Walking, talking and accountability
Join Sydney-based artist Sarah Rodigari and architecture critic, Professor Naomi Stead (Monash Department of Architecture) for a speculative conversation about performative walking, the art of conversation, and queering as a process and a practice. An artist who creates site-specific performances and text-based installation, Sarah’s performance installation On Time, 2021, was included in The National 2021 at Carriageworks in Sydney. Sarah will also speak about a recent residency with Monash’s Business School.
Form x Content is a mix of live and pre-recorded events featuring the voices of renowned First Nations, Australian and international artists, designers, architects, curators and academics. The program is delivered every Wednesday lunchtime during Monash University teaching semesters, with a mix of live and online sessions broadcast on the big screen at Monash Caulfield and Clayton campus.
Form x Content engages with the ideas, histories, sites and critical questions of our time. The Semester 1 program focused on sustainability, collaboration and the ways in which First Nations artists centre Country in their practices. Semester 2 will explore ideas of disruption and resilience, together with queer perspectives on artistic practice and urban space.
Form x Content is free and accessible to all. Join us Wednesday lunchtimes at 1pm—live or online and on the big screens, Caulfield and Clayton campuses.
Hannah Mathews: Hello. My name is Hannah Mathews. I am Senior Curator at the Monash University Museum of Art. Welcome to Form x Content. This program is a mix of live and pre-recorded events featuring voices of renowned First Nations, Australian and international artists, designers, architects, curators and academics. Form x Content engages with the ideas, histories, sights and critical questions of our time with our semester two program focusing on ideas of disruption and resilience together with queer perspectives on artistic practice and urban space.
Today's Form x Content takes the format of an in-conversation between artist Sarah Rodigari and architecture critic Dr Naomi Stead. It's titled 'Walking, Talking and Accountability'. Sarah is a Sydney-based artist, who creates sight-specific performances and text-based installation. Her performance installation, 'On Time', was included in The National exhibition at Carriageworks in Sydney earlier this year. She recently completed a residency with Monash Business School here in Caulfield.
Later in 2021, Sarah will be presenting a new work in the exhibition, 'Language Is a River' at MUMA. She'll be presenting this work alongside her peers including Charlotte Prodger, Akil Ahamat, Wu Tsang, Shen Xin and Archie Barry. Naomi Stead is an architecture critic and an integral part of Monash's Department of Architecture. Please enjoy their in-conversation for Form x Content as it weaves a path through performative walking, the art of conversation, and queering as a process and a practice.
Naomi Stead: Sarah, I wondered if we might begin by saying where we are. Can you fill us in about where you are and what Country you're on and what is surrounding you at present?
Sarah Rodigari: Okay, yeah. I am speaking from Gadigal land in the Eora Nation. I am speaking from home. I should maybe describe a little bit of what I look like. I've got brown hair, -ish, slightly graying, mid-40s. I wear glasses. I'm wearing some kind of nondescript black.
Naomi Stead: Excellent. What's outside your window?
Sarah Rodigari: Outside my window is a beautiful tree and there are three lorikeets so that's what's chirping. My neighbours feed them. They do a really good job of it.
Naomi Stead: Excellent.
Sarah Rodigari: There's apartments and I live on a corner so there is a bit of traffic.
Naomi Stead: Great.
Sarah Rodigari: What about yourself?
Naomi Stead: I am on the lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation in Melbourne. I'm in Abbotsford specifically. We're well into the second week of the lockdown, the fourth lockdown so it's pretty grim here, I must say. It's grim psychologically as well as grim weather wise, raining, very windy.
Actually, your description of what you look like is pretty much exactly me, mid 40s, brown hair, going gray, except mine is shorter and spikier. Also, I normally wear glasses, but I'm not wearing glasses right now. So there you go. That's where we are, and who are we. Sarah, tell us a bit about yourself and your art practice.
Sarah Rodigari: I'm an artist. I think you've given that away just then, Naomi. I, broadly speaking, work in a range of mediums, but mainly with text, the written word, language and performance, but when I say the written word, it very much comes about through conversations and conducting conversations with people through a very specific process of walking.
Naomi Stead: Yes, and we will come back to that. Do you see this as a performance? Are we engaged in a performance right now?
Sarah Rodigari: I guess theoretically speaking we are. I guess even practically speaking we are, and it is performative. But for me, a performance needs some kind of staging and framing, which this has, so I guess we are.
Naomi Stead: A kind of vernacular performance. I don't mean to put you on the spot there. Also, of course, we're not walking, which is something of a sadness because it would be very nice if we could have done this walking.
Sarah Rodigari: Yeah, it would have been.
Naomi Stead: But another time perhaps. Yes, you are an artist. That is your art practice. I, who is kind of your interlocutor here, my name's Naomi Stead. I'm an academic in architecture, architecture critic and also writer about architecture. We've met once. This is our second meeting, and I think we did establish quite a lot of common ground in terms of our interests in walking, writing, performative walking, walking as a method so I'm hoping to talk about some of those things today. We thought we might start with you talking a little bit about the residency that you've recently been doing at Monash University in the Business School. Can you tell us what you did and why?
