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 Semaphore is a newsletter and publishing project about art fromWestern Australia | Semaphore is a collaborative project and practice | Semphore enters into a dialogue with art from its rooted location of Boorloo on Noongar Country |


Annihilation then Vacation

04 December 2019
A response to Jessee Lee Johns’ South Mole Resort by Jess Day
Fremantle Biennale, Derbarl Yerrigan (Swan River)

Russia’s northern coastline is home to a perilous shipping route, jagged rocks and ice-cold waters combined with a route that clings to the treacherous cliffs led to hundreds of accidents annually. Due to the distance from sources of electricity, running functional lighthouses to prevent further wrecks was problematic until the Soviet Union developed the RTG. Radio-thermoelectric generators powered by strontium-90, a waste product derived from nuclear reactors1 ran the three hundred and twelve lighthouses that were constructed along the coastline. These nuclear-powered lighthouses formed a reliable means by which to light the coastline for a half-life of thirty years before any checks or maintenance would be required. However, after the fall of the USSR the unguarded lighthouses were often ransacked by metal and lead scrappers, the shielding from these tiny nuclear reactors removed, the scrappers and the lighthouses becoming irradiated.2

Jeff Vander Meer, in his Southern Reach Trilogy, speculates on an alternative fiction in which these ‘zones’ become sites of uncontrollable mutation, altering the area beyond known scientific measure.  VanderMeer creates a hostile environment which imbues everyone who travels there with the potential for change, whether that be into a corpse or something other than human, a fluid metamorphosis from a contained humanity to something irrevocably altered and loaded with future potential.  Jessee Lee Johns is similarly speculative in their recent work as part of the 2019 Fremantle Biennale: Undercurrent: The Commonwealth of New Bayswater: South Mole Resort.

South Mole has always been a favourite spot of mine, tucked away near the port where the river mouth meets the ocean, the area has a strong sense of past industry, development and yet something forgotten. Perhaps it’s the cracked sidewalks that meet huge mounds of limestone rock, or the old men lined up fishing along the mole.

The area has a feeling of being immune to time, as though the lighthouse situated at the end of the mole wards off any discernible form of timekeeping. It’s here that a section of barricade fencing outlines the irregular triangle-like shape of South Mole Resort.

Johns cordons off a zone which upon entry, suggests alternative approaches to preparing for the apocalypse, surviving after an Event, and building something better than before. The speculation of what vacationing might be after some world changing event allows for a common ground derived from the Australian dream: a long weekend on the coast. 

“Perhaps he had even seen it coming from the top of the lighthouse, the Event arriving like a kind of wave. And what had manifested? What do I believe manifested?” 3

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^^^ all images by Duncan Wright

As you enter through the gate and visitor information booth, Australian currency is exchanged at the bank for Commonwealth of New Bayswater dollars, which are beautiful stoneware disks embossed with seagulls. The bank itself is rather open air, backed by the river mouth and overgrown with large clumps of New Bayswater weeds. Behind this breezy structure sits two shacks reminiscent of some fusion between Mad Max (1979) and rural West Australian fishing towns, I’ve never felt more at home. Peeling paint, tarpaulins tucked around edges of structures, and a proclivity for tech screws meet the considered sensibility of a good hotel. The port-a-loo has a small vase of local flowers, the fellows behind the bar have a natural easy charm and crack your beer, as a painting of an ospray soars behind them. Being in this place feels like being inside a memory of a tabletop role playing game. Everyone has their role and skills, and without working together, whatever remains outside this lone rest point on the long hard apocalyptic road will come thrashing and crashing in, eating us all alive. In its aesthetic, volunteer staff, atmosphere and location, the work embodies a creative optimism between individuals and objects, place and time, now and the speculative future. South Mole Resort welcomes everyone to take a vacation from their immediate everyday reality and consider the low-cost prepper alternative of a Do-It-Yourself approach to a near-future apocalypse.   

“I also liked the ocean, and I found staring at it had a calming effect. The air was so clean, so fresh, while the world back beyond the border was what it had always been during the modern era: dirty, tired, imperfect, winding down, at war with itself. Back there, I had always felt as if my work amounted to a futile attempt to save us from who we are” 4 

Since it’s popularisation during the Cold War 5, prepping culture has expanded to include a vast array of popular media artefacts such as long running reality shows, video games, novels and an entire retail industry. The frontier roots of prepping culture have to some degree remained, however, they are being transformed by a new generation of doomsday darlings. The most noticeable shift is evidenced in the attitude and approach to prepping, no more6 the doom and gloom of the impending apocalypse, but rather speculation on the potential roused by an onslaught of seemingly unstoppable chaos. Josef Nguyen describes prepping “as a form of millenarian thinking [that] anticipates the collapse of the current world order with aspirations to start anew”,7 unlike its Cold War predecessor, contemporary prepping approaches these near future disaster events with a sense of optimism and purpose. 

This is due partly to the perception contemporary preppers have of speculative future survival events as opportunities to rejoin a sense of collective presence between an individual and an object.8  Speculative future survival events, often referred to as conspiracy theories,9 are at the core of prepper culture. These speculative events detail the unfolding of basic commodities and infrastructure that may often be taken for granted. Once these systems fall, or fail, the likelihood of survival on a large scale for any populace rapidly decreases.

