The State of Play: Australian Popular Fiction in the Twenty-First Century


Millicent Weber

Millicent is a Research Assistant on the ARC Discovery project Genre Worlds: Australian Popular Fiction in the Twenty-First Century, in the University of Melbourne’s Publishing and Communication program. She is also an assistant archivist with the University of Melbourne Archives. Millicent recently submitted her PhD thesis in literary sociology, through  Monash University’s Centre for the Book. Her doctoral research investigates literary festivals: their significance and impact within contemporary literary culture.

Who publishes Australian genre fiction, and in what ways? What do crime, fantasy and romance genre communities look like? How do their books reach booksellers, reviewers and readers? And why are crime writers always so chill?

Popular fiction is one of the biggest growth areas in Australian trade publishing, but to date these kinds of questions have received little critical attention. Genre Worlds is an ARC-funded project (2016-2018) that investigates the whos, wheres, hows and whys of twenty-first century Australian romance, crime and fantasy fiction. The mechanics of publication, distribution and consumption, and the ways that popular genres are understood by both practitioners and the general public: these are the key focal points for the project.

In October 2016, a number of academics, writers, editors, bloggers, reviewers and readers came together at some genre fiction events co-hosted by the Australian Centre at the University of Melbourne. The popularity of these events was testament to the interest in – and need for – research into genre fiction publishing. Ninety people attended the main symposium, and collaboratively pushed the events’ hashtag, #popfic16, to number one in Australia’s Twitter trend charts.

Academic Scene-Setting

So what is a ‘genre world’? On Wednesday 5 October, three of the ARC project’s Chief Investigators, Kim Wilkins, Lisa Fletcher and Beth Driscoll, joined Ken Gelder to present some of their research to staff and students in English and Theatre Studies. This extended seminar offered theorisations and critical readings of the mechanics of Australia’s contemporary ‘genre worlds’ of crime, romance and fantasy. The talks explored the way that these genres are defined both textually and contextually; their relationships to the worlds of literary publishing and to middlebrow cultural practices; the networked relationships between writers, readers, publishers, critics; and definitions of genre communities.

The State of Play symposium was held the next day and re-introduced some of these ideas in an industry- and public-facing context. Guest speakers at this event included romance writer Anne Gracie; fantasy writers Angela Slatter, Jack Dann, and Rjurik Davidson; crime writers Candice Fox, Adrian McKinty, and Angela Savage; publishers Kate Cuthbert, Rochelle Fernandez and Angela Meyer; and romance reviewer Kat Mayo.

The State of Play symposium was held in the 1888 Building, on the only sunny day in Melbourne for months

Routes to Market

Publishers of genre fiction operate in a contested space, influenced by cultural, commercial and technological trends. The first panel, chaired by Beth Driscoll, was entitled ‘Popular Fiction and New Routes to Market’, and featured Kate Cuthbert from Escape Publishing, the digital-first imprint of Harlequin Australia, Rochelle Fernandez from Harper-Collins’ speculative fiction imprint Voyager, and Echo Publishing’s Angela Meyer. Combining the perspectives of publishers and commissioning editors, each working with a different genre, afforded comparisons between these genres’ different publishing processes.

Speaking to the boundaries of the different genres, Meyer emphasised the ways that Echo’s activities often bleed into both commercial publishing and literary fiction; while Cuthbert pointed to the proliferation of sub-genres within romance, with Escape currently publishing into 14 defined sub-categories. All of the panellists agreed that there has been significant growth in the publishing of cross-genre titles in Australia in recent years, particularly among smaller presses, and that there has also been a spike in publication of titles by authors and with protagonists from marginalised backgrounds. The speakers argued that these trends are connected to the growth of digital publishing, which opens up international and more diverse markets, and crucially helps more experimental or unusual genre titles to circulate beyond what are often conservative local markets.

The rise in digital reading has also seen an increased prominence of backlist titles on sales lists – 80% of Voyager’s sales, for example, are now from this long tail. These backlist titles often gain traction as a result of sudden, unexpected surges or drops in popularity of specific sub-genres, such as paranormal romance and rural romance.


Writing might be a solitary activity, but it requires the support of strong networks of peers. The second panel, ‘Genre Communities: How Is Popular Fiction Organised and Supported?’ was chaired by Lisa Fletcher, and featured romance author Anne Gracie, speculative-fiction author Jack Dann, and crime author Angela Savage. Each author spoke to the importance of different socially and textually constituted communities in defining and supporting the authors within their genre, as well as the value provided by more mainstream groups like the Australian Society of Authors.

