Keeping savages in a cage

This one went to air in about 1995. It is a true story in all respects.

People who know me well often have trouble trying to pin down my profession. Indeed, I sometimes have trouble defining that myself. Every two or three years, I change, I move on to new horizons, or sometimes, I even move back to old ones.

You see, there're quite a few things that I enjoy doing, and I believe in seeking out jobs that'll let me do as many of them as possible. Mainly, I enjoy anything to do with the sciences, teaching young people, messing about with computers, and writing. Most of my shifts in employment have been associated with a varying urge to concentrate on one or another of these four interests.

So for the past three years, I've been an education officer at the Australian Museum, but now I'ver returned to classroom teaching. I've got my own students, for better or for worse, and the chance to watch them develop under my guidance. Further, I've elected to work in the area of Computing Studies, introducing students to the effective use of the computer as a means to higher ends, rather than as an end in itself.

As part of this, I have been working with my Year 9 students on the development of writing skills on the word processor. They have been taught to write in a certain way by their English teachers, and now I'm teaching them an entirely different process. The word processor is a useful tool for writing, but only once you realise that it is neither a pen and paper, nor even a typewriter. It requires a very different approach to planning, drafting and writing.

Their task has been to write news stories about local events for a network called Global Village News, part of a worldwide educational network called K12Net. When their stories are ready, we send them by modem over a telephone line to a local centre. Over the next couple of days, that centre connects with other centres around the world, and our stories trickle through at off-peak rates, sponsored by the local electricity supply people in New South Wales. Students in the USA, New Zealand, Germany, Canada, South Africa, Aruba and beyond, can read our stories, just as we read theirs.

Several of the boys in my class decided independently to tell the story of a man who died in the Corso, the main street of Manly, just down the hill from our school. The man's body lay there for a considerable time before anybody realised the man was dead. "We thought he was just sleeping it off", people said of the man, apparently a heavy drinker.

One of the students was appalled at what seemed to be a complete lack of attention or compassion on the part of passers-by. "How could people do it?" they asked me. "How could people be so uncaring, so lacking in curiosity?"

"People," I assured them, "are capable of ignoring many strange and curious things." The bell had gone, and a few students had stayed behind to finish things. As we were in our own time, I sat down to reminisce about the time I kept and displayed two savages in a cage at the Australian Museum.

It was late 1992 when I did this. It was busy, just before Christmas, with everybody busy doing last-minute shopping, and the Sydney Biennale was on as well, so it was hardly surprising that my students had never heard of the visit to Sydney of two Guatinaui, colourful savages from the island of Guatinau, a little-known island in the Caribbean.

Coincidentally, I said, the visiting display reached us in the week of the bicentenary of Bennelong and Yammerawannie being taken off to London to be shown to King George the Third. "Yammerawannie?" asked my students, "Who was that?"

He was, I explained, the less successful exhibit, for he died of pneumonia in Britain, and so never returned to his native shore. Still, I added, King George was quite taken with them. It probably made a change for George from being an exhibition himself.

"Because he was a Royal?" one of them asked.

"Because he was mad," I replied. "People used to go to Bedlam, the insane asylum, to laugh at the inmates, and a mad king was even more fun. people used to say that when he had an argument with a tree, the tree usually won."

They tittered dutifully, but one of them looked a bit concerned. "I'm glad we don't accept that sort of behaviour today . . ."

"True," I said, "but we do accept displaying savages in a cage still. Nobody gets upset by that, or not in my experience." Then I started to explain how two outrageously colourful Guatinaui, from the island of Guatinau, were displayed in a golden cage at the Australian Museum for three days.

I was open with my students from the start that the display was a hoax. It was a Biennale event, undertaken by two performance artists, intended to provoke a public reaction, but so far as the Australian public was concerned, the "Year of the White Bear" was the genuine article. Like any good hoax, everything was over the top, so that the more perceptive would see through our hoax, but at no time would we admit that it was anything other than genuine. The possessions of the savages included a laptop computer, but even that could be glibly expained away.

At the end of 1992, the International Year for the World's Indigenous Peoples was just a few days away, and three young Koori men took it in turns to watch over events, ready to intervene if anybody became too worked-up about the display, but their presence was never needed. Nobody, but nobody, objected.

The "savages" are two American performance artists, Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gomez-Pena, and I first heard of them in a Radio National program in mid-1992, talking about people's racial stereotypes, and how they, as Latinos, were perceived by Hollywood and Anglo-America generally, and what it was like to be inside the cage.

As soon as I heard that they were coming to the Museum, I volunteered to be one of the guards outside the cage. It was a role that required a story-teller with a consummate flair for telling lies and tall tales with a straight face, I said. Faced with that consideration, the Museum management waited an unflattering three milliseconds, referred briefly to my petty cash claims, and signed me on. They also accepted Karen, an American lady who was working as a volunteer in the Museum's Arachnology section.

Coco and Guillermo wore, when on display, swimming costumes, sneakers and sunglasses, while she had a wig and yellow face paint, and he wore a Mexican wrestler's mask. They also wore collars, to which we would attach a chain when they left the cage ("for their own safety", we would explain officiously)

They also added various bits and pieces to the kit, but that was their basic ensemble. It was more than enough to make them unrecognisable when they went out at night, or when Coco spoke on radio as an "anthropologist" travelling with the specimens.

