Time As Punishment: ‘Wait Until Called’ – UA15 artist Amy Spiers

July 30, 2015

“You will spend a very, very long time here”

Wait Until Called is a participatory installation involving a room of seated, patiently waiting refugees. This year I have been invited by Underbelly Arts to restage the work in Building 140 on Cockatoo Island. I have presented this work on two previous occasions in Melbourne: at Blindside Gallery and then Incinerator Gallery in 2014. Wait Until Called is an attempt to overidentify with the myth that there is a “proper” place and process for refugees to seek asylum.

Time as Deterrent

There is a common perception amongst parts of the Australian public that asylum seekers who arrive by boat are “queue jumpers”, who are trying to “rort the system” and forgo the “correct” procedure for entry into Australia. A report published in 2011 found that Australians are largely accepting of asylum seekers and refugees as long as they have sought asylum through the “proper channels”. This report also found that Australians were uncomfortable with the idea of not being able to control who enters the country via boat, as it violates “people’s sense of sovereignty”. Australians, it seems, to quote former Prime Minister John Howard’s infamous phrase from 2001, want todecide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.”

The view that boat arrivals are improper – “unauthorised”, “illegitimate”, “illegal” – imagines a just and orderly process for seeking asylum and a proper place overseas for refugees to wait for resettlement. And yet it is a pernicious myth that arriving by boat to seek protection in Australia is illegal. It is a fantasy that there is some orderly process by which legitimate refugees who patiently wait will be eventually granted asylum. In fact it has been calculated that even if this mythical global queue did exist, “based on the number of refugees there are in the world, people joining the end might wait 170 years to get to the front.” These gross misconceptions have informed, and been perpetuated by, much of Australian government policy for over a decade.


Time as punishment

wait_until_called-2edit2Consider the Labor government’s introduction of the “No Advantage” principle in 2012. The intended effect of this policy was to ensure that “Asylum seekers gain no benefit by choosing not to seek protection through established mechanisms.” The idea was that asylum seekers who travelled to Australia by boat would have to wait just as long in offshore detention in Manus Island or Nauru as anyone who had not taken a boat and waited elsewhere for the UNHCR to process them. However, due to the complexity and arbitrariness of the UNHCR “mechanisms”, there was no way of calculating what a “correct” waiting time was. In truth, the policy was designed to punish desperate people who had dared to cross the ocean in search of safety and security. Their punishing wait was purportedly intended to deter desperate others from considering the journey.

Time employed as punishment and deterrent continues under the current Liberal government. Last year an extraordinary video circulated in the media showing the then Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, Scott Morrison, urging asylum seekers in offshore detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island to return home. He said:

“… you will not be settled in Australia. You will never live in Australia. … If you choose not to go home then you will spend a very, very long time here and so I urge you to think carefully about that decision and make a decision to get on with the rest of your life. … You should tell anyone else you know who seeks to follow you that they should not do it or they will find themselves in a similar circumstance or much, much worse.”

These are strategies that are calculated to crush dreams and crush futures.


Time as weapon

The British philosopher and activist Nina Power has described the way in which the carceral state employs time “as a weapon”. Her work focuses on what she calls the “weaponisation of time” as this pertains to “the crushing of futures” of those who await trial, sit in courts or go to prison, but such an analysis could also be extended to the concerns of Wait Until Called .

The stretching out of time is a central feature of what punishment is”, she writes. It concerns questions of “whose finitude counts and whose doesn’t – a brutal marker not only of the division between life and death but between the more important distinction between those whose life/death ‘counts’ and those about whom nothing is counted at all.

This is time employed in order to demoralise, to squash dissent and the will, with serious implications for the mental health of those affected.

Last year, to stage this work in Melbourne, I worked with an asylum seeker named Nahar. Nahar had spent one and half years on a bridging visa and was still awaiting the outcome of his immigration case. He had little indication when a decision would be made. He told me that while on his bridging visa he could not work or study. Nahar described a persistent headache that doctors had explained was psychosomatic – a result of his prolonged, uncertain immigration status. Nahar, in an effort to do something with himself, spent his days in the Victorian State Library reading books about the Black Power movement.

Wait Until Called aims to make the lengthy, cruel process and sanity-sapping limbo associated with seeking asylum manifest on Cockatoo Island. At Underbelly Arts Festival, you will be able to encounter and possibly talk to refugees who have similar experiences to Nahar’s. The aim of the work is to produce an image of “patiently waiting asylum seekers”, in order to make this myth of the “proper waiting process” an object of thought and critique.

Amy Spiers


Images by Gabriel Clark