Sarah Rodigari: Yes. You just said something so profound I wrote it down. I hope I can read my handwriting. What have I... Just prior to this lockdown, I spent a little over a week at Monash Caulfield working with MUMA and the Business School doing some research in relation to an upcoming project called... or exhibition called 'Language Is a River'. I have been conducting interviews with, broadly speaking, academics within the business school and accounting department, but there's also critical management studies within that.
We've been talking about ideas of accountability and the potential of accounting to be otherwise or other than what I might imagine it to be. For me, I imagine it to be a lot of spreadsheets and numbers and balances and tax time. That's how I think of accounting. I've learned a lot that it's not necessarily that. So I've spent a lot of time... we meet, we go for walks, we talk about our differences and our perceptions, whether or not art is a business, whether or not accounting can be engaged with a queer theory or a queer practice. We could think about that in terms of a decolonising practice, a feminist practice, really anything outside of a very particular structure of extraction.
Naomi Stead: Can you expand on that? Because all of those topics are super interesting. Can accounting be a queer practice?
Sarah Rodigari: According to many of the amazing, amazing academics I met with. I was quite blown away by the research that a lot of the people that I met with were doing. I think there's an argument that we think of accounting as all about numbers and balances and truth and quantitative data, whereas... Most of the academics I spoke with, whilst they acknowledged that, are suggesting that we need to think about accounting as something other than that, so that accounting doesn't just look at figures, but looks at the relationship between figures and the context in which those numbers are produced.
A really good example somebody gave me was the carbon tax a few years ago and the idea of actually placing a dollar figure on carbon meant that for many people, they were able to measure it and determine how we were engaging with it and change it potentially. The idea of trying to not necessarily put a figure on everything, that's one example, but the other example is to really think about what it might mean to take in the potential that environments impact how we think about accountancy or you can't measure the pleasure or the satisfaction or the health benefits that certain things bring to certain people.
It's hard to measure qualitative data. They're really into... I'm really generalising here. They're really into this idea, which I thought was mind blowing, of qualitative data, which is this idea of just talking to people as a way of recording information and valuable information that you can't put a figure on, conversation.
Naomi Stead: Well, that's true enough. I remember years ago I was fascinated and slightly horrified, but at the same time fascinated by the idea that local governments are putting dollar figures on every tree in their local area. A tree, they're quantifying a tree, which you can do because you can think about urban heat island effect and the benefits of shading and to the visual aesthetic pleasure of a tree, but it is sort of horrifying because when I think about a tree, I think about the ineffable values of a tree, the stippled light and the fluttering leaves and the change over time, the qualitative, unquantifiable aspects of a tree, but if that's what it takes to have the tree valued in administrative, bureaucratic structures, well, quantify the tree.
Sarah Rodigari: That's how I felt. As an artist... I should say that maybe a great deal of my practice has been looking at the relationship between the value of art and work and how to value that in often... I now know that I work in non-quantifiable ways, so I'm working with qualitative data, which I'd never even thought about the work I do is qualitative data, but anyway, which is great. I now have a particular language I can use. I completely lost my train of thought. I asked for a dollar figure to be placed on me, and no one would do it.
Naomi Stead: That's interesting.
Sarah Rodigari: Yeah.
Naomi Stead: Who did you ask, though?
Sarah Rodigari: All these really progressive, wild-thinking, multiple-PhD academics in the business school. I said, "I just want to be valued economically."
Naomi Stead: Yes, but maybe it had to do with the framework that you're coming from because, for example, if you spoke to a health economist, they might be able to give you a figure based on the value of your organs and your... I'm wondering.
Sarah Rodigari: Yeah, they could. That's a really good... Clearly, I need another residency.
Naomi Stead: In the Faculty of Medicine, if somebody's listening.
Sarah Rodigari: I'm trying to think of other examples that I thought were quite incredible in terms of thinking about how we value what we do. We, in a general sense of people and value I think intersubjective relations as something that can't be quantified and we have to acknowledge that. That comes down to... I can't help but think about that comes down to if you're a colonising country and you come into a place and you colonise it, and you fail to take into account the relationships that people have to each other and to land and you're only using a method of extraction and money, then you're losing an incredible component culturally, socially, environmentally that produces I guess longevity and wellbeing for future generations. This idea of... Seems quite radical that you have accountants taking that into account.
Naomi Stead: Yeah, it does seem radical and also kind of methodologically tricky because I suppose what you're talking about there won't fit on a spreadsheet because I guess... I would have thought or maybe still think or have thought that that accountancy is very similar to what you described, spreadsheets, numbers, figures, balances, things that add up, things that are thoroughly factual, tangible, positivist. You name it.
