One Billion Beats

Excerpt from transmedia project One Billion Beats conceived and performed by Goenpul Jagara Bundjulung poet and filmmaker Romaine Moreton. Examines the historical representation of Aboriginal people in Australian cinema.

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OBB: Artistic Team Interviews

A 10-minute interview with the artistic team of ’One Billion Beats’ during their creative development at Campbelltown Arts Centre in November 2015. Campbelltown Arts Centre.

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Interrogating Western Media

In this lecture Romaine Moreton discusses the historicising of Indigenous family storytelling and interrogation of western media art forms performed by her in One Billion Beats.

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Romaine Moreton discusses her transmedia project One Billion Beats with Therese Davis

One Billion Beats is a theatre work that draws together Australian cinematic history with poetry and original score.[1] Conceived and performed by Goenpul Jagara Bundjulung poet and filmmaker Romaine Moreton, co-written and co-directed with Alana Valentine, One Billion Beats examines the historical representation of Aboriginal people in Australian cinema and its projection onto Romaine’s own lived experience and personal stories. The title refers to the estimated one billion lives of the thousands of generations of Indigenous peoples who have walked this country now called Australia. It can also be taken as a reference to the work’s pulsating beat produced through a blending of the distinctive syncopation of Moreton’s vocal style, fashioned over many years as a performance poet, and the haunting rhythms of Lou Bennett’s original score. It also invokes the act of breathing and the spatio-temporal dimensions of the breath – a crucial concept that underscores all Moreton’s creative works. One Billion Beats was first staged in February 2016 at Campbelltown Arts Centre [Sydney, NSW] on Dharawal land.

In 2017, Romaine Moreton and Therese Davis sat down together in Hepburn Springs (Victoria), Jaara country, to talk about Indigenous concepts informing the project’s multimedia form, its aims and its political and cultural efficacy as a powerful “renewal ceremony”.

Indigenous Transmedia: Bull Cave

TD: Romaine, you describe One Billion Beats as a transmedia work. Could we start with the question of what transmedia means to you and how you use it?

RM: One Billion Beats was my opportunity to express myself through transmedia as something we as Indigenous people are always doing in our storytelling. For the purpose of the theatre work, I had to connect with bull cave, a site on Dharawal land [an area south of Sydney now known as Campbelltown where a Dharawal artist painted one of four bullocks that escaped from the first British invaders in Sydney Cove in 1788], to the beautiful three-dimensional theatre space that we used at Campbelltown Arts centre for the show. The question of how to do this respectfully and responsibly in collaboration with the Dharawal community was at the core of this theatre show. That relationship had to be there. If that wasn’t there, then I was creating a Western product. The Dharawal elder, Glenda Chalker, walked us through that project for as long as she could. That meant that we had permission to be on that country and we had permission, as a group, as a team, to tell the story of bull cave. And this is following in accordance with an ancient cosmology and an Indigenous jurisprudence.

TD: That’s not something I’ve heard before. Could you say a little bit more about how transmedia relates to Indigenous jurisprudence?

RM: Transmedia is an ancient concept. Transmedia has been with us since the very beginning because at the core of Indigenous jurisprudence is our relationship to land and to each other. So we’ve always had to communicate between physical sites, and we’ve used language and media to do that. So it’s using oral communication but also things like the message sticks; and the pearl shell is another media that was traded throughout this country. We, my people, the Goenpul people, are people of the pearl shell. These objects are traded between spaces to communicate who we are to each other. The idea of transmedia is inherent to our identity and our cultural understanding of the places we live and who we are. We have scarification on our bodies. That’s a direct reading of the body. We are saying to each other, this is who I am. So if you’ve got scarifications, other mob will look at you and know who you are because of this writing on your body. That’s transmedia in its most profound sense, in its most organic sense. It’s ancient.

TD: Right! OK. So, going back to the work itself, what was the process for selecting media, and thinking about how they relate to this story?

