Landfill: John Kinsella & McKenzie Wark

Date: 28/09/99
Place: British Airways aircraft, flying between London and Toulouse

JOHN: . . . There was actually a rubbish tip there and they went in and ‘reclaimed’ the ground – reclamation and reoccupation are two quite different things! It’s worth noting that they also reclaimed sections of the Swan River to build the Kwinana Freeway, which I find darkly amusing because it’s the Perth tourism trade’s number one asset (closely followed by King’s Park). They filled it in to develop other aspects of Perth . . . using landfill, of course. A paradoxical act in the eyes of the local balance of payments, maybe. And two things are interesting . . . where the landfill comes from and how they reclaim an area in the first place.

KEN: It’s characteristic of human activity particularly in the New World. You dig a hole and then you fill the hole in from somewhere else. You notice it in my part of the east coast in the freeway (that used to be the tollway) between Newcastle and Sydney. This huge gash is gauged through hills, the rubble from which of course you then use to fill in the valleys so that the roads create this whole new, this geological feature that is 100 miles long and much the same level from one end to the other. This smoothness is a great characteristic of New World topography. A smooth straight line connecting property to property.

JOHN: So what you do is you strategically locate your places of extraction. For example, take the Daweswood Cut, an engineering ‘feat’ in Western Australia near the ‘tourist town’ of Mandurah, where they cut a channel between the ocean and the Peel Inlet so they could flush it out because it used to get algae-ridden in the summer, making the area fresh and wonderful and consequently more attractive to residents, investors, commercial enterprises utilising the resources of the inlet. The cut is quite massive, and as a consequence a massive amount of landfill was extracted – stone, soil, etc. One might assume that they took that extracted material to other places for building purposes. So, if they plan wisely, they can turn the whole loss/gain thing into a true profit-making capitalist enterprise. But lack of planning leads to unwanted holes and too many piles.

KEN: Yeah I’m thinking this loss/gain thing even transcends the space of the continent. I remember as a teenage growing up in this house where there were these quite distinctive stones that were the walls around the edge. And they were a very, very dark blue stone. Newcastle is mostly sandstone, so this igneous rock was really distinctive. I remember having it explained to me that the blue stones were ballast stones off the ships from England. So you can imagine: ships bringing rocks all the way across the other side of the world for no particular reason, other than to load up with cargo to take back to the other side . . .

JOHN: Upsets the equation that reads: natural produce and materials go out of the Antipodes, minerals and so on, to the industrial centres of the world . . . manufactured goods back. One of those neat and highly fallible equations economists love to use at press conferences and that primary school teachers fob off on the kids. Of course, in the early part of this century, the equation was quite specific to Britain. Their wasn’t quite the same random variable there is now. Or, indeed, even when Pig Iron Bob did his notorious deals with Japan just before the war. I found it fascinating going into Australia House in London for the first time, as people pointed out the various hardwoods had been brought in from Australia to timber the place. It was built during the First World War, and even stone used there was from Australia as well. Now here’s this massive war going on and they were concerned about bringing building materials from Australia so they were occupying valuable cargo space with a vanity product.

KEN: That’s my whole approach to modernity. I think it always starts from the periphery. When you look at the construction of modern Europe it seems to me to be made from the materials of the periphery – made from the landfill of somewhere else. The gold was from somewhere else. Even the tea that stirred the metabolisms of Europe’s labouring classes, as they laboured with the materials from the colonies, was from the colonies. Modernity is shifting landfill on a global scale.

JOHN: What’s interesting is that centre/fringe construction, and that peripheral construction is an interesting entry point into British society. When we first moved to Cambridge, Tracy and I attempted to construct all our conversations in terms of ‘this is the fringe come to the centre’, and we’re going to occupy it and take over as a defensive mechanism. As the last few years have passed, that centre/fringe construction is entirely gone and as far as we’re concerned our centre is in fact the place we’ve left and we now live on the fringes. And really and honestly in many ways that’s quite the case. That whole peripheral construction is something that can be manipulated according to personal perspective.

