Theresa Byrnes
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Big Night Out (excerpt)
By Theresa Byrnes

...So I am good at the big night out. Oh, the thrill of risk, the joy of the shocking and the abundant possibilities in destruction. The uptight walls crumble and there seems to be no limit to my all-encompassing exuberance. It's taking control of my own mortality, sacrificing brain cells to booze and bringing on cancer by sucking down cigarettes. There is something enlightening defiant about celebrating, letting loose, rejoicing by poisoning myself, not giving a shit. 'Contradiction in terms?' Life is so full of contradictions, opposites giving each other meaning. My idea of balance is back to back extremes: creative hyper productivity, contemplation and isolation to full on, out there, party mode. It seems that unity and truth reside in colliding forces and nothing is right or wrong in that moment of exalted obliteration.

I live outside the loop - no husband, children, mortgage or automobiles. I own nothing but my presence, my wheelchair and my art materials. I am one of the underground privileged. Not chained to the system - grateful to it, but also critical of it. I live freedom in the delirious joy of living my dreams, a self-sufficient artist based in New York, travelling the world exhibiting my work. It was the dream of my ancestors, being answerable only to one: 'I am the boss of me.' From a lineage of adventurers running from war, from arranged marriages, from strict family, from poverty. I have arrived certainly without a silver spoon, but with millennia of love and knowledge that I can do anything, wherever I hang my hat. And now the bloody civilisation comes tumbling down.

My entire adult life, as an artist, writer and vehement freethinker, has been about seeking truth - the way to live in ultimate freedom, on the firm path of destiny. I had always felt on the outside of the community or so deep within it I was avoided like a mutant. I don't want what most work for all their lives: financial security. I want only to understand life and to ride the adventure of it with no fear, facing all opposition as a means to bringing me closer to truth. Rebellious? I just want to cut the civilised crap.

I treasure my unstable life. I follow my bliss and my will to be a conscious global citizen. Added to my mix is a fatal, genetic disorder - Friedreich's Ataxia - causing deterioration of my coordination. My nervous system is failing and clumsiness is increasing. Now wheelchair mobile, I speed down the path of freedom deconstructing. Wind in my hair, I know deeply that freedom is not about mobility and control of the body or about unabashed consumer choice. I miss the ball, but not the plot.

I live in the East Village, downtown New York, about fifteen minutes from the World Trade Centre. One afternoon I was doing a little martial arts workout with my then lover and friend Cameron, when a smoky stench flooded in, directed by the wind, that was to fill the air for months. We embraced and sobbed in each other's arms because we recognised that smell instantly - the smell of death, incinerated bodies, asbestos and CFC's.

It seemed that any light relief or joy was fleeting between trauma, as thousands of spirits let go of New York City, realising their death. And we too were realising death, not just the deaths of the victims but also the death of the world, as we had known it. Once again I would have to examine the meaning of freedom.

Sirens reined in the hood. In the weeks after 'the crash' you could barely count to sixty without a screaming emergency vehicle ripping though your heart. Locals wore dust masks, NYPD on every corner, roadblocks, and an anthrax scare at 'Key Food' (my grocery store on the block). The military were in the East River, and in the sky. The City on high alert; lockdown.

I slunk with ease into depression. There were days I could barely raise my sobbing head off my chest. The following Friday evening, after crying for most of the afternoon, my best friend and neighbour Irene (originally from Perth) invited me to go and see Archie Roach and Ruby Hunter perform at the BAM café (Brooklyn Academy of Music). It was part of the Next Wave Festival. I crashed the opening party and ended up dancing with Robert Archibald (Manager Cultural Relations, Australian Consulate in New York) and Teresa Keleher (Cultural Ambassador, Australian Embassy in Washington DC), while sculling good Australian wine on the BAM stage.

Irene and I used to party at the same clubs in 1980s Sydney, The Trade Union Club, Manzil Room, Kardoma café. I was fourteen and she was thirty-one. After tracking similar paths and dancin' in each other's shadows, we finally met when I moved into the building a little over a year ago. We have become like sisters, joined by the spirit of good live music, a past of wild men, a ragingly independent tenacity and a sublime love for New York City.