Romance Writers Australia is notable for its 1000-strong membership, as well as for the support it provides through both online and offline channels. Gracie also spoke to the role that the organisation Novelists, Inc. plays in the romance community, particularly in the way it positions novel-writing as professionalised and career-driven. Dann discussed the important work done by trade magazines such as Locus in providing a venue for established and emerging science-fiction writers, but also in engaging science fiction and fantasy readers and writers around a key publication. In addition to professional organisations like Science Fiction Writers Australia, the other characteristic gathering points for the speculative fiction community are unsurprisingly conventions and associated trade fairs. These are places where writers and fans converge. By contrast, Gracie emphasised that some members of the Australian Romance Readers Association, although highly involved in the broader romance community, are often reluctant to come to RWA conferences. They don’t want to ruin the ‘magic’ of their reading experience by hearing craft-talk.

Adding to this conversation, Savage discussed the important role played by the organisation Sisters in Crime, which offered her a supportive, feminist crime-writing community (and a community of which Gracie, incidentally, is also a member). She also emphasised the deliberately politic, promotional and inclusive decisions made by the Sisters, commenting humorously that, ‘The women at Sisters in Crime chose a writer – Ellen Davitt – to name their awards. The men at ACWA (Australian Crime Writers Association) chose Ned Kelly’.

Alongside publishers, these communities also play a crucial genre-defining role. Publishers apply genre labels as marketing categories, while booksellers use them to decide which shelf to place a book on. Writers turn to these communities to find out what a genre actually is once they discover they’re writing in it. They’re important in bringing together readers and writers to decide what those genres entail, particularly so in a post-digital world where physical shelves in a bookstore hold less weight.


Who really decides what gets read – the critics, or the market? The third panel was called ‘Systems of Value: Gatekeepers, Critics, and Popular Fiction’. Chaired by Ken Gelder, the speakers were romance reviewer Kat Mayo, fantasy author Rjurik Davidson, and crime author Adrian McKinty.

Mayo is an avid reader of romance, and spoke to the way that this encourages her to write ‘from a position of sincere appreciation’. Further exploring the role that gatekeepers play as advocates, perhaps particularly when invested in genres, McKinty talked about the differences between punching up – giving a bad review to a Stephen King novel, for example – and punching down – giving one to a debut writer. This kind of personal investment also produces ambivalent feelings, with writers wanting to see success and the best possible writing within their genres, but feeling frustrated when these kinds of standards are not met.

This lead to a discussion of the commercial imperatives of popular fiction publishing. With the emphasis on ‘popular’, the market becomes the primary gatekeeper for popular fiction. Frantic publishing schedules leave writers with little time to enrich their work. This also often leads publishers and writers to make conservative decisions – as Davidson remarked, this explains the proliferation of plots centred on ‘the Destiny of the Kitchen-Boy’. But it’s a fine line. Familiarity is an important part of many readers’ experiences: a certain degree of repetition (when combined with a captivating story and some good writing) ensures the contract between the reader and the genre is fulfilled, and also promotes a sense of genre community through establishing shared knowledge. In Mayo’s words, ‘Any romance reader will know what it means when a hero smirks. He’s hot, but grumpy’.

Discussing the structural tensions in each of these genre spaces also led to a discussion of class politics. Contemporary crime fiction does important work in representing diverse social and class backgrounds. It introduces poor and working class characters to readers, while literary fiction is often regarded as middle or upper middle class in focus. But despite the established genre tropes, McKinty suggested there doesn’t always need to be a body on page forty-five – and he called for more crime novels investigating the minor crimes of everyday life, like bicycle thefts and plagiarism.

With the increasing growth of books that break down boundaries, open up new sub-spaces and challenge established conventions, reviewers of genre fiction need to be adaptable and open-minded. As Davidson put it, ‘Genres aren’t really boxes. They’re cords that run through a novel. Something can be crime, sci-fi and fantasy all at once’.

Writing Craft

Writers don’t choose genres – the genres choose them. But how does this happen? The final panel, chaired by Kim Wilkins, was titled ‘Breaking Through: Crafting a Career as a Popular Fiction Writer’, and featured romance author Anne Gracie, fantasy author Angela Slatter, and crime author Candice Fox.

Writing Craft Panel, L-R: Angela Slatter, Anne Gracie, Candice Fox and Kim Wilkins

Each author offered personal accounts of the way she came to write in her genre and the way she crafted her work. When Fox was at school, all of her friends were reading Narnia books – but she was reading true crime. Gracie turned to a life of romance after deciding her great literary masterpiece wouldn’t make any money. Slatter was exposed to everything from a young age, from fairytales, to horror, to autopsy reports. Her place in fantasy clicked when she found herself rewriting ‘The Little Match Girl’ on a cocktail napkin.

Everyone agreed on the importance of wide reading, of honest feedback, and of experienced teachers and mentors. They also agreed that a certain level of plotting and planning was helpful in avoiding anxiety, but equally that an unplanned or only semi-structured approach might lead to better writing, allowing them to follow the lead of their characters. Slatter’s writing process begins with a draft that directly retells a fairy tale, followed by a more personalised second draft. Gracie focuses on combining historical detail with compelling characterisations. Fox pumps friends, family, and even her personal trainer, for expected plot developments – and then makes sure to defy those expectations.

