09 November 2014

How Politics and Capitalism Hold Classism in Place

This is the text of a talk given by Susan Nulsen preceding a talk by Tim McCarthy in the Fall 2014 
WomenExplore series on the theme of Class and Privilege through a Feminist Lens

Susan Nulsen was born and brought up in Australia. She moved to England for nine years after her marriage and before returning to Australia with her husband to bring up her two children. She has now been living in the US for over ten years.
That seems to be a very difficult topic to speak on from a personal point of view. I have three stories.
1) My thoughts immediately went to the Great Shearers' Strike of 1891 in Queensland which, tradition has it, led to the formation of the Australian Labor Party.
Working conditions for sheep shearers in 19th century Australia were not good. This strike began in January 1891 when members of the Amalgamated Shearers' Union refused to sign the contracts offered to them by the manager of a sheep station (Logan Downs Station) owned by the enormously wealthy Fairbairn family. This family owned, or had substantially stakes, in at least 28 properties carrying around three million sheep. The shearers were refusing to work with non-union labour. They saw a “closed shop” as protecting the wages that had been achieved through collective bargaining. The shearers insisted on a minimum rate of 20 shillings per 100 sheep. The pastoralists objected to the word “minimum”. Backed by the Fairbairn family, the pastoralists' association set out to break the union.
The pastoralists organized shiploads of strike breakers from Victoria to the south. The government deployed the military to escort these blacklegs to and from the sheep stations. The unionists were generally non-violent; their main weapon was verbal persuasion, or “suasion” as they called it. In April after one confrontation between the unionists and the military, during which a magistrate read the riot act and the troopers fixed bayonets, the Queensland Home Secretary directed the arrest of the so-called ringleaders of the strike. (The last one Bill Hamilton, was brought in on 13th April.) The thirteen arrested leaders of the striking shearers were each sentenced to three years hard labour.
Most of the 9,000 strikers were living under canvas in strike camps. The summer had been unseasonably wet, and by May, after four months of the strike, the union camps were full of wet, hungry, penniless shearers. By the middle of June most of the strikers had crawled back to work on the pastoralists terms.
A second attempt at a strike in 1894 also fizzled out. It was after this that Banjo Patterson composed the well-known song “Waltzing Matilda”. Perhaps you have heard it. The swaggie in the song is supposed to refer to a unionist shearer choosing to drown rather than being caught by the striker- hunting troopers.
The Great Shearers' Strike is a classic example of Capitalism in the form of the Fairbairn family and the other pastoralists recruiting the power of the government, in the form of the police, the military, the courts and the politicians represented by the Home Secretary, to hold down the working class shearers.
It may be a myth that the Australian Labour Party was formed then, as its predecessors were already in existence, but Labor’s understanding that social change could be achieved through parliamentary power has its roots in the shearers’ struggles of the 1890s. The symbol of Labor’s move to the political arena was a living tree, “the tree of knowledge” in Barcaldine, under which the striking shearers met.
This does not appear to be a very personal story, but the politics of a country deeply affects everyone who lives in it. Indeed I may not have been able to go to university if a Labor government hadn't abolished university fees.
2) My second story is the story of Gwalia where my grandmother and two of her brothers worked.
In the second half of the 19th century gold-fever was sweeping the world. In 1851 gold was discovered in New South Wales and Victoria. The population of Victoria, which had the richest gold fields, tripled in the following ten years. Western Australia wanted some of the same and offered rewards for finding payable gold. Some spectacular finds, as well as some disappointing ones, were made.
One promising find was made by three prospectors who named it “Sons of Gwalia” after their backers, two Welsh brothers who were shopkeepers. “Gwalia” is an archaic name for Wales. This claim was sold to a miner who was able to recruit his substantial investment of £10,000 in one month of working it. Looking for further capital he opened negotiations with a London company. In 1897 the 23 year old Herbert Hoover, who had been sent to Western Australia to look for suitable investments, recommended his company acquire it and install him as manager, which he became in May 1898.
Hoover completely redesigned the mine workings and oversaw the design of the staff and office buildings as well as the mine manager's house. In around 1911 my grandmother came to Gwalia to work as a housekeeper in this house. Her brothers followed, having been sent out from England by their parents to ensure that she return home to Liverpool.
The mine manager's house at Gwalia.
My grandmother (left) outside the house
where she lived in Gwalia.

