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Conference Report

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Volume 19, November 2008

Vision, Memory, Spectacle:
the Australian Women’s and Gender Studies Association Conference

The University of Western Australia 9-11 July 2008

At the end of her report from the 2006 Australian Women’s Studies Association conference (before AWSA with a G came into being), Kim Toffoletti looked forward to the next gathering taking place under the ‘sunny skies’ of Western Australia. Well as it turned out, her climatic expectations might not have been fully met (although to be fair there was intermittent sun between the odd shower), but there was much else to appreciate at Vision, Memory, Spectacle in Perth. Not least of which was the launch of over-achiever Kim’s book - but more of that later. And anyway, for those of us who live in the tropics, it’s fun to ferret out coats and jumpers which rarely get an outing.

The conference took place in the extremely sleek and stylish University Club at UWA, overlooking Matilda Bay. Once I had got over the shock of being in a university building that had fully functioning (and beautifully tiled) bathrooms, comfortable chairs and decent coffee, I settled in for three days of good company and deep thinking. At somewhere between 50-60 papers, this conference was smaller than AWSA in Melbourne 2006; probably due to the challenges of convincing those on the east coast to head west. I was worried that smaller numbers might diminish the conference experience but found that the quality of the papers, beautiful location and good hospitality meant that this was an engaging event with an intimate (but not limited) feel.

Indeed, for me, the sign of a good conference is when I face dilemmas in deciding which concurrent session to go to and that was certainly the case here. The papers offered were varied and diverse. Conference convenor Alison Bartlett organised parallel sessions around a variety of themes, which drew on its overarching focus of vision, memory and spectacle. Thus, there were sessions on ‘feminist visions’; ‘remembering feminisms’, ‘corporeal memory’ and a panel on ‘feminism in the museum?’ and ‘spectacles of war’. I attended a number of sessions where post-presentation questions and discussion were full of energy, debate and delight as a result of some skillful combining of compatible papers. Media and Maternity on the first afternoon was a stand-out for me in this regard; Christy Parker, Margie Ripper and JaneMaree Maher each presented thoughtful and engaging papers about motherhood, media representation and choice that flowed on from each other beautifully, contained many useful synergies and elicited lively discussion afterwards. Just love it when that happens. The feminist analyses of ‘therapeutic’ responses to child sexual abuse in Therapeutic Visions was another favourite of mine. Georgia Ovendon explored the psy discourses which diagnose sexually abused women as ‘dysfunctional’. This was effectively followed by Abigail Bray’s argument about how the political – child sexual abuse – is pathologised in neo-liberal, post-feminist culture – focusing in particular on the self-help signifier of the ‘inner child’. Jonathon Marshall’s discussion of the ‘spectacle’ of medicalised hysteria rounded off a very satisfying session.

Participants looking for artistic stimulation were particularly well served at Vision, Memory, Spectacle. Two art exhibitions were held in conjunction with the conference; one showcasing the beautiful photographs of Panizza Allmark and another from printmaker Laurel Nannup. In addition to these riches, keynote speaker Felicity Collins introduced a really valuable evening of short feminist films. The conference was concluded with feminist theatre from Edith Cowan University locals Julie Robson and Dawn Albinger. Another additional event to the regular conference program was the launch of Kim Toffoletti’s book, Cyborgs and Barbie Dolls: Feminism, Popular Culture and the Posthuman Body, introduced by the always-entertaining JaneMaree Maher. The Western Australian wine served was rather good too I recall. Actually – and this is an issue of great importance to me so forgive my shallow nature - all through the conference, the University Club fed and watered us extremely well – even the vegetarians like me.

This was also a conference with strong contributions from eminent keynote speakers; Sasha Roseneil, Pat Dudgeon and Felicity Collins. Sasha Roseneil – extremely recently arrived from the UK – overcame the challenge of jet-lag to provide the opening plenary – a pretty high pressure gig. I was completely engrossed by her personal and analytical accounts of the herstory of the Greenham Common women’s peace camps (just 10 miles from where I grew up) and their recent recognition by English Heritage as sites of historical and archeaological significance. As a local woman – originally from the Bardi people in the Kimberley - Pat Dudgeon didn’t have to contend with changing time zones. A natural story teller, she soon ditched the constraints of powerpoint, to offer her insights and anecdotes about Aboriginal women’s identity and sexuality; drawing on her doctoral research and family experiences. In her plenary session, Felicity Collins presented ‘Shock, boredom and iconography of sexual violence in frontier films’ – a powerful session which left the audience speechless.

The AWGSA AGM, which occupied our final lunch break, was deftly and expertly managed by Maryanne Dever and Marg Henderson. In the interests of supporting feminist research, it was decided that AWGSA will establish a Postgraduate Prize for a feminist dissertation. The first award will be made at the next biennial AWGSA conference in 2010. Other business of note was the interest expressed by the Canadian Women’s Studies Association in joining forces to organise a conference on feminist pedagogy.

Finally, thanks again to conference convenor Alison Bartlett for a job really well done. And good luck to the South Australian contingent who bravely put up their hands to host AWGSA 2010 in Adelaide. Sounds like another chance to pack my coat.

Joanne Baker
James Cook University

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