Asked what advice they would give themselves when first starting out, Gracie spoke to the importance of joining writing communities from the word ‘go’. Fox made the mistake of reading negative reviews of her work online, and Slatter cautioned against writers restricting themselves to an Australian market. What is the best things about writing? For Fox, ‘Being a successful writer has given me permission to be who I always really was’. And for Gracie: ‘When writing is going well, I lose big chunks of time. When it’s not, I live a whole week before lunch’.

Afterword: Battle of the Genres

After the serious day’s talk, it was time for drinks, nibbles, and a less serious debate. The topic: ‘In the Battle of the Genres, Romance Will Always Win’. Team Romance featured Kathryn Tafra, Adrian McKinty and Anne Gracie, and Team Other Genres Kara Liddell, Kim Wilkins and Kate Cuthbert.

Thoughts from TEAM ROMANCE:

‘Romance does not battle. We are lovers, not fighters. Besides, we outsell the other genres’.

‘Statistics show that romance writers and readers have better sex’.

‘Crime fiction writers will tell you the oldest story is Cane and Abel. Of course, this is not true – the oldest story is Adam and Eve, a romance’.

‘Romance does not always win. But women always win. Romance has just sided with women a lot’.

Thoughts from TEAM OTHER GENRES:

‘Genre fiction is known for plot, and for conflict. Romance doesn’t have plot or conflict – therefore it’s not even a genre!’

‘No matter how great the romance, someone is still going to die alone’.

‘You don’t need to blow out other people’s candles to make yours burn brighter’.

With watertight arguments like these, it’s no wonder that the debate was a tie. And clearly the true winners of the day were team Genre Worlds. But it seems appropriate to end with a quote borrowed from the romance writers: ‘There’s something good about going home to an attractive lover, clean dishes, and a happy ending’.

Xavier Le Roy and Scarlet Yu’s, Temporary Title 2015: A Short Reflection

2015-11-19 15.05.59On Thursday 19th November I attended an open rehearsal at Carriageworks in Sydney, showcasing Xavier Le Roy and Scarlet Yu’s, Temporary Title 2015. As part of Kaldor Public Art Projects 31, participants were invited to watch some of the rehearsal process and reflect on their experiences. This is my reflection…

Temporary Title 2015: Human and Animal.

In his philosophical work, The Open: Man and Animal (2004) Giorgio Agamben describes an image from a 13th Century Hebrew Bible: ‘In the centre are the seven heavens, the moon, the sun, and the stars, and in the corners, standing out from the blue background, are the four eschatological animals: the cock, the eagle, the ox, and the lion’ (Agamben 2004, 1). He continues, ‘The last page (136r) is divided into halves. The upper half represents the three primeval animals: the bird Ziz (in the form of a winged griffin), the ox Behemoth, and the great fish Leviathan, immersed in the sea and coiled upon itself’ (Agamben 2004, 1). The image is taken from a miniature titled, ‘The Feast of the Righteous’; it shows a group of not- quite- human or not- quite-animal figures standing at a long table laden with food. Agamben seems to suggest that the feast of the righteous performatively realises the beginning of the end of human history, perhaps the uncoiling of the fleshy temporality suggested in the primeval body of the fishy Leviathan. Of course the Leviathan image remerges in Hobbes as the symbol of an incorporated humanity, or rather an entity that absorbs the bodies of the many and constitutes them into one, massive, political body.

The ‘conclusion of human history’ is depicted as a grand banquet where half human half animal figures feast on the meat of the Leviathan and Behemoth. By consuming these symbolic meats, the figures are liberated from structures of human embodiment, space and time. Here, Agamben returns to a motif of the in-human/non-human; an expression of ‘life’ outside the bounds of human history, speech and law. It is a motif I projected onto the dramaturgy of Xavier Le Roy and Scarlet Yu’s latest collaboration in Sydney, Temporary Title 2015.

…beneath the crowns, the miniaturist has represented the righteous not with human faces, but with unmistakably animal heads…Why are representatives of concluded humanity depicted with animal heads? (Agamben 2004, 2)

Temporary Title: The Emergence of the “human” through acts of speech .

In the middle of the room was a mound of bodies. It was difficult to discern one limb from another. The mound of bodies resembled a tangle of snakes or spit fires coiled together. Limbs writhed and torsos strained. The image was also a beginning of life image, molecular or cell-like. There was a sense of the internal structure of the body, the lining of a stomach or foetal collection of cells multiplying and gathering. The mound slowly split in two separate parts, a cell dividing at the beginning of ‘life’.

