1. Cockatoo Island
A short ferry ride from Circular Quay in Sydney, Australia.
On Cockatoo Island, what was until recently a hub of the Australian military-industrial complex, visitors are now welcomed and have been since 2007. Efforts have been made to make it a place of leisure; and companies in the ‘creative’ sphere are invited to locate there. There is a big sign saying so. Creative, one can guess, means production companies, designers, architects, ad agencies and so forth. Gentrification takes on many forms. Where once submarines and battleships were built, repaired and refitted, new commercials for toothpaste, nappies, strangely-flavoured crisps and chewing gum will be born. What remains on the island is not so much a lingering military presence, but a new sense of an industrial museum with a very weak pulse.
In 2010 the island was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, not for its role in naval warfare, but as "the best surviving examples of large-scale convict transportation and the colonial expansion of European powers through the presence and labour of convicts" (http://www.cockatooisland.gov.au) which began in 1839. Even though the dockyard closed in 1992, and the last convicts were relocated as early as 1880, the island still bears witness to both operations. And the two seemingly separate timelines are interlinked since the convicts were put to work on the docks and workshops for the Royal Navy prior to their ultimate departure. But because the island was a busy Royal Navy base 1913–1992, this is what is ostensibly still there – many of the buildings, machines, cranes, roads and tunnels speak of military strategy and industrial infrastructure. In other words, it feels as if the island's military past has been given a nod of approval by UNESCO. I have always been sensitive to legitimisation of the arms industry and the military; there ought be a bit of crowbar separation between these and the "rest" of society.
Whenever speaking of such things, I always turn to a much wiser man. My son, who was four years old at the time. One night I read him a bedtime story which involved a medieval knight. The word "weapons" was mentioned, and he immediately asked what it was. Uneasily i gave a few examples of weapons, things he already knew, and concluded by stating they were things "that can harm other people". A few days later he recapped what I had said. Weapons are X, Y and Z, he mused, and they can harm other people. That's right I said. After a brief pause he asked me, If they can harm other people, why do we make them? Of course I could not answer him, though I wish I could; all I could really do was congratulate him on asking one of the most intelligent questions I have ever heard.
Of course, not all visitors can rely on the wisdom of my four-year-old son, and there is very little to guide them in the direction of weapons, or indeed the military on the island today. As if exiting the scene of a crime, all that could be seen as evidence of such activity has been carefully removed. Sure, there is the odd photograph of the island's salad days hanging on a wall or two, depicting a giant destroyer or other man-of-war being carefully accoutred for whatever maritime clashes lay ahead, but the industrial site itself is oddly civilian-looking. Peaceful.
Walking around on the island is a treat for any photographer; but it is also an interesting mnemonic exercise, pairing some of Australia's most delicate heritage issues: the historical bond and colonial dependence on Great Britain, both politically and military; the reckoning with the 'convict past'; and in what way and form the ultimate remembering should take today. (This last point one can easily transfer to a much bigger sphere of difficult Australian remembering, which of course includes treatment of the Aboriginal population.) It is difficult, considering Australia's troubled past, to imagine Cockatoo Island suddenly turning into a place of leisure, which it is ultimately advertised as. The official website puts it in the following way:
Cockatoo Island is a UNESCO world-heritage-listed island in the middle of beautiful Sydney Harbour. Hop on a ferry and explore the island for the day or stay overnight in the campground or holiday houses (http://www.cockatooisland.gov.au).
In other words, it feels as if the historic ramifications of Cockatoo Island are being defused by its attractive location in the middle of Sydney Harbour and convenient ferry accessibility; and the historic veneer of the site substantially polished by the UNESCO 'stamp of approval'. The ramifications of war is eerily absent; all that is there are remnants of maintenance.
Despite the introductory paragraphs, the walk around the island is not an intellectual exercise, but rather suddenly it turned into an emotional one. This was not an assignment: I just 'happened' to go there, lured in by the Australian Tourism Board, like everyone else on the island, or so I imagine. However, I always feel it my duty, just as everyone else's for that matter, to constantly ponder, critically allow one's thoughts to meander, re-evaluate and not fall prey to convenient truths. Having said that, I am not promoting perpetual mistrust or stubborn refusal of whatever the powers that be are saying. Long walks are food for thought though. Long enough to truly take in a place; lengthy in order to put oneself in the place of historic persons who trod the same dust before; to allow oneself that luxury not always afforded by our customary real-time existence – that is, hindsight perspective, both moral and consequential.
As per usual, I was carrying a camera. Hardly the best one I own, but one that allows me inconspicuousness. It is certainly good enough to allow me yet another luxury – a hindsight perspective, both moral and consequential, on my own experience, this time on Cockatoo Island. For documentary purposes, the camera is ideal. This offers, besides a change of vista, an opportunity for an intra-spiritual archaeology, the photographs doubling as potsherd from a fallen civilisation; and, if the introspection remains sincere, it may impart vigour to that which Henri Bergson referred to as élan vital, the life force. It matters little that the photographs may be recent because our "own archive", our personal helmsmanship in time, is perpetually inundated with historical narratives from a variety of sources, some quite new such as literature, film and music (Pickering & Keightley, 2015).
For what it's worth, I always carry at least one camera, but I never want to become detached. From anything.
Derrida, Jacques, The Beast and the Sovereign, Volume 2, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.
Pickering, Michael & Keightley, Emily, Photography, Music and Memory: Pieces of the Past in Everyday Life, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.