Are we capable of imagining a world without inequality? Jess Flint on Daz Chandler’s The Parallel Effect, for Next Wave’s Assemble
I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of parallel universes; the idea that there could be other versions of me out there living wildly different lives. I avidly watched the 2008 series Fringe, an X-Files-style TV show about, among other things, the chaos that ensues when a scientist steals his son from an alternate universe after his son in his own universe dies. It made me realise that alternate universes have their own problems, power structures and oppression. They aren’t magical places where everything is better. Different, yes, but not better.
Because of this, I was immediately curious about Daz Chandler’s work for Next Wave, The Parallel Effect. It was intended to be an interactive museum displaying souvenirs from alternate timelines, in which different decisions have changed how the world looks today. Among the major changes is that action was taken against climate change in the 1970s and ’80s. COVID-19 restrictions mean that the show has been put on hold for the time being, though I am very keen to explore it and paw through all the found documents and other exhibits once restrictions are lifted.
In their place, I listened to a broadcast spoken word piece read by Chandler called The Power of Parallels, and watched a video titled Lament (with music performed by composer Edwin Montgomery). I found both deeply moving.
In The Power of Parallels, the first thing that really jumped out at me was this:
It’s crucial to acknowledge that many of us already traverse multiple worlds at once and have become particularly seasoned at this type of plurality:
First Nations people in colonised lands and spaces are regularly expected to weave in and out of multiple realities and truths;
Migrants from entirely different cultural contexts experience the socially acceptable parameters of both worlds – at times, simultaneously;
Queer and non cis-gendered conforming people having to navigate the prevailing heteronormative landscapes;
Women of a particular age without children operating within narratives still anchored in patriarchal norms;
Progressive and proud Jews actively working against Zionist apartheid;
People of Colour in a world dominated by white imperialism and institutionalised racism;
People with disabilities in an ablest and exclusionary world; and, and and…The list continues…
As someone with an invisible disability (Autism and ADHD), this resonated deeply with me; I’m frequently play-acting “neurotypical” simply to make my day go more smoothly. I have to remind myself to smile at my co-workers, to make small talk and so on, when my normal instinct is just to focus on the task at hand. It’s exhausting.
The presence of discriminatory structures and power hierarchies in alternate realities was a topic Chandler encouraged us to think about in The Power of Parallels. It was certainly something already on my mind with the Black Lives Matter protests in the US, and the ongoing discussions about Indigenous deaths in custody here in Australia. Chandler says that it’s practically impossible to write an alternate universe where someone isn’t being oppressed and exploited.
[And interestingly, because] as humans, we’re tragically so used to operating within deeply entrenched hierarchies – whereby certain genders, races, religions, cultures & societies, have the systemic power – most of these imagined realities come with their very own discriminatory structures in place.
I immediately thought about the Martha Wells novellas (and newly released novel) The Murderbot Diaries, which I recently finished reading. In this universe, those on the bottom of that universe’s power structure – constructs (cyborgs) made of cloned human tissue and robotic parts, built to do dangerous or dirty jobs – aren’t even considered human. They are controlled by a “Governor Module” that monitors their behaviour at all times (and their proximity to the humans enslaving them) which can deliver a powerful electric shock that incapacitates or kills them if they don’t follow orders. This fiction may be set in the far future, but if we had that technology this would without doubt be happening already. Right here and now in this universe, we are not all equal, no matter what feelgood ads say about us all being “in this together” during the pandemic.
“[But] it is 2020…And, as we know, not only are we still anxiously awaiting those environmentally-friendly jetpacks, and Back To The Future inspired hover-boards; we’re still light-years away, from glancing a mere glimpse, of equal… When it comes to women, when it comes to First Nations people, when it comes to People of Colour, when it comes to people born into countries that don’t currently have the systemic power and influence, when it comes to people born into countries where English isn’t the prevailing tongue, when it comes to people who identify as LGBTQI, when it comes to people who aren’t cis-gendered, when it comes to people who are perceived as too old, or too young… and, and, and…The list continues.
All of the systems that are at play, that favour certain people over others, that not only influence but govern everyone’s day-to-day experiences of this dominant reality, have been built and designed by humans already in positions of power. The embedding of inequalities in social structures based on institutionalised – and therefore constantly propagated and reinforced conceptions of differences – are a major trapping for us all.
So the question I’m hoping to explore and to unpack with you today… Is how do we actively as individuals work to free ourselves of this reductive lens? How can we remove ourselves from this adhesive paradigm? And, is it even possible?
And no, sadly it’s not as simple as saying well, “to me, everyone’s equal” because, in the dominant reality that we live-in at least, because of the constantly reinforced structural barriers that exist, we’re not.
