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Canberra 100

Fear, imagination & activism

Josephine Starrs: 2013 TippingPoint Forum, Canberra 100

TippingPoint brings artists, scientists, curators and environmentalists together to encourage creative collaborations exploring climate change and culture. At TippingPoint Sydney 2010 there was a sense of urgency about the effects of dangerous climate change, but there was also a sense of optimism. At TippingPoint Canberra 2013 there was still that urgency, accompanied by a more pessimistic view of the future.

The day began with a welcome to country from Aunty Agnes of the Ngunnawal people. Significantly she ended with the words, “You are welcome to leave your footprint on our land.” Next was a conversation between futurist Kristin Alford and anthropologist Lenore Manderson. In her research Manderson had encountered displaced people in the Solomon Islands who say, “Now I live here,” because their traditional atoll home is under water. She posed the question, “How do we make the future as real and as tangible as now?” Alford pointed out that Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, who recently sent many photos of Earth back from space, had had a powerful effect on peoples’ perception of the planet. She asked us, “What is a radical change that you can make?”

Former CSIRO scientist Graeme Pearman outlined in graphic detail the bad news for humans and other species, illustrating his talk with climate graphs and images of endangered animals. Some scientists argue we have entered a new geological era called the Anthropocene: an informal geologic chronological term that marks a point in time when human activities are having a significant impact on the Earth’s ecosystems. In regard to climate sceptics, Pearman ended his presentation with a quotation from John F Kennedy: “The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie; deliberate, contrived and dishonest, but the myth: persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. Belief in myths allows the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”

Christine Milne, leader of the Greens, delivered a very passionate speech inviting artists to make the emotive artworks that will create a paradigm shift in the minds of the public. She said that the Greens had run their climate campaign on rational argument and scientific facts and they had failed. Therefore it is time to engage with emotions, re-empower people and rethink the way we live on our home, planet Earth. Wow! If only she was this animated when appearing on TV! Imagination is the key resource of this century, she said.

Eight artists presented their imaginary projects for the not too distant future; 2033. Performance director Nigel Jamieson, whose As the World Tipped—an impressive aerial show in Hyde Park for the 2012 Sydney Festival—was created in reaction to the Copenhagen Climate Change conference, presented an image in which future monsoons and floods in Asia result in hundreds of millions of boat people coming to Australia. Playwright Hannie Rayson took this idea further, talking about naval-like flotillas of people heading for Australia in 2033, resulting in our fighting a war to defend ourselves and ultimately losing. Australia, now Java Granda, is divided between African, Indian, Chinese and Indonesian territories, with the Republic of Australia holding on to Tasmania and a section of Victoria. Rayson proposed to create an exhibition, Birds of Passage, in the Melbourne Exhibition Centre, exploring bird and human migration [with 129 exhibits showing bird flights between the 129 nations of the Earth as trajectories for better cultural communication. Eds].

Not all of the artists outlined dystopian futures. Ross Ganf predicted that we will all join the Scouts and save the planet. An artist with a positive outlook was opera singer and producer Deborah Cheetham, a Yorta Yorta woman who believes that the visual and performing arts are the most powerful way by which we may know the world and give meaning to everything in it. She said that we should look at the situation through an Indigenous lens to create and dream and save the planet. This statement sparked some interesting conversations later about what it really means to see the world through an Indigenous lens.

The next part of the event was run as Open Space: a self-organising conference where participants write their own topics for group discussion. Open Space is guided by the “law of two feet.” People can choose to be bees (pollinators of ideas), giraffes (looking over shoulders of groups) or butterflies (looking beautiful and hanging out at the tea urn). Some sessions proposed by participants were: How do we deal with green wash? Why is dystopia sexier that utopia? How can artists work to reimagine the future? Should natural ecosystems have legal rights? How can we bring down the coal industry?

There were only three of us at the latter discussion, but by this time of the day it was exactly what I felt like talking about. Scientists have been quite clear in communicating the dangers of burning the huge coal reserves in places like the Galilee Basin in Queensland. Even if Australia does embrace sustainable energy practices for our own needs, if we continue to send vast amounts of coal to Asia we are dooming ourselves to a dangerously warming world.

Perhaps the fundamental question for TippingPoint was, can the visual and performing arts communicate the urgency of the situation to change people’s behaviour? As a visual artist I feel the medium is extremely powerful, and there are endless examples of effective political work. However the mainstream visual art world is mostly conservative and market driven. Exhibitions that explore climate change are either given bad reviews or ignored completely. The performing arts are often more radical. Recently I saw the performance Birds with Skymirrors by MAU dance company from New Zealand at Carriageworks, exploring the damage to island nations of the Pacific, especially Kiribati (RT115). It is an enigmatic work delving into dark ecologies.

This year the art collective Chamber of Public Secrets, co-curators of Manifesta 8, is curating the Maldives Pavilion in the Venice Biennale with an ecological focus. The title of the Pavilion is Portable Nation: Disappearance as work in progress—approaches to Ecological Romanticism. There is a resonance between the Maldives and Venice, which has also been threatened with inundation. But the Maldives is not a ‘European cultural treasure’ and there is little agreement on saving this nation. Consequently the Maldives population is inevitably destined to disperse and relocate.

Of course, it is desperate times already for those island nations. Do we wait for desperate times to directly affect our lives before we do something? And do we continue to kowtow to the prevailing postmodernist status quo that visual art shouldn’t take an activist stance?

The 2013 TippingPoint Forum, producer, facilitator and TippingPoint Australia Director Angharad Wynne-Jones; co-presented by TippingPoint Australia, Australian Performing Arts Centres Association and Theatre Network Victoria; supported by the Dara Foundation, The Canberra Theatre Centre and the Centenary of Canberra; Canberra Theatre Centre, 29 May

RealTime issue #116 Aug-Sept 2013 pg. 30

© Josephine Starrs; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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