A quick spin around Melbourne’s Docklands reveals all the usual signs of ‘urban renewal’: cookie-cutter condos neatly stacked above estate agents and restaurants, malls, ill-conceived public sculptures and rows of well-pruned myrtle trees. Landmarks include the ice rink, the Melbourne star Observation Wheel, the Etihad stadium and notably, a Costco superstore. But the blandly affluent area has lived former lives as a swamp, an industrial zone, then was abandoned for a while, before – as post-industrial ruins tend to do – becoming a nexus for the underground rave scene. These Docklands are the quasi-setting for artist and author Holly Childs’ latest novel, “Danklands”, but Childs’ readers won’t recognise much of it. And why should they? If you’ve never been to Melbourne (which looks like a fusion of Los Angeles and London’s Canary Wharf), a Google streetview tour will show you areas in which virtual representation distorts physical reality. In fact, these data glitches, pixellations and blurrily censored faces are a fitting introduction to Childs’ latest tome.
“Danklands is all Melbourne, but a paranoid mid-winter Melbourne performed on the hottest day of summer,” Childs tells Sleek via Gmail, and calls Docklands “a gateway to nowhere and very windy”. Her book is described in the brilliant preface by Astrid Lorange as a “dredgecore novella” and the area’s swampy origins have inspired a writing technique she refers to as “dredging”, recalling the process of clearing debris – both natural and manmade – from the beds of harbours, rivers and waterways.
“The idea of ‘dredging’, bringing things up from the bottom and the past, was one of my starting points for this novel,” says Childs. “It’s partially about maintaining ‘the draft’ in the final work – leaving things lying around, or pulling things up again that disrupt the surface.” This ‘dredging’ gives the language its cluttered, ruptured, listicle-format style that reads like buzzy internetspeak: it’s not constrained to linear formatting and contains disorienting but poetic portals to other things such as texts, ideas, graphics, videos and sounds. Any semblance of reality is fractured or problematised by Childs. The setting for the book switches between the virtual and the real in spaces that Childs describes as “personal, discounted and discredited spaces of meaning-making. These spaces are online, in dreams, in imagination, in the future and in a sense, ‘in secrets’.” As such, reading “Danklands” from beginning to end feels like logging off from a heavy browsing session, or waking from a fever dream.
“E-create the universe every morning when you wake up. And kill it every evening. Dream girl told me to pare back the make-up, never look back. Logging-into-Skype aural cue in background.” (p. 5) This perspective is unmistakably millennial and is filled with anxious characters having clipped, incoherent conversations over instant messenger – an approach which is probably quite alien to anyone who doesn’t spend their lives ‘dredging’ out online identities through Tumblr, Facebook and Youtube. Take for example the novel’s protagonist, Augusten. He is at once described as being “charming manipulative” as well like “guitar music” and “thermals”, and exists in a fictional landscape that’s composed of banal neuroses (“Just wrote ‘hey i’m sad’ in a text field but did not send”) which is in turn set against a backdrop of inherent conspiracy theories created by Childs’ constant references to 9/11 and chemtrails.
Amid this paranoid world proliferates another reality composed of trendier signifiers from internationally-hyped musicians such as Kelela and Fatima Al Qadiri, and Melbourne locals including poet Aurelia Guo and artist André Piguet. But despite this sometimes painfully self-conscious approach, Childs is nonetheless touching on some real concerns. Her characters struggle with their precarious lifestyles that are at once globalised yet isolated, and conducted from behind a computer screen, and their 140-character attention spans seem incapable of receiving or giving affection and are ultimately totally bereft of purpose and direction.
“We swim in the same streams in our consciousness, when we are asleep and awake. We will have many coincidences and agreements because we hold our breaths and see the other float by. Probably besties in another life.” (p. 46)
“Danklands” was published last December by Arcadia Missa in London in a limited edition which sold out in weeks, hot on the heels of first novel, “No Limit”, published by Hologram books in April 2014. Like “Danklands”, “No Limit” fosters similar ideas within a less experimental narrative: it’s set in Auckland, New Zealand against the backdrop of an active volcano and the threat of apocalypse predicted by the Mayan calendar in 2012. However, when asked why she chose New Zealand’s capital as the setting for her debut, Childs is typically evasive, responding by emailing a link to a BuzzFeed article about the city’s residents panic-buying chocolate milk in fear of imminent shortage. Perhaps she was trying to imitate the behaviour of some of her characters in order to further emphasise the blurred distinctions between life and art that her novels seem to thrive upon. Perhaps she was just being cute.
