Alternative spaces

The history of the world is surely the story of dispossession and displacement. The two foundational moments of our economic system are rooted in dispossession, with the colonial expropriation of South American riches by the Spanish conquistadors and the enclosure of British common land at the behest of the landed gentry. These moments served to concentrate wealth in fewer hands while simultaneously displacing vast populations into the uncertainty of wage-labour. The radical geographer David Harvey argues that even today ‘accumulation by dispossession’ is one of the key drivers of economic growth: the tracts of empty foreclosed houses in the United States and the commercial redevelopment of Chinese urbanism suggest that a speculative financialisation contains its own logic of physical dispossession.

John Steinbeck’s dramatisation of the journey of Depression-era tenant farmers in The Grapes of Wrath demonstrates the potential universality of the motif of dispossession, with its dramatic tension stemming from the gulf between individual human agency and the broader determinants of our social and economic system, which often appear beyond our ability to alter. The Joads’ predicament is heart-rending in its seeming inevitability, its systemic inescapability. Haven’t we all inherited the world that the Joads could not endure?

The universality of dispossession as both historical fact and contemporary practice should be particularly obvious in Australia. The displacement of Aboriginal society by Europeans is the central historical fact of our existence, the basis for the accumulation of the nation’s wealth. Yet the subject remains one of great discomfort to most Australians. Is it not telling that our favourite film about dispossession doesn’t involve the land’s original inhabitants but rather an Anglo family whose suburban Melbourne home is threatened by airport expansion in The Castle?

The discomfort with the topic is not unique to Australia. The displacement and dispossession inscribed in American slavery remain largely under-represented in American culture, compared to their historical importance and contemporary legacy. Steve McQueen, the British director of the Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave, commented that there have been more movies made about Roman slavery than its American counterpart.

The play Coranderrk (directed by Isaac Drandic) provides one example of the way that art, culture and history can reveal how the seemingly ‘natural order’ of our contemporary situation is produced and imposed. Coranderrk is about the making of a particular world.

The play is based on the true story of an Aboriginal reserve established in 1863 in the colony of Victoria. It was created to settle a disparate group of Indigenous nations and individuals dispossessed of their lands by the European colonisers.

In 1881, a Victorian parliamentary inquiry was established into the management of the Coranderrk station. It heard recorded evidence from the local Indigenous inhabitants keen to resist the station’s closure. Despite all its disadvantages, Coranderrk had developed self-sufficient practices and was successfully producing crops (particularly hops) for the Melbourne market.

On one level, then, Coranderrk is a narrative about survival against the odds, survival in spite of dispossession. For Belvoir Theatre and the ILBIJERRI Theatre Company, the production’s co-producers, this is the importance of this overlooked story from Australian history: ‘[The goal of the Indigenous people of Coranderrk] was both simple and revolutionary: to be allowed to continue the brilliant experiment in self-determination they had pioneered for themselves on the scrap of country left to them.’

Although one might debate the level of self-management (the settlement was still managed by white men, however benevolently), Coranderrk represented a space of alterity, a potential alternative to the dominant colonial narratives of racial inferiority and squatter-led agricultural wealth creation. Within the play, this is rendered clearly in the memorable lines delivered by William Barak (the senior elder, played by Jack Charles), who asks the inquiry why it is their land and not the vast acreages of the squatters that must be broken up for redistribution.

The French social theorist Henri Lefebvre once argued that capitalism survives through the production and abstraction of space. Land must be parcelled up and commodified, emptied of all competing social relations, and turned into an abstract construction for trade, commerce and value creation. The existence of a space governed by other objectives and meanings is problematic for this political and economic production of space as a commodity. So, while the pressure from local land owners to close the Coranderrk settlement was initially resisted at the 1881 inquiry, the closure was ultimately effected by a combination of wilful neglect by the Aboriginal Protection Board and by a change in the law allowing the removal of ‘half-castes under the age of thirty-five’ in 1886. In other words, the intervention by the state voided Coranderrk of its revolutionary potential as a site of difference, a place of complex social relations and a challenge to the status quo.

This is the other side of displacement as historical fact and contemporary practice. A successful alternative cannot be tolerated, even on purely commercial terms, by colonial society. In the case of Coranderrk, the response was to destroy the operation and its political project and to further displace its inhabitants – the logic of an economic system that operates through delimiting alternatives. One need only think how important the declaration that ‘there is no alternative’ (TINA) has been to the operation of capitalist discourse today, with any alternative idea or space deemed ‘utopian’, ‘unworkable’, ‘bad for the market’ or simply ‘illegal’ – with Occupy Wall Street perhaps the most obvious recent example.

But what is obfuscated in the TINA discourse is the history of the active dismantling, often violently, of spaces of difference.

The performance of the Coranderrk story provides one illustration.

