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Tampa: Performance/Sculpture/Photography/Web

by Mireille Astore


'Tampa' was a site-specific sculpture, performance. photography and web project about the plight of recent refugees in Australia. It took place between 30 October 2003 and 16 November 2003 as part of the 'Sculpture by the Sea' exhibition in Sydney. The sculpture and performance acted as a dichotomy between the sense of freedom and grandeur the individual experiences at the seashore and the imprisonment refugees faced as a result of their trust in the most basic form of human rights. The sculpture was a 10:1 scaled version of the Tampa ship and signified the beginning of how the seashore turned refugees in Australia into prisoners of inhumanity. The Tampa incident was of particular interest because of the definite schism it created in Australia's perception of itself. The term asylum seekers and refugees entered the vocabulary of everyday and with it, unease about nationhood and a crisis about who the Other really is.

Tampa as sculpture

The prison like structure was built as a scaled version of the MS Tampa. Lloyds Register shows the Tampa ship to be 246.41m x 32.36m breadth x 21.01m depth. Therefore the Tampa cell was 24.6 m long, 3.2m wide and 2.1 m high. The bars were spaced approximately 15cm apart with barely visible wires connecting the bars. The bamboo sculpture created and confined space in order to give the performance a context. The permeability of the prison walls signified both conflict and fragility ˝ a reference to the osmotic relationship between the viewer and the performer through the inversion of the gaze process, more on that later.

Tampa as performance

The performance consisted of myself dressed in black waiting for my release for the duration of the exhibition. My possessions and daily needs were contained in an old leather suitcase. I would arrive each morning at 10 am, enter the prison and stay there without exiting at any time, until 6pm. Throughout the 18 day performance, endurance and claustrophobia were to be presented with the relentless process of daily imprisonment, including sitting through an electric storm, scorching temperatures, sand blasting from gale force winds as well as public apathy and antagonism. Symbolism of suffering as experienced by the refugees on the Tampa ship and the subsequent process of forced and unjust incarceration was the primary objectives. Otherness, caging and display was clearly the underlying theme, and Coco Fusco & Guillermo G█mez-PeĎa's Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit Sydney performance in 1992 [1] provided a thematic comparison. In the latter, Fusco and G█mez-PeĎa's sat in a cell at the Australian Museum posing as exhibits of two newly discovered savages from an island in the Gulf of New Mexico. This performance intersected with G█mez-PeĎa's comments on contemporary 'cultimulturalism'.

Tampa as Photography

An essential part of the Tampa performance was the obsessive documentation of the process of imprisonment. Each day photographs were taken from within the cage and four were posted on the website at the end of the day.

Through the 'Tampa' performance and sculpture, an attempt was made to draw on the relationship between my 'Third World Looking Person' [2] appearance and the imprisonment of recent refugees due in part to their Middle Eastern origin. In his essay on Ethnic Caging Ghassan Hage says:

Most vivid in my consciousness are intimations of caging practices: people behind fences, hands clutching wires, guards. I've seen the films and the photos, and listened to and read reports of governments officials justifying the way they 'handle' the situation. Of course, in the well-established traditional pattern of knowledge dissemination, the 'point of view' of the caged, from the budgie to the prisoner, is seldom or never heard. [3]

This 'point of view' of the caged is one of the critical issues to be examined through the performance. Photographing from within the cage as an exploratory tool into who the subject really is was played out against a backdrop of an audience unused to being confronted by an observing Other acting out a gazing process. Austerity, aversion to discourse and silence were the tools deployed to reinforce the walls of the bamboo shell and to intercept the fantasy of the eroticised caged female icon. Holding a camera in my hand acted as a witness to possible crimes, keeping intruders and aggressive behaviour at bay.

The inverted gaze

Inverting the gaze through the act of photographing from within the cage was an attempt at subverting the gaze of the subject. In his essay 'The Artwork in the Era of its Technical Reproducibility' on the role of photography, Walter Benjamin says:

For the first time in world history, technical reproducibility emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritualÍ Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice ˝ politics. [4]

In Tampa, photography as a technically reproducible device, together with politics laid the ground for redefining the direction and static nature of the gaze. Peter Hutchings in his essay on Benjamin [5] examines David Octavius Hill's Newhaven fishwife photographic portrait where Benjamin identifies the notion of the gaze through the fishwife's photographed averted eyes. He finds it difficult to engage with her eyes and therefore is driven to wonder about her real identity. He says:

In Hill's Newhaven Fishwife,Íthere remains something that goes beyond testimony to the photographer's art, something that cannot be silenced, that fills you with an unruly desire to know what her name was. [6]

Hutchings' analysis of Benjamin's reference to the need to know 'her name' goes further than knowing that she is Elizabeth Johnstone. Her identity as formed and shaped by her ancestry and environment was really the objective. Hutchings says that Benjamin's fascination with the averted eyes and our gaze into the image was the critical substance, which subsequently led Benjamin to define the role of photography and the processes of modernity.