Landfill is also a kind of cultural filling in. In Britain, in trying to promote Australian poetry or Australian literature, the idea is that we’re filling in a space that they don’t occupy – but the potential for reception is there. Historically, they made the hole long ago. But rather than a law of diminishing returns they’re getting something rich and complex back, that has outgrown them and that flows over into other spaces. This spreads all over the world – it grows and represents the complex amalgam of voices that constitute Australian ‘identity’. The trick is, once you start occupying the space they allow you to fill, you start rhizomically spreading through their culture and affecting the centre’s ‘culture’ as well. So landfill actually becomes something quite dangerous (in the centre’s eyes) and mobile, and it doesn’t just get moved from one space to another it actually spreads above and below the surface in a rhizomatic way.

KEN: Can you fill that space in the landscape and still occupy one in Australian landscape? There’s a danger in the Australian cultural space of being constructed as either/or, as one of us/ not one of us.

JOHN: Yeah. There’s two things one could say to this. The first, in the removal of raw materials from Australia, particularly minerals and for example the smelting of the iron ore, be it Japan or the States or Britain, you change the nature of the materiality of place. They might represent Australia in the same way a souvenir does, but they no longer have the complex set of references (ie comparisons) that make landscape. They are denuded of that meaning and given others. Though, of course, they can still symbolise aspects of the landscape they’re extracted from. Of course.

Secondly, if we send satellites into space and pass a particular barrier – leave the earth’s atmosphere and consequently what we define as ‘ours’, won’t it effect the whole structure of the earth? Won’t it effect the way the earth’s held together? Even the symbolic value is lost – that is, there are no points of references relative to the individual and cultures. But maybe that’s what science fiction’s for! And the eternal ‘our universe’ type shows that saturate television. Patrick Moore’s Night Sky program has being going for decades in Britain. He’s tolerated because he’s speaking about something entirely disconnected from most people’s reality. The man is an absolute bigot and misogynist. His racism would not be tolerated under any other circumstances in so public a position. (Though one sometimes wonders about certain members of the police force/s in public relations positions.)

In the same way, the removal of Australian raw materials has always bothered me, to put it mildly . . . that it would cause a total unbalance . . . Interestingly, most indigenous peoples invariably say that the removal of any of the materials of place . . . of the land, causes distress and disrupts it . . . the Ranger uranium project is a good example . . . that the elders of the area said at the time that any interference with that particular space would cause an unbalance and poisoning.

KEN: Well it’s the difference between a traditional and a modern relation to space. The modern idea is that space can be abstract. That anything can be in any one place or it can be in another place – it can be moved. You can construct any relation whatever between one place and another, or one resource and another. Or in other words, in the modern world, there’s nothing outside the vector. There’s no outside-vector. Things only exist in their productive relations to other things. Which is why I wonder about the grand plan to put traditional, indigenous communities on a self-sustaining economic basis. I sometimes wonder if outback tourism might be more of a curse than mining, in the way it makes the most intimate parts of traditional culture ‘sustainable’ only at the price of being a useful ‘resource’.

JOHN: You know, talking about spatiality . . . Have you read Jan Appleton’s ‘Darwinian’ theory of prospect and refuge? Extending the notion, within the context of landscape theory, prospect is what you can see in many different points in a landscape – your vista, your horizon, and actually what exists in between the point of seeing and the point of absolute perspective. Refuge is the ‘shelter’ or hiding place within the landscape – it’s the place you go internally that you can’t see out of and consequently can’t be seen within. Now, we’re talking about processes of extracting, taking materials from a particular place and using them as landfill elsewhere.

Well, in terms of that model, by taking something that’s part of an entirety, a complete picture, a ‘wholeness’, and with respect to traditional uses of land versus modern uses of land, you’re actually destroying any ability to gain refuge. Landscape becomes pure prospect. You’re actually destroying the internal space of the land – its interiorality. You’re creating an increasing perspective of prospect then equates with productivity and absorbs refuge. Refuge becomes a marketable idea. The house, the swimming pool. Refuge as marketing concept. Check out Barnley Heights, our prospects offer a variety of refuges . . .

KEN: Refuge as prospect – how perverse. Or as Paul Virilio says, there’s nowhere left to hide. If the whole surface of the earth . . . is mappable then in a sense the line of sight becomes a line of force. The vector of perception doubles as a vector of exploitation. Although of course Virilio has never been in the Western desert, so his thinking doesn’t really fit. He’s too much of the centre, he doesn’t see things from the periphery, which to me is the point of view from which you see how things move. You see the prospect in Australia, at a time when in Europe there’s a lot more loose talk about losing a privileged refuge, I think.

