I dance. I fly – dog paddle upwards, a vertical take-off like a helicopter (great for escaping danger), and breaststroke through the sky or glide on updrafts. There is joy in the journey. But back down on earth, leaving the reverie, my physical and attitudinal surroundings are not so conducive to travel. I use a mobility scooter or wheelchair to get around and commuting on public transport from Blacktown to Wynyard Station is closer to a nightmare.
To travel to Sydney’s CBD by train, I load my wheelchair into the back of the car using a hoist. It only takes me about ten minutes to drive to the station, then the search for parking begins. There are notoriously few public carparks near Blacktown Station, let alone disability spaces. At Boys Ave there are 130 spots, and eight of those are for disabled commuters. Say I’m lucky enough to find parking. Then I unload my chair, negotiate holes in the footpath, humps, bumps, and kerbs to get to the station. Wait my turn in front of the lift. The doors open and close. It’s overflowing with impatient commuters. I wait a while before the doors open finally to reveal a space for me. I wait for an attendant to let me through the ticket gate. Wait again for rail staff, who are often stressed and grumpy, to organise the ramp to get me over the gap between the platform and onto the train. Over 6000 commuters pass through the Blacktown station turnstiles on a typical workday during morning peak time, 15,800 people during an average 24-hour day.
In a 2019 9News report, Blacktown residents interviewed said they hardly ever get a seat on the train going to or from work. Standing room only, they’re packed like battery hens on the way to the slaughterhouse. Often the train is too crowded for me to board. When I can get on, I need to manoeuvre my way through the crush of bodies and find a place to hold onto a handrail so my chair doesn’t slide when the train brakes. At Wynyard, there’s another wait. The station attendant needs to put a ramp down and help me off the train. Even if a support worker accompanies me, I’m exhausted by the time I get to work and have a raging headache. My joints and muscles scream in pain.
Generally, I avoid public transport, choosing instead to load my scooter into my car and drive calmly through Blacktown’s asbestos jungle. With lockdown, I rarely travelled to the city and now I’m self-isolating, I work from home as much as I can. Today, however, I need to meet with other creatives in person at the start-up hub where our small arts organisation has a desk. The haunting voice of Karen Chilton reverberates through my car. She narrates the story of Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon, the latest book to satisfy my craving for Afrofuturism and Black speculative fiction. Suburban homes flick by, some just starting their gentrification journeys, moving away from the perceived stigma of working-class existence, to maybe one day, achieve the affluent, leafy, suburban bliss of Castle Hill. I glide past Kings Park Industrial Estate, a car and truck rental, and left onto Sunnyholt Road. Turn right, gathering speed, 100 kilometres per hour to merge onto the M7.
The smooth grey roads are shut off from everyday realities of our domestic lives by high, grey fences. The golden domes of the Glenwood Gurdwara Sahib rise up to suggest communities beyond the walls. But, like most other commuters, I’m not distracted. I won’t go off track, won’t explore what people get up to between my point A and my point B. I focus on the road. Nothing exists but me and the car in front. Highly individualised, isolated, an automaton, aware only of my time restraints. Rush, rush on the M2, Sydney’s orbital motorway. Whoops, the speedometer sneaks up to 110, as if it’s not my foot pressing the accelerator. As the government road safety posters state, ‘Every K counts’. Guilty of ‘casual’ speeding. Consciously or otherwise, I’ve made the assumption that I can handle driving over the speed limit. Slow the vehicle, stick to 100. Make safe choices. Make financially sound choices. I can’t afford a speeding fine. Sixty dollars a week on petrol and over $30 a day on tolls make driving to the CBD a luxury. There are tolls for the M7, the M2 and Lane Cove Tunnel into the CBD and back, and Sydney Harbour Bridge going south. We’re constrained by square-faced cameras, constant surveillance, state proscription. Do not run a red light, do not speed, do not use the bus lane, do not, do not. Automated number-plate recognition cross-references licence plates with government databases for any other infractions.
Cockatoos fly from one side of the freeway to the other, acrobatic, landing on the concrete noise walls, probably squawking. I am sealed in my car, windows wound up, air conditioner on, audiobook playing. All outside action is silenced. The trees in Lane Cove National Park sway in the wind. Macquarie Park. Giant, metallic, multi-coloured waratahs and golden banksia flowers spin on my left, spiky virus heads: public art powered by solar panels. Paid for by the road-toll giant, Transurban. Billed as ‘giving something back’ to commuters, to the community. It marks a rough halfway point in my commute and, at Chapter Thirteen, I’m roughly halfway through my audiobook. The protagonist, Vern, is a black intersex woman with albinism, fighting oppression and abuse. She seeks a home and safety in a forest for herself and her children. Pain nudges her awake. She is transforming into a fabulous insectile and fungal creature who can communicate with the land through the mycelial network. Her new body is exoskeletal, a confluence of plant, animal, fungus. I identify with the fact that walking demands her complete focus.
