“Speaking two things at once”
Keeping the language is difficult, but keeping our culture is even harder. Look, the children watch TV and pick up American children’s manners. They no longer know how to address their elders, they speak to their relatives as to strangers. The whole idea of the family falls to pieces.
– Aunt in Trinh T. Minh Ha’s 'A Tale of Love', 1996
House of Mother Tongue, House of Other Tongue, an exhibition by Hoang Tran Nguyen, occurs over and in between two art spaces – West Space, and Footscray Community Arts (FCA) – each sited at suburbs at different stages of their gentrification, Collingwood and Footscray respectively. Both suburbs have also been sites of large Vietnamese migrant communities since the 1980s. Footscray, located on Wurundjeri Woi wurrung and Boonwurrung Country, is the cultural, social and historical context in which this exhibition and discursive program is grounded. It was here, in 1974, that FCA was founded by a group of artists, unionists and community activists, ‘with a clear agenda of access for all.’1 It was established with the express objective of serving the needs and requirements of Footscray’s local, disadvantaged and marginalised communities. Nineteen years later in 1993, West Space was established – also in Footscray – by artists. Through a focus on critically engaging with contemporary artistic practice, there was a clear intention to centre artists, arts workers and their community. While both art spaces have intrinsic links to the area of Footscray and the many cultural communities who embody its diversity, it is instructive to consider their singular trajectories and the ways that these reflect their original objectives and current locations, West Space having moved to Collingwood via Melbourne’s CBD, and FCA remaining in Footscray.
In 2020 a different kind of institution, Footscray Primary School, made the decision to change their Vietnamese bilingual learning program – the last of its kind in this country – to an Italian bilingual program. The explicit logic behind this change was that Italian, a relative of English, would be easier to learn. As a prestigious language with strong connections to Latin, it was already taught more widely in Australia (and more widely around the world), hence better resourced throughout the education system.2 The decision ignored the fact that Vietnamese was the second most spoken language in Footscray, established as such by grassroots language programs begun by those who had migrated to the area throughout the 80s. The status of the program had been precarious for several years due to the gradual gentrification of Footscray, a process that had heavily altered the makeup of the school community, with many non-Vietnamese students enrolling there. As had been argued by Hoang (whose children attended the school) over successive campaigns to keep the bilingual program in Vietnamese, the loss of a formal, institutionally-recognised and resourced, contextually-relevant learning curriculum within which to teach young people Vietnamese, represented a major blow to the continuation of a connection to Vietnamese culture, such is the important role that language plays in the formation of individual and collective identity.
Within this there is an inescapable sense of history repeating itself. Since the beginning of the settlement of this continent, more than three-quarters of Indigenous languages have been lost, with the surviving ones under strong threat of extinction. This has been no accident, and is connected to national legislation like the openly racist White Australia Policy, or Immigration Restriction Act, in formal effect between 1901 (the year of Australia’s Federation) and 1973. Also begun in 1901, the Dictation Test was one of the primary ways with which the White Australia Policy was enforced. Anyone failing to pass a reading and writing examination could be deported from Australia. Significantly, the test could be given in any European language. The Dictation Test was used here until 1958. Its launch alongside The White Australia Policy in 1901 renders the official federation of Australia, and by extension the formal Nation State of ‘Australia’ itself, as inherently concerned with maintaining white, settler sovereignty. Through these discriminatory and restrictive lawmaking practices, colonial authorities sought to guarantee their assumed racial superiority and unequivocal rights to the land and its resources.
