Sites of Violence: Submerged Voices and Embodied Trauma

Michelle St Anne, Hannah Della Bosca, Elizabeth Duncan, Bruce Isaacs and Rebecca Lawrence entwine their research, recognising silenced voices within a system that encourages invisible violence.

Photo by Mahdis Mousavi on Unsplash.

Sites of Violence curator Michelle St Anne and collaborators Hannah Della Bosca, Elizabeth Duncan, Bruce Isaacs and Rebecca Lawrence 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 read somewhere that what we write about as academics is like an iceberg – it’s only a very small fraction of the totality of our tacit knowledge and experiences. What personal understandings and embodied encounters lurk below the surface?

The Sites of Violence project has been curated from a deep personal need – to understand more broadly why the ‘world’ chose to abuse, dismiss and deny help to my mother. In 1970 my mother was repeatedly thrown down stairs, eight months pregnant with me. I wonder what it was like for those safely cocooned behind the closed doors of that apartment block. How they seemingly shut their ears to her screams, turned away when they saw her in the stairwell and refused to offer any refuge.

Why do we choose not to see when violence is perpetrated or is it that years of social conditioning has erected a barrier of apathy that insulates our community from such egregious acts? Whose voices remain submerged and whose stories should be brought to the surface?

From my years working closely with Indigenous Australian and Sámi communities, I have listened and absorbed a large body of knowledge and experience that has yet to be written down. These communities are fighting to protect their traditional lands from resource developments, such as mining, infrastructure and forestry. They are engaged in a constant battle with both multinational corporations and the state. The exponential loss of their traditional lands to industry and resource developments creates internal community divisions, further compounded by the traumatic legacy of colonisation.

“These spaces consist of sometimes dark and uncomfortable experiences, rife with stagnant energies.”

Colonialism’s history of discarded cultures and communities draws sobering parallels to the mass consuming and exploitative attitude of contemporary society. These habitual violent acts of entitled greed and negligent abandonment transcend cultural paradigms and seeps unconsciously into our physical relationship with waste. By researching how waste flows are enabled through labour and infrastructure, it is apparent that violence is intrinsically linked to our relationship with waste and its harmful impact on the environment. Over the course of my research, I’ve noted the ways in which violence lingers in waste spaces. I am thinking of the monsters that are created by material excess, such as fatbergs; congealed masses of fats, wet wipes, tampons, condoms and Q-tips as well as other insidious, foreign matter in our sewers. They compound as solid blockages within a system of flows. I am interested in the ways in which waste, as embodied through the fatberg, exceeds both the violent and pacifying capacities of categorisation and containment. What does it mean to live in a world of excess that is predicated upon a systemic violence of extraction?

These spaces consist of sometimes dark and uncomfortable experiences, rife with stagnant energies. My practice is underpinned by the interrogation of how this trauma is hosted in bodies, in buildings and in objects. What does it mean to work as a researcher in a context of collective trauma and how does it connect to our own past experiences? I want to investigate what kind of research can stop this embodiment of trauma from occurring. I want to explore the metaphor and allegories within landscapes and other beings. I want to raise a mirror to the systems that allow us to disregard it due to its perceived inconvenience.

To initiate this confrontation, I have chosen researchers who embody truth both emotionally and physically. Those who push at their disciplines and methodologies in order to understand something larger than themselves, bigger than their research project and of a theme that underpins the every day. As a collective I want us to reimagine research that is inclusive of both knowledge and being. The Sites of Violence project encourages such exploration and learning, melding diverging methodologies of research and expression, such as the ‘interstitial’ ways in which form communicates meeting.

For instance, my work focuses on the manipulation of film-based imagery to convey intensive and powerful experiences, bringing the impact of the image into a direct encounter with the effect of narrative form. How does a film image establish a dialogue with the viewer? How can a film image enact change in perception and sensory engagement?

Aesthetically, spaces and landscapes refract and reflect their violent narrational relationship to local historical and political stories. This volatile imagery permeates films that seek to capture the aesthetic hostility of the Australian landscape. By analysing seminal Australian works such as Picnic at Hanging Rock, Samson and Delilah, and the Mystery Road series, I consider some of the ways in which form is imbued with historical and politically charged meanings. For instance, by focusing on composition within the film frame and the relationship of film frames to the aesthetic ‘whole’ (mise en scene composition, montage, and sound design and production), the potential of landscape as an affective field can be ‘read’. Therefore, the film image, in its potential as a site of encounter, is always a confrontation and negotiation of some kind.

