Desert telecommunications, homelands movement, an isolated new world, communication across vast distances, Clark Kent transformation sites, talking all night, 20th century relics, portals, a people’s refrain.
In 2012, artists Curtis Taylor and Lily Hibberd set out to collect phone box stories in the communities of Parnngurr and Punmu in Western Australia. Their project became much more than the story of colonial and technological imposition on traditional ways of life.
In their work, we see the phonebox – a symbol of modern life, an emergence from early capitalism – completely in its element in a desert neighbourhood, which city-dwellers might think of as a remote area, far from the economic centres of New York or London. Instead of big city sounds, we hear dogs barking, little kids yelling, wheels skidding. We’re on country. Before the telephone, it was smoke signals from fire, and for a long time, it was radio. Now, there is only one telecommunications company that services much of Western Australia.
Most see the phone box as a once-ubiquitous curio – dead tech replaced by Siri, wifi-enabled fridges and car speakers smoothly streaming Spotify via Bluetooth. I love to think of what AirDrop usage could be like in Martu country, if phone coverage permitted it.
But to think of phones and phone booths as arcane relics of 20th century history is folly. In Curtis and Lily’s work, the phone box is less a nostalgia toy than a community hub, a vital and active means of communication that Curtis says has shaped contemporary Martu life in so many ways. It’s a public resource of collective belonging, supporting a neighbourhood’s ongoing self-determination and independence. And in this work, it’s an opening to storytelling and a unique parade of neighbourhood characters.
Telephone culture has experienced a revival since covid confinement. This is what communications objects are for: gathering up stories and spinning narratives, remembering other’s memories and creating new ones, finding alleys to elsewhere.
The Phone Booth Project, 2012, Lily Hibberd and Curtis Taylor, 14 minutes.
Made in collaboration with the communities of Parnngurr and Punmu and the artists wish to acknowledge all the people who contributed stories. This project was commissioned for ‘We don’t need a map’ by Fremantle Arts Centre and Martumili artists, and supported by the State Government of Western Australia, through the Department of Culture and the Arts.
About Curtis Taylor and Lily Hibberd
Curtis Taylor is a Martu artist who works across film and screen art.
Lily Hibberd is an Australian artist and writer from Melbourne, living in Paris and working with communities, artists and scientists to represent marginalised histories and memories.