The Online Journal of Contour biennale

May 19 2016

Dear Attorney General So-and-So, Correspondence Series #2

By Elizabeth A. Povinelli

Northern Territory Law Reform Committee

Department of the Attorney-General and Justice

Darwin, NT 0801, Australia


8 May 2016


Dear Madame So-and-So,

I am writing in reference to your inquiries apropos of my letter (15 September 2015) in which I responded to your colleague in Lands, Planning and the Environment. As you may be aware, he wished to know the genre of the Karrabing Film Collective’s film, Windjarrameru, The Stealing C*nt$ (2014), and more specifically whether Windjarrameru was a documentary or fiction film. If the former, he asked, what tracks of land were we claiming to be toxically contaminated and who was responsible; were the Karrabing Collective planning to lodge a formal request for an investigation into the inappropriate disposal of toxic waste; and if we were not planning to request an investigation, what was our intention in making the films?

As I stated in my previous letter, Windjarrameru tells the story of a group of young Indigenous men hiding in a chemically contaminated swamp after being falsely accused of stealing two cartons of beer, while all around them miners are wrecking and polluting their land. Alongside the four young men accused, the film casts Karrabing members as two local Indigenous Land and Sea Rangers, three police, two middle managers of the Windjarra Mining Corporation, whose slightly corny corporate slogan is ‘We Dig You’, and two Indigenous men taking bribes from the miners to expedite illegal blasting near a sacred site in order to pay off their crushing police fines. While Windjarrameru is screened as fiction, I can understand why your colleague was confused given it may be better described as hyper- or improvisational realism.11M. Angelotti, ‘Interviews: Karrabing Film Collective’, Domus, 18 December 2015, http://www.domusweb.it/en/interviews/2015/12/18/visible_award_2015_the_karrabing_film_collective.html (accessed 10 May 2016). The landscape some 20 kilometres south of where we shot the film is pocked with old, mainly tin, mines: Lees Mine, Hang Gong Landing Mine, Mugs Find Mine, Jewellers Mine, Mammoth Mine, Kettle Mine and Bp 2 Mine, just to name a few. And, as you note, the Federal Department of Finance document (‘Cox Peninsula Remediation Project’, December 2014) submitted to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works notes:

2. The Commonwealth has utilised 4,750 hectares of land on the Cox Peninsula for maritime, communications, and Defence [sic] purposes for 70 years, resulting in extensive contamination across a wide area both below and at ground level. Asbestos is widespread and pesticides, heavy metals and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) have been detected above safe levels at a number of sites on Cox Peninsula. This presents a potential health risk to site users and the local Indigenous community.

3. The waste which is present on Section 32, 34 and 41 ranges from inert and stable, to highly hazardous and potentially mobile. Asbestos is widespread and pesticides, heavy metals and PCBs have been detected above levels that present a health risk to site users and the local Indigenous community.

My understanding of your legal request is that we clarify the meaning of a phrase I used in my previous correspondence, ‘toxic sovereignty’, and what, if any, legal assertion I am making by way of this phrase. I should start by saying that, although I am a member of the collective, and the director of our last few films, the use of ‘toxic sovereignty’ is my own translation of the analytics of the three Karrabing films that make up the ‘Intervention Trilogy’ (When the Dogs Talked (2014), Windjarrameru, The Stealing C*nt$ (2015) and Wutharr, Saltwater Dreams (2016)). You will note that I write ‘analytics’ rather than ‘culture’. This is because the films are not only geared to representing contemporary Indigenous lifeworlds but also, and perhaps primarily, about examining structures of contemporary late liberal settler governance. Let me explain how the analytics of these films relate to the concept of toxic sovereignty. Hopefully this might suggest the legal and justice claims embedded within it.

The phrase ‘toxic sovereignty’ refers to two modes of settler governance that have attempted to condition Indigenous lifeworlds, lands and imaginaries. The first mode was explored most explicitly in the first film, When Dogs Talked, and is primarily known under the name of self-determination and cultural recognition. As your committee is well aware, the mid 1970s through the mid 2000s were defined by the federal Aboriginal Lands Rights Act which granted Indigenous groups in the Northern Territory the right to lay claim over their own lands provided (a) these lands had not already been alienated over the long course of settler colonization and (b) that the claimants fit a narrow anthropological and legal definition of the ‘traditional Aboriginal owner’. Many Indigenous persons and communities vociferously disagreed with this settler model of their relations to land and argued that the celebration of self-determination was a settler fantasy. Indigenous people were never free to determine their political status and pursue their economic, social and cultural development. Indeed the major effect, if not intention, of heritage and land rights legislation was to contain a more radical future demanding Indigenous persons conform to a specific social and anthropological fantasy of what they were prior to the settler colonial invasion. Aileen Moreton-Robinson has relentlessly probed how state practices such as self-determination, land legislation and reconciliation are tied to original and ongoing acts of dispossession.22A. Moreton-Robinson, The White Possessive, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015. Throughout the Northern Territory numerous communities and families have been torn apart by the state demand that they differentiate themselves on the basis of a white imaginary.

