The Vision of Participatory Parity: a conversation between Cushla Donaldson and David Hall

Installation Shot: 501s (2018) at Melbourne Art Fair. Cushla Donaldson

Cushla Donaldson (CD): Kia ora koutou. My name’s Cushla Donaldson. This is David Hall. I would first like to acknowledge the Tangata Whenua of Tāmaki Makaurau. So, I think we’ll just introduce the work first. This piece of work is called 501s. It was played at the Melbourne Art Fair. It was made in collaboration with an advocacy group for the 501 detainees, who are detained under the Immigration Act of 2014. They are held, some without criminal charges. They have no right to legal representation while they’re in detention. They’re New Zealand citizens a lot of them, and I was working with the advocacy group to connect with them so they could participate and hack into the video that was projected.

David Hall: The ‘in conversation’ format is always a slightly artificial one, but, in that spirit, I was going to ask Cushla, on the art side especially, what is the context of the slipper?


Installation Shot: 501s (2018) at Melbourne Art Fair. Cushla Donaldson

CD: Okay, so, in terms of the ‘artistic’ element, or the ‘slipper context’, I’m very interested in how spectacle can be played in different ways. If we’re talking about ‘old-school’ critical theory, I think spectacle is a really interesting place to start both in Luke [Willis Thompson]’s work and in mine. The very popular conversation around affect at the moment, and the way that this functions politically, I have a deep problem with. I wanted to perceive a place where affect – or something like that – was interrupted by agency or an active political moment.

The slipper itself comes from a story of Madame Veuve Clicquot. It’s a very analog piece of information because it’s from a biography that I read, but I cannot find it on the internet. But the story goes that when Madame Veuve Clicquot’s husband died, she did a whole rebranding of the champagne brand. I see her as a proto-capitalist feminist in a way. She rebranded Veuve Clicquot with the famous orange label and staged an event in Venice where they shipped this new brand of Veuve Clicquot, filled a giant glass slipper with champagne in the square during the carnival, and some people drowned in it

Audience: [Laughter]

CD: Going back to the other element and when did Australia become a heartless country? Where did we get to, David, in terms of Australia and New Zealand relations?

DH: Sure. The quote [from a detainee about Australia being the lucky country], begs the question; "When was Australia ever a lucky country?" It has this enormously tragic history, which is easy to forget and has been forgotten (like the tragic aspects of Aotearoa New Zealand’s history are equally well forgotten). All States are said to be founded on an act of political violence, in the figurative sense of the exertion of sovereign power through constitutions and treaties and declarations. But also in a literal sense, through colonialism and imperialism. Australia and New Zealand share a history in that regard - the alienation of indigenous peoples. But Australia has this other dimension of historical violence as a penal colony where British people were sent in centuries past. Its' original colonial purpose was to be a giant prison continent or island. Thinking back to this history, it’s hard not to see the echoes in what’s going on now in regards to the treatment of people. The Migration Act 1958 that Cushla referred to – in particular the 2014 amendments to Section 501 - is what sets out the character test, which is being used now as legal justification to detain people.

I’ll read a couple of bits, because you can see how loosely defined this is. It’s incredibly open to manipulation and overreach. “Your past and present criminal or general conduct shows that you are not of good character”. Or “there is a risk that while you are in Australia, you would engage in criminal conduct”, so, future crimes. Or, “you have been a member of a group or organization that the minister reasonably suspects of being in- volved in criminal conduct”. So a lot of members of gangs are (locked)  away whether or not they’ve committed crimes, just purely by membership of the gang.

CD: And their partners.

DH: So, there’s about 1300 New Zealanders who have been sent back to New Zealand and there’s many, many more locked up in prisons in Australia with no sense of where they’re going, nor when they’re being let out. Some have been there for years now under this legislation.


Still from 501s (2018) Cushla Donaldson

DH: Then there’s all of these other historical echoes. Historically, a lot of the people who were brought to Australia were (sentenced) on misdemeanours or potentially no crime at all. They were often scooped up from around Ireland, especially, as a way to manage the population. Moreover, one of the larger portions of New Zealand’s pre-Treaty population was actually ex-convicts coming to New Zealand from Australia to set up a new life and to escape that stain of a penal background. So this trans-Tasman flow has a strange precedent.