However in his first week as mine manager Hoover increased working hours, introduced single-handed work (which made the work more difficult and dangerous), instituted shift changes at the working face (rather than at the entrance to the mine), and stopped double time on Sundays as well as bonuses for working in difficult conditions. Hoover's strategy was to cut costs by reducing unproductive work time and also by introducing contract rather than union labour. To this end he recruited a number of Italian workers whom he regarded as his allies against the unions. He wrote “I have a bunch of Italians coming up ... and will put them in the mine on contract work. If they are satisfactory I will secure enough of them to hold the property in case of a general strike and ... will reduce wages,” which is exactly what he did.
This is how Hoover as an agent of big Capital used his power to hold classism in place and keep the working people struggling.
As an afterward:
My grandmother did return home to England after her two years in Australia, while her brothers continued working at the Sons of Gwalia mine and remained living in Australia for the rest of their lives.

Hoover only lasted six months at Gwalia. He was transferred to China because he was feuding with his boss. Nevertheless he retained a personal financial share of the mine for 66 years, until it shut down in 1963, the year before he died. Sons of Gwalia became the third richest gold mine in Australia and it alone made Hoover a very rich man, although he went on to make even more from other mines. Gwalia was one step on his road to the presidency of the United States.

3) My third story is more personal.
I realize that I grew up in a bubble, a very large bubble. Like me, everyone I knew or had contact with would have said that they were middle class if they had been asked. It was only when I moved to England after getting married that I encountered a full-blown class system. I was amazed to see people who acknowledged themselves as working class and who just seemed to accept that that was their immutable status in life. I was also disillusioned of the idea that I was middle class. The upper class were the aristocrats and they were very few and far between. The middle class were generally the wealthy business owners and investors, what you or I would perhaps call upper middle-class. Being a comfortably off employee just didn't qualify. Most of the population ranked as lower middle class or working class. Class was not only determined by your income or your wealth but by your family background, the school you went to and your accent. Australians were even lower down in this caste system. This was brought home to me when I described an advertisement I had seen for a good job in Melbourne to a friend and work colleague who was job hunting. His immediate response was “But what would Cathy do?” His wife Cathy had just completed her PhD on the Irish poet, William Butler Yeats. His idea of Australia was not of a place where poetry could be studied.

When Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands in 1982 my eyes were further opened to the British class system: these remote islands were inhabited by sheep farmers but they were owned by the absentee landlords, including the Falkland Islands Co. The extreme patriotism engendered by the Falklands War bolstered Margaret Thatcher's falling popularity and enabled her to win the next election.
Mrs Thatcher, a Conservative prime minister, used her political power to crush the unions. She chose to attack the National Union of Miners. She prepared for this by building up coal stockpiles, increasing imports of coal and converting many power stations to oil. Transport companies were encouraged to employ non-union drivers. Benefits were cut for strikers and their families. A special mobile squad of police to deal with picketing was created. Finally in September 1983, she appointed as chairman of the National Coal Board someone (Ian MacGregor) who had cut 100,000 jobs at British Steel and who was known for his union-busting attitude.
In March 1984 the Coal Board announced the closure of Cortonwood Colliery in Yorkshire and that 20 other pits and 20,000 jobs were on a hit list. The Yorkshire miners immediately went on strike and within days the strike had spread nationally. At the peak about three-quarters of the approximately 200,000 miners were on strike. The strike was to last a full year, with brutal attacks by the police on picketers. I heard of one miner who went to take down the number of a policeman beating a striker, discovering that the police weren't wearing their numbers, and then being beaten to the extent of permanent brain-damage himself .
The strike ended when the demoralized, starving, impoverished strikers voted to return to work. Recent disclosures in the autobiography of the head of MI5 (Stella Rimington) showed that the secret service was tapping the phones of the union-leaders and involved in other “counter-subversive” activities. And cabinet documents which became accessible after 30 years reveal the involvement of the Thatcher government.
The miners' strike is an example of a government taking part in out-and-out class warfare against a segment of its own population. Today some areas still show the scars of the miners strike 30 years ago and much bitterness remains in the divided communities.
Personally, we suffered financially when we moved to Australia at the end of 1984, losing thousands of dollars in transferring the money (in devalued pounds) from the sale of our house in England to buy another in Australia. Still it was nothing compared to what many of the strikers went through.
One of our main reasons for returning to Australia was to bring up our children in a society free of the constraints and stigma of the British class system. 

