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Advocacy Through Art

Art can bring people together, tell a story or illustrate an issue in a uniquely affecting way. We chat to three creatives who are harnessing the power of art as a vehicle for change.

Sarah McConnell

Artist and activist, exhibiting in St Heliers Street Gallery from 26 April – 19 May 2019, as part of the ART+CLIMATE=CHANGE 2019 festival.

Tell us a bit about yourself and your upcoming exhibition at the Convent’s St Heliers Street Gallery.

I’m a 28-year-old Melbourne-based, sustainability-obsessed printmaker, cartoonist and activist. Here Today: Defending takayna/Tarkine is an exhibition that tells the story of a small group of people who stood in the way of logging in some of the most culturally and ecologically significant forest in the world in May 2018. I’ve been involved in the forest and climate movements in Victoria and Tasmania since 2009 and takayna/Tarkine in northwestern Tasmania has some of the most incredible rainforest I’ve ever experienced. It felt important to share a small glimpse of the ongoing efforts of everyday people to prevent the relentless destruction of the last of these places.

Why is it important to protect takayna/Tarkine?

takayna/Tarkine has been recognised for having World Heritage significance, but is yet to be nominated for a World Heritage listing by the Australian government. This means that logging and mining are continuing throughout the old-growth forests in this region while we’ve reached crisis point. To be destroying these carbon-dense forest ecosystems and pushing our native wildlife closer to extinction in the midst of mass ecological collapse and runaway climate change is suicidal. This is a story that is repeating itself in native forests around the world. We can’t afford to let it continue any longer.

Why do you think art is an effective medium to spread awareness and effect social change?

I think art operates on multiple levels at once. It’s able to speak reason and shed light on an issue while connecting on a deeply emotional level. It doesn’t demand attention or agreement. It holds a calm, contemplative space that can be engaged with on the viewers’ own terms. It is unthreatening in this way, which can allow people to lower their instinctive barriers to new viewpoints or ideas, and gently provide space to reconsider previously held beliefs.

What is your ultimate goal with this project?

My goal with this project is to challenge a commonly held belief that the people who engage in direct action have radical, unfounded beliefs and act unreasonably. I want to provide some insight into an issue that is largely hidden and unexpected, and connect people with the idea that our actions hold power. I think we have a responsibility to do what we can to effect change, and at times I feel that playing by the rules won’t get us there fast enough. We need to reconnect ourselves with what really matters and decide where to go from there.

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Catherine Dwyer

Writer, director and Convent community member

Please tell us a bit about yourself and your work.

I’m from Perth originally but have lived in Melbourne for 15 years. I am 36 years old. I am writing and directing my first feature documentary called ‘BRAZEN HUSSIES’, which tells the story of the bold women who ignited a feminist revolution in Australia in the 1970s.

What compelled you to tell the story of the Australian Women’s Liberation Movement from 1965 – 1975?

In 2012 in New York I undertook an internship on ‘She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry’ (dir. Mary Dore, 2014), a critically acclaimed documentary film about the birth of the women’s movement in the US. This job was life changing. It was an education in documentary film-making, activism and women’s history. By the time the film premiered, I had earned my first onscreen credits of Assistant Editor, Researcher and Associate Producer – Post Production.

When the film was finished I had decided that I needed to return to Australia and find out what happened here during the women’s liberation. I always considered myself a feminist but I was finding that many of my peers thought that the term was unnecessary and confrontational and that women had equality now so what was the big deal? I felt like the struggles that women had been fighting were getting erased by history and that we needed to be reminded that women weren’t always allowed to drink in public bars or get credit cards or home loans and a myriad other things – and that these changes are only very recent.

In 2015 I participated in post-screening Q&As of ‘She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry’ at the Melbourne International Film Festival. The screenings were all sold out and the response to the film confirmed to me that women, young and old, are indeed very interested in seeing ourselves making history on screen.

Why do you think art is an effective medium to spread awareness and effect social change?

