by Alison Young (University of Melbourne)
With the news of Ross Gibson’s death on Thursday March 2nd 2023, some of the light has gone out of our ‘starburst world’ (2012).
Ross held many professional positions: Centenary Professor of Creative and Cultural Research at the University of Canberra, Professor of Contemporary Arts at the University of Sydney, Professor of new media and digital culture at the University of Technology, Sydney, Creative Director, Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), Senior Consultant producer at the Museum of Sydney. Beyond such illustrious and deeply deserved positions, we can also say: scholar, teacher, artist, photographer, writer, poet, husband, friend. Ross has been all of these, and has shared his ideas, warmth, words, and images with so many.
My encounters with his work began when I read about his work at the Justice and Police Museum (JPM) in Sydney, where there is ‘a jumble of images ghosting palpable experience associated with… schemes, desires, stupidity, fate, rage and more… Mugshots, fingerprints, accident zones, handwriting samples and crime scenes are filed in boxes containing small manila envelopes’ (2013 243). In the attic holding these jumbled boxes, Ross examined the images, wrote essays, created exhibitions, and collaborated on installations.
Hinting at his abiding connection to Japanese poetry, craft, aesthetics and literature, Ross writes that his search for ‘reverberant insight’ in the crime scene photographs owed much to the lessons of haiku writers, who ‘attend to a moving configuration of perceptions… that can resonate in the reader’s sensibility’ (2013: 246). Of his encounters with the ‘130,000 crime scene images dating from the late 1890s to the early 1970s’ (2013: 243), Ross says:
The JPM photographs carry impact in excess. Admittedly, the viewer is primed… to bring some melodramatic animus to the images, but the documented streets and rooms, the people and their associated objects all do seem to be in shock… As you hold them, they ignite like a struck match… True, this is a metaphorical account of the affect in the pictures. But it is literal too, insofar as the viewer does feel the effects of the flare.(2013: 244-5)
For me, his words provided a way of framing the difficult experiences when we attempt to engage with images such as these. These words helped me as a researcher, and in assisting students in finding ways of articulating their own responses. Ross’s own responses to the crime scene archive were multiple, and rich. As an example, Ross developed, in collaboration with Kate Richards, Greg White, Aaron Seymour and Chris Abrahams, an interactive mode of engagement for visitors who view the archive: ‘Life After Wartime’ shows images to viewers, who choose further selections in response to the ‘mood-modulations’ and ‘micro-narratives’ offered to them. The viewer becomes ‘implicated as an investigator and as a kind of “quarry”, as the system begins to “follow” you obliquely, offering aspects of itself in response to the types of inquiries you have already made of the database… Again and again… you must speculate and test… – a forensic rhythm in the imagination and the intellect’ (2013: 251-2, 253).
The inchoate nature of representation, and the undecidability of representations of crime, animated another of Ross’s works, Seven Versions of an Australian Badland (2002). After my first reading of this book, its scenes haunted me, playing arpeggios with the melodies of the Australian fear of and fascination with the bush and with lawlessness. Re-reading it more recently, those same anxieties still thrummed in the unconscious, Ross’s recounting having tapped into deeply embedded variations on a theme of paranoia.
As my own scholarship shifted its focus to public space and contemporary cities, I discovered other aspects of Ross’s work – on maps and cartographies, on art in public spaces. In his account of Google’s Street View camera, he points out the contradictions embedded in the images generated by the mobile camera as it ‘trundles along’:
[I]t’s as if the mobile camera is concussed and unfocused as it travels, thoughtless and uncaring, on autopilot, nothing invested. As it moves implacably into the landscape, the Google Camera gobbles up a vast territory of future prospects. It stitches no obvious stories into its journeys, but it lays out a plethora of settings in anticipation of future values that could be poured into them.(2014: 257)
In a proposition that reminds me of his engagements with the ambiguities of the un-indexed, un-captioned photographs held in the Crime and Justice Museum’s archive, Ross suggests that when users open Street View, they ‘encounter a setting that compels them to scan for cues about what to feel and what to tell in response to the scene… Coming up empty, lost in blankness, the viewers know narrative hunger’ (2014: 257).
