Review: No Document by Anwen Crawford

This unique work of non-fiction starts with a scene from Georges Franju’s documentary film, Le Sang des bêtes, with a white horse being led to slaughter, an image that will appear throughout. Anwen Crawford then introduces the death of her friend, someone she met while at art school in Sydney. “I was young for a long time,” she writes, “Nobody died”. In the first couple of pages she writes of refugees, war, protest, art, the German expressionist artist Franz Marc, perhaps most famous for his impossibly coloured animals. It is from these at first perhaps seemingly disparate impressions that Crawford weaves her investigation into breaking down old worlds and making new ones. She finds a note from her friend after they are gone: seriously what about our plan to take over the world.

No Document is anti-capitalist and anti-fascist and for freedom, but what that looks like we must feel towards with Crawford. She describes her and her friend’s art and activism in the early-2000s around the Tampa incident and the Australian government’s first forays into detaining refugees indefinitely in camps out of sight and out of mind, such as Woomera in the South Australian desert, and later Pacific islands. She explores links between this treatment of people with the treatment of animals. A British guard of a detention centre is quoted from a documentary: It’s a lot like a slaughterhouse. You need to calm the animals. Rectangles appear throughout, in words and in pictures, at times fences, borders, pickets, windows, frames; forces of containment, but also of possibility.

Crawford’s book has the same kind of free-associative structure of Sarah Sentilles’ Draw Your Weapons, but takes the concept further and in tougher directions. The juxtapositions between different ideas – often interrupted and unfinished – are stimulating, in the full sense in that they stimulate neurons to forge new associations. I came away with a deeper sense of connections between disparate times and places. For example, the first Border Police Act, introduced in New South Wales in 1840, was designed to police the borders of the colony, over 150 years before the Border Force was resurrected to hunt down refugees. The 1861 Chinese Immigration Act prevented Chinese people naturalising in the colonies, specifying that there could only be “one [Chinese person] to every ten tons of the tonnage” of the ships, a line brutally and quietly dehumanising. I learned that the word cattle is derived from words for property and capital. Exploitation is there in the foundations of Australian and western civilisation.

There are no easy solutions of course. Crawford “finds [herself] afflicted by the sadness of thinking/it is too late to remember” the things her and her friend were fighting for. She reckons with working on stolen land: “We had acted as if this place were ours to act upon … but not even a stone here should be shifted thoughtlessly”. But through the associations Crawford makes throughout this book, something emerges, a way of dissolving borders, of creating that “incorporates the impossibility of its dissolution”. Forging connection with others – becoming we – is core to her thinking, as she returns to the loss of her friend. “No death,” Crawford writes, “Occurs in isolation from events that make some deaths count, while some are only counted. Or not counted”. I think of the refugees who have died in the attempt to reach new lands, the Aboriginal people who have died in custody, the steadily increasing tally of covid deaths. It is a fitting memorial to a beloved friend that cuts through the borders of our ability to reckon with the pain and suffering of others.

Gay rating: not gay.

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