I’ve had some particularly dismal holidays. Ironically, in the places I should’ve been happiest, most filled with fun, sun-bronzed, ecstatically amused by sideshows. The worst, hands down, was Las Vegas, a 24-hour gin-and-tonic nightmare, neon-lit, full of desperate people convincing themselves life was on the up. Followed by the Gold Coast. As with Las Vegas. A cruise, where every moment was the time-of-your-life, although I spent my time staring across the Pacific, wondering if I should jump in. All-you- can-eat buffets, served by desperate-looking Filipinos on $3 an hour. The only people I really wanted to talk to, but, when I did, realised they’d probably been sworn to silence, lest their employer, [insert name of ocean here: insert a type of royalty here], overheard something actually, you know, truthful. I woke at night to the smell of diesel, and had to escape my room. Ended up in another casino, another restaurant, making small talk with a reinvented Gopher and Isaac. There was a stage-show, run by an entertainment director, and a trivia night, although that was most of the cruise. Either way, I gave up, retired to ship’s library, all 17 cook books and a Magic Faraway Tree.
Point being. Life now comes in two colours: the real, and the official (or the one we’re meant to believe in). Almost nothing that comes from a government department or corporate think-tank offers anything particularly human any more. For example, the new Transforming Health measures (that is, the closure and amalgamation of essential health services). Versus a system that puts people, and their well-being, before budgets, efficiencies, strategic directions and, well, death. Or pokies. Fun. Clang-clang (and after all, we’re all entitled to choose how we spend our leisure time). Although that’s not it, is it? We’re all entitled to be persuaded, cajoled, softened up with the promise of endless stadia stretching the length of the Torrens. Money and politics, and how they share the same bed these days. No more the need for compassion, or vision. Ah, there’s a word. Vision. So, what will our state look like in 50, 100 years? Some happy, bring-your-family, amusement park. British street artist Banksy opened the world’s first anti-amusement park in 2015. Dismaland, on England’s west coast, only stayed open for five weeks, long enough to get people thinking about the nature of what we’re told, and up-sold, by our leaders, our visionaries, our corporate Uncle Walts. It was truly dismal, perhaps because it represented the real, not the managed. Upon arriving, families (having waited in long lines for hours) were security-screened by bored, iPhone-addicted, almost catatonic attendants. Body-searched. No eye contact. A few grunts. And in we go. The place was grey, full of rubbish, minus any potential to amuse, in the cruise ship sense. Problem being, reality wasn’t avoided, it was on display. A diorama of African refugees making for Europe, some floating facedown in the water. A Cinderella version of Princess Di, dead in her pumpkin, with the paparazzi snapping away. An Orca (jumping from a toilet) passing through a hula-hoop on its way to a wading pool. A woman, with her shopping, being attacked by seagulls. Banners proclaiming ‘Have a Crap Time’ and balloons reminding each of us ‘I am an Imbecile’. Well, I know reality isn’t this bad, but Dismaland was, after all, an art installation, designed to provoke a reaction. And it got one. Word spread and everyone tried to get in before it closed. The average English punter (ironically, with kids in tow), but also celebrities such as Brad Pitt, Jack Black and Russell Brand. Banksy’s ‘family theme park unsuitable for children’ was a hit. And why? Was it because people had seen enough of that other reality? That they did, and do, long for the truth of a thing, especially in this age of manufactured consent? Or was it just funny? Weird? Did there really have to be a reason? Was this anti-vision really what people recognised? Because the future is not a given. Without some idea of how we’re moving forward, we risk creating a world, a city, a street, we don’t recognise. This was brought home to me recently when the SA government announced (by proxy) that their vision for the future of the state included digging a large hole for the world’s nuclear waste. I thought of Dismaland straight away. Was that the best we could come up with? Saying to the world, “You know, we’re sort of broke, and probably, things won’t get much better, so if you’ve got any old shit, we’ll take it from you.” No mention of the cost of building the joint, ensuring roads are up to scratch, ports, communities safe, earthquake-proofing the Flinders Ranges (!), explaining to our kids and grandkids (maybe 50, 100 generations) that we’ve left a little something under the Christmas tree, ensuring we know how to clean up the leaks when they occur, or replace the storage medium (Plutonium 239, with a half-life of 24,000 years), ensure every other country pays up – the list goes on and on and on. Almost like an exhibit Banksy forgot (but left room for). Problem being, even if we did go down this path, we still haven’t got a real vision of what we want, what we stand for, aspire to. The recent premiere of the State Opera’s Cloudstreet was a moment of vision. A stage populated with talented actors, singing homespun music, from a visionary book about our country – people coming from all around Australia to listen, marvel, shed tears. I can hear some say, “Well, we need more than a few arias to save our bacon”, but the point is, we never really know where the future lies. Like Banksy says, “It isn’t art if it doesn’t have the potential to be a disaster”. A nuclear waste dump has more than potential. And Dismaland. But none of us want to live in either place, do we? As the tour continues. Children make their way to a pocket money loan centre where they borrow fun dollars at exorbitant interest rates. They’ll be unable to repay, but that’ll be tomorrow, a HECS-like future that no one, in the midst of happiness, wants to think about. There are a few lame rides (bumper cars with Death and his sickle chasing kids), more depressed attendants, a particularly violent Punch and Judy (shocked? but not half as violent as what the kids will see on telly), a book-burning of the latest Jeffrey Archer offering, a giant mushroom cloud so our children can contemplate their real dystopian, post-apocalyptic future. Mm. Okay. It’s been a few hours, and the sky’s grey, and we’ve seen it all, and it’s sort of depressing. Like, we don’t really want to stay much longer, do we? Although is Banksy suggesting we might be here for a very long time? Is this the casino extension Captain Atom and Molecule Man have recently greenlighted? Are those kids, busy on their phones, part of the show, or real? It’s getting hard to tell, isn’t it? As I sit on my deck chair, watching a whale swim beside the ship. And think, “An actual whale, or one they’ve arranged for us?” People become excited, a crowd gathers, and the captain comes on the PA and suggests we take a look, and all at once, and for a moment, it’s like it used to be. Stephen Orr was long-listed for the Miles Franklin Literary Award for his 2015 book, The Hands: An Australian Pastoral.
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