Becoming Undisciplined / Out of bounds—undisciplined documentary / Alessandra Wollaston

All images © alessandra wollaston.

The thinker-creators gathered here take inspiration from Christina Sharpe’s command that “we must become undisciplined.”1 True to “becoming” rather than “being,” the voices of “Becoming Undisciplined” express ongoingness, incompleteness, even uncertainty. In the form of essays, interviews, self-writing, letters, maps, film, and visual and performance art, these works ask what it means to veer from disciplinary strictures while creating and envisioning change. “Discipline,” as refracted through the contributors’ lenses, comes to mean not only academic departments and fields but also genres, borders, judgment, policing. Most importantly, discipline comes to mean categories and classifications of race, gender, ability, sexuality, and professional status. Despite this variation and our refusal to situate this cluster in one field or even in more capacious rubrics of specific “studies” or “humanities,” common threads emerge. Perhaps none is more prevalent than a sense of imperilment that calls in turn for disassembling the entrenched institutions and values that have created conditions for loss as well as—perhaps—transformation.

— Heather Houser & Stephanie LeMenager

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Between the lines? Outside the lines? In charting interstitial spaces, gathering stories and lightly holding twining threads I hope to be always out of bounds.

Being undisciplined invites a lateral engagement with the world, a renewed encountering, darting between the depths and the edges to ensure a perspective that is not drowned by immersion. 

I’m engaged in a project of mapping place with personal and collective memoir. It’s a creative and scholarly undertaking, mingling interviews, stories and photographic environmental portraits, with research into history and social, political and cultural influences. In drawing these aspects together I’m interested, not in offering an encapsulated account with all seams neatly stitched, no threads trailing, but rather in plotting points to encourage dialogue. Poet and scholar Lorri Neilsen maintains that “impact…can be achieved with resonance as much as with report.”2 In this multimodal project I invite the reader to participate in an experience, with the aim of kindling attentive and caring personal connections with place.

A man stands in a small urban laneway beside a wall of brown hoarding which hides a construction site. He’s wearing a dark blue work shirt and pants, and brown boots. He has short, slightly curly grey hair. His legs are apart, his arms crossed. He gives a calm smile, looking directly to camera. The image is shot from a low angle, looking up at the man. Behind him is the back of the Sydney Dental Hospital – a cream coloured building of about eight storeys. A gleaming installation of ducting and pipework is installed on this wall of the building, in two vertical sections of about four pipes which run the height of the building. Smaller horizontal pipes branch off at each of six small, square windows. Beyond the Dental Hospital, where the laneway meets a larger street, we can see some other buildings – old shops with a low rise office building and another brick industrial building behind them. The sky has light cloud, the light is golden. It’s afternoon. The man is in shadow, the building is glowing. Close up shot of a silver corrugated rooftop meeting the wall of the taller next door building on the left, both against a cloudy sky. On the wall we see the remains of a huge old painted sign. It’s the Hendersons Hats sign, although you can’t tell now, and certainly not from this small section. There’s a name in capital letters in the bottom right corner of the sign – H. ROUSEL or ROUBEL. A corner of a room, where a wall with peeling paint meets a tall window on the right. The wall is mottled, some of the paint is yellow, some cream, some green. The window has small panes in metal frames. A gentle light floods through. To the left is part of a doorway, with a stack of boxes in the dark space beyond. On the peeling wall is a square mirror in a wide frame made of cane rattan panels. In the mirror we can see the head and shoulders of the photographer (me!), a black DSLR camera held up to her face. She is slim with short hair and wears a collared shirt, white with blue flowers. In front of the wall is an old wooden table, low, with a red top and white legs. It has potted plants on it, and a small tin of paint. To the right, an old white enamel basin is mounted under the window, with two old taps coming from the wall above it. Beside the basin, to its left, meeting the wall, is a wooden shelf, with more potted plants on it, and more on the window sill. There are some geraniums, peace lilies, succulents and a monsteria with three big leaves. Under the shelf in an old plastic watering can.

My project is about loophole spaces—urban industrial buildings which, over time, become permeable to uses which reinterpret, reconfigure and redefine them. Two of my favorites are in Sydney’s Surry Hills. Navigating layers of history, material and memory, I am experimenting with form in order to render this landscape and its stories in a way that teases apart one-dimensional or familiar interpretations and opens a space for different understandings. 