—Susan Nulsen

19 June 2014

Standing Still and Learning to Be Astonished — Can We Open Up to Beauty?

—by Elaine Fisher
Since 1965, Elaine Fisher’s work has been shown in over 150 exhibitions in 27 states. She has earned a Harvard University Master of Design in Computer Studies, a Carnegie Mellon University Bachelor of Fine Arts, and has studied with the renowned photographer Minor White.
One Artist Shows include the LIGHT GALLERY in New york, the IMAGE GALLERY in Stockbridge, MA, the LIGHTFANTASTIC GALLERY in East Lansing, Mi, & the UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA GALLERY in Charlottsville. two & three Artist Shows include the recent BELMONT ART GALLERY in MA, the CARPENTER CENTER GALLERY at Harvard, & the CATSKILL CENTER FOR PHOTOGRAPHY in NY.
Elaine is a Chancellor Professor Emerita of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, where she was awarded Scholar of the year 2000; was elected Chair of the Design Department for 5 years (until she came to her senses); was appointed the first Head of Photography; and taught Senior undergraduate and graduate majors in Photography from 1973 to retirement in 2008.
WomenExplore FOCUS LECTURE / May 23, 2013 —Elaine Fisher
Thank you ...and thank you all for coming here today.
For those of you who are new to this forum, the Focus Speaker is usually one of the WonenExplore members who presents the topic from a very personal point of view. Here’s mine:
It all started with BUBBLE GUM ...but I digress! After all, the topic today is, Standing Still and Learning to Be Astonished — Can We Open Up to Beauty?
It takes guts, intelligence and spirit to be actually present in life, to occasionally look with a simple, awake eye, to see the easily missed moments of beauty that shine like liquid diamonds in a fast flowing river.
In our Age of Addiction in America, it seems insanely perverse, or at least unpatriotic, for me to derive endorphin-filled pleasure from simply watching a midday sun pattern slowly inch its golden path across my living room floor. After all, what does my personal, hedonistic delight in actually experiencing the earth move on a cosmic scale do for the Economy ...or my Resume?
We are constantly beset with overwhelming societal norms intent on numbing our mind and spirit:
with Food clogged with corn syrup and irresistible chemicals;with Internet Communication so dense and time consuming
it can suck up your life with the illusion you’re somehow 
in contact with millions of friends, instead of only the handful most of us can manage;
and, of course, with Money, Sex and Power, fully loaded onto 924 cable channels where Beauty Czars dictate how we should envelope ourselves with stilted perfection. By the way, if you are flawless, you’re not only boring, but slightly dangerous, and certainly exhausting to everyone around you.

We’ve become satiated with symbols of happiness, rather than happiness itself. Not a good sign. What could possibly go wrong?
And yet, millions of tiny, thrilling observations, scattered like brain confetti throughout the day, can at any moment converge into a cohesive mosaic of Beauty if we simply look with interest at the ordinary.
Although WomenExplore ordered a digital projector over a month ago, it has not arrived in time for my presentation. So I will hand out original images. One set is for the left side of the room, and a duplicate set is for the right. please pass them along reasonably quickly so that those in the back can see them in a timely manner.
My first image is entitled, CROSSING THE STREET. Its companion image is entitled. RETURNING.
Much of my work is framed in terms of couplets. I enjoy the brevity and emotional succinctness of Haiku, and see my images as a kind of visual counterpart. Dating from 9th century Japan, Haiku is a way of looking at the physical world and seeing something deeper. http://beforeabeyondz.com/tag/japanese-poetry/
Obviously, in these two images, one is not exactly going for an ordinary stroll. Since I spend a lot of time watching untold numbers of science documentaries on the Universe: how it began, what it’s made of, how it behaves, how the earth came to be, what the cosmic future might hold, this interest naturally comes into play in my work. I like to combine it with my desire to photograph the invisible. Photographing the invisible is quite difficult for a photographer --unless metaphor is used. For me, these two images are a metaphor for a spiritual journey.
An Haiku by Issa, 1762-1826, seems to parallel my feelings:
A lovely thing to see:
through the paper window’s hole, the galaxy.

