Long before G20 leaders threatened to ‘shirt-front’ each other, Henry VIII of England and King Francis I of France both entered the joust at The Field of the Cloth of Gold in Calais in 1520—the greatest and most splendid political summit of the 16th century. It was agreed that the two monarchs, both young and fit and beautiful—both mad with jealousy and a desire to show off—would not compete directly. They were at the summit to seal a friendship and a peace after 70 years of war between their states—a jousting loss by either to the other would be catastrophic. The kings were on show; the comportment of the king was his own publicity. To a degree they were necessarily exposed to danger; strength needed to be projected. The Earl of Devonshire was foolish-brave enough to break Francis’s nose with a lance, but Francis suffered it: the fortitude of the monarch and of the state were one. Mostly though the kings competed in the realms of splendour. Henry’s armour skirt and horse trapper were decorated with 2000 ounces of gold. Over 2800 tents were erected, temporary palaces were built, and more than 12,000 guests were invited. The hot-headed Henry almost spoiled his kingly visage with one Tony Abbott moment. At a dinner he spontaneously challenged the younger Francis to a wrestling match, but the English King was quickly humbled. Fortunately, not all was lost—after 24 golden days of feasting and procession, the kings returned home with a shaky peace that would hold for a few years. There were, of course, no public protests. There was no public to speak of. Brisbane: City of Protest Forty or so public protests are planned for Brisbane’s G20 Summit. Unlike London in 2009 and Toronto in 2010, where the GFC sharpened G20 street protests and the police response into violence, in Brisbane the most resonant issues are Aboriginal dispossession and refugee policy. First-nation activists will march for recognition, while art activists will release a flotilla of ‘asylum-seeking’ paper boats. Dispossession and the right of entry are thorned questions in Australian life and have been a focus for the left, but for Brisbane they also have resonances for city’s founding as, and occasional reconstitution as, a fortified settlement. The G20’s exclusion zones, barricades, closed roads, and shuttered railway stations echo Brisbane’s mostlydenied or forgotten past as a threatened and threatening garrison outpost of the British colonial project. When first founded in late 1824early 1825, the small convict settlement barely survived its environment or the hostility of black-white contact. There was little fresh water at the initial Redcliffe camp, and after violent clashes with the local Ningy Ningy people the settlers quickly relocated to sixteen miles up the Brisbane River. But life didn’t get any easier. The Murri towered over the smaller Europeans. The camp had to be cut by hand from sub-tropical rainforest. Convicts could escape more easily than was good for them. The settlement was remote by design, and there was no where to escape to. Initially, it was a closed and inward-looking outpost—free settlers were not allowed in or nearby—and it left only a modest record of its 18 years as one of the colony’s harshest convict camps. Even after 1842, when free settlers were invited into Brisbane, the administrators remained pre-occupied with the security of the growing town. The transplanted Europeans and the local Murri fought over land at its edges. What had been taken by ‘right of might’ was now considered lawful white property—but paradoxically could only be maintained by a culture of illegal violence. In 1846 alone, there were skirmishes at Kangaroo Point, Breakfast Creek, and the German Mission (Nundah). The Murri raided gardens for food, but were considered thieves by the white settlers and punished roughly. In 1855 the anxious little township introduced a night-time curfew for the Murri that was to operatelast for decades. The local native people were further warned off by police riding parties and by temporary fences erected each evening (still marked today by the ‘Boundary Streets’ in Spring Hill and West End). Long before the G20, and forgotten today, Brisbane’s private and public space was zoned and surveilled. One hundred years on, the city was divided again into American and Australian zones as part of its role as a staging camp for the Allied campaign in the Pacific. More than 2 million US troops passed through the city—transforming its Anglo culture into something more American than either Sydney or Melbourne—and Brisbane for a time moved from being at the edge of empire to the centre of the efforts to re-assert Western hegemony. Of course, the threat to the nation was real and many civil liberties were surrendered for the duration of the Pacific campaign. Parliamentary government was effectively suspended in order that military imperatives could be asserted. This week, while there is no imminent threat, the 2013 G20 Safety and Security Act and the enormous police powers it grants echoes, and perhaps draw legitimacy from, measures taken in more dangerous times. At your inconvenience Occupation, dispossession, control of space, and the establishment of a security ‘skin’ are recurring gestures of both control and to a lesser extent of resistance. During the lead up to this G20 local