SIEV X Memorial, Canberra, Australia, Credit: SIEV X National Memorial Committee Inc.

Fugitive Moments and Public Memory: An Improvised Memorial for Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel X in Canberra

By Rebecca Caines

Sometime in the night of the 20th of October 2001, an overcrowded fishing boat carrying over four hundred refugees, mostly from Iraq and Afghanistan, sank in international waters en route to Australia. Three hundred and fifty-three people drowned, including one hundred and forty-two children. The ship has become known as X, SIEV being the Australian Navy acronym for Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel, X standing for unknown. The facts of the sinking are hotly disputed and no official lists of passengers’ names have ever been released. It was the “biggest maritime disaster in Australia since the Second World War” (Zable: 2013). On the 2nd of September 2007 a memorial to the disaster was installed in a public park on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin in Australia's capital, Canberra. It was constructed out of three hundred and fifty-three decorated wooden poles. The poles include the names and ages of the dead (when known), written in English and Arabic, although many are unnamed. It also includes the names of the groups, or individuals who decorated each pole. The memorial marks the exact dimensions of the original boat. It stretches down to the water’s edge, and then snakes off into the park, with large poles representing the adults and smaller poles for the children. The exhibition has been granted “temporary” leave to remain and is currently still in place (See Figure 1). In 2015, the conservative Coalition government in Australia teeters on the brink of collapse, and is attempting to shore up support by engaging in a stern rhetoric on refugees who arrive unannounced by sea, with current Prime Minister Tony Abbott famously insisting, “I’ll turn back every boat” (Johnston 2012).

Between the SIEV X tragedy, and the raising of this piece of community-engaged public art and memorial lies a complex performance of contesting and contested sites, spaces, and places that continues to reverberate in 2015. In particular, I focus in this paper on a moment of performance in 2006, when, upon being denied permission to erect the memorial, around six hundred people held the poles up in the shape of the SIEV X memorial, whilst another fourteen hundred people observed. This paper traces how different types of space were performed that day, and how the park was physically affected and continues to be affected by this event. It argues that the embodied sense of place created that day through performance brought communities together to create new social “fugitive” actions, expose hidden histories, memorialize death, create new vehicles for political activism and information gathering, and build new networks of personal support. I argue that this event also disrupted established conceptual spatial control through exposing planning permission processes for public space in Canberra. Utilizing theory in the field of Critical Studies in Improvisation I explore the potential for improvised performances, like the SIEV X pole raising, to challenge the way civic “planning” is understood.


The SIEV X memorial was planned by Australian psychologist Steve Biddulph, working with his friends Rev. Rod Horsfield and Beth Gibbings, along with a group of individuals connected to the Uniting Church of Australia and the advocacy agency Rural Australians for Refugees. [1] Landscape architect Sue Anne Ware consulted on envisioning the project design (Ware and Raxworthy 2011). It had three aims. The first was pedagogical: to let as many people as possible know about the tragedy. The second was psychological: to create a location for memorial healing and grieving for the families and survivors, and for the Australian public (Gibbings 2009). Biddulph has also explained that part of his aim was to get the nation to take responsibility and to “change the appalling status of refugees in Australia through reaching out to young people” (Gibbings 2009). In this third aim, this work stands alongside a large body of activist Australian visual art, theatre and performance–based works that emerged at the beginning of the new millennium in response to the refugee policies of the conservative Liberal government, under the leadership of Prime Minister John Howard (Wake 2014).

This organizing group set up a high school art “collaboration”, where the most powerful designs sent in by teenagers would then be incorporated into a final design for a memorial (See Figure 2). Information packs were sent to three thousand high schools across Australia and distributed through church, community activist networks and refugee groups. Three exhibitions were held showing the nationally sourced submissions. Fourteen-year old schoolboy Mitchell Donaldson created the design of poles in the shape of the boat. This idea was adapted as the final design because it “elicited the strongest audience response from both families of the dead, and from the public” (Gibbings 2009).

Plans then began for the construction of the memorial. Many of the organisations that had been involved in contributing to, promoting, or exhibiting the designs in the first phase were then invited to become involved in completing the final memorial. The poles were decorated by primary and high school students, community organisations including nationwide rural women’s associations and Rotary service clubs, survivors and families, all participating with different political, personal, and religious motivations (Stewart 2006, Martin 2006, "Touching Tribute to Lost Refugees" 2006). Many poles feature paintings by children, teenagers or amateur artists, some incorporate text, comics, found objects or sculptural forms, and some include Arabic calligraphy. Others are professional art works, some incorporating strong colours and stylized imagery (See Figure 3).