Then the fact that what you're talking about, culture and interpersonal relationships and the ineffable, cannot be fit on the spreadsheet or entered into let's say the database or whatever is part of why it hasn't been valued. It's about how it's recorded perhaps partially.
Sarah Rodigari: Yes, I think it is. I mean, I'm not an accountant or even invested in ideas of... This is when I also learned about critical management studies and thinking about how... How can we think differently about the language we use at work in the business that we do that sits outside the idea of profit and loss in terms of making money? You could be making a lot of money, let's say a company like Amazon, but you're not necessarily taking into account the wellbeing of your staff or the environment. That is a loss in relation to your profit. What we can't seem to understand or what I can't seem to understand... Maybe, Naomi, you have a suggestion here... is how do you change a psyche in which you actually come to value how somebody feels over making money?
Naomi Stead: Yeah, that's one of the big questions, isn't it? It's one of the central questions of the age. I mean, obviously, as you know my discipline is architecture. These questions of art and money obviously are very pronounced in art practice, but extremely pronounced in architectural practice, which it is a business. It has to be commercially viable. Otherwise you can't keep doing it. There's all sorts of aphorisms around that architecture is art with a pay cheque, architects make art with other people's money. There's a real tension there.
Actually, in my research, it's discovered that the tension actually plays out internally that someone studies architecture for five years. They think it's going to be a creative practice and they'll contribute to the common good. They believe in design as a practice, but then they will encounter... They will encounter clients who are mostly interested in making money, and that is not what most... Obviously, architects are responsible and they make money for their clients if that's what their clients want, but that is not the main goal. What do you do if your values are out of sync with your clients' values and they are the ones who are paying the bills? It's a really tricky question.
Sarah Rodigari: I mean, what do you do?
Naomi Stead: Well, you try and balance it. I mean, actually, in reality, what a lot of architects do is they just do a whole lot of unpaid work to make the project better so that, A, they make money for the client, but, B, they also contribute to the common good and the public domain and a quality built environment. But they do that at their own cost. I mean, that internally in terms of their own wellbeing, but also in terms of the viability of their businesses.
Sarah Rodigari: I think I'm going to bring this down a notch, but I have to ask this question. I read somewhere... By no means have I done thorough research. I read somewhere though, that TV shows like Grand Designs-
Naomi Stead: Grand Designs, yes.
Sarah Rodigari: ... are problematic in terms of how we think about maybe the potential of what architecture can be and in reality what it is.
Naomi Stead: I can see what that argument probably is. I can see several aspects of that. One would be that it's entirely domestic. Grand Designs are always houses. Arguably, architecture can make a much greater contribution in public buildings. Most people in Australia, the only time they will ever encounter Architecture is in public buildings, not their house. It's not necessarily their school. It's not necessarily... It possibly is their university if they go to university, but it will be their museums, their council chambers, their libraries. There is architecture in those public buildings. That would be one thing, that Grand Designs focuses on the domestic.
Another thing might be that obviously it's a TV show, it's entertaining, it's non-scripted reality television so it ramps up the drama in a way that is very compelling as a narrative. I'm fond of Kevin McCloud myself. It always is drama. The baby's about to be born or the winter's about to arrive. There's always some pressure, which is not necessarily realistic, although it is to some extent.
But the third thing is it frames architectural practice... It frames architecture as real estate. I think, for me, that is the biggest problem because architecture is so much more than real estate. It's not just about creating assets and financialising the built environment, which brings us back to accounting. The financialisation particularly of housing is a complete paradigm shift from where we were after the Second World War, where housing was seen as a human right.
Housing is a human right under the statutes of the United Nations, but is there anyone in Australia talking about housing as a human right? Are the governments talking about that? No, they're saying, "Your house is your biggest asset. Pour your money into it. It doesn't matter that it's totally unaffordable for the coming generations. Boomers or Bank of Mum and Dad are helping people who are already rich onto the property ladder and everyone else can go and... I won't say anything crude. Anyway, sorry, that's a bit of a rant on my part.
Sarah Rodigari: You brought it back around to accounting, accountability as in a government needs to be accountable for the living conditions of all its people and the idea of architecture being so much more than a domestic space. I can't help but think now that architecture of course... This idea of architecture... Buildings are built to last or they were, now they're not.
Naomi Stead: Not so much anymore. About 30 years for an office building.
Sarah Rodigari: I've got so much I want to talk about the new building behind me, but I can't. You've just opened up a can of worms in terms of real estate in Sydney, which we have to move this because I'm too excited.
Naomi Stead: I know, I know. Also, we'll become depressed as well. Hey, look, let me take a little swerve. Can I take a little swerve?
Sarah Rodigari: Yeah.
Naomi Stead: I was thinking... Just the other day I read something and it's really stuck in my head. You know when people talk about Manhattan Island, New York, Manhattan Island and how the local Native American people at the time of colonisation "sold it" for a "string of beads... Are you familiar with this story?