The pandemic has revealed the massive inequalities that those on the bottom of the power structure were already fully aware of. Not everyone was able to shelter in place at home, or to work from home via Zoom. Those considered essential workers had to put themselves at risk and continue working in public spaces. I am an essential worker myself (in a supermarket), and during the peak of the panic buying I found myself getting really angry at entitled people complaining on social media about how bored they were being stuck at home, or about enforced product limits. Ironically, many of those same people complaining about the latter were abusing staff when they couldn’t get toilet paper or pasta.
I was still lucky; I was working overnight and relatively isolated, unlike the day staff who had to interact directly with customers. We were provided with hand sanitizer, masks, free food in the break room and sick pay; but there were many other essential workers who weren’t given any of these things.
Listening to this part of Chandler’s work, I thought of the podcast The Uncertain Hour, which interviewed essential workers in the US, most of whom are poor and black. Interviewees so far have included a man who works for a chicken slaughtering plant and a woman who lost her job at Denny’s but hasn’t been paid unemployment for eight weeks (despite qualifying for it) and might have to start driving for rideshares again, putting herself at risk of exposure to COVID-19. It’s heartbreaking to listen to, especially when you juxtapose it with images of angry people protesting that they want haircuts and Starbucks.
Chandler urges us to use the time in isolation to imagine how we can do better in this reality, in the here and now. The conclusion really resonated with me:
I invite each person present who cares about equality – who, like me, recognises their privilege but who also still has the energy and the resources to do so – to really work at imagining something better; to assess how that something looks, how it functions…and then through that, take that knowledge and use it to address your own personal biases – which collectively, are what are responsible for keeping these horrendously reductive, brutal and frankly, ridiculous, structures and systems in place.
I know it sounds unbelievably simplistic but our basic framework must be anchored in the principles of human rights. Universality. Equality. Non-discrimination. Inclusion and participation. But also, accountability. It’s about demanding justice for all. For the sake of us all, we must do better here. In this universe. On this plane. And in the interim, I fully endorse taking regular trips to other worlds – particularly during these times of enforced isolation and lockdown – they really do offer fertile terrain not only for exploration and expansiveness but these jaunts can also provide a great solace. They can help combat the heartbreak, the lethargy that can come from being a part of what is this dominant perceived reality. It can give us the sustenance to continue to aim for something great so that we can continue to work to transform this reality into something others can seek to imagine.
The video Lament, featuring violin music composed and performed by Edwin Montgomery, followed the broadcast. The music is slow and sad: a single violin playing in minor key, playing over found footage of events including the Exxon Valdez oil spill, multiple wars throughout history, coal mining, the Bikini Atoll nuclear test, the 2019-2020 Australian bushfires, animals starving, landscapes changing due to climate change, refugee caravans seeking escape from persecution and powerful people in army uniforms.
I like art that makes me have a strong emotional reaction, and this video certainly did that. It made me think about Swindled podcast’s episodes about the Flint water crisis, the Bhopal gas disaster, and the Crandall Canyon mine collapse: all caused by people valuing profits over the safety of the people. It reanimated my rage about Scott Morrison dismissing climate change school strikers because of their age, telling them to strike on the weekend and not to “ruin” their education, and then holidaying in Hawaii while Australia burned.
It made me remember the smoke blanketing Melbourne during those fires and having to wear a rubber mask to breathe. Feeling helpless and anxious about people and animals losing everything. Articles about volunteer firefighters fighting a nearly impossible battle while relying on crowdfunding for PPE and gear. Medical personnel in the USA having to reuse PPE, unable to get more as new shipments are confiscated and sold to the highest bidding state. My girlfriend and I 3D printing face shields to donate to our own hospitals. The Ruby Princess being allowed to dock and passengers allowed to leave with no quarantine. The worldwide death count from Coronavirus. It made me sad, angry, scared and frustrated for the future being held hostage by wealthy white men answering to corporations. It made me want to try and change that future. It was an extremely effective way to end the broadcast.
I would love to go and see the interactive exhibit part of this, if it’s possible to once the lockdown restrictions are lifted. I’m sure it would be just as powerful as the parts I did get to see. This is work that pushes you to think and compels you into action.
The Parallel Effect, produced by lead artist Daz Chandler. Composition, sound design and performance by Edwin Montgomery, archival research and writing by Eloise Chandler, design by Ahmed Salama, writing by Warren Armstrong, video by Nick Hogan, audio description consultation and delivery by Nilgün Güven-Bouras. A Next Wave x and Punctum co-commission. Next Wave Assemble, May 30