The Political Context

The sinking of the SIEV X occurred at the height of the very closely contested Australian federal election campaign in 2001. The incumbent Prime Minister, John Howard, had focussed his re-election campaign on what he called “border protection”, keeping “queue jumping” unannounced asylum seekers out of Australia, initiating large scale operations to track all boats and disrupt their progress, especially from Indonesia, where many refugees passed through (John Howard's 2001 Election Policy Speech 2001). The government strategy focussed on deterrents such as imprisoning asylum seekers in isolated, high security detention centres for periods of up to three years (Australian Government). In the weeks before the SIEV X sank, the government had been using the Navy in high media profile operations to disrupt and turn away boats of asylum seekers (Barkham 2001). Refugees were described by government officials as manipulative, and accused of “throwing their children overboard” for media attention (Navy Chief Enters Asylum Seekers Debate 2001). This was later proven to be a false claim by a Senate inquiry (The Parliament of Australia 2002). Government and media sources described the activities of the refugees as a concerted campaign of "moral blackmail" involving the cynical exploitation of Australians' instinctive "generosity" (Akerman 2002, John Howard's 2001 Election Policy Speech 2001). The government’s hard line stance on refugees seemed to have a significant effect on the election campaign, as Howard surged ahead in opinion polls following high profile incidents in the final weeks of the campaign ("Australian Election: The Issues" 2001).

SIEV X also became fodder for conspiracy theorists on both sides of the political spectrum. The SIEV X sank just two weeks before the election and the disaster received very little national attention. [2] Did Australia have an implicit, or perhaps explicit, involvement in the tragedy (Hutton 2013)? How much did the government’s policy of placing refugees with successful applications onto “Temporary Protection Visas,” which denied family reunion rights or travel, actually add to the likelihood that separated families would use illegal people smugglers? How much responsibility should governments take for the victims of conflicts such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan that produce the social conditions that contribute to refugee displacement? How did a leaky fishing boat avoid detection in a period of intense surveillance, and why was it not located before the survivors died in the water? What is to be made of passenger accounts that large military boats had arrived in the night, shone searchlights over the area and left without saving the survivors in the water, many of whom died from exposure (Kevin 2004, Meade 2004)? Jim Lloyd, Federal Minister for Local Government, Territories and Roads, amongst others, believed the narratives being distributed about the sinking, and the subsequent memorial project, were a plan by the left wing to hijack the grief of survivors for political gain (Stephens 2008, Hart 2006, Editorial 2006). With very little facts, there is much room for speculation.

A Performance Moment

In 2005, three weeks before the project was to be installed, the planning permission application to install the memorial was rejected by the government-run National Capital Authority on the grounds that all permanent memorial projects had to wait ten years after a tragedy before being erected. Media jumped on the story hinting at a government cover-up of the real SIEV X story (Harrison 2006). The organizers had planned for the memorial to open on the day of the fifth anniversary of the tragedy on October 15, 2006 and had invited all the participants to travel to Canberra for the public dedication. Despite the rejection of their application, they decided to hold a remembrance event at the site, and the poles were laid out on the ground. Over two thousand people arrived to pay respects.

The organizers refer to this event as a “ceremony.” There were speeches, including an address by Chief Minister of the Australian Capital Territory, Jon Stanhope, and live music from groups including the Kippax Uniting Church Tongan Choir, and the audience walked around examining the poles. Significantly, the wooden poles did not stay laid out on the ground; six hundred volunteers held them up in the shape of the monument. One to two people held up each pole. The poles were heavy and difficult to lift, yet the volunteers managed to lift them simultaneously, cued by a drum beat from one of the musicians. The participants were from a range of backgrounds and geographical locations, including children and seniors. The pole-raising portion of the ceremony was documented in photographs and online videos, and the event received considerable media attention. The pedagogical/activist aims of the event organizers were clear and under this rubric, the event was a success, as Biddulph notes: “More people heard about SIEV X that day than in all the years since the sinking” ("Siev X National Memorial Project Website").