Sarah Rodigari: Not really. I just got... Then I thought... Is Turtle Island the name of New York?
Naomi Stead: Yeah, yeah, the long skinny one.
Sarah Rodigari: Please go on.
Naomi Stead: I've always just thought... I've never really thought about it properly, but I suppose I always thought, "Oh geez, that was sold pretty cheap, wasn't it?" But the other day I was reading something and it said, "No, no, no, no, no, no, it's very likely that they thought that they were basically saying, "You may cross through our land or possibly use it, and this will be the price of that temporary use," but they didn't think they were selling title to their land forever and who would? Aboriginal people wouldn't have done the same thing. I was just thinking about that misunderstanding, which comes back to accounting again of what you think you're selling, what someone else thinks they're buying and the kinds of liberties that colonising powers take. It's kind of horrifying.
Sarah Rodigari: No, you're right–
Naomi Stead: I've left you nowhere to go with that.
Sarah Rodigari: Do I know where to go to? I was thinking ideas of possession, ownerships, loans, agreement, this kind of language which I think is very much a language of capital, how it impacts on how we navigate generally our way through things. But can I swerve now?
Naomi Stead: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Sarah Rodigari: Now, I feel the need to swerve or take a detour. I'm moving into some kind of metaphorical language around walking because there's also talk about this idea of walking. We both walk, this is being recorded during a time of lockdown and the idea of walking and taking in an environment around you or taking in a city or wherever you live has a huge romantic culture in terms of literature, but also has a very practical necessity in order to understanding and belonging to a place. There's so much going on here. I'm thinking, "Manhattan, yeah, that's a city you can really walk through." The argument of some cities aren't built for walking, some are. I don't know. Maybe my question is how do you walk, what's your thing.
Naomi Stead: Yes, good question. Of course, the way that I'm walking now, now that we're committed to have two hours of exercise outside the house per day, it's got a real manic quality I would say, the kind of walking that... You know the iso walk that one does when one is basically under house arrest because of pandemic public health restraints. I would say it takes on a kind of driven, anxious quality, the type of walking that one is doing now and obviously I have been doing for the last 18 months really.
But usually the way that I love to walk is... Walking and observing are very closely linked for me and looking at the world. I really like to walk alone, apart from when I'm bushwalking. Then I'm happy to walk with a group, but if I'm walking through a city, I like to walk alone. For me, walking is very much linked to listening to music, but also to taking photographs. But what about you? How do you like to walk?
Sarah Rodigari: I've always walked out of necessity and as in I don't have a car. As a way to get around, I've had to walk. I realise that that's a real privilege especially if we bring back ideas of proximity to public transport, access to even pavements, proximity to city. I realise that that's always been a way in which I've lived and walking has always been part of my life, not necessarily... It's not something I do as an extracurricular activity in relation to what I'm doing. It's a mode of transport.
Walking in my practice has been a way of... There's a sense of emancipation in it. I'm doing this because I can. It's for myself, but it's also in relation to... There's a vulnerability in it and a freedom at the same time. It's very minimal so there's a sense of it being reduced to... Doing things that I am able to control, just. The only thing that I'm not able to control is the direction necessarily, depending if I'm walking with somebody else, and the conversation.
I've always loved a rambling conversation that comes about through a walk. You could have really heated, heated angry conversations and then you turn a corner and you change the topic, for some reason. You don't have to make eye contact. There's almost a formality goes, or a power structure goes out the window in terms of walking side-by-side. I love that kind of rhythm of conversation.
Naomi Stead: How long are these walks that you've been... Are we talking hours? Are we talking 10 minutes? Now, the structure is just an hour because I then have to work with the conversation.
Sarah Rodigari: Usually they get really juicy into the second hour, but I stop it at an hour and then we just kind of ramble. I guess I've come to use that as a way of connecting with a space, so working with people or wherever I am of trying to orient myself. I love how beautiful and... There's a sense of it being quite mundane, but if you think about it... A walk is really mundane. That's all you're allowed to do during your lockdown and yet there's a radical freedom in it at the same time. Trying to think about this... It's never felt so good to say, "I'm going for a walk. No one else can come with me. It's my time."
Naomi Stead: The word mundane, what is the origin of that? Isn't there a French word mondain, and does it mean time? What does that word mean? Do you know?
Sarah Rodigari: This is when I'm going to want to look it up and say what am I talking about?
Naomi Stead: No, no, no, no. Like quotidian, let's say, which means everyday. There's something very pleasurable... I totally get what you mean... in the mundanity of the walk. It's so ordinary.