One of the most powerful scenes in the play comes when Charles (playing Barak or perhaps speaking directly) reads aloud the signatures on a petition by Coranderrk’s inhabitants asking for the settlement’s preservation. The names are read slowly, rhythmically, one after another. Some inhabitants bear only a single moniker.

In this scene, the abstraction of the land into a tradeable commodity is destabilised by the desires of a displaced people. It cannot be evacuated of its complex history – instead, it is filled with the diverse relationships of domination and displacement. With these names, the audience is challenged to repopulate our history with complexity, to question what has been displaced in dominant narratives of progress. What land have we inherited?

The defiant announcement of names in Coranderrk is reminiscent of the pivotal scene in Michael Cimino’s classic 1980 Western Heaven’s Gate, when locally based federal marshal James Averill (played by Kris Kristofferson) reads aloud names from a list, speaking with similar cadence and intonation to Charles/Barak.

Indeed, Heaven’s Gate can be seen as a companion piece to Coranderrk since it, too, is a historical tale of dispossession and the destruction of spaces of difference. Heaven’s Gate comes from a similar historical epoch – the late-nineteenth-century colonial frontier – and is based loosely on the Johnson County War in Wyoming. In 2013, the film was remastered and shown at various film festivals, including the BFI London Film Festival, where I was fortunate enough to see it.

Unlike in Coranderrk, the names in Heaven’s Gate are a ‘death list’, not a petition: it lists small cattle ranchers who have been identified as rustlers (or thieves) by the Wyoming Stock Growers Association (WSGA). Historically, a group of state elites had drawn up this list, hiring private gunmen at the cost of $5 a day – plus $50 for every person on the list killed.

This was the WSGA’s response to the ‘anarchists and thieves’ said to be stealing cattle, to those whose pastoral practices had encroached on the open plains where their members had previously ran their large herds unimpeded, claiming all unbranded calves as their own.

The story of Heaven’s Gate unfolds as individuals are drawn into this confrontation through love, greed, duty and so forth. It is a contest over competing visions for the land; as in Coranderrk, the audience is invited to resist the abstraction of the terrain by dominant forces. Both scripts convey a sense of utopianism in the space under threat.

At the climax of Heaven’s Gate, the local farmers have the private gunmen and their WSGA representatives surrounded. Victory appears imminent. But before the blow against the status quo can be delivered, the Sixth Cavalry arrives with orders from President Harrison to support the elite vision of large-scale agricultural wealth creation. It is the same regiment that Averill, a federal marshal, had implored earlier in the film to intervene against the incursion by the WSGA and their hired gunmen.

Are there not echoes of this in the 2008 financial crisis? When the wagons were circling, the state came to the rescue of the banks and thus the system. Any other outcome was deemed unimaginable.

As Lefebvre suggests, we can see, in the destruction of alternative spaces in both Coranderrk and Heaven’s Gate, how the abstraction of space as a commodity is underpinned by the state and its direct and symbolic violence. Both remind us that the creation of markets for land, labour and other commodities is the product of (often violent) political struggles, as the ‘normal’ operation of the market requires the dispossession of any alternative ways of being.

In the US radical publication Jacobin, Sam Gindin recently argued that ‘when art refused to be a shill for the status quo and thereby open spaces to go beyond what exists, it takes on its crucial political role … such art makes the invisible visible, the implicit explicit’. Re-imagining important historical episodes of dispossession foregrounds uncomfortable truths and highlights how our existence today is predicated on these moments of injustice.

When The Grapes of Wrath was published in 1939 it was met with both popular enthusiasm and a profound conservative backlash in which the book was even burned. Revealing the hidden history of dispossession and re-illuminating forgotten spaces of alterity may well have important contemporary political implications. Not only do such narratives destabilise understandings of how we have arrived at the status quo, they can also imply the possibility of resistance. William Barak marched into Melbourne to resist the closure of Coranderrk, while the small farmers in Heaven’s Gate armed themselves against the private army sent to destroy them. Even the Joads’ final act, in moving their flooding camp up the hill, suggests that resistance is never futile.

Ironically, the old Carlton & United brewery site on Swanston Street in Melbourne, which is being developed by Grocon into high-rise apartments, will feature a portrait of William Barak across its 32-storey facade. Rather than foregrounding Barak’s role in resisting the abstraction of space for the purposes of profit, Grocon chief executive Daniel Grollo continues to claim that the portrait is ‘not a political statement’.

Barak’s great-granddaughter, Doreen Garvey-Wandin, rightly asks: ‘Why shouldn’t his head be up there over everybody else’s, protecting the Wurundjeri territory, which he fought for, for many years?’ We can only hope that, in this particular Lefebvrian commodification of the land, Barak’s portrait inspires people to recall the story of Coranderrk and the colonial dispossession of the Aboriginal land upon which the building – and our world – is predicated.

Barnaby Lewer

Barnaby Lewer has, at various times, been an organiser, researcher, PhD candidate, and environmental campaigner and curator. He is now a digital organiser in the union movement and has written for art and political magazines.

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