Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 3, No. 1, 1990
Space * Meaning * Politics
Edited by the Institute for Cultural Policy Studies, Griffith University

Culture of coincidence: notes on a performance piece called Mirror States

Paul Carter

'Mirror States,' like a number of other scripts Paul Carter has written for A.B.C. FM's 'Surface Tension' and 'The Listening Room' programs, is loosely in the tradition of the 'new radio play' pioneered in Germany in the 1950s - one of the leading producers of Horspiel or acoustic art, Klaus Schoning of Radio Koln, was co-producer of the voices for Mirror States.

However, in subject matter and treatment, Mirror States has a decidedly local nuance. First, its theme: the overlaying of the history of European-Aboriginal contact by a later history - that of the building of Melbourne's World Trade centre, and after, the Rialto building. Second, Mirror States takes up the author's own challenge, enunciated at the end of The Road to Botany Bay (1987), to create a form of art that re-occupies the country we inhabit, that re-names it in ways that are 'local' and not nostalgic nods in the direction of other countries.

Acoustic art - the treatment of voice, environmental and composed sound as equivalent forms of musical expression - has been pioneered in the medium of radio; but it also lends itself to the creation of sound sculptures or installations. Mirror States uses raw sound collected in many-storeyed office blocks: when these sounds are composed, mixed with voices and other environmental sounds, and played back inside such buildings, they can suggest the other history always potential in this building - the other building which, if we listened differently, we might inhabit. The noted sound artist and recordist, Les Gilbert, collaborated on the composition of Mirror States as an on-site sculpture.

In these Notes on a Performance Piece, Paul Carter explores some of the aesthetic and historical issues raised by Mirror States and ,more broadly, by work of this kind that does not take the performance space for granted but sees it as a place to be constructed.'

'I hear voices in everything and dialogic relations among them.' Mikhail Bakhtin

My introduction to Mirror States, a performance text for seven voices and four environmental soundtracks commissioned by 'The Listening Room' (A.B.C. FM and Radio National), contains the following remarks:

'...what sound conjures up is not a former place - in this case the Yarra as it must have been in 1835 - but a possible space, a conference centre, where chance sounds might have gathered to create another place, one like the one we inhabit, but different, unconstrained by the rhetoric of too-exclusive opposition, one in which words and signs had yet to be silenced by objects, wall, walls of glass, mirrors ...

... in this way, the piece maps the 'Pool', the stretch of Yarra between Princes Bridge and Charles Grime Bridge. It is local history in the sense of being a sound history, the history of a place with no other name ...'

At first sight, these statements seem to abound in contradictions. On the one hand, Mirror States is not local history in the conventional sense - it does not aim to conjure up a former place, the Yarra in 1835, but only a 'possible place'. On the other hand, it lays claim to being 'local history ... the history of a place with no other name'.

Apart from the thematic self-contradiction, there also seems to be a formal or generic confusion. Local history, like any other narrative history, is linear. It unfolds chronologically. It is a monologue in which one voice (the historian's) dominates. Scored for seven voices and four sound tracks, Mirror States is clearly not 'history' in the ordinary sense of the word. Besides, history is concerned with written documents, not with spoken sounds and even less with 'natural' sound. Surely the claims of Mirror States are, if anything, literary rather than historical.

But suppose that, instead of taking the place where history occurs for granted, we concern ourselves with how the place itself comes into being, acquires a name and identity. Suppose that we conceive places, not in terms of their physical properties (their topography, their buildings), but as zones of communication, 'places' only by virtue of the convergence of voices there and the repetition and dissemination of increasingly significant sounds.

Suppose that we take up my challenge at the end of The Road to Botany Bay: to write a history 'which revealed the everyday world in which we live as the continuous intentional re-enactment of our spatial history'1 then we might find that these contradictions disappeared.

'If, then, there is a genuine difference between the literary description of visual matter and the recording in words of things belonging to a non-literary, visual medium, is it not possible that a writer may find it necessary to have his dramatic dialogue completed by - not just accompanied by - a specific kind of visual staging? This indeed would be basically a new type of art, as shown also by the fact that the author himself would have to take care in detail of the visual production since it would represent "the other half" of his work itself rather than simply a subsequent "performance" of it.'

Rudolf Arnheim

Let me take up the formal question first: if Mirror States is history, albeit of an unconventional kind, why is it conceived as a performance piece?

The brief answer is: because it is a history of voices, and dialogue, the historical space the voice performs, is what history leaves out. (And not only history, but linguistics when it concentrates on the normative principles of grammar and syntax at the expense of the innovative, historically contingent processes of hearing and speaking.)

