Who’s been sleeping in my bed? Cheap motel rooms and transgression
Carolyn McKay with Mark Bosch
Where are those elusive traces of the violence of history? What is that weird melancholy coursing through the landscape, through the interior, and through the body? Both Living Room Theatre’s Michelle St Anne and artist-academic Carolyn McKay ask these questions in their deeply personal practices. Both ask: how to reckon with sites of violence as the pain of the past both fades in time and yet remains inexorably present?
I had the privilege of speaking with Carolyn McKay about her current research with crime scene motels. The gravity of these interiors speaks to the more-than-human power of place to arrest our sensibilities, and, perhaps, turn us towards history in more ethical, attentive ways.
Mark: Michelle St Anne’s work often takes everyday (nontraditional performance space) interiors and renders them strange through drawing attention to their unique qualities (performers running a metal chain along a roughly textured wall, or an animal scientist lecturing from inside a shower, being two examples from recent works). Our perception of an interior space is deeply contingent on how meaning has historically been made in it, and when this meaning is upended, our affective response in turn can be quite jarring. If you’ve ever had your house broken into, you might agree that the particular traces of meaning left in a ransacked wardrobe or shattered windowpane deeply challenge our sense of place. Sense of place is revealed as something far more porous—and perilous—than we might imagine.
Carolyn, your current interdisciplinary project regards crime scene motels. What are the sorts of traces that change these motel spaces irrevocably for the knowing subject, somebody who knows a crime has taken place there? How might they then approach the space differently?
Carolyn: I’ve been researching crimes committed in banal suburban motels and motor inns. What commenced as mere legal curiosity has transformed into a project of dark tourism, visual criminology and hauntology or ghost criminology, during which I’ve stayed at a selection of crime scene motels to textually and visually document the tangible as well as intangible, sensorial attributes. In staying overnight, I’m seeking a ‘visceral reading of the site’ (Kindynis and Garrett 2015: 10) and the opportunity to commune with the ‘ghostly matter’ (Gordon 2008: 134) of the immaterial elements that linger. What traces remain? I’ve found that the hospitality industry is always keen to suppress or erase the traces of criminal behaviour – it’s simply not good for business. Traces are kept secret, except for the knowing subject. For me, the rooms are not inert or inanimate; they’re filled with the accretions of human experience – the ghosts of former guests. There is a melancholia, or ‘tears of things’ (Schwenger 2006: 1 quoting Virgil 29-19 BC), palpable in the worn, unremarkable motel fixtures and fittings. Through the camera lens I seek to capture the affective attributes of objects that are not indifferent to the accumulations of human touch and history.
Mark: Isn’t it a bit uncanny that unknowing subjects—those who are not aware of the history—might inhabit the space of a former crime scene? There is certainly an ethics and a politics to the way different bodies write differently upon different spaces, and when and where this writing is considered revision or erasure. Personally, my recent research into the suburb of Casula where I live has revealed the nearby banks of the Georges River as a former meeting place of the Dharawal, Gandangara, and Darug. This simple fact has not only enriched my sense of place but made me question why this is not more widely acknowledged, and what sorts of ethical questions might yet be put to us in relation to places with this kind of storied significance. For example, how does such knowledge call on us to live in/with places differently?
On the other hand, when might it be ok not to disclose a location’s history?
As part of a collaborative performance with Brian Joyce at the Violence conference in Verona, Italy in July this year, I addressed this issue. In our co-authored script true TRUE CRIME crime, my character states:
Alongside my academic research I have also been documenting these sites with the intention of developing a body of creative visual interpretations through photography, painting and video of this spatial and corporeal experience.
This work has caused me to ask – Who’s been sleeping in my bed?
Motel Guest looks at bed suspiciously.
Something I now always ask myself. I can’t unlearn what I have learned about motel rooms.
Don’t ever stay in Room 7.
Motel Guest checks room key number.