I was going to mention as well a quote by Robert Hughes, the famous Australian-born art critic of the New York Times, a pugnacious sort of critic. He wrote a book called, The Fatal Shore (1986), which was quite impactful in the ‘80s ‘cause he really tried to sort of show the warts-’n-all history of Australia. He said that first-generation Australians -

“turned out to be the most law-abiding, morally conservative people in the country, among them the truly durable legacy of the convict system was not criminality but the revulsion from it, the will to be as decent as possible, to sublimate and wipe out the convict stain, even at the cost of historical amnesia.”

So, he was pointing to this puritanical effect that it had. New Zealanders like to make jokes about the convict past of Australia and how they’re all crims today. But Robert Hughes is pointing out that, actually, the opposite was the case. It was an overreaction, this lunge for high moralism – and that comes through today. Peter Dutton, who was until recently the immigration minister, is a complete thug and a bully and a nasty piece of work. But he also has this sort of attitude of moral abstemiousness, a higher-than-thou attitude, which he brings to this. And that’s an attitude that’s shared by a lot of the politicians who were involved in setting up this increasingly draconian and illiberal migration policy in Australia.

I was talking recently with (writer) Kapka Kassabova about Bulgaria, where she came to New Zealand from, and the way that borders and fences have been resurrected there in a way very much similar to during the Cold War. And she reminded me of this quote by the psychoanalyst Selma Fraiberg: “Trauma demands repetition.” There’s these cycles of abuse that play out at the political level in countries like Australia and also at a domestic level, too: I mean, the quote earlier from one of the detainees talking about how he was sexually abused as a child and, obviously, he saw that as part of his own biography and criminality. And so the cycle of abuse continues, both personally and nationally.

CD: I think it’s a very interesting artistic question, if we are talking about ethics and care, is representation even enough? Even if we’re talking about the intra-frame and the gaps and the blinks between, and we’re thinking about the psychological operation of the image – really, we are at a point in our history and our society where you have to ask; Is that enough in an art gallery? Is it enough? To me, it’s not enough anymore. I can’t really uphold my own artistic practice by thinking that I’m changing the world, one person at a time. Or by merely symbolically representing injustice or those it affects for the audience that consumes art. Participation, Education and Media are key areas for me. We are in serious territory now, which is what led me to develop the work alongside David and other people.

Nancy Fraser is a really interesting theoretician in the fact that she doesn’t throw away what’s useful about identity politics, but she is able to navigate it in terms of other concerns. Her main goal that she has posited, in terms of justice, is participatory parity in society. So, if there’s anything that’s holding someone back from participating as a peer or an equal in that society, then this is a source of injustice.


Installation Shot: 501s (2018) at Melbourne Art Fair. Cushla Donaldson

DH: She treats justice as having three dimensions; representation, recognition, and redistribution. In regards to identity politics, her problem is that it’s often conceived in opposition to economic questions of justice. So, it’s either identity politics or economic justice, whereas she says that this is a false dichotomy and that, actually, the two interrelate, that you can’t really conceive these questions in isolation from the other.

She sets up this idea of participatory parity as asking ‘how we can participate in public life as equals?’ And the only way to do that is to strike the right balance between an economic politics which is concerned with redistribution, an identity politics which is concerned with recognition, and a politics of citizenship which is concerned with representation. And in the Australian migration question, this is one of the issues, that the 501s don’t have Australian citizenship, but many have been there for several decades by virtue of the open borders that Australia and New Zealand have through the Trans-Tasman Travel Arrangement. So, they’re under no expectation of needing to have citizenship, because they once had access to most public goods, but that’s really being pulled out from under their feet in recent years.

CD: I see the 501s as traversing all three categories, really. Sixty percent or more are Māori or Pacific Island people, so there’s definitely a racially profiled aspect. Working class, most of them. And, as Hannah Arendt puts it, they have lost their right to rights. That, to me, speaks to an incredibly vulnerable group of people. So, how does one actually get away from representing them and hand over agency, to have them engage and participate as peers in a context that they’ve been forcibly removed from?