RM: So the first media of course we use is the spoken word. So that’s me as a spoken word poet and verbatim performer. The other media we use is film, that’s from the [Australian cinema] archives. There’s also film and media we created and produced in situ: we had a live camera feed so we were generating footage as well as referencing it. We had a live sound-music-song composition by Lou Bennett. We had the audio-visual artistry by Sean Bacon. So it was a dialogue between the three of us live in situ. The sound and video couldn’t be locked off – they were manipulating it live. So Sean and Lou were responding to me live and I was responding to them. So the space was never fixed and locked off, it was always alive, and there was this movement between one section of the stage to the next. It was about us, as a team, creating that space then and there, and the context of that work was that it would allow the Indigenous ancestors in the films, what I call our celluloid ancestors, the space to present themselves to the audience. They were humanised and they were sovereign. And that was the goal of One Billion Beats: by re-empowering the ancestors in the films we were re-empowering the Indigenous audience. We were interrogating Western media: unpacking it and decoding it and we were encoding that theatre space within an Indigenous cosmology.

Celluloid Ancestors

TD: I’d say this ‘aliveness’ is the surprising thing for many in the non-Indigenous audience. I could imagine a lot of people thinking a theatre show about Indigenous representations in Australian cinema being about Indigenous absence and victimhood. But those celluloid ancestors, as you say, are very present. Can you say a little bit more about your approach to the visual archive?

RM: So now, I’m seeing that really the aim was to express my personal love and gratitude to them -- these people, the ancestors, celluloid ancestors. To say thank you, to express a deep love for them. To express that love I had to understand everything about Western media. Because Western media had occluded them from our communities by the invention of the cinematic frame, which is literally a paradigm. I had to understand what that paradigm is, what that frame represented. It represents occlusion, it represents the construction of the object, it represents the stolen: the Western gaze stole our people. They stole our people and put us in a frame and in this we were “framed”. So the intention of One Billion Beats was to smash that frame, to shatter it and to say see, they are not separate from us, they are still our people. And being able to do that was such a gratifying act, because at the same time I was also shattering and destroying the illusion of Western colonialism’s imaginary, how it has always imagined us as less than human. So the purpose of One Billion Beats was to reinstate us as fully breathing, beautiful bodied beings who exist in our cosmology as sentient to this day. So within Western science you have the human and the unhuman, this dichotomy, this split. But in our cosmology, what we have is that everything is sentient. So the rock, the tree, are all sentient. The wind, the water, all sentient. Our people, when they die, are still sentient, they’re still with us, they’re sill alive ,and this is what Christine Black talks about - the living dead. And for us as Bundjalung people, we have the term Wagay, which is the spirit of a living man, even in a photograph. So I use these films to talk about our living ancestors as they occupy this celluloid space. They’re supposed to be separate from us, according to the Western imagination. But as Indigenous people we don’t ever disown them and this is about reclaiming them, repatriating them. The repatriation of our celluloid ancestors.

