Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Née (born as) at 4A in Chinatown, Sydney.

“It’s my father’s name. You say it ‘Park’. It is 49 days since he died, and I couldn’t go to temple today to pay my respects. Now I feel like I have done something to remember him today.” Yiwon had taken some time to tell us the story behind the black stitches she had marked out on the plain white fabric. Her story made the purpose of Neé run deeper than ever before for me.  And then the story of BJ, who was killed in the Vietnam War, and whose mates remember him every day on the anniversary of his death. Invested in it are personal stories which infer a greater responsibility on me, as its carrier.
 As we share these personal narratives, the wall we stitch together becomes more meaningful with every thread.  Some stories are tragic, some wistful, some funny and raw. Sera – or Serafina – would have been the name of Barbara’s daughter, except that she had two boys instead.  When Pedro started school his teachers asked if they could call him Peter. The 5 year old boy leaned over the table and said ‘No!’  Dan felt the weight of the Bible on his shoulders with ‘Daniel Christopher’;  the name Dan Moon lightens the load.
There are broad issues at play when we talk about names. There are many who have been pressured to change their name by teachers, friends, bureaucrats, spouses. The experience seems especially common for migrants to Australia.  Research (citation?) suggests that is pragmatic choices to avoid discrimination when finding work. The best candidate may not even get an interview if the HR officer can’t bear to stumble over her unfamiliar name on the phone.  
Subtle social pressures are far more prevalent than government enforcement in pushing people into new names in Australia. But as many Indonesians with ‘only’ one name have discovered when travelling in Australia, official forms usually ask for a first and surname.  Incorrect forms can mean no-go zones.
Nidil from Somalia says she has no ‘family name’ as such, but takes her father’s and grandfather’s name rather than her husbands. She worries about the generations of women whose family lines will not be recorded.
On the other hand, for some people, a new name is a clean sheet for the future. Marriage can give women and men an opportunity to undertake a name changing process that is otherwise more difficult. But why is it so hard to change your name if you’re not marrying? One story revealed in the research process for In Memory of a Name told of a woman who dropped a family name that carried unhappy memories.  But at the various offices she needed to attend to change her identity documents, her motivations were questioned. What does that say about the discrimination that remains in our society, in our legislation, in ourselves?
Sometimes political correctness gets a bad rap, essentially for being pedantic.  Those of us in the majorities, with all the right names in the right places, the more common sexual orientation, sufficiently subtle skin and hair tones, a mother tongue in common with the rest of the majority – those without obvious differences to be named and identified by – sometimes seem to develop an attitude that it’s no big deal to have institutionalised discrimination in our political, social and communal systems.  So what if can’t pronounce your name, I’ll just call you another one. And if your name doesn’t fit on forms, or is hard to say – well, that’s not my problem; you can change it – if you can afford to.  Why difference does it make if you don’t get to marry the person you love? You’re not stopped from loving them, are you?
The problem with this is it does matter – it is this kind of discrimination that names difference. When we can’t adjust to the myriad of ways that people can be, we turn uncommon into abnormal.  We make an inside and an outside to our society. The outside of society is an unprotected, unsheltered place to be. Just ask any refugee who hasn’t got their documents.
Communities can be, and often are, built on the outside of society. One of the questions I am trying to resolve in my arts practice is where I intend to situate the aspects of my practice that involve other people. It is common to call this kind of practice “community-engagement”, or “community arts”. A great many amazing arts projects have sallied forth under these community banners. But increasingly I am beginning to wonder whether I want to place myself in an ‘artist position’ in another community (not one I am a member of – one Miwon Kwon would call a ‘sited community’[i]). There is an authority implied in that dynamic I’m not sure I’m comfortable with.  Do I want create communities around my artworks? Perhaps, but by what definition can the ‘invented communities’ which develop around art projects (temporary or ongoing – projects and/or communities) be called as such. What makes a community?
Nee as a project will be ongoing, but I have come to feel that perhaps it is less about community, and more about conversation; how to create space for new conversations. New conversations are how we change our perspectives, stories we’ve never heard before open our minds. When I heard for the first time how important it was for my dear friend of mine to leave behind the name her distant, uncaring father, and embrace the name of her loving new husband, it changed my perspective on why so many women change their surnames when they marry. It didn’t make me change my surname, but it made me less judgemental. New conversations, innovative dialogue, creative perspectives – they are essential for personal and social evolution. New conversations are one of the most important ways for us to make a better future. Spaces for new conversations are some of the things that art and artists can contribute to our future.

[i] Kwon, Miwon,
(2002) One Place
After Another - Site-specific Art and Locational Identity, The MIT Press, Massachusetts; London

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