The Market-Nation State and Citizen Crab

(by Dr. Christopher Crouch)

When my love swears she is made of truth, I do believe her though I do she lies:

William Shakespeare, Sonnet 138

Shakespeare’s sonnet speaks ironically of the mutual benefits of lying, and the many advantages of sustaining illusions in personal relationships. In Poland during the nineteen eighties a popular joke among academics, steel workers and shop assistants ran, ‘the state pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work’. In Bangalore, the Indian capital of new technologies industries, low wages and high education mean that it is cheaper for European telephone companies to set up call centres in Karnakata than their customers’ geographical home. Operators at the call centres are given European names, coached in regional European accents and work nine to five on Birmingham or Berlin time rater than local office hours.

Semena Santa Cruxtations is about camouflage and mimicry. It is also about lying and deceiving, giving and taking (mainly taking) and hiding. That’s why there are so many crabs around. Crabs spend a lot of time hiding, disguising themselves until they are invisible. Ideas disguise themselves too, the most ridiculous notions often masquerade as common sense, and before we know it-like crabs-they’ve taken on the colours of the locality and pretend that they have been there forever. The crab we are talking about about of course is no longer that creature codified, objectified and essentialised by natural history. The crab we are trying to catch here is a metaphorical one, sliding in and out of different means of signification, moving out from the protection of one rock to hide under another. The use of metaphor should not hide from us the stark reality of the processes of colonisation though, where big lies are told to sustain even grander illusions. Christianity's partnership with the State during the European colonisation of the world has given it a history of collusion in the destruction of indigenous cultures, and the perpetuation of ignorance and poverty in the name of brotherly love. St. Lawrence demanded that the Catholic Church give its wealth to emancipate the poor and the church hid his ideas behind the silence of his execution. General Motors, the world’s largest armaments manufacturer, hides its trade in death by distracting us with increasingly safe leisure motoring. The crab often lives at that confusing interface between land and sea, existing in liminal space where contradictory states of matter exist side by side. Small wonder then that Reamillo can see human culture so clearly parodied in the world of crustaceans.

Now, if a crab is a crab in the Philippines, scuttling sideways and feeding off detritus, then as surely as apples are apples, a crab is a crab in Australia too. What makes a crab in one country makes a crab in another, for crabs exist in an ecology that is to be found all over the globe. Some crabs are bigger than others though. The collaboration of the nation-state with trans-national capital varies with the extent of the lies and deceptions that are able to conceal from public scrutiny. Deceit pays all kinds of dividends in the global exchange of capital that constructs the new/old colonial economies. The Indian scientist, Vandana Shiva, has spoken of the scientific imperialism of agro-chemical corporations operating with the assistance of the Indian government despite frequent opposition from peasant farmers. The Monsanto representative Phil Angell, representing the corporate key player in GM food production, told the New York Times; “Monsanto should not have to vouchsafe the safety of biotech food. Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible.” (25.10.98) As well as providing a parody of the new globalism, Reamillo’s migrating crabs are also a metaphor for the cancerous calls expanding and consuming vital organs of a culture/ecology/body. As he says, the conventional forms of surgery (armed revolutions?) and chemotherapy are not effective enough in isolating this complex disease anymore. We need to find new and sophisticated ways of combating the pollution of the diseased body. We need to be able to pinpoint the origin of the infection, because too often the destruction of a cancer also destroys what remains of a healthy body. In destroying the parasite we can often destroy the host. The luxury of the minority world is dependent upon the poverty of the majority, and the subsistence of the majority world is currently dependent upon the profligacy of the minority.

The crabs presented to us are simultaneously victim and perpetrator. This is important to understand, for we need to acknowledge the realty of multiple concomitant meaning in all aspects of communication. Why? Because identity formation today is very different than ever before. Essentialised notions of the individual are no longer sufficiently complex to describe ourselves. Cultural production, which occurs primarily through the mass media, has created situations in which multiple-identification is encouraged and has greatly speeded-up the processes of cultural transformation (and oppression). If we can acknowledge the fractured and contradictory ways in which our cultural consciousness is formed, then an unraveling of our complex contextualization allows us some sense, if not the possibility of a utopian reordering of culture, or at least coming out from underneath our camouflaged carapaces.