By the time the Karrabing Collective were filming When the Dogs Talked, we were seven years into ‘the Intervention’ (the Northern Territory Emergency Response). I will not detail here the contours of this sex-panic-driven catastrophe because all of us know the score: the prohibition of alcohol and pornography; the compulsory leasing of Indigenous land; the military intervention; the diversion of most of the funding outside the communities to which it was allocated; the sequestering of income; the heavy police fines financially crippling people already at the lowest end of the income spectrum. From the point of view of many Indigenous people in the Northern Territory, the ultimate aim of the Intervention was a new round of land dispossession for an expanding mining section. (Indeed, Windjarrameru makes reference to the recent decision in Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority v OM (Manganese) Ltd (2013) in which the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority (AAPA) brought the case against OM Manganese Ltd, a subsidiary of OM Holdings, for deliberating damaging an Indigenous sacred site, Two Women Sitting Down, at its Bootu Creek Manganese Mine.) The Karrabing Collective was itself born at the intersection between the ideology of self-determination and the panic of the Intervention, as a refusal to succumb to either. Karrabing instead emphasizes historical and emergent intimate kinship obligations that connect people across territories. Indeed, karrabing does not refer to a place or a clan, but is the Emmiyengal term for the tide at its lowest. Many things are possible during this moment. Reefs are exposed, as are mangrove beds. People can travel across when before they could not.

When the Dogs Talked narratively examines sovereignty at the intersection of so-called recognition and intervention. Trailers summarize the film in this way: As a group of Indigenous adults argue about whether to save their government housing or their sacred landscape, their children struggle to decide how the ancestral Dreaming makes sense in their contemporary lives. Listening to music on their iPods, walking though bush lands and boating across seas, they follow their parents on a journey to re-enact the travel of the Dog Dreaming. Along the way individuals run out of stamina and boats out of gas, and the children press their parents and each other about why these stories matter and how they make sense in the context of Western understandings of evolution, the soundscapes of hip hop and the technologies of land development. In this context the modification of ‘sovereignty’ with the adjective ‘toxic’ is meant to foreground the doubled dosage of poisoned state-based ‘freedoms’: the freedom to be sovereign over their country as long as that sovereignty is in a form the state demands and the freedom to be an underclass within settler neo-liberalism. These forms of sovereignty continually interrupt the composition of Indigenous worlds, their endurance and their creative recompositions in the wake of yet another form of dispossession. These sovereign pills are laced with poison and so the Karrabing try not to swallow them.

But the Karrabing also attempt to face the consequences of not swallowing as they seek an alternative to the either/or of the traditional/modern, cultural difference/Intervention choice they have been handed. For instance, in Wutharr, Saltwater Dreams an extended indigenous family argues about what caused their boat’s motor to break down and leave them stranded out bush. Using the narrative technique of flashbacks, the film tries to convey the exhausting vortex that opens at the intersection of the incommensurate demands of the ancestral present, the regulatory state and the Christian faith, between the resources one has and what one needs to get done with them, and where almost no space exists between the multiple realities that constitute everyday life. One tries to appease the ancestors but must do so with third- and fourth-hand boats and motors which, when they break down, winds one into the regulatory state ready and waiting with a set of quality of life fines. Not succumbing is hard. Film-making is an activity that allows the Karrabing to act out as they analyse their world and in this sense is an act of ‘survivance’. As Gerard Viznor notes, ‘Survivance is an active sense of presence, the continuance of native stories, not a mere reaction, or a survivable name. Native survivance stories are renunciations of dominance, tragedy and victimry’.33G. Vizenor, Manifest Manners: Narratives on Postindian Survivance, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999, p. vii.

