Essay

The tyranny of closeness

The experience of exile in a virtual world

I REMEMBER ENTERING Krakow for the first time, in 1995. I’d arrived at the train station via Paris, Berlin, Prague and Budapest – cities where I’d stayed for various periods, looking for a place to live and write. Back then, you couldn’t drop into a destination from space via Google Earth, swivelling a camera to explore streets. There was no Tripadvisor or Airbnb. All I had were a few descriptive paragraphs in a battered edition of Lonely Planet’s Eastern Europe on a Shoestring, printed in black and white on Bible-­thin paper.

There’s a massive, generic shopping mall now where the grey communist-­era bus station stood. When I arrived, the buses had started their early morning departures, spewing black exhaust fumes. Scruffy kiosks sold hot dogs, hamburgers or exchanged money. I’d walked to an old building, with a sign reading Bar Mleczny. The interior looked like a soup kitchen, with Poles at small tables eating in deep silence. I’d ordered barszcz, taken a seat, spooned the purple liquid into my mouth, the flavour sweet and peppery.

The sun rising, I’d walked towards the Old Town with my backpack. Its buildings had been stained with pollution, in dire need of renovation. This, somehow, made them more beautiful. Instead of banks, clothing and fast-­food chains, and stores selling trinkets to tourists, the medieval streets had been lined with corner shops, tailors, watchmakers, cobblers and old cafés. Instead of hotels and investor-­owned apartments rented out short term to tourists, Poles had lived in the apartments above.

Krakow had gravity. Unadorned with tourism, it lay bare. Yet there was also a lightness, nowhere more abundant than in the city’s cellar bars, thrown together with basic furniture, fuelled by beer and vodka – and also by the future’s potential. The first post-­communist generation greeted me with enthusiasm; they wanted me there, because my presence was vindication that history was, at last, turning out correctly. There was ongoing discussion about everything except what people talked about in Sydney. Nobody mentioned jobs. Nobody mentioned cars. Nobody spoke about real estate.

Krakow since has transformed into one of the most popular weekend breaks in Europe. It’s still my home, but if I’d been moving to Europe recently as a twenty-five-­year-­old, I wouldn’t have chosen it. I’d have gone further east, driven by a search for the new, the ‘real’.

 

IN HIS 1966 work The Tyranny of Distance (Macmillan), historian Geoffrey Blainey argues that distance and isolation have shaped the Australian identity. My phrase ‘the tyranny of closeness’ refers to the loss of that idea of distance, of the rest of the world existing as a broad ‘elsewhere’ – especially Europe. The Australian imagination is now more affected by whether households are connected to NBN broadband, and by the cheap airfares that have until recently enabled many more of us to travel abroad easily and often. Technology has fundamentally upended the idea of self-­imposed exile abroad that shaped generations of Australian artists, musicians and writers.

Nick Cave provides a late twentieth-­century blueprint. His story of relocation to Europe was part of his mythical making of the self. How would his life play out today? Consider that late ’70s Melbourne music scene he was part of: if they were starting out now, would the Birthday Party have had time to develop in the same way, in an isolated Antipodean city? It’s probable Cave would have made music and uploaded it to SoundCloud. An album on Bandcamp. All connected to various social media platforms, bringing him into the outside world before he’d even left Australia. Imagine Cave relocating to Berlin in 2020: not quite the same as the divided city he moved to in the early 1980s. He would hardly stand out, part of an invasion of resident artists from around the world, with easyJet and Ryanair tourists on weekend breaks – all visiting Checkpoint Charlie, preserved fragments of the Berlin Wall or the nightclub Berghain or drunkenly staggering through the city on a stag party.

Let’s say Cave found a place more original and peripheral, where he would feel at home as an outsider: maybe Kiev in Ukraine. Checking into his first hotel room, he’d write a text message on his mobile phone, receive an immediate answer. He’d post something on Instagram. Likes and other responses would flow in return, triggering not only a minor dopamine rush, but also a sense of familiarity, security. He wouldn’t know that sense of utter separation that countless Australian exiles had experienced throughout the decades, a separation from which a specific state of mind, perspective and creativity could blossom.