I’ve been visiting this urbanwild to document the impending demolition of the small and scruffy warehouse at 7 Randle Street, my home during four memorable years, 1999–2003. Two floors up, windows facing the back lane and looking over Central station, it was here that I quietly crossed the threshold between millennia; from here that I set out to walk across the Sydney Harbour Bridge with 250,000 others, to call for reconciliation with Australia’s First Nations Peoples; and where I witnessed the World Trade Center reduced to rubble and dust.

A view of the back of an old four storey brick building against a grey blue sky with light cloud, shot from ground level and looking up. To the right is a similar building two storeys taller – we can just see a section of this building. The main building has tall windows made up of a grid of 19 metal framed panes. It’s 19 as four of the five rows of panes have four panes in each, except for the top row, which has three, the central one being twice the width of the other panes. Some of the panes are cracked, some are missing, some have been replaced with ancient air conditioning units, some have been repaired with tape. Two panes have been painted brick red. Two of the windows are open – a section of four panes swinging out vertically on a central hinge. This face of the building catches the afternoon light. There’s a slight shadow across it, which could be from a crane on the construction site opposite. A view from inside the brown brick building. A large space with a wooden floor painted brown. The ceiling slants upwards to the western wall in which are four tall windows, each made up of a grid of 19 metal framed panes. It’s 19 as four of the five rows of panes have four panes in each, except for the top row, which has three, the central one being twice the width of the other panes. There is a front loading washing machine under the right hand window, and a sink and cupboard under the second from right. On the left in this shot is a brick wall painted Yves Klein blue. Light washes through the windows and across the floor and a bit of the blue wall, casting the shadows of the panes. It’s peaceful here. A view of the front of a three storey building (it’s actually four storeys, but the extra level can only be accessed from the back lane) against a pale blue sky, shot from the ground looking up. It’s the front of the brown brick building in the other shots – the front is rendered. The first storey is tiled in a chequerboard of dark green and grey tiles. The remainder of he building is covered in heavily weathered pale green paint. Around the front door some of the tiles have been painted to form a wide white frame. On the left side of this frame is painted a solid black circle with the number 7 in a bold sans serif typeface in white. The door is open and it’s dark inside. At the left of the door, where the first storey meets the second, is a neon sign reading Ding Dong Dang Karaoke. The sign isn’t lit. Beyond the sign, the top storeys of the building have tall windows with three simple hinged panes in each. The window sills are deep.

This afternoon, walking slowly, camera slung, I encounter three people in the lane behind the building. The moment opens for us to pause and talk. The emptiness of the building and its inevitable destruction has dissolved its borders somewhat, inviting us to peer through windows and grills. It stirs reflection on the upheaval of construction in this pocket of the city, and the sharing of memories. One of these people is a maker—he installed, on the tall wall of the dental hospital opposite, the gleaming pipework that I’ve watched reflect countless sunsets. Meeting him is serendipity, I tell him how I photographed those pipes so many times from my windows and the rooftop, their ordinary beauty an anchor point in years of rapid change. 

Multistranded stories center on, connect with and spring from this little warehouse across its 112-year history—it’s a site of displacement, politics, religion, ambition, reinvention, learning, art and ordinary life. Three storeys of brown brick warming on a golden afternoon. How to hold all these aspects, seen and unseen, personal and webbed? How to present an arabesque, the whole in a tiny part? And how to draw on, as Neilsen puts it, the “power of the particular to invoke the universal”3 as a way of making change?

A close up from inside one of the front rooms of the building in the other shots. To the left its one of the three-paned windows. The middle pane is hinged open slightly. A gentle light washes in against a plain wall. The window frame and sill are painted white, and the wall is painted a soft yellow. The floor is dark. A close up from inside one of the front rooms of the building in the other shots. To the left is a wall made from wood framing with various pieces of wood attached to the other side of these. Most of the wood is natural, but a smaller panel in the middle is painted to look like the walls of a dungeon. This is a piece of material repurposed from when this level of the building was used as a sex club. There are a few packing boxes and a printer on the floor. The floor is dark, and in one corner there are some rough, wide, blue, curved lines painted on it. On the right is a tiny section of a three-paned window. The light coming through it is gentle. A close up from inside one of the front rooms of the building in the other shots. This one is shot from the doorway, looking towards a tall, three-paned window. There’s a stereo system and a box on the dark floor. The walls are painted a soft yellow. The room is gently lit by the light from the window.

Of course there is a vast scholarship of “place,” territory already claimed. I’m exhausted with the call to build upon this weighty dragnet, to sift through it, to know it, to advance it in increments when the ubiquity of canonical ideas sometimes risks impeding, rather than facilitating, direct and specific engagement with our own quotidian contexts. Being undisciplined is being brave enough to make space for new inquiry, to amplify alternative perspectives and to insist on the legitimacy of diverse ways of knowing and exploring. In being undisciplined I am seeking an approach that is grounded yet unfettered by familiar ideas. 