A body then breaks away from the amorphous and sightless mound; a moment of individuation as a person emerges from the fleshy coil. They crawl, their posture is cat -like and they sit with a thump next to two public participants behind me. The individuated body speaks, she asks, ‘May I ask you a question?’ The women are a bit surprised, they answer ‘Yes’. ‘How do you feel about ageing?’ My attention oscillates, moving in and out of this conversation and toward the dispersing bodies in the centre. The conversation behind me has the sense of being both curated, performed, yet is also natural or pedestrian, an accounting of quotidian concerns. Another woman to the left of me is asked the same question, ‘how do you feel about ageing?’ she answers that she’d recently had a baby and that her body had changed. ‘I used to be a performer too but I stopped performing after I had a baby. My body has changed…’ I continue to watch the other naked bodies. The nudity is important it seems, as it suggests some originary state. They are naked and we are clothed; this stops feeling like an imbalance of power and begins to open up another sensation, another vista or horizon. The summer light pouring in through the windows and high concrete walls with the soft, dampening, acoustics of carpet gives an impression of nudity as endless horizon. I feel my awareness stretching beyond the immediate scene.

The bodies are animal like and prowl around the space. More of the performers break away from the sightless group (sightless because their eyes were barely open in the opening choreographic sequence). The other performers asked questions too, different ones. A cacophony of questions and general speech reaches critical mass. The noise and conversation overwhelms the initial choreography. Le Roy later describes this movement as the oscillation between subjectivity and objectivity.

Arriving at speech determines the human, we are told. What is it to speak? It determines the condition through which we might appear as human to the other, but why and might this change? Where speech is censured, buried, disappeared or not recognised, there is a devaluing of the human. Speech is a political event just as it determines our place in the amorphous and yet intimately calculable mass called society. Speech is like a form of ‘drag’; it clothes and disguises the body as “human”. At least, this is how I read the choreography…

I was deep in conversation with a performer, Michael, when I noticed the choreography had changed again. The bodies were dropping to the ground more frequently, like lions after a strenuous kill. They panted and dropped. Some of the animals began to decompose, their legs and arms folding in like a machine running down, perhaps signalling the end of the body and the end of time. My thoughts inevitably turn to the philosophical and political treatises of the 20th century. Here I am thinking of Hannah Arendt’s thesis on the human condition, with its spaces of appearance and fetish for the world forming activities of speech and action. My thoughts turn to Foucault’s appraisal of Greek tragedy and acts of speech, such as parrhésia; parrhésia is a compromised kind of speech – risky, liable and not necessarily “free speech” – but nonetheless affective and charged. Temporary Title offers an opportunity for a close reading of choreography and dramaturgy, which I feel speaks to the philosophical appraisal of what it is to emerge as “human” and why this emergence is understood to coincide with a speaking subjectivity.

I return to the exhibition today…

A version of this reflection also appears on the Kaldor Public Art Projects blog.

Sandra D’Urso

Burning down your own house

UntitledA spoiler alert for people who have not yet seen Jocelyn Moorhouse’s recent film The Dressmaker, an adaptation of Rosalie Ham’s novel published 15 years earlier: it ends with an act of violent retribution, as the returning ‘femme fatale’ heroine Myrtle Dunnage burns her family home (and the rest of the town) to the ground. Interestingly, Ham was born and raised on a farm in Jerilderie, in the Riverina region. Ned Kelly, of course, famously visited Jerilderie in 1879; his Jerilderie Letter promised to visit a similar kind of retribution on ordinary Australians, ‘their property either consumed or confiscated and them theirs and all belonging to them exterminated off the face of the earth…’.

The Dressmaker may not be quite so revolutionary; besides, it is set in the early 1950s, which may explain why it has more in common with A.A. Phillip’s famous essay on the ‘cultural cringe’ than it does with Kelly’s over-heated diatribe. ‘In the back of the Australian mind’, Phillips had written, ‘there sits a minatory [threatening] Englishman’. In The Dressmaker, it’s now a minatory Englishwoman, played by Kate Winslet, who takes on the unsettling, quasi-Gothic role of Phillips’s ‘shadowy figure’. The English Winslet does a ‘perfect’ Australian accent in the film, according to Moorhouse; the character Winslet plays does the complete opposite, leaving Australia to get an English education. When she returns, she’s like a version of Patrick White’s ‘prodigal son’. White’s essay was published in 1958, at the end of The Dressmaker’s decade; bringing its own cultural cringe to bear on Australia, it announced White’s refusal to conform to the ‘dreary dun-coloured’ local literary conventions of social realism. Myrtle does the same sort of thing. Each time she brings out a new dress, the film gets more colourful, and more unhinged.

Coming in the wake of White’s barbed fictional attacks on the ‘average’ Australian, Moorhouse’s film certainly gives us a pretty grim account of the petty-minded resentments of ordinary Australians in a small country town. Whereas White would meander, Moorhouse’s film is relentless. It kills off its characters, one by one: Myrtle’s lover, her mother, the crazy doctor, and so on. It literally evacuates the town at the end, humiliating the occupants, who see everything they’ve worked for go up in smoke.