Sometimes I close my eyes and imagine I’ve been floating in the dark/ light of the universe for millions of years. After relaxing into the feeling for a few minutes, I open my eyes suddenly for just a second, and immediately close them again.
What a shock of beauty. Everything is beautiful. Everything. Anything. It doesn’t matter. An outrageous joy in the ordinary wraps me in its riveting excitement. At those moments I feel a calmly intense gratitude for consciousness itself. Whether God exists or not, whether we exist after Death or not, whether there’s any sense at all to life, still, despite all the uncertainty, I feel a breathless gratitude to be able to be aware.
Sometimes my metaphors are not based in concrete reality at all. Sometimes they involve something actually invisible.
Such was the case with an image entitled, DREAM, and its companion image, NOBODY’S CHILD.
A while age, I was making plans to visit my (grand)mother, whom I had not seen for several years. She had raised me and I think of her as my mother. Although I was a woman in my mid-thirties, it was with a very young excitement that I looked forward to seeing her.
These feelings provoked me to make this photograph. I decided to use two negatives, one of her face, and one of a diffused environmental barrier. This process felt similar to the remembering of a dream. I printed her face twice. Dreams have a way of repeating important images. This duplication also created a sense of moving in space, which seemed emotionally correct --she was coming towards (or leaving?) me in an indistinct atmosphere. I also printed in the wide black panels on both sides to show the different worlds, the difficulty of reaching each other over so much space and time.
If I had felt young in my enthusiasm to see her again, I also felt young as I watched the print emerge. It was as if I were a child again, and wanted her to change the darkness I was in. It was as if we were the same person, the way very young children make little distinction between their mother’s identity and their own.
Four days before I was to surprise her with my visit, she died.
NOBODY’S CHILD is my reaction to her death. It is made up of two torn xeroxes, one of which was copied and re-copied numerous times until it felt as raw and disintegrated as the pain in my heart.
An Haiku entitled, Death, by an English woman named Nicola, feels emotionally relevant:
Silent horizon
Winter thickening blanket Blackness deepening


Love does not need to be excessively demonstrated to be beautiful.
Shao Lin, my 19-year old brown and tan, domestic short hair rescue cat, was never extravagant with her love. Were I to swoop her up in my arms to nuzzle, she would usually thrust her paw straight out in a stiff gesture of rejection that would land on the tip of my nose. Her glare conveyed the unmistakable command, Back off, Big Unfurred One.
Shao Lin, who had far too many opinions, is exemplified in an Anonymous Cat Haiku:
the rule for today:
touch my tail, i shred your hand. New rule tomorrow.