As a result, the Street View camera’s journeys are ‘prospectuses awaiting “investors”’ (2014: 257), Ross notes that this mode of mobility has a long history, with Street View ‘the latest phase in this long march across the planet’s territories’ (2014: 259). But for Ross, crucially, the blankness at the heart of the Google camera is no simplistic void awaiting critical condemnation. As he goes on to write, affordances for the user as ‘operator of the viewing field’ (emphasis in original) (2014: 263) offer possibilities that might prompt us to care for Country, ‘instead of just continuing to grab land in the old colonial way’ (2014: 264).
In a piece about art, epistemology and phenomenology, ‘The Known World’ (2010), Ross has written of the affordances of art, and artistic practice, scholarship and research: ‘Research and art can join effectively to make knowledge whenever their conjunction causes a shift away from ignorance or befuddlement. The shift can often take you to a new set of befuddlements, of course. Even so, it is the shift in commonsense and the fresh ability to account for that shift that ensures the occurrence is research’ (emphasis in original) (2010: 5).
That shift might be uncomfortable, or troubling (as when I read and re-read Seven Versions). But, as Ross has put it, it is possible to ‘set immersion and critical distance oscillating in a cognitive quickstep that takes us continuously and instantaneously inside and outside the dynamic experiences that we are always seeking to understand’. The aim is to achieve ‘an habitual union between intuition and disquisition’ (2020: 11). In reading his words, as is hopefully apparent in these brief examples, one aspect of that oscillation exists, as the reader shifts between utter delight at the fluent and literary élan of his writing and the grappling with his ideas and their implications. It’s a point worth emphasising: Ross’s writing has always been beautiful.
Ross’s writing often evokes the adjective ‘poetic’. In one recent interview, in conjunction with an exhibition of his film works at ACMI , he has spoken of how he draws from Mallarmé in his understanding of what ‘poetry’ might be capable of: ‘(i) is there some material here that is mysterious and makes me re-think my commonsense understanding, and (ii) do I have a hunch that such material could be combined with other material in such a way that I could start to make or gesture toward some new ‘other-world’ that hovers around the ordinary world?’ (Bentley 2021).
His relationship with Sydney has been long-lasting and profound, experienced through walks along its shorelines, and explorations of its cliffs and crannies. As with all his work, these scholarly engagements with place, technology and history read like poetry. He writes about his night-time walks in his ‘home base’ of Alexandria in Sydney in the Sydney Review of Books (and visually documents them through evocatively elliptical images posted on Instagram with the caption ‘alexandria 22.48’ or ‘alexandria palette’):
The corruption, the inefficiency, the carelessness and the grabbiness [of Sydney] all drive you to the point of leaving. And then, at least weekly, the town gives one of those Sydney days when the ocean’s in the breezes and the light emits its ubiquitous golden sparkle; or you get one of those Sydney nights when wattle-nectar wafts and the bats and plovers and storm-birds squawk up their spooky sorcery. At such aesthetic moments you find yourself anaesthetised and saying again weakly, ‘OK, you are beautiful and I can’t walk away!’.(2018)
In 2022, Ross began writing a series of haiku about Sydney. These are now a collection, Flooded Canyon (2022), but were originally published on Instagram in 2021, offering invitations to others to collaborate, in any way, as a response to his words. Over a series of days, haiku, such as the two below, appeared on the platform, with a range of artists, musicians and writers subsequently contributing their collaborative responses:
life-buoys bump and sway pilot lights chatter rain squalls pewter the water heat-leaching, ebb-strong tidal waters flotsam clog bubbling drift-simmer
I was fortunate enough to meet Ross in 2017 after hearing him discuss at a conference a public artwork he had created for Transport for NSW, ‘an effervescent “public poetry” display’:
Not only a text work, Bluster Town also functions abstractly, as a glistening pattern-piece… The guiding idea of the display comes from how Sydney and its transport systems offer delights to the eye. The display evokes the glittering of Harbour-water appreciated from ferries, the shimmer of leaves blowing along streets and rail tracks in autumn bluster, and the flickering cabin-lights in passing trains, light rail and buses.(Artist’s Statement, Transport for NSW: 2023)
We spoke at length about the images he had shown, and about encounters with art in the unexpected corners of a city, such as a wall at a train station such as where Bluster Town was located. He was patient, interested, generous with his time. I didn’t then know that he would become a friend. Instagram connected us, as it no doubt has for many who have discovered Ross’s photographs on that platform. I was in Japan, in Tokyo, about to travel to Kyoto. The algorithms of Instagram began suggesting I should look at posts by someone using the handle @rossgibson_starburst. Ross was at that moment in Kyoto, sharing photographs of temples and streets. I started to follow his posts.