My commute is an ideal time for catching up on books, a space for thinking, imagining, creating. I contemplate funguses, viruses, bacteria, our bodies, and in my mind, I write the words that will become a stanza in a poem:
where am i
when microbiota invade
bacteria merge with skin mouth vagina
retroviruses become endogenous
tangled fungal cells occupy
I recognise the urgency of rewriting the ‘progress’ myth of human control over ‘nature’. I work to re-establish the idea that the nonhuman world is an intrinsic part of us, the source of our existence. That it is to be respected, rather than externalised and exploited.
As I drive across the magnificent, grey, old woman of a bridge, I take in her rusting patches, her massive rivets. About six million of them hold the bridge together. All stages of the riveting process during construction in 1930 and 1931 involved manual labour, people perching precariously above the harbour. It’s not possible to gaze at the seascape and to also concentrate on staying in my lane. Sun glints off the glass casino tower that thrusts itself into view on my right. I am offended by its shape, its inaccessible luxury, its vertiginous height.
Next, I filter onto York Street, first called Church Street after St Philip’s Church, the original wattle and daub building was built in 1793. Then the street was called Barracks Row after the colonial military barracks, eventually a walled fortress that housed the NSW Corps before federation. In 1810, Governor Macquarie named the street after Prince Frederick, the Duke of York and Albany, the same grand old Duke who marched 10,000 men up to the top of the hill and marched them down again. I pass Wynyard Park, opened in 1875 on the parade ground of the old military barracks. This park, like many of the garden squares in London today, was fenced, its use confined to residents who held keys to the gates. Wynyard Station, opposite the park, opened in 1932. Major-General Edward Buckley Wynyard was a British Army officer who commanded the troops in New South Wales, Van Diemen’s Land and New Zealand. I often get entangled in research about the places I move through, the names, the birds I see, the lizards, the trees, the buildings. It is especially rewarding when I find stories that provide alternatives to dominant narratives.
In the name of ‘civilisation’, the ecological and biological information inscribed in First Peoples’ place names, the details of the landscape, animals, plants and rivers, have been obliterated. This is Gadigal land marked now by the power of the military and the Christian church. The Catholic and Anglican churches are among Australia’s largest non-government property owners. This land was granted to churches by colonial governors, land that was not theirs to give, which became an ongoing source of income and profit for the various dioceses. Methodists and Presbyterians also received land allotments. In 2005, the Presbyterian Church built 148 apartments on top of the original sandstone, neo-Gothic Scots Church Assembly building in York Street. To date, the churches will not agree to begin an open dialogue with First Nations People about the return or restitution of land.
This part of town is densely built up, with not much sunlight. Victorian sandstone facades, Railway House’s art-deco style, and modern architecture of newer, higher buildings. Searching for somewhere to park my car, I turn right onto Barrack Street. Some loading zones become available as disabled parking after midday. I’m too early and, even though my car has a hoist, I’m never sure if a parking ranger will decide that it is not ‘constructed for carrying goods’. In any case, a vehicle can only stop in a loading zone for up to 30 minutes to drop off or pick up items. I’d have to take down my disability permit because, in NSW, we’re not allowed to stand or park a vehicle with a disability permit in a loading zone.
I drive down York Lane. On rare occasions, there’s one spot free, but not today. Round and round I go, trying not to stress. I drive carefully, slowly. If I don’t find a space, I’ll head to a private car park. That will cost me around $19 an hour, $114 if I limit my stay at work to six hours. A city parking ranger told me that some people park illegally, knowing they will be fined, but that it will be less per day than what they pay in a private car park. Back on York Street, a car pulls out ahead of me. I take the spot. It means leaving by 3pm when it becomes a clearway, otherwise I’ll merit a fine and my car will be towed.
