We are not the first to write about the rapid and enthusiastic uptake of mobile phone technologies in remote Aboriginal communities. A number of researchers have described the new kinds of social tensions arising as a result of being able to communicate person-to-person over long distances, in ways that cannot be locally monitored, much less contained.
In Arnhem Land, as elsewhere, the mobile phone has become something of a lightning rod for morally charged discussions about the problems of our times, being widely recognised as a source of social disruption and intergenerational tension. My Yolŋu friends describe their children becoming ‘addicted’ to their phones, rendered mute and unresponsive to what is going on around them as they play games, tease, flirt and fight. In a place where so many interactions happen in the full light of public scrutiny, the phone offers an alternative conduit for social relations—a means, for instance, for conducting improper relationships beyond the shaming gaze of kin. The phone is also blamed for encouraging anonymous intimidation and bullying, not to mention Internet banking abuse, social security fraud and sexualised self-display.
I heard recently of a young Yolŋu man jailed for attacking his estranged girlfriend with a mobile phone. This seemed such a poignant poetics, such a Yolŋu way of expressing the dynamics of desire and frustration, connection and disconnection, acknowledgement and refusal that the phone materialises: the phone as a weapon; the phone as a new means of cruelty and violence; the phone as new a source of vulnerability.
Yet these are not the stories my Yolŋu collaborators wish to tell in Phone & Spear. The other members of Miyarrka Media have no interest in casting their lives in the language of crisis and social decay that inflects so many discussions about Aboriginal communities. Neither is the book concerned to point out, or analyse, the forms of structural violence1 and inequity that give rise to the so-called ‘gap’ between Aboriginal people and the rest of Australian society: a chasm of disadvantage manifest in the shaming national statistics of Indigenous life expectancy, education outcomes, employment and rates of incarceration.
On the pages of Phone & Spear you will find no accusation, no demand, no call for pity, nor institutionalised action. Although people routinely complain about exhaustion, poverty, expressing ongoing frustration at not being able to access enough resources to keep their cars on the road, or food in the fridge, my co-authors are not compelled to critically engage these aspects of their life circumstances. Nor to frame our work as a form of anticolonial struggle.2
Instead, as part of a reflexive and explicitly interculturally orientated project of sharing Yolŋu life, Miyarrka Media choose to emphasise the value of ‘using the phone in a good way’: to show that it is possible to ‘put the phone into rom’, as Guruŋulmiwuy says.
At a time when it is all too easy for outsiders to see only fracture and enervation, the phone-made images we share attest to the astonishingly imaginative dexterity and deep sincerity with which Yolŋu bring seemingly disparate things together to make them one, or waŋgany, by activating ancestrally patterned constellations of relationship and story. With calculated audacity this art generates a moral charge that goes beyond familiar discussions about the effects of mobile phones in balanda life. What this phone-made media shows, in other words, is that ‘good’ need not mean boring, or predictable. Media scholars might refer to this as the ‘ancestral affordances’ of the mobile phone.3
We consider that this work makes visible something that, from a Yolŋu perspective, really matters: it is not only about the dynamics of digital life, but about the values and practices that sustain a relational life more generally.
Yolŋu routinely describe themselves as living in two worlds: Yolŋu and balanda.4 This is how Gurrumuruwuy characterises the difference: ‘Yolŋu have their life already there, balanda have to chase their life through the djäma, through their work and careers.’
I would add that while the Yolŋu world is already there—encompassing, patterned and full of sacred depth, meaning and authority—it must nonetheless be reproduced, made and remade with fulsome zest and due respect. Each ceremony, each car ride, each television set lugged from house to house, gives shape to life patterned by kinship. Moment by moment the world is made over as a synaesthetic field of colour, pattern, story and relationship. Therein lies the djäma of the Yolŋu world.
However, Yolŋu must constantly manage their lives in what seems to me to be a brutalising push-and-pull between these two worlds with such different foundational structures and values.
