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The Phone Booth Project
A collaboration between Lily Hibberd and Curtis Taylor
'We don't need a map', Fremantle Arts Centre
16 November 2012 - 20 January 2013
We don't need a map is an exhibition of extraordinary
artworks and events that brings the Western Desert to the city to celebrate the lively, robust and enduring culture of the Martu.
The Phone Booth Project features a Pilbara pay phone, large-scale projections and multi-lingual dialogues. Revealing the independence and adaptation of modern telecommunications by Martu people across the vast Western Desert, working collaboratively with Martu filmmaker Curtis Taylor, we have made a video installation that explores the use of phone booths in these remote desert communities.
Lily and Curtis call from Parngurr phone booth 70 to 71
My name is Curtis Taylor, and Lily Hibberd and I are collaborating on The Phone Booth Project. Our aim is to tell a new and old story about how Martu have always been communicating, now and into the future. How they keep in touch with communities, families and friends, and contact distant institutions like hospitals, banks and prisons, Centrelink and the police. Right now, Lily and I are in Parngurr where there are two phone booths. Wait a minute. I'm about to call her. She's waiting in the other booth. I'll just dial the number…
The phone booth rings in the background. Lily picks it up.
Curtis, what's happening?
Ah, nothing much.
Hey, what does 71 mean?
It's the last two digits of that phone number. In desert communities people call the box by those two numbers. In Punmu 20 and 21 are right next to each other. Here in Parngurr the booth on east side of the community ends in 71, so they call that street '71'…. When a call comes in people call out 70 or 71.
How long have the phone booths been here?
Since the early 1980s, around the return to the homelands and the rebuilding of communities. In Parngurr, the first thing to come was the windmill, then bough shelters. The school was started in 1983, along with the clinic, and the phones were put in about then. The first permanent houses weren't built until 1992, well after the phone booths. Mr Williams, who lives just across the road said, before the phones were installed, that people held radio meetings every morning on the Martu band.
That was the UHF radio… Right Curtis? I thought that was amazing.
Yeah, we've heard stories that even I didn't know. How the desert mobs used radio to organise the big drover strikes across the Pilbara and Kimberly stations, back in the 1940s. And for meetings between communities and outstations like Nukambar, in and out of Port Headland, and between all the other tribes across the Kimberly, Pilbara and the Goldfields.
Yes Curtis, as soon as we heard the older people talk about the radio we became fascinated about how telecommunications were first used in these remote areas.
And we realised that this story is about the frontier and what followed, didn't we Lily?
Yes, so we went into the Battye Library archives where found that between 1885 and 1912 two telegraph lines extended into the north of West Australia. In the same period, the first wireless telegraph stations were established in Roebourne, Broome, Geraldton and Perth. And the MF/AM radio stations that were initially set up in Port Headland and Newman eventually spread across the region.
Except, Lily, the colonial frontier didn't really reach the remote areas of the desert until much later, in the 1960s. But, from the first moment they walked into the missions, Martu tailored western tools and ideas to their needs. Later, on the missions, they started listening to records and cassettes of recordings that researchers and anthropologists had made with Martu doing corroborees and other ceremonies. They would go out into the bush to listen and sing along with the recorded versions of those ceremonies, and that's the way that culture started talking back to the people, through those archives of knowledge. It's very important that we keep doing this into the future…
Why's that Curtis?
Because technology is moving so fast in the outside world – what we regard as the world outside of the Western Desert. The Phone Booth Project is about archiving this history, to let Martu tell their own stories, through their ninti, their knowledge and teaching.
This is something we both feel very strongly, isn't it Curtis?
Yes, it's crucial for any community or individual that they tell their own story in the way they want to tell it.
Sound of heavy machinery.
Are you there Lily?
Martu still travel all the time. They've got to carry news and keep families together.
So, the bridging of huge distances is essential… Um, how far is it from Newman to one of the communities?
From Newman, the closest is Jigalong That's 175 kilometres. And it's 365 kilometres from Newman to Parngurr. Punmu is at least ten hours drive from there… Mobile phone reception ends around the Jigalong turnoff about 70 kilometres from Newman.
Curtis, were the phone booths used much when you were young?
Yeah. The technician always had to repair the booths because of a coin jam or because it was broken up or the wires cut. Now, lots of people have mobile phones for calling in town, even though, except for populated towns of Marble Bar, Nullagine and Newman, the CDMA network has not reached the Western Desert. In Punmu, now, you can get two bars of reception from the Tefler gold mine about 140 kilometres west. But people Bluetooth between phones to share songs, videos and pictures.
What else do you remember about the phone booths?
We'd hang around them all day, playing cards. When we were 7, 8 or 9, we would answer the phone and go running to find the person they were calling for.
It reminds me of a spy film… the baddie waiting for the phone to ring, for the drop off. The untraceable call. But, when I was young, in Melbourne, it was only if you were lost or broke or stuck somewhere that you'd use a phone booth.
But it's still used the same way in the communities… Like Rachel told us, when they hear the phone ringing they go and answer it. They get a name and 'sing out' for that person.
What about rituals? Could you use a mobile phone like Waru? Could you send the spirits a text message? I mean could you use technology to practice Lore?
That would be a shortcut. Martu must practise Lore properly and all the other things that come with knowledge. You have to understand and experience it yourself, so when you approach a waterhole or a soak you know what to do, to greet your ancestral spirit. Taking shortcuts means the Martu won't know what to do.
I was amazed when Waka told us that they used Waru to drive out Canning Resources, to stop them from mining uranium from Parngurr yabu (hill).
Yeah, Waru is strong. It will never die. Waru is how we're coming back to our country.
Curtis it's a bit silly, but I was wondering if there's a phone booth dreaming.
No, not for the phone…
Phone booths are pretty sci-fi don't you think? Like time travel machines.
Ah, the Tardis?
Yeah… and it changed Clark Kent from geek to Superman.
Yeah, we all change with technology.
Actually, for Martu it's the other way around: technology is a medium that they've adapted to their way of life. It's the same as Waru. UHF and two-way radio came first, then the phone line, now mobile phones, and next it will be social media.
I guess the booth is an endangered species, hey Curtis?
At least we've saved that one from camp 61.