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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 |


Chapter 1:
Ice Coffee Fortifications and Baking Lasagnes

24 May 2020
A reflection on making it at home by Emma Buswell

Part one in a series of reflective texts by Emma Buswell on her time in COVID-19 isolation and the impacts it is having on her relationship to art making.


My housemate Rosie has started drawing with a set of aquarelle crayons she picked up from Jacksons last week before all the shops shut down. Each day she’s been picking out a different location around our backyard to paint in miniature. Vast 2m2 expanses reduced, en plein air, to the domestic length and breadth of a single sheet of A4 Reflex office paper.  Today was Bougainvilleas clinging to the side of our fence and yesterday was an assortment of potted plants lined up against some overturned wood pallets she’d recently fashioned into a small outside storage nook.

I’ve stopped buying Dare Iced Coffee. I joked to some colleagues last week about how it was the only thing getting me through that absolute shit show of mid-march mad install and dank humidity. I’d been stacking the bottles up along the edge of my desk like some kind of eager tribute to the choc chill regattas of yesteryear.  Fortifying the last vestiges of my personal workspace in the dregs of caffeine flavoured milk and chunky plastic bottles. Now I’ve started making my own coffee in the mornings, the thrum and phone-vibration-loud groan of our small Nespresso machine comforting in contrast to the anxious energy growing up the walls and taking residence in the empty shelves at the supermarket down the street.

I’ve had a few people asking me if I’ve been hearing the sirens more. We had a conversation about it around morning tea break a couple weeks back. Hugh made a good point, and something I’d failed to consider before: with fewer cars on the road and the usual ambient background noise, white noise, of car engines and business humdrum deafened; the space between crickets and bird song, and the crashing at the docks has opened up to allow the eerie cyclic pitch of emergency sirens to take up more space. It is a reminder of the state, and crisis and kind of haunting in the way that everyday life reminds me sometimes of pop cultural Sci-Fi’s set in distant dystopias. Thinking on what Hugh said, maybe it’s important not to give into that association, to train my mind not to spiral into negative territories, maybe there are not more sirens, just less noise.

There’s a puzzle in our living room we’ve taken to picking at whenever the fancy strikes, a few of us distantly crowding around a low coffee table to sort and piece together fragmented colour and pattern into images and shapes. A few nights ago, during one such image scavenger hunt, Nick, Rosie’s partner abruptly entered the room and moved to close the blinds that block our kitchen window from the street. His movements were jerky, angry and anxious in their dedication. He’d seen a guy outside on the street staring into our window watching Rosie and I around the puzzle. I felt dirty and weird, but also it seemed so trivial given everything that was happening.

I’ve been instructed to work from home. They sent us all PDF packs of information about ergonomics and productivity. It’s hard to focus on day job work when all I want to do is bunker down like a bear and hibernate, or knit, or paint while the outside world stagnates. I don’t have a desk. Or an office chair. I’ve started using the outdoor furniture in my back yard. The setting me and my housemates usually sit around after work some days, Nick vaping, Rosie and Mark with an Emu in hand and me with whatever leftovers were reserved for the install crew after a shift.

The PDF manual instructs you to raise your computer or monitor (don’t have one of those) to be level with your face, so I’ve stashed an empty cardboard carton of Single Fins under it to try and get it to an ergonomically compliant level. Too high. Now I’m sitting on two mostly decorative cushions that are meant to sit on my bed but have habitually made their home the floor of my bedroom. I’ve been masquerading productivity by writing lists and making notations in my Microsoft Outlook calendar. It’s something I started doing when I first started this job. I picked it up when I noticed the Comms person at the time would annotate their tasks to the hour in their calendar. I thought we all had to do it.

Wednesday 1/04/20

10:00am           Exhibitions Team video conference meeting

11:00am           Update email correspondence re announcements

12:00am           Exhibitions Team video conference meeting 2.0

1:00pm             lunch break

1:30pm             file management online

3:00pm             mid-afternoon stretches

3:15pm             Check emails

3:30pm             continue file migration

4:30pm             Pitch session.

5:00pm             pretend to leave imaginary office and get on an imaginary bus.

A few weeks ago, a friend sent through an article commemorating the anniversary of The Great Perth Storm of 2010. It’s 10 years on from that day, recorded as the most devastating natural disaster in the western Eurocentric recorded history of Perth. For a few short hours the sky turned black and green, bruised in the dark light of the midday sun and hail balls the size of cricket balls descended upon Whadjuk boodja and Yamatji country to the north. The port of Fremantle where I live with its wide crystal skies and fields of fresh virgin automotive fleets, (now) newly pockmarked and riddled with dimples the size of golf balls. They said it was a once in a hundred years event. I’m getting sick of those.