I’m writing about this for a book chapter in Fiddler, M., T. Linnemann, and T. Kindynis (eds.) Ghost Criminology (forthcoming 2020 from New York University Press, New York NY). For instance, two of the motels I’ve stayed in were sites of sexual violence, so my spatial engagement was very much framed by my knowledge and an uncanny atmosphere of threat conjured by the legal narratives that brought me to those sites. In my book chapter I write: ‘Are the ghosts already here or am I the medium for the haunting? Is it only eerie because I am a knowing subject?’ I’m still not sure.
Mark:While we write meaning onto space, space also writes meaning onto us. Maria Tumarkin uses the term “traumascapes” to describe the way physical sites of trauma ‘trigger and anchor the re-experiencing and re-remembering of traumatic pasts . . . that memory cannot fully absorb, and language cannot fully contain’ (2015: 36). Similarly, St Anne has suggested that simply changing the colour of the light or repositioning an item of furniture can create the effect of a traumascape (pers comm).
In your work, how have you dealt with—captured or reflected on—the particular aesthetics of traumascapes?
Early in this crime scene motel project, I made a conscious decision to only stay at B grade, run-down motels and motor inns. ‘Motel’ derives from ‘motor hotel’, thus, ‘mo-tel’ (Sandoval-Strausz 2007; Eschner 2016) referring to the establishments that sprung up along main roads with the rise of the car and increased mobility of the workforce and general population. As traumascapes, cheap motels reflect the transience of guests, predetermined absence, anonymity and a commingling of strangers. There is a retro aesthetic in the faded beigeness and mismatched interior design of these motel rooms that appeals to my own artistic sensibilities and speaks to hauntology and a presence of the past. It is perhaps the utter mundanity of these rooms that makes it surprising that they are simultaneously sites of violence.
Mark Bosch is completing a Bachelor of Arts with majors in French and Gender Studies at the University of Sydney, and will be completing an Honours project with an environmental focus in 2019. He plays the violin for leisure, occasionally freelances, and has since 2017 been a member of the Sydney University Symphony Orchestra. He also writes for the online youth classical music magazine CutCommon, and volunteers with the AYCC (Australian Youth Climate Coalition). Mark’s other interests include journalling and digital subcultures.
Carolyn McKay is a visual artist, researcher and academic who lectures in Criminal Law and Procedure at the University of Sydney Law School. She holds degrees in Commerce/Law (UNSW), MSA and MVA (Sydney College of the Arts), and PhD (University of Sydney Law School). Her academic research focuses on technologies in justice as well as punishment and incarceration, surveillance and visual criminology. Carolyn’s first research monograph The Pixelated Prisoner: Prison video links, court ‘appearance’ and the justice matrix was published by Routledge, 2018. Carolyn is also a curator and in 2018 she curated justiceINjustice for The Lock-Up – a major collaborative project between 7 Australian artists and 3 lawyers that was the recipient of a 2018 Museums & Galleries of New South Wales exhibitions project award. Carolyn’s creative practice encompasses digital video and audio, photomedia and painting and revolves around technologies in prisons and courts; visual representations of criminality; convict tattoo designs and bio-data; criminal monikers; medieval suicide and surveillance technologies. The recipient of many awards, Carolyn has also been selected for residencies at The Lock-Up in Newcastle 2009 and Bundanon 2005.
Eschner, Kat, “The World’s First Motel Was a Luxury Establishment, Not a Dive”, Smithsonian Mag, 12 Dec 2016, accessed 1 Aug 2019 at <https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/worlds-first-motel-was-luxury-establishment-not-dive-180961384/>.
Gordon, Avery, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, 2nd edition, University Of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis MN, 2008.
Kindynis, Theo, and Bradley Garrett, “Entering the Maze: Space, Time and Exclusion in an Abandoned Northern Ireland Prison”, Crime Media Culture 11(1), 2015.
Sandoval-Strausz, A. K., Hotel: An American History, Yale University Press, New Haven CN, 2007.
Schwenger, Peter, The Tears of Things: Melancholy and Physical Objects, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis MN, 2006.
Tumarkin, Maria, “Traumascapes revisited”, Artlink 35(1), 2015.