2019

Countries visited: one

States visited: two

Plane flights: six

Night spent away from home: 67

Most-liked photo on social media: this one, of my new tattoo.

People who made me cry: one

People I made cry: none, to the best of my knowledge.

Favourite moment that I photographed: a self-portrait of me accidentally falling out of a window at the Melbourne Recital Centre, while trying to shoot images for an artwork.

Favourite films: ‘The Favourite,’ ‘The Thing.’

Most-played album: The ‘70s Road Trip’ playlist on Spotify.

Most played song: ‘Society’ by Ainslie Wills.

Song I most often had stuck in my head: ‘If I Ain’t Got You’ by Alicia Keys.

Number of books read: 42

Of which, the best: ‘The Trauma Cleaner’ by Sarah Krasnostein.

Best talks I heard: Penny Modra talking grammar and writing style and Jason Maling discussing the process of creating the industry you want to work in, both curated by Phip Murray at RMIT.

Best piece of theatre I saw: ‘Wake in Fright’, directed by Declan Greene at the Malthouse.

Shows I most enjoyed shooting: ‘Whoosh’ by Sensorium Theatre at the Arts Centre.

Favourite images I shot for work: these ones, for ‘Voyagers’, by Andrew Strano.

Favourite image I shot for a friend: this photo of Zak, channeling Jamie Lee Curtis.

Curators who I found incredibly stressful: two

Publishers who I found incredibly supportive: three

Favourite things I made: a ridiculously censored video will, a Kindle that mixes narrative with advice for the apocalypse, and an immersive binaural sound walk set in Singapore, in a future where so much sand has been dredged from the water that the whole country is a dust bowl.

Artists I grew to especially love: Christian Marclay, Susan Hiller, Fiona Banner, Mikala Dwyer.

Terrible artwork ideas that I did a good amount of work on and then quietly dropped: four

Artworks completed: eight

Of which, that I like: seven

Prominent members of the Australian theatre industry I accidentally asked out while trying to kindle a friendship: one

Best decisions: applying for the graduate residencies through the MFA, deactivating my Facebook account.

Decisions I regret: two

CATT teams called: one

Best date: dinner at Maha East, eating food so good I nearly cried, drinking extraordinary wine, talking and talking and talking.

Best piece of practical knowledge gained: when patching a wall, you really do need to let the putty dry for the full two hours before sanding and painting it.

Moleskine notebooks filled: two

Medical appointments attended: 33

Shittiest day: three days after my wisdom teeth removal, when I thought it was a good idea to stop taking the high dose painkillers. It wasn’t.

Moments I felt so happy I could burst: every time a work suddenly coalesced in a group critique, when the conversation suddenly became wide ranging and deep and shattered out into possibility.

Last year’s new year’s resolutions:
Be softer, be kinder, be slower.

This year’s new year’s resolutions:

Welcome the unknown with open arms.

Defining word for 2019: immersion

Moments that stand out:

January

The New Year is hot and dry at my grandmother’s holiday house in South Australia, the old shack overlooking the Murray where my grandfather drowned while duck shooting. We drive home, stopping to drop rubbish at the local tip. It’s closed, so we jump the fence. Mike slips on some gravel, tears up his leg. As we drive away, he tells me that the whole time we were at the shack, he couldn’t shake the odd feeling that although everyone was out on the deck, that there was a man inside, pottering around in the kitchen. I shudder in the summer heat.

I spend the whole month feeling like I have the beginnings of a UTI. I have blood tests, urine tests, ultrasounds. Nothing turns up. Eventually, the feeling just fades away.

I roll black backdrop paper across the floor of my studio, write with a white Prismacolour pencil. I start describing waking in the night, knowing I’m going to die. Halfway through the first sentence, I put a parenthesis, start a tangent. Twelve thousand words later, the work comprises eight completed sentences and hundreds of anxious, meandering sidetracks.

I fly to Launceston to meet Ben and Lucille for MONA FOMA. Overnight, as a few stragglers and night owls hum in the conservatory, time becomes strange. A man approaches us, terrified. He is homeless, usually sleeps in the park, doesn’t understand why we’re here or what we’re doing. The security guard we’ve been assigned calls the police, has him arrested. I’m furious. An hour passes. The man returns, says the cops wouldn’t even put him in jail for the night so he can sleep. We talk, quietly, him skittish, me low-voiced. As the sun comes up, he nods at us, tells us he’s heading off. He lopes into the morning. Later, body all jangly from lack of sleep, I lie in the park, reading Mary Oliver poems, crying at the beauty of them, at the sun and the grass and the heat.

