that's not the hope you hate?” If there could be a way that didn't get sucked into this infrastructure, or if there's a way of doing preservation, i.e. from an Indonesian perspective, that does it differently than as an excuse of taking and keeping, that'd be super cool.
Sam: And excluding, like the idea of wilderness preservation, for example, is based on exclusion. I wanted to talk about the video archive we are working with, which documents Torajan social and ceremonial events from the past 15 years, and from these events we are constructing a new event or meaning from what is essentially the documentation of daily life. When I read about your ideas of the “quasi-event”, it makes me think of us interacting with DSTV (that's the name of the videography company), their archive and what they find broadcast worthy as opposed to what they don't find broadcast worthy, compared to what we find broadcast worthy etc. I wondered if you could explain the idea of a “quasi-event” as opposed to just an event? Or perhaps I’m taking it out of context.
Elizabeth: I think the context you're putting in is super interesting, I'm not sure I can really help with the particular context, because I don't know it, but I think it's a really cool context.
I’ll try to find a simple way of describing what I mean by “quasi-event”, or what other people call the ‘small event’ or ‘intensities’. There's this book that just came out in which I talk about the event relative to these four axioms, so I'm trying not to just repeat what I said there, to try and keep it where you are or where you want to go with it. The quasi-event or an intensity without any event, points to the way in which, I think, critical race theory, critical indigenous theory, subaltern theory, all have pushed against a certain Western imaginary of the political event. But again, if you go into Western political theory, you have everybody arguing about everything, so it's not like there's an agreement, there's a large field of disagreement. Across that field of disagreement, one could say that a political event is something that changes the nature of the system or the structure. So Rancière wants to talk about the reorganisation of the senses or the sensible. Alain Badiou talks about the felicity of the event, for example, like “1968 changed fundamentally the system”. It has to be structural and it has to be universalisable. That's what a political event, or just event, is.
Sam: It’s almost the 20 year anniversary since 9/11, that seems like an example.
Elizabeth: Right. Yeah, we're just a couple of days out and it's all over the newspaper, THE event. It changed everything, and addressed everybody. It changed structurally the system, supposedly. But what a lot of us have been trying to do is to say, really? Was that an event? Badiou would say it was, but, depending on where you are, what seems like an event in one plane, is only an intensity or intensification in another. Over here, it may not look like anything is happening or the same old thing is still happening. If you think about existence as a table, there is no event, there are these radiating forces. Not only that, if you think about where nothing is happening, like there's no event happening, there's all these little events that are happening over here which constantly keep any political event from happening. If you're sitting in these spaces of intense racism or, say, poverty, then the effort it takes to not just fall out of going-ness or enduring-ness is enormous, yet nothing ever happens. You're in a world in which nothing is quite working, but there's no event. So people look at you and say you're not doing anything, nothing's happening. You're lazy. But, from where you are, you're expending so much energy just to keep going, just to keep everything from not falling apart. But it looks like nothing's happening. You see what I mean?
If you start looking at it from that level, that's the quasi event. The quasi-event is both all this creative energy it takes to just stay poor let alone to go beyond poor, and the events that are around you all the time are like these teeny weeny sub particle flys, always eroding you. Because your environment is built out of the toxic remains of, like, New York and Brussels, the white New York, white Brussels, where events can happen. So you can have events there, but you can never have events over here. But it’s an event if you’re still going. It's a way of understanding the energetic condition of the end of the pipe.
Sam: Having studied film for a couple of years, there's an importance placed on, you know, a three act structure, making sure that the “event” is central.
Elizabeth: Oh yeah, there has to be a conflict! When we started making films we brought over this friend of mine, a very nice person, and she was going to teach us basic craft, because we didn’t know what we were doing. And she said that everything has to be based on a conflict that gets resolved either one way or the other. We're like, oh, we got a lot of conflicts, but the real question is, how do you show nothing happening? And that’s THE draining event, nothing.
[00:59:40] The cinema of Lizzie Borden, say, not her first film... I can't remember any names today , but she did one about a middle class white prostitute woman [Working Girl]. It's just like one day in her life, and nothing really ever happens. Like the johns come in and the sex happens, but after a while, another john, and another one, you just realise, nothing is happening because it's just a flow of the same, round and round, a flow of the same.
