Balanda look at the world and see a person there and a tree over there and they see them as separate. That’s so boring!
This book is about reconciliation. But our way is different to marching in the street.
Let’s start by affirming the pleasures of play, association, and canny recognition: the way the world can be reconfigured and made anew through deliberate acts of combination and recombination.
The sorrow and the worry will claim their place in due course, but it will be different to the hand-wringing moralising commonly expressed by balanda [non-Aboriginal people] who cannot see past the inertia, fragmentation and loss: the many politicians, bureaucrats, academics, nurses and teachers; all those many concerned visitors and remote-area residents with whom I so often find myself in anxious agreement. This, despite my Yolŋu friends’ insistence that the foundations of their patterned world of kinship will always be there, drawing them home.
If I had to boil this book down to one sentence, it might be this: my Yolŋu friends and family use mobile phones as a technology with which to tap into—and amplify—the push-and-pull of life.
The Yolŋu phone-made media that we share in this book do more than simply show relationships; they create connections and make old ones anew. Through cheeky acts of recombination, old forms are given new life, and the social order laid down by the actions of ancestral beings is not merely reproduced, but energised and recast, so that new cartographies of the contemporary come into view. Through such processes, worlds once distinct and separate are linked together, though never as a seamless whole.
In keeping with this performative ethos, Phone & Spear mixes together images, stories and voices to create an anthropology of relationship-making. Or, as we call it, yuṯa anthropology.
In the Aboriginal languages of east Arnhem Land, yuṯa means new. Yuṯa anthropology is the term that my friend, colleague and adoptive father, Paul Gurrumuruwuy, uses to describe our decade-long shared experiment with form, image and voice. There is at once shrewd precision, playful provocation and genuine good will in his use of this term. By describing our work as yuṯa anthropology, Gurrumuruwuy not only positions himself as an equal alongside me, a university-trained researcher; he also stakes a claim to a discipline, and institutional forms of knowledge, recognition and reward that hold sway far beyond Arnhem Land. The result is a collaboration of an unusual kind: taking the mobile phone as both medium and metaphor for the intensified, technologically mediated connectivity of our times, we offer this book as a shared reflection on—or perhaps, rather, a refraction of—life in a digital age.
Whereas the first wave of mobile phone scholars tended to concentrate on this technology as one revolutionising communication and the ‘information landscape’, my Yolŋu colleagues and I take up mobile phones as aesthetically potent, world-making devices.1
Much has been written about the ways that they connect us in relational spaces that extend beyond our immediate surroundings (at least potentially: as long as our phone is on, in credit and within range of a repeater tower, which is certainly not always the case in Arnhem Land, or even my home office). Carried in intimate proximity in purses and pockets—when not clutched tightly in the hands they are designed for—mobile phones not only increase the already profoundly technological texture of human life, they also create worlds immanent with relationality. With phone in or at hand, at any time and at any moment (again within the limitations of network coverage, battery-life and local protocols), we can be called into sensuous forms of connection with geographically distant people and places. And vice versa. As phones extend our daily communications far beyond the kinds of unmediated face-to-face encounters that many balanda, nostalgic for pre-digital days, continue to value above all else, we become newly available to the demands of others, and to the projective trajectories of our own needs, desires and imaginations. In theory, phones mean that we are connectable to anyone, anywhere. But, of course, in practice part of their appeal—and part of their challenge—lies exactly in shaping, and when necessary limiting, our availability to others.
It is this generative tension that animates our book. On the pages that follow, back-and-forth zones of connectivity are examined and activated in multiple registers: between Yolŋu and balanda, here and there, now and then, old and new, the living and the dead, the young and the old, the bush and the city, the local and the global. A desire to mediate these spaces of betweenness, while still allowing for distinctiveness and necessary forms of separation, is what gives shape and purpose to Phone & Spear.
If ‘old’ anthropology understands its task to be revealing one world to another, the challenge of yuṯa anthropology is to bring different worlds into relationship.
