Mining for truth and change


Described as an artist, poet, critic, independent curator and researcher, Gladstone-born, Berlinbased Rachel O’Reilly has a range of perspectives informing her work. She also brings an extraordinary amount of knowledge about fracking—the mining process of extracting gas and oil from shale rock—to her long-running project The Gas Imaginary, whose latest and final component, a feature film launched in London and Berlin, is now premiering at Brisbane’s Institute of Modern Art (IMA).

Across her work, O’Reilly deals with entanglements between art, the economy, landscape, power and what she describes as “situated cultural politics”— in this instance the way fracking is deeply affecting Indigenous Country and cultures in the Northern Territory. And it’s urgent: in 2018, the Northern Territory Government opened up 51 per cent of its land to fracking, despite strong public opposition around its effects on water resources, carbon emissions, environmental damage, business and community—not to mention Indigenous land rights and care for Country.

Investigating the fracking industry is not for the faint-hearted. Shrouded in legalese and technical language, and enabled by state politicians with a variety of motivations, this much-maligned industry is also entangled with colonial history and the sheer power of international corporations. Through deep research, though, O’Reilly has admirably managed to get a firm grip on much of it. Importantly, INFRACTIONS gives the stage to frontline First Nations activists and artists.

O’Reilly’s The Gas Imaginary used poetry, drawing, film and public lectures to address fracking in Queensland, as the United States-led industry expanded globally—and she hopes INFRACTIONS will increase literacy about fracking from First Nations’ positions.

INFRACTIONS, 2019, 1:03:00, HD video, split screen with text, Dolby 5.1.

“I see this more as an artist film, rather than a documentary feature,” says IMA director Liz Nowell. “Whereas documentary conventions can often be quite authoritative, I find Rachel’s framing to be gentler, with moments unfolding on screen rather than through acts of aggressive intervention. An art gallery—especially one like the IMA—exists to challenge form and to expand the very notion of what contemporary art is.”

O’Reilly made multiple trips to the Northern Territory in 2018 following the lifting of the moratorium against fracking. From her trips, the film includes an array of voices: musician/community leader Dimakarri ‘Ray’ Dixon (Mudburra), artist Jack Green (Garawa, Gudanji), Ntaria community worker and law student Que Kenny (Western Arrarnta), and Gadrian Hoosan (Garrwa/Yanyuwa), the latter of whom recently ran as an Independent in an NT election. Together, they bring a unique combination of perspectives. Professor Irene Watson (Tanganekald, Meintangk Bunganditj), who also sees fracking threatening her Country in South Australia, offers her perspective, too.

“I was directed to the people in the film based on who was already working with non-local media to gather up power on the ground,” O’Reilly says. It was a lot of responsibility to capture the story, and she made two trips before she filmed anything. In the editing suite, with her commitment to the integrity of the story, she had enormous trouble getting the footage down to an hour. “In the end it was a matter of shaving a word here and there.”

INFRACTIONS, 2019, 1:03:00, HD video, split screen with text, Dolby 5.1.

Growing up in a family with a history in the union movement, O’Reilly was well-versed in the interrelationships between mining, land rights, labour, and ecology. “The history of corporations was familiar to me as dinner-table conversation,” she says. Creating INFRACTIONS, though, has been about wanting a conversation about fracking—and corporate impacts more generally—to be happening in Australian galleries and museums as a matter of cultural responsibility. “I could make a boring film about the problems of sponsorship but it is more about what we as cultural workers have to say about unregulated corporate culture.”

At the IMA, Nowell is excited to be showing O’Reilly’s work. She first became aware of INFRACTIONS through the KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin, which commissioned and funded the film as part of its ‘Production Series’ dedicated to artist moving-image. “What really interests me in this work—and Rachel’s practice more broadly—is the nexus between art and activism,” Nowell says. “The way in which research, documentation, and acts of protest can move between contemporary art and political activism is something I have always been interested in as a curator. From my perspective, INFRACTIONS really embodies the space where art and resistance can come together.”

While Nowell says INFRACTIONS is not an overtly didactic work, it offers many lessons for viewers to take with them. “It is my hope that people engage deeply with the work, and have a similar response to my own: one of urgency and action,” Nowell says. “Increasingly I feel that discursive and speculative conversation isn’t enough anymore—that we need to mobilise and revolutionise. I am firm in my belief that contemporary art is a platform where that change and transformation can germinate. I think INFRACTIONS is an example of how art can inspire action that ultimately, and hopefully, translates into global change.”

Institute of Modern Art
18 September—19 December

This article was originally published in the November/December 2020 print edition of Art Guide Australia.

Feature Words by Andrew Stephens