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CAN A BOOK HUM?

Published onOct 12, 2020
CAN A BOOK HUM?


PG

Can you remember life without mobile phones? Nowadays we see these little things everywhere. In the city, in the bush, hunting or at circumcision ceremonies… young people, old people, everyone has one. It’s a different life now. You have a phone in your pocket, I have one in mine.

If I had your number, I could ring you up. Just like that. Anytime, anywhere. It wouldn’t matter if you are Chinese or Indian or American. If I had enough credit, I could dial your number and hear your voice, maybe live, maybe on your message bank. Does this mean we’re all connected? I don’t know. Maybe you wouldn’t pick up because you don’t recognise my number. Maybe you’re tired, or stressed, or busy. Maybe you’re interested, or maybe you’re scared of unknown callers.

If you did answer my call, what would we say to each other?



JD

Can a book hum?

This is not a literal question, although it might be taken for one in a context where humans are not the only ones who cry, growl and shudder; in places where bees hum and dance and worry for the dead; where stony outcrops and other sacred sites may be heard to boom with sorrow or the furious reprimand of the old people, those ancestral spirits who, given half a chance, will find ways to take the living to task for what they have failed to do, or look after, or themselves become. Other times, those same places, those same spirits, will give plentiful fish and game, welcoming kin with generous recognition; they’ll participate in rituals, whisper songs to the sleeping, or flicker to life in a photograph, embodying both the source, and the emergent force, of creation. It is these potent and often scary places, and the images, spirits and stories that inhere within them, that remain the grounds of Yolŋu power, identity and futures.

PG

Many Yolŋu people these days use their phones to make family bitja and to record videos. This didn’t used to happen, this kind of picture making, but now we’re in a global world. Through the phone you can see the yindi picture, that big picture is telling you the story of the land, all the places, belonging to you. Through the phone you can connect to your country, to your family.

We want to surprise you with our mobile phone bitja and our stories. To make you interested and to draw you close. So you might recognise us and connect to us, through feelings and imaginations, through the images we make on our phones, even though you are sitting all the way over there, somewhere, wherever you belong, barrkuwatj [separate, far away].

Our work is here to get that dhäwu [story] down, in the djorra' [book], in black and white. Together with all those colours and patterns we’re showing you. This is a new way to share Yolŋu life.

Yolŋu people don’t care about writing. But balanda people, read and read. That’s how we’ll catch them. Like when that honey is in the tree … that’s how we’re going to make this book.



JD

Can a book hum?

The notion of a humming book first came to me after struggling to find a textual form adequate to the digital lives and materialities that are the subject of Phone & Spear. I liked the way it pointed straight to the challenge: how to mediate the multiple many spaces of betweenness that shape our work? How to animate the gaps between words and images, digital and analogue, English language and Yolŋu concepts, between past and present, past and future, us and them, here and there…? How to set up a field of resonance between worlds coming ever more into relation, and yet still, distinctly, far apart?



JD

Can a book hum?

On the phone one day I put my question to Gurrumuruwuy. He got it immediately. And ran with it. Straight to bees and hives.

PG

Humming? Yo [yes]. Humming. Like harmony. That sort of thing? Yo, that’s what we’re doing. Making it one voice, one rirrakay, humming with unity, with waŋgany [one] feeling. That makes me think about someone who hums like guku, like the bush bees, and the honey. When you are searching for honey, you have to put your head close to the tree you can hear that sound, that hum of those bees. Rrambaŋi, together, yaka [not) back and forth. But inside. Together. Alive!



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LIKE HONEY FROM HEAVEN 2010

Simeon Rigamawuy Wunuŋmurra

Waṉambi people are the Honey Bee people. Mum always called herself djiwarrpuy guku. That means like ‘honey from heaven’. My brother made this after she died.

See those flowers, they are like the flowers on the gadayka’ tree that attract the bees. The green colour is to show her märi from Wangurri people.

MEREDITH BALANYDJARRK


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GUKU, 2015
Kayleen Djingadjingawuy Waṉambi 2015


These are the Honey Bee people. The guku [honey] shows the children called Larrak. They are the current and future generations. Everything fits together. Because that honey holds everything.

KAYLEEN DJINGADJINGAWUY



JD

He then directed me to go back and look at some video footage from the day his wife’s burial, fourteen days after we had brought her back to Gapuwiyak from the morgue.

PG

In the beginning of that clan manikay, in that part of the song, that guku, the honey bees and eggs, are humming yothu and ŋäṉḏi, the children and the mother together. Not like later when those bees go in and out, not when they’re dancing, but when the bring that coffin and they sit with the leaves and hum, everything together. Waŋgany. As one. Mother and child. We see them like that as guku, the honey and the flowers and the bees, the pollen, the eggs and that honey hunting ancestor too. All together.

JD

Straight to humming bees and assemblages of aliveness; straight to a poetics of attraction, connection and co-creation.



JD

Looking back at the footage, I remembered the way that hum moved through my body that day, voices rising and cross-cutting, clapsticks beating, sonic field disrupting boundaries between inside and out, to create an encompassing field of sensuous connection that held us all, everyone becoming one, becoming waŋgany around that coffin, the social orchestrated in patterns of kinship based on yothu-yindi patterns of mother and child: social patterns given form by ancestral action and given depth and meaning through individual life histories, the hum giving voice to a sense of shared purpose and connection, experienced through the quiver of affect, memory, story, and love.

