Amy Spiers is a Melbourne-based artist, writer and researcher. Through her socially-engaged work she seeks to vocalize silenced stories. Jessica Caroline speaks with Spiers regarding her most recent campaign “Miranda Must Go,” of which protests the mythology of Picnic at Hanging Rock, a novel by Joan Lindsay published in 1967 and adapted into a cult film directed by Peter Weir in 1975. This fictional story of the inexplicable disappearance of schoolgirls and their teacher in 1900 has since captivated the Australian collective imaginary. Spiers questions the ritualized retelling of this myth at the expense of difficult, fragmentary and real stories of Indigenous people that ought be told. Located in Victoria and Australia, Hanging Rock was settled by European invaders who through introducing disease, violence and forced occupation, killed or displaced the original Aboriginal inhabitants.
JC What was the impetus for the “Miranda Must Go” project?
AS Whilst the Picnic at Hanging Rock story is obsessively retold and commemorated in Australia, many non-Aboriginal Australians remain unaware of, or perhaps more correctly unable to confront, the damaging impact of European settlement. A history of dispossession and violent colonial occupation has resulted in the severe disruption to Aboriginal presence and a loss of indigenous cultural knowledge in the Hanging Rock region. Yet this troubling past, and its present consequences, are cursorily mentioned or actively ignored in the historical information provided about Hanging Rock. Anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner dubbed the culturally conditioned ignorance that forgets the colonial violence that dispossessed Aboriginal people “the Great Australian Silence”. Consequences of this silence means a site like Hanging Rock is associated with the fictional disappearance of white schoolgirls, rather than the dispossession of Aboriginal people that actually took place. Hanging Rock is effectively haunted by a convenient fiction rather than an uncomfortable fact. Prior to beginning my research at Hanging Rock, I was already interested in white Australia’s selective approach to history and how the violence of colonialism has been actively occluded and suppressed in public presentations of the past. For example, in recent years I have collaborated with artist Catherine Ryan to devise artworks that explored themes of absence, denial and erasure in an Australian context.
In 2013 we created on Cockatoo Island, Sydney a scenic lookout that presented a view of Sydney's iconic harbour but with the Harbour Bridge erased. Called Nothing to See Here (Removal of Sydney Harbour Bridge), the work was in part inspired by the German artist Horst Hoheisel’s unrealised suggestion, that in order to memorialise the Holocaust, the Brandenburg Gate (the symbol of Berlin) should be blown up. “How better to remember a destroyed people”, Hoheisel asked, “than by a destroyed monument?” Like Hoheisel, we wanted to prompt thought about, and commemorate, the destruction and removal of people through a haunting image of negativity and absence. By enacting the erasure of an Australian cultural icon, we also wanted to bring attention to the fact that in Australia the dispossession and genocide of Aboriginal people continues to be denied and have present day impacts. The goal is to challenge and remove pervasive associations and physical markers to vanishing white schoolgirls at Hanging Rock, and through this removal, bring attention to, and memorialise, the real Aboriginal losses and traumas that have occurred in the area.
JC In what ways does the Miranda Must Go campaign share an affinity with the Black Lives Matter movement?
AS During research for the Miranda Must Go campaign I became interested in discourse concerning memorial and counter-monument culture. I was particularly interested in activist campaigns that contest dominant histories by defacing or removing colonial and racist symbols and the consequent debates and confrontations these actions incite. For example, Black Lives Matter protestors have tagged Christopher Columbus statues, Rhodes Must Fall activists have called for the removal of Cecil Rhodes monuments and in Australia, campaigners are calling for electoral districts named after settlers responsible for massacres of Aboriginal people to be renamed.
In 2015 Australian writer and political commentator, Jeff Sparrow, wrote a piece for the Guardian that discussed how the Black Lives Matter campaign is “forcing a long-overdue reckoning with” United States’ history by contesting Civil War iconography in the South. He used the example of activist Bree Newsome’s removal of a confederate flag to call for similar grassroots campaigns in Australia that force recognition of Australia’s colonial history in specific locations. Sparrow argued that such campaigns should prompt “serious public debate about historical injustice”, linking the past with present inequalities, just as Black Lives Matter has done in the States. You could say that the Miranda Must Go campaign is an attempt to answer this call.
Cultural theorist Elspeth Tilley, has estimated that there are over 250 white lost-in-the-bush myths recounted in Australia. Tilley calls the “white vanishing” trope in Australian culture “toxic”, observing in her book White Vanishing: Rethinking Australia’s Lost-in-the-Bush Myth that these persistent myths are “engaged in a strategy of forgetting and displacing the non-white”, and installing settler colonial culture as “the dominant national mythology”. She has noted that non-Aboriginal Australians are good at memorialising their own sufferings, particularly in symbolic contests with landscapes, that obliterate and ignore the more literal frontier conflicts of settler invasion. The willful ignorance and occlusion of Aboriginal losses and traumas at Hanging Rock typifies Australia’s tendency to deny, erase and ignore the wrongs that have been inflicted on Aboriginal people since European occupation. Miranda Must Go is aimed at contesting the current situation that persistently deems white absences matter more than Aboriginal ones.
