Suburban Oblique

By Melissa Hardie

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‘That’s what we said — not a sociological inquiry, not a report. Just a journey, for the pleasure of walking around, and finding out things. And all of a sudden everything throws us off balance, all this life tangled up in inextricable knots. How can we take it all in?’

‘I’ve never taken photographs so quickly, says Anaïk. ‘the Africans at the hostel were right: you must take your time and show respect for others. I don’t want to end up like those snap-happy tourists who are in too much of a rush to see what they’re snapping. They only look afterwards, when their interest’s sparked off by the developed photos.
(Roissy Express,105-106)

Maspero’s Roissy Express,a prose meditation and series of photographs, winds its way through the villages and suburbs that bank the train line from Charles de Gaulle Airport to metropolitan Paris. It details a series of connected narratives linked by the contingencies of suburban and exurban space, tracing the route from Roissy to Paris in its account of submerged, and usually blurry, quotidian lives.

The writer and photographer chose to articulate the indifferent blur of the route by spending the night at each stop, and recording their impressions of each place. This journey takes them slowly through a Parisian landscape unlike the Paris of the tourist. A series of disparate communities, histories and personal narratives unfolds through the book, and the sense is of an energising cultural complexity, often characterised by linguistic incongruity, and historical crossings. Locating the everyday experience of racism, for example, through the lives of strangers met on the journey, the book reorients its precise detailing of the vicissitudes of nazism still visible on the landscape: the journey becomes a way to trace overlapping and interimplicating social histories through the delineation of the everyday.

This exercise relays the tourist photograph from the airport back to the tourist city via its most incongruous trajectory, the unrecorded and diasporic lives of Paris’ outer suburbs. Tying neo-colonial everyday lives to the transitory record of experience visible from the window of the hurtling train, this photographic journey complicates a sense of what it is proper to record and how, and how fast it should be done. De Certeau writes of the train journey as a “travelling incarceration”; Roissy Express articulates the elisions of the railway journey, elaborating as a series of narratives prompted simply by alighting from the train — for de Certeau, a “bubble of panoptic and classifying power,”(111) — somewhere other than a usual destination. The journey becomes a series of tangents.

‘Even so, don’t tell me you intend to write your own State of the Suburbs?’
(Roissy Express,106)

In her essay to which introduces Fever pitch, Tracey Moffatt writes of critical interpretations as “tangents” (“Fever Pitch” 5), and her own work might be similarly graphed; Moffatt articulates sets of associations that now seem entirely necessary, rendering Australian suburbia as displaced photojournalism (Scarred for Life1994); the frenetic collisions of the roller derby (Guapa1995) beside the blurry disarticulations of Pet Thang (1995); the understated formalism (Newton 15) of Some Lads(1986) as an ironic elaboration of the arrested movement that typifies dance photography.

Moffatt, like the tourist, is in a rush, as this exhilarating and diverse set of images suggests. Most memorably, perhaps, the productive potential of her distinct associations is at work in the series Something More,a set of nine prints which immobilise and arrest nostalgia in a reworking of the kitsch iconography of fifties orientalism. In an essay which explores the collection, Newton writes that Something More “proudly wears its sources on its sleeve, from old movies, torch songs and soft porn to the folk stories swimming around any society” (“Cover Girl”15).

The distrait narratives that ghost the nine photographs are oblique to the photographs’ staged poses, precisely as the eyes of each figure are directed away from the lens. Those eyes may be looking for “something more,” but they are looking for it outside the frame in a nostalgic gesture that compensates for the over saturated nostalgia of the pictures themselves. Looking away, these figures pose the question that is articulated more baldly in Guapa: what constitutes a “good look,” inside and outside of the frame? Moffatt writes that she is “technically dumb,”(6) and yet many of her photographs are virtuosic. Guapa,as Moffatt relates, means “good looking”: art photography, like tourist photography, presumes that the return to the print itself promises the “best look.”

Moffatt opens her essay by declaring: [artists] “should shut up and just make the work and then let the theorist do the rave.” (“Fever Pitch”5) Moffatt then follows with an entirely helpful rave about her own work conditions, offering a litter of references to her own visual and textual preferences, from Vanity Fairto Rap Masters; The Olympics, Mary Poppins, Mandingo. Her work is easily tied to the suburb as the set par excellence from which to elaborate an exposition of our visual histories. Moffatt quotes a friend of hers to say “‘your suburb never leaves your system’,” which she celebrates as a “profound Australian comment” (6). It is, too. In a fascinating reversal of many cliches about Australian suburbia, its effect in Moffatt’s system is wholly energising: what she describes as a “lack of ability to calm myself down” relays some of the affective freight of suburban nostalgia, rather than its numbing banality.