Benjamin's definitive declaration that 'the desire of contemporary masses to bring things 'closer' spatially and humanly' suggests that the exchange which takes place between the gazer and the gazee is an intimate process of identification. 'Bringing things closer' therefore sets out the ground for a process of reaching a closer proximity, physically, mentally as well as metaphorically to that, which cannot be reached through ordinary means.

In Tampa, the performance of photographing from within the cage then placing the images on a website during the course of the performance was an attempt at 'bringing even closer' the viewer to the subject or vice versa. In effect, through this process, the distance between the subject and the viewer's eyes has become so infinitesimal that the identity of the gazee and the gazer is caught in an oscillating and intense continuum. The fusion of two spatial and temporal processes through the act of photographing from within creates a tension, which has at its core a conflict of identity. The relationship initiated and executed as I photograph onlookers then boldly circulate their images through the Internet stands in sharp contrast to the assumed refugee status I employed.

As the performance progressed over time and viewers became aware of the virtual concept of the Tampa performance, an unease about being photographed then of being dispersed on the Internet began to emerge as highlighted by some of the comments and questions received and documented [7] . Hence we see here a mirroring and an escalation of roles, which set out to question the very essence of photography in defining the identity of the viewer and their object. This is clearly one of the intentions of the performance. The intended dissolution of meaning of words such as 'refugee' and 'migrant' was played out in a highly charged terrain with no visible fields or dimensions. As the subject's role disappeared, an attempt was made to create an amorphous phenomenon of identification, which slowly emerged over the time scale of the performance. It was hoped that in its place, the notion of the caging process was impossibly dissolving.

The Australian government multicultural policies, which set out to enhance the image of an ideal Australian society, sit in a bizarre state of tension with the practice of caging ethnics and their children. The merger of identities between gazer and gazee is an attempt at highlighting this tension.

The issue of national border and identity as played out in the current refugee crisis highlights how a person, branded as a migrant and economic asset in the past, can become a threat and a tool of national violation in the present through no fault of their own. Inverting the gaze through photography set out to re arrange not only the subject but also their histories. Many first, second and third generation Australians who arrived here as refugees fleeing wars, famine and persecution did identify with the performance and the mirroring process of inverting the gaze.


Viewers' relationship to the caging process and in particular to the Tampa performance no doubt created tensions and stresses as illustrated in the comments [8] . These manifested themselves primarily through expressions of recognition or shame and through a distancing process.

Inversion of the gaze through photography therefore was a tool of empowerment and an exploration into role reversal. In some instances the notion that an imprisoned person was photographing may have invited people to question assumptions about an imprisoned person's powerlessness. Consequently, photographing from within was an attempt at illustrating that the watched and the caged are in indeed watching.

[1] Green, Charles. Peripheral Vision: Contemporary Australian Art, 1970-1994 Roseville East, N.S.W. : Craftsman House, 1995. p. 121

[2] Hage, Ghassan. White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Society. Pluto Press, Sydney, 1998. p. 138.

[3] Ibid. p. 18


[5] Hutchings, Peter J. 'Through a Fishwife's Eye: Between Benjamin and Deleuze on the Timely Image,' in Terry Smith (ed.), Impossible Presence: Surface and screen in the photogenic era Sydney/Chicago: Power Publications/Chicago University Press, 2001, pp. 101˝123.

[6] Benjamin, Walter. 'A Small History of Photography' in One-Way Street and Other Writings, trans. Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter. London: New Left Books, 1979. p. 243

[8] ibid

Gaze Inversion from the Tampa Performance will be shown at The Multiple Box, 2 Danks street, Waterloo from 1st to 28th May 2004.

The website has been selected by the [Remembering, Repressing, Forgetting] 2004 New Media Arts event to be shown at numerous festivals and exhibitions.

Mireille Astore is a multi disciplinary artist who has a background in the visual and literary Arts, the Sciences, art administration as well as policy development. She is currently undertaking a scholarship funded PhD candidature in Contemporary Arts at the University of Western Sydney.

See Tampa: When Gazes Collide in the Gallery.