Aesthetic Anxiety or Performative Subjectivity

A Report on the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation Symposium:

Aesthetic Anxiety or Performative Subjectivity: national narratives encountering migrant architecture in Australia Thursday 16th and Friday 17th November 2017

Aesthetic Anxiety or Performative Subjectivity: national narratives encountering migrant architecture in Australia was the first Alfred Deakin Institute symposium to explore the role of architecture and urbanism in understanding issues of identity and diversity. The Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation is a strategic research institute supporting multidisciplinary research at the interface of politics and culture on major issues of race, citizenship and identity. This symposium focussed on how architecture actively produces and negotiates culture(s) and was convened by ADI members Mirjana Lozanovska (architecture) with Michele Lobo (cultural geography) and Louise Johnson (Australian studies). A one-day symposium of eleven papers with additional HDR and organisational presentations was held at the Deakin University, Council Chamber on 17th November 2017.

The symposium aims to generate a cross-disciplinary discussion on architecture related to migration and the multicultural representation of Australian society. Migration and multiculturalism constitute significant conditions of Australian society and a substantial field of research in several disciplines – anthropology, geography, cultural studies. But the research in and about architecture is fragmented. Scholars that have addressed this field are dispersed and scattered over several disciplines and across the nation. The take up in the architecture discipline has been incremental, but new interest has vindicated some of the pioneering work and two anthologies – Migrancy and Architecture (Cairns, Routledge, 2004) and Ethno-Architecture and the Politics of Migration (Lozanovska, Routledge, 2016) directly on this subject provide a platform for this discourse. Further, the aim of this symposium is to initiate ongoing exchange through a network of scholars and representatives from associated institutions that can be called upon for particular activities, and research collaboration.

The symposium invited scholars working at the interface of architecture, history, and migration studies to submit papers on how diverse cultures are negotiated on the ground? The term ‘aesthetic anxiety’ refers to the immediate reaction to ethnic looking buildings and landscapes – the tone that such productions are not easily accommodated, digested, or representative of a collective culture. The term ‘performative subjectivity’ refers to the many activities and practices that migrants go about to make themselves at home in Australia, which from an architectural lens involve constructions, adaptations, interventions, and inscriptions into the built landscape. These two terms frame a discussion about migration and architecture: on the one hand, the resulting built landscape of migrants’ activities enables and produces a form of belonging, a process of settling, and an agency; on the other, the resulting built landscape does not always fit within the narratives of the nation, its reception is ambiguous, and it is not represented as a contribution.

The symposium was opened by a keynote address by the eminent Australian anthropologist Ghassan Hage. The aim of his address “Lenticular Dwelling,” was to shift our thinking about migration predominantly considered as a problem and as an issue, to a thinking based on a field he called the ‘diasporic condition.’ Professor Hage outlined the concept of a lenticular form understood through the metaphor of the granulated postcards that change images depending on the angle from which they are seen: smiling face/frowning face, Harbour Bridge/Opera House, Jesus/Mary, contrasting the single image/reality captured in photographs. The Lenticular surface does not offer one image that looks different according to how you look at it, but two or three images. The Lenticular provides the basis of an ontological theory about co-existing realities and multi- or pluri- realism as an alternative to the dominant ideas of mono-existence structured by monogamy, monotheism, mono-perspectivism and by extension, mono-ethno-nationalism. The mulitiple images were a way to reflect on the diasporic condition as a process involving vascillation between a multiplicity of realities. My understanding is that over sixty people attended this event.

The papers extended, challenged and provided compelling histories and accounts of migrants’ architectural productivity and how this navigated their place in Australia. In the final session entitled, National Imaginary, papers on the substantial historical roles of the Afghani cameliers (Scriver) and the Chinese immigrants during the gold rush (Beynon), and the Asiatic interests of Hardy Wilson (Van der Plaat) introduced pre-twentieth century Australian architecture as multiple and diverse and challenged the singularity of historiography that reinforces it as pre-dominantly British. These papers showed the multiple cultural realities that developed the conditions for the making of the Australian nation. Papers in the session, Home ground, pointed to the kinds of research approaches and methodologies required to capture the complex and sometimes subtle ways that architecture interacts with the construction of everyday dwelling and its vascillating existential condition. These included intricate observation (Levin, de Jong), expanding the scope of heritage (Dellios), and creating new metaphoric approaches to historiography (Pieris). Mobility emerged as a powerful condition framed by the ship as the vessel for the journey of migration (Taylor) as it appeared in several papers. Papers in the session Politics of Aesthetics, explored the public role of migrant architecture. It was noted how migrant architecture is perceived as visually dominant but that this was an outcome of an anxiety of its reception in the broader community (Rudner, Shahani, Butt), and how buildings for ethnic communities stage various intercultural interactions, and build multicultural spaces (Shinde). Aesthetics was also alternately theorised as affect and a site for potential and hope (Lobo).

Professor Ghassan Hage attended the entire day of the paper presentations and responded to the papers in the form of a summary, presenting a few critical points to further a discourse on architecture and migration. He pointed to a sense of repetition and found that migrants seemed to be erased from the discourse on architecture and this revealed a significant scale of defeat in the agenda for their representation. Secondly there was a homogenization of the category of migrant, and Hage pointed to the consideration of home-building as extended beyond the instrumental logic of construction towards the ways it constitutes relationships and the collective. Similarly, not all intercultural relations are necessarily multicultural as the latter require another layer of production. Architecture can offer more rigorous thinking on the ideas of front/back and other key constituent aspects, and how these construct particular relations of inhabitants and the broader community. It is important also to define and historicise particular operations of racism or discrimination. Hage pointed to the current form of racism defining it as an anxious racism that is revealed in a crisis of how it operates as racism, a performativity crisis. The summary spoke to the limits of frameworks as they cross disciplines and the potential for working in cross-disciplinary ways.