Double mask, surgical mask over my cloth mask because I haven’t yet been able to get hold of close-fitting N95s as online suppliers are out of stock. I am immune-compromised, the type of person whose death from COVID is somehow justified by terms like ‘pre-existing conditions’ or ‘comorbidities’, aka necessary collateral, social junk with no productive value. And now that the government of NSW is ‘letting it rip’, and we are ‘pushing through’, it’s difficult not to feel that we have been abandoned, a eugenic decision. I am tripled-vaxxed but well aware that I’m still risking my health, if not my life, by leaving the house.
I get out my scooter using the hoist and stand it folded next to the kerb. It weighs 26 kilograms. Lina, my support worker, phones saying she’s been delayed – I tell her where to find me. I try to lift the scooter up the kerb but fail. I almost fall. After a few tries, the desire to cry wells up inside me. Men in skinny suits pass by. I register that they have seen me struggling to get the scooter onto the footpath. They look straight ahead, pretending they don’t realise I need help. It’s as if their eyes are pinned open with invisible clamps. Think Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange. Blacktown has a very different feel from the CBD. There, people of all ages, from all walks of life, are quick to offer me assistance even when I don’t need it. It’s a different, kinder, slower vibe. I consider for a moment riding my scooter up York Street alongside the parked cars until I find the nearest kerb cut, but oncoming traffic makes it too dangerous. I wait. Try again to lift the scooter up onto the footpath. Wait. Try again. My body hurts, I’m tired, emotionally drained. I lean against the back of the car, studying the spider web on the back windscreen wiper, wondering where the spider lives. Wait for the support worker. I have learned something new about my access requirements – I need to buy a small ramp for kerbs and keep it in the car.
Lina walks towards me, her eyes crinkling into a smile above her mask. She hauls the scooter up onto the footpath with ease and then helps me clamber up the kerb. I zoom towards Railway House. Lina accompanies me. She helps me with the lift and the big glass door into the office.
The hub is an exciting place to work. It provides meeting spaces, recording studios, a green-screen room and editing facilities, and a place to learn new technologies. Industry professionals are generous with their time and advice. It also facilitates access to a network of young tech professionals in media, music, gaming, education and other creative industries. Today, I’m working with a coder and a musician on a VR project. We have filmed 360-degree vistas of the south coast forests just after the 2019–20 bushfires and they form our canvas. By three o’clock, I’m feeling invigorated, in love with the arts, excited that disabled artists are using VR technology to communicate with wider audiences, telling our stories and leading through our art. But something has to give.
Our organisation is a bit of an anomaly in that we’re not trying to scale up. We seek to stay small and disrupt the ideology of perpetual economic growth. Exploring different and new organisational potentials. Co-operation over competition. Quality over quantity. Depth over breadth. We want to make art that grows from a relationship with our communities. Art that contributes to a better world and future. Like many small arts companies, we survive on in-kind donations, barter and increasingly scarce government grants. We pay our artists and technical workers on a project-by-project basis. This is not sustainable.
A lot of the work I do is unpaid, without the hard-won protections and benefits of waged work. This is voluntarism of the type promoted by small-government ideology where the state and government cut the already meagre support for the arts even further. I’m faced with growing expenses as an arts worker and individual artist. My insecure existence, tinged with the guilt of not being able to pay artists beyond a single project and threatened by burnout, is now becoming even less secure.
Lina helps me back to the car, and she puts the scooter in the boot. She makes my life so much easier. Thank goodness for the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), which pays her to assist me. The scheme is by no means perfect. But I, like so many other disabled people across Australia, continue to fight to defend the gains we’ve made to ensure further funding and extend the reach of the initiative. I wind down my window and drive back over the bridge. The cooling breeze murmurs that rain is on its way. La Niña. Sydney has become tropical. At least this summer, bushfires are not raging through our forests. The air is clear of smoke.
A few drops fall on my windscreen. The wipers squeal as they scrape across the glass. I bounce between the dread of constantly struggling in an environment that doesn’t cater for my needs, the constant struggle to make ends meet, and the high of collaborating with peers and making art. The state has failed disabled, working-class, black, brown, First Nations and queer artists for a long time. The COVID pandemic has exposed and exacerbated structural inequalities in our society and negatively impacted the livelihoods of more people. Additional communities are beginning to understand the real implications of a failed state. Our supply systems, our health systems, our education system. Life is becoming more and more unpredictable. There’s little doubt that we live in a world on the verge of massive and terrifying change, climate catastrophe, scarcity of resources, plagues, ecocide, brutal wars. Fredric Jameson’s comment, ‘it has become easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism’, haunts me. I feel overwhelmed.
