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Thursday 9 February 2017

I flew in to Perth from London last night. During our descent, a camera in the belly of the A380 showed the patched green skin of the Swan Coastal Plain slipping past beneath us, worn through to the bone-white sand of the Quindalup dunes along fencelines and tracks and around the black eyes of waterholes. The colours were artichoke, ochre, ash and umber. The 14,500km journey took 23 hours.

For the 66 mostly Tamil refugees who arrived by boat in Geraldton in 2013, the journey of 3,000 nautical miles took 44 days. It wasn’t only long, dangerous and terrifying, but for most of them it's still not over. Thirty eight were returned immediately to Sri Lanka, where they risk detention and torture. One has received a temporary protection visa, and last year, 27 were still waiting for the results of their asylum application or case reviews. Trapped in limbo, they can neither move forward or back. For them, and the millions like them around the world who are currently somewhere along the spectrum of their own exodus, placelessness is a chronic condition caused by violence, poverty and climate change, for which wealthier and more peaceful nations will not, or cannot, offer a cure.

Poet and theatre-maker Inua Ellams, whose An Evening with an Immigrant opens at PIAF 2017 on 24 February, has been in a formal relationship with placenessness for 20 years, since leaving Nigeria in 1996 and moving with his family to London, Dublin and London again. For part of that time Ellams was technically an illegal immigrant (his passport was lost by the Royal Mail), and for all of it he has lived with a sense of identity as complex and shifting to him as it has been reduced and oversimplified by bureaucracy and racism. Yet An Evening with an Immigrant is a warm and intimate act of reorientation, in which the ‘guest’ acts as host and describes how a journey away from his origins became a profound and fruitful creative homecoming.

Martin Green’s Flit is an animated song cycle reflecting on migration as both a natural and unnatural phenomenon. With contributions by acclaimed songwriters including Anais Mitchell and Karine Polwart, Flit draws on the experience of Green’s Jewish grandmother, who left Austria on the eve of the Second World War among a tide of the displaced. Its brown paper animations are a beautiful and poignant reminder of lives lived in transit, and of the ubiquity and fragility of human hopes of permanence.

South African choreographer and dancer Gregory Maqoma also explores displacement in Exit/Exist, a moving tribute to his Xhosa ancestor Chief Maqoma, who was forced from his ancestral land by the British before dying in prison on Robben Island. For Maqoma, landlessness is an intergenerational form of cultural and economic impoverishment – it leads to a loss of tradition, pride, capital (in the case of Chief Maqoma, literally, heads of cattle), language and knowledge: the 'storied' self. It has been the experience of the majority of first or Indigenous peoples worldwide both physically and socially.

And there's another kind of displacement which is aligned with, though is less overtly catastrophic than the loss of home through enforced abandonment. It's known as solastalgia – a term coined by Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht a decade before the refugees arrived in Geraldton. Solastalgia is homesickness for the place where you continue to live. It describes a sense of loss or grief for the familiar, which has been rendered strange or inhospitable by environmental change. Albrecht describes solastalgia in relation to the local – the place we call home and the land span immediately beyond it. But perhaps a form of solastalgia applies too to the growing sense of dislocation between our individual lives and the political and economic decisions made on our behalf at the regional, national and international levels. Many of us feel homesick, whether we live in them or not, for the countries whose names we bear in our passports (if we're lucky enough to be in possession of one of these), or homesick for the earth itself, our original and ultimate place of residence. When the politics of nations shift towards derangement, when nature's systems are propelled by our interventions towards chaos, only the psychopathic (or the dead) could fail to be distressed and disorientated, or to register a profound sense of displacement from the places where we are, or once thought ourselves to be.

