PSi #21 Fluid States - Australia, Conditions of mobility: relations, dynamics and performative interventions by Jacquie Naismith

Conditions of mobility: relations, dynamics and performative interventions

by Jacquie Naismith, Australia cluster Visiting Correspondent

Performing Mobilities, the Australian response to the Fluid States- Performances of Unknowing series of dispersed conferences, unfolded in Melbourne across a seven-week passage of time and space. Theorised through a structure of three discrete but overlapping programme vehicles – Passages (journey based projects), Traces (gallery expositions) and Assembly (the symposium), Performing Mobilities was experienced as a continuum of embodied experiences, documented projects and symposium presentations and performances. Together these three vehicles mobilised the Performing Mobilities project, opening spaces for multiple kinds of connections and resonances to occur.  Encompassing different relationships between time, experience, embodiment and representation, this conceptually layered programme was inclusive of a wide spectrum of critical creative practices. These were linked by a shared concern with how mobilities, significant within Australia and globalised contexts, might be performed.

Arriving in Melbourne early in the week to experience some of the Passages events before the Assembly began coincided with a moment in which the climate performed its own impromptu experience for the mobile conference attendee travelling from southern latitudes. A hot northerly wind, its heat welcoming and challenging the body, insisted on the climatic specificity of place. Different to the northerly at home, this wind displayed the weather forces of an island continent, connecting the periphery to the heat of its desert origin. This conditioning of Melbourne’s urban atmosphere, an element of the ‘unknown’ in the conception of the performances, assertively interacted with how I experienced them. 

Walking with Dee Heddon and listening to the verbatim play Going for a Walk, set in Bristol with self identified disabled participants with wheelchair enabled mobility, provoked insights into the spectrum of experiences and definitions of ‘walking’ beyond that of the dominant paradigm of the pedestrian. Experiencing the audio play while walking in inner city Melbourne relocated performer and audience in an engaging interweaving of two different sites and kinds of mobilities. Listening to performers’ experiences of using wheels to negotiate terrain heightened an awareness of surfaces and transitions in the immediate environment. These reflections underscored the power of “walking with” [1]  in an interdependent relationship, that as Dee Heddon’s study found, enabled all kinds of bodies to enjoy walking as activity that could enhance wellbeing and resilience.

By Wednesday the hot wind was flicking into every corner releasing fresh pollen from the plane trees and dispersing it up and down Swanston Street to create hay fever conditions amongst pedestrians and tram passengers. Everywhere eyes were streaming and membranes agitated. Arriving at the University of Melbourne I was pleased to locate and enter the sheltered orderliness of the historic botanical System Garden. Eddie Paterson and Lara Steven’s audio performance True Garden was a lyrical interpretation of this historic garden, drawing together the rigid structures of taxonomy and classification with the embodied emotional experience of the enclosed garden as articulated by Helene Cixous in Un Ural Jardin (1971). While a long established teaching resource for botanical science at the university, as I moved around each section of the garden listening to the performance, I observed the garden’s popularity as social space. Its evocative qualities as a space set apart, with fully grown species now creating shaded habitats, were claimed by students seeking privacy within its perimeters.

Several of the Passages performances engaged with the discourses of tourism, in particular the script and performance of the tour. These included Kim Donaldson’s refreshing look at a selection of Melbourne workspaces in her Technotopia Tours- Working Melbourne programme. This reflexive engagement with the discourse of the tour gave participants the opportunity to don a high visibility vest, identify as part of a tour group, and see a backstage view of urban life in Melbourne that featured working operations.  I was fortunate to participate in The Recycling Tour - a tour of the Degraves Street recycling and composting plant- an impressive small-scale localised facility processing food waste into highly fertile compost. This tour performance offered a fascinating insight into the production and consumption cycles at work behind the front-stage laneway tourist experience for which Melbourne is now so well known.  Work and its labour was also a central concern of the performance by Julieanna Preston and Jen Archer Martin. Bit-u-men at Work drew attention to the physical labour of road building and repair in service of the primary infrastructure of the road. The audience observed the artist’s body perform as hybrid human/machine in intense relationship with the material of asphalt bitumen, attending to the surface’s relentless demand for repair. Performed over an extended period of time across dusk and into the night, the physical work of the performance magnified relationships between matter, mobility and labour. A rich programme of journey based experiences; the Passages mobile performances were repeated and interwoven throughout the Assembly programme. They traversed diverse territories and terrains, disrupting dominant discourses to open up new interpretive spaces for encountering, engaging with and coming to know Melbourne places.

While the performance of the Passages projects began ten days before the Assembly programme, the Traces exhibition, dispersed between the RMIT and Margaret Lawrence galleries, reached further back in time, documenting and representing projects that had been in progress across the year.  These investigations of matter, space, time, mobility and subjectivity drew together a spectrum of relationships between place, subject and mobility.   Works including David Thomas and Laurene Vaughan’s Taking a Line for a Walk, connected the two sites both through the movement of objects between them and the cues at each site – this involved the viewer/participant in a process of piecing together the parts. Open Spatial Workshop’s Fault used a sea lily fossil excavated from a local former brick works site to key into the vast timespan of the history of site, matter and place. At the opening of the Margaret Lawrence Gallery component of the Traces exhibition I was fortunate to have the opportunity to view the Origin- Transit- Destination #2 project, a video installation by Australian Performance Exchange and asylum seeking artists. This powerful and emotionally moving documentation of a sea journey experienced by asylum seekers in transit, presented the human reality of displacement. This provided another opportunity to experience specific conditions of mobility through the eyes of another’s experience, opening a space for the contexts, politics and experiences of forced mobilities to be addressed at the symposium.