In the introductory essay, Tracey Moffatt writes of the fever pitch of practice: “When I create something new I work in a fever pitch of excitement. My hands shake.” (6) Moffatt records the affective power of practice, locating behind the camera a capacity to be moved more usually sited in front of the picture. Moffatt’s work, similarly,can be conceived through these terms of movement and arrest: on the one hand, the photographic image’s rendering of arrest as a formal as well as figurative preoccupation; on the other the question of location embodied in the figures of the tourist (arch or debased photo hound) and the souvenir, the object which captures in time the sense of another place, “something more.” And Moffatt’s work celebrates those wonky oscillations of time and space in the skewed coordinates and studied stillness of her Shermanesque movie still, her highly stylised scenes from life, and action photography that instantiates action as a blur: the action of the subject and photographer alike as they “look good.”

‘No, he doesn’t intend to write a State of the Suburbs. They’ll have to keep walking on by. Just walking on by and not looking back. Building up a stock of memories, as you do on a real journey.’
(Roissy Express,106)

The series Scarred for Life,which she assembled whilst artist in residence at the University of Wollongong, sites its suburban bodies in moments of thrall and hyperbolic interest: flirting, slapping, discovering, reprimanding. These pictures, whose typicality is parodied by being likened to a journalistic series, gloss fever pitch as not merely a point of heightened sensation, but also as a pitch or argument: a tangential incitement to remember fictively and excitedly.

Moffatt’s residency coincided with my own discovery of the commuter train from Sydney to Wollongong: I began working at the University of Wollongong in 1994, and an email about Moffatt’s residency and project was one of the first I received and filed away. In it, a request was made for locations: Scarred for Lifeis the record of a series of suburban childhoods fortuitously located in the Illawarra. The photographs have, for me, particular resonance as souvenirs of that time: they punctuate the uninspiring experience of the “immobility” (De Certeau 111) within and without the train with a series of tangential memories. The photos are arrested like a series of portraits snapped haphazardly from real life; at the same time each moment is replete with overdetermined meanings: objects, colours and choreographies are saturated with significance.

My favourite is the photograph “Telecam guys, 1977″ which speaks to me of two incommensurate histories. Moffatt’s pictures are uncannily precise in eliciting the sense of local and particular histories: 1977 signifies the date of a conjunction of adolescence and the suburb that never leaves your system. A teenage girl sits in a shopping centre. She is facing the camera as behind her the Telecam guys banter with another girl. Moffatt engages those dissimilar reasons — recreation, work, a desire for social engagement — which put the four in this moment: the space of the centre becomes one which locates tangents.

Those who’ve spent some time in Wollongong, though, will recognise the space in a more specific way. This photograph was shot in the Picadilly Arcade, which sits above Wollongong Railway station. The Picadilly Arcade is the kind of place you find yourself wandering around when you’ve missed your train and have an hour to wait: its innovative decor includes a series of signs from Sydney railway stations. It is very odd to wander around the arcade and find signs saying “Wynyard,” and “Town Hall.” To add to the confusion, the signs are of a variety ubiquitous in the 1970s, and possibly before (I don’t know); they are the signs those stations used to have.

How striking that Moffatt chooses such a place to arrest, temporarily, her segmented survey of the suburb in her system. How telling it is that in so doing she reanimates personal histories of negotiating that blurry indifferent suburbia we see from the window of the commuting train. These two books articulate diverse regions and cultures to remind us of what is at stake in travelling around, either though that poetics of the dilatory journey from the station which Maspero chronicles in Roissy Express,or through the capacity of the image to stimulate memories of both location and disorientation, never better situated than by the adolescent life of the shopping centre, the train station, and the interminable commute.

Melissa Hardie, Department of English, University of Sydney.


Michel de Certeau. The Practice of Everyday Life. Translated by Steve Randall. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.
François Maspero. Roissy Express: A Journey through the Paris Suburbs. Photographs by Anaïk Frantz. Translated by Paul Jones. London: Verso, 1994.
Tracey Moffatt. Fever Pitch. Piper Press: Annandale, 1995.

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