On rare occasions, however, she would stomp across the living room rug, scrutinize me through squinty, green eyes, then finally decide to leap onto my defenseless belly, where she would appraise me thoroughly, and, if I were not found wanting, would settle down for a snooze, whiskers faintly twitching as she made herself completely at home. I would know then I was tolerantly forgiven all recent love transgressions.
Sometimes, she would even grant me the privilege of her affection.
One evening, as I sat on the couch watching TV, I noticed she had lovingly placed her paw on my shoulder. I smiled, reached up, caressed her, and said, Ahhh ...yes ...scratch my ear, Big, Unfurred One ...At last you’ve understood! I realized with a little surprise that I was not speaking for myself, but for her. Well, not exactly for her. For just a moment, I became Shao Lin. my whiskers faintly twitching, much as I had with my (grand)mother.
Understanding, analyzing or empathizing with someone else is actually quite different from, just for a moment, becoming someone else.
It felt familiar. It felt very much the way I am when I create a photograph.
When beauty feels like an extension of your being, when you embody it, you become Beauty.
Now, I shall digress back to, oh yes, BUBBLE GUM!
I was 12 years old when my father left my mother, who, in her misery and loneliness, passed her pain on to me when she took me from the grandmother who had raised me since birth, with the lure of, you can have your own room. This disruption necessitated my taking two cross- town busses to get from grammar school to my new home. At the point of transfer between the two busses, was a little newspaper shop that sold, yes, BUBBLE GUM! Not being excessively gifted with self- control, I would stuff my mouth with HUGE gobs of it like a starving, greedy hamster with bulging cheeks of booty. I was at an age where no consideration, or even a passing thought, was ever given to decorum, especially when experiencing the triumphant joy of that sticky goop splattering on my face when the humongous pink orbs exploded with a pop. I was not remorseful.
One day I noticed a new brand that proclaimed in bold letters on the label: MAKE YOUR OWN MAGIC PICTURES. With great excitement, I tore open the wrapping to find a tiny negative and a few small sheets of Magic paper tucked in with the gum. The instructions were to sandwich the two and hold them up to the sun for several seconds. Voila! The negative produced an image on the paper! Ecstatic, I used up the whole stash of paper before my next bus arrived. Several days later, I sent a letter to the manufacturer, inquiring what this wonderful, Magic Paper was. They actually answered. Turned out, it was aptly called POP, or Photographic Printing Out Paper.
Remembering that once I had noticed a small photography store in downtown Newark, I eagerly hopped the bus to get some magic. The salesclerk provided me with a small package of POP paper, and I hurried home with my treasure. After a while of creating pictures from my own negatives, I lamented the fact that, in time, they would all turn a cloudy, dark crimson. So when I used up my supply, I returned to the photo store to find out if it were possible to stop my pictures from disappearing in that way. Smiling, the salesclerk introduced me to the TRI CHEM PACK, tea bag sized packets of Developer, Stop Bath, and Fixer. Holing up in a dark bathroom at night with little bowls of stinky chemicals lined up in the tub, I could not have predicted that sweet, pink, delicious, explosive bubble gum would eventually launch me into my adult career!

Clearly, Beauty that’s Life, with Benefits! creates a happy spark of Serotonin in your brain ...and glee in the Coronary Arteries of your heart!
We all have an Expiration Date.
So take your Training Wheels off of this 
Precious Life and go for a Wild and Beautiful Ride

27 January 2014

‘Hail and Farewell’

Delia Gist Gardner was the wife of cowboy poet Gail Gardner, and the grandmother of cowboy poet Gail Steiger.  She wrote this poem at the age of 65 when she visited her old home and left it with a note for her family when she died.

‘Hail and Farewell’
By Delia Gist Gardner
  (Reflection from a cabin in Skull Valley, Arizona, over an old Indian camping ground, 1945)

Think not on my brittle bones mingling with dust, for


Are but a handful added

To those gone before.

Think, rather, that on this borrowed hilltop

One lived joyously, and died content.

In this dark soil

I found reminders, saying:

“You, too, will pass; savor for us

The wind and the sun.”

From the smoke-blackened earth

I dug

A frail shell bracelet, shaped lovingly, skillfully,

For a brown skinned wrist, now dust.

The broken piece of clay

Was a doll’s foot and leg, artfully curved ,

Made for brown-eyed child.

Pottery shards saying:

“Yours for a little time only

Take delight in this, as we did.”

The tree will die; the vine wither and rattle in the wind.

For I broke a law of Nature.

I carried the water to the hilltop. Nevertheless,

For those after me there will be

These things I have loved:

Morning sun rays, slanting across the hilltop,

Lighting the great trees in the green meadow.

Wind, the great blue sky,

Peace of the encircling hills

And flaming glow of sunset.