The Absurdist Tour Guide: wandering through “Sydney’s Siberia”

Jason Nelson’s Sydney’s Siberia opens to a framed portrait of a man on a wall, with Nelson’s red pen marks circling his head like a halo. The text above the portrait, in both black and white letters, reads: “between 1875 and 1877 twelve men and women created the folly history society. their goal was to photograph strangers, build histories of important and far reaching deeds and then memorialize them as grand pillars, window adorning guardians civic’s future.”

The reader then clicks anywhere to zoom in until the blurred image becomes a mosaic of tiles for the reader to pick and explore. Each tile is a photograph of Newcastle, Australia with an accompanying line or stanza – 121 tiles in all, infinitely clickable.

My initial reaction was to apply reason to the work, jotting down lines from each tile and choosing images to click based on relevance to the previous tile. But this method is contrary to the very nature of the infinite hypertext, so I let myself get lost in Newcastle, as well as the strange, absurdist poem.

A zoom-shot of one of the tiles, revealing several new or repeating tiles to choose from as the reader zooms in further.

A zoom-shot of one of the tiles.

The poem, however, doesn’t feel like the focus of the work. With no way to backtrack and reread the previous line – and with no right way to order or organize the poem – each tile and accompanying text is a standalone piece.  The reader must detract meaning from the impression that each individual tile adds to the piece as a whole, rather than the actual content and language. You won’t see the big picture if you focus on the details here.

At times, the lines approach the totally abstract or incoherent, and the only sense is derived from the familiar and benign sites of the city: a water fountain, a door knob, a car parked on the side of the street. It doesn’t feel as much like reading a poem as it does exploring a city.

If Sydney’s Siberia is to act like a tour of the city of Newcastle, Nelson might serve as an oddly alienating tour guide, showing the readers around the back alleys and pointing to road signs and metal gates as significant landmarks.

The poetry sometimes refers directly to the photograph.

The poetry sometimes refers directly to the photograph.

However, while Nelson might provide the checkpoints, Sydney’s Siberia takes the reader on a self-guided tour; with each click, I made the decision as to where I wanted to visit next, and when I wanted to stop.

The reflection on the contemplative and absurd tiles is a solitary one; there are no humans present in any of the images. But there are traces of life to be found almost everywhere – a worker’s abandoned glove, a stalling car, two cigarette butts, etc. Life is present, but out of frame and out of mind for an otherwise peaceful wandering through the city.



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