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untitled 2005 © boat-people.org, untitled 2005 © boat-people.org,
It’s not a clear day. It’s overcast, hot and humid. You can tell because of the flies, buzzing, sticking to clothes. Assuming a fatherly pose, a suited man holds a small girl in his arms. Their backs to the bay, they face inland. We assume they are Australians, and this is all we can suppose from the photograph.

For their new series of works shown at Casula Powerhouse’s Artists Against Sedition Laws Exhibition, boat-people.org created Magritte-like images in their photographs by using the Australian flag to mask the faces of their subjects. Sensorially challenged—neither seeing, nor hearing, nor speaking—men, women and children are arranged in traditional studio-portrait groupings at Botany Bay, the site of arrival for the First Fleet. Like blindfolded criminals in front of a firing squad they were shot (on film). Their images build a picture of a nationalism that all but stifles identity and erases difference.

Seeing these works on Monday December 12, only 2 days after the racially demarcated gang violence at Cronulla—where youths on one side wore the Australian flag like superhero capes and, on the other side, burned them—I was struck by the paradox of the sedition legislation (amendments to the Crimes Act of 1914 and the Criminal Code Act of 1995) in the way that it has actually fostered opposition and protest. The group boat-people.org, as an example, formed in the wake of the Tampa impasse, the ‘Pacific Solution’, the ‘Children Overboard’ scandal, increased border protection and mandatory detention for ‘illegal immigrants.’ These humanitarian crises of the Government’s making have served to alienate all Australians with the vaguest sense of decency, compassion or social justice.

That the Howard Coalition government’s policies and scandals have successfully caused a great deal of group and community disaffection was something that many artists in Protest chose to focus upon. Mischievously positioned in the exhibition entrance, none was so self-effacing as Simon Barney’s A-frame painting with text that reads “Blame John Howard for Bad Political Art”, and another, a swarthy self-portrait, titled Of Middle Eastern Appearance. The Artists and Writers Alliance showed a series of 12 large works on paper including silkscreen prints, photocopies and transfers manipulating found photographs, classified advertising and reworkings of socialist propaganda poster art. One of these stencils features the image of Howard on a “Wanted” bill “for inciting terror” and reminds us that “if caught [you] can be detained for 14 days without charge.”

I was fortunate to have arrived at opening time when video artist Tony Schwensen promptly commenced a reading of the United Nations Bill of Human Rights while an assistant encased his feet in a quick-setting concrete. Despite Schwensen’s dead-pan countenance, the bill read rather like a humanist poem—in stark contrast to the vague and defensive little amendments that comprise the sedition laws. Watching with the small crowd were a group of children, huddled close to the action and taking the same kind of delight in the artist’s self-sabotage as they would watching a classic cartoon of Wiley Coyote dropping an anvil on his own head. It didn’t take much to follow through the logic of Schwensen’s symbolic intent, imagining his body and all that the Human Rights Bill stands to protect sinking to the bottom of a lake, or a harbour somewhere.

While Schwensen’s performance was in progress, the general buzz of crowds arriving and latecomer artists hurriedly hanging their work gathered momentum. Over 230 artists participated in the Artists Against Sedition Laws Exhibition with many Sydney galleries listed as supporting the project. Steven Mori was there, installing the work of Melbourne-based artist Danielle Freakley including her graphic Cum Rags, pieces of white, fleecy fabric overlocked at the edges with a photo-transfer of bodies blown-apart during the war in Iraq—a blunt and unflinching statement on the testosterone-fuelled appetites of the coalition-led attack. In another bloody work, Peacekeeper, photographer Belinda Mason Lovering produced an arresting portrait of anti-war activist Dave Burgess. Daubed in fake blood and shot from a steep angle, his body dominates the sails of the Opera House that he and Will Saunders bravely defaced in 2003, while the words “No War” are tracked though the red paint on his belly.

Satirical entries addressed the extent of the threat to freedom of speech and the right to criticise government posed by the new laws. The Seditious Artists Society’s (SAS) Suspicious White Van...stone, was is a hilarious assemblage of transcript from the SA branch of the Rotary Club quoting Amanda Vanstone as saying, “I don’t know if any of you travel that much...but we have this (no knives policy), of course, because we’re worried about terrorists getting on planes and grabbing knives and doing bad things with them. But has it ever occurred to you that you just smash your wine glass and jump at someone, grab the top of their head and put it to their carotid artery and ask anything?” This quotation from the Minister for Immigration was fixed to the back of a box frame as instructional information complete with a terrorist kit of smashed wine glass, plastic knife and HB pencil. Nobody and Maxine Foxxx’s short video Shitty Rail, turned its attention to Sydney’s inadequate public transport system. The artists, uniformed to impersonate Cityrail guards are documented hassling young people for tickets and handing out inflated fines for non-existent offences (amid raucous laughter from the carriage). In a minimal and symbolic video work, White Australia, Hayden Fowler captures the movement of a white lab rat endlessly entering and exiting the same, institutional, green-tiled room through 2 holes. The space holds the promise of 2 distinct choices, but they both lead the rat back to the beginning.

In the current conservative and fearful climate where Opposition leaders are increasingly failing to oppose anything, prominent creative Australians and Australian arts organisations are strongly voicing their objections to the new laws. The National Association of Visual Arts (NAVA) has proved a formidable and tenacious force in seeking amendments to the Anti-Terrorism Bill and the sedition legislation that was rushed through parliament in early December. NAVA director, Tamara Winikoff opened the exhibition by urging the audience to continue pressuring the Government for change. At such a moment it is not difficult to imagine the potential, particularly for regional galleries run by local government bureaucracies, to shy away from political or contentious work. For the Artists Against Sedition Laws Exhibition, Casula Powerhouse staff took advantage of the building being empty [prior to its reopening in 2006 after extensive refurbishment] in order to send a clear voice of dissent out into the community. Conceived as a gathering of multifarious and uncurated art objects and performances, asserting artists’ (and everyone’s) rights to freedom of speech, the exhibition demonstrated the capacity for contemporary art spaces to respond quickly and decisively to the shifting political landscape.


Artists Against Sedition Laws Exhibition, Casula Powerhouse, Western Sydney, Dec 12-17, 2005

RealTime issue #71 Feb-March 2006 pg. 38

© Bec Dean; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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