Irene and I had a conversation shortly after September 11 about how we both felt we'd been in training for 'the fall' all our lives. Some of my friends had just moved from New York while others, like Jess Adams (author and astrologer), arrived from London the night before. If New York were an artist, her subject would be freedom. And maybe we are her scribes and her expression. The word on the street is that we feel selected by this place and although freaking out, couldn't bear to be anywhere else.

I am used to the whole death sentence thing. We all have a fatal condition called life. But now more than ever, it feels like any day could be the end. I look at the Manhattan skyline and I can't help but see it collapse before my eyes. I listen to politicians of Western world saying, 'Buy, buy, buy!' as friends lose their jobs and the ass falls out of the art market.

Archie and Ruby's first song was 'Took the Children Away', about the stolen generation. I burst into tears. Irene put her arm around me and held my hand. I had come full circle to realise that we are all stolen children: all born to the earth and swiftly indoctrinated into religious, moral, economic and political orders. Division is created, beliefs instilled - capitalism is mistaken for freedom: it enslaves, impoverishes and commodifies human rights. Desire delivered, consumer need expands - exploitation creates stability. I cried because I felt a renewed unity with the earth and a profound spiritual solidarity with my indigenous brothers and sisters, the entire humanity.

September 11 has had a sobering effect on the neighbourhood. In the past few years the East Village has fallen victim to a 'creeping fabulousness', the once notorious Alphabet City now gentrified. The young hip and financially mobile come to get sloshed, on a crawl form on shi-shi bar to another. On Friday and Saturday nights I hear raucous, drunken Americans blunder by my storefront into the morning hours. I expected there to be an upsurge of public drunkenness after September 11, but no. In the weeks and months afterward, bars were empty. My sleeps were undisturbed. A strange peace fell over the hood. People were not escaping, or maybe they knew there was none.

Now my 'Big Night Out' is rare and changed. The children who died in Afghanistan and now in Iraq make it hard to groove. I feel there little souls. We are all connected. Victory needs to be mourned. And celebration of life has taken on a less destructive edge.

I had a vision when I was twelve: Dad was driving our yellow Valiant over the Harbour Bridge. I hung my head out of the window at the sunny, Sydney day. Suddenly the buildings vanished, the bridge collapsed. Indigenous people were fishing with spears. The car had become a time machine. But was it going forward or back? Now I'm grateful every day to open my eyes and live again. I'm blown out by the beauty of life and the fragility of this technological society. From that day on, whatever followed was a bonus.

At BAM the twelve-year-old son of one of the filmmakers pushed me around the party like Queen VIP. Gliding from food table to bar, I was introduced to brilliant Aussie actors staring in Cloudstreet and also its director. I caught up with many dignitaries, like Michael Baume, the former Consulate General who had come to my very first exhibition in New York and had now retired.

I danced with Robert Archibald, Teresa Keleher and sweet Irene. I spun my wheels and thrashed my hair. I had not had a drink for ages and the wine was going straight to my head. I was missing the beat but I didn't care. I didn't care because I was letting myself become numb. I was feeling joy again for more than a moment. I had crashed the party and ending up being a big wheel.

This story appeared in Big Night Out 3:

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Published by Penguin Books 2002

The Divine Mistake: An Autobiography
By Theresa Byrnes

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Available as an
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Theresa Byrnes
a monograph
published by Charta books
OUT 2011

Memoir in progress (covering 2000-2009)

literary agent:
Fiona Inglis
Curtis Brown
Level 1, 2 Boundary Street
Paddington NSW 2021

Tel: (02) 9331 5301/9361 6161

Fax: (02) 9360 3935

Reviews by Theresa Byrnes

London Daily Mirror
Joyce Pensato’s Batman Returns

“. . the dark and powerful soul of what we deem innocent, haunts.”

London Daily Mirror
Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty

London Daily Mirror
Lynda Benglis

London Daily Mirror
Helen Frankenthaler

“Her . . painting shimmers like it is listening.”

London Daily Mirror
Ghada Amer

London Daily Mirror
Boris Lurie

London Daily Mirror

THERESA BYRNES    project space SUFFER    616 E 9th St (between B & C) NYC 10009    MAIL@THERESABYRNES.COM