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Manus Recording Project Collective: How Are You Now?

Michael Green and Jon Tjhia from Manus Recording Project Collective talk to Murdoch Stephens about their work how are you today (2018) in Eavesdropping. The interview took place in October 2019.

Murdoch Stephens: How did the Manus Recording Project Collective come about?

Michael Green: It’s a collaboration between six men held in detention on Manus Island—Samad Abdul, Farhad Bandesh, Behrouz Boochani, Shamindan Kanapathi, Kazem Kazemi, and Abdul Aziz Muhamat—and André Dao, Jon Tjhia, and myself in Melbourne. 

Andre and I had worked on an oral-history project addressing immigration detention in Australia, and then, with Jon, we produced the podcast The Messenger, with Aziz on Manus. We wanted to have detainees speaking about their experiences, rather than hearing the government’s policy justifications. That was our express purpose: putting the recorders in their hands. 

James Parker and Joel Stern, the curators of Eavesdropping, thought we could make something for their show based on the thousands of voice messages I’d exchanged with Aziz, only a fraction of which had found their way into the podcast. We were thinking about what it meant to listen to those messages, to receive them here, and how we interpreted them. We were also thinking about the guys on Manus as ‘eavesdropping’ on Australia—their unusual and interesting perceptions of Australia come through in the podcast. 

However, it seemed odd to use an archive of old messages when the men were still on Manus. So, we decided to create something new, with more participants than just Aziz, responding to their current situation. We worked with the guys to refine the concept. We resolved to present a new ten-minute recording each day through the show’s fourteen-week run at Ian Potter Museum of Art, Melbourne.

At the Potter, you could listen to the new recording each day. A year later it has become an archive. In City Gallery now, you can hear all of the recordings on a giant loop.

Michael Green: We ended up with eighty-four recordings. The audio is the same, the presentation is different. The project has appeared in different ways, with different implications for listeners—becoming a different art work. The first time, because there was only one recording to listen to at any time, we had a list of all the previous recordings to contextualise it. 

The project can be measured against other works in the Eavesdropping show along spectrums of consent and complicity.

Jon Tjhia: The word ‘eavesdropping’ implies the absence of both consent and complicity.

But, in your project, there’s complicity with and consent from those being listened to.

Jon Tjhia: Yes. James and Joel describe eavesdropping as excessive listening—overhearing. We are listening to the men on Manus talking to each another, listening to each another, listening to the world. But, in putting the project together, the guys also experienced a kind of layered listening, like they were listening to themselves through Australia’s listening (or not listening) to them.

Michael Green: As a way of dividing the work, each of us in Melbourne worked with two of the guys on Manus. I worked with Aziz and Behrouz. I would listen to their recordings a lot, as they came in, as we mixed them, cut them to ten minutes, and uploaded them to play in the gallery. But, a great part of the experience for me was listening to the other recordings coming in. Through the run, I’d listen to the new recording every day. But, since then, I’ve gone back and listened to lots of them again.

Are you still finding fresh things in the recordings?

Michael Green: For sure. There’s a website now where you can listen to them all. There, you can sort the recordings by the men who made them. You click on a name and it shows you his fourteen recordings. You can see that each developed his own style.  

Do you have favourite recordings?

Jon Tjhia: Some recordings are more pleasant to listen to than others. Some are hard and complicated, others surprising, unexpected, even funny. 

Michael Green: When we’ve staged listening events, we’ve tried to represent the range and breadth of the recordings. There’s a beautiful one of Shamindan going to church, recording the sermon and the singing. I find it moving, pretty, and affecting. But, to just play that one, without the context of the others, would be misleading. 

When you sit and listen for ten minutes, you have your own internal monologue going on. You bring your own understanding of the world and of your own day, and your own level of bodily comfort to bear on what you are listening to. Last year in Melbourne, at an event, maybe a hundred people were listening to six recordings. The mood was sombre, rightly. People found the recordings serious, affecting, and intense. But I found myself laughing at moments, when no one else was. It struck me that I felt very differently to other people, having been to Manus and met the guys. 

On Manus, some men didn’t want to participate. 

Michael Green: One agreed, then pulled out. He said he was too tired, didn’t have the energy. But you have to put that in context. It was after the men had been evicted from the original detention centre and relocated to new ones on Manus. In the lead up to that, there had been an explosion of media coverage, with the men hoping their detention was coming to an end. That didn’t happen. Instead, they faced a fresh period of indefinite waiting. So, there was fatigue about talking to journalists—cynicism about whether there was any point. They were worn out. So, this particular man decided that he didn’t have the energy to commit to doing it for fourteen weeks. 

Jon Tjhia: Kazem also approached some people to talk on tape with him, but they didn’t want to be involved, and expressed that strongly. Initially that concerned me, but Kazem laughed it off. He said, ‘It’s fine. There’s no issue. I’ll just move on. It’s not going to be a thing.’ 

Did the men intuitively understand what you wanted and why you were doing it?