Brisbane media outlets have focused on the banal inconveniences of the policing of space: the hassle of designated zones, quarantined car parks, compromised bus timetables, taped-up rubbish bins and so on. Some locals are planning alternative routes to work; others are just leaving town. But beyond necessary inconvenience, the ability of the state to discommode its citizens with administrative arrangements can also be understood as a symbolic but often effective projection of state power. While Ian Tomlinson was killed in the street in London in 2009 for no good reason, it is the inevitable humbling of most of us by largely administrative measures that remind us of our modest place and keep us in it. Occasionally though the state can lose these symbolic battles. In the 1970s, when police and protestors in Queensland fought regularly over the right to march in the streets there was no real question of convenience, of function, or of utility at stake. It was a largely symbolic fight over relative rights: the state impertinent versus its people impenitent. The state government ‘won’ these battles again and again with many hundreds arrested. But these victories proved Pyrrhic: the arrested protestors felt ennobled—at least going by the way they still talk about it—and a narrative of righteous civil disobedience was spawned. Forty years later, the Chaser team, at APEC in Sydney in 2007, reminded us—using only a stretch limo and imposter security men—of the ease with which such security arrangements can be breached. The state was seen without its britches; worse, it was shown to be nearly impotent in its response. The insecurity of skin Security arrangements surely do protect the personhood of vulnerable state leaders. And surely there is some risk to the international order in the untimely assassination of any significant contemporary politician*. But if we reverse the panopticon and we are clear minded about the pantomimic aspects of state power we can begin to see the security apparatus and its performance for what it often is. The gaze of the state can make us feel self-conscious of the modesty of our own power; but to peer back is to see the state’s nervous obsession with its own grandeur and its own security. But I imagine that for the power-holders themselves the security arrangements look entirely prudent and feel entirely necessary. The state has to some extent invented its own threats and needs its own ways to cope. The hostilities of the power-class (like the hostilities of many of us) are often projected outwards onto the community. The community, or particular parts of it, often then begin to look or feel threatening. The recent security panic about ordinary Muslim Australians can be read this way. Under such a logic, the security skin placed over the city quells the power-class’s fears of being obliterated by the larger populace or by hostile groups within it. Esther Bick, the psychoanalyst who pioneered baby observation, noted the role of skin in allowing the vulnerable baby to feel safe in the world. The baby’s skin, while always penetrable and necessarily semi-porous, allows the infant to feel contained. The baby begins to comprehend what does and doesn’t belong to the ‘self’. And through skin-on-skin contact with the mother the baby begins to gain a sense of self and other. The skin fosters differentiation, and it helps protect the baby from its own powerful fantasies of being merged with the mother—fantasies both tantalizing and terrifying. The G20 security arrangements, both grand and trivial—the helicopters overhead, the barricades, the demarcation of those in uniform and those with lanyards from those without either—like Brisbane with its pathetic fences in the 1850s—like Henry VIII aloft in his sedan chair at Calais with all beneath him—may seem like an utter necessity to those hold power. They function as a real and psychic security skin. A skin is forced over the city; the state insists on its separateness from us. It is, like our own skin, penetrable by fiat or by force, but it is present enough to allow a sense of self-identity and some sense of safety for the state officials within it. It helps the powerful calm their own anxieties, while pricking ours into existence. It allows the powerful to feel just that. In some sense, for Brisbane, it is the same as it ever was. *While the assassination of heads of state is not to be recommended, it is probably fair to say that such deaths pose much less risk to the stability of contemporary constitutional states—with their settled bureaucracies and parliamentary systems—than, say, regicide did to the absolute monarchies of the 16th century. And what Henry VIII and Francis I were risking to themselves through their participation in violent tournament sports, or through their public displays of strength—albeit as part of their own personal and state publicity—was dwarfed by what they were risking for their rough-hewn nation-states. This is perhaps best shown by the 40 years of instability in France that followed the unfortunate death of Henry II in a jousting meet in 1559. That said, I am sure we would all like to see the Abbott-Putin shirt-fronting play out in all its comedy.
Stuart Glover was the founding publisher of Bumf. He teaches writing at the University of Queensland.
Illustration by Matt Mawson.