Blurring boundaries

Back in September 2015 I had some time on campus. My visit coincided with a lecture by Mayu Kanamori, called Blurring Boundaries. Mayu is a storyteller. Her stories are created through many mediums: theatre, photos, performance, writing, radio, documentaries. Based in Sydney, Mayu has received awards for promoting multiculturalism and reconciliation. I wanted to hear about Mayu’s experiences in telling stories about the people of Broome, and I wanted to hear about what she meant by blurring boundaries.

Mayu works with cultural stories. She talked about using performance to recreate traditional Japanese rituals in Australia. In one project, Mayu created a contemporary dance performance at a cemetery in Cowra, NSW, to put to rest Japanese civilians who were interned and died there. After the performance, Japanese elders told Mayu they would rather a traditional Buddhist ceremony, which she then created for them. But on reflection Mayu thinks it is important not to stick to traditions, to create something new – to blur the boundaries between old and new.

Mayu also talked about blurring the boundaries of her work. She is a photographer, but in responding to the needs of a community she was working with, she blurred her own job description and became an organiser: she arranged people’s travel, she created flyers, carried out all sots of non-performative work.

In response to a community’s needs, Mayu changes. But she was also firm about the freedom of an artist to offer his or her own expression. So it seems that Mayu has altered her work to satisfy a sense of responsibility towards the participants and their needs, but also to allow her own expressive response to something.

Similarly in science – should science be a pure expression of curiosity, a thirst for knowledge regardless of the potential meaning, or should it always respond to the needs of a community? How can it respond to the needs of the community? What is my role as a scientist to seek knowledge versus creating something of value to people?

I butt against this constantly, buoyed by my own sense of responsibility to others and a desire to “contribute”. This is an ethical reality of working with Aboriginal people and necessary. Too many times researchers have come and gone, leaving nothing tangible in their wake. So I leave a trail that other researchers haven’t: photo-books, stories in local newsletters, copies of interviews. But a fluidity here becomes overwhelming. Where does contributing start and stop? When have I given back enough?

I’m in the last year of my PhD.  There is only one way to finish and that is persistence and time.  I’ve realised it’s time to reinforce the boundary wall between my community and my writing space. In my final year a boundary is essential, nothing will be finished without out it.

Blurring boundaries has meant so much to me. I am not a solo PhD student. I have co-researchers and friends within my participant group and the Indigenous rangers I work with. They have influenced my methods, my thinking. The line between work and life is blurred. When I walk down the street and chat to somebody, this contributes to my work. I take notes and “maintain” relationships. But I can’t reduce these relationships to something so narrow and procedural. Living and studying in the remote Kimberley has shifted my outlook on life, not just my research question.

Yet, 2016 is a year that these shimmering boundaries will become opaque and then solid. I will create a hollow to write. Although, right now, putting up boundaries doesn’t feel nice or easy.

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