There are a number of ways we can understand this spatial activity. The SIEV X pole-raising in 2006 could certainly be examined as an enactment or perhaps, following Rebecca Schneider, a strange sort of spatial “re-enactment”. The event re-enacted the actual dimensions of the boat that sank in the past; and it stood in for, perhaps even deputised, each of the absent bodies of the dead; even as it enacted a future, potential, also absent monument, a future (and a not yet possible) political climate where the memorial would be permanently installed. Perhaps this is what Schneider might call a “fugitive political performance” that cuts back and forth, between the past and the future. Schneider asks, “What are fugitive moments? And when is fugitive time? Could such moments be, perhaps, past moments on the run in the present? Moments when the past flashes up now to present us with its own alternative futures—futures we might choose to realize differently” (Schneider 2010, 7)? Although she was speaking specifically about re-enactments of political speeches, the SIEV X memorial pole-raising similarly confused linear temporality. What could the political potential of this temporal flux be? I question, as Schneider does: “Might the past’s ‘fugitive moments’ be leaky, syncopated, and errant moments—moments stitched through with repetition and manipulated to recur in works of performance, works of ritual, works of art, works of re-enactment that play with time as malleable material? As malleable political material” (Schneider 2010, 7)? A kind of fugitive temporal shift encourages me to write this paper ten years on from the performance, as Australia is considering the political future of a government that has made its main policy an aggressive engagement with refugee boats on their way to Australia, despite more accidents and controversies. Tony Abbott’s “I’ll Stop Every Boat” announcements are constructed just across the lake from where the SIEV X memorial now stands. This performance event continues to enact a potentially different temporality and space, as it is remembered, archived, discussed in national media, and described in popular sources, films, plays, stories and academic analysis, such as this paper (Ware and Raxworthy 2011, Ware and Monacella 2007, Thomas 2008, Burke 2006).

This project is also a work of public memory, a memorialisation with all of the psychological affect, ritual and ceremony, mediatisation and uncertainty that 21st century memorials perform, a slippage that post-memory scholar Bryoni Tresize calls “The incommensurability that exists between the traumatic event and its reinscription [where] the ends of memory appear as deeply vexed, deeply mediatised cultural operatives” (Trezise 2009). This particular performance is caught between media sensationalism, mourning, art and activism. The poles are substitutes for missing heavy, lifeless foreign bodies (old and young) that never made it to Australia, but they are also blank canvasses upon which Australians can project their fears, imaginings, opinions and memories, as well as being gravestone markers.[3] Could it be possible that in its transience, this moment in 2005 may have been more significant to its audience than its fixed future as an installed work? As I have discussed in my earlier research, some memorials can enable the repeated performance and questioning of the process of memorialization, and can deliberately evoke the temporary as a spatial strategy of resistance to forgetting (Caines 2004). French artist Christian Boltanski, for example, suggests all memorials should be made out of paper rather than bronze in order to ensure that we actively care for, protect, remake, and tend to them with our hands, even as we understand that they cannot survive the passage of time (Caines 2004, 5).


Henri Lefebvre’s well-known re-contextualisation of spatiality sees space as made up of interconnected perceived (material sites), conceived (conceptual spaces) and lived realms (places), which all contribute to the production of human experience (Lefebvre 1991). Recognizing and reuniting these three strands of spatiality could also reunite everyday citizens with the means of understanding and challenging how the spaces around them are created, produced and controlled (Lefebvre 1991, 222). Site/space/place for many contemporary artists is both a source of local body-based knowledge, memory and connection; and a producing, constraining political influence to be exposed and challenged.

Much of the study of capital cities has focussed on their part in global networks of information, commerce and communication (Castells 1996). Scholar, Allan Cochrane, has shown with his case studies of European capitals, that “capital cities still have a significant role in shaping national urban and regional relations (and hierarchies)” (Cochraine 2006). Canberra is a carefully designed capital city, planned with the two supposedly complementary ideas held by the government at the time. The first, according to Taylor, is “a vigorous national identity existed, and this was related to the ideal of the Australian landscape itself” and the second is the idea that this identity “could be symbolised in the landscape itself, and that city planning would create a better and healthier society” (Taylor 2005). Twin notions of a green uniquely Australian “bush capital” and a healthy community-based “garden city” informed the Chicago architects Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Griffons in their plan in 1912 for a city, which included a man-made lake, and a large number of parks and landscaped terraces set in a pattern of rings and triangles, with parliamentary, civic and mercantile institutions deliberately exposed in the heart of the inner city. Russell Smith succinctly points out the contradictions within these utopian ideal city agendas, where “the rigidity and uniformity of the utopian plan suggests a conceptual authoritarianism at odds with the diverse particularities of human flourishing that it is supposedly designed to engender” (Smith 2009, 81). Controlling how Canberra’s city space is constructed and used is a deliberate reflection of current policy vision (the new parliament house construction is one excellent example), even though at times the espoused spatial narrative can actually hide other less explicit political activities (Filmer 2013). Engaging with public space in this captial city is thus completely different from engaging with public space elsewhere in Australia. Andrew Filmer argues that performance in Canberra and other national spaces can further expose spatial poltics. “Engaging by means of performance with these sites enables their ‘silent complicity’ in established patterns of power relations to be rendered visible and audible and opens up the potential for alternative forms of participative political performance to be developed” (Filmer 2013, 26).