JC Can you discuss to some extent (for readers that haven't read your blog) the harder and darker stories of this Australian history that need to be told?
AS The historical research that has been undertaken suggests that when Europeans settled the region, large numbers of the Aboriginal population who had used Hanging Rock as a ceremonial meeting place either died or were forcibly removed from their land. There are basic facts that can be cobbled together. What perhaps intensifies the troubling aspects of this history is that the details about the scale of the impact of settler invasion for Aboriginal people in the Hanging Rock region is little known. Local historians I have spoken to speculate that early settlers either kept few records of their encounters with Aboriginal people in the region (because they were either indifferent to their presence or encounters were violent and shameful) or what surviving documents and evidence exists are yet to be properly examined. One historian I spoke to speculates that records, such as settler diaries and letters, in the possession of present day landowners may be deliberately suppressed as they are uneasy that they benefit from the violent deeds of occupying predecessors. Compounding this is that there is a prevalent attitude among white Australians that this history is divisive and best left in the past.
But perhaps the most compelling evidence is in the lack of knowledge: the gaps and silences. Non-Aboriginal people generally have little comprehension of the extent to which processes of colonization have impacted Aboriginal people in the region, and have only a vague, romanticized understanding of Hanging Rock’s significance for Aboriginal people. There are no prompts to make you think about Aboriginal dispossession so often visitors to Hanging Rock fail to appreciate that Aboriginal people and their 26,000+ year old culture and histories are absent. Due to the lack of concerted historical research on the area’s Aboriginal people, there is contradictory information about the specific Aboriginal tribal groups who held ceremonies at Hanging Rock and patchy tales about their cultural practices. Meanwhile even the most basic attempts to restore Aboriginal knowledge, such as Hanging Rock’s Aboriginal name, are fraught with difficulty because the lack of historical record and destruction to oral traditions means that we don’t have enough sources to substantiate even one place name or establish its meaning.
All this absence of knowledge indicates that a disaster has happened in the Hanging Rock region, one that requires new forms of historical narrative. Historian Bain Attwood has discussed how academic historians reliance on text-based evidence fails to account for the disastrous events that occurred in Australia’s colonial past as they have only been partially registered. This is because “Aboriginal peoples, were mostly destroyed by the events of that past”, and their “perspective was barely recorded contemporaneously because they had an oral culture”.
What is concerning is that lack of knowledge, textual evidence and records conveniently helps non-Aboriginal Australians to forget that destruction took place. Australian historian and cultural studies academic Chris Healy has argued that it has been all too easy for modern non-Aboriginal Australians to forget Aborigines, and to forget the fact of their forgetting. Aboriginal writer Bruce Pascoe reminds us: “the history has not gone away—we just choose not to see it”.
In this regard, Miranda Must Go should be considered in the context of memorial and memory work. It is working to increase greater recognition of the real absences and losses that many non-Aboriginal people are invested in forgetting. It is working to not only remind us of our brutal past but also the ways in which we have tried to forget, diminish and obscure it. It aims to demonstrate how dominate white narratives, such as the white vanishing myths, operate to assist in neglecting and trivialising Aboriginal losses. When I hear non-Aboriginal people say that we can have both stories – Joan Lindsay’s novel and Aboriginal history – it is sounds remarkably like the #AllLivesMatter argument. It fails to recognize the structural racism and processes of colonisation that is invested in installing comfortable white settler narratives and suppressing the traumatic consequences of colonialism.
JC According to the article on MMG in The Age Wurundjeri elder Annette Xiberra said references to the Picnic at Hanging Rock should stay, but there ought also be more Aboriginal information. Have you had discussions with elder Ms Xiberras about your project and have you gained any new insights from such conversations?
AS Yes, I have spoken with Wurundjeri elder Annette Xiberras about the project and what the aims of the campaign are. Xiberras and I may have different approaches to attaining broader community engagement, but we both agree that Hanging Rock would be a richer place if there was deeper respect for its significance to Aboriginal people.
Talking to Xiberras has provided lots of insights. For example, I have been following attempts by community groups, led by non-Aboriginal people, who are attempting to uncover Hanging Rock’s Aboriginal name. There is some disappointment amongst these groups that Aboriginal elders, such as Xiberras, are unable to assist in uncovering the name. However when you talk to Xiberras the reason for this becomes awfully apparent. Xiberras told me her ancestors were brought up on Aboriginal missions and forbidden to speak their language. As a consequence, Xiberras has knowledge of only a handful of words in her people’s language.