I keep thinking of poste restante, that achingly romantic way Australian backpackers once communicated with people back home. You wrote letters knowing they would arrive eventually – depending on the reliability of the postal service in the country in which you were travelling. Receiving them was more difficult. You had to tell people in advance where you would be, picking up correspondence from a city’s main post office. You handed over your passport and waited, breath held, while the postal office worker looked through a bundle of letters. Any news or declarations of love were already old, but you read them over and over, closing the gap between you and the sender.

Anticipation is tied in with slowness, something we have largely traded by living in the network. I used to say that part of the reason I enjoy the long-­haul flight from Sydney to Europe is because it takes me off-­grid. It gives me time to think. I don’t go for a walk in nature. I fly. Yet I remember when Wi-­Fi was first offered on a plane between Warsaw and Oslo, and I felt a surge of joy. These opposing impulses reveal the extent of our addiction, the need to remain tethered to everywhere, even while moving through the sky towards a specific location.

I travelled twice to Europe with my family as a child, unheard of for anyone growing up in Wagga Wagga in the 1970s and early 1980s. The trip forged acutely my idea of centre and periphery, the sense that our small inland city, surrounded by the emptiness of cleared fields, was not the centre of the universe. Nor was Australia itself. My father recently told me that the price of the Qantas plane tickets to London at that time was not much less than a plane ticket now – the difference being that the $900-­ticket price also represented six weeks’ average salary. As Australians living elsewhere, cheap travel has made it easy to return regularly to the country of our birth, or even live on different continents at the same time. My father has also calculated that if you added up the miles covered by one hundred generations of my English and German ancestors combined, it would be less than the amount I’ve now travelled. He wonders how far back you’d need to go, until their tally equalled mine.

This mobility, though, can rapidly change.

In recent years, air travel has noticeably dropped in Germany and Sweden, a change attributed to ‘flight shame’ at boarding a plane. In 2019 Deutsche Bahn reported record numbers of people travelling by train. Very soon, we may look upon those who fly too much in the way we do people who neglect to divide their rubbish and recycling.

I began writing these words in January 2020 in Australia, the country to which I have returned almost every year since moving to Krakow. Huge parts of the continent were on fire; capital cities were submerged in smoke. I found myself checking the air-­quality app I’d installed on my iPhone for use in Krakow, now using it to plan movements around the country according to the level of small-particle pollution. At the peak of the bushfires, the Australian actor Yael Stone – from Orange Is the New Black – tweeted a video in which she said it was not ‘environmentally ethical to build a life across two continents’, and that she would be giving up her green card, returning permanently from Los Angeles.

 

FLIGHT SHAME COMES with far deeper ramifications for Australians than for Europeans. Travel from Australia to any other country involves an enormous carbon footprint. If we submit fully to guilt, Europe once again becomes a distant land in physical terms. If, soon enough, Australians rarely fly anymore, rarely visit the rest of the world, then the tyranny of closeness will come to mean something else – evoking a constant network of virtual togetherness that will never be fully satisfying.

I recently listened to a radio program exploring the grief felt by Australian scientists studying ecosystems such as the Great Barrier Reef – bleached and dying – or bushfire ravaged landscapes where the scale of the loss of wildlife is impossible to grasp. All this, caused by rising temperatures. If Australian musicians and artists are increasingly marooned in terms of geographical distance and required instead to inhabit interconnected but virtual worlds, this will also entail loss. We will also miss the jolt of physically arriving in another country after a long-­haul flight. Europeans, living beside one another, can never experience this as intensely.

How we navigate and shape this new cultural reality is, in many ways, as important as our response to the natural world – for neither is separate from the other. The decision to live in Europe as an Australian artist may again become a radical act. While keeping us close through that increasingly networked existence, it will entail a decision that severs us more completely from our roots in geographical terms. We’ll find out what kind of art will flow from that.

 

THE NUMBER OF kilometres I’ve flown pales in comparison with the overwhelming number of kilometres I’ve caused to be flown; for while I moved to Poland as a writer, in 2003 I became the artistic director of a music festival. Unsound started as a hobby. Now its main event, in Krakow, attracts half of its audience from abroad – thousands of people fly in. I’ve also produced Unsound festivals in thirty different locations, from New York and London to Minsk, Kiev, Tbilisi, Bishkek and Vladivostok – even Adelaide.

