Against Disappearance: Essays on Memory | The Saturday Paper

‘Nearly every writer here seems wary of the risks of putting something on the record and into the crosshairs of the governable. The space between the lines is heavy with purposeful omissions as well as inherited silences.’

I reviewed the latest Liminal anthology, Against Disappearance (ed. Leah Jing McIntosh and Adolfo Aranjuez), for The Saturday Paper.

You Can’t Ask That

If you want to watch me on the telly, I’m in the new season of the ABC series You Can’t Ask That in an episode about Chinese Australians. Stream it on iview or wait for it to air every Wednesday at 9pm (I’m on June 9).

Jinghua holds a placard saying 'What does dog taste like?'

I can’t apply for another grant

Jinghua Qian, ‘I can’t apply for another grant’, Un magazine 14.2 (print, audio and digital), November 2020. Edited by Elena Gomez.

My friends keep sending me grants and opportunities. I appreciate it, I really do. It’s nice to know that people are thinking of me. But I never want to apply for a grant again. I can’t. My body recoils. It feels like taking my skin off for nothing.

We’ve all been talking a lot this year about the perverse relationship between art, money and survival. ‘Artists are in a constant state of precarity and crisis,’ I wrote in July. ‘For many of us, there’s nothing to return to, nothing to recover. The status quo is already broken. It’s an empty bowl — with a smear of racism, sexism and ableism to boot.’

In August, I followed up with an opinion piece in The Guardian about going on the dole and navigating the sadistic and absurd mutual obligations system for welfare recipients: ‘It does nothing to help people find work. It’s just a complicated, expensive way of penalising people for being poor.’ But as awful as Centrelink is, arts funding is somehow even worse. At least the dole is ongoing and not a lottery. Arts funding bodies, on the other hand, want you to craft a 10-page proposal to compete for a minuscule chance at a trickle of money. One template rejection I received this year said that only six per cent of applicants had been successful. Another rejection came to me five months after applications had closed. In both cases, the grants themselves were less than $5,000 — not even three weeks’ worth of the average weekly earnings for a full-time adult worker in Australia.1

The quick-response grants that emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic were often no better. My eyes glazed over as I scanned the same buzzwords: resilience, adaptability, relief. Each time I was left confused about whether these grants were intended to provide for my welfare or to fund new projects and activities — whether they were offered as charity or investment. Each time I felt like I was handing in my CV and portfolio at the soup kitchen counter. Each time my shoulders seized, awaiting judgement, anticipating rejection. This is not relief.

For all its faults, JobSeeker is easily the most effective arts funding program in this country. Going on the dole has helped my career and my craft far more than any arts grant ever has. Knowing that the fortnightly payments will at least cover my rent is a huge relief, pulling the plug from my brimming tub of baseline anxiety. It’s also given me more intellectual and creative freedom because I’m less reliant on fitting my vision to the categories and priorities of funding bodies. I don’t have to contort my work so that it speaks to diversity instead of antiracism, inclusion instead of decolonisation, identity instead of ideology, or other bureaucratic definitions that are always just slightly misaligned with my own thinking.

Thanks to JobSeeker, I’ve done some of my best work this year. In fact, I’ve been weirdly prolific, pitching and publishing more than ever. I’m much more comfortable pitching to editors than applying for grants. Media and publishing is still subject to commercial imperatives, of course, and that comes with its own set of problems and limitations, but the grant process feels particularly alienating, disheartening and disruptive. All I ever want from the arts funding bureaucracy is time to write, and JobSeeker gives me that without getting between me and my audience. I think if more people could access the dole, and the rate were higher, it would make an enormous difference to cultural life. I would rather arts organisations fight for that than for more arts funding.

Most independent artists are already working across a range of industries in order to survive, and many rely on welfare, but often arts advocacy tends to emphasise how art is exceptional. I think it’s worth taking note of the peculiarities of making art, but we can’t lose sight of the bigger picture. We need to organise in solidarity with workers in education, media, publishing and other cultural industries, and even beyond. I’m not convinced that it’s useful or even truthful to focus narrowly on how artists are special when our needs are the same as those of all precarious workers — of all people.