Locating the memorial in Canberra links it to other Canberra national memorials such as The National War Memorial, The ANZAC Memorial The Army Memorial, and The Vietnam War National Memorial. In fact this conceptual link was so strong that some ministers thought that a so-called “protest” memorial would take away from memorials to police and army dead, and that the people it remembered had not earned the right to be remembered nationally in Australia (Siev X Memorial 'Damaging' to Other Monuments 2007). In my interviews with organisers and participants, I repeatedly heard versions of the following statements: “This happened on my watch”, and, with greater frequency, “this is not the Australia I thought I lived in”. For these participants, many of whom travelled to Canberra from remote geographical locations, the memorial performed a different Australia directly contrasting the one portrayed in official government narratives and the other memorials. This sentiment is reflected in the designs of the poles themselves which featured text such as “Welcome”; “You are welcome here”; “ Home”; “We wish we could have known you” and with representations of Australian symbols such as flags, distinctive Australian flora and fauna and Australian landmarks.

The site (perceived space) for the 2007 SIEV X memorial pole raising performance is a portion of Westin Park, a green public park planted with native flora overlooking the parliament building across the lake. It is a peaceful spot, with mown green grass and a large mob of relatively tame kangaroos often seen grazing near the memorial site. There is a well-maintained children’s play area nearby. The beaches are popular spaces for water sports. This “public” space is of course closely monitored and controlled by both the Parks Authority, and the Federal planning body, the National Capital Authority (NCA), and by police, to prevent its being misused. The park is the embodiment of the contrast between Canberra as a controlled Australian bush capital, and Canberra as a lived public space for communities to utilise. It is this contrast that was exposed when the memorial was blocked by the NCA at this “public” park. The memorial was creating a new vision for the public use of this physical space, and when permission was denied, community bodies made the memorial despite and alongside the authorised usage of the parkland site. The physical space was permanently changed by improvisation that day, as the opposition Labour party promised that the memorial planning application would be accepted if they gained power, which they did, and it now stands.

Lucy Lippard reminds us that to become a “place”, rather than an abstract “space”, a location must make room for memories, bodies, and experiences (Lippard 1997). The temporary physical adaptation of the space that day included the recreation of the exact dimensions of the SIEV X, 19.5 meters long and 4 metres wide (so small for its 400 passengers). This collapsed the physical spaces of the ocean and the park on top of each other. It also collided the origins of the boat and its passengers, Indonesia, Iraq and Afghanistan, with the material conditions of Canberra, and of the participating communities. The found materials and sculptural elements used reflected the huge range of environmental and ethnic environments where the poles originated. The raising of poles clearly had an affect on the bodies of the audience at the 2005 event, many of whom cried, loudly sighed or gasped when the poles were lifted and lowered. The ceremony created this embodied sense of place, as people imagined the bodies of the victims in that space, and made memories together on this site as they assisted each other to hold up the wooden poles in the shape of the ship. That day, Australian citizens spoke with refugee survivors and families, directly denying the policies designed to keep this from happening; survivors and families formed their own support network for the first time, and many people grieved together.

Improvising Participation

Critical Studies in Improvisation (CSI) is an emerging interdisciplinary field that examines the ubiquitous global phenomenon of improvisatory art (Bailey 1980). A key element of this type of art-making is the tension between structure and freedom, and advanced improvisers often discuss the simultaneous need for deep skill and knowledge, and the requirement that artists let work develop in real-time in brand new directions and reconfigure “failure” into material (Monson 2014, Caines 2014). Key CSI scholars argue that improvisation “must be considered not simply as a musical [or artistic] form, but as a complex social phenomenon that mediates transcultural inter-artistic exchanges that produce new conceptions of identity, community, history, and the body” (Heble 2009). CSI has traced how African American expressive culture, for example, is marked by numerous examples of improvised music, dance and visual art at the centre of the reclamation of erased histories and disenfranchised cultural forms, and how it incorporates improvisatory adaptation and survival techniques that are needed for daily life in uncertain social conditions (Lewis 2008, Rose 1994, Neal 2004).