When Myrtle burns her family home down, she seems exhilarated – and liberated. When a house burns down in Australia, it usually means a bushfire, or perhaps a vengeful arsonist. The unusual thing about The Dressmaker is that, here, the arsonist burns her own home down, and it makes her feel good. No wonder reviewers of this strange, camply exaggerated film felt confused. In the Guardian, Peter Bradshaw thought the ‘final shift of mood’ was ‘horribly jarring and unconvincing’. On the other hand, Jake Wilson in the Age realised that the signs of arson and revenge were already written into Myrtle’s character: her ‘favourite colour’, he notes, ‘evokes both fire and blood’. When a disappointed Matt Neal in the Standard calls the resolution of the film’s ending ‘a misfire’, he seems oblivious to his own witticism.

How many examples are there in Australian literature of characters who burn down their own homes? In colonial writing there are lots of disgruntled swagmen and laid-off labourers who take revenge by setting fire to their employer’s property: think, for example, of Anthony Trollope’s Christmas novel about a paranoid squatter-employer, Harry Heathcote of Gangoil (1874), published just a few years before Ned Kelly visited Jerilderie. Squatters and selectors are often the victims of arson in colonial literature. But do they ever willfully burn their own properties down? Or the properties of those around them?

The only instance of a character I can think of who does exactly this comes much later on, in a story written (uncannily!) by Jocelyn Moorhouse’s namesake, Frank. The Electrical Experience (1974) is a collection of stories about an intrepid local entrepreneur, T. George McDowell, in a small town on the NSW coast. McDowell is a benign version of the petty, resentful characters in The Dressmaker. ‘I was against small mindedness’, he says, ‘but always for small towns’. He believes in local development, and he’s always optimistic. But his daughter Terri is born during a bushfire (‘A post office savings bank burned down….A difficult birth. The sky was black’) and his mistress, a policeman’s widow, is killed by a burning tree as she drives away from the town.

One day a ‘singular event’ changes his perspective on life: ‘the burning-down of the Crowhurst house’. Crowhurst is an accountant who, ill and dying, asks McDowell to do something that completely contradicts his investment in small town growth and development: namely, to set fire to his house. McDowell, the story tells us, ‘went along with the unnatural act that had befallen him’: reluctantly at first, but soon he relishes the task. He douses the house in petrol, strikes a match and watches it burn to the ground, leaving ‘no trace’ of Crowhurst and his family history. ‘Later, George could not remember when his body had been more alive’.

One of my students went to the Burning Seed festival earlier this year, an event held in the Matong State Forest in NSW, about a hundred kilometers north east of Jerilderie. Burning Seed ( replicates the spectacular Burning Man festival in Nevada: but it’s a forest event, not a desert one, and the focus on the ‘seed’ emphasises growth and the possibility of regrowth. Large wooden structures are built, in particular, a wooden effigy and a temple, to form a ‘city’. When the festival draws to a close, participants watch as these structures are ritualistically burnt down and (as the website says) ‘the city disappears again without a trace’. As they enjoy the spectacle, festival participants may very well feel just like T. George McDowell, or Myrtle: more ‘alive’ than they ordinarily are. I thought about Burning Seed at the end of The Dressmaker: all those wooden structures (built specially for the film?) set alight and going up in smoke. But the film is also the opposite of the festival. There is no ‘again’ to look forward to when it’s all over: when Myrtle takes the train to Melbourne (and then back to Europe) at the end, it’s pretty clear that minatory Englishwoman isn’t coming back.


‘Modern-day bushrangers’

How modern is the Australian bushranger? Or rather: how archaic? This question has come up recently as police try to find Gino and Mark Stocco, a father and his son from Queensland who have been on the run in country Victoria and New South Wales for some considerable time. Stealing cars and petrol, using bush tracks and back roads and living in the bush semi-permanently, these two men might very well recall old Ben Marston and his sons Dick and Jim in Rolf Boldrewood’s Robbery Under Arms. Media reports have called them ‘modern-day bushrangers’; police images of Gino and Mark Stucco show them both wearing long, bushy beards, colonial-style. They shoot at the police, just as Boldrewood’s bushrangers did; and they provoke the police and taunt them. They also work on farms and – when a dispute arises with their employers – they ransack and destroy the properties: more like disgruntled swagmen than bushrangers, perhaps. I read somewhere that the father and son were jailed in 2007 for stealing the identities of other people in order to travel on a luxury yacht. The colonial bushranger was also a stealer of other people’s identities: think of Boldrewood’s Captain Starlight, or E. W. Hornung’s Stingaree (who even impersonates the N.S.W. detective who is trying to apprehend him).