Renewal Ceremony

RM: And there is also a physical and personal repatriation going on in OBB too. My grandfather is in One Billion Beats. Just before we went into rehearsal, he was repatriated to us [my family]. He came back to us through an image of him, and he’s in the show. This was such an emotional time for my family because we hadn’t seen his image for decades. It’s nearly fifty years since he died, so can you imagine seeing the image of your father that you haven’t seen for about forty years, thirty years, because, as it turns out, the images of him were stolen from our private collections. So this is about something real; it’s not a representation. This is not a didactic exercise in teaching white people about their wrongful representation of Indigenous people; this isn’t saying to Indigenous people that white folks’ wrongful constructions of us need not be our focus. I wanted to say – “Let’s just talk to these old people.” I was really aware during the research and development of the show that our old people’s energy is in that film archive. It can’t not be. The sun’s bounced off their bodies, that energy has been captured and it is projected now [in OBB]. So they’re still here, energetically. Not just conceptually, not just cosmologically, but energetically. That light had to bounce off somebodies’ body and that energy has been transferred now to a new kind of celluloid space I’ve created through the show. So I was really aware of that. Each time I look at an old photograph, and I guess this is where it gets so emotional for Indigenous people, there’s this part of me, us, that knows that we are looking at something real: an ancestor in the present time. So what we’re constantly trying to do as Indigenous people is to unpick the illusion to access the real of the ancestral, which means constantly challenging Western constructions, which requires us to constantly disengage the centrality of the Western gaze and to see ourselves for who we are through our own eyes, through our own world view through our own cosmology. That’s the real challenge. That’s the de-colonial project. Beyond the de-colonial project, however, which is where this project arrived, there’s also that moment after, beyond de-colonialism and it’s not re-indigenising. I call it renewal. It’s using our stories as renewal. Gregory Cajete talks about renewal. And OBB is ultimately a renewal ceremony: it’s there to unpack all of the colonial debris, colonial ideas, colonial artefacts through this theatre piece, this transmedia theatre piece called One Billion Beats. It is a renewal ceremony. And it was about inviting other people to be a part of that, in fact, other people are required to be a part of that for that renewal ceremony to take place.

Sovereignty

TD: Is renewal connected to sovereignty? Earlier today [before we started recording] you spoke to me about allowing the audience to recognise the ancestors as sovereign subjects. Could just say a little bit about that, or give us an example from the show where Indigenous sovereignty is performed?

RM: We can see Aboriginality being performed in these films from the archive. And a lot has been said about these images -- Aboriginal people were exploited etc.,. I wanted to show how you can see a sovereign being through this performance. So [as example] there’s the image of Marbuck, actor Robert Tudawali, whose real name is Marbuck, and his character is named Marbuck, in Charles Chauvel’s Jedda, a very well-known film. There’s a moment in Jedda where Marbuck walks in front of a group of Aboriginal women, and the women melt in his presence, with desire and total loss of functionality in his presence. We refer to that as the “mussing” moment. Mussing is when you can put a spell on somebody, so that they fall in love with you. Love magic. We had this image on loop during the show, I think it’s looped about three times. So as an audience member, you’re just sitting there watching this Aboriginal man with a spear. It’s an iconic image. But and the more you watch it the more this performance of Aboriginality transforms into a statement of sovereignty. Chauvel’s intent there was to say he’s a powerful man, a Nobel Savage. But we went a step further: by looping it we’re showing he’s actually a sovereign man. And that was the power of just looping it and looping it, so we could make the sovereign man apparent …There’s a gunshot scene from Bitter Springs, where a white character shoots an Aboriginal man, and we isolate these two by projecting them onto two separate large white plinths. On one plinth, we have the Aboriginal man being shot dead. On the other plinth, we have the white man shooting, and it’s looped. And what is so powerful about this moment is that you can really see that the Aboriginal actor is acting. He is playing being “Aborigine”. He is playing being shot. He is playing dying. At the same time, I’m performing a poem called ‘My Genocide’. So we are NOT dead. What’s crucial is that by allowing these moments of sovereignty to break through and penetrate the membrane of the celluloid in that performance space we are saying to our Indigenous mob, “Don’t be afraid of looking on these representations, any of them. Because this archive is part of us, we have to negotiate the trauma of our history and we’re not going to do that successfully if we continually look away.” In this work, and communities are doing it too, we’re interrupting protocols about showing the images of the deceased, voice and images of the deceased. We’ve got to look, if we’re going to understand the trauma, we’ve got to look and we’ve got to allow ourselves to look. Looking away, well I don’t think this is an option for us. So in One Billion Beats I’m just going to show you how to look, because if you look a certain way you can see them, our ancestors, and they’re there, the ones we think we’ve lost . They’re still here and we can still love them and we can still have a relationship with them.

