Skip to main content
SearchLoginLogin or Signup


Published onOct 12, 2020


There are days when I want to hurl my phone into the sea. Most nights I sleep with it pressed under my pillow.

buzz, shudder, grasp
text, image, video, voice
send, delete, ignore, reject, reply, like, share
call & response
call & response
call & response

Somehow it’s the act of not answering that requires the most energy.

Often when my phone rings and the call is from Arnhem Land, I wonder if I’m really up to the demands of this work. Quite often—and I’ve had to practise this, schooled by my Yolŋu kin themselves—I don’t pick up. Only after five or six attempts (I find such insistence particularly Yolŋu) does the phone finally stop its wilful shudder.

Gurrumuruwuy laughed when I read these lines to him. He suggested I buy a new SIM card. ‘You make it too easy. Anyone can find you.’ I do a quick tally of the phone numbers I’ve had for him over the years. More than fifteen, I reckon, whereas I’ve had the same number the whole time.


Nothing materialises the push-and-pull of contemporary life like mobile phones. It is the aesthetic medium of our time—a device through which sound, images and touch give shape and force to worlds of sensation and meaning assembled on the move.

Of course, I had no sense of this when I bought my first mobile in 2005, the same year mobile phone connection finally came to Arnhem Land. I just wanted to talk with people. For many months before the Telstra network was switched on in this remote corner of northern Australia, my Yolŋu friends and family looked forward to a new technology that would allow us all to keep in more regular contact. Previously, if I needed to get hold of them I had to call one of three public phone boxes in the community and ask whoever happened to answer to search out the person I was ringing. This system worked better than one might think.

Back then I had no inkling of how much these new devices were to contribute to the deepening (and, at times, the testing) of my relationships with Yolŋu. Nor did I anticipate the degree to which my practice-based research methods would come to depend on media made and distributed via mobile phones.

A year later, I took my first trip with my first mobile. Within hours of my arrival at the home of my closest Yolŋu kin, the Nokia was given a customised ringtone. Originally recorded on a reel-to-reel in 1996 by a Canadian ethnomusicologist, this ringtone, and the song series it comes from, had been copied and repatriated to Gapuwiyak on CD more times than I can remember. In a time before memory cards and USB sticks, they used their phones to record whatever they wanted straight from the stereo speaker. No one ever asked me for the CD version again.

The choice of track, selected by them and sung by their fathers—my late Yolŋu brother and video collaborator Bäŋgana Wunuŋmurra and his brother Bruce Burrimbirr—could not have been more deliberate. This song is about the great Yirritja moiety Lightning Snake,1 Gatj, who calls to other clans by spitting lightning into the sky. At the beginning of the wet season, when Gatj tastes the first flush of fresh waters surging through the brackish swamps, he rears high above the Dhalwaŋu clan saltwater country of Garraparra to signal to other snakes, in other Yirritja homelands. They, in turn, reciprocate with their own lightning, thereby affirming the connections between the different clans.

Bäŋgana’s daughters chose that track to perform our enduring connection in very Yolŋu terms: not only through the poetics of positioning me as a Dhaḻwaŋu person being called, but by bringing to the fore the surge of powerful feelings created by shared attachment and loss.

And so my mobile no longer simply rang—it called.


Every time I heard that ringtone (and we soon worked out how to play the song only when my Yolŋu family called), it evoked in me a complex mix of feelings and memories, anticipation and obligation. By locating me within a very specific network of relationship, it made me more receptive to the news, the stories and the frequent demands. About two years later, when the 3G network and camera phones finally became available in Gapuwiyak and neighbouring communities, I received an image. My gäthu instructed me to make it my wallpaper.