In discussing urban spaces, CSI scholar Dean C. Rowan draws a direct link between critical understandings of improvisation and ideas of planning for urban spaces. Rowan examines how a number of improvisational practices like blues music, free improvisation and creative music are embedded in communities, and engage with space creatively. He argues these can act as models for successful planning, or as counterpoints to set plans, exposing when urban space is not responsively utilized. Rowan defines improvisation as a form that employs a means of feedback and assessment – not merely aurally, but socially, politically, and spatially – as it searches “not for an elusive musical consensus”, but for a “new starting point.” He suggests the possibility of “a place for responsive improvisation at the nexus of form and content, fact and value, techniques and politics.” He goes on to argue that improvisation as a tool for spatial engagement provides a “way of referring to contingent, provisional, spontaneous, or insurgent modes of engagement in the city. It can characterize figuratively the way ‘rules’ ought to be resisted or violated if a variation on the status quo is to be performed” (Rowan 2004).

Rowan’s case studies “urge planners and policy makers to pay attention to the marginalized and unofficial knowledge residing in communities and regions” and the art practices found there, thereby “striving to avoid “strategies of social reform that allow only normative or mainstream use of the spaces.” He concludes, “Improvisation and the spirit of improvisation in planning… can provoke or facilitate an ethos more conducive to the polyrhythm and discord of heterogeneous society, and therefore ought to be pursued more deliberately, even recklessly. Improvisation, if carefully accommodated and planned for, poses the possibility of creative transformation and responsive bureaucracy, worthy ends achieved through rational yet risky means” (Rowan 2004).

It is clear from interviews and the work itself that the whole SIEV X memorial project relied on improvisatory active listening and real-time decision-making between the groups involved. The coordination was complex and involved thousands of participants and faced continually shifting challenges. New people with skills such as event management, landscape design, industrial design, insurance, law etc. continually stepped in throughout the process to volunteer time to the project as new needs arose, and each contributed to the performance being able to take place that day. The organizers deliberately engaged the improvisatory, they responded and changed plans rapidly in response to conditions.

The performance of raising the poles also incorporated a number of elements of improvisation in the event itself. In interviews, Beth Gibbings has noted that she saw many of the poles for the first time during the pole raising, as they were driven directly to the site on the day by the community groups using their own private cars and coming directly from their homes scattered across Australia (Gibbings 2009). Gibbings was surprised by the unexpected size and diversity of the crowd and the ways in which multiple members of a single family stepped up to hold the poles together when they asked for single volunteers, all factors which shaped the theme of the event as one of support. She also noted how some families of the victims met for the first time during the event, and she witnessed numerous occasions where survivors and family members of the deceased were spontaneously approached by other Australian citizens during the event who wanted to connect, sometimes with gestures, sometimes with words of condolence, or welcome. The pole raising was itself never part of the original plans for the memorial; indeed organizers admit that they are not sure whose idea it was to raise the poles, or at what time the decision was made. Interviews with participants from this period reflect a rapidly changing sense of hope from connecting with others, and a corresponding despair that the memorial would never be approved. The memorial was “installed” that day, despite a lack of planning permission, but was certainly not in the form that the organizers had planned and hoped for; it was a reconfiguration of a “failure.”


If art practices can become both models for social practice, and vehicles for new types of spatial engagement, what might happen when these alternative spatial narratives continue to rub up against authorised narratives? The pole raising was just the first in a number of events that brought the SIEV X to national prominence, including the national Senate inquiry mentioned above, so I am wary to overstate its singular effect on government policy. Instead, I think the performance held, just for a moment, a number of contradictory positions in productive tension. For just a moment, shapes made from bodies and bodily prosthetics disrupted place, overlapped and blurred spatial boundaries, and collectively improvised partial and transient alternatives to civic participation in urban spaces. It invites us to consider the question: if risk, real-time processes and the foregrounding of the unexpected become deliberate tools in planning and managing urban spaces, what could our future urban participation in the capital city become?

[1] For a history that focuses on the witness accounts and the memorialization aspects of the project, see project organizer Beth Gibbings' own “public history” (Gibbings 2010)

[2] For a notable exception: see (Zable 2001).

[3] See Gibbings (2010); Stephens (2008) for an in depth analysis of the cultural memory elements of the SIEV-X memorial.


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Author Bio

Dr Rebecca Caines is an award-winning interdisciplinary artist and scholar. Her artistic practice, teaching and research work investigates contemporary performance, creative technologies and new media, critical improvisation studies, and site-specific, community-engaged art. She is currently playing a lead role in developing the new Creative Technologies area at the University of Regina, and is director of the Regina Improvisation Studies Centre, one of five sites of the major Canadian research partnership, the International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation. She is co-editor (with Ajay Heble) of the new book "Spontaneous Acts: The Improvisation Studies Reader" with Routledge (2014)

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