State form of recognition and Intervention is not the only form of toxic sovereignty probed in Karrabing’s films. Another takes us more literally into the meaning of toxicity. It is this second form of toxic sovereignty that centres Windjarrameru. Two scenes hammer this home.44See my text: ‘Windjarrameru, The Stealing C*nts’, e-flux journal 56th Venice Biennale, 21 May 2015, http://supercommunity.e-flux.com/texts/windjarrameru-the-stealing-c-nts/ (accessed 10 May 2016). As I noted above, Windjarrameru revolves around a group of young Indigenous men hiding in a chemically contaminated swamp after being falsely accused of stealing two cartons of beer, while all around them miners are wrecking and polluting their land. The scene I want to focus on was shot inside the contaminated swamp. The four young men are monitoring the police lest they try to raid their hideout. I am standing there with Daryl Lane, Kelvin Bigfoot, Reggie Jorrock, Marcus Jorrock, Gavin Bianamu and our small film crew. I remind Reggie to lean through a tangle of roots and look worried – as if the police might, at any minute, raid their hideout. Kelvin was tasked with reassuring Reggie that the police would not charge in. Kelvin asked his uncle, Daryl, and me, ‘What should I say?’ We replied, ‘We don’t know. What would you say in this kind of situation?’ After a beat, Kelvin turned to Reggie and said, ‘Don’t worry, RJ. They won’t come in here. We’re safe, too much radiation here. We’re safe.’ And when Reggie’s brother, Marcos, says in response, ‘I don’t want to die here!’ Kelvin replies, ‘Hey, our grandfathers died here first, we can die here after.’

On set and then watching the rushes and the edits as they emerged over the course of the next eight months, various Karrabing members paused, laughed, nodded, guffawed, but most agreed that what Kelvin said was true even as this truth has no place in sense. In other words, his statement was diagnostic if not prognostic – or perhaps the prognosis is a form of survivance in which survival does not quite fit into the picture. Indigenous sovereignty over space fully re-emerges in the void of utter state abandonment and total capital despoilment. The men’s grandparents did die there first during the grinding contagion of settler colonialism, then re-emerged as nyudj [ancestral spirits]. Their gifts are within, and emerge through, the materialities of the place; they are not abstracted from or abstractions of it. Time contracts and moves through this material. Present action is constantly circulated through and assessed by black and white state representations and public fantasies about ‘traditional’ versus modern practices, even as ancestral creatures and their sacred areas (Dreamings, durlg, therrawen) are being decomposed for their mineral content and recomposed as composites of crushed beer cans, plastics, wire and chemical effluents. Kelvin tells Reggie they are sovereign over this place because this place is becoming something that expels those who have caused it to be in this radioactive form. This, everyone says, is true. But no one knows what results from this truth – that Indigenous sovereignty safely emerges in the corrupted and corroded areas of late liberal capital and governance, that sovereignty now thrives where Europeans have come, destroyed and are fearful of returning but to which the Karrabing continue to hold on. No one can foresee what forms of existence can be held onto, which ones reshaped in this milieu – themselves included – in this small pocket of corruption.

The second scene comes soon after. The two Karrabing Rangers who had been spying on the corrupt miners are sitting on one of the old concrete artillery platforms at West Point. Sitting next to them are three middle-aged and one older woman tapping on a collection of old credit-card readers. Everyone’s faces are painted with white clay. The younger ranger asks the old ranger, ‘What happened to this place?’ The older ranger responds that the washed out, slightly irradiated feel of the place is the result of all the little waves. ‘What about the Big Wave?’ the younger ranger asks. ‘What Big Wave? Only all the little waves,’ the older ranger responds, using her hands to simulate a rolling tide of little waves. As they talk to each other, four young men are seen running around the platform, carrying metal containers of something, chased by police in hazmat suits. The miners are sealed in protective plastic bubbles. Kelvin’s vision of toxic sovereignty is caught in a never-ending cycle of chasing and being chased, emitting and ingesting toxins others have left, as the condition of Indigenous self-authorization.

I hope this helps make sense of my use of the phrase ‘toxic sovereignty’. The questions you raise about the legal implications of this term might be best answered by way of the term. Insofar as Karrabing’s films foreground the secret poison within the various juridically certified gifts of self-determination they have witnessed over the course of their lives – the gift of land determination as long as they swallow a Western model of kinship, descent, land possession and dispossession; the gift of modernization as long as they swallow a neo-liberal model of capitalization and dispossession – it seems unlikely that the law and its justice will be the address of their understanding.

Elizabeth A. Povinelli

PS. I have appended clips and images from the remediation report so you might have a better sense of the scenic analytics and aesthetics of the films.






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Dear Attorney General So-and-So, Correspondence Series #2

By Elizabeth A. Povinelli