Michael Green: We spoke and messaged with them at length about the project. We brainstormed what they might record and how; they made careful choices. We sought their opinions on everything, including how the work would be displayed at the Potter. We sent them photos of the space. None of them had been to Australia. They had varying degrees of art-making experience. Some had participated in art or music projects previously.

Jon Tjhia: Some of the men were well versed in music recording. Music was a big part of their lives. 

Michael Green: In some ways, they’re performing for the tape; in some recordings more, in some less. Everything’s mediated, obviously.

Many of the recordings involve music. Aziz plays music to comfort a friend. Someone gets a trumpet lesson. Were they using music to help them deal with detention?

Michael Green: Definitely. Because of the specific constraints, they recorded things they wouldn’t have otherwise talked about or wouldn’t be asked about. Within a week, it became clear that music was going to be a huge part of the project. It’s an obvious thing in hindsight. Although I’d made many journalistic works about detention on Manus, I’d never thought about the sustaining role of music in the men’s lives. There were songs from home, songs to keep them going. Playing instruments gave them a sense of purpose, and demonstrated their skill. They also used music to connect with one another.

Did you identify with this?

Michael Green: In all my comfort and privilege, I don’t rely on music to keep me going. I listen to it and enjoy it and it does lots of things in my life, but it’s not the life-or-death matter it is for the guys in these recordings. 

Jon Tjhia: Kazem is into heavy metal and has an Instagram account, as manus_metal_man, where, until a few months ago, he’d post videos of himself shredding. The men experiences their life together as filial companionship, and yet he says he didn’t have a close friend who understood how important the music is for him.

The project has been described as a channel for a form of speech when words themselves seem exhausted. Rewi Maniapoto is often quoted in anti-colonial struggles: ‘Ka whawhai tonu mātou, Ake! Ake! Ake!’ (Struggle without end, forever and ever and ever.) Did the need to persist, perhaps indefinitely, come through in the work?

Michael Green: The duration of the project meant it captured a lot of different moods for all the men involved. They had got tired of telling their stories. It didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. You sense that with some recordings. There are times when they feel their words have an effect and times they don’t. 

The project asks us to spend time. We choose to engage or walk away. Do audiences experience that challenge?

Jon Tjhia: I would say yes, absolutely. Doesn’t most art contain some element of this? The work asks you to spend your time sharing an experience. It’s about layers of time. There’s the ten minutes that you’re invited to engage with the recording, but there’s also the time beyond that for you and for the men—during their day, their week, their period of detention, their entire lives. There’s the recognition that time has different value for different people. There’s also the time that has elapsed since the recordings were made. At first, in the show in Melbourne, they were a day or two old; now, in Wellington, they’re a year old. What do all those experiences of time mean for listeners and for the men? 

Michael Green: I was thinking about what it means a year on. The six guys are not all still on Manus. Aziz now has permanent residency in Switzerland. I’ve visited him there and he’s still consumed by his Manus experience. He says he still feels like he’s there. When I listen to the recordings, I think about what the guys chose to record and not record, what they did before and after, and how those experiences will mark them for the rest of their lives.

I find something beautiful in the way certain English words and phrases are emphasised by non-native speakers.

Jon Tjhia: Words like ‘brother’ and phrases like ‘thank you so much’ are so charged. We titled the project how are you today—all lowercase and no question mark—partly because that was a common greeting between us with text messages.

Michael Green: The guys are often trying to express complex things in English, a language that’s not their first. There’s a recording where Shamindan is interviewing a friend. They would normally speak Sinhalese or Tamil, but they speak English for the recording—for us. It changes what they say and how they say it. There are also recordings where people are not speaking in English, and occasionally you hear ‘Peter Dutton’. I messaged Behrouz about it. I said, ‘It’s great to hear you speaking in Kurdish, and, every now and then, breaking into English words about Australia and Australian politics that are recognisable for me.’ He wrote back saying, ‘We’re speaking about Australia and Australia’s policy in many different languages here.’ They follow Australian politics in English and reflect on it in their own languages, in their own ways, bringing to bear their own cultural backgrounds. I’m pleased that a lot of the recordings aren’t in English. 

You’ve created a Manus soundscape.

Michael Green: Manus is a lush, tropical island—there’s rain, there’s heat. It’s also a rich sound space. Many of the sounds of immigration detention there that had come out were recorded on phones. We sent over stereo recorders to capture more atmosphere, to create a more immersive experience. We didn’t feel a need for images. There’s already so much to think about in the recordings. We kept the accompanying information minimal, so people would focus on the sound.

Jon, you responded to an observation—that there’s potential for the project to be voyeuristic—by saying, ‘voyeurism functions on an axis of expectation’.

Jon Tjhia: The concern about voyeurism—it’s a fair question, and we’ve really considered it. In this case, it seems to stem from assumptions about representations of refugees, the kinds of identities available to them. The work complicates a lot of those things, such as assumptions about opacity and transparency. As a listener, what you take from it is refracted through your sense of the agency that these men have. It’s important that the men are holding the recorders, making deliberate choices about what you hear, and what you don’t. 

