Imagining Futurity in Aishla Manning’s Soft Blow 2018

The leaf blower, through its own efforts, only meets dull thuds. All it can do is blow, or not blow. Do, or not do. These are its only choices. When not blowing it dangles limply, in isolation, bungee cord and pillow strapped around its midsection, waiting (?), tame in its parameters (?), complacent (?), in the crude MDF box clamped by clamps together at the top corners. We can see the makeshift pseudo integrity of these joins, but it’s the same thud to the leaf blower when it chooses its only agency, the pillow ill-situated to soften any blow.

The leaf blower is a symbol of capital’s conquer of the “natural” environment, a last little frill of unnecessity (because what symbolises rule better than unnecessity?). It is the tool of the one who decides where the leaves shall not be, not on the lawn, not on the driveway. I have a friend whose job is to blow the leaves off the lawns at University of Queensland every single day(1). Things have to be natural in the right way. What then of this tool of the system that naturalises? What then of this apparatus when it enacts upon itself? Well, it takes turns flying about like a christmas beetle under fluoros, banging into the walls of its pen, then succumbing to idle suspension.

Sisyphus comes to mind, for obvious reasons. The leaf blower is both him and his boulder, blowing forth (backward?) only to ricochet back (forward?). And it seems so damn sad! Then Albert Camus was like, “but who says Sisyphus isn’t smiling? Who says he is in torment just cause his work like obtains no production, gains no ground, is technically an eternal punishment, and is, like, essentially meaningless? Y’know, maybe he found some meaning in it.”(2) Haven’t we all, at one point or another, arrived at the meaningless conclusion about our lives, or life in general? And then continually make our best efforts to dull that knife on carving our own meanings, and stabbing at bits of joy, that knife that sharpens persistently on the whetstone of our disappointments and depressions? Hmm, sounds a lot like Sisyphus. Following Camus’ logic, perhaps the leaf blower could be smiling too? I mean, the scene is kinda funny, in its absurdity, and in a slapsticky way. Appreciation of absurdity requires a step back perspective, it takes us out of the game for a while. Here, we’re given a two-fold reprieve- through comedy, and through the distancing this perspective affords us. We laugh at it because otherwise we’d cry for ourselves. Otherwise, it’s too real.

But this situated distinction (us/it) fades pretty fast, and ohh no, here comes the empathising… Y’know, I feel a lot like the leaf blower. [begin scene] I try and I try and I try and sometimes, no matter fuckin what I do, I’m brought thudding back on my arse, in one way or another. *throws arms up in indignation* And I know that doing nothing at all won’t help either. So all I can do is try right? And just hope that one day, it’ll be the system that gives way, not me! [end scene] I wonder if Sisyphus ever thought that one day the boulder would not roll back down the hill, but he’d manage to get it to the top. And then what? Have a bit of a breather and just push it back down the other side of the hill? Isn’t that the same thing? Maybe he saw that, this hill, or that hill, he couldn’t escape the meaninglessness. Besides, he gets to be outside right? And he enjoys listening to the bird calls and the insects’ songs as he toils, and at least he’s not condemned eternally to office work! Those poor chumps, he thinks, they sure are alienated from their labour! I can at least keep physically fit and breathe fresh air, and listen to interesting podcasts, he says to himself as he works on his Positive Mental Attitude. I always thought Sisyphus was doomed, and then I learnt that I am him, except I have more variation in my day-to-day. And now it appears that Sisyphus could be smiling.

Okay, so let’s say the leaf blower has also worked on its PMA and carved some strivable life meaning out for itself and it is hard at work trying to bring down the closed system of the clamped MDF pen it finds itself in. Clamps upon clamps seems to me an apt metaphor for the structures that hold the given world together. They’re not permanent fixings, not preordained truths, it’s not “just the way things are”, they’re just clamped there. Maybe the leaf blower is trying to huff and puff and blow those naturalising parameters down from the inside! If they were clamped there at some point, then they can be unclamped, right!? Maybe that’s what the leaf blower is hoping, although, for all my anthropomorphising, I just can’t seem to see its hope, just its futility. Maybe that is because (through my humancentric lens) it is a tool, a doing thing, that has a use. And on this occasion, its doing is rendered void, useless, pathetic. The tool out of the hands of the leaf oppressor lacks direction, it blows back, it backfires. I guess tools just aren’t supposed to work on their own. But hang on, perhaps I am doing this leaf blower a hypocritical disservice. On one hand I humanise it to represent me through metaphor in my humanny struggles, because at my distance I can relate safely, I can laugh, not cry, and enjoy the artistic gesture. Yet, on the other hand, I deny it any hope and therefore, perhaps, any futurity outside of this situation. And I’ll admit, in a conversation after the show a friend said that they want to see the leaf blower break apart the walls, and I said “I don’t!” Because, like if Sisyphus got his boulder to the top of the hill, what then for the leaf blower? It no longer has to bang its arse around against those walls – cool, but it’d still be swinging around aimlessly in isolation under a rental house in Highgate Hill. Y’know, as Bob Dylan said (ergh I can’t believe I’m quoting Bob Dylan), “are birds free from the chains of the skyway?”(3)

In saying all this, am I also doing myself a disservice? Am I denying myself hope and futurity in a bargain to temporarily soothe my feelings of futility and meaningless through this dissociated solidarity with the leaf blower? An existential crutch which only remains in tact in its closed sisyphean loop? Is it easier to just externalise an apprehension of harsh reality, and distance myself from it through a critique of the systems of domination? Than to like, imagine otherwise? Donna Haraway reckons that critique alone is idiotic because it doesn’t imagine other ways of being.(4) And I reckon my friend was right.(5) Against this “tools just aren’t supposed to” business, and beyond this “it’s all the same meaninglessness anyway” dejected rhetoric, I need to be imagining other possibilities. Maybe I need to imagine those clamps losing grip, and those walls clamouring down and, after that, I need to imagine another way of being (or means of becoming) for the leaf blower and for myself, and I guess while I’m at it, for me smilin’ mate, Sisyphus, too.

Aishla Manning Soft Blow (2018).
Exhibited at Kunstbunker Artist Run Initiative, Brisbane, 2018.
Image Credit: Naomi O’Reilly.

Kinly Grey

June 2018