Sarah Rodigari: Yeah, but then I go, but what is... I guess I increasingly become, "What is ordinary?" Because there's that big "art in everyday" movement, let's say. I guess with my students that, "I'm into the practice of everyday life." I'm like, "What is the practice of everyday life? What is that?" It's also the pleasure of when you stay with someone and you realise you have different routines or you even realise you have a routine or if you're in lockdown and you realise even though you're with your family and you're locked in at home that you've got a particular routine that you do and somehow someone's in the way, even if it's a family. You've also got a family routine, but within the family routine, you've got a routine that you perform.
Naomi Stead: Yes. Yes, yes, yes, yes. A few years back, you did a work which I've forgotten the name of, sorry. I believe it was either in Wollongong or Newcastle, where you walked with women who had walking as part of their work. That's a real tongue twister. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
Sarah Rodigari: Sure. Firstly, it was in Lismore.
Naomi Stead: Not Wollongong, not Newcastle.
Sarah Rodigari: Lismore, which is near Byron, towards the border of Queensland. I guess I was there for an exhibition on art and walking. I should say in 2011 I moved from Melbourne to Sydney and I decided I was totally distraught about leaving Melbourne. I love Melbourne so much. I had to go back to Sydney and I thought that in order to process that letting go of leaving Melbourne, I walked from Melbourne to Sydney along the Hume Highway.
That's a grand performance art gesture. Since then, this invitation to walk in relation to art has come up a few times. In Lismore, I was interested in walking with women who walk as a process in their work. Who has to walk for their job. Which, coming from a city like Sydney and living in a city, makes perfect sense to me, but when I got up to Lismore, that wasn't necessarily the case. It was a way to understand the town or city that I was in and also I work in relation to site, so this idea of coming, arriving, wondering what's happening here and wanting to make a connection with the place.
I walked with four women who had various practices, different relationships to land. We all walked for about an hour and just really talked about literally anything. It was very, very, very random. I think what becomes so beautiful about that is how awkward it is to walk with a complete stranger. It's unbelievably awkward. Everyone gets onboard and goes, "Yeah, I'll do the walk." Then we kind of be like, "So what are we going to talk about?" I have questions, but I'm looking for those... I love those awkward moments where you have to negotiate where the footpath narrows, where suddenly there is no footpath. You both have to go onto the road. Who's going to lead? Do we jaywalk or should we wait for the lights to change? It's those moments that I've become quite intrigued by.
Naomi Stead: What do you think they made of those walks?
Sarah Rodigari: Generally speaking, it depends on who you are. If you're a former mayor of Lismore, you might have an agenda, and it's an opportunity to speak about specific things and art. Most people think, "How is this art? We're not doing anything to generalise. What's she getting out of this conversation? We've talked about nothing." Actually, I hope what we're getting is an intimacy and a point of connection, but it's like having a passing drink with a stranger in a bar. I don't know if you can ever... I'm now thinking about those moments and none of them are great actually, but sometimes they're fantastic.
I'm trying to think in particular with one artist. She was a local artist. We both just spoke about the history of our lives like things that had happened and we could make a specific connection with each other through that. I don't know, I guess is the answer. That's not a very generous answer really.
Naomi Stead: No, no, no, it's a perfectly acceptable architecture answer... Sorry, architecture. I was just going to say I'm so fascinated that you're interested in the awkwardness and that you feel okay to sit in that awkwardness and obviously see a benefit or a value in the awkwardness. Stay with the trouble as it were. Gosh, many people are not comfortable with awkwardness, and I probably would put myself in that same category. I often feel that my awkwardometer, my internal awkward measurement system, is so finely calibrated. It's like a Geiger counter.
One develops measures or techniques for smoothing awkwardness. I can't even watch awkwardness on the television. I literally have to turn the television off. Reality TV, I really can't watch it because it's too awkward. There's some kind of visceral response. So it's great that you're good with awkward.
Sarah Rodigari: Well, I'm just thinking, "Am I good with... I think I've had to be in relation to just I think moving around a lot as a child, being different or what difference means. I think about awkwardness... I just want to say I love awkwardness. There's a way of maybe managing it, "Is this suddenly awkward?" I do think... I love awkwardness like the awkwardness in Antiques Roadshow. I don't know if you've ever seen that.
Naomi Stead: Yeah, I've seen Antiques Roadshow.
Sarah Rodigari: Awkwardness for me is a space of difference, where it's not normal. It's not a median. There's moments where things don't fit in. That we often see as awkward, but maybe that's just... For me, that's difference, that's excitement, that's a connection. It's like, "You don't know either. You don't have the answers and nor do I."
Naomi Stead: Maybe also awkwardness bespeaks a willingness to take risks because I guess you never have an awkward moment in a conversation if you don't try something or advance some kind of gambit, which sometimes doesn't work. Let's say you were talking to a stranger and you said, "Tell me about all the dogs you've ever had," which actually a lot of people would just go wild with that question.
Sarah Rodigari: That's a really good question.