Positioned in this way, brought alive by all these registers, my humming book metaphor also took shape within a specific set of relationships. Drawing on his authority as djuŋgaya, or ritual manager, for Marraŋu people and their guku, Gurrumuruwuy located my own work within the same kind of yothu-yindi ancestrally ordered relationships that held that had held us all together in that room.

PG

That’s what you have to write gäthu [daughter], bring your muḻkurr [mind] and ŋayaŋu [heart] to the djäma. Concentrate, find the right words. We want balanda to understand how deep and how far Yolŋu can see and feel with these little phones. I want them to see how smart our kids are. How they use the phone to connect to the land and the old people. Only you know how to do the writing part. Make it hum.



JD

Michael Taussig sees humming as “central to language, humming being neither conscious or unconscious, neither singing nor saying, but rather the sound where the moving mind meets the moving body…”.1 Like Gurrumuruwuy, he encourages us to tune into humming as an act of emergence.

The buzz of collectives in action.
The echo and vibration of worlds coming into relationship.
Hum as sign, and sound, of life.

In this rendering, the hum is not a totalising aesthetic. It does not reduce everything to a singularity, or undifferentiated mass. Instead, it affirms the spaces of separation through which resonance claims its relational hold. It orchestrates, in short, a generous kind of unity.



JD

Listening again to the video of Yangathu’s funeral I hear the lead singers ‘finding the tune’ as they say, in the moments before they begin. The djirrikay leads the singing, his voice rising as he calls the sacred names, the clapsticks marking the rhythm, other younger voices joining in response, the small room keeping us tightly together, intensifying the visceral echo.

I remember the power and the tenderness of at moment as we lifted the white coffin that had been specially covered with white fluff—the colour of the bee larvae—and took her outside, everyone assembled knowing that they were looking at felled tree, split open with its hive exposed and the bees moving back and forth, knowing they must leave it behind and find another home, yet reluctant to leave, moving back and forth, between the tree—their mother, their womb—and a future without her.

PG

When you chop down the tree you can hear those bees flying around with the same rirrakay, the same sound, not high and low, but the same.

Yothu-yindi [child and mother], Dhaḻwaŋu and Marrangu tribes.2 It doesn’t matter if you are young or old. One sound, one feeling, one meaning.

JD

Maybe then it’s more than resonance I hear in this hum?
Maybe it’s the sound of separation filled with the desire to connect?
Maybe it’s the sound of joining together?



JD

Is my job in this yuṯa anthropology to simply put my ear to the tree? To listen (and transcribe) what people say about ancestral bees, honey hunting ancestors, creation and mobile phones? Is my Yolŋu colleagues’ task to patiently translate and explain?



PG

This is a little project, but a lot of work. We have to go slowly. We have to make it clear. So that you can understand, even though I know it is hard for balanda. It is hard to understand what we are telling you now. What we are showing you. But keep going. There are riches here. That’s why we are working together. Polishing it all up. Bit by bit.



JD

Although Miyarrka Media is based in Gapuwiyak, none of us actually live there permanently. We live ‘scattered’—as Gurrumuruwuy says, using the English word—residing in, and moving between, a number of outstations, communities and cities in northern Australia. We remain in constant, almost daily, contact via phone and phone-transmitted images and texts (but never use social media platforms). We worked on this project together in intense bursts in Gapuwiyak, Darwin and Cairns. We also travelling together to Brisbane, Sydney, Adelaide, and New York for exhibitions, screenings, and talks.

PG

We might be barrkuwatj, our team might come from separate places with different thinking, living in different, different places, like the outstation and the city, but we can make one picture.



JD

Phones mark the passing of time in dizzying ways. Early on I returned from a field trip determined to throw out everything I’d written up to that point because it felt so clumsy and outdated. Such was the speed of change. Not just in terms of the technologies themselves, but in the ways in which Yolŋu are taking up, and responding to, the new kinds of digital connectivity enabled by the mobile phones, tablets, and laptops that are becoming increasingly integral to the pressures, pleasures, and contingencies of Yolŋu life. Even in the media we do address, a stain of time—an invitation to nostalgia—creeps across images that once, not so long ago, struck us as so very fresh and new. The muted colours and grainy pixelation of 3gp files announce themselves as images from another era. Videos from only five years ago look ancient: the pixelated blurriness, the slight syncopation in the replay. This makes us feel somehow more tender towards these images, seized as they are from the flow of time.

But, as I keep reminding myself, if on one level this subject can be characterised by its speed and change, at another level it’s about increments of understanding that can only accrue with time. Everything I know that really matters about these worlds comes out of a locatable history; I can track an unfolding of attachment and realisation through things that have happened with certain people, in certain places, over what now feels like a very long time. And so, more than I ever could anticipate when I began, back in the days of analogue, my work depends on connections forged in specific moments—and the ways that these connections become tempered by time.

In this rendering time is neither steady nor strictly linear. Lives are made and marked by moments and events, stories and images. Energies and intensities rise, and then they fall away. There’s a certain rhythm (though the beat is unpredictable); there's a sense that things return, not to repeat themselves exactly, but to create echoes that loosely hold things together.

Life as rhythmic evanescence. The hum of time.

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