George E. Boxall’s History of the Australian Bushrangers (1899) had thought that bushranging ended with the nineteenth century: it couldn’t be modern. ‘It was’, he wrote, ‘rather an excrescence on, than a development of Australian character….it is extremely improbable that there will ever again be a Frank Gardiner or a Ned Kelly to incite the young and thoughtless to deeds of violence’. But the bushranger – like colonialism itself – generates a prolonged aftermath, a series of residual effects that last for a surprisingly long time: right into the present day. In Boldrewood’s novel, Dick and Jim distance themselves from their father to make the point that he is an old bushranger, someone who did things differently: leaving his wife without a second thought, abandoning his farm and family to live (often alone) in the bush, and slowly losing his influence over his sons. To underline the point that he is a relic of times past, Ben Marston dies towards the end of the novel, while Dick lives on and gets a second chance. Boldrewood is a bit like Boxall: the bushranger cannot persist and younger Australians have to have a positive future.

But no one yet has drawn much of a distinction between Gino and Mark Stucco. It’s as if father and son are exactly the same, doing everything together, carrying on in the same way. Who is influencing who here? A report on them in the Australian turned instead to the grandfather, who confessed that he was ‘disappointed’ in his son and his grandson, but added: ‘I can’t say anything’. The same report noted that Mark Stucco once robbed his own mother. So far, the mother has also kept quiet – just like Dick’s mother in Boldrewood’s novel, who barely says a word. There really is something weirdly colonial about the Stuccos. In Robbery Under Arms, the bushrangers enjoy reading about themselves in the newspapers. Starlight seems to subscribe to all the country papers and reads them out, one by one, relishing the reports of police incompetence. Perhaps the Stuccos are doing the same as they circle teasingly around the places colonial bushrangers – real and fictional – once inhabited.

A bushranger is devoured by an eagle

In Thomas McCombie’s Adventures of a Colonist; or, Godfrey Arabin, The Settler (1845) an ‘outlandish settler’ is mistaken for a bushranger; but he puts his audience’s anxieties to rest by reassuring them that, now ‘the majority of the Colonials are free’, bushranging ‘will soon be out of date’. As we know, of course, bushrangers played out their careers right through the 19th century, even as commentators kept insisting that the colonies had seen the last of them. Even so, by 1845 bushrangers could be regarded as part of ‘the old days’. In this respect, they functioned as something archaic that seemed to persist against the odds, a relic or residue that didn’t go away.

In his excellent book Van Diemen’s Land: A History (2008), James Boyce discusses one of the earliest bushrangers, Michael Howe: ‘the only Australian bushranger’, he writes, ‘to pose a genuine alternative to the colonial government’s political authority’. The first book of ‘general literature’ to be published in Australia was Thomas Wells’s 1818 account of Howe, ‘the last and worst of the bushrangers of Van Diemen’s Land’. He may been the worst, but he certainly wasn’t the last. In Old Tales of a Young Country (1871), Marcus Clarke read a copy of Wells’s ‘wonderful work’, a ‘dirty little pamphlet of 36 pages’. After committing many crimes, Howe is pursued deep into the Tasmanian forests where, alone and trying to survive, he becomes delirious. ‘He kept a journal of his dreams’, Clarke writes, ‘a journal written with blood, on kangaroo skin’. Making his way into the mountains, he intrudes into ‘the rocky home of hermit eagles’ – Tasmanian wedge-tailed eagles, presumably. Here, Howe sits in the midst of ‘some of the sublimest scenes of nature…a lonely bushranger…confronted with his God and his own conscience’.

Not long after McCombie’s novel, Charles Rowcroft published The Bushranger of Van Diemen’s Land (1846) in London. His bushranger protagonist is Mark Brandon, a handsome, almost gentlemanly figure: a precursor to Rolf Boldrewood’s Captain Starlight and E.W. Hornung’s Stingaree. But Brandon becomes increasingly ruthless, and desperate. Killing a trooper, he flees deep into the bush. In his delirium, he eats a raw kangaroo rat. Like Howe, he determines to write an account of his life in his own blood. ‘He cast his eyes about for something to make a mark with; and he spied, sticking up by the side of the platform, a feather from an eagle’s wing’. As he bleeds and writes, alone in the mountains, he barely notices a shadow passing across the sun above him. When trackers discover him not long afterwards, a ‘great eagle’ is devouring him.

Michael Howe had managed to live successfully for a while in the bush, a nomadic but well-organised, competent man. The term ‘bush ranger’ suggests the ability to move freely through the bush, but also to respect it, or even manage it (rather like ‘park ranger’). In Rowcroft’s novel, Braddon is so in tune with the bush that native species come to define him: he is ‘quick as a bandicoot’, ‘cunning as a platypus’. Boldrewood did the same thing later on with Dick Marston in Robbery Under Arms (1882-83): Marston ‘can swim like a musk-duck’, he is ‘as active as a rock-wallaby’, and so on. But in Rowcroft’s novel, Braddon’s crimes and ego finally overtake him: he disturbs the bush ecology and brings it angrily (and literally) down upon him precisely at the moment when he begins to write his own history.