February

Sarah has her tonsils out. I dogsit her assistance spoodle, Accomplice, who cries and cries through two giant walks and constant pats. When Sarah returns, doped up and woozy, Accomplice flies to the door, yelping high and fast, licking every surface of Sarah she can reach. Her butt keeps wiggling long after her front paws calm down.

Mike and I fly to Bali, already exhausted from the year. We stay in Bingin, a surf town. Walking the few kilometres back from the main street, along a dirt road, there is a field full of cows. Roosters strut through the undergrowth. The sound of lowing, of crowing. And another sound – a tourist has come off his scooter, is bleeding from the leg. He stares into the middle distance, doesn’t even see us, moans over and over, ‘This can’t be happening.’ His friend stares dully at the road. An Indonesian man is on the phone, looking bored. We walk past. I think about stopping to help. I don’t.

On a clifftop high above the sea, the sound of waves crashing in the dark. I finish reading ‘Ulysses’, read Mike the end of Molly Bloom’s monologue, and then excerpts from James Joyce’s dirty letters to his wife. We toast. ‘To Nora Barnacle. What a rad bitch.’

March

We fly home on a sweltering night. David and Rebecca have been house sitting, and are sleeping on the sofas when we tiptoe in. They wake, offer us the pedestal fan. No, we say, we’ll be fine. We lie in bed, drenching ourselves in water, wetting blankets, willing sleep to take us as the heat lies heavy in the stagnant air. Finally, maddened, I stumble outside and pull out a carpet I’ve been keeping near the laundry. I tell Mike we can sleep under the stars. As I unroll it, something bites my hand. I presume it’s a spider. When Mike stumbles outside with the light from his phone, he asks, ‘Is that a wasp nest?’ The next morning, we call a pest removalist, who can’t be there for days. I tuck my pants into my socks, put on Mike’s nitrile tattooing gloves and wrap a sari around my hat. I empty a can of Mortein into the nest, kick it to pieces. The walls fall apart like soft paper.

I pull Eve, Marlene and Christina onto a shoot for a startup online bank. We shoot terrible family photos with actors in matching jumpers, on a muslin backdrop in the gym of the company office. One of the models is a member of the company, and when he tries out a multi-chinned, slightly alarmed smile, we all double over laughing so hard I nearly drop the camera.

April

I have to compete an Elevated Work Platforms accreditation in order to operate the scissor lift in ‘Whale’. I am terrified of heights. The man running the course tells me that in order to pass, I have to operate a 15 metre cherry picker. I stand on the ground, trying to breathe, wondering what will happen if I pass out while operating the machine. In the bucket, I take the controls. As the floor falls away, I laugh a little too shrilly, reach out to touch the nearest rooftop.

Sarah runs a one-shot D&D game for my birthday. Jess’s character is an elf monk whose religion is yoga. She puts on a snotty Toorak accent, plays the character perfectly. The game almost falls apart whenever she speaks because we’re all laughing so hard.

I drive up Moreland Road on a warm night. As I crest the hill, the moon leaps out, huge, taking up half the sky. I cry out and pull over to sit with this vast gold creature in the sky, urgent, attentive.

May

Sonya and I are in Chemist’s Warehouse the day of the opening of ‘Whale’. I apply a full face of makeup from the samples, too poor to buy what I need for the show. My phone rings. It’s Peter Rose from the Australian Book Review, telling me that I’m the runner up in the Calibre Essay Prize. I get off the phone and stand, stupidly, holding a tube of BB cream.

At a Q&A for ‘Whale’, some students ask about our pre-show prep. I talk about checking the tech setup. Sonya describes doing a speed run of her lines. Chanella answers, describes the process that happens every day before she goes onstage, of settling with her big, female, migrant body, so she can go onstage and be looked at, feeling at peace with herself. I have goosebumps.

My dentist asks why I haven’t had my wisdom teeth out yet. I tell her I don’t have $4000. She says ‘You’re not going to want to hear this’ and tells me I need a $1600 crown and a $500 splint. The dental assistant hands me a tissue as tears roll sideways over the whine of the drill.

I drop into the A1 Bakery in Fairfield. I used to live around the corner, went there almost daily. The woman on the register remembers me, beams, says ‘It’s so good to see you’ with such real feeling. She asks what I’m up to. I give her a quick précis of the last few years. ‘What about you?’, I ask. She pauses, laughs a little. ‘I’m still here’, she says. ‘Shit.’

