⇧ 4 DECEMBER – 20 DECEMBER
Inside Jokes is a mostly auditory exploration into the uncomfortable convergence of humour and shame that arises while confronting the familial practices that come to shape us. The project was initiated with a focus on linguistic and phonological discomfort: being a first generation migrant and the fly-on-the-wall feeling of being simultaneously privy to but not vocally adept with both culture’s sociolects.
Making field recordings of my family’s conversations to realise this phenomenon aurally, I found that the source of discomfort ran deeper than accents and phrases alone; it was rooted in a recurrent and inescapable content: religion. The soundscape of Inside Jokes is accompanied by a handful of visual cues to illustrate this familial space which holds, within banal effects, the gravity of earnest belief. Together the works disclose the rituals, anecdotes and ephemera of my religious and cultural upbringing. It is only the start of an ongoing investigation and disclosure.
It is said that an individual’s accent becomes solidified within the first year of life; from then on the mouth shapes itself around the oral nuances of the mother tongue no matter what other languages one learns and speaks. As a first generation Australian of Indian migrant parents, I’ve always shrunk with embarrassment about the vocal inflections which inhibit me from both comfortably ordering Indian food and attempting pub-style banter.
My sibling shares this experience. It’s not just how we say ‘chapati’ or ‘how ya going’, but that we choose certain English words which indicate a British Indian vernacular: take for example a humiliating high school encounter where I uttered the phrase ‘swimsuit’:
“why don’t you just say bathers!!! Who wears a suit to the pool!!!”)
My parents, however, comfortably and playfully exchange in a lingo interspersed with both Tamil idioms and their interpretations of Australian slang: my mum insists, whenever she calls, that it’s ‘just for a chinwag’. While initially intending to demonstrate this sociolinguistic niche through recordings of my family’s voices, the content of the recordings revealed a crucial undercurrent; the impact of religion and class; How we talk is inextricable from what we talk about and what we talk about speaks to what we value – cyclically informing how we talk. Attempting to capture simple examples of Indian and Australian vernacular, the definitions filtered into religious and cultural lessons, and unavoidable reflections on my familial upbringing beyond vocal trappings.
The outer suburbs of Melbourne become home to migrant groups and the working class, so outer suburban churches, in their accoutrements and practices, develop a culture of their own – projecting the divine and supernatural not through leather-bound hymn books and pipe organs but through primary school-grade hi-fi systems accompanied by Word-Art riddled Powerpoint presentations.
The discrepancy between the seriousness of the subject matter – faith, morality, divinity – and the vehicles for conveyance – rhetoric, Powerpoints, plastic icons and containers, produces a complex of humour and disavowal for those who must reckon with carving out an individual identity while confronting and respectfully acknowledging their cultural history. The inescapable cringe here however only heightens the gravitas of religion, something similar in many ways to camp.
Susan Sontag describes in Notes on Camp that Pure Camp is always naive. “The pure examples of Camp are unintentional; they are dead serious.” It is exactly this naïveté or purity which transmutes something ad hoc, cheap, gimmicky, throwaway, or mundanely ritualistic into that which it stands in for; a vessel for sanctity. Families attempt to bestow their beliefs, practices and languages as legacies and much of the niche of comical discomfort is due to the tightrope negotiation of how much of our lineage we give away through our language. Inside Jokes draws upon that tenuous balance between the earnest and the cringe. It is with reluctant but loving acceptance that we oblige our families and unfold how they have shaped us.