'Federation goes DVT' Art Monthly June No. 140 pp. 32-34 (2001)

It was a matter not of life mirroring art, but of art overshadowing life. The centenary of Federation reached its climax in the anniversary of the first parliamentary sitting in Melbourne’s Royal Exhibition Buildings. The Tom Roberts’ painting The Opening of the First Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia by H.R.H. The Duke of Cornwall and York (Later King George V), May 9, 1901 provided the most tangible reference the nation’s origin. As events proceeded, it was apparent that our lacklustre political mainstream and passive spectatorship would never measure up to the visions captured in Tom Roberts’ studio.

Seven thousand guests filed into the Royal Exhibition Buildings on a mild autumn afternoon. Despite the four-hour schedule, no refreshments were provided. The official reason was lack of time, but the motive was probably political. Fasting forestalled any cynical gibes about ‘snouts in the trough’.

Once seated, the audience was treated like passengers on an aeroplane. Emergency evacuation plans were displayed and members of the audience were advised to note the nearest exits. On each seat was an emergency package of Cadbury’s toffees and a bottle of water. The water was provided by a private company and tasted like Adelaide tap water (a less palatable gesture of federation). Given the ordeal to follow, extra warnings about DVT would not have been inappropriate.

Pre-flight entertainment was provided by the ex-Seeker Bruce Woodley, who was chuffed to join his daughter in singing anthems of homogenised nationhood, including the ubiquitous I am Australian. Steve Bracks blandly welcomed the audience and then Sir William Dean read messages from the Queen and the Queen mother. The speakers for the two houses formally opened the session. The President of the Senate reflected on the ‘unplugged’ scene a hundred year’s ago, held in natural light with no amplification and few cameras. 

Margaret Reid didn’t need to labour the point. The advance of technology was evident for all to see directly in front of us. A huge screen loomed above the main stage. Framed like a painting, it translated the Tom Roberts’ canvas into the grammar of contemporary spectacle. The screen relayed images from cameras perched in every nook and cranny of the Royal Exhibition Buildings. In one of those Baudrillard-moments, aesthetic distance dizzily collapsed into the live event. Not only were we in the 2001 Federation reenactment, we were also in the 1901 inauguration, and in Tom Roberts’ studio and homes around Australia tuned into the broadcast. It was Federation karaoke-style. So where was Tom Roberts?

The role of the painter had been taken over by a network of cameras busily constructing a spectacle for the electronic canvas. Robotic cameras were suspended on mechanised arms and moved freely through the open space above the crowd. They curved through the air like a painter’s brush, outlining the scene in panoramic swathes of imagery. In a recurring gesture, the camera would start with a close-up on the speaker, then pan back upwards revealing the spectacle in its entirety. It was like being in a film set while at the same time watching the movie.

As well as capturing the broader scale of the event, the camera also focused on individual faces. This individual attention of the camera led the event to teeter dangerously on the verge of comedy. On seeing themselves projected onto the big screen, most exposed members of the audience would show distinct signs of unease, such as nervously darting eyes or putting a hand up to the face. Even those seasoned to the public eye would eventually show palpable signs of distraction if held long enough in the gaze of the camera. The robotic camera operated like a sniper in guerrilla action against the political elites.

At one scary moment, I saw the robot camera move in my direction and aim its lens at the part of the crowd where I sat. At any moment, the producer might decide to go live with that camera and throw my neighbours and I into the Tom Roberts’ painting. I could feel my chest tighten and various escape plans flicked through my mind. Fortunately the gaze moved on, but I knew it could come back at any moment, as did everyone else in the building.

How did we find ourselves in this position? In early TV variety shows it was common practice to swivel the camera away from front stage to reveal the studio audience behind it. In response, the audience would nervously giggle and wave at themselves on the monitors. The old-fashioned camera reversal seems quaint now compared to the complex imbrication of screen and spectacle in contemporary life. During the Olympic opening ceremony, athletes appeared on television while filming from their own video cameras and talking on mobile phones to friends watching them on the other side of the world.

What made this mirroring so strange in the commemorative sitting of parliament was that it infected the front stage of the nation. The ceremonial arena is normally reserved for distant authorities. The legitimacy of the commemorative ritual is dependent on the gaze for whom the spectacle is presented. Tom Roberts’ painting highlights not only the imperial gaze of the Duke of Cornwall, but also the ray of light indicating divine grace from the heavens.

In the contemporary story of Federation, this gaze is nominally delivered by the indigenous peoples of Australia. Apart from John Howard, most speakers prefaced their remarks by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land. The most ritualistic component of the afternoon was the Wurunjeri smoking ceremony, though its impact was lessened with the use of electric light and meagre smoke instead of a live smouldering fire. Accompanying the ceremony was a dance in which four Wurunjeri hoisted a large puppet into the air representing Bunjil, the creator-god. The commentary heralded Bunjil as an eagle-god shared by Aboriginal Australians across the country. This monotheistic take on an inherently pantheistic religious system seemed to press indigenous culture into the convenient mould of founding national mythology, left vacant by the fall of the British empire. The artificial fire was symptomatic of the lack of oxygen in that arrangement.

Then something strange happened. People around me began to titter. At first, I thought this an uncharitable reaction to the smoking ceremony, but then I spied the source of their amusement. Immediately following Bunjil’s appearance, two pigeons found their way into the building and were blithely flying around the airy spaces above us. With the pigeons was the comic potential that they might deliver their load on a strategically misplaced dignitary.

As with the NATO intervention in Kosova, the Federation reenactment was an aerial contest. Trapped in increasingly uncomfortable seats, the audience was prey to the freely moving forces above it. Robotic cameras might capture us on screen, while pigeons might drop upon us their homage to unmoving political statues. While everything followed its politically spell-checked script, spontaneity was reserved for Bunjil’s domain.

The predicament was emblematic of the cowed nature of proceedings. The camera overawed the audience; fear of ‘hurting’ voters outweighed political vision; founding fathers overshadowed 21st century pen-pushers; lingering memories of the Sydney’s Olympics cast a pall over staid Melbourne; the oldest civilisation in existence showed up the recent interlopers; and the English Head of State dogged the still-born republic. There was no path forward.

The only real action of the afternoon belonged to Betty Cuthbert, the last in a cavalcade of Australian achievers. Her personal struggle with MS was visibly demonstrated when words failed and she was forced to pass her speech to Nova Peris. The scene provided a moving spectacle of a hero courageously dealing with her tragic condition, sensitively assisted by her able-bodied partner. Yet the impact of the scene could also be felt on a deeper level. Cuthbert’s plight was the predicament of the nation: Federation was immobilised by spectacle and speechless to express anything of the original spirit. Cuthbert’s silence was the true expression of the day.

The conclusion confirmed this muteness. Host Bud Tingwell ended the day with an account of the sustained spontaneous cheers that greeted the end of the first parliament sitting. It was a clear challenge for the 7,000 present to repeat the wild jubilation of Federation. In the end, polite applause stretched on for at least a minute. In the cavernous silence that followed, one lone voice boomed out something undecipherable. Tingwell fluffed his concluding line and we finally had the opportunity to stretch our limbs and return to the day.

Kevin Murray quietly writes in Melbourne, which was once officially recognised as the most liveable city in the world.