June

I’m let into the secret passageways at Trades Hall. There is a room where the Freemasons used to hide out, the remnants of the security system they used to alert to a police raid, so they could get out in time.

Fleur and I do a residency at Pen and Jason’s farm in Cundare. We spend a day lugging photo equipment and sand bags around the area, through clay lakes and volcanic plains and pine plantations. When we return to the house, hours later, I am shaking, sick. The feeling persists all through the next day.

Luke and Dani fly overseas to live in London. Our families huddle near the departure gate, wave and wave until we can’t see them any more.

I turn on my computer. My hard drives fail to mount. I unplug them, try again. They don’t mount. I try on another computer. I try on a PC. They are both totally fried. They contain all of my files from the past two years, including shots I haven’t edited yet for a gig that will pay for the next few months. I go to a hard drive repair shop. The technician is away for the day. I cry at the receptionist. I find another hard drive repairer. The man there tells me what it will cost to repair the drives. I cry at him, too.

July

I deliver the paper Fleur and I co-authored, about ‘Whale’ and politics and affect and gravity and levity, at the Conversations in Critical Autoethnography conference. People are kind. The conference is unusual – deeply emotional, personal. People erupt into tears regularly, navigating trauma and queerness and deep misunderstanding. The last presentation is a Samoan family, a tribute to a family member who is dying. She Skypes in for it, because it wouldn’t be right to speak about her without her. The room fills up with love. By the end of the session, I am crying so hard I can’t see.

Mike and I see ‘Wake in Fright’ at the Malthouse. Zahra Newman’s toothy grin, lit from below in a flash of terrible light, is seared into my head. At the show’s crescendo, I am so overwhelmed and afraid and anxious I almost leave the theatre. It is remarkable.

I am diagnosed with strep throat two days before leaving for Singapore. The antibiotics help initially, but the flight brings the pain back, white-hot and awful. I see a local doctor, who adds another antibiotic. When I return a week later, tear-streaked, the doctor sighs with exasperation. ‘You’re not going to get better,’ he says, ‘until you get some rest.’ Every swallow burns.

I meet 30 artists at Tropical Lab. I am overwhelmed by the process of navigating this many new relationships, by sharing a room with no down-time. We are driven to museums, ferried around on a boat, toasted in studio spaces. At one point, I look across at Rowan. ‘Introvert?’ he asks. ‘Introvert,’ I reply with relief. Slowly, I unfurl, make jokes, come to care for these new people. I make an immersive sound walk, watch participants lie on the fake grass in the centre of the university campus and stare up at the sky.

August

At Little Gold tattoo studio, Allie draws and redraws eucalyptus leaves and blossoms on my chest, across my stomach, down to my hip. She tattoos the entire design in one six hour stick and poke session, wrist flicking as the needle pops. I have never been tattooed for this long before. The pain shifts from place to place, sparking and flaring. At the two and a half hour mark, we take a break. I take half a Valium, and the pain stops being a problem. At one point, I fall asleep.

The night of the tattoo, Mike and I drive to Skye to shoot at a sand mine. Wherever the models stand for longer than a moment or two, water seeps out of the red sand, trickling, carving through the stable earth, creating rivulets and then rivers. We stand under the stars, in the freezing cold, and watch the earth fall apart.

September

I am photographing Yolngu songman Daniel Wilfred for the AAO. He comes to my house with his brother, David. They’re both worried about Jacko, scared the dog will bite them. As I’m setting up lights, Daniel starts singing quietly to himself in language. I stop breathing, straining to hear.

I have a feedback meeting for a public art project I’m working on. It’s horrendously underpaid, badly contracted and frustratingly managed, but I need the money. The woman running the project intimates that I’m trying to undermine the project, to criticise the client, to offend the local community. I’m shocked. I ask for specific feedback about what elements of the design needs to be changed. She refuses, smiling. I’ve never worked with a more patronising, passive aggressive person in twelve years of freelancing. That week, at uni, Laresa remarks: ‘You’re very efficient, Sarah. You really like efficiency.’ It helps unpack why I’m so annoyed, at my clear communication being met with obstinacy. I have to stop talking about the meeting, because every conversation starts to becoming bitter.