Gu gu
Ŋarra nhuŋgu Yilparawuy
Yä nhuŋgu ŋänha’ŋanharaw
Yä man’tjarr
Wukundurr Gänaŋur gälam marrtji
Ah miwatj Baruŋganŋur wukundurr
Dhä-nherran marrtji makala
Man’tjarr yiwaŋa galirrwara
Yä ŋäthil dhakunmaraŋ Yakutjawuyŋu
Dhuŋungal Meŋurryu
Yä ŋäthil dhakunmaraŋ Yakutjawuyŋu

Yämalwaŋa mundumundu
wu wu gatj gatj

Gänaŋur gälam marrtji
Miwatj Baruŋganŋur
Dhä-nherran marrtji makala

Yä ŋäthil dhakunmaraŋ Yakutjawuyŋu
Yä ŋäthil dhakunmaraŋ Yakutjawuyŋu

Dhalalyun wukuyun
Mundumundu mundu

wu wu gatj gatj

wu wu gatj gatj

First float of Manjarr leaf to of
Yakutja Dhuŋungal

First float of Yakutja of Baraltja

Rainbow Serpent Rainbow Serpent
Yä yä wu wu gatj gatj

From Gana floating floating
Different from Baruŋgan
Leaves floating floating leaves

Yä first float of Yakutja of Dhuŋungal
Yä first float of Yakutja of Baraltja

Floating spitting out lightning
Rainbow Serpent Rainbow Serpent
with clear water2

The bitja features Bäŋgana looking outwards and smiling. It’s a photograph of a photograph; a photograph of the photograph on his headstone. This image has been framed using a preloaded generic template: a coconut-tree-lined beach sunset scene. Additional flecks of light have been added.


At the very beginning of that recording our brother Bruce talks into the tape to say that this is for the new generation to come. Those two brothers who made that recording gave their voices and images for the new generation to come. They all do it when they record themselves. They make recordings for the kids who don’t know and they always say, this is for family when I die.


Bäŋgana’s widow, Susan Marrawaka’mirr, texts me only when she has no credit. Often, she wants me to deposit thirty-five dollars in her bank account for a pack of cigarettes. But sometimes when I call back she’ll put the phone on speaker and I’ll hear the voice of a man quietly singing to the beat of his lighter (in lieu of clapsticks) striking the floor. This is how families now deliver the news of a death to those of us who aren’t there in person to hear the formal ceremonial announcement.

Late one afternoon in 1995, I watched while Bäŋgana carried a hefty, portable CD-cassette player to the public phone box about 100 metres from his house. Balancing it on the edge of the little stainless-steel shelf, he dialled a neighbouring community and waited until the person he was calling, the wife of a man who had died in a car crash, came to the phone. The Darwin newspapers had reported the cause of death as drunken misadventure, but most Yolŋu attributed it to the work of galka.3 After some time the woman came on the line and Bäŋgana apologised for being unable to attend the funeral. He then held the receiver to the cassette player’s speaker as he played the dead man’s favourite song. When it finished, he wound it back to the beginning and they listened again.

Yolŋu call this deliberate triggering of sentiment through sensory memory warwuyun. This verb often gets glossed as ‘worry’ when people talk about it in English, but it’s a translation that’s hardly adequate.


In 2014, we interviewed Bäŋgana’s second-born daughter, Yawulwuy, for the Miyarrka Media film Ringtone. Her youngest sister dialled the number to trigger the ringtone. She let the music play then answered the phone, snapping it closed before talking straight into the lens of the camera: ‘This is my father singing on my ringtone. I chose this one because I miss him. He’s been dead now for twelve years. When it comes on I’m reminded of him,’ she said.

Her sister, Lay’pu, told a similar story, but from a different perspective. ‘This song is from my waku [children’s clan]. It also reminds me of my mother because it’s her märi’s clan song. My two children and my husband… this clan song makes me think of them. It’s also my father’s momu’s [father’s mother’s] song. So with this song I think about them all. Right now I’m thinking and worrying about them all’.


What is it to be human with a mobile in hand? How do these devices change the ways we see? What we look at? How we care? As social media enables us to maintain our relationships through heart-shaped icons and the click of an onward share button—giddy participants in new economies of affect and image—what is being left unsaid, unseen, unnoticed or, even, deliberately disregarded? What kinds of intimacies are being nurtured? What forms of attentiveness tickled to the fore?

When I put these questions to Gurrumuruwuy, he answered with quick assurance: ‘It depends how you see it. It depends how you use your phone.’