JOHN: There’s two interesting points to bring up here – one is that we’re in an aircraft that is actually a composite construction of global components . . . and certainly global technology; the second that as we shift from English speaking space to French speaking space, the cross over of languages and the removal of languages and using languages of landfill in the construction of new languages should come into consideration. Should always be under consideration!

Moving ‘back’ to Australia: There’s also – thinking about the Western Desert and the making of sand paintings that dissolve after a period of time and represent a particular, not only in a symbolic sense but also in a quite literal sense, mapping of both physical space and conceptual space. The plane – and the aircraft! – in some very abstract sense, almost hijacks mobility and fluidity and preciseness in crossing particular spatial zones.

KEN: Yes, now you’ve got me thinking about the way Stephen Muecke thinks about the difference between Aboriginal space and white fella space, in his book No Road. In white fella space you can connect any point to any other point. But what makes this possible is the ability to divide any point from any point. This is the instrument of private property: any point can be closed off and owned, and having been made distinct, can be seen as potentially connected, along any available vector, to anything else. Or in other words: roads and fences. Abstract, meaningless relations.

As I read Muecke, he’s saying that Aboriginal space is one where you can’t automatically connect any point to any other. It has to be negotiated, every movement is singular and meaningful. But there is no private property – nothing is blocked off absolutely, everything is a site of rival and related claims. To effect movement in this landscape, you have to negotiate, and negotiate again each and every time you want to effect a relation. It’s a brilliant system for preventing abstraction from taking hold, the abstraction that allows power and wealth to accumulate.

JOHN: I’m also thinking of ownership, say, along the Canning Stock routes and using that as a closed European construct of that particular area. But you see a gnamma hole becomes particular watering space and a signifier of voice and identity, a mythical exchange point where different stories move in and out of each other, which anthropologists then usurp and impose as registration. One of the things that came up in Daisy Bates’ investigations of mythologies and customs revolving around gnamma holes is that distinct sense of ‘ownership’ and space. That it didn’t exist anywhere else. (I’m reconstructing an argument almost not made to make the point, making utility where it shouldn’t be made, but . . . ) Because in that particular region water places were the only reserve of life. Particular peoples did feel strongly about their usage and their was a kind of debt incurred when a particular place was ‘invaded’ or used. And this goes against the whole notion of nomadism and so on . . .

KEN: Well yes and no. I think Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus has not been well understood on the subject of nomadism, particularly in the centre. It takes a ‘peripheral’ writer like Stephen Muecke or Eric Michaels to find the still-workable materials in their work and release them. What you often don’t get in the celebrations of nomadism is an understanding of debt. Deleuze and Guattari talk about the savage relation of debt – only the French could use language like this in this day and age! But there is something in the way they distinguish the privatised, monetised, abstract debt of modernity from what they call a debt to the earth. A debt that is always quite particular. It could be owed to quite particular places to quite particular symbolic figures.

Besides this so-called savage debt there is despotism, where debt is accumulated and subordinated as debt to the sovereign. The sovereign could also be the dictator – Kim Jong Il or Saddam Hussein. In comparison to despotic debt, private debt really does seem more conducive to liberty. Debts are contracted singly and abstractly, always in the same coin. But while the cold war was won by the system of private debt, which really was I think much more conducive to liberty than debt to the sovereign, the state, the party, the relation between private, quantitative, abstract debt on the one hand, and social, qualitative, particular debt on the other, emerges out from under the shadows of the cold war as a more fundamental problem.

JOHN: Interesting subtext to this – I’m thinking of processes of reterritorialisation for example . . .

KEN: Which is exactly what debt does – it reterritorialises. It connects a prospect, a potential, a resource, to something that limits and directs it. Or in other words, the problem of ‘reconciliation’ can be seen as a problem of conflicting practices of debt. To what does who owe what? Only once you see it as qualitatively different kinds of obligation, its no longer so easy to talk glibly about reconciling them. There’s no middle road between landfill and a sacred site.

