Art + Climate = Change II: Our Future Depends

Art + Book Extract


CLIMARTE are publishing their latest book, Art + Climate = Change II, which features a collection of writings on CLIMARTE-related events and exhibitions. The below essay was written on the CLIMARTE Poster Project II, which commissioned ten contemporary artists to each create a unique poster provoking public dialogue on the unfolding climate emergency. The posters were pasted up in and around Melbourne and exhibited at Testing Grounds in Southbank. Read below to hear Dr Hayley Singer’s take on the project.

CLIMARTE Poster Project II: Our Future Depends
By Dr Hayley Singer

I was born on Wurundjeri country. I live on Boon Wurrung country. I work on Wurundjeri country. These territories are my home, but they are not my land, air or waters. I am from settler colonial heritage. I cannot read and I do not speak the human or ecological languages that have been spoken in these territories for thousands of generations, and still are. I do not have the skills to see Country through concrete. I live this illiteracy, but I am not often asked to confront it in the way Our Future, 2019, created by Amy Spiers in conjunction with Wurundjeri and Boon Wurrung linguists and Elders, asks me to.

On this poster there are two phrases. When I see them, I am called to recognise a deep connection to land, waters and air. When I read the translation—‘Our future depends on respecting country and Indigenous ways of being’—I am gripped by two kinds of anxiety: race anxiety and ecological anxiety. The structural oppressions that support and maintain racism are deeply entwined with the structures that contribute to ecological destruction and climate change. This interconnection contributes to environmental racism. Study after study, story after story, tell of the ways marginalised communities are disproportionately burdened by the effects of pollution, geographically exposed to more particulate matter, pesticide contamination, waste dumps, coal dust pollution—the list goes on. There is also the cultural sickness that comes from settler and extractive colonisation digging up, draining and razing sacred ground. This burden, this sickness is driven by the industries that are contributing to what many people now call the Anthropocene—an era defined by the catastrophic human alteration of the planet.

The term Anthropocene tells an impossibly big story. It is a story about colonisation, industrialisation, exploitation, alienation and dispossession. It is mind numbing and depressing and who knows how to do anything significant about it when you are just trying to live your life day in, day out? Sam Wallman’s A Just Transition, 2019 offers an antidote to this debilitating line of thought—everyday people do all the work, and it must be those same people who fight for change.

Within scientific and cultural spheres the term Anthropocene is heavily contested because it problematically homogenises all people as equal in their contribution to planetary destruction. The prefix, anthropos, meaning ‘man’ or human being with the suffix cene, which means ‘era’ or ‘epoch’, mark this as a time of ‘man-’ or human-induced change. Again, story after story shows that those who contribute the least to the worst are suffering first and most. And, it is not just humans that bear the burden of planetary destruction and climate change. Australia has the highest rate of mammalian extinction, a phenomenon directly linked to environmental racism as 10 per cent of Australia’s mammalian species have been wiped out since European colonisation. ‘Our future depends’ on respecting Country and Indigenous ways of being.

Deforestation is a major driver of species extinction in Australia. Deforestation is, in turn, deeply entangled with Australia’s animal agricultural industries, which see around 700 million animals bred for food production per year, take up roughly half the landmass of this continent and are projected to drive the clearing of 3 million hectares of forest in eastern Australia over the next two decades. I talk about the effects of industrial animal agriculture now because it is directly connected to the colonial settlement of the territories on which we all stand. Early colonial settlers used sheep and cows (which were themselves dispossessed from their home territories) as key colonial tools. Hooved animals roamed across sacred territories finding (as well as eating, drinking and compacting) sweet grasses, fresh water and nourishing soil cultivated by thousands of generations of First Nations people. In its ecological destruction, industrial animal agriculture shows the destructiveness of the kind of settler illiteracy of Indigenous ways of being that Our Future points out. In the same vein, Eugenia Lim’s The Coal Face (ScoMo), 2019 offers a seriously parodic critique of the quintessential white settler colonial illiterate who celebrates the work of ecological destruction and ongoing colonisation, who parties while ancient land, beautiful Country, sacred trees are cut down, dug up, hollowed out, turned over and burnt. If settler Australia does not listen to and learn the human and ecological languages of these territories, the ‘no future’ narrative Kelly Doley’s punk poster points to will arrive, and fast.