One word we use for mobile phones is rirrakay. That means like sound or voice. Because that phone is always calling you; making sounds, grabbing your attention, pulling you close. Yolŋu have many words for mobile phones. Another one is waya. Waya is the electric cord that you plug into the wall so that your fridge or your television comes on. Or your computer. The phone is waya too because you make that connection straight away, but with people far away. Another word we can use is raki’. That means like a vine, or a string, or a cable. We call the phone raki’ because you can easily contact someone far away through the raki’.


Manymak. So far, so good. With this picture, with what I’ve just told you, you can see the outside part of what I’m talking about. But if you look underneath, if you look deeper in a Yolŋu way, then you can see that we are talking about something more than the connections that Telstra can give you. Raki’ means that the phone can be the connection to your wäŋa [land], your gurruṯu [family], your culture, your rom.

We use raki’ in ceremonies. It shows deep connections through gurruṯu; that means family, what anthropologists call kinship. That’s how the old people see it. That’s what they mean when they talk about the phone as raki’. But young people can get confused by that. So if I tell a young person, ‘Bring me my raki’’, they might bring back a fishing line. Because they don’t see the phone as raki’. They’re floating on the top of the vine, they’re not rooted to the soil and where it goes and what it means.

So these days, you hear people complaining that there’s too many raki’ around. People can talk in all directions, to their boyfriend, their boss, to anyone. That means that your raki’ might be pulling you away from rom. Because through the phone you can make all kinds of connections, nobody knows what you’re really up to. You can be talking this way and that way. Anyway, everyway. Before, people could look at a person and straight away they could see who they are and where they connect to. They could see their rom. Like when you see someone with a gara or galpu, a spear or a spear thrower, straight away you know it’s an old man full of story, with manikay, riŋgitj, song and land and connection, everything all around him.

Nowadays these connections are going here and there, all over the place, through those raki’. Might be wrong-skin boyfriend, or girlfriend, might be this way or that way. Old people like me, we don’t like this. But it’s hard to control. Young people, they are nothing. Even with their phones, they’re nothing.


We are talking about spears now for this project because they are the fastest connection, they make connections with the land and the people. When those mokuy [ancestral beings] threw their spears they created the land, the sacred objects and designs, the songs and the languages. There are different beliefs and different stories that belong to different clans. Different people, different clans, different bäpurru have different ways of looking at their life and stories. Dhuwa people especially have stories about spears.

But we don’t want to go off-track. We don’t want to talk about other people’s stories. Here when we talk about the spear, we are only talking about it from our own lives and knowledge, from the present day, a time when we have phones in our pockets and we only use the spear for ceremony, or hunting turtle and fish.


There are three spears we can use. One is for fighting, one is for spearing fish and one is a harpoon for turtle.


If you can’t make it to a ceremony, like for example a circumcision or a funeral, you can make a video call. That way you can see the painting they’re doing for those young boys, you can look at the coffin, you can hear the manikay, you can watch the buŋgul [dancing], see the gravesite and you can be with family, sending your feelings to be with them. Lots of times you see people walking around with their phone like that. Like I said before, phones are useful.


When I talk about phones and spears, I’m thinking about my phone from my own muḻkurr, my own mind. From the perspective of my own bäpurru, my own clan. When I tell you my phone is like a spear, I’m talking about aim and goal. Like in the olden days they carried the gara for hunting animals, the spear was for food. But these days we use the phone for people to send us money for ŋatha [food], so we can go shopping.

We ring up, where’s my money? Where’s my food? We ringem-up, ringem-up, ringem-up until someone in our family can send us some money and we feed the kids and everyone.


If you have a job, everyone has your phone number. And they ring, ring, ring.


Simeon Rigamawuy Wunuŋmurra, 2015


Rowena Laypu Wunungmurra, 2008

That shark is telling stories, giving Deven knowledge, rom, and manikay.


In our work together Bäŋgana often referred to himself as a ‘coconut’, playfully inverting the insult ‘black on the outside, white on the inside’, to claim not only his exceptional skills in the balanda world, but at the same time to show his Dhaḻwaŋu relationship to Ḻuŋgutja, the island off the coast of Yalakun.


Coconuts float from place to place, linking up places and people.