JOHN: There is a wonderful analogy I can make with the draining of the fens in the south-east of England. They brought drainage engineers across from Holland to put the canals and ditches in to drain the area, to make it fertile and profitable to farm. It had been primarily under water and was occupied by eelers and people who hunted wild fowl. By gradually releasing areas, ‘reclaiming’ them, by draining and by setting up wind pumps and dykes to keep the water under control, the Crown and Parliament and others stimulated the processes of accumulation and profit – the potential increase in material wealth became very specific and measurable.

So as each place was cleared, its value obviously increased. But more interestingly, because the ‘mythological map’ – that of spiritual and cultural identity – was being changed, instead of overlaying, landfilling, covering things up, they were actually exposing, unearthing In many senses, a dual process took place. Drainage literally revealed a lot of lost items. From potlatch to missing treasures. So some people reclaimed that history – they gained wealth because they were able to claim the lost and forfeited, the offered and the taken. But they lost their identity in the same process of revelation. So this kind of revelation/enclosure thing was constantly going on. There’s a huge metal detector craze in Britain – this obsessive reclaiming of the past, or getting lost wealth back. Of exacting ‘rent’ from invaders, particularly the Romans.

Enclosure worked in the same way. Works in the same way! Getting control over the usage of public land, of the unobtainble – say so-called Crown Land in Australia, as opposed to returning it to its rightful custodians. Obviously wealth was increased in a general sense through drainage and enclosure, but their was also a diminution of the local peoples’ individual prospects, of their capacity to earn, to maintain control over the negotiation and reception of their mythologies as well.

I don’t know how you translate that in the whole gnamma hole context, and, in fact, it may be undesirable to do so. But there’s certain obvious theoretical correlations that can be made.

KEN: Well, maybe one has to make the attempt, even if only as conversation, to connect these things. In the New World there’s a kind of repressed similarity in some way to things that have always existed in English space and the Old World in general. There always were these pockets of traditional property right, there’s always been something like ‘native title’ in England. There has never been an absolute form of private property – it’s always negotiable at some point . . . with things like right of way and so on. So we suddenly rediscovered that – that, ah hello!, here are all these previous complex, quite subtle, unreadable and in a sense non-negotiable rights. How do you negotiate between them?

JOHN: We’re talking about the genocide of people and landscapes. The two become indistinguishable. The destruction of one leads to the destructions of the other. A ‘terrible’ symbiosis. Thinking of the fens, they actually removed the landscape, they altered it, they changed it. Theoretically if all the pumps stop, and the dykes overflow and so on, and no-one repairs it, Cambridge might return to something like its previous form. But the people who were part of it have long gone. But that’s not completely true, fenlanders always claim difference and speak against outsiders. The threat of flooding, of water, makes them different. Those on the Norfolk Broads in particular, but also in Cambridgeshire. They always remember the great floods!

I find this interesting, Lionel Fogerty, the great Murri poet, actually gets inside the English language and dismantles it from the inside out. Mudrooroo has called this his guerilla tactics. Instead of using a kind of Pidgin English or a construction of a hybridity, he is actually taking words and dismantling them through using his Murri tongue as the colonising language, and not the colonised language. He reverses the hybridising relationship. He’s remapping a landscape that has been entirely removed from his people. He’s reclaiming it through speech, through words. The ‘control’ of language is power. He’s rejecting the coloniser’s linguistic claim on that space . . . He’s saying that you’ve come into our space and we’re fighting you with your own language. So he’s entirely reversed that victim/coloniser binary. He’s reclaiming space.

KEN: In a less ‘literary’ way, that’s the story of Aboriginal country music and of ‘settlement rock’. A sort of oral guerrilla culture inside the language and harmonic language. We were discussing earlier whether modernity begins on the periphery or the centre. Or whether these terms make any sense once you explore the play between them. Likewise, I think there’s a sense in which colonialism begins at the centre and not the periphery. So 1745, before Australia’s even ‘discovered’, the colonisation of Scotland gets going full bore. There’s a sense of which, seen from without, you tend to think about the Old World as the centre from which modernity radiated. But without the resources set free in the periphery, the whole process would never have got off the ground. The whole process began at home already, already in Cambridge, already in Scotland, this process of internal colonisation had already been going on.

