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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 |


Your mission if you choose to accept

04 August 2020
A response to Every Day Super Hero by Melissa McGrath
Fremantle Arts Centre 

For the last six months a small piece of purple-painted cardboard about 5 x 4 cm has been hanging from the corner of my bathroom mirror. A memento from an artwork I participated in this January. Do you do that? Hold on to pieces of experiences? Keep them close? For me it is generally artworks that I’m still unpacking, sizing up, or contextualising whose objects I keep close. A postcard from a museum, a ticket stub, or a room sheet. Prompts, like a piece of blue tape on the wall of a gallery reminding you to paint over the sanded spot during install. After a process of consideration, digestion, maybe research and conversations, there will come a point when those objects are put away. Added to the box of exhibition catalogues under my bed, tucked between the pages of a notebook, filed away, rested from active thought.

I received this object as part of Every Day Super Hero by Alex Desebrock and Tanya Lee. Presented at Fremantle Arts Centre as the summer school holidays wound down, the participatory performance work bought together adults and young people to be transformed into “powerful super-citizens, ready to tackle the world’s problems.”1 

That word: citizen. In this moment it feels like a verb not a noun, as much for who it excludes as those it includes. While the natural crisis that defined the summer highlighted the interconnectedness of our nation; the cool seasons of social distance that followed have underlined who falls either side of arbitrary boundaries. The injustice of who is provided protection or support and who is penalised or neglected is right in our faces. Not just right now, but historically and with eyes on the future, climate change snowballs into bushfires and spreading disease, access to healthcare, employment and other social services amongst this crisis highlights the hundreds of years of colonial violence which support our current economic system of exploitation. It's all so bloody big.

How do you explain that to a child?

After passing through various levels of identity verification (drivers license copying, ink pad fingerprint records and cardboard retina scanners that tell you “you rock”), the adult superheroes-in-training gather on chairs in the conference area and are asked: What is the biggest issue facing the world? We wring our hands, write down notes, and go around the circle talking about single-use plastics, screen time, environmental destruction, bullying, poverty.

Following their own discussions in the cushion-filled cubby, caped young superheroes-in-training are paired up with each adult. As our newly formed teams devise a secret handshake and put our lives in each other's hands to navigate a crowded room in blindfolds, we adults explain a big issue we can see the world is facing. When it came to it, I didn’t need to ‘explain’ anything. My partner Jack and I had an amazing conversation about homelessness. I told him about the people who sleep on the veranda at my work and the City of Perth high pressure sidewalk cleaners that sweep through the city around midnight most nights moving people out of doorways and stairwells. He shared with me his memory of seeing elderly people begging when visiting family in China, and the time his Dad gave him $5 to give to the lady sitting outside his local IGA. We also talked about what was good about a home, safety, family. While we constructed superhero outfits out of recycled materials, we were brainstorming solutions to these problems, imagining what the future could look like. Building homes for people who needed them was Jack’s main focus — pertinent given WA’s pretty awful rate of public housing, which given current events is unlikely to ease, although the recent publication of All Paths Lead to Home the State Government’s 10-year homelessness strategy should not be ignored in this discussion. 

So now Jack and I are equipped with a common purpose, and an arsenal of tools and it is time to put our budding superpowers to task in the real world. We decamp from HQ to the grounds of the arts centre where we are provided a series of three missions. We stand on the corner of Finnerty and James Street asking passing cars to honk for kindness; share a hug with an (initially highly sceptical) octogenarian; and call the Mayor of Fremantle Brad Pettitt — who Jack tells his ideas for making the city a better place to live (it was a Saturday, so we left a long voicemail for him to listen to when he got to the office on Monday morning). With the three missions complete we are all high-fives and euphoria from our bravery and the thrill of being dressed a bit silly in public. I feel so great walking up the stairs back to HQ for a celebratory dance party. Mission complete. In just an hour and a half I had translated my own existential crisis to the comprehension of an 11 year old, and emboldened him to take some actions in public that allowed him to speak his mind and be heard. Sometimes all you need is to be given permission right?

The Guardian published a text by Scott Ludlam last week as part of Assembly for the Future, a series of reflections by thinkers looking back at 2020 from the near future of 2029. Scott illustrates the pathway to this time which is not too different to now (Fremantle still hasn't won a Grand Final); but in which there has been just enough of a redirection to demonstrate how small things spark big outcomes. He speaks of a new cohort of leaders who spent their youth learning the history, strategy and the power of collective action. I’m thinking of all the young people that have and will continue to speak truths to powers that are largely uninterested in listening: Sophie Scholl, Severn Cullis-Suzuki, Autumn Peltier, Greta Thunberg, Emma Gonzalez, Dujuan Hoosan. It is these supposedly small voices who cut through, without permission, and with the most to say, the most at stake. The line in Scott’s text that really got me was this:

“my favourite thing is what happens when organised labour learns it [the power of strike] back from these kids and rolls it out in every timezone at once.”2

That little piece of purple-painted cardboard was a gift from my partner in super hero-ing Jack. It has a hole punched centre-top, with a safety pin secured through it, and when you look closely it has small flecks of yellow paint on the surface. In the bottom left corner there are two words written quickly, but clearly, in permanent marker:



While I stood amongst the group of adults, dismantling our superhero outfits and tools, sorting the components back into piles of like-parts ready for the next cohort of superheroes, our counterparts were preparing these badges for each of us. Hastily pinned on our shirts like a ribbon from a school sports carnival, as we said goodbye, these words are for us to take with us as a reminder. A reflection of our inner superpowers that we might have lost sight of as we are dazzled by all those big problems.

It turns out I wasn’t the only one with a mission in those 90 minutes. And Jack doesn’t need my permission for anything — it was me that was there to learn.

I don’t think I’ll be packing this memento away anytime soon. 

Every Day Super Hero
By Alex Desebrock and Tanya Lee
Fremantle Arts Centre
21 January - 1 February 2020

1 Fremantle Arts Centre, 2020, Every Day Super Hero. https://www.fac.org.au/whats-on/post/every-day-super-hero/

2 Ludlam, Scott, 30 July, 2020, ‘Love letter from 2029: I want you to know we did it, we turned the ship around’, The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2020/jul/30/love-letter-from-2029-i-want-you-to-know-we-did-it-we-turned-the-ship-around

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.