The ‘no future’ narrative can mean many things, it can be shifted, altered, reclaimed. It can refer to a queer refusal of procreative futures. It can also refer to a vision of complete ecological, social and cultural collapse. Mass cultural and ecological destruction has already taken place (and continues to take place) for First Nations people through extractive and settler colonisation. But the Wurundjeri and Boon Wurrung, whose words appear on the Our Future Depends poster resist this ‘no future’ narrative. The first word on the poster, ‘Yirramboi’, is a shared Woi Wurrung and Boon Wurrung word. It means ‘tomorrow’, it also means ‘our future’. The Wurundjeri and Boon Wurrung are telling a story of respect, listening and learning. ‘Our future depends on respecting Country and Indigenous ways of being’. Perhaps they are talking about closing what Palawa woman Sarah Lynn Rees calls ‘the non-Indigenous gap’. Closing the non-Indigenous gap is about recognising knowledge of Indigenous land and culture and Country as markers of success.

What if all the settlers who live on these lands sought to close the non-Indigenous gap? What kind of change would that bring to land, culture, humans, animals, water and air? Closing the non Indigenous gap is a kind of education imagined by Rees as a reversal of the Australian government initiative ‘Closing the Gap’. As Rees points out, the government initiative was set up within Western cultural frames, according to Western standards, in order that Indigenous peoples could find success as defined by Western, colonial values. Western colonial frames and standards and values—what have they brought to these sacred territories? (I will let you elaborate on the radically truncated list I am about to offer.) First and most obvious, Western colonial frames and values brought the fiction of terra nullius and with it a so-called ‘progressive’ paradigm that worked to excuse any number of violent actions against water, land, humans, animals. A progressive paradigm is a singularly future oriented perspective and mentality that focuses on working towards some imagined state of future achievement. This focus works to deflect from (or deny) harms perpetrated in the present, and attempts to ignore or erase the harms of the past.

Practices of denial and erasure pave the way for the colonial progressive paradigm, which enables regimes of ecological and colonial violence to continue their work through projects like the proposed Adani Carmichael coal mine, rail and port plan; Gina Rinehart’s expanding beef empire; and the intended clearing of sacred Djab Wurrung trees and land; and includes talk of ‘clean coal’.4 Each of these projects is framed as progress and development. Each of these projects perpetrates, and excuses, mind-bending cultural and ecological destruction for the sake of some future achievement that supports a rapacious status quo. The Ripple, 2019 by Peter Waples-Crowe speaks of histories and layers of such destruction. In his image, Indigenous knowledge and ways of being perforate the layers of erasure, and the ripple acts as a site of resistance to this.

We cannot stop talking about race and the environment and (going further) the concept of environmental racism urgently needs to become a greater part of mainstream knowledge and conversation on this continent. We need to talk about it because many of us settler colonials can’t or won’t or don’t (yet) understand the stories environmental racism tells, or how I/we settler colonial ancestors progressed them. And we need to learn about our ancestral heritage—find out the role our ancestors played in the colonisation of this continent. That will start to tell us what we are responsible for. Once we have this knowledge, we must act on it. And there’s more to do than what I’m saying here. Call each other out and call each other in—ask each other why we cannot read or speak or (bear to) hear some stories, that speak this continent and its many layered histories, but not others.

This essay by Dr Hayley Singer is an extract from ART+CLIMATE=CHANGE II edited by Bronwyn Johnson and Kelly Gellatly, published 30 November (MUP).

CLIMARTE Poster Project II was curated by Will Foster and exhibited at Testing Ground and pasted up in Melbourne’s inner-city streets for ART+CLIMATE=CHANGE 2019.