This tendency of writing - of language conceived as a system - to silence the individual differences of voices, the dialogic means by which meanings are formed and deformed - looks very economical. By defining language in terms of a system of abstractions (fixed spellings, fixed pronunciation), it seems to reduce endless individual differences to order. But this new control is achieved at great cost. 'To the Enlightenment', write Adorno and Horkheimer, 'that which does not reduce to numbers, and ultimately to the one, becomes illusion; modern positivism writes it off as literature'.2 Something similar is true of historical writing formed on rational, sociological principles: it tends to write off the meaning generated by dialogue as illusory, purely subjective. It tends to ignore the space of dialogue.

So, in recovering the network of sounds that constitute a place, it is necessary to listen to aspects of the language that the written records may contain, but which rationalising history leaves out because they appear irrational, inexplicable.

But it is not enough simply to point out these irrational elements: their meaning must be revealed, and this involves recreating a context in which they once again speak and signify. For instance, in the early days of contact between Europeans and Aborigines in Australia, Aborigines frequently took the names of white people. Anthropologists can readily provide the cultural context for this practice: but how did Europeans and Aborigines experience this doubling identity, this ghostly sensation of being mirrored everywhere by one's own other? In Melbourne, in the months after Gellibrand was declared lost in the bush, his black namesake was alive and well in Collins Street.

To evoke that culture of coincidences, it is not enough to 'stage' history: we need to take up Arnheim's reflection on the role of the writer in film, and extend it to the whole realm of technological art. We need to enact the mirroring effect of words repeated, doubled, echoed, emptied of one signification only to be filled by another. This involves doing away with stage directions and writing them into the script. The text has to internalise the conditions of its own performance. The stage, the visual and musical effects - Arnheim's 'other half' - have to be stipulated in the arrangement of the voices themselves. For, as I have indicated, apart from the exchange of voices there is no place, nowhere anything can be performed.

'in order to understand history, one needed a type of vision that only people placed at the crossroads could provide. That is, people who lived between cultures, who were forced to live double lives, belonging to no group, and these he called "the people in-between" ...'

Antigone Kefala

Mirror States centres around a coincidence. In 1835, the leader of the Port Phillip Association, John Batman, purchased from the 'Dutigalla' tribe 600,000 acres of land, including what was soon to become Melbourne. Among the objects he exchanged for this land were 'thirty looking glasses' or mirrors; a further sixty mirrors per annum were to be handed over as 'a tribute or rent yearly.'

In 1982 the Grollo-St Martin's consortium began the construction of a skyscraper office-block, called Rialto. This tower, planned as the first of two at the junction of Collins Street and King Street, was then completed a year later, sixty stories high and completely clad in mirror glass.

There were other, subtler ways in which the building one journalist referred to as 'the ultimate in mirror tombstones' (he later 'repented') distortedly reflected events one hundred and fifty years earlier. The way, for example, in which this mirror building dominated its surroundings, while appearing merely to mirror them, to identify with them, accurately reflected the method by whic, at first, Aborigines and Europeans strove to make sense of the situation they found themselves in. What are the Rialto's dark mirrors, if not latter day portraits of the seven New South Wales Aborigines Batman took with him to persuade the local people, 'I was, although a white, a countryman of theirs'? As Batman explained, 'for the purpose of opening an intercourse with the natives by means of those under my charge ... I equipped them in their native dresses.'3

During the first years of the settlement on the Yarra, not only names were exchanged, but clothes, gestures and identities; a new hybrid language briefly evolved, based, not on the accurate understanding and representation of desires, but, on the absence of real communication. Its principles were those of pastiche and parody. But, like a building that pretends it is not there, this reduction of all behaviour to mutual mimicry leads, finally, to invisibility.

Aborigines, like Europeans, understood perfectly well the dangers of parody. Daisy Bates records the care that a member of the Wordungmat people took 'not to mimic the cry of the manitch [totemic White Cockatoo] that flies shrieking over his head, feeling certain that should he do so, the manitch would resent the mockery by 'putting magic' into the offender.'4 Our secular culture finds mimicry equally provocative: nothing offends the powerful more deeply than mockery. It makes them feel powerless: it is as if their identity has been taken away from them.

However, the situation in the mirror state of early Aboriginal-European contact was different: for there was no shared identity, no shared sign language that could provide the context for their transgression. And because nothing lay behind the voices and actions, all that could be mimicked was the sensation of emptiness, of being an image confronting an image.