The Dictation Test recognised the importance of language to the maintenance of culture. The implicit and explicit eradication of Indigenous languages has been an important neutralising process here among many others, including but not limited to: frontier genocide, state-sanctioned programs to ‘breed out’ First Nations races, the abduction of children, the appropriation of sacred land as white property, and the resocialisation of individuals in missions3. All this is to say, that within the canon of strategies utilised by the administration of ‘Australia’ to exterminate interior and exterior difference, the exclusion and erasure of other languages is a well-known technique. Language is a vital way for members of a specific community to connect and communicate with each other, for young people to learn from their elders through story, conversation and song. Language holds the memory of the people who use it, and the qualities of the place from which they come. It is instrumental to how a group of people understand who they are. Growing up under the White Australia Policy in 1950s and 60s Tasmania, my mother – whose great Grandparents migrated from China in the mid 19th Century – refused to learn Cantonese at the Hobart Chinese Community Centre so that she wouldn’t be bullied at school. Her and her eight siblings were the first generation not to speak the language. None of their children do today, nor do we participate in any kind of Chinese customs. For young people and future generations of a community or cultural group, the survival of language is imperative to cultural heritage. When one language becomes so dominant as to constitute the general way that people think, then it seriously impacts their ability to think of ways of being or relating that are any different to the status quo. It’s not just a question of losing a particular language or set of cultural practices, but of losing a whole way of living and thinking differently.4
Partick Wolfe writes that Colonisation is a structure, not an event.5 Today it continues in multiple forms. In this way, contemporary and state-sanctioned acts in Australia, aimed at the homogenisation of language and culture, can be understood as part of a multi-pronged strategy by which to preserve white hegemony. The gentrification and re-development of inner-city areas is another way by which white Australia is sustained, by dispersing non-white communities in ways that make the continuation of culture quasi-impossible. The Victorian State Government’s plan to build two new apartment blocks over the green spaces connected to the Public Housing flats in Collingwood is one such example of this. Part of a broader program that involves the transfer of public housing to privately managed community housing, the proposed apartments will cost up to 80% market-rate to live in, unaffordable to the vast majority of locals, with an influx of new, more affluent residents set to change the social and cultural makeup of the area completely. Just a stone’s throw away, West Space’s new position in Collingwood Yards – a multi arts precinct sited in the former Collingwood TAFE – invariably connects us to this discussion. We must seriously consider what it means to be producing capital ‘C’ contemporary art in a context within which an institutional understanding of art and creativity quite rightly does not figure into the everyday lives of most of our neighbours.
The role of artists and art spaces within the process of gentrification has been well documented in the ‘revitalisation’ of urban places all over the world. As the story goes, artists move into an undesirable area, over time making it an attractive investment for business owners and property developers. As the costs of living in the area go up, and new, more socially and economically mobile people come to live there, those original residents (most usually from diverse cultures) are forced out. From one site further ahead in its gentrification in Collingwood, to another, more recent case of gentrification in Footscray – where one cannot visit without noticing the dozens of cranes and construction sites – it is interesting to consider the professional trajectory and various relocations of West Space as a way of understanding and measuring the relationship between art and the physical, social and economic transformation of a place. In this context, where the societies around them are rapidly becoming homogenised, what is the responsibility and role of art spaces who have made a public commitment to remain responsive and porous to the specific communities they serve?
As an architectural feature born within the tradition of Modernism, the gallery space is intended in its technical function to obliterate any kind of context extraneous to the artwork within it. By creating a white, neutral space, the idea is to remove an artwork from the context of the world, so as to engender a viewing experience where one can’t be distracted from its aesthetic quality. It follows that spaces for art today operate on the assumption of remaining ‘neutral’ to the world around them, a position proven impossible, as it ignores the presence of historical, ideological frameworks already embedded within the neutral position itself.6 Is it enough for art spaces to acknowledge the conceit of the white cube and its contemporary manifestations? Or should we be more explicit with our values when these relate acutely to the experiences of the audiences we serve?
If anything, organisations and initiatives that place great value on creative expression and the imagination certainly have the scope, and perhaps then the obligation to create nuanced, experimental and safe forums in which complicated and contested discussions can be engaged with by a broader public. For us working in the arts, perhaps this is important to consider in the context of ‘Australia’ and its very recent history of colonisation. As Hoang’s tentacular and discursive project exemplifies, the discontinuation of the Vietnamese Bilingual Program at Footscray Primary School is one such event that requires this kind of varied and multi-tonal approach. A layered understanding of this event, and the similar yet contrasting experiences of Asian and First Nations communities here more broadly, helps to clarify the different ways that each has been marginalised from white society. While migrant settlers have simultaneously been victims and beneficiaries of the colonisation of this place, a varied program that gives audience members many ways to access an understanding of the cutting of the bilingual program, recognises it not as a singular event but as part of a broader ideological apparatus with ubiquitous, hence hard to perceive methods of self-maintenance. While lawmaking has historically and explicitly attempted to disempower discrete marginalised communities, it has also attempted to keep them from recognising each other and their struggles. Around the time of Federation in 1897 and 1905 respectively, both the Queensland and Western Australian state governments introduced their Aborigines Act, which amongst other things, prevented sexual contact and labour agreements between Aboriginal and Asian peoples, to remove their threat to white society and industry. Through a program that seeks to articulate the many histories, communities and geographies touched by the cancellation of the Vietnamese bilingual learning program in Footscray, House of Mother Tongue, House of Other Tongue ultimately asks us to recognise the importance of solidarity with First Nations peoples, its attendant politics here in Australia, and what that might look like in migrant communities, in spaces for art, and in our everyday.
Sebastian Henry-Jones is the Curator at West Space. He has an interest in DIY thinking. He looks to embody these ideals in a practice that centres the needs, ideas and requirements of those that he works with, and so his practice is informed by striving for a personal ethics with sincerity, generosity, honest communication and learning at its core.