Colonial Australian detectives

What is the difference between police and detectives in colonial Australia? A quick look at Rolf Boldrewood’s bushranger novel Robbery Under Arms (serialized 1882-83) can give us, as it were, a clue. This novel is set in the 1840s and 1850s, just as the colonial detective is emerging as a recognizable local type. As Dick Marston, Captain Starlight and other bushrangers rob and plunder the colonies, newspapers routinely complain about the inability of police to protect colonial wealth and property. One local journalist remarks, ‘We have always regarded the present system – facetiously called police protection – as a farce’; on the other hand, from the bushrangers’ perspective ‘[t]he whole place seemed to be alive with police’ and the country is ‘thick with police stations’. The police are supposed to protect settler colonials from crime, but they fail to do so. On the other hand, the police are everywhere, reflecting the sense that colonial Australia developed first and foremost (and rapidly) as a panopticon.

When Starlight and Marston are arrested early on, the latter observes: ‘Detectives and constables would seem to be pretty thick in the colonies’. The novel’s key policeman is senior constable Goring, an ambitious man (‘he was sure to be promoted’) who arrests Marston at his homestead. But there is also a detective, who follows Starlight to New Zealand, apprehends him and testifies against him in court. ‘My name is Stephen Stillbrook…’, he begins, in the only speech he ever makes in the novel. But although he appears briefly – rather like Mr Bucket in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House – Stillbrook makes an extraordinary impression on Marston, the novel’s narrator: “A quiet, oldish-looking man got up now and came forward to the witness box. I didn’t know who he was; but Starlight nodded to him quite pleasant. He had a short, close trimmed beard and was one of those nothing-particular-looking old chaps. I’m blessed if I could have told what he was. He might have been a merchant, or a squatter, or a head-clerk, or a wine merchant, or a broker, or lived in the town, or lived in the country. Any of half-a-dozen trades would suit him. The only thing that was out of the common was his eyes. They had a sort of curious way of looking at you, as if he wondered whether you was speaking true, and yet seein’ nothing and tellin’ nothing. He regular took in Starlight (he told me afterwards) by always talking about the China Seas; he’d been there, it seems; he’d been everywhere…”.

A policeman is always a policeman; but a detective’s identity is much more fluid and mutable, as if all sorts of different, unrelated colonial character types could be projected onto him. A policeman is also local, whereas Stillbrook has (‘it seems’) been ‘everywhere’: a feature he shares with the ‘great criminal’ Starlight himself, who had ‘been all over the world’. This is where we see the differences between police and detectives in colonial Australia – in the literature of the period – playing out. Police are ubiquitous, but local and alike; they fail not least because they are so easily identified. But the colonial detective could be anyone (‘a merchant or a squatter’, etc.); his distinction lies in the fact that there is nothing distinctive about him at all (‘one of those nothing-particular-looking old chaps’); and he is already part of a transcolonial, even global, network of investigation.

Marking time with Marina Abramović in Sydney, Australia (2015).

Marinaface facilitators marinapromo

In July 2015 I participated in three-days of training in the Abramović Method, which was led by Marina’s artistic collaborator Lynsey Peisinger. The Abramović Method is comprised of a series of meditation-like exercises intended for the curriculum at the Marina Abramović Institute (MAI). The three day training resulted in a 2 week durational performance and artist residency called Marina Abramović: In Residence (2015) situated on the wharf not far from scenic and iconic Circular Quay in Sydney. Over the course of the three days we were asked to slow-walk for lengthy and sustained periods, covering just a few metres of ground each time. We were asked to separate and count mounds of rice and lentils. Other exercises included sitting still and staring at a block of colour on the wall or alternatively sitting opposite another person and gazing into their eyes without moving or blinking.  We were asked to limit our talking and to restrict our eating during the day. The three day training in the Abramović Method was to equip us with the skills to undertake two weeks of facilitation for the In Residence project on the wharf. This project has already travelled to London, Sao Paulo in Brazil, Sydney and there are plans for it to travel to China and Iceland.

The Sydney iteration of Marina Abramović: In Residence was hosted by John Kaldor – long-time philanthropist of the arts – and follows on from the internationally acclaimed 13 Rooms (2013), which also featured a delegated performance work conceived by Abramović. In Residence was comprised of two projects; one was a residency where 12 artists were asked to live on site at the pier developing their ideas whilst engaging in the Abramović Method. The artists lived and slept in cubes or cells, as Marina referred to them, lightly furnished with a bed and lamp. The second part of In Residence was the participatory event in which 52 facilitators – of which I was one –  would help silently move and encourage the public to engage in the activities that define the Method; the slow-walk, energy-platforms; mutual gazing, colour gazing and sleeping in beds. Over the course of the 2 weeks the 52 facilitators had silently held the hands of around 40,000 members of the public; walked with them, gazed into their eyes, tucked them into beds and stood with them hand-in hand on ‘energy platforms’.

Photo courtesy of Sandy Edwards


In hindsight, the labour intensive nature of the work seems central to the aesthetic operation of the project and raises some interesting questions about the relation of art to labour and categories of human action; Is this work or is it art, is it art-work or work as art? Can it be all of these? Some other questions include: What are the aesthetic and institutional apparatuses that drive such a project? What might emerge from a study that tracks the influence of the Abramović Method on performance aesthetics in a trans-national context, whilst also being particularly attuned to the Australian and Asia-pacific context?