Bungaree, the Aborigine who sailed with Flinders, was, we are told, 'a brilliant mimic and used to do hilarious impersonations of the Governors and other leading figures .... Unlike Bennelong he was able to return to his Aboriginal identity and the support of his people'.5 Yet Parbury adds, 'it was also said that he survived by accepting the inevitable and "playing it for laughs"'. Like Antigone Kefala's people, Bennelong survived by pretending to have no identity, by positioning himself in-between. The only evidence of his selfhood is the laughter he evokes in his onlookers.

It might be said that the similarities between the new Rialto building and the terms of Batman's treaty are purely coincidental. They do not mean anything. But that might be the point: ours has been, historically speaking, a culture of coincidence. In this sense the Rialto building is the perfect expression of our local history.

(Sound Environment 3; City Noise, Sounds of Exchange, Pipes, Lines)

Voice 7. Nuther ...

Voice 3. Over there, the ocean's corporate roar, the rip cord unzipping hedgerows of May

Voice 4. Jaga Jaga

Voice 3. Over here, light doubloons roll between rocks, sub-vocal gongs, the endless spilling out of currency

Voice 7. No DUTI-galla

Voice 3. Anemones, sea-mirrors fading back to sand

Voice 4. Jika Jika

Voice 3. And here, the chirruping of invisible birds

Voice 7. Nineteen, twenty pairs of blankets

Voice 3. The roar or, as we might have said, 'The Russians are coming'.

Voice 7. 'You? Dutigalla, you? ... Oh, and thirty mirrors ... Six hundred thousand acres, more or less ... Eh, Jacky? Me, "Dutigullar, Dutigullar"'

Voice 3. So Batman christened himself, evidently euphoric

Voice 1. If I stop talking, I will die

Voice 1 & 2. Your face is glass

Voice 4 & 3. Joker

Mirror States, Scene 3

'Word by word I began to comprehend what they said, and soon understood - as if by instinct - that they intended to remain in the country ...'

William Buckley

But there is more to be said about this culture of coincidence. Coincidences are anathema to history. Nothing seems to follow from them; no motive can be ascribed to them. They have no origins. What, beyond their sound links 'Jaga Jaga' (the name of no less than five Aboriginal signatories to the Batman treaty) to 'Joker'? What, beyond the near coincidence of sound, connects the local appellation "Jika Jika' (now the name of the high security wing of Pentridge gaol) and the generic name for any helpful Aborigine, 'Jacky' or 'Jacky Jacky'? These near homophones cannot be reduced to equivalence: they are not variants of a lost work. Rather, their meaning is defined contextually. Their similarity to one another merely reflects the fact that we read rather than hear them, that the context of utterance has been suppressed.

Mick Jagger, Elgar's disguised friend Jaeger, a Jag and the Wicked queen's jagged mirror: in context, we have no difficulty distinguishing these. But what if all we have is the bare sounds, the jagged fragments? They look alike, but how are they to be pieced together? And, if we piece them together, what do we make except a mirror to our own desire for unity?

But this kind of verbal coincidence is not therefore ahistorical, simply 'literature'. An interest in it does not reveal nothing more than a Joycean weakness for puns. For, from the proliferation of such floating signifiers, a certain kind of order nevertheless emerges. Even if social transactions cannot be grounded in authoritative and unambiguous original meanings, they can acquire value and stability by the mere fact of repetition. Certain words, more or less meaningless to begin with, can, by repeatedly standing in for what cannot be said, at least signify the limits of dialogue - the space between that remains unoccupied, unnamed.

Take this passage from the journals of the Port Phillip Chief Protector of Aborigines, George Augustus Robinson:

My natives were highly amused and passed their jokes on the gibberish used by the white men, as "very good this way", "no good that way", "man him", "bullock tucker", "talk talk, walk walk", "where you leep leep". And this is what the white people call speaking the native language.6

The speech patterns jocularly imitated here resemble the 'restricted coding' of the kind of pidgin employed where speech 'is not perceived as a major means of presenting inner states to the other'.7 But it goes beyond this.

The tone of communication here is ironic. The Aborigines treat these gibberish phrases sarcastically: they parody them. It is in the difference between the effect that the European speakers intend and the effect they actually create that the meaning (the humour and sense of social cohesion) arises. But the meaning resides in the failure of these phrases to signify as intended; the Aborigines' mockery expresses the deeper non-communication these phrases communicate.