Naomi Stead: I know exactly. If you want to fill half an hour, that's the question you ask. Not that I've ever had a dog at all, but you could ask me about all the cats I've ever had. Where was I going with that? Yeah, when the conversational gambit just doesn't work, it means that you've tried, it hasn't worked, you've got to try something else.
Sarah Rodigari: Yeah. It does. I'm just trying to think about that because I'm trying to think about all my... to bring back all my amazing conversations with the Business School. I guess in some ways especially within the, let's say, queer accounting, which was one of the topics that came up with research, is that... That feels so... That's awkward because there's no accountability there. For a moment, I feel like you're free forming and you're lost. I want something to be grounded. I'm thinking about this idea. Gosh, I just maybe lost my train of thought then again, but...
Naomi Stead: Well, let me leap in and buy you some time.
Sarah Rodigari: Great. Thanks.
Naomi Stead: Actually, the queer and awkward, they do live together. Really, I think you're totally onto something there because I guess for people who are not comfortable with the notion or, let's say, the process or even the human fact of queer people, then awkwardness is exactly it. But I mean, queer activism uses awkwardness with great effect. There is just so much that is awkward about being queer and constantly having to come out and cope with other people's discomfiture and their awkwardness.
I was on the phone the other day. This is a dumb anecdote, but nevertheless, I'll tell it. I was on the phone to the vaccination hotline and finally got through, and I made my appointment. She said, "Next available blah, blah, blah." I made my appointment. I said, "Oh, given that I've got you on the phone, can I give you to my partner to make another appointment." She said, "Oh yeah, well if he's there and if he's got his Medicare card or you could just tell me his details." I'm like, "Okay, here we go."
I take the phone through to the other room and she says again something like, "Oh yeah, you can just give the phone to him," and I said, "Oh sorry, he is a she," and handed the phone over. How many thousand times has that happened to me in my life and imagine if you were a queer in your 80s and you'd been out for your whole life. It must have happened 50,000 times, but that awkwardness is... I didn't really feel awkward about that. I thought she might feel awkward and I felt a little bit awkward for her because I didn't want her to feel bad even though really she shouldn't have made that assumption actually, but nevertheless, I wasn't offended. But do you see what I mean? There's a whole world of awkwardness there.
Sarah Rodigari: Yeah, I guess I see awkward as a space of let's say raw energy, potential, power, a pure relationship-in-process that cannot be accounted for. That, for me, is excited in that moment. If you think about the awkwardness of... If we think historically the awkwardness of difference and the idea of constantly trying to understand that difference and place it somewhere or put it in a bracket or categorise it, sometimes you just can't. Or sometimes people don't want to be categorised and they don't need to be categorised.
I'm thinking about this in terms of maybe our conversation of having recently been walking with young queer people around the city of Sydney and some of them talking about the need for there to be more radical fashion clothing shops so that not everyone is dressing in a very conservative mutual way. Historically, I feel like this is a conversation that happens all the time perhaps within a Western capitalist consumer society where what we're wearing determines a sense of our identity. I felt awkward in those conversations the whole time because I had no idea... Again, maybe I just put myself in those positions. I seem to like it. I felt very awkward understanding different types of fashions that I couldn't quite place.
Naomi Stead: Yes, maybe you do do this to yourself. I suppose awkwardness is being slightly off balance. It's being slightly unstable or encountering the unfamiliar or the slightly frightening maybe.
Sarah Rodigari: I guess I want to create a space that is vulnerable and okay for a different way of thinking or speaking or sharing ideas. That's what I think I'm trying to do in looking at the negotiation of, I don't know, a footpath. Because if it was a date... Let's take it back, if it's a date and you're on a footpath and you're walking on a footpath, you've got the same amount of space around you and suddenly it becomes a trail. You've got to navigate it and you're both thinking, "God, how am I going to do this." You're not sure if you want to touch hands. You're not sure. It's a first date. You're not even sure how it's going.
You have to negotiate that trail. What do you do? Is this an opportunity to touch? Is it an opportunity to make eye contact? Is it an opportunity to step away? If you step away, what might happen? It really becomes this really raw space of potential.
Naomi Stead: Although interestingly, I wonder whether the walking is useful because of the kind of impetus or momentum or literal movement. Somehow it helps you to move through the awkwardness, the space of the awkward, if we specialised the awkward. It somehow makes it, I wonder, a bit more bearable because also there can be silences whilst walking which are not awkward, which are beautiful companionable moments of non-awkwardness, togetherness.
Sarah Rodigari: Oh yeah, that's the whole point of doing the walking conversations is so that people don't feel awkward.
Naomi Stead: Yeah, I don't know. When you talk about... It's beautiful to hear your description of what happens when the footpath runs out and who goes first because it's a kind of dance or negotiation that you're doing at that point, but I would say... I mean, not having been there and obviously not being you, but I just wonder if that's less of an awkwardness and more of well, as you say, a negotiation. It's an interaction, but not necessarily an awkward one because you're thinking, "Well, I want to be polite, but you don't want to be overly diffident. You want to make space and you want to... Do you want to lead or do you want to follow?" I don't know. I'm just thinking into that.