We attend the Climate March in the city. As I catch the tram in, I see children walking out of school gates with their parents, clutching home made signs, walking with purpose and joy. When we arrive, the number of people is staggering. Teens have climbed on top of the tram stops, looking out at the crowd with defiance and hope.

I moderate a discussion between Bob Brown and his partner, Paul Thomas. I am nervous, inexperienced, wearing a pair of Gorman heels that I can’t walk in. The session goes brilliantly. A group of women call out, ‘Excellent shoes!’

I am standing at RMIT late at night. I’m exhausted. I’m supposed to be writing a script for a new sound walk, my final artwork for my MFA. I consider cutting the project, presenting different work for my exam. I look up, at the pigeon spikes installed on the piping in an alleyway. I think about hostile architecture. Gears start turning in my head, and before I know it, I’m trotting through the campus, frantically scribbling notes. I’m tired, but my brain is humming.

October

Riding home from the city, I bemoan my fitness, wish I was moving faster up Clarendon Street. As I approach Victoria Parade, an Uber rockets through a red light, collides with another u-turning Uber, careens across the intersection and smashes into a brick wall. The car sags, sinks back into the intersection. Two cyclists further ahead of me wear the expressions of people who escaped death by a metre or so. The passengers pile out, the ambulances arrive. The driver of the Uber at fault sits in the driver’s seat, unblinking. Everyone ignores him. I ask his name. It’s Parminder Singh. I ask if he has family in Melbourne. He gasps a little, says no. He has a small cut on his right hand, which he keeps staring at, as though that amount of disaster is the most he can comprehend. The police take statements. When I ride away, he’s still sitting there, in the wreck of the car.

I photograph The Flaming Lips for Melbourne Festival. Between every song, Wayne Coyne calls out to the audience to keep applauding, keep cheering. As the gig progresses, these requests become increasingly desperate. ‘Please,’ he says, ‘we need this.’ I wonder how many giant, confetti-filled gigs you have to play before you forget that you can’t maintain a crescendo forever.

My uncle Tony flies to Melbourne to run a wine tasting at our house. I cook for everyone. Tony holds court, answering questions about wine from artists. Pen takes a sip of Shiraz and erupts into uncontrollable giggles. ‘Sorry!’ she cries, ‘it’s just so good!’

After the gym, I sit on the kerb outside Barkly square and watch a rainbow fade from the sky. A man in
a high vis jacket walks along the opposite sidewalk, carrying two dumbbells and swearing vehemently. He drops the dumbbells in some nearby planter boxes and massages his forearms, moaning theatrically. That night, I have a panic attack while driving home from Footscray, the worst in years. Mike has to get in an Uber and come get me, drive me home through streets turned strange and hostile.

Patricia is over for dinner. She describes having a breath-holding competition with Angus Cerini after her son became a free diver. Determined to beat Angus’ record, the three of us hold a breath-holding competition, all trying to laugh without releasing any air, watching the stop watch, in shining silence. Patricia beats her PB.

November

I have my wisdom teeth out. I spend a week in a codeine fugue, exhausted and in pain, the drugs rendering me placid and forgetful. Mike and I go to ‘The Drill’ at the Women’s Circus. We are taught to request and decline dances in the etiquette of the 1910s. Mike play-acts a pathetic soldier. I decline a dance. ‘Well, it’s off to certain death for me then’, he says. ‘I ship out – right now. If only I could have found someone to be my best girl.’ I laugh so hard I cry, straining at the stitches in my mouth.

Sitting in the living room one night, I look over at Mike. ‘Why are you frowning?’, I ask. He zones back in. ‘I was just staring at the ceiling and thinking of going to war with Germany.’

December

We sign the lease for our new house in Geelong, paint the skirting boards, tear up the carpet. We meet the neighbours: Sam across the road. He’s red-faced, swears like a sailor. Trevor a few houses down. He smells terrible. Lingers outside our house. Comes and knocks on the door when we’re home, offering to help with the house. We decline. We take the dog for a walk, turn back to see Trevor standing in the middle of the road, watching us. We walk to the end of the street, to a chain link fence. Beneath us, the freeway whispers. Everything else is fields. We look out over nowhere and feel the wind slip through our hair.

We move on a 41 degree day. One of the removalists starts flagging, almost certainly has heatstroke. We spend hours unpacking, turn the mess of boxes into a home. We eat pizza in the backyard as the cool change rolls through. We hardly sleep, watching lightning through the blinds, listening to the house settle and the wind sing. When we wake, it is the last day of the year.

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S x

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