In expressing the non-expressiveness of what the whites say, the Aborigines tell nothing less than the truth. For the gibberish of the Europeans departs from normal speech patterns, simply in order to imitate what they take to be the structures of Aboriginal speech. Trapped in the mirror of the other, they have sought to make their English sound familiar and comprehensible. But, such is the logic of this culture of coincidence, that even this can not assure communication: for their imitation of Aboriginal speech is not a straight imitation. It has an ironic inflection; it is parodic, overly repetitive, restrictively deictic. The Europeans, too, we guess from this and other contexts, regard this pidgin speech as comic.

This is indeed an imprisoning discourse. Yet, although not grounded in mutual understanding, it succeeds in generating meanings. It becomes capable of communicating group identity and perhaps political purpose - for the twist to this tale is that the 'natives' to whom Robinson refers come, not from Port Phillip, but from Tasmania. They are in-between people, imported to Melbourne for the sole purpose of mediating between Aborigine and European. Their talk is in-between talk. Perhaps one of them was the legendary Wooreddy, the Tasmanian Aborigine who, in a recent novel by Colin Johnson, becomes the leader of an Aboriginal confederacy, bent on throwing out the invader.

In this culture words acquire meaning by repetition. Their significance is 'built up', just as the places where they are repeated acquire identity by their acquisition of dialogic associations. Similarly, a building like the Rialto, whose architecture owed nothing to the harmonious precedent set by the buildings around it, nevertheless acquired identity as it rose into the air. More and more, it revealed what had always been true: that the 19th century buildings of Collins Street were not, after all, originals.

'To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognise it "the way is really was" (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.'

Walter Benjami

According to one of Robinson's deputies, William Thomas:

... long ere the settlement was formed the spot where Melbourne now stands and the flat on which we are now camped (on the south bank of the Yarra) was the regular rendezvous for the tribes know as Waworangs, Boonurongs, Barrabools, Nilunguons, Gouldburns twice a year or as often as circumstances and emergencies required to settle their grievances, revenge, deaths, etc.8

Rialto, too, is conceived as a 'rendezvous' or at least as a conference centre. It is not simply that, like any other office block, it is a communications tower. Rather it represents a direct challenge to Melbourne's World Trade Centre, a couple of blocks away on the Yarra. The Trade Centre has never attracted the tenants it needs in order to become the leading 'rendezvous' for those who produce, sell, buy, publicise, transport, negotiate, finance, inform, analyse, or carry out any other vital role in world trade.'9 Indeed, as early as 1979, the Victorian government, alarmed by descriptions of the Centre a 'a white elephant', considered moving it from North Wharf to the site now occupied by the Rialto tower.

The integration of the two complexes has recently become much more explicit with the construction, currently under way, of a World Congress Centre, next to the World Trade Centre. Like Rialto, this project is managed by construction magnate Bruno Grollo and, while its hotel rooms may attract business to the World Trade Centre, it is more likely that its chief value will be to the Rialto complex, supplementing the hotel space already available at the Menzies at Rialto.

Rising above the north bank of the Yarra, sweeping the river with its shadow, the Rialto building overlays the Aboriginal meeting place with a new kind of conference centre. The earlier meaning of the place is unconsciously recalled at the very moment that it is further buried in the past. Is it this kind of ambiguity that Benjamin has in mind when he speaks of seizing hold 'of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger'?10

In another of his 'Theses on the Philosophy of History', Benjamin writes that, 'The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the moment when it can be recognised and is never seen again.'11 This evokes nothing more clearly than the passage of reflected cloud across the upper mirrors of Rialto. These coincidences are not merely coincidental. For both architecturally and functionally, Rialto symbolises a technologically-based culture of communication that simultaneously depends on the other, which includes the past, and negates its significance.

Consider, briefly, the difference between writing on paper and typing into a VDU; or the difference between face-to-face dialogue and telephone conversation. The computer is able to 'remember' so much because it is built to have no memories of its own; its 'memory' is purely operational. Once the message has been communicated or is done with, it may be erased; nothing material of the past transaction need survive. And, if it does survive, it bears no sign of its historical origins (who typed it, when and where).

Like the computer, the telephone involves a digital mode of communication: you speak, she speaks, you ... But the difference on which this kind of communication depends is a difference that negates difference. To transmit information and to receive it efficiently, it is necessary to commit yourself entirely to language and, in order to make that language a tool of communication, to speak in complementary ways. Even when disagreeing, a kind of symmetry must be observed. To express real difference means putting down the telephone, shattering the mirror state.

