8 February 2020 seems like a lifetime away. We were in the immediate aftermath of one of the largest bushfires ever recorded in Australia which raged for months, the Amazon fires were just under control, drought then floods hit the eastern States and unbeknownst to the participants and the visitors of the Awavena Long Table discussion, a pandemic was unfolding. A pandemic which was shortly to challenge the parameters of the provocation we presented on the day: what is an urgent question of survival, and how do we tackle it.
Covid-19 was declared a pandemic a month later. Right after two new exhibitions opened at the Gallery, we swiftly shut down. We went from hard deliverables to soft deliverables overnight, creating virtual exhibitions, texts, a WA artist stimulus package, planning for the immediate future in suspension, all the while some of us quietly contemplated the endgame of the impeding apocalypse. What did climate change mean on 16 March 2020 when we closed 23 March or 20 March when physical distancing rules came into place, when there was no pasta and toilet paper, where every human body was seen to be a potential source of an unknown and ruthless virus.
At the Long Table, we had a great discussion, shared an important moment together and created an energy which felt like movement, solidarity, potential. We hadn't even left the Gallery and there was already talk of doing it again. Was what we discussed significant in the face of the behemoth that threw us into an economic whirlwind and created the current existential dread, making us reassess what is really important? How can you get someone to worry about reducing their carbon footprint when they missed out on food at the supermarket, when they may not see their 90-year-old grandmother for months or their heart-patient father? When they can’t pay rent and have no job as of yesterday? What we discussed on 8 February wasn’t irrelevant, in fact quite the opposite, but time needed to pass for it to be received as such. It is precisely keeping an intergenerational conversation going about Indigenous survival, climate change, capitalist dystopias and knowledge exchange which will guide us through to the solutions we seek. Across the country, in Sydney, the 2020 Sydney Biennale was being installed: Nirin, curated by artist Brook Andrew, looked to sovereignty and agency of Indigenous people globally in fundamentally shifting our status quo. This moment was a synergy, a conversation that couldn’t and shouldn’t wait—we need to return to it.
More single-use material has been disposed of during the last six months in an effort to stay well: gloves, masks, plastic bags going straight into our insufficient waste system. While reusable items have been developed, what is ‘disposed' will add to the impending disaster of waste in oceans and on land. The mining industry did not stop. Rio Tinto destroyed two sites of Aboriginal cultural significance with direct link to the current custodians dating back to 6,000 years. We are still where we were on 8 February. And yet interestingly what climate scientists had been asking for for the past 40 or 50 years had happened overnight. Planes were grounded, people in lockdown stopped driving and huge ocean liners stalled, reducing (minimally) fossil fuel output. We have a lot more to do but change is possible, and can be mandated quickly. While Earth Hour, now in its tenth year, is a symbolic gesture, albeit conceptually perfect, this epidemic has done much more for the environment in terms of showing our collective capacity to impact on change. No politician could have convinced a global community to stop heavy industry production, reduce plane travel and consumer demand of products contributing to a steady destruction of the environment and the eco-system we all depend on. The virus, strangely, is an ally.
Very importantly, none of the issues related to global warming that impact on food supplies and liveability have disappeared: we need to get on with planning for a better future. So wind back, and forward, to 8 February 2020, to Awavena Long Table discussion: An urgent question of survival.
Dunja Rmandić, Acting Curator International Art
31 August 2020