borderpanic: exhibition; 'holiday camp' screenings + mike parr

The Performance Space, Sydney
5 - 21 September 2002

Having spent more time lately than I would care to admit whingeing about the insularity of the local arts scene, it was with enthusiasm and some portent that I received word of the Borderpanic program of events in Sydney. This ambitiously incorporated an exhibition, film screening, seminar, symposium and tactical media lab. The  exhibition, at The  Performance Space, mobilised a large body of work and project documentation by local and international artists/activists taking their departure from the manifold injustices of refugee policy to broadly conceive a world without borders. Amidst the racket some works held their own, notably Peter Lyssiotis' photomontage narrative The Great Wall of Australia (made with awesome prescience in 1983), which dryly asserts and historicises the construction of a suburban-style brick wall across a south-eastern portion of the country. Illustrated with generic magazine imagery it cleverly and economically mined the menace resident in urban peripheries. Two isolated panels from Gordon Hookey's Ruddock's Wheel stood out for their directness and pointed humour, with a warmongering Howard characterised as Mr Sheen ('making the nation white, tight and right') overlaid with a Seuss-like interpretation of immigration policy: 'We welcome the pale, pinky, white skin. All you's white, racist, sethefrikins, come in'. Most pressing were the works and comments included by artists currently imprisoned in Villawood detention centre, such as those of father and son Jassim and Humam AI Abaddy: an imagined landscape painted onto the back of a takeaway container lid, Jesus behind fencing and wire, and a tender self-portrait by sixteen year old Humam, all spoke clearly and unassumingly of a starkly different reality and the role of creativity in such a place.

In other respects the exhibition brought to mind the claim of a recent travelling show to have been two years in the making, which somehow did not reflect in the thing itself. Administration over thoughtful, thorough, considered exhibition composition and design. Indeed, at every turn in Borderpanic one found tribute to the syndicate of bureaucracies apparently required to engineer such projects these days. In the project reader/catalogue, curator Deborah Kelly tells us 'Borderpanic is not enough ... "All the work remains to be done outside this room'" (Bertholt Brecht). I am inclined to agree, and wonder why it was not in fact done 'outside this room ', all Borderpanic events being staged at art gallery/museum and academic venues. With the crux of the current treatment of refugees lying with the fact that government opinion is largely popular opinion, it is going to require some thinking outside the square to take this on. An event like Borderpanic might just as well be staged at a large community town hall, in an effort to extend and engage the issues in a broader dynamic. As it stood, this interesting program could not help but appear to be 'preaching to the converted'.

Which was exactly the pointed accusation put in question time to the group assembled in the Performance Space theatre on the evening of the 11 September for the screening of the documentary 'Holiday Camp'. An Australian/German production by Drive by Shootings, it sketches out the post-Tampa scene with analysis from academic and indigenous speakers, plus powerful on-location footage of the Easter protests and breakout at Woomera detention centre. Explicit and distressing, importantly, the film succeeds in returning an emotional, human dimension to our treatment of asylum-seekers, the exact dimension government has worked hard to negate. The said challenge was put by an individual who had been at Woomera at the time depicted, along with some serious questions on the ethics of the breakout and a responsibility of protest and activism. Awkwardly fielded by the filmmakers, then scuttled by the curatorial response, the result was a discussion that continued within a small group on the audience periphery in the interval; a less than ideal, but neat, analogy of the position of such debate in the community.

In contrast Mike Parr came on to suggest that 'this part of the evening will be much more interesting if we can turn it into a discussion', but rea lly could not help himself, and set about delivering a likeable tirade of 'reasonably analytical paranoia'. Speaking tangentially in a mode comedic, vehement and urgent, Parr launched off the platform of the September 11 anniversary to construct a complex critique of media sensationalism and Howard/Bush politics of injustice and regression, informed by h1s own practice of art and activism. Refreshingly unmindful of the time-frame, it made a change indeed to hear unexpurgated, complex political awareness and rigorous opinion. He concluded with a projected slide sequence of texts, titled 'Not the Hilton', drawn from a report on the paltry quality of Australian detention facilities, proving again that there is nothing that clears a room like requiring people to read. And so we drifted off in an uneasy frame, prompted by an awareness of the date, the pouring rain in the night outside and the ought that our attention spans might well be exhausted before any inroads are made in this complicated landscape.