Sites of Violence: Bodies, Space and Sight

Carolyn McKay, Heather Shannon, Chris Smith and Dinesh Wadiwel interweave musings on the physical, psychological and emotional violence of hostile spaces.

Sites of Violence collaborators Carolyn McKay, Heather Shannon, Chris Smith and Dinesh Wadiwel meditate on what first drew them to the project, where the edges of their research and thinking resonate with issues of violence and what they hope to explore as artists and researchers during this collective endeavour.

Their individual responses have been interwoven below into a single cohesive voice in a distillation of the collaborative and unbounded essence of the work itself.

I think the theme of the project – ‘Sites of Violence’ – truly resonates as it reminds us that violence always occurs in location, framed by institutions, practices and knowledge, and that the site of violence is deliberately constructed by perpetrators to prevent escape. This reinforces that violence often takes the model of a “siege”; where the experience of violence is one which closes the world around the victim, where everything it would seem cooperates to pin down and hold hostage. As fellow Sites of Violence collaborator Professor Danielle Celermajer remarks, this is a justice issue because it prevents the flourishing of beings.

It is not just the site of the “siege” that intrigues me but the politics of sight that encompasses it. How do we see violence? What techniques are used to construct the site of violence? And in constructing this site, what care is taken by perpetrators to hide from view the horrors within?

For some time, I have worked on body/architecture relations: the way in which bodies and architecture compose one another. This has involved two parallel lines—the first is a philosophical engagement that seeks to explore conceptions of the body that complicate or enrich the logics of architecture. The second line relates to the medicalisation of the body—the body that is purposely constructed in biomedical laboratories and clinical architectures, structures dedicated to ideals of health and care. Both research directions involve complex considerations of norms and pathologies, of stabilities and trauma and of the complex manners by which both architecture and the body affect, infect and at times deflect one another.

But what about the body within spaces of judgement? My interest in the relationship between space and the criminal justice system has expanded into carceral sites such as correctional facilities. I soon became aware of the brutality of this type of architecture, and the embodied experience of hard surfaces of concrete and metal, razor wire trimmings and echoing sounds from the cells.

As I delve into these hostile spaces, I wonder about those inside and where they have come from. The body of research that I’m currently developing focuses on offences committed in the space of motel rooms – lawless sites for sexual violence and drug offences as well as for murder, robbery, games of Russian roulette and as a hideout for fugitives from the law. The motel room’s conflation of intimacy, privacy and anonymity with a world of transience, strangers and the uncanny enables disinhibited and sometimes violent behaviour. This research draws on the nascent field of ‘ghost criminology’; this haunting metaphor can be harnessed to study the absences and residual murmurs of violence that may linger in the crime scene motel room.

These murmurs do not only reside within motels, but seep throughout the Australian landscape and its dark history. At times I feel that it is easy to become complacent in a sunny, laidback place like Australia, however our violent colonial history effects every part of our lives. My research of the Australian Gothic has revealed the liberating power of examining violence and how meditating on confronting themes can uncover hidden truths and challenge accepted beliefs. Violence is at the heart of many Australian Gothic themes. It is amplified, dramatised, and examined so as to explore cultural disconnection, dislocation and denialism through the Australian landscape.

Therefore, what is at stake in providing justice? Is this simply about revealing what was previously hidden, or is something more substantive required for change?

Looking at non-humans gives us a unique perspective on violence, since prevailing European knowledge systems have framed animals as objects and commodities for whom violence is normalised. Beyond thinking about ways to provide better justice for animals, one needs to consider the deeper problems around how these beings are defined as subjects of violence, and also how sites of violence are constructed to hide the hostility within. To an extent this logic of violence is familiar. Many forms of violence, such as gender violence or colonial violence, relied upon constructing the victim of violence in such a way as their claim of injustice could not be recognised – for example, invalidating the testimony of women who experience sexual violence; or the continuing denial of Indigenous sovereignty that was inherent in “terra nullius”.

I sense an awkwardness in our cultural expressions and our understandings of the Australian landscape and the built environment. As a musician, I have translated Australian Gothic motifs into musical contexts. This includes the symbolic potential of musical forms and aesthetics to find ways of exploring violence. Navigating the ethics of this topic is challenging and sharing ideas with likeminded thinkers informs my own research and compositions.

I believe creative explorations of these difficult topics can open up space for reflection which is why the Sites of Violence project is so unique and important in its ability to combine academic work with creative outputs. It allows for a ‘sensual integration of method, subject, and situation’ (Ferrell 2017: 50) and showcases the epistemological value of creative pursuits.

Therefore, since this experience of violence – the siege – is often deliberately silenced or hidden from view, I think it is important for us to move beyond the written word in providing recognition and justice. This is why I look forward to engaging with multiple perspectives and formats to produce a rich and multi-layered project that aims to make violence seen.

This article is part of the Sites of Violence project which merges artistic and academic understandings of human and non-human experiences of violence, and the processes, emotions, and meaning that this violence reveals. This transboundary approach dismantles learned indifference by introducing novel perspectives to old problems, and facilitates productively disruptive collaborations between researchers and artists.

Carolyn McKay is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Sydney Law School where she teaches Criminal Law, Civil & Criminal Procedure and Digital Criminology. She is also a visual artist and curator and completed postgraduate studies at Sydney College of the Arts before her PhD at Sydney Law School. She has held solo exhibitions, been commissioned to create audio-video works for curated exhibitions, and was the recipient of a 2018 Museums & Galleries of New South Wales exhibitions project award. Her latest criminal law/criminological research examines motel crime scenes through the lens of ‘ghost criminology’.

Heather Shannon is a musician, lecturer at Tafe NSW and Masters student at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. She is best known for her work as one quarter of internationally renowned independent rock band, The Jezabels. Their music has been described as Bronte-esque gothic and melodramatic. They have sold over 300,000 albums worldwide and have performed in venues such as The Sydney Opera House, The O2 Arena (London), Webster Hall (New York) and at festivals such as Lollapalooza (Chicago), and Glastonbury (UK).

Chris L. Smith is a Professor of Architectural Theory in the Sydney School of Architecture, Design and Planning at the University of Sydney. His research, over the last 18 years, has focused on the nexus of architecture and the body. Chris locates this nexus between architectural theory, philosophy, and the biosciences. He’s published on architectural theory and its dynamic relation with body theory, poststructural philosophy (particularly the work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari) and technologies of the body, as well as publishing on the complex intersections of architecture, the biosciences, and medical humanities.

Dinesh Wadiwel is a lecturer in human rights and socio-legal studies in the Department of Sociology and Social Policy and Director of the Master of Human Rights. He has had over 15 years experience working within civil society organisations, including in anti-poverty and disability rights roles. He is currently writing a book exploring the relationship between animals and capitalism, building on his 2015 monograph, The War Against Animals.

For an interview with the artist/s, contact Michelle St Anne, Sites of Violence project lead, on +61 9351 5445 or  michelle.stanne@sydney.edu.au.

For media enquiries, contact Vivienne Reiner, University of Sydney Media and Public Relations Adviser, on +61 2 9351 2390 or vivienne.reiner@sydney.edu.au.