Busting up and deeply personal national traumas

AKA: the “disgusting and opportunistic farce” of version 1.0’s From a distance… (2006)

In the women’s rowing eight final at the Athens Olympic Games in 2004, Australian rower Sally Robbins stopped rowing before the finish line. Immediately following the race, the team very publicly busted up, held a press conference in which they declared that they had reconciled, and then very publicly busted up again. Concurrently a highly emotive debate began in Australia about how this rowing failure might reflect upon and illuminate the national character, triggering a lengthy debate about national identity and values. In late 2005, Sydney-based performance group version 1.0, a company of which I am a member, began work on a performance about this debate, taking the so-called ‘no-row’ incident as a starting point. Very soon after commencing work on the project, version 1.0 began receiving threats of legal action and hate mail that memorably declared that the project was “a disgusting and opportunistic farce”. This paper will begin by briefly outlining the incident and the deeply emotive responses that this incident provoked, then begin to unpack the values at the core of this notion of the un-national, and then finally begin to consider what might animate version 1.0’s theatrical representation of these deeply intertwined personal and national traumas.

Part 1.
For those of you who managed to miss the incident when it occurred, here’s a brief summary of what happened. For reasons still hotly debated, rower Sally Robbins stopped rowing 600 metres before the finish line, slumping back in her seat. Upon finishing the race, the other crewmembers verbally abused Robbins, with one of her team-mates declaring that: “I just want to stress there was not a technical problem. No seat broke. There was nothing wrong with the boat. We had nine in the boat but only eight operating. That’s all I’m going to say.” Other crew members were recorded by media yelling out: “Tell the truth Sally! Don’t lie!” Robbins herself commented to Channel 7 that: “I had some pretty hard words thrown at me. I had some pretty tough things to take,” and also claimed that her teammates had threatened to throw her overboard.
The mood back home in Australia was similarly hostile. Cathy Freeman, herself no stranger to nationalistic controversy, stated that: “From a distance, to give up is almost very Un-Australian.” Ron Barassi was less subtle, stating: “You don’t quit until you’re unconscious. She wasn’t thinking about her team, and she wasn’t thinking about her country.”
The team held a press conference the following day, facilitated by AOC President John Coates, where they repeatedly insisted that they had reconciled, yet the following day team members were again venting to the media. At a welcome home function in Sydney, Robbins was slapped by one of her team-mates, and then it was reported that the rift continued when Robbins was a no-show to the wedding of Julia Wilson, the team captain. The media loved the story, and it became a strange sort of grubby soap opera. Recently, Robbins tried and failed to seek selection for the Beijing Olympics, which provided an excuse to run through the story all over again on newspaper front pages. According to one recent report, she is now considering a career in cycling.

Part 2. 
Freeman’s use of the term ‘unAustralian’ to describe this incident was far from isolated, with ‘un Australian’ appearing regularly in the commentary on all aspects of the ‘no row’ incident. Robbins was un-Australian for quitting. The rest of the team was un-Australian for turning on her. Athletes had become un-Australian for overturning apparently long-held values of sporting conduct. The commentators were un-Australian for getting stuck into someone in such a moment of weakness.
In their paper Popular understandings of ‘UnAustralian’: an investigation of the un-national (2001), sociologists Phillip Smith and Tim Phillips observe that unlike the long standing usage of the term ‘UnAmerican’, there appears to be no clear definition of notions of un-nation in an Australian context. Unlike the use of the term UnAmerican to indicate an apparent betrayal of national values and ideologies, those historical references that do appear to UnAustralian-ness have distinct racial characteristics. UnAustralian seems to equate historically with non-white, though more contemporary usages seem to cluster around concepts of values. Noting the exclusionary function of the term, in the conclusion of their paper they begin to explore the possible motivations animating this exclusionary impulse. Drawing on the work of Zygmunt Bauman they note that this naming process forms part of a response to anxieties and feelings of insecurity about rapid social change:
“Labelling an object or event ‘UnAustralian’ is a core aspect of the boundary- maintaining process: blaming ‘out-groups’ for change and the decline of ‘the old ways’ (Bauman, 1990: 48). We might expect this more aggrieved usage of the ‘UnAustralian’ to be part of a larger vocabulary of motives found mainly to be concentrated in the life-world of a ‘middle Australia’ (Brett, 1997) reacting to the perceived threat to their symbolic-moral universe.” (Smith and Phillips 2001: 337)
It is this use of the term un-Australian to control a perceived threat to a symbolic moral universe that animated the performance project From a distance....