Architect Kevin O’Brien, a descendent of the Kaurareg and Meriam people of north-eastern Australia, offers a contribution to such an approach. Getting to the heart of place in Australia, he urges “a new paradigm that argues for Country as the beginning of City, thereby countering the current condition of the City as the end of Country.”4 This way of seeing place surfaces the abiding reality of an already storied landscape as the foundation for the built environment, instead of having been erased by it. Rather than offering ideas about place, O’Brien grounds us in its earthy materiality, its gravity, as we traverse the city. Encountering Country directly and through our senses, yours and mine, yields personal understandings. Allowing undisciplined approaches such as O’Brien’s to inform and affect us, invites us to see, experience and share place in new ways.

Inside the building. A long exposure of two people in motion in a room at night. One lies on the floor, legs in the air, the other, standing at his head, does a back arch so her head meets his chest. They wear jeans and t-shirts, they are holding hands and both are smiling. In the background a string of fairly lights outlines a window and window sill, there is a low bed, a small bookshelf and a fridge. The photo is blurred, the tones are red and orange and the mood is joyful! Inside the building. A long exposure of a room full of people standing up and dancing at a party. Shot from behind the DJ’s decks, we can see a few mirror balls in the ceiling, washes of multicoloured lights and tall wooden columns in this large space. The shot it blurred and colourful and the room is full of people. Inside the building. A large room lit red, with a sprinkle of yellow from some fairly lights strung across the ceiling between two lengths of cloth. In the facing wall are two three-paned windows, lit by streetlights and the city outside. To the right, the long wall is hung with framed artworks. Down the middle of the room is a very low, long table covered with food and drinks. A few people sit around it, three lounging on cushions at the end and two leaning back against the wall on the right. The photo is blurred and everything is red. It’s the end of the night.

Seeing anew can be a radical act. In their groundbreaking storytelling collaboration about the Roebuck Plains area of Western Australia, “Reading the country: introduction to nomadology,” artist Krim Benterrak, scholar Stephen Muecke and Paddy Roe OAM, a Goolarabooloo Elder and Law man from Broome, invite us to consider that “seeing the ‘already-there’ in a quite different way”5 is one way to develop an ecological sensitivity necessary for planetary care. In reaching beyond taken-for-granted understandings, we create the conditions for change. Philosopher Val Plumwood highlights the role of love in this process: “Love can develop capacities for perception and sensitivity that might otherwise be stunted, and can provide a basis to spread its virtues of attention, compassion and care to a wider field.”6 These storytellers gently impel a new and personal engagement with place as a catalyst for caring and action.

As a documentary, undertaken collaboratively and incorporating creative practice as a mode of inquiry, my loophole project is undisciplined. In mapping history, rendering experiences and plotting the points towards wider conversations, I aim to share not only a specific material place, but also to call for new ways of relating to, attending to, and caring for place and all that it means. This call is an urgent one as we see, worldwide, the deleterious effects of the careless commodification of earthly resources, life forms and human needs.

To be undisciplined is to be out of bounds yet connected, exploring with direction and purpose yet open to the unexpected, and co-creating an accessible and participatory scholarship that can live in the world and be transformed by this living. And to do this joyfully and with resonance—bounding, from Latin’s bombus, humming.

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This is one of nine contributions from the ASAP/J cluster of Becoming Undisciplined. Read the other pieces here.

This cluster is a digital supplement to a print forum in ASAP/Journal 7.1, which you can read here.

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  1. Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016), 13.
  2. Lorri Neilsen, “Lyric Inquiry,” in Handbook of the Arts in Qualitative Research: Perspectives, Methodologies, Examples, and Issues, ed. J. Gary Knowles and Ardra L.  Cole (Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, Inc, 2008), 15.
  3. Ibid., 14.
  4. Kevin O’Brien, “Sep Yama/Finding Country to Burning City Studios,” in Imaging the City: Art, Creative Practices and Media Speculations, ed. Steve Hawley, Edward M Clift, and Kevin O’Brien (Bristol; Chicago, IL: Intellect, 2016), 113.
  5. Krim Benterrak, Stephen Muecke, and Paddy Roe, Reading the Country: Introduction to Nomadology (Fremantle, W.A: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1984), 13.
  6. Val Plumwood, “Shadow Places and the Politics of Dwelling,”  Australian Humanities Review, no. 44 (2008),