What an act of colonisation does is deterritorialise and reterritorialise. Land and people are broken free from their debts and set loose, only to be subordinated to a qualitatively new kind of grid. Only in the process, some resources, particularly people, are set loose to colonise again. The Scots were great colonisers in the New World, having been set loose by the dispossession of their traditional relation to land. My ancestors and probably a lot of yours were themselves ‘landfill’.

JOHN: One thing that shocked me when I first moved to Britain was the reference to Australia as the New World, uncritically. New to whom? Using an old term for a new process without question. Any comment on that?

KEN: I still like the expression in the sense that it has been used in the Americas. The New World has a sense of hope, something that has yet to be constructed. I think it’s hard to have that optimism in the face of the continuing existence of the Ancien Regime in Europe, but it’s something that Australia, in a more low-key way, does share with America. That sense of constructing the world – and still trying to get it right. An open modernity rather than a closed – and enclosing – one, perhaps.

JOHN: We’re flying in over the fields and roads of a Euro heartland right now. One thing that’s interesting about this particular conversation, because we’re in a plane, and because we’re about to land, it induces stress. I’m certainly finding that my thought patterns aren’t as linear, I’m reacting under a kind of stress to answer a question I’ve been asking myself about what constitutes the occupation of place and what do you take away from place when you physically leave it. If we weren’t about to land would I ask such a question? What your obligations are as a human as a citizen in movement?

You’ve come from Sydney to London and then to Cambridge and back to Toulouse then you’ll go back to London and back to Sydney and you’ll do it all over again. And what are your obligations in the removal of cultural discourse or whatever cultural participation into that space and then to the next space. Acts of appropriation. The tourist thing. The destruction of regional boundaries. In the same way we criticise those who make the holes in order to fill other ones they no longer want, what are your responsibilities?

KEN: Interesting question. Though why is it the movers rather than the unmvoved who are supposed to have a responsibility? What are the responsibilities of people who don’t move. There’s a sense in which you’re supposed to be exempt. I’m curious as to why. It is always so-called ‘globalisation’ that is called upon to justify itself. It’s amazing how old leftists and the far right share this totally uncritical sense of the rightness of the national boundary nowadays. And the left can’t even see how defending protectionism might be just as racist as restricting immigration. At least the right aren’t hypocrites! They know they are against foreigners prospering, whether by coming to ‘our’ space or selling their goods into ‘our’ space.

So, perhaps perversely, I wonder why staying put and valuing staying put should be exempt from ethical questioning. ‘Cosmopolitanism’ was a term of abuse used by the Nazis, and sometimes by Stalinists, too. Sometimes ‘cosmopolitan’ was a code-word for Jew, but sometimes I wonder if Jew might not have been, and still be, a code-word for cosmopolitan. Its a refusal to accept identities constructed on the run, on the move, along the vector, rather than within the territory.

JOHN: Exemption? My grandmother on my father’s side never, ever, ever left the south of Western Australia. Her husband was a state forester of Western Australia, and there is actually an area called Kinsella in the south west named after him. The naming was a reward for his services in the forests to the State. Such namings are all about usurping and totally obliterating indigenous occupation and ownership. And for him it would have been an honour. I don’t know if he thought about its implications.

My paternal grandmother’s heritage was Irish and Scots and she basically went through a process of denial. She felt there was no point, say, returning to visit her ‘roots’ as it would be destroying identity a lot of people had gone to a lot of trouble to create. She was a Western Australian, and that was that. Time was not the issue, presence in place was. Immediate family was the signifier, the marker of presence and place. So she felt it was morally bankrupt to travel, to leave one’s space, and she criticised my mother when she took my brother with her to Bali when he was 13. She was indignant, absolutely outraged. I stayed at home so I could sell more stamps, actually. She respected my profit-making enterprises, I think. Not sure though. We didn’t really discuss it. But it kept me ‘home’, so I guess it did. Home was actually Geraldton then – five hundred kilometres North of Perth – but still in WA! She was indignant because she actually felt that by travelling, especially at such a young age, he would be corrupted and turn against his home, that he would actually weaken the ties of place.

What’s interesting – my brother actually travelled overseas before I did and has never left the region and never will. He’s stuck in the country of Western Australia, he’s a sheerer, he wants to be there and it’s a conscious choice. He talks occasionally about going across to the eastern states but he’ll never, ever get into an aeroplane . . . [end of tape]