Christopher Ulutupu: The Romantic Picturesque
by Thomas Capogreco
There is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations.
— Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison
Already situated within the writing / reading ritual as we are, and if we are to agree with Foucault, which I propose we ought, we (and I hope you don't mind me talking for you in this regard) are subscribed already to a field of knowledge, which is in the process, right now, of enacting power as a constituent corollary of its existing. In other words, we are already in trouble. Even to be uttering anything at all, let alone writing or reading it, especially within the context of an issue that deals ostensibly with POWER, is trouble. Directly, up to our necks, trouble.
... my first critical insight into the subtle ruse of power: the prevailing law threatened one with trouble, all to keep one out of trouble. Hence, I concluded that trouble is inevitable and the task, how best to make it, what best way to be in it.
— Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity
That being so, I will structure this article like the crenelations of a castle, ducking out from behind the protection of (mostly) cultural theory quotes only briefly to take potshots at would-be attackers. Discourse always serves also as a sort of sovereign defence architecture anyway, so we may as well be up front about it.
... two features which characterise today's ideological stance - cynical distance and full reliance on paranoiac fantasy, are strictly codependent.
— Slavoj Zizek, The Big Other Doesn't Exist
For colonial Tasmanians around the turn of the twentieth century, 'trouble' meant the threat of an impending Russian invasion, which is why even today you can visit the heavyset concrete batteries dug into strategic coastal locations flanking the mouth of the Derwent River. Princes Park Battery in particular is notable. It is almost invisible from all angles until you are a few metres away from its entrance, close enough to parse a doorway hidden amongst a constant ladle of flowering vines. Once inside, the structure is revealed to be a tight series of connected bunkers built into the upslope such that its roof and external walls are a continuation of the lawn that covers the hill above it.
Panic is the sudden realisation that everything around you is alive.
— William S. Burroughs, Ghost of Chance
Although concealed, once inside, the battery didn't feel safe. People seemed jumpy. The damp air hung, heavy with dust floating visibly under the sparse warm lights that seemed only to obfuscate the density of the spider population largely static in the shadows, whose only visible sample suggested a worrying diversity of size and malevolence. The administration workers at Hobart City Council were surprised that anyone would want to even go in there.
Dreams have a terrible will to power ... if you are caught in the other's dream you are screwed.
— Gilles Deleuze, What is the Creative Act?
Flown in by play_station, from Wellington, New Zealand, The Romantic Picturesque consisted of a series of video works exhibited inside Princes Park Battery, and a Nature Karaoke performance held inland at the Waterworks Reserve. In the context of the dank claustrophobia of the battery, the videos were striking in both their formality and familiarity. The artist, Christopher Ulutupu, had taken inspiration from pacific postcards from around the turn of the twentieth century. Viewing how these 'exotic landscapes' that had once transfixed the Edwardian imagination were re-populated, transformed, re-aligned, we ourselves started to feel nuzzled, anonymous, invisible. Maybe we were safe from the Russian threat after all? You couldn't help but admire the meticulous composition, and listening to the singers' enjoyment was infectious - the work was a joy. The effect was a feat: charged, scary, beautiful, unflinching.
... putting something called Nature on a pedestal and admiring it from afar does for the environment what patriarchy does for the figurative Woman. It is a paradoxical act of sadistic admiration.
— Timothy Morton, Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics
Nature Karaoke on the other hand, I am still trying to digest. We arrived late and the jarring commotion already had the momentum of an afternoon of drinking and factional competition. The setting itself was, infuriatingly, like pretty much every part of Hobart we visited: overtly picturesque. For me, karaoke is already a complex bouquet of anxieties and compensations to begin with, but out here, in the Tasmanian bush, with the PA turned up too loud, and the computer propped up precariously on a cloth covered milk crate such that the power cords kept falling out of the power board, causing a recurring administrative scramble to reconnect them - something was kind of cooked. Wherever I looked, the vista seemed framed on a Dutch tilt. The sounds of late '90s pop tracks "I Want It That Way" by the Backstreet Boys, "Man, I Feel Like a Woman" by Shania Twain, "Torn" by Natalie Imbruglia, "Overload" by Sugababes, and others, emanated searingly out of the speakers before dissipating alarmingly: the lack of room ambience, as there were no walls for the sound to bounce off, seemed to sort of suck us into the TV, so to speak. The participants, both performers and audience, inevitably seemed to elongate subtly into cartoonish caricatures of themselves. What was before us was nothing like the neat, meticulously composed depictions of karaoke rendered in the video work. The palatable ideal we had been sold in the confines of our defended, paranoid battery, evaporated and what was left was a nightmarish carnival of pretence. Now starkly divorced from what was revealed to be domesticating, anaesthetising ideology, we became privy to a vividly colourful, gratuitously loud, psychic proximity. Grinning, we bore the uncomfortable reality of each other's minds. Even the kookaburras and feral cats seemed to take on a VanderMeer-esque strangeness.
... by the time you're a social worker for ten years, what you realise is that connection is why we're here. It's what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. This is what it's all about.
— Brené Brown, The Power of Vulnerability
In amongst the chaos, one fragment of that afternoon stands out in my memory: after a good few minutes of standing next to one of the more senior, white men in the group, trying to get his attention through the cacophony, one of the women becomes disenfranchised and leaves. I overhear the man say to another man over the other side of him: "... that's what I love so much about this week." He pauses to ash his cigarette.
"Everyone is connecting."