Stepping Inside the Wirra: Workshop #4: Genevieve Bell interviews Adam Goodes, Angie Abdilla, and Baden Pailthorpe on INDIGENOUS ONTOLOGIES 

[Data Ontologies is the second in a two-part series of AY 2021-22 workshops organized through a Rutgers Global and NEH-supported collaboration between Critical AI@Rutgers and the Australian National University. Below is the fourth in a series of blogs about each workshop meeting. Click here for the workshop video and the discussion that followed.]

Insights from “Indigenous Ontologies”: Stepping Inside the Wirra

By Kirsty Anantharajah, School of Regulation and Global Governance RegNet @ ANU

Australian athlete Adam Goodes, “Racism, It Stops with Me” Australian Human Rights TV Campaign (2019)

In the discussion following the webinar on INDIGENOUS ONTOLOGIES, one participant confessed to crying over her coffee at 7am as she listened to the words shared by the creators of the Tracker Data Project. This is notable as an uncommon response for early-morning academic webinars. Yet, I too shared that emotional reaction. As aptly stated by anthropologist interviewer Genevieve Bell at the outset of the session, the Tracker Data Project was something extraordinary, like “nothing I have seen and like I have felt before.”  Such references to emotion and feeling were resonant currents that flowed through the reflections on this work. The formal and technological nuance of the project defies written summary: nonetheless, in this blog I will try to express some sense of the feeling the discussion elicited–at least from the standpoint of a non-Indigenous participant in a settler-colonial state (and writing this blog from Gadigal land of the Eora Nation- sovereignty over which was never ceded.)

What is the Tracker Data Project?

Adam Goodes, Angie Abdilla, Baden Pailthorpe, Ngapulara Ngarngarnyi Wirra, Tracker Data Project (2022), Installation view, Museum of Discovery (MOD), Adelaide.

Currently exhibited at the Museum of Discovery (MOD), the project marks the return of the extensive biometric data collected on Adam Goodes during his career as an Australian Football League player. As a player, his body was tracked 10 times per second each game; through his collaboration with artist Baden Pailthorpe and Indigenous knowledge scholar Angie Abdilla, a new dataset was created that connected Goodes to his Country and Adnyamathanha Kinship. The Indigenous meanings of “Country” may not be obvious to non-Australian readers. Connection to “Country” relates to how many Indigenous people regard their relation to land: “Rather than owning land, each person belongs to a piece of land which they’re related to through the kinship system.”

Throughout the interview and discussion, expansive boundaries of the project became clear: a recurrent point of provocation was what is it? Is it artwork? How can we categorise or define in?

Tracker Data Project team on Adnyamathanha Country, 2021. Left to right Adam Goodes, Angie Abdilla, Baden Pailthorpe

From the outset, the Tracker Data Project was first and foremost a relational endeavour. Adam Goodes is an Adnyamathanha man, one of AFL’s most lauded players of all time. As Adam explained, the project originated from Baden Pailthorpe’s work on AFL data and Angie Abdilla’s work on Indigenous AI. Goodes interest in sports began with Marngrook, a game Indigenous people played in South Eastern Australia between two Kinship groups, which could last days. Marngrook was the origin of Australian Football, and a clear tether for the Tracker Data Project. This pointed recognition of beginnings, a restoration of Indigenous histories and cultures that preceded and continue to survive colonisation, created the space for the project’s generative and transformational spirit.

Of special interest to scholars of Critical AI, Goodes explained how through the course of the collaboration, the meaning of the vast swathe of data which the AFL had collected changed for him. It became less of an abstraction and more intimate. In particular, he cited the vulnerability felt around the data collected during last two years of his career—when (in a way that American readers might compare to the treatment of the US football player, Colin Kaepernick) he was booed by racist spectators; a poignant and inescapable reminder that racism has bodily effects. The discussion also took us to a place of regeneration. A particularly moving moment was when co-creator Angie Abdilla described a key element of the project: Goodes and his Uncle tell the Creation story of their Place in Adnyamathanha Yura Ngawarla (language). For Adam, who noted that he had spent the last 15 years rethreading a connection with his culture, dislocated in part by the effects of the Stolen Generations on his family, it was his first time narrating entirely in language.

Noted by her collaborators as a key force for mindful, or “slow: design of the project, Professor Angie Abdilla is a Palawa-trawlwoolway woman and the founder and CEO of Old Ways, New. In her thoughtful reflections, Abdilla repeatedly demonstrated the significance of the project’s ontological landscapes. She gently troubled our impulses to classify the project, artwork or otherwise.  Rather, she discussed her preoccupation with finding where the data belonged—both the biometric data collected by the AFL and the data collected about Indigenous sites and practices—to situate it in its historical context, and in its place. In finding its home, in embedding it in its rightful ontology, in Country and Kin, the data’s provenance “was brought into being.”

Pailthorpe, a contemporary artist who works with emerging technologies, spoke of the four years he spent working in relation with Adam and Angie on the Tracker Data Project. During this time he, like the project, became acquainted with Adnyamathanha Kinship system, a system based on two moieties (or blood groups) with specific characteristics: Ararru (North Wind), to which Goodes belongs, and Mathari (South Wind). This connection manifested throughout the project. For example, Pailthorpe recognised measurements taken in relation to the magnetic north in the expanse of Goodes’ biometric data and, grounded in the Adnyamathanha ontology, saw synergy in the ‘North’ character of Adam’s moiety, Ararru. Yet this only became visible to Pailthorpe after he spent time with Adnyamathanha elders. This anecdote highlights the power of ontology in determining our sight, in defining fields of visibility and invisibility. What worlds, what connections, exist outside one’s own ability to recognise them?

These three collaborators, in relation to each other, and to the project, exemplify a profound tethering; one that recovers violent histories of colonial surveillance, genocidal policies, and dislocation and reconnects otherwise abstract “data” to culture, place and history. When abstract data is tethered to place, that process of recovery includes the generative power to call into being. It can weave an outsider such as Pailthorpe in, training new fields of reality. And briefly, thanks to the generosity of the Tracker Data Project’s creators, we in the webinar felt tethered to something too.   

This connection highlights the Tracker Data Project’s transformational nature; for the non-Indigenous Australian participants at least, the project enables a felt connection to a hitherto invisible past, present and future. Abdilla epitomized this emotional effect through her description of entering the Wirra (tree) in the exhibition. The tree is important because it inverts the spatial expectation of entering an enclosed space. On entering the depths of the Wirra expectations, feelings of enclosure and confinement give way to an experience of expansion as the viewer meets with projections of Adnyamathanha Country: ‘of the world opening up.’

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