Unsound is part of a broader community of festivals mainly in Europe, run by non-­government organisations and largely funded through the European Union, city or state governments. They usually have a progressive agenda, offering music that celebrates a positive vision of globalisation, diversity and dialogue. We all want to solve thorny problems like climate change. But the blindingly obvious contradictions at the heart of this festival model have been largely ignored by those who produce these events.

I know in writing this I am shooting my own festival in the foot, just as I am undermining my own bicontinental, digitally nomadic lifestyle. Yet the complex ethical and practical questions raised in relation to air travel must be faced. In 2019, we engaged experts to audit Unsound Krakow’s carbon emissions, then asked our audience and artists to donate money calculated according to the number of kilometres they’d flown. This was then used to plant trees in an area the city’s park authority had designated for this purpose. In 2020 we’d planned to add a mandatory ‘carbon tax’ to
all tickets.

A more extreme response would be to simply shut up shop.

Or maybe there’s a middle ground, where these events change character, becoming more focused on the local, where the majority of audience and artists travel by train or bus. If that’s the case, then Australian musicians may find themselves excluded, since most festivals are based in Europe – this model has more chance of working on a continent covered in a patchwork of neighbouring countries. It’s also possible that festivals and clubs will migrate to the virtual world, as more immersive technologies blossom. Current platforms like Boiler Room – where the performance of a DJ surrounded by a small crowd is streamed live – will come to be seen as the equivalent of early internet chat rooms, or films by the Lumière brothers. Paving the way for something far more ‘real’ and immersive.

 

IT IS NOW the end of March 2020.

I’m back in Krakow, arriving a week before Poland went into COVID-­19 shutdown, locking out all flights and trains. Most of the world has now done the same. Airlines including Qantas have grounded their fleets, meaning Australia is effectively cut off for Australians living in Europe.

My partner and I are confined to our apartment in the centre of Kazimierz, Krakow’s former Jewish district. Usually heaving with tourists, it is quiet. From my balcony I can see almost empty trams moving on a main road, a solitary shopper with their coat pulled around them and a police van circulating the streets blaring warnings about COVID-­19 from a loudspeaker. The windows of the buildings opposite ours are mostly dark – rooms usually occupied by Airbnb guests. I’m relentlessly, unhealthily online, checking news, statistics on the Johns Hopkins COVID-­19 map, social media, chat messages and emails. Each day, I call my elderly Australian parents on FaceTime or Skype.

The tyranny of closeness has abruptly come to mean something unexpected – not just for me, but for billions of people across the world, whose days are playing out in variations of mine. We are now all physically separate – yet through technology, we remain unbearably close. Nothing evokes this more acutely than the stories of people saying last goodbyes to dying loved ones in hospitals via video link. We are present, but not present; reality lost yet sharpened.

Last night I spoke to an Australian friend who lives in Paris. He asked, ‘What happens if the internet runs out?’ This idea, of course, is appalling: how would we cope? I push it to the back of my mind, with a whole host of ever-­darkening thoughts.

The live music industry has gone into freefall, with festivals and concert tours cancelled, clubs and venues closed. Nobody knows what or where the other side will be. How do artists respond? Of course, many perform – from Bono and Coldplay’s Chris Martin to underground Polish DJs, all streaming via social media. Mainstream news ruminates on whether more concert experiences might migrate online in the future – and how that might be monetised. This won’t, of course, help those artists in financially precarious situations.

The ‘Golden Age of air travel’ once referred to a time of luxury planes, when you could enjoy a comfortable seat, gourmet meals and martinis, served by someone glamorous. I think we’ve just experienced the real Golden Age, a period where planes were like cramped buses but allowed us, en masse, to take for granted the ease of physical movement around the globe. I also think of all those planes sitting on tarmac, all the empty airports, and how the pandemic has led to a radical drop in air pollution.

Things will never be as they were before these lockdowns, but the question I keep returning to is: what will they look like next? The answer depends on whether we unite – not just as Australians or Europeans, but as human beings – and on what new forms our closeness might take.

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