I have sought numerous Aboriginal perspectives for advice and guidance. This is particularly essential in this context as three different tribal groups, the Wurundjeri, Taungurong and Djadja Wurrung, have their traditional boundaries close to Hanging Rock and all three groups must be consulted on matters concerning the site. There is considerable difficulty and sensitivity in obtaining information from traditional owners about Hanging Rock, firstly because information is partial and patchy due to the severe disruption of oral histories caused by white settlement and secondly, because the three land groups are currently in complex negotiations over the custodial and management rights of that region and there is some disagreement amongst the three groups. Many journalists have trouble appreciating this complexity and believe it is sufficient to take a quote from just one elder (as was the case with The Age journalist. Incidentally, the journalist has misquoted Xiberras who was talking about a group of Bundeen medicine women.)
The current negotiations concerning Hanging Rock are made very difficult due to colonial dispossession and the present day governmental and legal procedures that Aboriginal people must navigate to secure self-determination over their stolen lands. One traditional owner I spoke to made it clear that these procedures require all of their resources, and while they receive many requests and enquiries for cultural information from the broader community, they are unable to contribute meaningfully to public education and discourse while their focus is on securing their own land rights.
I have been guided by these insights and proposed the campaign in response to the particular complexities I encountered at Hanging Rock. The campaign was founded largely after noticing a contradiction. A few well-meaning non-Aboriginal Australians I encountered were interested in restoring pre-settlement Aboriginal culture and heritage to Hanging Rock, had consequently appealed to the three groups for information and then were disheartened when that information was not readily available. What is strange is that white Australians seem reluctant to have a discussion about why that information isn't easily accessible for their consumption.
Miranda Must Go’s contribution to this complex situation is to raise awareness amongst the broader, non-Aboriginal community about the oppressive affects of colonisation. It’s seems disingenuous that non-Aboriginal people make requests for Aboriginal cultural knowledge whilst having little understanding of the struggles Aboriginal people face due to dispossession. The proposition of Miranda Must Go is that non-Aboriginal people need to educate ourselves about our colonial past if there's going to be any informed and meaningful restoration of Aboriginal stories at Hanging Rock.
I have been encouraged when traditional owners have stated they have no objection to my campaign and appreciate the discussions it had led to in the broader community. I have also been grateful for the guidance from a number of Aboriginal artists, activists, researchers, actors, historians and writers, as well as the messages of support from Aboriginal groups on social media. Miranda Must Go would not have been possible, or attained such broad public resonance, without their help. At our event on February 14, for example, it was a huge privilege to have Aboriginal land rights activists Robbie Thorpe, Marjorie Thorpe, Viv Malo and Clare Land come down and lend their support for the campaign.
JC What other events might you plan around these stories beyond Valentine's Day?
AS I have some ideas about how to keep momentum up on the campaign and currently working on how to realise them. I think some tangible ongoing actions or events would focus on an annual 14th February event. I’m thinking of how activists who ran the Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheenner Commemoration Committee held an annual event to remember two aboriginal freedom fighters who were the first men to be executed in Victoria. The committee finally achieved their goal of a public monument dedicated to the warriors after ten years of persistence.
Valentine’s Day is the day the schoolgirl’s go missing in Lindsay’s novel and it is traditionally a day where fans visit Hanging Rock to hold picnics and don frilly white 1900s dresses to celebrate the story. Also around this date the local council holds an outdoor screening of Peter Weir’s film adaptation of Picnic at Hanging Rock. I think it would be useful to put together a Miranda Must Go committee and hold a regular counter event at the site on Valentine’s Day where aboriginal writers and storytellers, and their supporters, came together to present alternative narratives and histories at the site.
I think there’s also capacity to leverage support for the campaign to generate increased recognition of the negative impact of white settlement on Aboriginal people in the area. For example, local council staff have frequently admitted that the historical information in the interpretation centre at the foot of Hanging Rock is out of date. I’ve been speculating about the possibility of lobbying the council to put up a marker or plaque that notes the incorrect nature of the information, acknowledges that the damaging consequences of colonization for Aboriginal people deserve attention and makes a commitment to the improvement of the centre in the future.
But most especially, I’m encouraged when the campaign has begun to take a life of its own beyond the events or actions I initiate. At our event on February 14 there was a proposition by Aboriginal land rights activist, Robbie Thorpe, for the local council to ratify a “treaty principle” with the traditional owners and support a corroboree to bring the three land groups together for healing on country. This was received favourably by council staff in attendance which suggests Miranda Must Go could offer solidarity to Aboriginal land rights struggles in the area. The public attention the campaign has received has also helped a local historian connect with other history enthusiasts in the region and put some momentum behind efforts to uncover colonial records, such as settler diaries and journals, that may provide insight into the past of the region and Aboriginal people.