Traffic is already heavy on the M2. I check my rear vision and side mirrors, cross into the two lanes heading towards Lane Cove tunnel, wind up my window for fear of the exhaust fumes. My audiobook takes me back to Vern’s world, the forest, her ferocious quest for survival, how othered and oppressed bodies find ways to transcend social and economic barriers. In an interview about the writing of Sorrowland, Rivers Solomon says that they wanted Vern to be ‘a character who has an inherent scepticism or a kind of oppositional nature’, someone who could grapple with the question, what is truth?
For me, determining truth means I must challenge the naturalised accounts of reality that are presented to us on a daily, minute-by-minute basis by the mass media. It means I must interrogate the false certainty that the stories told repeatedly by politicians, corporate leaders, media moguls are the only stories. One way I do this is to use my imagination to delve into space where dreams are made, the space occupied by our unconscious mind. I work with the uncertainty that lies there, with the untold, unrealistic, previously unthinkable, possibilities. Artists are well positioned to lead the way in this regard; imagination is an essential tool in creating speculative, surreal, symbolic, magic realist, fantasy scenarios.
Writer Leone Ross sums it up in a tweet asking why:
it has become acceptable to shit on magic realism. The literature of POC. Subversive at best. Whimsy at worst. Y’all even read Asturias, Borges, Allende, Morrison, Obrecht, Kafka, Calvino? Magic illuminates reality: duh. Our grandmas know this.
Creative workers, including writers, musicians, singers, dancers, visual artists, actors, sculptors and filmmakers have a critical role to play in decoupling the dominant storytelling that justifies and perpetuates capitalism from how we actually experience reality. We have a role to play in freeing human thinking so that we can imagine different ways of interacting with each other and the planet. This includes how we get our food and what we eat, how we provide housing, how we produce goods, what we value, how we love, social care and finance, the democratisation of ownership of property, and sustainable livelihoods. In her essay, ‘A War Without End’, Ursula Le Guin points out that: ‘the exercise of the imagination is dangerous to those who profit from the way things are because it has the power to show that the way things are is not permanent, not universal, not necessary.’
It’s not going to be easy. There is no blueprint. We don’t yet know how to link our imaginative responses, subconscious knowledge, critical curiosity and dreams of alternative worlds to the hard work of changing our material surroundings.
Contemporary mainstream art in Western countries makes a show of shocking, busting taboos but, in the end, it is often a radicalism that is divorced from community and unconnected to political change. The recent artist-led boycott of the 2022 Sydney Festival has shown that artists are ready for direct action, protesting, standing up for their beliefs and withdrawing their labour in solidarity with local artists who felt compromised and unsafe, and with oppressed and exploited peoples internationally.
There is a lot to be achieved if artists do not have to fret constantly about their livelihoods. France, Finland and Canada have basic income programs that offer social protection to artists during hard times. But Ireland is about to take this concept one step further and, in recognition of the value of artists to society, will launch a three-year pilot for 2000 artists involving a weekly basic income payment, with no means test. It’s a start. These workers will be able to focus on making art with more time to think at their own pace, rest and imagine. It will allow them to understand and relax into the ebbs and flows of their productivity. But, of course, the shape of the revolutionary change we need will be so much more than this. I believe it has to be different from anything we’ve seen before, and it will necessarily be a collective process. It will reflect how our bodies move through our environment, the relationship of our bodies to each other and to the living world around us. Our interdependence. It will also involve rupture and overthrow.
It’s raining heavily now. I am almost home. During rain like this, brown frogs appear in the garden to ribbit and chirp. Ibises flock to the few remaining green spaces, digging their long beaks into the soft earth.
Again, I write in my mind. An ibis struts into my kitchen and takes leftover food from dishes in the sink. She
hop-glides to the floor
staring side eyes small
her skinny head spotted crimson at the back
neck wrinkled like an old leather jacket
she struts towards the front door
and just before departing
shits on my lino
then she quacks
this is my land bitch
I’m collecting the rent
Run-down and on the verge of burnout, I will continue making art, imagining radically different futures during my best commutes, dancing, dog paddling upwards towards the clouds, doing breaststroke through the air, gliding. I pull into my driveway in Blacktown, the western suburbs where, as one young arts worker once said, we have the best sunsets.
*Commute: from Latin commutare, from com- ‘altogether’ and mutare ‘to change’
Ursula K Le Guin, ‘A War Without End,’ The Wave in the Mind (Shambhala 2004).
Rivers Solomon, Sorrowland, (Merky Books 2021)