I remember being at Uni during the storm and feeling really scared for a friend who was stuck on Canning Highway at the time on a scooter. We were all plastered to the windows in the main studio, looking aghast as the sky turned more purple-green-yellow and watching the atmosphere crackle and pop with latent electric energy. The static noise of the rain hitting Colorbond causing us all to yell and scream out responses to each other, giddy in the strangeness of our surrounds. I woke up the next day with a sore throat and half my voice missing. Weird vibes, weird energies.

There is something even weirder about this current energy, I’m sitting in my backyard, the last of the summer hangover trickling away. The skies are a clear brilliant blue, scuttle white clouds interrupted by the erratic percussive beat of helicopter blades overhead. The weirdness of this energy is not the weather but the feeling. Not knowing when I’ll see (read: hold) friends or family again. Contacting people overseas I haven’t spoken to in a while, the line awkward and silent because we don’t really know how to talk to each other anymore. Internet bandwidth reducing the chemistry of human exchange to lagging images and conversations perforated by glitch and technological pauses.

I want to respond to everything that’s happening by knitting a jumper. It was the same with remembering the storm. I had planned hailstone and smashed car motifs, big swirls of dirty clouds jutting up against the neckband with fluorescent stabs of lightning bolts perforating the grey. I imagine things now in stitches, a man on a run eating a kebab, questioned by police, rendered in minute detail, on the back a quote from Premier Mark McGowan from a recent press event, his words framed by his abrupt and uncontainable laughter. A repeat stitch pattern emblazoned with Scott Morrison’s repeated and agitated “Andrew!”.

In the brief window of time before this all got mammoth and real in the way that things usually trickle through the world top down and end up here three weeks later, a colleague complained to me that we would be seeing heaps of really shit art come out of this situation. It irked me as an observation, because really, who cares if people are making, creating, doing things, thinking things as a way of coping through this moment. Who wants to criticise those kinds of responses. This energy is weird, and like other traumatic events, people will process it in a way that they find rewarding and necessary.

I think it’s important certainly, not to place pressure on ourselves to treat this time as a period of intense cultural production, but if like me, you digest and process things by drawing, or stitching, or making, writing, singing, then don’t feel guilty. I love that my community finds way to digitally quilt together, to form open online communities for maintaining regular karaoke catch-ups that ritualistically happen at the Northbridge Hotel every Friday. For celebrating mutual appreciation for potatoes through themed Zoom chats. A podcast I listen to from the US has an advert that always pops up. The tagline of the public health campaign is “Alone Together”. A bit on the nose, but it seems appropriate.

My dad has been sending me daily photos of him dressing up plants at work. The way he puts it, he’s crafting the plants into images after his own likeness, jauntily placing wraparound sunglasses and a beaten outdoorsman sun hat in and amongst the dense foliage of the various hedge plants he grooms in his job as a gardener. Mum’s taken up knitting squares for an ever expanding blanket of fantastical colours. For them, it almost seems like the longest long weekend, an endless period of chair reupholstering, backyard maintenance and house repainting, things they would never normally do without the heavy cloud of restrictions hanging over all our heads. My brother has been dropping around 1000 piece puzzles to my house at night with little sticky note illustrated reviews on them. He’s also become a Lego architect. When he resurrected an old box of the stuff from our parents shed and emptied it onto his living room floor his girlfriend swore no fewer than 10 cockroaches immediately ran from the pile, seeking refuge in all the corners of their small apartment.

I’ve been cooking and swapping food with friends, finding ways to check in with people who don’t live within the intimate Ven Diagram catchment of my bike riding and long walks.  Weirdly it seems I’m seeing more people than ever before. Every family and their two dogs and cats seem to be walking by the stretch of river I call my local. I can’t wait until this fills me with joy instead of the panicked awkwardness of dodging around other people with a wide berth. When your access to the world is taken away, all you want to do is throw yourself into and against it.

For now I’m hopeful, that when this time passes, and I can throw my arms around all the people I’ve been seeing on screen, but have been unable to hold IRL. That we keep at least a little of the weirdness of this energy and bring it with us. The uncertainty can go. The fear about work, about rent, about personal safety can go. What I want to stay is the way everyone around me has been learning through this, picking up new skills, puzzling, drawing, painting, knitting, crocheting, sewing, building awareness and resilience, questioning, forging connection. 

See you all soon, I love you, stay safe and stay sane.

^^ Images courtesy of Emma Buswell.

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.