The forces that have created Filipino culture that Reamillo animates, the agencies of colonialism, religion, nationalism, the commodification of culture-have also created Australian culture. The players may be subtly different in the varying venues, but it is essentially the same game that is being played with the same disregard for any rules. In the middle of this scrabble for the occupation of a physical and cultural space, the individual is constructed and contextualized by pressures that are so compelling that it often ceases tom matter whether the constructed reality presented makes any sense. The individual may know that the ‘truth’ being told is a lie, but it is often accepted in Australia with as much good grace as possible, as we know that our acceptance will be rewarded somehow. Just as crabs eat the remnants of their own kind after the fishermen have gone., so too do we.

When the Nestle homepage tells us that “only Nestle can provide the best and most relevant food and beverage products to meet your needs throughout your day, throughout your life", we know that is a lie, colonial ambition presented as a fact. We accept their absurd assertions with polite resignation and with little rancour because we know they will let us buy their chocolate. We are so used to the unending attempt to mould our consciousness that it is almost impossible to verify what we see or hear. Could it really be possible that a Den Fujita was ever employed by McDonalds in Japan, or is he my idiotic invention? Could he really have said that Japanese people are small and yellow because for two thousand years they have eaten fish and rice? Or have I put words into his mouth? Could he really have proposed that Japan’s population could be blonde and blue eyed if they ate hamburgers and potatoes for the next thousand years? Is it truth or fable? Is it reality or disinformation?

Unless the individual is continually self-reflexive (to use Anthony Giddens’ phrase), unless the individual is culturally active, critically and ethically reflective then perhaps crabdom beckons. I think few would argue that a crab has the ability to reflect upon its existence, or has a sense of the cultural dynamic that operates between the individual and the collective. What the crab does do well though is to make itself part of its surroundings as it attempts to make itself invisible. Jean Baudrillard has talked of the “obscene” silence of the masses when faced with the overload of de-contextualised information that is consumed daily. There isn’t a silence though, only a lack of voices. For where those voices should be, there is the white noise created by the conspicuous (and inconspicuous) consumption of ideas and objects, a puppet-like dialogue conducted through the empty rhetoric of goods as people camouflage themselves. The silences are further covered by the bustle of the state administering its citizens, busily encouraging a sense of belonging by constructing a national history (in 2000, the federal Australian government was one of the nation’s advertisers ). No matter how specious, historical facts are strung together one after another in a narrative that is designed to locate us in the global maelstrom.

Because personal identity is increasingly a process of multiple identification, our sense of what we identify with is not just confined to one set of values but of many. Sometimes these identifications are contradictory, sometimes those contradictions are schizophrenic. The camouflage we provide for ourselves and which is provided for us, is desperately inadequate. Nationality was a camouflage we have been happy with for generations, but the inadequacy of covering oneself with a flag is exposed as the accelerated rate of change in modern societies explodes all static forms of culture. This has to be in the individual’s favour, for a culture can survive only if it can transform itself from criticism, and from acts of secession from its sphere of influence. Negotiation is never encouraged though, while complicity is. To live ethically ( to ensure that what is good for us does not diminish the rights of others) is frequently the only civilized option left open to us, an often forlorn and desperate attempt as individuals tp guarantee that social justice is done.

In deploying mimicry and camouflage, Semena Santa Cruxtations re-examine ideology and power camouflaged by hegemonic processes, normalized to become truth. As the installation scuttles to complete its journey its camouflage changes periodically, Manila, Hong Kong, Darwin, Melbourne, Fremantle-the exploration of these issues is re-contextualised at every stop, alerting us to differences and similarities in the new world (dis)order. Alwin Reamillo’s work presents us with a site as complex, and a sight as contradictory and bewildering as our own real world. But because it is art pursuing life and not mimicking it, it reminds us that there are possibilities for change, and that camouflage, captivating though it might be, is also a form of captivity, and a lie.

Text from the touring exhibition Semena Santa Cruxtations ( or How to go bble sideways and multiply O kung paano mamingwit sa tala ng ka hirap an ), January 2001-March 2002.