Guidelines for Prospective Participants

‘Off the Beaten Track’ Workshops




The ‘Off the Beaten Track’ workshop is held in conjunction with the national tour of Turn the Soil, an exhibition of works by second-generation Australia craftspersons. Eleven artisans were asked to make works as though it was their parents’ nation that had colonised Australia. This workshop is an opportunity to broaden that question—to invite other talents into the speculation about these other Australias.

Each venue visited by Turn the Soil will have its own scenario. These scenarios are designed to represent a full range of historical possibilities. Their purpose is multiple:

  • To understand British colonisation better by imagining how it could have been different
  • To fully realise otherwise half-formed fantasies of what Australia would have been like if given over to a foreign culture
  • To enhance the sense of possibility with the prospect of Australia becoming a republic

The task of workshops is to create a picture of what Australia as a nation would have been like under different historical circumstances. This involves constructing the trappings of nationhood, such as flag, anthem and map.

For those interested in the broader framework in which these workshops operate, an argument has been developed.

Imagine rather than predict

To an extent, this process will be informed by historical information about the colonising practices of the nation concerned. For instance, the record of Spanish invasion into South America provides a model for imagining how they might have gone about their business here. However, it is critically important to set a limit to our dependence on purely historical information. The workshops are not designed for professional historians (exclusively, that is—they are always welcome to participate). The purpose is not to predict what might have happened, but to imagine how it could have been different. For this reason, it is more important at the end to have a range of interesting scenarios rather than a set of outcomes limited to previous expectations. The approach here is similar to the brainstorming phase of problem solving: it is more important to canvas a wide range of possibilities than focus on the most likely.

Think, for example, of how a city might re-design its city square. In `going back to the drawing board’, it looks at a wide range of possible functions. Is it a shopping centre, a place for crowds to gather, or a pleasant sight for passing motorists? More than likely, a committee will also review how squares function in other cities, in other cultures.

The situation is parallel here, except for a ‘slight’ change of scale. The task of imagining an alternative history involves exploring other modes of habitation. For example, if a nation was not interested in saving the souls of Aboriginal peoples, what kind of relationship might they have established? To reach the point of asking this kind of question entails stripping back preconceptions of what a colonised Australia looks like. This process itself is conducive to the imaginative formation of a republic conducted outside these workshops. The result need not be a totally different Australia. It may be that once looked at anew, the basic components of Anglo nation are put back into place. What is important is the collective participation in this reconstruction, rather than the blind following of tradition. These workshops are hopefully a part of that participation.

On the couch

The work involved in constructing a nation is akin to psychoanalytic techniques such as dream analysis and free association. Rather than putting a person on the couch, however, this process puts the ‘nation’ on the couch. The outcomes from imagining how others might have done it will probably have more to say about the currents and undercurrents that drive Australian culture at present, than it does about actual historical circumstances.

At the end

By the end of the exhibition tour, there will be nine or ten scenarios, ranging from connection to the ancient classical civilisations to an absence of European colonisation. Along the way, the results of these scenarios will be kept on the Turn the Soil web site ( As a finished product, we will probably gather those results together in a permanent record to be burned into a CD-ROM.

The mission

For this body of alternative histories to fit together, it is important to collect a shared set of information. To this end, a kind of ‘census’ has been constructed with Ross Gibson, a Sydney-based historian and creator of the story-telling screens in the Museum of Sydney. To help in filling out this census, it is important if you fill out your copy before the workshop. The start of the workshop will involve collating these results for decision at the end. It would be useful if you also gave some thought to the kind of exercise that you’d like to specialise in.



The imagination required in this exercise involves a number of processes. The first is to wipe clean the slate. We must return to the rudiments of Australia: a land mass at the bottom of Asian between the Indian and Pacific Oceans inhabited by a widely dispersed series of tribal communities…

This is probably the most difficult act, to think of Australia without even calling it ‘Australia’, much less without all the other aids to understanding, such as the map with its grid of federation and coastal the anchor points of big cities.


The workshop has three phases

  1. Assembly. Collating census results and agreeing upon broad outlines of nation from group discussion
  2. Production. Separate activities in creating national icons
  3. Presentation. Gathering everything into a common picture.


  • Fill out the census beforehand
  • In whatever you bring to the workshop, put your imagination on the top of the pile




      Martin Bernal Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization London: Free Association, 1987

      Bruce Chatwin Songlines London: Picador, 1987

      Richard Flanagan Death of a River Guide Melbourne: McPhee Gribble, 1995

      Tim Flannery The Future Eaters: An Ecological History of the Australasian Land and People Melbourne: Reed, 1994

      Julia Kristeva Nations without Nationalism New York: Columbia University Press (trans. L. Roudez), 1993 (orig. 1990)

      Alex Miller The Ancestor Game Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1992

      Mark Monmonier Drawing the Line: Tales of Maps and Cartocontroversy New York: Henry Holt & Co., (orig. 1995)

      David Quammen The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in the Age of Extinctions London: Hutchinson, 1996

      Eric Rolls Sojourners: The Epic Story of China's Centuries-Old Relationship with Australia St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1992

      Simon Schama Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution New York: Knopf, 1989

      Tony Swain A Place for Strangers: Towards a History of Australian Aboriginal Being Cambridge University Press, 1993

      Arnold Zable Jewels and Ashes Melbourne: Scribe, 1991