At the beginning of this year I turned my phone off for three months, overwhelmed by the calls from Yolŋu in need of help with money, Internet banking, shopping, car repairs and paperwork for boarding school enrolments. When I did turn my phone on again, I received two calls within half-an-hour. Both from Yolŋu, people I am close to: one was looking for money for cigarettes, the other was in need of $570 to pay for her son’s plane trip home. I transferred the money for cigarettes, made excuses to the mother in need and switched it off again for another month. To concentrate on the book, I told myself, irony duly noted. I was hiding, as Gurrumuruwuy puts it. No denying it. He does it too. The pressures on him are far greater. In fact, he’s started to keep his phone turned off, switching it on only when he wants to make a call, or is waiting on one.


In her book about the social effects of mobile phones in the United States, Sherry Turkle also talks about hiding,4 but in a different sense. She points to the ways that mobile phones enable individuals to ‘hide from each other, even as we are constantly connected to each other’. Her argument is that while ‘technology proposes itself as the architect of our intimacies’, in fact, digital devices such as mobile phones erode proper human intimacy, producing new and profound forms of isolation and aloneness. She goes on to argue that as we become increasingly intimate with our machines, rather than with our friends and families, we lose touch with essential human experiences and values.

While I appreciate Turkle’s argument, I have never heard Yolŋu express concern that machine-mediated relationships might become substitutes for real intimacy. Rather, the opposite is true: people worry that the phone enables too many intimacies and with that comes vulnerabilities of a different kind to those that preoccupy Turkle. For Yolŋu, phone-mediated connections can threaten the social structure because they happen outside of the scrutiny of a public gaze, enabling young people, especially, to have affairs with wrong-skin relations. They can threaten the physical integrity of individuals because the phone leaves them vulnerable to sorcerers, who call with silent messages that are transmitted through the ear, sent to lodge as a kind of time bomb within the person’s body so that days later they will act on these embedded instructions, maybe killing someone, or hanging themselves—innocent of the action, captive to the violent volition of another.


I remember talking to Marrawaka’mirr, my sister-in-law, about what it would be like when phones with cameras became available. She said she looked forward to being able to photograph galka, to scaring them away with the threat of being able to muster visible evidence not only of their existence, but their specific identity. I’ve yet to see a galka ‘caught in the act’.


The fact that people now use their phones for Internet banking and online welfare management opens up another source of pressure and vulnerability, along with the worry that younger, tech-savvy family members might help themselves to funds without permission.

So, for Yolŋu, the most pressing question is not what happens to society when people are constantly tethered to their phone and therefore always ‘on’, as Turkle puts it; rather, it is about managing the stresses and conflicts that arise from making oneself too available.


Yolŋu change their numbers and, indeed, the phones themselves and the SIM cards for lots of reasons. Sometimes it’s because their phone is broken, accidentally or otherwise, and so it’s just more convenient to start afresh with the number that comes with the replacement handset. (Many Yolŋu do not realise that they can contact Telstra and arrange to keep their old number.) At other times, people change the SIM card because they feel exposed by the fact that so many people, including strangers, may access their number.

In the 1990s, the few Yolŋu who did have phones in their homes managed this simply by pulling the plug out of the wall socket for long stretches of time, or whenever it felt necessary.


Unknown callers, they’re not showing their number or identity… So people get worried. They think it might be galka calling. Someone trying to kill them through the phone. But sometimes it’s just other Yolŋu trying to tease them, or scare them, making noises or whispering threats. Like when someone in a family dies, it might be someone will ring up from an unknown number and say, ‘You’ll be next.’

When this happens, people get scared. They might change their mobile phones but keep the same SIM card. Other times they swap SIM cards with other Yolŋu. So you call someone, but someone else picks up. They say hello, but it’s another person. The owner of that SIM card changed it.


It’s like that. Yolŋu are always changing their mobile phones. And their SIM cards. Because they don’t trust other Yolŋu with their numbers.