These technological facts do indeed bear directly on Mirror States. For if, on the one hand, contemporary models of communication tend to efface earlier models of dialogue and exchange, on the other, these technologies are our contemporary forms of remembering. It is no accident that Benjamin invokes filmic metaphors in his attack on the historicists. The film is not simply a feature of his contemporary reality: it is a technological innovation that alters his perception of reality; it has made the past available to us in new ways and, by that very fact, the past has been changed. Similarly, computer-based technologies of communication must alter our sense of time; in particular, their supreme indifference to physical presence must alter our perception of historical space.

'On arriving in sight of the river, the two natives who were with me, pointing to the river at the Falls, called out "Yarrow Yarrow!" which, at the time, I imagined to be its name; but I afterward learnt that the words were what they used to designate a waterfall, as they afterwards gave the same designation to a small fall in the river Weiribee (Werribee), as we crossed it on our way back to Indented Head.'

James Helder Wedge

The same paradox of the mirror, as the American earth-artist, Robert Smithson, once wrote, is that it is both a 'site' and a 'non-site'. It defines its own place by reflecting somewhere else; it exists here only in so far as it can represent there. A similar paradox informs local history: only when the inhabitant removes himself from his living space does he perceive what is left behind as a locality, a unified place. Only when seen from elsewhere does space achieve the unity of place, becoming somewhere to visit and an image of selfhood.

Similarly, Mirror States may be performed in two ways: in the non-locational medium of radio and in the site-specific form of an installation. But these two versions are not alternatives; rather, they mirror the way in which, in a culture of coincidence, meaning is communicated accretively, by a building up of layers of sound that gradually discriminate between regions of sense and nonsense, becoming speaking places.

One way this effect is achieved in Mirror States is by locating the installation where the environmental soundtracks used in the radio version have been previously recorded. As the recorded sound of the installation overlays the real-time sound around it, acoustic patterns begin to be distinguished: points of high frequency, nebulous regions of unfocussed 'noise', sub-vocal chatter. Gradually, repeated sounds can be made out, syllables, the beginning of voices echoing each other. These voices are both in the performance, in the layering of the text, and supplementary to it, the result of its repetition on-site.

The Yarra came into being as a speaking place, where, according to Wedge, two people spoke and another heard. But what was spoken was not a place at all; while what was heard was another place (a river in England). From the beginning, the Yarra was the name of a place without a name. But, then, this mirrored the conditions in which the new society itself originated and grew. Who, for example, were the 'Dutigalla' from whom Batman allegedly bought the land and after whom he styled himself 'Dutigullar'? 'Daniel Bunce, an early settler who married one of Batman's daughters, held that Dutigalla was a corruption of Nuthergalla from "nuther" meaning "no".'

However, as Alistair Campbell adds, 'by then Nuthergalla may have been an Aboriginal corruption.'12 Thus this culture of coincidence constituted itself proleptically, turning the absence of origins into an affirmation of its own right to exist. Assuming the identity of a ghost, it survived: a mirror to something that was not there. And, as for English, the language of history, even that had to be learnt: William Buckley, whom the Aborigines of Geelong had succoured for more than thirty years because they thought he was the reincarnation of a dead man, heard the words of his home country as if they were a foreign language; belonging to another, former self.

But are these not, after all, the same ironies that confront our contemporary culture in which communication, the successful exchange of confidences, depends on resigning any nostalgia for self expression? To have a place in this culture is to have an image; a name that attaches to no essence but functions, like a file name, enabling the other to key into the illusory presence of your words. As one recently published manual on executive behaviour puts it, if you want to get on in important meetings, 'position yourself strategically ... Seat yourself in the negative positions ...'13

This is the paradox Mirror States embraces: that in a culture of coincidence a local history is always the history of a possible place, one that can boast no name of its own, only a rising tower of voices obliquely mirrored in quiet water.


1 The Road to Botany Bay, 1987, p.350.

2 T. Adorno & M Horkheimer, The Dialectic of Enlightnment 1973, p.6.

3 Historical Records of Victoria, vol.1 p.6.

4 D. Bates, The Native Tribes of Western Australia, 1985, p.193.

5 N. Parbury, Survival, 1987, p.49.

6 G.A. Robinson, 'Journals, May-August 1841', Records of Victorian Archaeological Survey, no.11, 1980, p.47.

7 D. Hymes, ed.,Pidginisation and Creolisation of Languages, Cambridge 1971, p.134.

8 Letter, 1840, Public Records Office, Victoria.

9 Melbourne World Trade Centre publicity.

10 W. Benjamin, Illuminations, 1973, p.257.

11 Ibid, p.257.

12 A Campbell, John Batman and the Aborigines, 1988, p.103.

13 M. Bottomley, Executive Image, 1988.

New: 1 February, 1996 | Now: 12 March, 2015