Richard Nelson's The Gabriels plays are infused with solastalgia, experienced at the local and national levels by a single family over the course of the presidential election year in 2016. Gathered in the home of recently deceased playwright Thomas Gabriel in Rhinebeck, NY (where Nelson himself has lived for 34 years), his siblings, mother, widow and ex-wife have come together in grief, but over the course of three meals (and three plays), they share a related sorrow and unease at the changes taking place in the rapidly gentrifying town where they have lived for three generations, and in the nation and ‘idea’ of America itself. The first play in the trilogy is called Hungry: it’s not only the food prepared in real time during the performance, however, that the characters crave. It’s the sense of recognition and belonging they once knew, which they unearth in the archives of the family home as they prepare to sell it for financial reasons. The Gabriels plays invite us into a domestic space with which we too become deeply familiar, and offer up the healing rituals of preparing and sharing food, as well as one another’s company, over the course of eight hours. Though the context, and many strands of conversation, relate directly to the election year, the plays’ honesty, intimacy and humanity provide a refuge from the shoulder-barging turn in American politics – and remind us that place-maintenance begins at home.

If human beings experience distress at the depletion of familiar environments, why not non-human species too, whose fates are even more immediately bound up in the complex intersection of material and energetic resources in the sites they inhabit? PIAF 2017 opening event, Boorna Waanginy: The Trees Speak, takes place in Perth's Kings Park over three nights, and invites participants on a physical journey along an avenue of trees animated not only by their own vitality but by images and voices of all of their human and non-human inhabitants, custodians and neighbours. Boorna Waanginy reveals the biodiversity of the South West and the richness of the Noongar knowledge system, which has developed in symbiosis with it. At the same time, the work brings home, literally, the experience of species loss in the face of ecosystem stress and climate change – absence becomes palpable darkness and silence in Boorna Waanginy's concentration of time and space. It can only be countered by active engagement with total environments, aimed at maintaining their biodiversity and overall identity even in the face of change.

There may not be a cure for solastalgia, since the absolute restoration of place to itself and its inhabitants is impossible: time’s arrow moves in one direction only. But there are ways of knowing home at different levels of scale that make possible new and renewed forms of attention and care, cooperation and inhabitation.

Ground-truthing is a term used by ecologists for assessment of environmental health at close quarters. Botanist Stephen Hopper takes it further and calls it 'belly botany'. It means gathering data with the senses, in situ, bringing the body into direct relationship with place and the processes of place. Ground-truthing has been practised by Aboriginal people for tens of thousands of years, and its intertwining with the holistic perspective of ecosystem sciences is building new knowledge bases for environmental care, restoration and protection.

Rituals and the reestablishment of simple rhythms, like the cooking in The Gabriels, often mark the return to order from chaos in myth and fairy tale: they're the cultural equivalent of pacemakers, restoring regularity to fibrillating hearts and societies. They may help with solastalgia by returning a sense of individual agency to our lives and actions, by bringing us together in the enactment and communication of those values we cleave to, in the places where we know we belong. And they mark our respect for one another and for the resources and materials from which we’re all spun. Ritual, rhythm and intimate attention lie at the heart of art-making and our engagement with it. Could they help us ease our solastalgia by fostering a felt, embodied, collective experience of possible worlds?

In 2009, Glenn Albrecht suggested the term soliphilia as a counterpoint to the sense of dislocation described by solastalgia. Soliphilia ‘introduces the notion of political commitment to the saving of loved home environments at all scales, from the local to the global’. Albrecht argues that our sense of place and belonging can, and should, extend from the locales immediately at hand to our planetary home, for the maintenance of which, in the Anthropocene era, we all share responsibility. And just as Inua Ellams found a home in art rather than national identity, so art-making and encounter may provide solace and a sense of belonging in their rituals and their creation of communities. They offer new knowledge and new skills in place-making, through practice, attention and the humble (from L.humus ‘earth’) near-surface discoveries of ground-truthing.


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Written By Ruth Little

Theatre and dance dramaturg, teacher, writer, and PIAF’s unofficial philosopher-in-residence, Ruth Little has spent much of her life curating, developing and writing about art and live performance across the world. Join Ruth in her role as Festival Navigator as she explores our program in all its multi-faceted glory.   

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