The pandemic has generated plenty of chatter about saving the arts, but it’s also burnished the deep ambivalence many of us feel about this sector and how it operates. In the conversations I’ve had with other artists, there’s always an undercurrent of revolutionary rage. We’ve all been talking about how this year offers an opportunity to rethink this sector — what if we set it on fire and started over?

Arts funding is a cancer. Applying for it has become its own job, a job no one enjoys or wants. I’m not sure that anyone is even funding the arts, really — it feels more like art happens by accident as a decorative footnote to the work of endless applications, assessments, acquittals and evaluations. I’m sure some of these elements were once designed as accountability mechanisms, but they have grown monstrously out of control. Like the mutual obligation system for welfare recipients, the arts funding process is disproportionate and counterproductive. There are easier ways to give artists money.

I think a competition-based funding model is inherently destructive. I don’t understand why it’s accepted that in the arts, sport and entertainment industries a tiny elite should profit and everyone else should suffer in poverty for daring to try. Even under capitalism, that’s not how it works in most professions. Funding shouldn’t be a prize or an honour, it should provide a living wage so people can make art without some other source of wealth or income.

We’ve all been talking about this for such a long time and I’m so tired of it. I don’t want to tinker with this system, shifting the priorities and massaging the language. I’m not excited about heralding a new cohort of gatekeepers. I’m not interested in diversity and inclusion. I just want to overthrow capitalism already.

Ultimately, I don’t believe in meritocracy. I don’t believe in excellence. Survival is not a reward. We all deserve to have our basic needs met.

I don’t understand why it’s easier to get paid to administer arts funding than to make art. I don’t understand most of the jobs that exist in this society — they seem to bear no relation to the world that I live in or what it needs. They bear no relation to what I understand as value or a life worth living. Capitalism devalues so much work that’s important and necessary while creating jobs that just tick boxes and move money around. I think that might be the most dystopian thing in this hellscape. We live in a time when no one needs to be hungry, homeless or overworked. It should be possible for all of us to thrive. I want a radical redistribution of time and resources, a reimagining of labour and value. I want to unravel this tangle of art, money and survival so that the next time we talk about this, it’s an entirely different conversation.

1. For May 2020, full-time adult average weekly earnings in Australia were $1,713.90. See: ‘Average Weekly Earnings, Australia,’ Australian Bureau of Statistics, 15 August 2020.

Jinghua Qian is a Shanghainese writer living in Melbourne, on the land of the Kulin Nations. Ey has written on desire, resistance and diaspora for Overland, Meanjin, Sydney Morning Herald and The Guardian.

Underfoot: underground histories from Footscray 3011

Finally it’s launch day!

Underfoot presents four virtual audio tours through Footscray’s past. Liz and I bring an intimate lens to local history as we wander the streets and the archives looking for people like us: queers, migrants, radicals and artists. There are some big conversations about capitalism, nationalism and settler nativism, as well as some finely aged gossip.

Each track comes with a map, transcript, photos and notes so you can either explore these places in real life (observing social distancing!) or just enjoy the stories while staying home. You can even dive into some historical research yourself if you’re so inclined.

Here it is: Underfoot.

Border violence as settler nativism

Jinghua Qian, ‘Border violence as settler nativism’, The Platform, 26 July 2014.

Asked to contemplate what a cross-border politics in Australia could look like today, I want to stress that for me, a movement beyond borders is not a movement of no nations or against nationhood. In fact one of the earliest interactions I had with the Beyond Borders Collective when it first formed was to question a photo on the group’s Facebook page at the time which showed a banner stating ‘no borders, no nations’.

I believe supporting Indigenous sovereignty is essential to cross-border politics, and indeed no contradiction, if a cross-border politics understands that all people have the right to determine their law and the future of their land, though no nation has the right to refuse entry to vulnerable peoples. This is no contradiction unless the only way you can conceive of a country is as private property – which unfortunately seems to be not only a popular metaphor but the dominant interpretation driving government policy.