Yolŋu often use the term yuṯa to describe the distinctive cultural forms and practices that come about when novel or ‘foreign’ technologies, styles and ideas are taken up in ways that render them pleasurably recognisable in accordance with existing local values, aesthetics and histories. Yuṯa is a kind of Yolŋu remix: an art of incorporation by which the new is rendered in relationship to the old; a riffing mode of co-creation fuelled by the improvisational energy and outlook of a yuṯa generation. Yuṯa is fresh. Yuṯa is exciting.2
Yuṯa forms refract contemporary life through the prism of gurruṯu [kinship relations] and ancestral themes, but without invoking the strict seriousness, depth and danger associated with the maḏayin [the ‘old’, sacred objects and designs controlled by certain senior male clan leaders]. Yuṯa music, dance and art enable individuals to express, and to be recognised for, their own creativity as they manifest aspects of their Yolŋu identity. When one creates a yuṯa song, image, dance, the new and the old are brought into a relationship of mutuality through creative labour. The old and the new are made co-constitutive: the new renews the old; the old is manifest as the source of the new. In the process the new generation are able to demonstrate their skill, their wit, their dextrous grasp of a here-and-now made thickly resonant across generations. While this description may sound a little earnest, there is often a mischievous, even subversive, bravado to yuṯa forms that adds to their allure.
While yuṯa styles may enable young people to play around with a freeing frivolity, there is nothing frivolous in Gurrumuruwuy’s conception of yuṯa anthropology. He brings the knowledge and authority of a lifetime, including a ritually attuned sense of the enlivening effects of making things new. He is concerned with something much more substantial, and socially efficacious, than the pleasures of novelty, bricolage and fun (though the exhilaration of having fun also has its place, as we shall see). While some readers may expect that an Indigenous researcher and artist might want to put a defining distance between his work and that of anthropology, this is not how Gurrumuruwuy sees it. As a Yolŋu man in his mid-sixties, he has no interest in unburdening himself of traditions—neither his own, nor mine—in the context of his life, discarding all that has come before in the pursuit of fresh, or alternative, futures makes no sense. Rather, Gurrumuruwuy’s vision for yuṯa anthropology is compelled by an appreciation for an intrinsic, necessarily two-way relationship between the old and the new.3 And so, rather than repudiating anthropology for its lingering colonial ties and presumptions, he is interested in the possibilities of renewing this discipline. As am I.
There are, of course, pragmatic reasons for casting our work within an already existing framework, one that is readily recognisable to balanda. Gurrumuruwuy and his family value our work together as a means of gaining paid employment, travelling the world and accruing forms of social capital that might, eventually, lead to greater financial reward. ‘Yuṯa anthropology can be a way of making our name yindi [big],’ Gurrumuruwuy declared as we boarded the plane to attend the Australian Anthropology Society conference in Adelaide. He repeats this ambition when we talk about new projects and the next round of grant applications.
But what actually makes yuṯa anthropology ‘anthropology’ is the fact that it develops, and tests, a theory of social relations (one that has been adapted from a Yolŋu theory of relations, and which includes the more-than-human world of ancestral spirits, land and sea). Through our work, Gurrumuruwuy sees a potential to communicate aspects of Yolŋu life in ways that can be engaging and interesting for balanda, while steering clear of revealing ‘inside’ information about the maḏayin and its dhuyu [secret-sacred] depths. But, even more fundamentally, he sees this as a chance for his understanding of what it is to be human, to inform—and, perhaps, transform—a discipline established to study just that.
Aesthetics have been central to this task. Those of you with access to the printed version of the book hold in your hands a visual object designed to generate relationships. In the version distributed via screens, the design glows with a different register of visual invitation. Either way, in crafting Phone & Spear we aimed to produce experiential and co-constitutive forms of knowledge. From the outset, we envisaged our book as something that a casual passer-by should be attracted to, and so drawn to pick up and, at the very least, flip (or scroll) through. We combined images and texts with the hope of drawing people further in, activating readers as sensuous, imaginative and feelingful participants in the making of meanings and connections. (Given the importance of images to our approach, you should take the term ‘reader’ here in a pretty broad sense.) By taking the project of ‘writing a book’ as an opportunity to work with voice, text, images, patterns and colour, we sought to materialise something vital, alluring and resonant: a relational object capable of engaging readers without any previous interest in, or knowledge of, Yolŋu life.