Sarah Rodigari: I guess I'm thinking, can awkward be... How can we think about awkward differently or the word awkward or the feeling of awkward so that it has a potential to be empowering as opposed to I guess disempowering, not to put those binaries there, but I just did.
Naomi Stead: The other thing that strikes me... You're a teacher as well, is that right? You're engaged in education. One of the things that, as I'm sure you learned, and I certainly learned as a young academic or person teaching in a university context is, when you're doing small group teaching, you have to be comfortable enough to pose a question, or someone poses a question, and you have to be comfortable with the silence, which is an awkward silence, no question about it.
But a well-trained teacher will not jump in, will leave the silence because then someone will feel either that they can't stand the awkwardness anymore and they're going to have to say something or they'll think, "I can speak now. There's a space for me to speak here because the silence has stretched on." Inexperienced teachers will often leap in and they just won't be able to cope with the silence. They will fill it.
Everybody's got their durational awkward tolerance. Being able to hold a silence for 10 seconds in a group. Let's say 10 seconds. It rarely goes longer than that because someone just breaks, but I just think that's quite interesting because the one who has the greatest tolerance for the gap, for the awkward silence is somewhat in a position of power. I don't know. What do you think?
Sarah Rodigari: I agree with you absolutely. I'm really learning to not fill the silence as a teacher. I'm going to use the 10-second count this week. I think you forget that people have multiple things going through their mind whilst they're still in conversation with you or listening to you. I think this goes with teaching or even just a general conversation of going for a walk. Often, I feel like I don't have any power when I'm teaching even though I know I have responsibility. I know there's always one or two students that will step in, but just sitting there in that awkward silence, oh my gosh.
Naomi Stead: Yeah, it's hell.
Sarah Rodigari: It's hell.
Naomi Stead: Let's be frank.
Sarah Rodigari: It's hell.
Naomi Stead: It is, but it's hell for everything. I think what's important about it is that often a dominant person in a group, a dominant student or someone who's very extroverted or whatever will consistently leap in, but also it sometimes does make the space for someone who's less forthcoming, actually feels they can speak or they will speak or they must speak or whatever the case may be, into that silence.
Sarah Rodigari: Can we segue, if this is a segue? We said that we would potentially talk about the idea of the essay as a process of walking. I guess I teach writing so I was... Can I bring this up in relation... I teach writing, which doesn't mean I do it, but maybe I could ask you, in relation to the idea of an essay as an act of walking, how that might manifest for you.
Naomi Stead: Yeah, I guess for me, they've always been linked. I mean, partly because of that long literary tradition of essays about journeys, walking journeys. Virginia Woolf, for example, or the situationist essays or situationist walking practices. That's what I wanted to ask you before, have you ever done that kind of walking game, turn left, turn right, turn left, turn right.
Sarah Rodigari: No.
Naomi Stead: That can be quite fun, although I must say, I'm a bit... being a person who's quite impatient about orthodoxies, I find the kind of orthodoxy of the flâneur... If you start talking about walking and writing, or even just walking, the figure of the flâneur looms large. I just find that a bit boring, frankly. I mean, I'm interested in talking about the flâneuse, the female version of the flâneur, but anyway, the essay and walking, it just seems to me that it's got to do with rhythm, pace, tempo, movement, momentum, the way that you can take an idea for a walk.
A really good essay, the kind of density of the ideas that are presented or explored, is very similar to the density or intensity of a kind of ambling walk. It's always seemed to me that when I'm writing an essay and I feel like it's a good essay, it comes easily. Laborious writing, in my case, is never particularly good. If it's not fun to write, it's not fun to read, but when it is fun to write, it really feels like I'm sort of linking arms with someone, my reader who I may never meet, and going for a walk with them. I really envisage that. Is it like that for you?
Sarah Rodigari: I'm just wondering if I'm going to encourage my students to watch this. I think I'm quite honest in saying, that I find writing so incredibly difficult. I grew up learning to speak many languages and I just have English unfortunately, but there's different... Sentence structures come into how I speak or different sentence structures and different grammatical structures, so an essay is... I agree with this idea of thinking of it as taking an idea for a walk. I'm a firm believer in using very simple language and I've worked really hard at almost reducing my language to being as simple as possible.
What else do I... Then I think maybe a nice way for me to think about it is that an essay is also a conversation with an idea that you're sharing with a reader. That's why I'm trying to get my ideas out and make them as simple as possible, but I find that very hard. I think most people do. It's not an easy thing. Maybe not you.
