Distraction Free Reading

Choreographies of Magic and Mess: AusSTS in Melbourne and Darwin

As the presenter encouraged the academics in the room to consider what it means for nanotechnology to sell itself as ‘magic’, boots appeared outside the window behind him. The presenter was Dr. Declan Kuch from the University of NSW and the occasion was the AusSTS Graduate Workshop, which was held on the 12th floor of Deakin Downtown in Melbourne. The provocation Dr. Kuch presented: ‘who performs the magic and for whom?’, was illuminated by the real time, situated magical performance unfolding behind him, as four high-rise window washers descended, each swiping and cleaning in hypnotic choreography. They wore orange helmets and gloves to keep warm, blue buckets clipped to their belts and bandanas protecting their faces from the water, or perhaps from us, as we smiled and pointed and ogled at their daring feats. It was an STS moment: the physicality of the window washers; the labour/danger dynamic; talk of magic and nanotechnology—science and humanities colliding in a discomforting dance.

The event was the first official AusSTS Symposium of an emerging and growing group of STS (Science and Technology Studies) scholars, who were inspired to reconvene after the 4S conference held in Sydney last year. The focus of the symposium was interdisciplinarity. People drawn to STS from many and varied disciplines gathered in Melbourne, developing forms of practice with similarly diverse genealogies. We are brought together by similar questions and queries, but also as PhD students and Early Career Researchers we are finding out ways to go on, and means to think, through our collective efforts together.

Reflection on place: Melbourne

During the conference, the window washers reminded us of our situatedness in the inner heart of a growing city. Along with the bustling building site opposite Deakin Downtown, which similarly entranced us with CFMEU (the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union) flags flying from cranes and builders in high vis perched precariously on rickety scaffolding, they showed some of the work of a busy city like Melbourne. We were all—the window-washers, the academics, the office workers in suits, the baristas in the cafes on the ground floor of the building—involved in the performance of the city. The window-washers briefly perforated the conference, showing one small element of the hidden work of maintaining a city and our academic meeting place, and the inherent inequalities of this labour.

They now give us the opportunity to explore what was made possible by meeting in the particular place of downtown Melbourne. The workshop participants came from diverse places of study and fieldwork. Our TopEndSTS* crew travelled from northern Australia and relished the experience of finding intellectual kin. Meeting in Melbourne made it possible for us to think with and through places and practices of STS work that exceed our everyday experiences and may enrich and expand what we do together. Where we normally work, the physicality of the tropics drains our bodies and brains, and we relished being able to use the space and cool climate of Melbourne to breathe and think. There was something new available to us in Melbourne, with a multitude of disciplinary bents—gender, queer and trans studies, history and philosophy of science, anthropology, cultural studies, and environmental humanities—that we do not often get access to think with or through. As one TopEndSTS’er said when reminiscing about being in Melbourne: “I really liked the dumplings … and talking about things that made sense.” The access to contemporary theoretical engagements helps us to make sense of our research, easing anxieties about disciplinary differences and helping those gathered to collectively and generously claim a space for STS scholarship in Australia with more confidence.

It was refreshing to hear keynotes unapologetically posing us with personal and scholarly challenges. Speaking on ‘Animal Anarchy, and the Secret Life of Pets’, Jack Halberstam pushed us to consider: ‘what if we are the masters that need to be overthrown?’ Cordelia Fine drew on her own experience grappling with gender and neuroscience to point to various confusions: of political equality and psychological similarity (in gender), of facts and values (in science), and accusations of left-wing bias putting politics before evidence.

Sessions were clustered in sessions of five-minute presentations, a rapid-fire format which offered just enough time to get a clear sense of a piece of work, but not so much that there was time to tune out. By the end of each cluster of five-minute presentations, participants were ready to talk. The sessions were carefully named, giving rise to interesting discussions on immunity, community, creative, infrastructure, elemental, code, care, evidence, climate, narrative, pathology, and binary, as participants searched for some transformative components of research.

Several practical, skills-based workshops (including podcasting and communicating your research) assisted in configuring us as academics and exploring creative ways we can share our work and engage with our fields. They helped us to identify ways to inhabit the academic space where we are always juggling and interweaving different contexts of practice, public, and scholarly audiences.

Reflection on place: Darwin

In a fit of enthusiasm (and perhaps a dumpling-induced stupor), we found ourselves volunteering to host next year’s AusSTS graduate event at Charles Darwin University in Darwin. We are now considering what it might mean to invite Australia’s STS community to the country’s most remote and least populous capital: far away from the intellectual hubs of the sandstone universities, closer to Asia than any other Australian city, and routinely derided as a colonial outpost, backpacker stop-off, or defence base. What would happen if we consciously foregrounded Darwin, if we actively encouraged attendees to let the outside in? It is not a suggestion to be taken lightly. As Tess Lea writes, during the oppressive build-up to the wet season in Darwin, “your brain seems to be melting and tempers flare; irritability spreads from itching skin to the whole world. Only the fish, mozzies, fleas and cattle ticks are happy, breeding faster in the steaming heat” (Darwin, 2014, p 14)**. Lea’s quote more than hints at agencies beyond the human that are confoundingly ever-present in Darwin. To let the outside in here is to be uncomfortable, disconcerted, and frayed, but hopefully also open to the possibility of recognising alternative values and lifeworlds.

We would argue that dwelling with these moments of disconcertment is a hallmark of STS research in the Northern Territory. Helen Verran’s work over many years in North-East Arnhem land draws attention to the epistemic and ontological differences between Western and Yolngu Indigenous knowledge traditions. She calls for us as scholars to pay attention to how these different practices go on together, yet ‘abut and abrade’ to create postcolonial moments that challenge, interrupt, and hopefully redistribute the power relations within which we are enmeshed, enabling alternative possibilities for understanding and enacting the world (Verran, 2002). The current crop of TopEndSTS researchers see our permanent situatedness in our field sites, and our seemingly permanent state of disconcertment, as integral to our research. We have been discussing how we can make this overpowering and sometimes troubling sense of place integral to next year’s event. We are contemplating ideas as diverse as ‘walkshops’ through a mangrove-lined PFAS-contaminated creek snaking through the suburbs, deafening reckonings with military aircraft noise pollution, collaboration with our Indigenous co-researchers, and confrontations with how Darwin’s settler logic is predicated on Indigenous erasure.

Back in Melbourne, during the ‘narrative’ panel in which Dr. Kuch presented, presenters explored the mess in academic work while the mess on the windows was cleaned up by the washers outside. Otherwise normal academic presentations were disrupted to remind us that our work also happens outside, among the dust and the dirt. We clean it up to fit it into presentations and academic papers, but as STS has taught us, it cannot ever be entirely disentangled from the mess of the world. We look forward to welcoming STS researchers to Darwin next year for #AusSTS2020 to explore some of the mess made possible in this tropical place we call home.


* TopEndSTS is a group of scholars and practitioners who are based in northern Australia and share an interest in STS research and sensitivities.

** We do not intend to subject attendees to the actual build-up—the time of year prior to the wet season, where heat and humidity increase exponentially. The workshop will be held in the perfect weather of the Darwin dry season, we promise.

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