From the outset Gurrumuruwuy and his family have been clear that their aim is to connect with balanda audiences. In our choice of language, stories and design we drew from Yolŋu principles as they might be used to engage balanda, rather than to communicate directly to Yolŋu. They saw this as a book to be used in universities and beyond, a book that should be capable of simultaneously interesting, informing and moving anyone enticed to pick it up in the first place. Working across media modalities and in different registers of voice, we have been motivated by a series of central questions: How might we use images—and indeed not just any images, but intimate Yolŋu family portraits—to share feelings with strangers? What might such a project look like? Sound like? What might it achieve?
Dhäkay-ŋänhawuy rom [the law of feelings] is what Gurrumuruwuy calls aesthetics that guide us.4 Aesthetics as we mean the term here is concerned with the ways that perception, sensation, imagination and memory play a critical role in constituting particular ‘structures of feeling’, as Raymond Williams put it. In our formulation, aesthetics is a relational zone of social transformation; the camera and screen become sites for the production and transmission of affect that moves between bodies, human and otherwise,5 leaving invisible traces and tetherings. ‘Sharing feelings’ is how we often describe our anthropological practice in English. We are concerned with what happens when one person’s deep feelings become palpable to another, thereby producing, in response, a powerful surge of affect that results in a profound sense of connection: ŋayaŋu waŋgany [a state of being united through feeling].
Dhäkay-ŋänhawuy rom, in other words, is affect calibrated to produce a very specific dynamic of feeling. Gurrumuruwuy and his family value such transactions for their intimate and incremental social effects. For, as Yolŋu know, with time and practice, these feelings accumulate on one’s ŋayaŋu, to become the foundation for an open-hearted capacity to relate to the world and others.
As particular registers of sorrow, love and longing are made to mingle and move between individual bodies, they create closeness and connection. This is the push-and-pull that lies at the heart of this book, and so much of the media we share: a movement from one ŋayaŋu to another, a social surge of activated feelings that gradually subsides to coalesce on individual hearts. This then informs the way they subsequently see (and hear and taste and smell and touch) the world.
This practised capacity for feeling with provides an essential attunement, a capacity to respond with heart and mind, memory and imagination to a world constantly calling one into relationship.
Through deliberately activating dynamics of feeling and remembering, envisaging and recognising—whether during rituals, while watching TV or walking down a road far from home—members of Miyarrka Media and their families are constantly calling forth, and drawing on, associations with other places and other times. Through these imagistic practices of feeling, they actively render worlds in palpable constellations of relationship. These heartfelt dynamics, in turn, become a means by which to constitute relationships with unfamiliar places and people.
Yuṯa anthropology does not arise out of a vacuum. For many decades now there have been sustained efforts on many fronts by Yolŋu and balanda dedicated to finding ways to forge meaningful and lasting relationships between two very different knowledge systems, both within and outside formal institutional settings.
As yuṯa anthropology brings a combination of Yolŋu and balanda perspectives to bear on the methods, forms and ambitions of a discipline that has been at least peripherally part of Yolŋu lives since the 1930s, it draws direct inspiration from earlier anthropologies, including those traditions concerned with aesthetics, the now-established subfields of visual and sensuous anthropology,6 as well as those whose work has highlighted the performative challenge of evoking affect7 through writing or audiovisual production. In particular, Faye Ginsburg’s seminal thinking about ‘embedded aesthetics’8 and what she has recently described as the ‘relational accountability’ of Indigenous media highlights the profoundly situated ethical-aesthetic imperatives that animate a wide range of Aboriginal media production, both on-screen and off. Likewise, Eric Michaels’ early work with Warlpiri Media9 in Central Australia has had a lasting influence on my own work by modelling collaborative, practice-led methodologies that allow one to attend to the ways that Aboriginal people might take up the camera and its associated social networks of production and distribution for their own purposes.