As Lorenzo Veracini wrote recently in Arena magazine (No. 125, Aug/Sep 2013):

global condemnation of Australia’s stance in 2001 was met with ‘No one can tell me what to do’, ‘Nobody understands us’, and ‘I didn’t do it’ responses (that is, they threw the children overboard), and a Prime Minister who was extraordinarily in touch with public sentiment was speaking about entry to the country as if he was sixteen and talking about his room: ‘We will determine who comes to this country and under what circumstances’.

We shouldn’t accept this metaphor, this myth that a nation is dependent on border policing, and that a country is analogous to private property.

Another question this panel was asked was how can we break from the language that defines the discussion around borders now? This is imperative because a lot of pro-refugee rhetoric doesn’t challenge the problematic ways the discussion has been framed by the right. We need to resist phrases like ‘genuine refugees’ or ‘economic migrants’ or ‘the lucky country’ when it’s only ever been lucky for some, or language that feeds the lie of terra nullius by suggesting Australia is ‘young’, ‘free’ and full of empty space. We need to refuse to make these constant ongoing reassurances that only a small, manageable number of refugees will arrive, that they will be harmless and grateful and assimilate, that they will contribute labour and consumable diversity but nothing disconcerting or transformative. We need to reject this rhetoric not only because it legitimates a claims process that is traumatising, invasive and victimising, but also because it legitimates the Australian government’s right to decide.

The perceived threat of people crossing borders is only part of what motivates Australian policy, so assuaging this anxiety is only part of challenging border violence. Operation Sovereign Borders is very explicitly and obviously about the colonial state performing sovereignty, as are earlier iterations of border control. This tactic has been part of Australian history since the start of colonial occupation. The Colony of Victoria passed the Chinese Act limiting the number of Chinese immigrants on 11 June 1855, before even the first Constitution Bill passed the Victorian House of Commons. And of course, the Immigration Restriction Act was quite famously one of the first major pieces of legislation passed after Federation in 1901. Aboriginal people have been subject to numerous controls on movement in their own countries throughout Australia’s history as well as forced eviction from their lands. This includes an exemption certificate system through which one could access rights otherwise denied to Aboriginal people at the time, such as the right to own land or open a bank account, but in exchange had to seek state permission before visiting family on reserves.

Border violence is central to colonial governments in Australia establishing and legitimating themselves, not least by promoting the notion of Australia as a single country and presenting the border as a natural geographic feature, formed by oceans and waters as Suvendrini Perera discusses. And in fact Australia’s colonial past is brought up quite often in relation to border violence, for example in images of the First Fleet as ‘boat people’. This imagery is important because the fear of invasion as retribution is a powerful motif in white Australian imagination, a motif that Meaghan Morris calls ‘the chain of displacement’. Border violence is part of projecting the invader as outside and other, and functions as a concealment of European invasion.

But bringing up the colonial past can also normalise or nativise settler colonization, and erase Indigenous subjectivity and sovereignty in slogans like ‘we are all boat people’. A focus on the moment of invasion or on the colonial past positions colonisation as history, as a done deal, to which the only sensible responses are regret and apology, or pride and forgetfulness. But Australia has a colonial present. The border is not a natural or inevitable thing and neither is colonisation.

Understanding colonisation as an ongoing and always incomplete process suggests a future that’s open to change. It shifts the onus of explanation to those who want to create and maintain borders rather than those who want to question them. It challenges the myth that refugees are a breach in an otherwise secure border. And it reaches through to a space where white Australia is and can only ever be a fiction that is made material through violence.

This article, published in Anarchist Affinity’s print magazine The Platform in 2014, is adapted from Jinghua’s speech for the Movement Beyond Borders public forum held on Wurundjeri land at the Victorian Trades Hall on Saturday 30 November 2013. The forum was organised by the Beyond Borders Collective, with speakers Kaneez Raza, Angela Mitropoulos, Dawood, Ruben Blake and Jinghua Qian sharing their perspectives, followed by questions and discussion with the audience. You can watch the video of the forum here (1 hour 54 minutes).