The media and public response to the campaign has been astounding. Miranda Must Go was launched in mid-January and since then I have sent out just one media release to a single journalist. The rest of the attention has been entirely generated by social media. Perhaps it is testament that the campaign has hit some kind of deep white Australian nerve. I believe that one of Miranda Must Go’s strongest contributions to changing the narrative of Hanging Rock is in this mediatized public/political sphere. I have been contacted by countless print news journalists, radio producers, literary theorists, film critics, academics, playwrights, historians, Picnic at Hanging Rock novel fans, Aboriginal groups, walking guide publishers and the general public who have all wished to engage in some way with the Miranda Must Go campaign and generate content that rethinks the prevailing myths of Hanging Rock. In this regard I think the campaign has effectively sparked a collective reappraisal or shift in the civic imaginary. I like to imagine that if Picnic at Hanging Rock was a monument, Miranda Must Go is like a tag aimed at contesting it that now can’t be entirely scrubbed off.
It has been interesting especially to watch how the campaign has begun to “haunt” this year’s 50th anniversary celebrations of the publication of Picnic at Hanging Rock. I’ve noticed on social media that when someone shares an event or an article that celebrates the novel it’s not long before someone in the comments section will share a link to an article on Miranda Must Go. I think if Miranda Must Go prompts even a shift of attention or even a momentary hesitation in the obsessive retelling of white vanishing myths then it has had some success.
JC Picnic at Hanging Rock fetishizes the pretty white girl as victim and the anthropocentric desire for transcendence. Its pop culture appeal has made it moreover purely aesthetic, a Valentine's Day meme, a myth virus. What kind of counter-memes might be useful?
AS I like your term “myth virus”.
Beyond the more standard activist and consciousness raising efforts that Miranda Must Go could lend support to, I am most interested in how artistic responses can work to subvert and counter Picnic at Hanging Rock’s hold over the Australian collective imaginary.
I have two project ideas in mind that I would like to develop over the next year that you could describe as “counter memes” of a sort.
The first idea concerns the Aboriginal tracker in Picnic at Hanging Rock. When the campaign started going viral on social media, I came across a comment on facebook from an Aboriginal man who said his dad, Colin Andy, had played the tracker in Peter Weir’s film. While I was aware that the Aboriginal tracker does not get a speaking part in the film, I was surprised to read in the comment that Andy was also not listed in the cast of the film. Since finding this out I’ve got a little obsessed with the idea of making a film where Andy is returned to Hanging Rock and given a speaking part. I’m in early chats with a young Aboriginal writer who has an interest in the role of Aboriginal trackers in Australian colonial history and we are developing some ideas about how to reassess the tracker’s story in PAHR.
The second idea involves Miranda. For a while now I’ve wanted to work with a writer or series of writers, to write a monologue for Anne Lambert (the actress who played Miranda in Peter Weir’s 1975 film adaption of PAHR). The idea is that we’d develop a speech for Lambert where she would apologise for the role of the white vanishing myth in displacing and forgetting Aboriginal traumas and losses. I'm thinking of something that's a bit like former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s sorry speech to the stolen generations and the Standing Rock ceremony where veterans begged forgiveness for the long brutal history between the United States and Native Americans. However I think the speech would also have to address what theorist Sara Ahmed writes about the non-performativity of anti-racism. That is a speech act, such as saying sorry, should not be aimed at achieving transcendence, securing innocence or providing consolation from difficult histories for non-Aboriginal people. Its aim would be to keep non-Aboriginal people implicated and troubled by the need for further decolonization and action.
It’s possible the “sorry speech” could become a film project if we could persuade Lambert to participate. I have this bonkers idea that Lambert could be lifted out of the landscape ceremoniously with a crane like a toppled monument. However if Lambert refuses, I could also accept that the speech remains a failed proposition, working in a way art historian Carrie Lambert-Beattie would describe as an “unhappy performative” – a speech act that doesn’t take. The point would be that it offers an emotional experience because it doesn’t achieve its objective.
During the conception of Miranda Must Go I’ve frequently had artist Yael Bartana’s Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland in mind. It’s a useful reference point as JRMIP is positioned as a movement on the threshold between political engagement and a para-fictional artistic project. I’m in interested in the way JRMIP has been conceptualized as “performing justice”: an artwork that works to "call for justice ... to be imagined, if not to be immediately achieved”. You could say this is also where Miranda Must Go situates itself as an artistic project.