The reception of In Residence was largely positive with participants reporting that they felt ‘transformed’, ‘elated’ or ‘lost for words’. In conversation, one young man said to me that he’d forgotten what it was like to be tucked into bed and how incredibly moving it was. Another expressed that they attended In Residence on the strength of Lady Gaga’s endorsement of Marina.  They were curious about the exhibition and weren’t expecting the level of care and intimacy experienced in performing these simple exercises with the facilitators. Others were astounded that they’d spent so much time in the exhibition, reporting they intended to stay for an hour but had become so immersed that they stayed for 3 or 4 hours.

The participants were expected to leave behind any electronic devices that could show the time including watches and mobile phones. The disorientation produced by not knowing the time was a common thread in the reporting of experiences by the public. Other experiences were slightly more traumatic. One person was reminded of the day her mother was first institutionalised in an asylum because of the strangeness of people slow walking and lying motionless in beds. A Brazilian woman was confronted when she saw the rows of people willingly separating rice and lentils. This had the unwitting effect of transporting her to childhood memories of an unkind family cook who would force her and her brother to sort lentils as punishment.  Others admitted that they felt haunted by the spectres of forced labour camps. These stories, memories and affecting recollections would emerge and circulate during the two weeks of the exhibition as people documented their thoughts and shared their feelings with the facilitators.

Perhaps the most intimate of all the exercises included carefully tucking strangers into bed. There were around 50 camper beds arranged in rows creating a paradoxical scene of somnambulist industry as facilitator’s stewarded people in and out of the covers. I asked myself, who would come to an art event and sleep?  Many did and so did I in the end. Some of the strangers mouthed a quiet or teary ‘thank-you’ as I tucked the covers around the contours of arms and legs, others laughed hysterically finding it infantilizing and others still cried uncontrollably as the intimacy of the act was too much to bear.

Photo courtesy of Sandy Edwards

Over the course of the two weeks around 40,000 people moved through the exhibition, repeating the same actions, marking time across the draughty and uneven floor of the wharf. Some were deeply moved by the exercises, or otherwise disturbed and responded by crying, shaking, slapping their legs or worse still, fainting. Some resisted by wilfully straying from what they felt was coercion to behave in a certain way or enacted creative flourishes and interpretations of the exercises. Some participants resisted the space by running, gesturing wildly, handing out pamphlets warning the perils of conformity, or otherwise making “irreverent” gestures; often intending to break the ambient temporality of the wharf, or alternatively disturbing the mood unintentionally by other means.

As well as the human players it also seemed that the draughty walls of the old wharf performed with timely streams of sunlight, gusts of wind and olfactory assaults by ushering in smells of ocean bound sewerage. Most of the public dutifully performed the tasks and some were overcome with desperation, hoping to get a glimpse of Marina. They betrayed their intentions through distracted side-ways glances and furtive movements toward the ‘presence of the artist’. Repeatedly performing the tasks over two-weeks began to have a strange effect on my sense of time and body in space, creating a proprioceptive warp that was both disturbing and seductive.

Photo courtesy of Sandy Edwards

I would intermittently think to myself, ‘what am I doing here? What is the meaning and economy of this very strange labour, at once intimate, compelling, and yet splintering and divisive? Who is this stranger and how odd to stare so attentively into their face, their eyes, without ill consequence. A sense of the uncanny crept in, a kind of unnerving double play on my part of being In Residence – suggestive of the ‘oikos’ as the Greeks called it, or the economy of ‘keeping house’ – but also away from home. I live in Melbourne with my three school aged children and travelled to Sydney to be a facilitator in this project. So much of my work at home is gendered domestic labour and what a strange predicament that I should be paid to be repeating these tasks as an act of art; repeating the same making of beds, same caressing of faces and holding of hands ordinarily reserved for the private spaces and people of home. I felt moments of rapture In Residence and the transformative potential of being there. I felt lost, moved and at times bodiless. I also felt the claustrophobic pall of re-performing the banal and libidinal labours of ‘oikos’ or the home; the miring and discipline of the body required in the act of being Resident for nobody in particular and everybody specifically.

As I slow walked or gazed away the hours and days beside the bodies of strangers and fellow facilitator’s I began to succumb to an idea that the bodies moving slowly around me formed a kind of Leviathan– a finely balanced assemblage of muscles, delicate gestures and quiet intentions. Managing the fragile yet well- hedged ecology of this massive art work proved increasingly difficult as exhaustion set-in and as the numbers of participants grew towards the end of the exhibition. Yet In Residence was by many accounts successful and the after-image of the wharf and its temporary ‘oikos’ of strangers doing strange things remains as a kind of inspiration.

Sandra D’Urso