Part 3.
In late November 2005, Victoria Laurie, a journalist with the Perth desk of The Australian newspaper, discovered whilst browsing the internet that version 1.0 was planning on making a performance about the so-called ‘no row’ incident. Due to the fact that the rower at the centre of the scandal was based in Perth, Laurie thought that this was a good basis for a story. No doubt some of her interest was piqued by the unintentionally sensationalist proposed title of the work: Sally Robbins: An UnAustralian Story.
Whilst perhaps not as insensitive as the title of Dan Illic’s recent Beaconsfield: A Musical in A Flat Miner, planned as part of the 2008 Melbourne Comedy Festival, the placement of Robbins’ name next to term un-Australian proved extremely problematic, despite the originally intended title never being publicised. As part of her news story, Laurie contacted Robbins for comment. While declining to comment for the story, Robbins was reportedly unamused in the extreme, and immediately contacted her lawyers, who in turn contacted version 1.0.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, those who spend so much of their lives striving to achieve the authorization to represent Australia in domains such as sport are quite sensitive to the means by which their representation is subjected to further representation in other domains. Robbins was extremely unhappy with what she and her legal team believed was the show’s primary assertion that Robbins was Un-Australian, despite the fact that the show never intended on making such an assertion or implication, being more interested in the fact that others made such assertions, and further interested in exploring what this might mean for our national identity. Neither Robbins nor her legal team recognised the distinction. This is a marked contrast to the response of elected representatives in the domain of politics, the subjects of other performance work by version 1.0, who appear far less concerned about their potential representations in domains other than their own. It has been suggested by my less charitable colleagues that this is because politicians are essentially vain, though such an assertion is of course impossible to quantify.
Lawyers representing Sally Robbins began issuing threats of legal action, initially framing their concerns around the proposed title of the project. After largely amicable negotiation with Steve Lawrence, Executive Director of the Western Australian Institute of Sport, representing Robbins’ lawyers, the official title for the production stage of the project was altered to From a distance…, an acceptable compromise title. However, Robbins’ lawyers remained interested in pursuing defamation actions against the company, continually asking for a copy of the script so they could approve it. Legal advice obtained by version 1.0 indicated that Robbins’ lawyers had no rights to gain a copy of the script, which at any rate did not yet exist, and strongly advised against providing one to her legal team on the grounds that it could be used as the basis for a defamation action. These later negotiations were often extremely tense.
The title was intended to be highly ironic, and to draw attention to the rhetorical over-reaction of commentators and members of the public to the incident. It was not intended to be a comment on the Australian-ness or other wise of any individual, though this made little sense to anyone beyond the members of version 1.0 at that stage. Laurie, and other journalists after her seemed convinced that the performance must include a reenactment of the race, and must also make some contention about who might be to blame. Of course, the intended project was designed to do neither of these. As I attempted to explain in an email to Steve Lawrence:
“There’s a couple of mis-conceptions that may have arisen as a result of the recent media reportage of the proposed performance that I should address at this point. Media, as you know, does tend to mis-represent. In the performance, we do not ‘re-enact’ any part of the incident, not any part of the race, and not the incident at the welcome home event. The only ‘re-enacting’ in the performance is of the press conference, and that’s simply in terms of repeating the words that were said there. There are references to these incidents, but not re-enactments. We assume that the audience already knows what happened, and what we explore is the reaction to the incident, and what that (over)reaction might tell us about our national identity. I know that sounds abstract, but my point is that none of this is personal.” (email 16 December 2005)
As I’ve noted elsewhere in regards to re-enactment, version 1.0 has tended to focus on re-presenting the aftermath and reactions to events rather than re-enacting the events themselves – staging questionable second order reproductions rather than faithful copies. This is especially true in attempts at re-presenting events for which there was in fact no original, such as the so-called ‘children overboard’ affair of 2001, the subject of version 1.0’s 2004 work CMI (A Certain Maritime Incident).
Laurie’s article, ‘Lay Down Sally, the stage play’ (published 8 December 2005), provoked demands for interviews from media outlets nationwide. This media interest in the project also provoked hate mail directed at the project artists, an edited version of which was included in the show. The hate mail challenges the right of artistic practice to represent real events, and posits arts attempt to represent such events as an act of violence.
“I felt I should write and let you know of my disgust upon hearing of plans for the play; truly a concept that is shit-to-the-core with bad taste, bad timing, and has an overwhelming stench of useless arty-farty endeavour. These are not fictional stereotyped characters, nor is this a generalised sporting situation of triumph and tragedy that needs to be performed as an interpretive bloody dance. It is a real story that occurred in the not-so-distant past, and involved real thinking, feeling, emotional people, who are still around today, and in many cases are trying to continue with their careers. […] Would you acting-types like it if I wrote an analytical book about the time you were dining with the Premier and your beret fell off your head into your skinny latte? […] In closing, a general fictional play on the subject would be fine. Perhaps even a very similar situation, but in a different sporting field? But a specific performance of a very recent and, for many people, very tragic situation, involving people that are still trying to go about their lives, is indeed a disgusting and opportunistic farce. Shame on you.”
The email is not a response to the performance itself, but rather a response to the idea that such a work might be made at all, a response to “hearing of plans for the play.” Nonetheless, the letter effectively marshals a range of Australian cultural anxieties around artistic practice, and adds to this a fascinating illustration of the deeply personal stakes of this incident, even to uninvolved spectators. Of course, one email is undoubtedly a scant evidentiary basis for such an assertion. It was however my experience when talking about the ideas for the show in a range of social contexts, that it was extremely rare for the person that with whom I was talking to not have strong opinions about the incident.
One possible reason for this personal and visceral reaction is the incident is seen as a crisis of values – a fracture in the symbolic moral universe that Smith and Phillips discuss that requires urgent repair. As if anticipating this need for repair, around the same time as the ‘no row’ incident, former Prime Minister John Howard proposed a list of seven core national values shared by ‘ordinary Australians’. Howard stated at the time that:
“A sense of shared values is our social cement. Without it, we risk becoming a society governed by coercion, rather than consent. That is not an Australia that any of us would want to live in.”
His list of shared values were:
  1. We live in a very successful nation.
  2. We do not have much to be ashamed of.
  3. Australia is well-regarded around the world.
  4. Individuals should be given a fair go if down on their luck but, once helped, should not expect continued community support.
  5. Traditional institutions like the family are central but people with alternative views should not be persecuted.
  6. Society should be classless where a person’s worth is determined by personal character and hard work, and not religion, race or social background.
  7. People should be very tolerant, but also believe in unity when facing a common threat.