For instance, in the 1975 Australian classic Picnic at Hanging Rock, the narrative shifts its visual framing throughout the film. The film follows a group of young white women on an excursion into the Australian bush, a tonal contrast to the initial setting of the film within the strict confines of an institutional, colonial college setting. The further the young women move from the institutional trappings they’ve left behind, namely the constraints of an ideological and aesthetic Victorianism, the more the frame takes on the qualities of a de-naturalised and expressively aestheticised landscape image. The site the girls visit is an area that has been inhabited by Indigenous traditional owners of the land for 30,000 years, their excursion is thus an exploration and an intrusion. This dualism is communicated through shifting camera techniques, where blurred branches and leaves exude an impressionistic, almost dream-like quality to the exploratory image. As the tone transforms to that of intrusion, the image adopts extremely long shots that reveal the land as a whole and as a sentient, viewing presence. The landscape shifts from the observed to the threatening voyeur.

So how does one process and expose embodied trauma that resides within individuals, landscapes and social spaces? The violence we encounter in popular media, in research, and in our own lives? I am interested in the internalisation of violence: the violence that we commit against ourselves after traumatic experiences. Our bodies become our own enemy through a heightened nervous system and an energy field that is set to the wrong frequency. We become, literally, out of tune with ourselves and with the universe.

How we can heal from violence and trauma through vibration and energetic healing: through tuning our bio-fields and connecting to the zero-point energy field? The bio-field is believed to be a space of subtle energy surrounding our physical bodies. It is constituted by frequencies and vibrations, and crucially, also thought to be layered with our past traumas. How do we retune our own bio-fields into synchronicity with the energy of the universe – the vibrations and subtle energies of the zero-point energy field, and, in doing so, heal past traumas as individuals and as a collective?

This project, I believe, is about seeing and listening to not only the violence done to and by others but observing the mundane ways in which it occurs to us, through us, and by us. What patterns and connections link our personal experiences of violence to the collective whole? My curiosity is driven by a belief that if you observe and listen to the people and places around you, understanding is born. I believe that everyday moments reveal a thousand stories, and it is the privilege of the researcher to bear witness to those stories, and through them to try to better understand the relationships and systems that drive our world.

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.

Michelle St Anne is the Deputy Director and Operations Manager – Programming, Impact and Engagement at the Sydney Environment Institute. She manages the operation of the Institute as well as curates a strategic and dynamic outreach programme. Michelle is also the Artistic Director and founder of the award-winning Sydney based theatre company The Living Room Theatre. She has produced and written over 23 ambitious new works which have had seasons in Sydney and Melbourne. In 2018 she became an Honorary Associate with the School of Theatre and Performance Studies, School of Literature, Art and Media, The Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, at the University of Sydney.

Hannah Della Bosca is a Research Assistant at the Sydney Environment Institute. She has co-authored papers on generational coal mining identities and energy transitions, as well as the role of place-making, disruption, and emotion in resilience policy adaptation. Hannah holds a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) from the University of Sydney and has a strong research interest in the nexus of environmental law, policy and place.

Elizabeth Duncan is a PhD candidate in the School of Geosciences at the University of Sydney. Her previous work experience has included time in the private and local government sectors, and as a research assistant within the School of Geosciences, University of Sydney. Elizabeth’s research project is titled: Verticality and volumes in motion: the cumulative trajectories of waste. Focusing on waste, she is particularly interested in the cumulative impacts of the materiality of waste and its movement through and beyond Sydney.

Bruce Isaacs is an Associate Professor in the Department of Art History. His research focusses on a wide range of film studies-related topics: histories of film (with a focus on Hollywood, though he has abiding interests in various ‘New Waves’ and movements), film aesthetics and style, critical approaches to film production, film and popular culture (including the relationship between film and other pop culture art forms such as television, literature and music). Bruce is currently intrigued by various developments in High Concept Hollywood and its evolution of new aesthetic practices, including digital and 3D cinema.

Rebecca Lawrence is a Senior Research Fellow at the Sydney Environment Institute where she joined in 2020 after her time at the Department of Political Science, Stockholm University as Research Fellow. She is Chief Investigator for a major research project funded by the Swedish Research Council for Sustainable Development on the impacts of mining on local and Indigenous communities in Sweden, Norway, Finland and Australia. Rebecca is also funded by the Norwegian Research Council for a project concerned with the integration of Indigenous knowledge systems into environmental decision making.

For an interview with the author/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.