Listening to these clips exposes your expectations. You might expect to hear the men talking earnestly, confessionally about their lives or their political situation or the circumstances that led them to detention, so what does it mean when they deliver a recording of a conversation with a Manusian person on the beach? Or the sound of them watching a movie? Or the sound of cooking a capsicum pizza? What ideas and desires are these choices expressing? Should we take them as invitations, deflections, or something else?  

At City Gallery, you experience the work in a dark auditorium. I found the darkness a little intimidating. Was the sensory deprivation a metaphor for the situation of those imprisoned on Manus?

Michael Green: We weren’t thinking about it as a metaphor for detention. The darkness makes you focus on the sound. There’s nothing to do but listen to the recording, and to feel your mind wander from and return to it. 

The project has been presented in different ways. It’s on speakers at City Gallery but on headphones at the Gus Fisher. It was part of a conference, where there wasn’t a screen and you had to press a button to pick a recording. Each way it’s been shown has had an effect on the way a listener experiences it. 

Michael Green: Each of the exhibits has been interesting. In the current iteration at City Gallery, I miss the active element. You chose to walk in, but you don’t choose what to listen to. There’s something about pressing a button, making a choice. You move into a relationship with the recording and with the person who’s made it. The fact that there now exists a full fourteen hours also radically changes things. An important part of the City Gallery presentation is that there’s a clock showing where you are in the fourteen hours of recordings. 

In the work, there’s a reluctance to create a polemical narrative about Manus, about what should happen. Do people misinterpret that as a lack of politics?

Michael Green: We haven’t found that.

Jon Tjhia: It’s almost the opposite.

Michael Green: The context is different in New Zealand. In Australia, we’ve had decades of sustained activism about this, with government after government. Behrouz and Aziz often say that the activism has failed and that they now pursue art and literature not as activism but as a way of communicating what they’ve experienced. So, our decision to work with the guys on an art project was partly a response to that exhaustion. We didn’t feel a need to provide a call to action. We wanted the guys to document their lives however they chose, and for that to be understood by the listener as art in a gallery context.

Jon Tjhia: In his essay ‘Listening to the Indefinite’ in Runway, Andrew Brooks says the work problematises empathy as a political tool, leaning instead towards acknowledgement. That resonated with me. It feels less about centring and satisfying the listener. 

In Orientalism, Edward Said warns us about both demonising and about romanticising the other. What do you think about the romanticisation of Manus refugees?

Jon Tjhia: There’s a lot of projection, sure. Personally, I’m strongly opposed to both demonising and romanticising refugees and asylum seekers, because it acquiesces to the notion that a person’s ‘goodness’ is somehow relevant to their rights. That creates unhelpful narratives that dilute the purpose and undermine the effect of the valuable and necessary work that activists do—and of the lives that detained people lead.

New Zealand’s lead refugee agency describes refugees as ordinary people who have gone through extraordinary circumstances, without claiming all refugees are angels. Are refugees ordinary people?

Michael Green: I don’t want to criticise any particular approach, but I don’t think in those terms. Once you meet refugees, they’re just people. Some are ordinary, some are amazing. There’s a lot of romanticisation and demonisation, but there’s also a lot of case-study-isation, where relatable characteristics of refugees are highlighted because they’re going to resonate, making them seem just like us. But there are significant differences between people, their cultures and life experiences, and that’s important too. 

Manus is notorious for housing only the single men, so it stands to reason that you only had men participating. But I’m also curious that it was also three men from Melbourne who collaborated on the project. Was there anything distinctively masculine about collaborating?

Michael Green: When we worked on The Messenger, we had three additional writers as collaborators, none of them men, so, in some ways, the fact that there are three men on the Melbourne end of this project is coincidence, not a deliberate choice. 

Jon Tjhia: The men on Manus are obviously accustomed to a world dominated by men. 

Michael Green: There were certain issues we didn’t have to negotiate or be mindful of because we’re men. But for me, that’s not a strong part of the work. Woman artists have also collaborated with some of the guys successfully and with interesting results. Lots of the guys have friendships and relationships with Australian women, and possibly with Australian men as well. 

Jon Tjhia: Personally, I don’t strongly identify as masculine. A lot of male-coded behaviour and language feels alienating to me. 

Michael Green: There’re significant differences between male-coded behaviour and physicality in Australia and among the men on Manus. 

Jon Tjhia: Yeah. I enjoyed receiving rose emojis! 

Michael Green: A lot of love hearts.  

Were friendships formed with the men and did they endure?

Michael Green: Yes, friendships have endured. I was in touch with some of the guys in the project almost daily for a long time, and I’m still in touch with four of them regularly. I feel an ongoing sense of care for them and really want to honour what they gave in working with me. But there’s a limit to what we can communicate, because our situations, privileges, and freedoms are so different.

Jon Tjhia: On the other hand, we don’t want to impose an expectation that, just because we’ve worked with them or had friendship, they will have an obligation to sustain that with us.

Murdoch Stephens initiated Doing Our Bit—a campaign to double New Zealand’s refugee quota—in June 2013. He has written extensively on New Zealand’s response to the refugee crisis. He is Editor at Wellington publishing house Lawrence and Gibson.