Returning to the Bull Cave

TD: And talking about reworking iconic images, looking through them, there’s a remarkable moment in the show where you bring a famous scene from Baz Luhrmann’s Australian ‘classic’ film Australia into the space – the scene where young hero of the story, a small boy, Nullah, is perched on the precipice of a cliff with a massive herd of cattle stampeding toward him. In the film, he stills the cattle by drawing on powers that he didn’t know he had. A kind of re-remembering of himself and his identity that saves his life and the destruction of the cattle; ‘saves the day’, as we say. In the show, you reproduce Nullah’s magical gesture, and I remember as an audience member the power of this doubling of the image, another kind of repetition. I just wondered if you might want to say something about this scene from the show and how you rework it for your story, how you connect it to the bull cave story.

RM: By this time in One Billion Beats, we’ve seen film after film, Australian films, with droving scenes, and we’ve seen Aboriginal people being interchanged with the bullock and the cows. It’s this idea of massification and slaughter I’m trying to get to. The alignment of the bullock being massified. Their individuality stripped and their slaughter made possible because of that action. So I draw the parallel with Indigenous people: to have our names taken away, our individuality stripped and genocide, and massacre; a human slaughter made possible also through massification. So this was my relationship to the bullock that takes us back to the bull cave on Dharawal land and to the transmediation of story. The doubling up of that filmic moment in the physical space, well it’s a magic moment, without a doubt. It feels magical, it felt powerful to do that scene. Lou Bennett composed a song, a sound, specifically for that moment. This is the moment we’ve all earned. I’ve earned it as the storyteller, and the audience has earned it. It’s the payoff where the message is delivered to them about what’s happening here. It’s saying we’re all being cast under a spell and made complicit in something, in a system that systematically will de-humanise all of us, including animals, including the country, so that we can all be exploited. That’s the show’s basic message there: the connection between massification and slaughter. I needed to make it really explicit. I don’t use the word massification in there but it is shown again and again and again. There’s these repeating images of bullocks and of our people, and bit by bit I hope that the audience gets to have a familiar relationship with us as Indigenous people and with the country and with those bullocks. If you stripped away slaughter from the colonial system could it withstand it? That’s really the question. If people weren’t killing on your behalf as a civilised country, would [the colonial state] continue to exist? And are you or are you not going to be complicit in this violence? So that’s where I say to the audience that we have a responsibility as storytellers. What are you going to do? Are you going to take responsibility?

The Medium is the Message

TD: There’s a lot of courage and generosity in this work. You invite us an audience into a moment of renewal but you also put your body on the line, you bring your own story and you show how these images form the past were projected into your body, your subjectivity and identity. The show is built around you physically engaging with projected images, so your body is literally one of the most powerful mediums in the work. Like the scarification you talked about, the violence.

RM: So “the medium is the message”, as [Marshall] McLuhan said, and I really appreciate that idea because that is very much an Indigenous sensibility. So I’m aware that my body is received by people in society as an object. And this is why I have been the target of race and racism. Really aggressive, dangerous fearful stuff. I’m aware that my body is constructed in a Western colonial space, and disrupts that space. Often you get racists come to you and say, pretty much, “We don’t want you here and we don’t want to see you.” So having my body in that theatre space we created is first and foremost a very political act. Then it’s also a spiritual act and a cultural and cosmological act when I, as a body, am able to become the medium literally. That is have my ancestors speaking through me, bringing all of these celluloid ancestors and the ancestors you cannot see into this space.