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Philip E. Agre states “If you want to destroy someone nowadays, you go after their infrastructure”.10 Agre highlights the conditions of urban living- the reliance on layer upon layer of infrastructure coupled with the importation of various food goods and bottled drinks, enabling “everyday life everywhere [to be] stalked by the threat of interruption: the blackout, the gridlock, the severed connection…”11

Near future disaster events locate scenarios12 in the disruption of these abstract infrastructural systems often by emphasizing the world as “increasingly haunted by the specter of imminent resource exhaustion”.13 Michael F. Mills agrees that television and online media have “rendered the ‘reality’ of disaster immediately apparent to large audiences in ways not possible in earlier decades”.14 

South Mole Resort reflects these ideas by suggesting a creative approach to discarded materials and general detritus. Rather than a permanent structure, Johns presents something malleable, more akin to a, albeit very structurally sound, temporary shelter. The very nature of South Mole Resort is a repurposing, adding an extension perhaps or packing the whole structure up only to rebuild it somewhere else.

“It creates out [of] our ecosystem a new world, whose processes and aims are utterly alien--one that works through supreme acts of mirroring, and by remaining hidden in so many ways, all without surrendering the foundations of its otherness as it becomes what it encounters” 15

Preppers, like conspiracy theories, sit along a spectrum ranging from possible or reasonable to extreme or dangerous. Jessee Lee Johns successfully recognizes the potentials and extremes in both prepping and speculative futures by constructing an alternative vacation narrative that viewers can directly engage with. Johns does not simply re-present apocalyptic theories or lump various types of prepping into one collective,16 instead this post-apocalyptic resort offers insight into the possibility of a functional community where guests are provided accommodation, simple home cooked meals and tepid but delicious cans of beer. South Mole Resort imagines a retention of holiday even from the hellish onslaught of some major environmental, financial and/or global shifts. Instead of musing on the basic means of an individual’s survival this project reframes the conversation by prioritizing human connection, sustainable relationships and the universally human desire to simply take a break from it all.  


The Commonwealth of New Bayswater: South Mole Resort
Jessee Lee Johns

Fremantle Biennale: Undercurrent

1 - 24 November 2019

Image credits:
Jessee Lee Johns, The Commonwealth of New Bayswater: South Mole Resort, 2019. Photos by Duncan Wright. Courtesy of Jessee Lee Johns and Fremantle Biennale.

Footnotes & Referecnces:

1 & 2 Bellona, 2019. Nuclear Lighthouses to be Replaced.

3 & 4 VanderMeer, Jeff. 2014. Southern Reach Trilogy. Harper Collins, United Sates of America.

5 1947 to 1991, the nuclear stalemate was fought less with weapons that it was ideas, political, financial and social propaganda became a vital means for both the Soviet Union and the United States to encourage it’s populations, and the populations of their respective allies to focus on a social resilience, self-improvement and basic skill sets to survive after a potential nuclear fallout.
Britannica, 2019. Cold War Event.

6 Certain sub-sectors may always remain, to disregard those extremes is not my intention, rather to focus on the potential arising from a more constructive and prevalent millennial approach to prepping as not only practical but also imbued with the possibility for widespread cultural change. Even if this change comes at the cost of lives, infrastructure and everyday life as we know it.
Mills, Michael F. 2018. Preparing for the unknown unknowns: ‘doomsday’ prepping and disaster risk anxiety in the United States. Taylor and Francis Online.
7 Nguyen, Josef. 2018. How makers and preppers converge in premodern and post-apocalyptic ruin. Vol 7.2. Lateral, Journal of the Cultural Studies Association.

8 Mills, Michael F. 2018. Preparing for the unknown unknowns: ‘doomsday’ prepping and disaster risk anxiety in the United States. Taylor and Francis Online.

9 Although certainly not all of these speculative events are conspiracy theories, but the vast majority of well-established ones are. Jane, Emma E. Fleming, Chris. 2014. Modern Conspiracy: The Importance of being Paranoid. Bloomsbury. London.

10 Agre, Philip E. 2001. Imagining the Next War: Infrastructural Warfare and the Conditions of Democracy. Department of Information Studies, University of California. United States of America.

11 Graham, Stephen. 2011. The New Military Urbanism. In Non-Killing Geographies. Hawaii, United States of America.

12 To put it another way “Conspiracy theories are, to twist the words of the eliminative materialist, ‘folk sociology’” Jane, Emma E. Fleming, Chris. 2014. Modern Conspiracy: The Importance of being Paranoid, p133. Bloomsbury. London.

13 Graham, Stephen. 2011. The New Military Urbanism. In Non-Killing Geographies. Hawaii, United States of America.

14 Mills, Michael F. 2018. Preparing for the unknown unknowns: ‘doomsday’ prepping and disaster risk anxiety in the United States. Taylor and Francis Online.

15 VanderMeer, Jeff. 2014. Southern Reach Trilogy. Harper Collins, United Sates of America.

16 For example, those preparing a water and food store for an environmental emergency lasting a few weeks differ greatly from those building well financed underground systems to survive the end of the world. Further many cultures and people have been performing some level of prepping for centuries, and these models differ greatly from newer, wealthier approaches.


Kaya. We acknowledge the Whadjuk People of Boorloo boodja who are the traditional owners of the land where Semaphore is made. We respect their culture, their custodianship, and their continuing contribution to the life of this city and this region. That includes recognising and respecting sovereignty while working in solidarity towards a treaty and supporting ongoing connection to country. That means linguistic rights, economic opportunity, and artistic endeavour. To their Elders, past, present and emerging, we say thanks.