Histories of encounter, collaboration and experimentation from Arnhem Land also directly inform this book. Yuṯa anthropology has precursors in a history of multimodal ethnographic collaboration with Yolŋu10 that begins with Donald Thompson’s extraordinary photography from the 1930s and 1940s, and that includes the landmark work of Ian Dunlop, Howard Morphy, Pip Deveson, Tom Murray, Jessica de Largy Healy, Aaron Corn and my own earlier work with Warrkwarrkpuyŋu Yolŋu Media, and the late Bäŋgana Wunuŋmurra. While the specific imperatives of Yolŋu social aesthetics and politics have clearly shaped these projects—often involving close friendships and philosophical exchanges between Yolŋu and anthropologists—to my mind, what makes our anthropology new is that Phone & Spear has been co-authored and co-designed with the explicit ambition of claiming and reconfiguring anthropology’s relational potential.
To this end, yuṯa anthropology builds upon, and extends, a long-established, and widely practised, Yolŋu strategy of producing intercultural relationships through showing images and objects in the expectation of creating mutuality and regard.11 However, here images are not expected to do their work alone. Understanding vision as socially generative, and photo assemblage as loving acts of world-making, we crafted these pages ever mindful of the challenges involved in satisfying both Yolŋu and balanda regimes of knowledge, understanding yuṯa anthropology itself to be inevitably given shape and purpose through the push-and-pull of accountability to distinct and, sometimes, incommensurable worlds.
Repurposing mobile phone media for a new context, we have taken images originally made to circulate within the intimacy of Yolŋu family networks and rendered them capable of calling out to, and sharing stories and feelings with, readers with no prior connection to this material. Rather than an anthropology of art, Phone & Spear pursues an artful anthropology: an anthropology that does not expect to extract itself from the circuits of obligation, care and reciprocity through which these images were made to move. Instead we seek to extend these circuits outward, deploying images as agents of social transformation in ways that expand the possibilities of both anthropology and Yolŋu art practice.12
On these pages aesthetics is not only inseparable from ethics and politics, it provides the very grounds of analysis, opening up new ways of thinking, a multisensory means by which to address old issues anew. Taking form and content as intimately intermeshed, yuṯa anthropology positions our readers as essential participants in the relational fields we cultivate. A Yolŋu aesthetics of meme, remix and recombination13 provides both energy and analytic force. Through acts of finding, arranging and playfully juxtaposing elements that might appear clumsily kitsch to the untrained eye, we found opportunities to participate in the orchestration, and co-creation, of an ancestrally ordered world of pattern-in-motion that opens itself outwards in a gesture of open invitation.
Within certain limits.
What you can see in this bitja [picture] from the satellite is wäŋa. Wäŋa means land and home. Or you can say country in English too. All Yolŋu are related to each other through the wäŋa and the wäŋa themselves are related to each other.
The two airstrips here belong to Yalakun (top) and Raymaŋirr (below). They are two of the Yolŋu homelands in the Miyarrka region of the Northern Territory. These two wäŋa call each other yothu-yindi [child-mother]. The members of Miyarrka Media have close relationships to, and responsibilities for, these wäŋa, relationships that spread out to other wäŋa and other families and tribes, right across Arnhem Land, to Darwin and Cairns and even farther away.
Our responsibilities to land and family shaped our work on this book at every step. We needed everyone to be happy with what we have put together. So we needed to be careful.
Yolŋu hold in their care forms of restricted and specifically owned knowledge that do not easily sync with a digital ethos of open access and creative commons. Fundamental to the very possibility of this book was the willingness of the Yolŋu members of Miyarrka Media to take responsibility for the public release of text and images both now and into the future. Holding family meetings and asking for permission to publish specific images was, perhaps, the easy part. What they have also had to take into account is that circulating stories and images under their own names may lead to future, unforeseeable consequences especially as, once made public and visible in new ways, in new forms, for new audiences, these stories and images cannot be withdrawn. This means that even as Miyarrka Media worked to provide the open-hearted explanations that fill these pages, there has been a countervailing conservatism as we judiciously included only information and images deemed unequivocally suitable for public circulation. We knew that whether or not other Yolŋu care to read the entire text, they would undoubtedly appraise this work with an eye to how we have managed the dynamics of revelation and concealment14 that are intrinsic to a performative politics of relationally bound knowledge.