Sam: I feel that there's a trend in documentary perhaps at least over the past couple decades that has tended towards this idea
Elizabeth: Like our friends at Harvard. What are their names?
Sam: The Sensory Ethnography Lab?
Elizabeth: Yeah, the Sensory Ethnography Lab folks. Where you're just really looking at the little detail, or you're not even looking at anything at all. Like that one film about the ski lift going up and down [Manakamana]. But our films aren't like that at all. Karrabing films are Karrabing films. They're very collective.
If you're sitting in these spaces of intense racism or, say, poverty, then the effort it takes to not just fall out of goingness or enduring-ness is enormous, yet nothing ever happens. You're in a world in which nothing is quite working, but there's no event.
Sam: Why did the Karrabing Collective start to make films?
Elizabeth: I first went over in 1984, then I became an anthropologist. Basically, whatever we're doing gives us a way of looking at settler power. What we’re really usually doing is hunting, raising kids, making outstations and, well, just anything, because it's a life.I don't say it's ethnography, I think that's disgusting. It's just living together. Together, we also have lived through the consequences of liberal recognition, which has divided communities based on this proprietary notion of ownership, the law imposes a form of ownership. Then money flows that way and it divides communities and we’ve already talked about endurance.
A particularly bad consequence happened in Belyuen in 2007, it was really violent, and about 50 people just left and they said they can't deal with this anymore. They became homeless and they lost their jobs. I was commuting at the time, between New York and Belyuen. So during the semester they asked me “where are you going to go when you come back?” And I said “I don't know.” It’s a small community, only two hundred people, and everybody's family. But I was like, I can't just go back to Belyuen and act like nothing has happened. It was in that context, when I was there I would visit them wherever they were either in the overcrowded houses in Darwin or in the tents in the bush, I would go there.
In the middle of this, for reasons that I talk about in Geontologies, a particular thing happened, Linda Yarrowin got so frustrated and she said “you know what, we should just make our own little film about what it's like to be indigenous between people telling you live in the city, people telling you live in the bush, people telling you just to be white, people telling you just to be black, people telling you this and that, and they have no idea what they're talking about.” And we’re all like “yeah!”. One of my brothers always loved Elvis Presley, he wanted to be a movie star, so he was like “yeah!!”. So we're all like “yeah!!!”. And then we're all like, “who's going to do it?” “We’ll all do it!”. “Well, does anybody know how to do it?” And we're all like “no!!” So, I said “Well, I'm not for this, but I know some anthropologists, they just get a camera and then they give it to a community…” And they were like “Beth, we’re not doing that. We want to look like the kinds of films we watch made by people that know how to use a camera--and we then can learn how to do it from them. You live in New York. Go find someone and bring them and we'll see if we like them, see if they're good or bad. We want to make our films, but we don't know how to hold the camera and we want to learn how to do it.” So, it came from a very particular desire to intervene. It started with an intervention in representation, but also as a practise of staying together. If we do this, we'll be doing it together, it was so precarious.
So we did it. And from doing that, making the first one, we also noticed that we all liked doing that. The kids liked it and the teenagers liked it and the old people liked it, we all liked it. What we didn't like was the structure of production, once we found out what it was. Which was; you had to do it for six days or seven days or ten days, you had to do it in the morning, you had to do it in the evening. You had to do it over and over and over as the camera moved around. By the second film I was like “I’m not doing this anymore, I'm being turned into that white woman who just screams and yells.” And they're like “someone gotta be that white woman”, but I was like “I'm not being that white woman. I'll be some other white woman, but I'm not gonna be that woman.”
We made two films with a very small crew, but there were outsiders. They were good, they were really good. Our cinematographer made Ten Canoes. But we didn't know what pre-production was, we don't have scripts, we don’t have anything. We basically know what the story is going to be, and we've grown up together, so we know how it goes. Maybe someone says something goes a little bit this way, fine, we know how it can and should go. We don't want a script, because we have different literacy and we want people to do it their way. The cinematographer just went with the flow, it was kind of amazing. But they're professionals, they don't have time. So that was going to end. It was not fun, not good, when we followed production norms.