Nonetheless, both books owe no small debt to the emotionally blank style of Bret Easton Ellis, as well as the hazy sexuality and impending doom of New Queer Cinema director Gregg Araki and the cyberpunk soothsaying of writers William Gibson and Philip K. Dick. It’s also clear that Childs is very aware of this cultural matrix and often includes overt references to fellow cohorts in her text. Early on in “No Limit”, several of the characters attend an exhibition entitled “Not Dreams”, featuring artworks by real artists including PB PR, Clara Chon and Amalia Ulman. “I actually consulted the artists I included that in exhibition,” Childs says.
“Danklands” also makes frequent allusions to post-internet art star Ryan Trecartin’s recent exhibition “Site Visit”, which the author saw in person halfway through writing the book and credits in her acknowledgements. “Seeing Site Visit at Berlin’s Kunstwerke gallery was the first time I’d seen a Fitch/Trecartin work IRL,” she said and described “the manner in which space is used in Site Visit” as feeling eerily similar to what she was already doing with “Danklands”: “their work is so much about a ‘vibe’ and the dissolution of characters and rooms or walls or objects as characters too”.
On being asked about the drive to integrate such recognisable contemporary art and art world figures into her semi-fictional spaces, Childs says it’s probably “about being from the periphery”, and makes a somewhat inscrutable distinction between how art celebrity functions in Australia compared to established scenes in London, Berlin or New York. “I’m hyperaware of seeing but not being seen,” she says.
Besides placing art works into the book, another of Childs’ working tropes is to dredge them from the text and into reality. As part of the Arcadia Missa residency that allowed her to finish “Danklands”, Childs also curated an exhibition in London, “Quake II”, featuring works by Andre Piguet and Marian Tubbs. Tubbs created the book’s cover artwork while Piguet’s works can be found within its pages; a version of his “fantasy medieval double-headed battle axe, rendered in epoxy resin, [with] handle gripped in acid lime like a tennis racquet” is handed to a character named Bam by another named Andre?. Meanwhile, another axe is made by Andre? Piguet and hung, IRL, from the ceiling of Arcadia Missa in London. A clear precedent here is Reena Spaulings, the name of sprawling art happening that encompasses a novel, a fantasy it-girl, a fantasy artist and a gallery space created by the Bernadette Corporation, a multidisciplinary group who emerged from NYC’s club kid scene in the Nineties. In both cases, confusion ensues.
After reading the book twice, one can’t help but try to force a more linear narrative onto the characters and plot, even if it’s just an ambient backstory. Even then one troubling question remains: What is really going on here? Answers seem few and far between, and the notion that authorial intent might guide the reader through this mysterious narrative seems utterly absurd – but perhaps that’s the point. Childs tells Sleek that while she enjoys putting real or half- real things into fiction, she’s creating works that don’t necessarily refer to a particular meaning, but that are more “vibe or tone or texture. A wash or a gloss…and again I guess that relates to dredging and resurfacing – seeing through water.” this stance is prose as mood board and being submerged in Childs’s universe is at once breath- taking and bewildering.
If she’s chronicling a generation, Sleek asks holly which of its countless labels she prefers. Millennial seems to be trending hardest but there’s also Generation Y, Net Gen, Echo Boomers, 9/11 generation and Generation We (#GenWe). She reminds Sleek of a missed one: “ehh ~generation next!~” she writes in her web-comfy style, “The Pepsi × Spice Girls proprietary generational tag 😀 <3 <3 <3 I love.”
It’s a fitting label. As a generation growing up with instant access to information from all over the planet, we’ve become conditioned
to expect access to the next big thing as fast as our fibre optic broadband connections will allow us. Between the Y2k scare, 9/11, tsunamis, nuclear disasters, Snowden’s revelations and the financial crisis, it’s certainly been one hell of a decade to dredge from.
Taken from Sleek 45, Silent Spring
Text by Ella Plevin
“Danklands” by Holly Childs is available through Arcadia Missa