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'Waiting with Bated Breath'

, Abraham Bradfield
Published: 5 October 2021

Abstract: Fig. 1: Bated Breath (mirror detail), 2021. Chrome-plated ceramic fish on steel frame with fishing line and mirror. Reproduced courtesy of M. Cope and UQ Art Museum. Photo: Carl Warner. The term monster has its etymological roots in Latin, deriving from monere, meaning to warn, and demonstrate, meaning to show or reveal (Musharbash; Cohen “Hybrids”). Monsters are therefore beings that exhibit behaviours that threaten the familiar, warning others of the dangers of transgressing cultural norms. Online media provides a platform on which many transgressions take place, resulting in acts that could be described as monstrosities. As monsters are imbued with cultural meaning, they serve as conceptual frameworks through which to analyse social systems and structures. In this article we draw on literature from monster studies and monster anthropology, as well as representations of monsters in popular media, as a means through which to discuss online racism. Our article is inspired by the themes explored in Bated Breath (see figs. 1, 2, 3), an artwork by Quandamooka artist Megan Cope (Australia), whose installation embodies the function of a monster. Cope’s art both reveals the prevalence of online racism, which is often directed towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, whilst also warning of our susceptibility of contributing or remaining complacent to such harmful behaviour. We begin by discussing what monsters are, how they are portrayed in popular media, and consider the liminal worlds in which they live. The next section highlights the prevalence of online racism, which we assess through the concepts of “clickbait” and “trolling”, reflecting on how this reinforces power imbalances by spreading misinformation, conjecture, and racial abuse. In the final section we look at monsters as mirrors, unpacking the need to reflexively engage with the ramifications of online behaviour. If Indigenous voices and self-determination are overlooked, and the nation refuses to enter a mature dialogue pertaining to its colonial past and present, monstrosities such as those which regularly occur online are doomed to continue to haunt us all in various forms. Social media have an auspicious hold over many people’s lives, becoming not only a medium through which to share and encounter views, opinions, and experiences, but also an agent that shapes and facilitates how people interact with and respond to their surroundings (Petray “Self-writing”). In the digital age known as Web 2.0 (Petray “Protest 2.0”; Corbett et al.), social media both influence and determine behaviour as much as they reflect it. The online world is a cannibalistic monstrous interface where multiple ideas, behaviours and discussions feed off and into one another, creating swirls of activity that can quickly sweep people up and turn them into the objects of collective discourses. It is this cyclonic-like force that is the subject of Bated Breath. Fig. 2: Bated Breath, 2021. Chrome-plated ceramic fish on steel frame with fishing line and mirror. Reproduced courtesy of M. Cope and UQ Art Museum. Photo: Carl Warner. In the artwork, Cope features 1300 ceramic fish that hang from the ceiling, spiralling downward towards a mirrored disc that lies on the floor of the gallery in which it stands. Each fish is painted with a coating that reflects light and its surroundings. Although the work does not directly reference monsters, Cope has nonetheless given body and a physical presence to the overwhelming grasp that social media have over many people’s lives. Her use of light and mirrors project refracted light and shadows throughout the gallery, reminding viewers that by simply being in the presence of Bated Breath they too are susceptible to being sucked into its monster-like vortex. In the label accompanying the work, Cope states: Often baited with racism, social media spaces have become a trap and a divisive tool that sanctions a common form of lateral violence within Aboriginal communities. The mirror symbolically refers to narcissism, involving self-centred, arrogant thinking and behaviour lacking empathy. Caught in such a vortex encourages mob mentality and prohibits autonomy. Like a monster, Cope’s installation has a metaphysical presence that “shows”, “warns”, and speaks to the dangers of social media, particularly for Aboriginal peoples within settler-colonial settings (Carlson and Frazer). Online spaces can be unsafe for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (Carlson and Kennedy). It is an environment where colonial sentiments—which emphasise white supremacy whilst simultaneously questioning and denying Indigeneity—are pervasive and widespread (Carlson and Kennedy). A study conducted by Tristan Kennedy found that 62% of the Aboriginal people they surveyed have daily experiences of racism online. While such racism can be overt, aggressive, and threatening, it often takes the more subtle, but equally demoralising, form of paternalistic white benevolence that as Cope highlights “prohibits autonomy”. Monsters have been described as the “fragmentation and recombination” (Cohen “Monster Theory” 11) of parts that formulate a grotesque assembly, much like Frankenstein’s Creature. The fragmentations of social media addressed by Cope are racist online journalism, fake news, and clickbait. These fragments are discussed in the latter half of this article. Before we unpack these further, however, it is first necessary to discuss social media as an environment parallel to the settings in which monsters are often situated, a space we are calling ‘monstrous worlds’. Fig. 3: Bated Breath (fish detail), 2021. Chrome-plated ceramic fish on steel frame with fishing line and mirror. Reproduced courtesy of M. Cope and UQ Art Museum. Photo: Carl Warner. Within the...
Keywords: take / clickbait / dangers / warning / online racism / monsters / behaviour / Cohen / threaten

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