Inside the cage, Coco and Guillermo were unable to communicate with the public, and so were free to observe public reactions from behind their Raybans. The guards, on the other hand, were to present the public face of the display. The "savages" could speak no English, but they could communicate with us by sign language. If they wanted to hear a conversation, they would signal to be fed, if they wanted to brief us, they would signal to be taken to the toilet, and then talk to us outside, before we led them back to the cage.

As "guards", we were dressed in white overalls, and we presented as two ignorant people who had picked up a certain amount of hearsay information, and who knew the general details. If pressed, we would encourage the visitor to read the text displayed in front of the cage. We were, you see, just the guards, and the anthropologists who had all the answers were away at that time. We were calculatedly provocative and patronising in our comments, as we had been instructed to be.

If attacked by unbelievers, we would simply say something like "I can assure you, sir (or madam) that the Guatinaui are just as genuine as their island, and you can see that in the map over there." Confronted with impressive cartographic evidence, said to be taken from the Encyclopaedia Britannica, most doubters were effectively silenced.

If challenged as to why the Guatinaui were wearing Raybans, or sneakers, or why the male specimen was wearing surf shorts, we were told by Coco and Guillermo to state simply that theirs was a syncretic culture which happily absorbed all sorts of elements from other cultures, if the people saw fit to adopt them.

As to how they had collected so much "outside" material while remaining undiscovered and unspoiled, that was for me to explain. It was, I would say, a result of the interplay between circumpolar effects derived from the Gulf Stream and an intermittent form of inadvertent Coriolis forces. Clearly, I would conclude, a situation which would result in currents going towards the island, but never away, so that drifting objects and castaways might be carried there, but nobody could ever leave. Faced with such a wealth of technical detail, most questioners wisely fled.

The third day was the Saturday before Christmas, and the crowds were light around lunchtime. Our specimens decided that we should take them for a walk through the busy shops, and down to the Art Gallery. We did so, but it was an almost total failure, as we saw it, for the video taken from ten metres behind showed almost no reaction. A teenager who works in the Museum told us later that she followed to see what happened, and that people seemed to react after about thirty seconds, which she put down to their preoccupation with shopping.

In the end all we got was somebody saying that was what he wanted to wear to the party, and a lady spruiking outside a bookshop, who asked what we were selling. When I explained that these were two savages who were on display in the Australian Museum, she told the crowd about this, straight-faced, but once again, nobody twitched or looked shocked.

Outside the cage, we had the "Biennale crowd", an in-group who came to watch the publivc being fooled, and who were all so cool about their heightened awareness. On one occasion, I launched into an impassioned speech about how we had hopes that the savages would eventually, given their natural sense of rhythm, become civilised like us, and capture their own savages to put in cages.

I put everything into it, playing to my audience, and discovering, too late, a couple in their sixties. But I needn't have worried: seeing me looking in their direction, they beamed their appreciuation of what we were doing in helping the savages to rise to that level. Nothing, but nothing, upsets the Australian public!

One of the "givens" of quaint natives everywhere is that they are colourful, they tell amusing (to us, anyway) legends, and they dance exotic dances. Our natives were prepared to pose for a photo with the public, using a Polaroid camera for one dollar. (The small fee was to be used to defray costs and to buy things to take back to their island.)

For the same fee, the female would perform an exotic dance to rap music, or the male specimen would tell a story about one of the totemic objects that he kept in a black briefcase which had syncretically become part of his culture.

We don't put savages in cages any more, I said. Not, I suspect, because we're more civilised, but rather more because we can go and see the natives in their native habitats, or we can sit at home and have them displayed upon our television screens.

But if we did still practise the exhibition of quaint people in cages, would we worry about it? I would have thought so once, but not any more. Especially after I heard Paul Berents speaking of how supinely we accepted the actions of the so-called Aborigines' Protection Board, right up until 1969, effcetively abducting children and fostering them out to "more civilised" white families. After that, i could believe almost anything of modern Australian society.

One of the boys suggested that it might have been like that in Nazi Germany, that this might explain the events he had seen depicted in Schindler's list. I still prefer to think that we had an audience who saw the hoax for what it was, and played along with our piece of theatre. But I know that there were also those who accepted all that they heard and saw with complete acceptance. It worried me, I said.

"And when it was all over," asked one of the more perceptive boys, "what did it all prove?"

"Not a great deal," I had to confess. "Maybe it showed that we, as a culture, are prepared to accept all sorts of things, so long as they don't threaten our personal comfort. Australians were far more willing to accept this sort of behaviour than American and Spanish cultures."

"But what did Coco and Guillermo make of it all?" he persisted.

"I've no idea," I answered. "You see, by the time we got round to evaluating the experience, Coco and Guillermo had taken off to savour the quaint and exotic natives of Bali in their local habitat."

This one will also be found in one of the Ockham's Razor book collections.

This is one of a set of talks which were originally heard on ABC Radio National in Australia. All of the talks are copyright © Peter Macinnis, 2001, but permission will be readily granted on request for educational and most non-profit purposes. Contact Peter Macinnis specifying the talk(s) you want, and the purpose to which they will be put. For the rest of the talks, go to Six Months of Sundays.