“We need to ensure that our future stretches as far in front of us as our past does behind us.”
-Teila Watson, Birri-Gubba/Wiri performance artist
The first full day in Queensland started early for most of us. The sun pushed its way into our bedrooms before five and it, along with our skewed body clocks, compelled us to wake up hours before our hotel breakfast was ready.
Brisbane is a new city to all but two of us in the group. To orient ourselves to its history, we joined a morning tour at City Hall. Our guide Zoe was lovely, and patient with our large group wandering agog through the grand marble and wood building which opened its doors in 1930.
The place was full of stories: during a recent renovation of the basement, workers discovered a wall of graffiti. Remarkable graffiti. Soldiers in the Second World War had etched their names and their serial numbers into what was at the time a bathroom wall. All the signatures were Australian, save one—there in the bottom right corner was the big bubbly script of an American soldier from Detroit named Bud. After the discovery, a contemporary historian ran each of the numbers, including Bud’s. She discovered that every last soldier returned from the war alive. Auspicious wall.
For tens of thousands of years before the British turned it to a penal colony for Syndey’s most malevolent convicts and after that a home to free settlers, Meanjin was the land of the Yuggera and Turrbal people. First peoples warned the Brits that the banks of Maiwah were prone to flooding, pointing to debris caught in trees to demonstrate the height of past floods, but the Brits built in the river basins and flood plains anyway.
Years later, with the penal colony gone and the new civilians of early modern Brisbane requiring a city hall, construction of the new civic space began on the site of a drained swamp. One hundred and eighty nine very deep piers were poured to bolster the structure—which may or may not be haunted now by a man who died by drowning when his fellow builders left for lunch, with him still down in the water—and then reinforced eighty years later when engineers realized that the eroding cement was weakening because it had been made from a saltwater mix during a time of drought. Clean water was too precious to be used in construction then, so laborers turned instead to the salty waterway coursing through the city. On an exposed pier in the basement, the handprint of a worker is pressed into the pockmarked cement.
During the tour, we visited the Shingle Inn, a historic teahouse once popular with American soldiers who convinced the proprietors to add lemon meringue pies and waffles to its menu. Our docent explained that the original Inn was demolished in the middle of the night during the reign of Premier Johannes Bjelke-Petersen, a popular but wildly corrupt politician whose political career ended in 1987 after nearly two decades. “Joh” had a reputation for ordering the destruction of historic structures under cover of night and in the name of progress, preferring skyscrapers to the timber, lace, and breezy verandahs of the vernacular Queenslander architecture. So the bits and pieces of the Inn were tucked into storage.
But this story turns out to be apocryphal. The original Inn was actually shuttered in 2002 because of redevelopment, and revived by new owners. (We later confirmed that Joh’s dodgy night demos were a common practice affecting other historic buildings in Brisbane, if not the Shingle.) At the current manifestation of the Inn, high tea is still served each day, in a lavish space decorated with Tudor beams and leadlight windows. As I peaked into the nearly empty dining room, where a woman in a period costume of a black bombazine dress, starched white apron, and peaked cloth hat was waiting behind a counter for guests, I thought about our human instinct to protect buildings, sites, and landscapes that remind us of collective histories and identities and pasts to which we are often only very loosely tied. How do we select what is worth putting in storage for re-assembly later? And who gets to choose? Who has to tear down the timberwork, and who is responsible for joining it back together? What gets demolished in the night?
The Museum of Brisbane—a hip space covered in graphic wallpaper and full of Scandinavian modern furniture—moved into the third floor of City Hall a few years ago. We visited after our tour ended. The latest exhibition, 100% Brisbane, was mounted this summer. It is fresh, surprising, and revealing. At its heart was a project called “Brisbane DNA,” initiated by Berlin theatre group Rimini Protokoll. It is essentially a grand multimedia self-portrait of the city, an audiovisual daisy chain of one hundred Brisbanites’ stories. Each describes his or her relationship to the city, shares opinions on political and ethical and environmental hot topics, and raises one question to ask the other ninety-nine participants (examples: I want to know how many of you think you will own a house with a backyard one day? How many of you believe in climate change? How many of you think people of color are treated differently than whites in Australia?). Their answers expose the attitudes and values that are the topography of this cultural landscape.
After we left the museum, while I prepared for a discussion I would lead the next day about what we mean when we say “landscape” or “sustainability” (two concepts central to this course), in my mind I kept returning to a relatively small subsection of the exhibition, titled “Country.” It was a video, projected onto a wall as you entered, playing on loop. I almost missed it, because there was already a crowd huddled up watching it and the piece was clearly many minutes in when I showed up. But I spotted someone sitting cross-legged on the floor, watching rapt, and decided I should too. “The land will respect people that respect the land,” said a white-bearded Ngugi elder in a crimson shirt. As he spoke, behind him images of clear water yielded to sandbanks, to skies at dusk, and to bunya pines. “You will feel embraced by the spirit of the land.” I remembered our walk through the city’s Botanic Gardens the day before. Had I brought respect for the land? Brought anything at all? Had I felt an embrace there? Another man appeared on the screen, a younger member of the Yuggera, Turrbal, and Kombumerri nations named Shannon Ruska. “Underneath those buildings,” he said as images of a pristine Brisbane flickered in and out behind him, “lies our cultural laws.” I thought about the basement at City Hall—about how much history had been revealed there, about how little history had been revealed there. Next a woman, Teila Watson, a Birri-Gubba and Wiri woman, speaking in verse: “Just re-associate my name with your heartbeat/the last hundred years have been a dark feat.” Forceful, taut, and then the poetry dissolving back into plain speech: “We need to see what every one of our ancestors saw when they looked at creation. We need to ensure that no manmade end will find us.” On June 3, 1992, the High Court of Australia ruled that the lands of Australia were not terra nullius at the time of European settlement, that the land was a story, that the land was a collection of stories well before James Cook first sailed into Botany Bay in 1770.
I watched the video three more times before I got up and entered the exhibit.