Assembly: symposium
Unsettling conventional forms, the Assembly programme was strategically structured by its movement from site to site, within and across the four days of the symposium.  The plenary session opened on Thursday at Docklands Library where we were formally welcomed to country by Aunty Joy Murphy  - connecting the conference participants to aboriginal understandings of place and inviting them to acknowledge the Kulin nation groups as aboriginal custodians of the area. This welcome and acknowledgment opened a space for discussing the immobilisation of aboriginal culture in 20th century Australia, and the local specificity of politics of mobility- here in Australia its relevance grounded and so deeply embedded in a shifting sediment of relations between indigene and settler.  Bruce Pascoe followed with a presentation of research on the extent of aboriginal agriculture in the 18th century, challenging the dominant construction of the Australian aborigine as a nomadic race. Aunty Joy Murphy’s discussion of the spiritual and social significance of the relationship between fresh water and salt water in aboriginal culture was to foreground the next movement of the day when conference participants were transported by boat from Docklands to the landing at Birrarung Marr. During that journey the boats crossed the site where the fresh water of the Yarra River meets the salt water of the sea. Passengers were given gum leaves and ochre for dispersal at the place where river and tidal flows merged, enabling them to participate in a performative acknowledgment of an aboriginal understanding of place, matter and water.  I visualised flows and forces of fresh and salt water coming together as I watched the leaves disappear into the wake. The image of a small flotilla of boats heading up the Yarra River, now bounded at its former estuarine edges by fingers of reclaimed land and high-rise structures, stays with me.

Unfolding in a carefully ordered daily rhythm of assembling, disassembling and re-assembling, the conference organisers’ vision was evident in the detailed consideration of conference choreography, scripting in the attendees as co-producers of the event. This programmatic consistency was considered across all elements of the event including the design of the printed material and the artfully considered conference dinner performed as mobile feast. As Kim Sargent-Wishart noted in her paper on Sunday morning, Cycles of dispersal and coherence, in which she theorised and articulated these cycles through choreographic practice, participation in the conference was itself a movement between these processes. Shifting between sites, and moving co-participants by foot, wheels, and vessels, these sequences of relocation and regrouping tactically embedded practices of mobility into the conference script and form - always reminding us that within the mobilities paradigm, the ground is shifting. 

The power of performance practices to heighten the social construction of mobility’s counterpart, immobility, was also powerfully emphasised at the Assembly. Bree Hadley’s paper Performing Mobility/ Protesting Immobility, highlighted the ways in which access structures in built environments continued to reproduce immobility for those with disabilities by their design for pedestrian mobility, rather than accommodating the capacities of different kinds of bodies.  Using the example of the disabled car-parking space – a site of designated use at times disregarded by the general public, she demonstrated the power of protest performance as strategy to draw attention to the social practices that constrain mobility for differently abled bodies.

While the aesthetic and social dimensions of performing mobilities/immobilities were addressed, the rhetorical and political implications of territories, borders, enforced mobilities and subjectivities in globalised contexts were also unpacked in the Assembly programme. The power of performance design to intervene as strategy of resistance to the authority of the border structure was emphasized by Dorita Hannah in her paper In Freedom’s Name: transversal encounters on the border line, and supported by a number of compelling examples.  Sally Sussman and Annemaree Dalziel of Australian Performance Exchange outlined the potential of their model of the “mobile performance structure” [2], to provide a space for asylum seeker artists to voice their experiences, and heighten public awareness of their realities.

Unravelling processes of placing, displacing, emplacing, longing and belonging, mobility and immobility – a plethora of perspectives have shaped the space across and between performance and mobility – enworlding subjectivities and places in ways that critical creative practices do so well. This made for an extraordinary conference experience where the fertility of interdisciplinary scholarship was actively mobilised in a highly productive space of practice, theory and embodied knowing.


 [1] Heddon, D. (2015). Walking Interconnections: Performing conversations of sustainability, Performing Mobilities Programme (p. 23). Melbourne: RMIT.

[2] Sussman, S., & Dalziel A. (2015). Forced Mobility with a Mobile Performance Structure: Australian Performance Exchange’s Origin-Transit-Destination, Performing Mobilities Programme (p. 60). Melbourne: RMIT.   



Naismith, J.J. (2016) “Fluid States Melbourne Report #3”, Conditions of mobility: relations, dynamics and performative interventions, PSi #21 Fluid States: Performances of UnKnowing LOG, ed. Marin Blazevic, Bree Hadley and Nina Gojic, Performance Studies international (PSi), 1 January 2015-31 December 2015, available  


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