In a society that always seeks causal explanations for unexpected death and misfortune, carefully combing over the past to identify transgressions that might have aroused the ire of galka [malicious sorcerers], this book potentially leaves my friends and their close family members vulnerable to blame, or even retribution, for what someone might determine to be an improper act of exposure, even though there is nothing at all explicitly sacred or secret in anything we have selected for publication. A few Yolŋu expressed exactly this concern for future personal safety when we showed them what we were up to. When I talked about this with Gurrumuruwuy and his children, they announced that they were not frightened, that they are a different kind of Yolŋu. Gurrumuruwuy was quite insistent that there was no problem with our approach, saying, ‘The art in this book is only lite. We are not stealing the madayin. We are just showing links and patterns.’
New media theorists, Bolter and Grusin, use the term remediation to challenge modernist assumptions that new technologies necessarily entail a break with aesthetic and cultural principles of the past. They identify remediation by pointing to the ways that one media, such as painting, gives rise to the next, say photography. In the process, they argue that the cultural significance of new media lies in the way that they refashion, rival or pay homage to earlier ones. This idea of remediation encourages a critical attention to the role of technology in materialising relationships and histories; it alerts us to cultural forms shaped by back-and-forth relationships that may not immediately be self-evident, especially when shifts of form, practice and technology seem to present evidence of a newness15 predicated precisely on a radical discontinuity with the past. The concept of remediation, in other words, points towards the performative dimensions of technological innovation. It gestures to the ways in which a generative relationship between the old and the new is activated through the creative labour of repurposing for new contexts and new times.
If remediation brings a focus to formal and technical innovation, a notion of remix (a term commonly used by my colleagues, though with a Yolŋu flavour) allows us to attend to the potential of content gathered from intersecting worlds in motion, alerting us to the relational possibilities created through the work of joining sometimes unlikely things together. In this way, yuṯa anthropology is itself a form of both remediation and remix, Yolŋu-style. Informed by anthropological histories, and inspired by the emergent art forms made possible by mobile phones and Google Play, this work of cut-and-paste poetics conducted by an extended Yolŋu family, and the ethnographer they adopted twenty-five years ago, brings together once-distinctly separate ontologies and epistemologies in the hope that Yolŋu and balanda societies might be drawn closer. Together we seek to forge shared understandings, even as we each speak from our own, distinctly located, points of view. Gurrumuruwuy describes his vision of coexistence, ‘Yolŋu and balanda. Together, but not mixed up’, thereby refusing a future in which everyone and everything becomes mashed together into compliant—and boring—homogeneity.
As yuṯa anthropology creates its own dynamics of push-and-pull, its own field of generative tension and possibility, it sometimes brings to the fore apparently irreconcilable differences. This is also part of the point: not everything should be translated or can be translated. Nonetheless, we understand that quite a lot of information is necessary if readers are to appreciate the images on something resembling their own terms. In order to thicken the spaces between image, text and reader, we have provided explanations that mix fact, memory, story, analysis and associative thinking. We have carefully chosen what to emphasise and what not to spell out. In this process, my Yolŋu friends tended to make declarative statements, providing glimpses of the information lying within in order to show how personal histories and ancestral actions bind the images together. I tell other kinds of stories, drawing from my own life history and ways of knowing in an effort to make these images—and the ideas, lives, histories and feelings that infuse them—palpable and inviting to the hearts of strangers.
Approaching images as affective agents, understanding vision as socially generative, and taking assemblage as a loving act of world-making, we have together created a visual anthropology that reaches beyond observation and, indeed, the manifestly visible; a visually driven engagement with the world concerned with praxis, processes and relationships; an artful anthropology energised by repetition and juxtaposition, rather that things that stand alone. There’s a cunning to such work, and an openness too, in that it refuses to accede to an oppositional politics that would impose, and police, boundaries between ‘black’ and ‘white’.
Phone & Spear is a book that performs its argument: it does not simply analyse relations, it seeks to make them. In doing so, it offers something more than a collaboratively written, community-authorised account of an Indigenous lifeworld—our purview is broader, our aims more inclusive and our methods have felt more risky. None of us can know how the book will be received, or what others might actually take away from these pages. But whatever comes of this shared experiment inspired by mobile phones and the creative forms they enable, we are confident that Phone & Spear contributes something new: not a catalogue of difference, nor an archive of the already gone, but a poem to the push-and-pull of relationships, an ode to shared futures, yet to be found.