DH: I come at this from the perspective of a political theorist, so I’m interested mostly in the political impacts and outcomes of artworks like this. What’s really interesting about 501s is that it has created an opportunity for the detainees to express themselves in their own words and their own ways, in sometimes rather colorful language, but understandably so given the situations that they’re in. It’s also created an opportunity for solidarity amongst the 501s themselves, that they’ve realised that they’re not in an individualised Kafkaesque nightmare; they’re actually part of a group of people who are all suffering from a structural injustice in Australia. To tie this all up, Cushla, maybe its worth describing the detainee you talked to in Australia? It helps to give a sense of reality to what is really quite a surreal situation.

CD: I already have Ministry of Justice clearance for New Zealand, because I do visit prisons in New Zealand. So I was asked to visit a particular detainee in the Melbourne detention center by the advocacy group, Iwi in Aus, while I was there. The advocate Filipa Payne wanted me to see what the detention center was like, as an artist. And like the Documentary Research Group who were talking earlier said, there’s an ‘extension’ of opaque care that you can’t just walk away from. I very much respect that attitude; you’ve got to walk the talk.

So I visited the detention center after a lot of to-ing and fro-ing and difficulty getting in. The person I was speaking to was on non-contact for complaining to the center, which meant that I could only speak to him through a glass wall. He was feeling malnutrition, so he complained about the food and he was on non-contact. The actual detention center was worse than any prison I’d visited. There was no natural light.

DH: And what had he been put away for?

CD: He had committed a crime 30 years ago. I think it was a couple of burglaries. And what had happened is he had come back to New Zealand to visit his sister a year and a half before he got detained, and they changed his visa status when he went back to Australia. He questioned it at the time, and they said, “Oh, don’t worry about that.” And, he was walking home from work, and they picked him up.

DH: And he’s been in prison for how long?

CD: Four years. First he was on Christmas Island. When he arrived there, he said it was like receiving a ‘rockstar’ welcome. He didn’t know where he was, all he could see were palm trees, and the security guards were lined up in a queue to walk him down the gangway. Then, after two years there, he got transferred to Melbourne. And, actually, he’s been transferred again, he got transferred two weeks after I visited him. I’m not sure if that was related – I hope not – to Yongah Hill where the riots have been this week for the person who had committed suicide. So we’re talking about a very, very serious situation that is necessary to talk about in the art context, which is often middle-class and educated. We are not getting the kind of information that we should be getting.

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This conversation between Cushla Donaldson and Dr. David Hall was originally published as part of the 2018 CIRCUIT Symposium e-book The Time of the Now.

Postscript from Cushla Donaldson: Since this conversation, the Liberal Party, led by Scott Morrison, returned to power in the May 2019 general election. In the lead-up to the election, Morrison cut the annual immigration intake by about 15% and held the line on the deportation of New Zealanders. Notably, it was Morrison who introduced the 2014 amendments to Section 501 as a previous Minister of Immigration, serving under then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

The moral hazards of Facebook's Live Stream came into stark relief on 15 March 2019 when 51 people were killed and many more injured in the Christchurch mosque attacks. The atrocity was live-streamed and the video quickly proliferated across social media platforms. For the shooter, Live Stream was relatively empowering. It served to amplify the communicative effects of his deed, by raising awareness of the white supremacist cause - the residual effects of which are unknown. For Diamond Reynolds, Live Stream was also potentially empowering, by helping to raise awareness of her plight. However, the structural factors remain. The officer who shot her partner, Tamir Rice, was acquitted of the charges of manslaughter and reckless discharge of a firearm.

Cushla Donaldson (b. Wellington, NZ) Recent work: 501s (Commissioned by The Physics Room, Special Projects, Melbourne Art Fair, 2018) and The Fairy Falls (solo) (curated by Ioana Gordon-Smith, Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery, 2017). She holds a MFA from Goldsmiths College, University of London. David Hall is a Senior Researcher with The Policy Observatory (AUT). He has a D.Phil in Politics from the University of Oxford and experience in journalism, publishing and the non-governmental sector. His research interests include ethics and public policy, and environmental policy.