Years ago, when I tried to call Bäŋgana’s eldest daughter, Ŋumbagawuy, in Darwin after she’d given birth to her first child, she didn’t answer. In fact, as she told me later with a shy laugh, because she didn’t recognise my number my numerous attempts to make contact had completely freaked her out.5


Right now, Yolŋu are buying phones all the time. Quick, quick, bäyim, get those new-release models… young people especially. If you win at cards, straight away, off you go, buy a new phone.


Some Yolŋu are really clever, changing their SIM card every month, or every week. Sometimes Yolŋu have multiple SIM cards, but just one ŋaraka [carapace, shell or bone]. Maybe five or six SIM cards. Maybe they just have one SIM card with each phone and they change between phones. There’s lots of different ways to do it. Yolŋu have lots of different ideas.

My little sister has four mobile phones. One is for playing games, one for music, one for Facebook or AirG and one for hello hello. She stays in her room and plays all day on her phone. She can go to the AirG or Facebook having a conversation with her friends. Technology gives too many ideas.


The young people, they love it. Older people too. They still change their phone number if they’re smart.


Sometimes in a community when there’s a lot of trouble and shouting.

Then they break it. Then straight away get a new one, with a new SIM card.

Sometimes we call Garrawara [another name for Gurrumuruwuy] and he just closes his phone and changes to another one.


You know, for a long time Yolŋu people have been changing phones, like me. But this time my phone is the same one, because in my life I need to keep that same phone number, instead of switching to another number, so that my whole family in Milingimbi and other places—from the childcare and the clinic, all those organisations—they know my number. They can ring me straight, instead of trying other people’s phones, this way and that. So they can talk direct to me.


Sometimes I buy a new SIM card at the shop and I put the old one in the rubbish. Or I give it to someone else.

It might be people have one phone for their boyfriend or girlfriend and another one for their other family; one that they keep for talking to their kid at boarding school; and a secret one as back-up.


When you carry your gara, if that gara breaks with a yindipuy mäṉa, on a really big shark, you can leave him there, get another one.


In 2012, the wallpaper on Gurrumuruwuy’s phone featured his late wife, Yangathu. I’d taken the shot while we were in Darwin planning an exhibition. Two weeks later, out of the blue, Yangathu was dead from melioidosis, a bacterial disease contracted through contact with soil.

For several years after she died, Gurrumuruwuy stayed in the long grass, living rough in Darwin, assuaging his sorrow and fury with too much grog and not enough food. His ringtone featured a song about a mokuy [spirit, ancestral figure] who cries as he searches for lost loved ones in the Dhalwaŋu homeland of Balambala. ‘Are you alive? Or are you gone?’ the mokuy calls to the land and the spirits that live there.


When it comes to connecting with the wäŋa, the land and environment, the signal is always there. It’s not like Telstra. You don’t get disconnected.


Working with Yolŋu has made me attuned to the power of resonance. Without it, our world seems staccato and slippery-thin, life’s endings too brutally final, the grabby inertia of the day-to-day just plain exhausting. By making ideas, people, places and images resonate with each other, we call into being—and locate ourselves within—worlds of tremulous relationality. This is the stuff of kinship proper: worlds revealed as generative, patterned by cross-cuttings of similitude and difference, structured through an ethics of affinity.


Through the phone you can see the yindi picture; the big picture, it tells you the story of the land, all the places, belonging to you. Even when you are sitting here you can feel wata, you feel the breeze because through that ringtone you can see your homeland. You feel that wind and your spirit will be drawn back to the land. To your mother’s homeland, or your homeland. For example, with my phone, I hear my ringtone and it’s like I’m worrying under the funeral shade still… it’s like I’m at that ceremony and I’m worrying… it’s growing in my mind and heart, the feelings… all through the phone.


A dynamic of call and response creates worlds in quite particular ways. To set up this dynamic is to produce moments of enlivening; as one draws the other into openness and action, something new comes into the world, something that would not exist without the incitement of the other.

This mode of co-creation—you do your part then I’ll join in with mine—affirms relationships structured by a certain formal separation (think the preacher and the choir, or Peter Frampton and his talking guitar, or if you know how, the djirrikay and the yawirriny’ (the ritual leader and the boys who answer his call in ceremonies such as the revelatory rite recorded in our film Manapanmirr, in Christmas Spirit), and, in so doing, it makes a particular claim on life’s participatory potential. Perhaps, in the process, it also asserts a kind of demand?


