By Associate Professor James Oliver
* Throwntogetherness – this is the terminology of cultural geographer Doreen Massey. It is a term she used for thinking about (and with) place: as a “time-space” of relational encounters, open and progressive, full of potential, and of the eventfulness of place.
A year, a decade, indeed any bounding of time is not an actual event. As we know, time is an abstract concept. Nevertheless, and understandably, collectively we will reflect on 2020 as an “event”; or, more particularly for its sense and experience eventfulness. In part, this is true of any year, to refer back to the “time-space” of relational encounters. To underscore, though, this has been a devastating and major (not minor) eventfulness. A significant part of that is the very point that Doreen Massey makes, the instantiation of place that emerges for people, through the experiences and embodiments of our encounters with eventfulness: what we might also call emplacement.
If we think of eventfulness and emplacements, 2020 has been a “long year” here in Australia. We were already encountering it in 2019 when our local Australian bushfire season was signalled to be of an unmanageable and sadly realisable and climactic scale of destruction. Late 2019 is also when the spectre of a significant health crisis of global consequence. So, beginning in 2019, the “long year” of 2020 is likely to roll well into 2021, when the health crisis, in this instance, levels out with vaccines; certainly, in the university sector, and in no small part also with the even-longer lingering heavy hand of marketisation, the impact on our academics, our economics, our engagements, will resonate well beyond that. In amidst all this we have also seen a significant turn of attention (one hopes its significant attention) to structural racism, and the embracing growth of the Black Lives Matter movement. Of course, in Australia this toxic issue has its own context, which we will return to. All this will have a deep effect on our practice of the university as a public good, which further impacts our realisation of public value and our relationships with our publics. However, it also gives us cause to critically revitalise what we mean by public/s and for that matter, engagement.
For me, without a doubt, 2020 has been about our global and local senses and experiences of place and emplacement, relational encounters that cannot be ontologically flattened to a singularity of “pandemic”, or the trope of “pivot”. I started a new job in the city at RMIT University in January of this year (having been at Monash University in the previous three years), and like anyone travelling into the centre of Melbourne at that time, I will not forget the visceral sight and smell of the bushfire smoke. Consciousness of the relevance of land in Australia was practically unavoidable, and with that, our sense of place was also in the reckoning. On the health advice of our institution, many of us started to come into the city much less, as it was safer to stay at home. This was compounded, of course, when the escalating public health and virus crisis further highlighted the “time-space” potential of relational encounters, and our hyper-local experiencing of the global. Biopolitics writ small and large, or glo-cal. And so, it now feels like I’ve barely been in the city centre for four years! My point is to emphasise that place has becoming a much more sensitive issue in our professional lives, for a whole range of reasons of course, including ones that were always were there.
For one small example of the relevance of this, during all our video-meetings this year, it has been edifying and encouraging to hear the range of colleagues and students voices consciously engaging with situating their Acknowledgements of Country, having to consciously think about where they are (potentially variously) located across huge distances. This immediately creates a more ethical and meaningful potential of relational encounter with land and Indigenous Sovereignty than might usually be practiced by dint of learned institutional habit – without necessarily effecting institutional or societal equity of course –and beyond practices that can elide active and ethical encounters of engagement. In Australia, regardless of your research expertise, equity is only a genuine and ethical public good and value if our engagement encompasses relationality with Country, and all that that in turn encompasses.
To summarise, when I think of engagement, I think of emplacement, including in all the possible ways we sense and experience place, as conceptually described further above. My research has always been focussed this way (and I can only speak for myself) but even so, I think we have had this recent “time-space” experience of relational encounter that has amplified or made more sensible our relationships with or questions about place. Within all of this, land and our relationship with land has never felt so important as now. Culturally, ecologically and for knowledge engagements. Not only, but certainly for those of us engaged in Indigenous Practice Research, wherever or however emplaced (or displaced, though never fully), place is fundamental to research and engagement – in a sense, then, they are a ‘throwntogetherness’. We learn more from their encounters and eventfulness not their linear delimiting.
Engagement is not and should not just be knowledge transfer, or impact, it is ethical relational encounter and emplacement. To conclude though, I will be quoting and recommending the brief article by Eve Tuck and Marcia McKenzie:
We urge readers and colleagues to reconsider place and its implications, not because it offers a generalizable theory or universal interpretation, but because generalizability and universality are impossibilities anyway, in no small part because place matters and place is always specific. The environmental consequences of deluding ourselves into believing that place does not matter are stark and creeping. Place is significant, and our inquiries will become more significant through this recognition.
 Massey, D. 2005. For Space, London: Sage.
 Tuck, E. and McKenzie, M. 2015. ‘Relational Validity and the “Where” of Inquiry: Place and Land in Qualitative Research’ in Qualitative Inquiry, Vol. 21(7) 633–638.
Is mise Seumas Chatriona nigh’n Dhomhnuill Aonghais Bhig mac Dhomhnuill mhic Pheadar mhic Mhurchaidh.
James Oliver lives and works on unceded Country and pays his respects to the people of the Boon Wurrung and Woi Wurrung language groups and their Elders, past and present. He is an Associate Professor of Design at RMIT University. An important aspect of James’ work is in the area of Indigenous Practice Research, in international context and collaboration with artists and educators across Australia and Canada. James is also an Adjunct Associate Professor at Monash University where he is a member of Wominjeka Djeembana.