A year or so later, I was in Kyoto myself, and saw that Ross was there again too. We met up, shared food and stories, he introduced me to friends and to his partner, Kathryn. I learned a great deal about Kyoto, and Japan generally, from him, and I learned about how to be in a place like Kyoto: ways of experiencing it, journeys to make, things to look out for, experiences that could be possible.
Ross and Kathryn wrote an essay about Kyoto and its craftspeople (or ‘hand-makers’). On the one hand, the city is dedicated to craft in its attentiveness to materials and objects: ‘daily life here provides constant reminders that refined hand-making is still central to this place’ (2018: 4); at the same time, ‘on each return to Kyoto, everywhere you look one more small-scale workshop has dematerialised’ (2018: 8). In Kyoto, a ‘walking city’ (2018: 11) where ‘beauty is all around’ (2018: 4), the conversation between people and things, such as paper, or buttons, or needles, takes place in ‘a rare dialect where aesthetics and utility are melded’ (2018: 11). Reading this essay transports me back to Kyoto, but also evokes Ross, and Kathryn, conversations, and food, and music. The words are a means of connection, a conduit for memory.
In December 2022, Ross said that he felt he had one more book in him. That book was not to be written, and I mourn its absence from the world along with the other works that Ross might have created for us to connect to. In their place, Ross’s existing works are being collected to form an archive held at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, offering an opportunity to collaborate with his ideas, images, words, and ethos.
The past tense feels brutal, with its definitive temporal closure. Ross’s scholarship, cinema, poetry and art generate an enduring present and long future in which our memories can find him. Writer. Artist. Husband. Critic. Scholar. Director. Teacher. Dog lover. Photographer. Poet. Friend. Much missed. With thanks.
Bentley, Serena (2021) ‘head_phone_film_poems: interview with Ross Gibson’ 5 July, online at https://www.acmi.net.au/stories-and-ideas/head_phone_film_poems-interview-with-ross-gibson/.
Bird, Kathryn and Gibson, Ross (2018) ‘Of Time and the City’ Garland, 2 December, online at https://garlandmag.com/article/of-time-and-the-city/.
Gibson, Ross (2002) Seven Versions of an Australian Badland. Brisbane: University of Queensland Press.
Gibson, Ross (2010) ‘The Known World’ TEXT, October, 1-11.
Gibson, Ross (2012) 26 Views of the Starburst World: William Dawes at Sydney Cove 1788 – 1791. Perth: UWA Press.
Gibson, Ross (2013) ‘On the Senses and Semantic Excess in Photographic Evidence’ Journal of Material Culture, 18(3): 243-57.
Gibson, Ross (2014) ‘Narrative Hunger: GIS Mapping, Google Street View and the Colonial Prospectus’ Cultural Studies Review, 20(2): 250-65.
Gibson, Ross (2018) ‘Flow Charts: Alexandria’ Sydney Review of Books, 5 June, online at https://sydneyreviewofbooks.com/essay/flow-charts-alexandria/ .
Gibson, Ross (2023) Flooded Canyon. Perth: Upswell.
Transport for NSW (2023) ‘Artist’s Statement’, online at https://www.transport.nsw.gov.au/programs/transport-arts/wynscreen/ross-gibson .