Naomi Stead: Oh no, no, no. I find it hard as well. Although interestingly, I think the way that I write is very much linked to an architectural training so I tend to lay out everything I think about a topic and I lay it out on a table, not literally necessarily, but write out everything. Then the challenge is to hook it together in a chain of monkeys to put it into a sequence... Maybe in fact, this is another way in which an essay can be like a walk in that it's sequential, one thing after another. The pace has to be right and the companionability has to be right.
Naomi Stead: For me, after I've written everything I can think of on a topic, which of course leaves me with 20,000 words, the point then is to find the starting point the beginning. Then I can just hook it all together. The sequence emerges and then most of it I just chuck in a drawer and never use again, but then I have a 3,000-word essay. It's about first setting everything out on a kind of horizontal plane and then stringing it together in a sequence. Somehow that sequentiality is walk-like, maybe. You've got to find the top and you've got to find the tail and then you work out what you've got to do in between.
Sarah Rodigari: That's like, a walk like an essay has a structure. There's no rambling. There's no flâneuring. There's no situationalist doing...
Naomi Stead: Oh no, no, no, no, no, there is. No, no, no, there is. There is. I suppose there are essays and essays. There are different types of essay. But for me, it would be very unusual to do a pure stream of consciousness. I don't write fiction, I write essays and nonfiction and criticism, actually. I guess stream of consciousness... If I was a fiction writer, if I was writing short stories, it'd be much more likely to be that kind of open-ended ramble. It's unusual to write an essay where you don't have a point. Usually you've got a sort of point that you want to investigate, usually, or an object that you want to investigate.
Sarah Rodigari: Always been my downfall.
Naomi Stead: The lack of a point. Do you walk without a destination? Sometimes yes? Do you deliberately get lost?
Sarah Rodigari: No, because I don't have time for that. I don't live in that world anymore. I think in reference to the flâneur and also the situation, I just don't... There's no... I might if I'm a tourist, but even then I don't think I do. I think my life is so managed by time and structure. Even if I'm going for a bushwalk, which I very rarely do, there's a relationship to time and even the Sun. When do you need to turn around in order to get back before it gets dark? The idea of walking and freedom I think is very confusing for me. It's awkward.
Naomi Stead: Is that something you feel sad about? Would you like to change that?
Sarah Rodigari: No. No, I think walking is political. Gosh, is that...
Naomi Stead: No, of course. I totally agree. It totally is especially in times and places where you might not be welcome or feel welcome or indeed might not be safe.
Sarah Rodigari: I think about my privilege, my class, the colour of my skin, the neighborhood that I live in, who I walk with. These all have a huge impact.
Naomi Stead: Yes, exactly. We're probably out of time, do you think?
Sarah Rodigari: We are. I feel like we... But yeah, anyway.
Naomi Stead: We're just getting warmed up.
Sarah Rodigari: I know.
Naomi Stead: Is there anything... There's a lot of things that I wanted to ask you, for example, when you casually dropped into the conversation the fact that you'd walked from Melbourne to Sydney.
Sarah Rodigari: Yeah, I know, but I mean...
Naomi Stead: Just tell me briefly, how did that go?
Sarah Rodigari: I always think of that as a bad idea. It was really boring. It was cold. It was boring. It's amazing how when you do the drive, you go, "God, it took me three days to get to this town," but was literally 45 minutes out of Melbourne. That romantic wanderlust doesn't... Because Australia is so imbued with a bleak colonial idea of othering, but really also that idea of the scary truck driver, who's going to abduct you. It exists in a very different way.
I imagine if I was a burly bloke that would be different. If I had another relationship to land, it would be different. If I had a relationship to Indigenous history as I was walking through, it would be different, but at the time it was winter, it was crazy, and Australia doesn't have-
Naomi Stead: Sorry.
Sarah Rodigari: It just doesn't have that walking culture like, say, the UK does, where you move from one place to another and you can cross property by means of some kind of common law I think that allows you to cross through.
Naomi Stead: But also the route that you took because you're on the Hume Highway, right, which is very traffic-oriented and also heavy traffic.
Sarah Rodigari: I took secondary roads whenever I could, which was as much as possible. Then I was allowed to take lifts and then towards the end I was taking more lifts than I perhaps should have. People came and walked with me, but that became really hard because I was in my own moody little space by then. Police would stop to see what I was doing, but not to see if I was okay. It was interesting to see what came out.
Naomi Stead: It sounds like the world's slowest road movie.
Sarah Rodigari: Yeah. I'm just trying to think if that was... I don't know. If that was a Wong Kar-wai film, it would be really slow.
Naomi Stead: Even slower than they normally are. I think our brief was to talk about performative walking, which we have talked about, the processes of queering, which we have talked about, and the art of conversation, which, one might say, we have enacted.
Sarah Rodigari: Oh gosh. Beautiful.
Naomi Stead: I don't know. Maybe that's egotistical. Do you think so? Do you think we've had a conversation?
Sarah Rodigari: I think we've had a conversation. I felt like we went for a walk.
Naomi Stead: I feel like that too. Thank you very much.