It was like working to expand the archive. What we mean by that is, everybody's grown up together. I came in 1984, so it's still a long time. When we're making these films, we realise, like any family does, like “oh, I didn't know that part. I wasn’t sitting there when mom said this, or grandma said that”. And as we're doing it, it’s providing context for the younger people, they’re acting too cool for school, but they're listening. We were seeing this really deepened and expanded archive, it was mattering forth, as Gavin said, it mattered.
Then, I saw that the film Tangerine was made on iPhones, and I came back and said “you guys, I know you’re not gonna believe me, but I'm going to say this…” and I pulled out three new iPhones, this was back in 2015. I said “we can make real films on these things.” “No, we can't.” “Yes, we can, and whoever agrees to do the cinematography gets the phone” So, all the young people volunteered! Very quickly we learned we can make some really good stuff, it's not as digitally dense, but you can slide those things and get angles any which way you want. You can chuck them in your backpack, you can take a zoom thing. You can get three angles on the same scene, so you don't have to do it over and over. Sometimes you want to because it’s so funny. I edit, so the editing is a little easier, because we don't have a script, it's hard to edit if you have one camera and people saying different things. Voila! It freed us from time. We would be somewhere and this thing is happening, and it could be really the scene we need, so we shoot it! It might mean the clothes are all weird, but it doesn’t matter.
We pulled production into Karrabing time. At some point, we might not do them anymore, if it's not funny anymore, we're not going to do it. We also started doing this deepening, thickening, enduring, we started redirecting money. Because I started editing them, that takes some money off. The sound we do with this great, brilliant guy who's basically a musician, who does it for free, that takes money off. He also works with the young people and it takes the money off. So we just start stripping money off as everybody else is learning how to do things better, it takes the money. We can now jack these films out. We try to say, if you're doing something in the film, you get seven hundred dollars. But then money comes in and then we take all that money to buy trucks, we buy solar equipment and generators. We buy boats. It’s become a redirection machine that's really working.
The point is country, the point is not the films. We’re very clear about that.
Fun and land. It really has worked. It's led to us bushwhacking a road to get to a place that was very hard to get to. We've gotten two year olds there now, before people who were 60 never got there. Sometimes I'm like, we don't have to make stupid films anymore, but they're not stupid. They're really good.
Sam: When you're making the films, is there any consideration for audience or distribution or screenings?
Elizabeth: We make the films so that when we watch them, the sound, the image, the journey is laminated into the ancestral present. If we hear this bird and we see this thing, we know, we see. Or this one's doing that because here, etc. So they're built to expand our archive of specific stories and landscapes. But we don't tell people. There’s a little bit of a story, but we don't tell them how to understand the relationship between form and character and sound. Why should we?.
Sam: But at the same time, they've been shown all over the world. At some point you decided to submit them to a festival.
Elizabeth: Not really, we're lazy. I'm the most lazy person on the planet. No, we’ve been very lucky. Originally, it was when I was in Amsterdam once, I met two young curators there, and I was saying something about the mangrove. I brought up Karrabing, we were just finishing [When the Dogs Talked]. They asked to see it.
Then the first place we showed it was in the Gertrude down in Melbourne, and we all went down there. It's not like we don't watch TV, we watch films on TV all the time. It's not like I'm ignorant of shit. But you never know until you enter into a certain kind of space, you don't know what their drama is. when we went to the Gertrude, there were like seven of us. And we're sitting there and this is the first time we're in front of an art film audience. They started asking all these questions. After we talked I said “I can't be doing all the talking”, they said “Beth, you got English, you can understand these people.” I said “we all have the English” and they're like “well, you know, that's not quite true”, because we speak Kriol. I said “it doesn't matter, what I know about audiences is if you don't understand the question, you can just answer whatever the hell you want. That’s what people always do. If I'm the only one answering, they're going to think that. They're going to think they're my films and they're not my films” and they're just going to think that the white person answering the questions, it’s her films. But that’s not right. They said “you’re also in Karrabing”. So, it’s the “also” part we’ve got to get across.
There were a couple of questions that were super interesting. One was whether the dogs were good spirits or bad spirits. But, we don't think like that. Then one of them was, why did you choose to show in an art gallery first? That one kinda stumped us. We really honestly didn't know what they were asking us. And so, I forget who it was, but somebody said “because you invited us.” We went from there to the IMA, those were our first two, and we got asked the question again. Someone responded “we were asked the same question in Melbourne and we don't know what you're really asking us.” And they said, well, because you could have shown it in a university, a film festival, in an art gallery. And then my brother Trevor said “yeah, yeah, yeah, they're all good, all of those are fine. All of them need to learn.”