So my body in that space [of OBB] is a reminder to myself and to the audience that to be under the gaze is an incredibly vulnerable position to be in. We’re so desensitised as an audience to the vulnerability of being in front of a camera or being held under the gaze. But it’s a judgemental gaze, people come to judge a film, they don’t come to be impartial. They want to love it. Or not. It’s a moment of suspended judgement, it’s not benign. You’re there to perform something, a function, as an audience member. And it’s incredibly powerful. And I wanted the audience to see that about the process. So in one scene I put myself in front of a camera live, in situ, and an image from the Norman Tindale anthropological expedition in South Australia of men in white lab coats with tools used then to measure Indigenous heads is projected, literally imposed, onto my head to draw attention to that act. Our people were put through this humiliating act and subjected to this quantification which is about stripping our dignity really. But what I also wanted to do is bring it back to me, project it onto me now and I can show the audience that in the end they didn’t strip our dignity. Me being here, right here to tell you this story, means the colonial intention of reducing us to objects did not succeed. We are still here, and we’re breathing, and we’ve got to, as Indigenous people, always be mindful that we’re surrounded by our old people. And so this is the renewal ceremony: my body being present to the images is a crucial element to this work. I would have preferred to sit in the audience and see somebody else do it. But that wasn’t to be, not to be for this particular work.

The Breath and the Body

TD: It’s interesting that you emphasise breathing. I’m so ocular centric, so I normally leave a show with ruminating on a lasting image and remembering very little about the soundtrack. But after your show, driving back into the city from Campbelltown, the thing that really stayed with me was the rhythm of your voice, your storytelling. And, of course, it’s the breath that creates the rhythm. I couldn’t get the beat out of my head! I guess you designed it that way! [laugh]

RM: I think this is what the exchange is. Oracy is a technology, so the basis of technology is the breath and that is the body. So the breath is the primary technology for Indigenous peoples, and then it’s actually the primary technology for the written word as well, for I always consider the written word as something with the breath removed. So what I like to do in my creative productions, is centralise the breath. That is really important. And I guess that is why my own physical presence with One Billion Beats and all the projections, and the sound -- Lou Bennett’s music composition -- became a weaving of the breath, the discipline of allowing spaces to breathe, literally.

There is no empty space in a theatre, it’s all inhabited. Our country’s all inhabited. Our country is all mapped. Our country is all named. So you can see the concentric circles going outwards from this basic renewal ceremony of One Billion Beats and how it’s employing all of these laws and rituals and moving outwards in concentric circles to engage the broader landscape and community and then come back in and bring all of those people in. The Bullock, he was probably on stage with me as well, quite frankly. That old bullock that was drawn onto that cave wall -- I had to have a relationship with him for this whole thing to make sense. And I searched for his ancestors, the bullock ancestors of Western civilisation. The bullock who stands outside the New York stock exchange, that big cast-iron bullock, and you’ve got the bullock in Spain. And then there’s the etymology of bullock of course, which is fertility. So I thought, OK, maybe this is why this bullock is such a potent symbol in Western culture. Because he pops up everywhere. Then of course I found him in the stars in astronomy - he’s Taurus, and I went that’s where you are. That’s where you come from. I had to understand him as a sovereign being: who are you that they’ve domesticated and enslaved? Where’s your sovereignty? And it’s only when I found him in the stars as Taurus, and on the shoulder of Taurus sits the Seven Sisters, the Pleiades, (another connection there in terms of our Indigenous cosmology) that I understood this. So this is the rationale, this is the length I went to engage and establish the relationship dynamics between me and core characters within the stories of One Billion Beats that cross the different spaces, including the bullock. So I’m just watching what’s happening with this bullock around the world now. The infinite opens up when you let breath into a space and see how everything is related.

For a review of One Billion Beats, see:  Gallasch, "One heart beating for the many: Romaine Moreton, One Billion Beats", RealTime, 131.

This is Bunuba country. This country holds stories from long time ago. For man, women, children and country. One story we hold in our hearts. This is Jandamarra’s story. He started a fight, for country, his spirit country, a long time ago against white man. Jandamarra spirit is standing strong, it hasn’t died. All you other people, blackfella, white people, listen to this story for Jandamarra.

Danny Marr in Indigenous Writer, Director and Producer Mitch Torres’ Keepers of the Story: Jandamarra, 2010.