For me stories are so powerful for effecting social change because they don’t just reflect the world, they SHAPE it. I’ve always been aware and frustrated that women’s stories are considered ‘niche’, while male narratives are ‘universal’. I grew up watching movies where, to quote John Berger, “men act and women appear”. I learnt about heroic things that men did while the absence of female role models implied that women don’t make history. But we have and we do, and showing and telling those stories is what drives me.

There has never been a documentary that comprehensively covers the Australian Women’s Liberation Movement, despite it being arguably one of the most impacting social and political movements of the 20th century. Because of this movement, laws were rewritten, language was changed, public space and personal liberties were radically redefined. There is a rich history ripe for review. As the activists of the era are getting on in years, it is urgent to record their stories. Their contribution to shaping our society should be recognised and understood as a key part of our ‘official’ Australian history. The support for our film during development and the comments received on our fundraising page, Facebook page and in our inboxes, are a testament to the appetite for this film.

What is your ultimate goal with this project?

My immediate goal with this project is to get it finished! We have just had a successful fundraiser at Nova cinema, showing ‘She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry’ along with our teaser for Brazen Hussies. And we have just handed in our funding application to Screen Australia (fingers crossed!). It is an ambitious project with lots of funds to raise and ground to cover.

My ultimate goal is for the film to be seen widely, to impact on debate, and to empower activism. I would love for the film to be adopted into education curricula. We naturally have a female dominant audience, but I would love for boys and men to also learn this important history of women’s role in shaping Australian society. Schools would be a great opportunity to do so.

Image note: L – R: Writer & Director Catherine Dwyer, Merle Thornton, Sigrid Thornton and Co-Producer Philippa Campey. Some of the Brazen Hussies team with Merle Thornton and her daughter Sigrid Thornton, an icon of Australian screen, television and stage. Merle is best known for kick-starting a wave of feminist direct actions when she and Rosalie Bognor chained themselves to the Regatta Pub bar in 1965. Thornton went on to establish the Equal Opportunities for Women Association which lobbied to overturn the ‘Marriage Bar’ – a law that then required women employed in the Public Service to resign upon marriage.

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Peter Barber

What compelled you to create Playing Our Part in response to Melbourne’s homelessness crisis?

During the winter of 2016, the homelessness crisis became visible across the streets of the CBD. I was in the city regularly and by August the extent of the problem was clear. I felt a deep sense of compassion for the people sleeping rough and at the same time a deep sense of helplessness and guilt about not knowing what I could do that would make a difference. I started Playing Our Part with a group of musicians I was involved with at the time as an art-based response to the issue to raise awareness of the problem.

Tell us a bit about the group and the work you do.

Initially we raised money through performances and art exhibitions and donated it to Servants Community Housing, which provides accommodation for people in three boarding houses in Kew and Hawthorn. The association now has a broader remit to help people who live in this type of accommodation return to independent living. We recently funded our first beneficiary, assisting them to move into their own place after five years in a boarding house, providing a budget to set them up and supporting them in a variety of ways to make the transition successfully. Funds to do this work are raised from community groups, businesses and from our publishing projects.

Why do you think art is an effective medium to spread awareness and effect social change?

Our intention is to use art, music, film and writing to put the issue in front of people and let them respond in their own way. The work we have done in the past year – recording our single ‘There for You’, publishing the book ‘Recipes for Disaster’ and the ‘Plot to Plate’ project at the Collingwood Community Gardens – are all low-key, local initiatives which tell their own story to the community and invite a response to support our objectives. Art is capable of telling this story in a simple, clear way while at the same time inviting people to play their small part. If we all did a little in this area it would bring about broad-based social change very quickly.

What is your ultimate goal with this project?

We plan to continue supporting people to move to independent living on a small scale. When we have refined and proven the model we will document and disseminate it into communities that want to pick it up as a way of playing their part in the homelessness issue. The current system is struggling to cope and we believe it is time for people to step in with a compassionate, community-driven response.

What’s next for Playing Our Part?

This year we will publish a children’s book and two songs based on the theme of gardening, and we have recorded a song for the 40th anniversary of the Collingwood Children’s Farm which keeps our work deeply connected to the local community. We are looking for new projects for 2020.

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