From there, it just started growing and it's been interesting to actually watch the trajectory of them. A) We're very lucky B) There are some really amazing young curators out there who we bless, everybody does amazing work. We've also been able to see, like it's like putting that little dime in when you get x-rayed, we see the infrastructure in this interesting way. We've been very lucky not to be sucked into yucky people. We have these great people who move us around.
Gavin was moving around a lot. He loved to travel. I always quote him because he always wanted more stamps on his passport. And people would ask “has it changed you?”. He always says no. He'd tell me “people have no idea.” and I’d say “no, they don't. They have no idea.” What we're referring to is just the amount of shit going on and you're worrying about who you're making this for. We're just making it. We just finished one about the family and a zombie, I play the zombie. During and in between, we're waiting for this to get done, someone's in the hospital, so we’re like “let's make a new one.” “OK, what do we make?” “I don't know.” Then the kids want to play with paint, so suddenly we're making a zombie film. Are we thinking about who for? No, we're thinking about who will do what, what are we doing, where this is going, what is this about. We assume it will have an audience. When I write my books, I just assume it will have an audience. It won't always have an audience. I'm very spoiled, I tend to have an audience. I pay attention to who that audience is. Do I care about audience? Yes, I do. Insofar as I'd rather be talking to these people than those people. If I'm picked up by those people, I think, oh, my God, what is this I'm writing? I don’t know if that helps at all.
Sam: Totally, my questions seem to come from formulas that I've integrated from film school, like audience.
Elizabeth: We never went to film school. We were shooting one day and I said to Natty, who was using one of the iPhones, “there's some line we're not supposed to cross when filming.” She said “what line is that?” And I said “I don't know if some line like you can't you can't cross it or something happens and you can't edit the image.” And she said “well, where is it?” I said “I don’t know, I just know it exists.” And we're like, OK, whatever, sometimes I just flip the image but I don’t know what the line is. I'm not discounting film school, I think you can see that none of us went to film school, although I was trained by an amazing editor, this independent editor, who's made some amazing films. And one of the things he taught me, just basic editing, but he also taught me why we can't edit the way most films are edited, because we're assuming a very different world. We're not even assuming it, we're in a very different world. So that's got to get on to the surface and the movement, the way in which we edit and shoot assumes a very different kind of world, like stranger sociability etc.
Sam: I have one more question, I realise it’s getting late for you both. It's about the idea of the feedback loop, which I've read particularly in a conversation between you and Lauren Berlant in the e-flux journal. It’s a really fascinating conversation. You say that the concept of a “feedback loop is a nice way of imaging what interests you”, but I didn't quite fully grasp how you described your approach to the feedback loop. You mention in particular a “superabundance of the supervalent”.
Elizabeth: Lauren was very interested in the supervalent, which they got from Emerson and the pragmatists. I think it's Emerson who comes up with the concept of supervalence. If I remember correctly, I haven’t looked at that conversation in a thousand years, I was trying to think of a feedback loop as something that collects and leaks as it turns back to nourish the endurance, so that it’s not just a loop, it's not just a porcelain thing that you put stuff through, and comes back. It pulls apart and sediments and changes, so when it pulls again and re-sediments it’s collecting as it goes or it's being pulled apart as it goes. It's very much a materiality that creates more as it returns, and recreates more as it returns. Or it tears out and leaves behind so that when it comes again, it's come to a more denuded state.
Sam: For us, interacting with this archive, for me, that conjures up an image of a feedback loop.
Elizabeth: Because you find something in it, and you go lateral, then that pulls back into it, that thickens it, so there's more there than when you started. And then, again, you go lateral, and that further thickens it. The archive starts building out and becoming something that maybe it was never intended to do. Maybe it's intended to secure state settler power. But the more you pull out and feedback and pull out again, suddenly you've destroyed the very thing that you started with. And you can do it the other way too.
Sam: Thank you so much Elizabeth. You've been so generous with your time, we really appreciate it!