madeleine flynn and tim humphrey

the high ground

A commision by ArtsHouse

Created with Jen Hector,

Extremely Risky Business

Essay by Madeleine Flynn & Tim Humphrey

What follows is to do with risk, both perceived and actual, with extremity, with the scenario for consideration framed by the long and intangible emergency that is climate change. Ideas around risk and around extremity proliferate in our culture. A familiar characteristic that also emerges as narratives around risk and extremity play out is the concept of courage when the end is assured. Interleaved with what follows is an idiosyncratic catalogue of risk and extremity, using an aphoristic format suggested by the 140 character limit; a linguistic frame favoured by that leading purveyor of extreme risk currently blundering at the helm of the world’s superpower. ##@!The risk seems everywhere. I step into a universe of risky potential. I climb back into my cocoon without realising the risk of suffocation. ##@!The risk of nothing. While we believed, we held nagging doubts that there may be nothing to all this. Our struggle, our efforts were futile. The idea of a frame, a fence or a wall really, to insert a recurring global physical and political signifier, really does seem to marry (to drop in another current socio-political signifier) these seemingly distinct things. The white colonisation of Australia, completed its genocidal fracturing of cultural highways with the pastoral fencing of plots of land, leaving behind in former European homelands the ancient and continuing notion of the common rights of way. The framing, the fencing, continued with the plotting of suburbs, and continues today with gated communities, and similar framings of selective and discriminatory community. Freedom of movement, and freedom (or agility) of response to such disasters as water or fire emergency is curtailed, and in any case the entire fictional framing is blown away as fire, storm and flood sweep away boundaries. In which case, “extreme” measures suddenly occur, such as outbreaks of non-selective community, or alternatively, as documented in Dave Eggers’ novel Zeitoun, arbitrary imprisonment for alleged “looting”, or “terrorist suspicion”. ##@!Risk of privilege and power. Propelled by inheritance and/or luck into agency over human life including a power to end it, you are the risk. ##@!The risk of powerlessness and deprivation. Can’t leave. Can’t stay. Might survive. The extreme risk of you ignoring the precarity of others. We are continually presented with a framing of culture, of political life, that exercises risk as a device to somehow define a “middle space”: that is, aware of risk as well as risk averse; risk to be avoided, and/or mitigated. This fictional “safe” middle ground is continually threatened by the extremes. We should acknowledge that many, if not the majority, of people within certain (typically western), enclaves, support this idea. So some of the risks include the apparent spectre of populism, in which extreme (and allegedly simplistic) ideas from either the left or the right (the extremes) gain currency amongst certain sectors who obviously don’t occupy the middle ground. Paradoxically, much populist sloganeering, particularly from the “right” seems to focus on the “defence of ways of living”, in an alternative vision for preserving the alleged privilege of the “middle ground”. Also with a sharpened rhetoric that defines an ever-narrower cohort of embattled “community”. Defined by whiteness, or maleness in many cases. So there’s our perceived risk. Which we can avoid using such measures as imprisoning refugees on remote islands. The thing is that, given that much of the framing is a somewhat comforting ideological construct, “middle ground” is always subject to risks to its existence. ##@!Personal, cultural, social risk. From the hegemonic definitions of relationship risk and risky behaviour. Many people must take that risk. ##@!The risky boredom of mild risk. The certainty and allure of extreme risk. The escapism requiring extreme measures to mitigate mild riskiness. ##@!The package holiday of sanitised risk. A package that threatens to rupture into real risk. The risk to others of your packaged risk holidays. Do we risk being labelled extremist if we demand (in various ways) drastic measures to counter the effects of climate change (might we suggest the prosecution of those who stole environmental and irrigation flows from the Murray-Darling basin, or litigate both the Queensland and Federal cabinets for gross negligence in abandoning the Great Barrier Reef, and our future climate, in favour of an alleged tax avoiding carbon-polluter). Let’s now re-frame. The white middle ground in the Land of the Free has a new normal that features massive homicide and death statistics through the unregulated supply of military hardware. Syria should slap a travel ban on the USA. Too risky. Too extremist. ##@!Against the assured end, a courage may be found, since the future does not yet exist. Here’s to the risk takers. Anyway, life is precarious. — Madeleine Flynn and Tim Humphrey