It is the symbolic moral universe articulated in this list of values that in some way begins to make sense of the excessive reaction to the ‘no row’ incident that led to a 23-year old athlete being widely branded ‘un Australian’ for stopping in a rowing race. The performance From a distance… attempted to make sense of this national identity crisis by tracing what the nation says it isn’t. We live in a very successful nation. We do not have much to be ashamed of. There’s clearly a much more detailed discussion that needs to be undertaken around the largely negative orientation of many of these values, not to mention the significant caveats that this list contains, but unfortunately that is beyond the scope of this paper.
The hate mail contained some further useful warnings about the care required when investigating this territory:
“Sure, the event was controversial, and raised questions about what was acceptable conduct in the sporting arena. Maybe it was a reflection of some deep-rooted aspect of being Australian? Who flamin’ knows?! Perhaps these issues should be explored, but this incident should not be used as some sort of “type-example” or snapshot of the Australian psyche, because you have no understanding of the inner workings of the team, the personalities at play, the prior history, the pressure of the situation etc. To put it forward as a study of “un-Australian” behaviour (or whatever), without having full knowledge of the situation is ludicrous and, as stated above, in very bad taste…shit taste in fact.”
The impertinence of this performance project is that it uses this incident as a trigger to investigate the territory of the un-national, despite the warning contained in the hate mail. Obviously to fully articulate the ways in which any performance might achieve such an undertaking requires far greater space than is available in this paper, and indeed I would suggest that From a distance… was far from successful in its performative investigation. Despite its flaws however, this work was intended as an act of critical patriotism, and perhaps such a motive can at least partially excuse such “a disgusting an opportunistic farce”.
David Williams

Paper delivered at the ADSA Annual Conference, Edith Cowan University, Perth, July 2009


Zane Trow said…
I greatly admire your work David..I've only just discovered your blog. In regards to this particular case I think that like their American cousins Australians don't get irony. I think it's that simple. And of course the simplest things are always the most complicated.

Popular Posts