Preaching to the Choir, Refusing to Change and Alien Worlds: Rebellion and Tomorrow

‘I find rebellion problematic because it’s so subjective,’ said artist Phuong Ngo. ‘One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter.’

Phuong’s family was part of the Vietnamese asylum seeker exodus in the 1970s; his father, mother and brother were boat people, arriving in a UN refugee camp in Malaysia in 1981. They lived there for several months before being processed and sent to Australia.

Phuong travelled to the camp of Pulau Bidong to explore the point where his family’s freedom began, and out of a desire to understand and retell their stories. The result is My Dad the People Smuggler, a work that combines the experiences of his family in 1981 and his own experiences of Pulau Bidong.

How do you affect change if you’re preaching to the choir?

In his Next Wave festival project, Article 14.1, he will live on the food his parents lived on during their boat journey, for ten days, while occupying his time folding origami boats out of hell bank notes. Audience members will also be invited to fold notes, while listening to recordings of other refugees.

Phuong, who describes himself as ‘pro asylum seeker’, says it’s his way of trying to get closer to his family’s experience, though ‘I know I’ll inevitably fail’.

He spoke about the difficulty of making a political impact with his work, of reaching audiences who aren’t already like-minded. ‘If you’re preaching to the choir, you’re not really a rebel at all. If you’re making work that comments on society, but showing it to like-minded people, how do you affect change?’

Phuong was one of six speakers at Rebellion and Tomorrow, a Next Wave event staged in partnership with (and at) the Wheeler Centre. They each spoke briefly about rebellion and change, in the context of their personal lives, artistic practice and professional pursuits – and ended with a provocation for the audience to think about and discuss in small groups.

The format followed Next Wave’s popular Breakfast Club series, with audience members seated around tables, some with friends, others making friends with strangers they happened to sit with. Discussion tends to start by addressing the speaker’s provocation, inevitably branching off into reflections on their own experience. It’s like a book club, with ideas (delivered live) as the focus.

Thinking twice about what we take for granted

Laura Bates is creator of the Everyday Sexism project, which invites women around the world to contribute examples of, well, everyday sexism. Her talk implicitly addressed the criticism often given to western women who address cultural sexism in their own everyday lives. She said that allowing seemingly trivial things like sexist jokes at board meetings without speaking up ‘normalises the idea that women are second-class citizens, are less than men – and that’s at the root of more serious issues.’

‘So much of what we’re facing is normalisation,’ she said, concluding that women standing up against misogyny in our own lives is important, and it’s all part of changing our broader culture.

‘It’s all interconnected, whether it’s challenging a friend who makes a rape joke or stepping in when we see someone sexually harassed, or being the cool aunt or uncle who buys a chemistry set for their niece and a kitchen for their nephew. It’s so much about thinking twice about what we take for granted.’

She asked audience members to think about how they can be agents of change in their own lives and make small changes that will affect the bigger picture.

Erik Jensen: Refuse to change

‘Maybe the truly radical thing to do today is to refuse to change,’ said Erik Jensen, editor of the Saturday Paper.

He talked about the ways the media has changed in response to the internet and the loss of classified advertising – in ways ‘it shouldn’t have’.

He said newspapers need to realise they’ve lost the race against the internet to be first. ‘You can’t print a newspaper quicker than you publish a web page. What newspapers can do well is long-form journalism.’

The identity crisis newspapers are grappling with is a crisis of purpose, he said. The Saturday Paper’s response is to accept that readers are smart people. ‘If you accept that premise, your audience is very different.’ By publishing long pieces, and abandoning the idea that a reader needs to know everything a news story is about by the second paragraph, the paper acknowledges that people come to newspapers for more depth these days, not to find out the news fast.

‘Why do we accept that we must change? That every stimulus or shift in our lives should change what we do?’ Jensen asked. ‘There are some things in this world that are worth holding onto.’

Rebel with respect

Georgie Mattingley, a vegetarian, is the creator of the exhibition We Love Abbatoir: portraits, interviews and videos of abbatoir workers. Georgie got an undercover-style job at an abbatoir after deciding that if she was going to reject something (eating meat), she should find out about it intimately.

At first, she secretly photographed her workplace, even sneaking out a pig’s arsehole she had cleaned as part of her job, to photograph it at home. This was all strictly against the abbatoir rules. ‘There’s a lot to hide,’ she said.

Eventually, troubled by the question of how to break the rules in a respectful way, she asked permission of her boss and co-workers to photograph them – and got it. She says this took her work ‘to the next level’. In the abbatoir now, her framed photos of the managers are hung on the meeting-room wall.

‘How do you rebel with respect?’ she asked. ‘Is respect a compromise? How do you walk that tightrope?’

Later she said, ‘I’m happy to exploit my audience who I have no responsibility for, but I won’t exploit the people I’m working with, who are helping me.’

Alien worlds

Twenty years ago, for all we knew, our solar system was unique, explained Alan Duffy, a research fellow at Swinburne University. Since then, we’ve discovered 1a thousand odd stars with planets around them.

‘We’ve gone from knowing nothing about alien worlds to finding thousands of them.’

On average, each of those stars we see has a planet, though not every planet is capable of sustaining life. A couple of weeks ago, we found a planet similar to earth for the first time. Every fifth star, on average, has a world like earth.

‘Is life out there?’ asked Alan. ‘There are lots of places it should be able to evolve.’

There are currently three to four telescopes in operation that will be able to sample alien worlds and tell us if they are hosting life. They have the potential to pick up signals from another civilisation (though there is a 500-year delay in communication).

‘Hopefully we could contact them,’ he said. ‘Will knowing we’re not alone change anything?’

He closed by demonstrating that all the satellites and telescopes we’re sending into space have created their own space debris that is orbiting around the earth; soon, we will be trapped on earth by it, even if we wanted to leave.

‘Our quest for life on other planets is coming at a cost. Should we recognise this and clean up the space debris, at a cost of billions of dollars?’

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