Almost invariably, they chose the Yolŋu world when it comes to being forced to make a decision between, for instance, family and employment obligations; or when weighing up the validity of the medical facts delivered by coroner investigating an unexpected death against the carefully accrued evidence gleaned from a close, retrospective examination of past events (sometimes referred to as CSI, Yolŋu-style), evidence suggesting the real cause of death is galka djäma [sorcery]. Nonetheless, my Yolŋu friends do not disavow the balanda world as an integral part of their lives. Guruŋulmiwuy—who currently lives in Darwin with her husband Balpatji, working part-time for an Indigenous catering company, and who animatedly tells me that she now knows how to lay a table with knives, forks and champagne glasses—is immensely pragmatic in this respect, explaining, ‘We need to have a foot in both worlds. Otherwise we will lose our balance. Otherwise, we will fall over.’
Even as we have selectively crafted a book around ancestrally ordered, cut-and-paste patterns—and taking a distinctive pleasure declaring them to be gamunuŋgu in a new guise—we have not sought to deny, or otherwise exclude, the fracturing and dissolution that equally characterizes contemporary Yolŋu life. While it enables new forms of sensuously mediated kinship, the mobile also makes for new pressures that have to be managed—and, indeed, gives new material form, and satellite-assisted projective reach, to the fractious forces shaping the contemporary Yolŋu world. And thus the accretions and disjuncture and loss that now determine so much of everyday life sit close to the surface in the stories we tell and the images we show.
Yet, as I have indicated, my Yolŋu colleagues have no interest in rendering their lives in terms of social crisis. What matters to them—and what they, from the outset, have been adamant that this book should affirm—is how such phone-made media can evidence a kind of counter-force of structuring pattern and story, even as they quietly acknowledge fears about the ‘collapse of rom’ or the future as already ‘wrecked’.
The point of the book, then, is performative of the relational dynamics of Yolŋu life, not only as it extends to the readers of this book. Even as the images, stories and ringtones that we share in the book acknowledge layers of loss, death and intergenerational friction, they mediate forms of connectedness Yolŋu-style, with the effect of energising and affirming a social network of moral force and consequence with roots in the land and the sea.
Rapidly evolving digital technologies further complicate, and would seem to challenge, any notion of truly separate worlds because of the fact that devices, and the multitude of media apps that can be download onto them at minimal cost, provide the means for new modes of participatory world-making. Indeed, the free photo collage apps and websites that Yolŋu regularly access explicitly promote themselves in a language of co-creativity, sharing and empowerment that celebrates a world no longer necessarily structured by geographic, or cultural, separation.5
Mark C. Taylor writes in less-than-euphoric terms when he laments the disappearance of place ‘as a result of an unprecedented accelerating intersection of globalization, virtualization, and cellularization’.6 Yet the co-creative dynamics of the mobile media we share focus on place-based belonging; they demonstrate how sensuous relationships with the land, the sea, the spirits of the ancestors, and indeed the recently deceased, can be evoked, mediated and affirmed by using mobile phones. In the chapters that follow we will show how Yolŋu use their phones in ways that both challenge and extend presumptions about what it means to creatively participate in the call-and-response of digitally mediated relationships.
In addition, we will see how these phones enable the work of what members of Miyarrka Media describe as yuṯa rom. As Yolŋu play with form and content through the rudimentary media functions of their handsets, the old and the new are made co-constitutive. The new renews the old, while the old inheres inside the new, as a new generation demonstrates a dextrous grasp of a here-and-now made confidently resonant across Yolŋu configurations of time and space.
In the chapters that follow we will highlight the phone-made acts of participatory poiesis, as yuṯa-generation Yolŋu use Google and YouTube to bring forth, make visible, enliven and affirm a Yolŋu world open to moving ever closer into relationship with balanda, while remaining resolutely distinct and separate.
Like the media that inspires it, this section of the book deliberately pulls together selected stories and ideas to demonstrate the possibility of rendering the world in various configurations of waŋgany-ness, so enacting one more moment in a long and ongoing Yolŋu history of making and remaking a world of relational constellations through creative action, associative thinking, situated politics and kin-based social structures. The forms of co-creativity that concern us here exceed the way it is usually discussed by media scholars concerned to highlight, and critically analyse, the participatory processes and innovations made possible by new conjunctions of technologies, organisations and participants.7 For this is a form of technologically mediated collaboration that explicitly extends beyond human networks and digital forms. It understands collaboration as the manifestation of a relational ethos in which one participates with the self-revealing forces of a patterned world.