For Gurrumuruwuy, it doesn’t matter that he’s never physically visited Balambala. He knows it from singing it, dancing it, imagining it—going there with his mind and heart. It’s not at all unusual for Yolŋu to not have physically visited many of the key places in the songs they dance and sing to enact episodes and events that occurred in the travels of ancestral beings across the region.

I asked him what it’s like when you go to somewhere that you have come to know in your mind and heart through the manikay.

‘You look around and you think, so this is it,’ he said.

A few months later, we’re in Paris together for a film festival, all credit for international calls spent. It’s late and I fall asleep to the sound of that same song playing through the tinny speakers of Gurrumuruwuy’s phone. As he blows cigarette smoke out the window into the freezing French night, the song takes him home. ‘It’s just like being there,’ he tells me in the morning. ‘Just like sitting on the ground.’


Everywhere you go people are using their phones to make connections to the land, even out to the sea; you see it with your mind using the songs on your phone. Dhuwa and Yirritja mala. You see the old people and you worry for them. You think about the old times, using these yuṯa technologies. Those old songs, like country-and-western love songs, like Elvis Presley or Charlie Pride. They make you remember when you were young.


Could it be that the phone makes Yolŋu life possible in the city? Keeping people connected through song and story and gurruṯu, even if they are far away from their wäŋa? It might be the technology that changes everything about where people choose to live, letting people get training and jobs, while keeping connected to the maḏayin, land, and the old people through their phones? Can Yolŋu use this technology to live a new kind of life, that’s still an old kind of life?


Maybe. I don’t know.

This ringtone is from my märi, Dhukuyuna from the Wagilak clan. I picked this song because it is sung by my number-two märi, called Larr. Larr has ancestral connections to my first märi clan at Mandi Raymaŋgirr.

When I hear this song I think of a close relative, someone I call märi, dancing as a spirit in her country. She’s been drinking in the city and I dread a call telling me she’s passed away. Whenever the phone rings, no matter who is calling, it’s her voice I hear.


This is my clan’s guku honey ringtone. Every time I hear it, I feel heartbreak. With this guku ringtone, I worry about my girlfriend so far away. I listen to this guku song and worry because we’re apart. This is my clan guku ringtone. Sometimes I get sick from thinking about her too much. I get headaches from this ringtone.


This ringtone is my favourite music for dancing in Darwin nightclubs. I dance with my friends at the disco, enjoying life and staying up until six in the morning with the balanda. We stay up to six o’clock in the morning, until the nightclub closes.


I chose this ringtone [This Ain’t Livin’ by Tupac] so that I’ll never be bored. This music makes me feel cool all the time. This is my favourite music. I love it. I never tire of it. I listen to it wherever I go.


I chose this guku honey song for my ringtone, because it’s my ŋändi’s [mother’s] song and also my children’s clan song. No matter where I go, when it rings I listen. Even in the city when I hear this I start to miss my family. I think and worry and my mind returns to that land at Raymaŋgirr and all my family. That’s my mother country and all those people belong to that place. 

My mother was a Marraŋu clan woman from Raymaŋgirr. This ring-tone belongs to her clan, to my two uncles and my two mothers. That’s why I chose that guku honey ring-tone. It reminds me of fundamental family connections. When I’m away, I listen and I worry. I miss my grandson Bathulumi or I worry for my husband George, and for that homeland of Raymaŋgirr. I worry also about Ŋarritj, my other grandson, far away in hospital. That’s why this song suits us all. We are all related through Raymaŋgirr.

That’s why this guku honey song sits in my heart, connecting me to all my family, everywhere.


My ringtone is Garkman, the green frog, and I really love it. When I’m falling asleep or out walking, I’m always listening to Garkman.

When others hear it, at the shop or wherever, they ask, ‘What’s this great frog ringtone?’

Garkman is my märi and this lady calls Garkman waku [son or daughter].

When I visit my family they say, ‘Wow. That Garkman is such a lovely ring-tone.’ And I say, ‘That’s my märi, the green frog.’


No comments here