Art, Mine Power and the Cultural Work of Climate Justice

Art, Mine Power and the Cultural Work of Climate Justice

  • 17 March 2021, 1–2pm
  • Rachel O’Reilly is a settler artist, writer, curator and PhD researcher at Goldsmiths’ Centre for Research Architecture. She teaches a seminar on infrastructure, planetarity and poetics as part of the How To Do Things with Theory program at the Dutch Art Institute. Recent curatorial collaborations include Ex-Embassy, Berlin; Planetary Records: Performing Justice between Art and Law, Contour Biennale; and Feminist Takes on Black Wave Film for Sternberg Press. racheloreilly.net

    Professor Tony Birch is a multi-award winning author, curator, community activist and public intellectual. His books include Shadowboxing, Father’s Day, Blood, The Promise and Ghost River. He was the inaugural recipient of the Dr Bruce McGuinness Indigenous Research Fellowship at Victoria University, working in the Moondani Balluk Academic Centre and speaking internationally on climate and contemporary Aboriginal history. tony-birch.com

  • Online and Caulfield Big Screen
Click the image above to watch the recording.

For our second event in the Monash Art, Design and Architecture / MUMA Form x Content series, we present Art, Mine Power and the Cultural Work of Climate Justice – artist Rachel O’Reilly and writer Tony Birch in conversation and hosted by Dr Helen Hughes, Lecturer, Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture, Monash University.

Form x Content is a mix of fourteen live and pre-recorded events featuring the voices of renowned First Nations, Australian and international artists, designers, architects, curators and academics. The program is delivered every Wednesday lunchtime during Monash University teaching semesters, both online and broadcast on the Big Screen at Monash Caulfield campus.

Form x Content engages with the ideas, histories, sites and critical questions of our time. Semester 1 focuses on sustainability, collaboration and the ways in which First Nations’ artists centre Country in their practices. Semester 2 explores ideas of disruption and resilience, together with queer perspectives on artistic practice and urban space.

Form x Content is free and accessible to all.


N'arweet Dr Carolyn Briggs AM: Mirambeek beek. Boon wurrung Nairm derp bordupren uther willam. That means welcome to our beautiful home, the lands of the two great bays, Nairm, Port Phillip Bay, Marrin, Western Port Bay. We're here at the Monash University campus and it is about celebrating knowledge, yulendji. It's also about respect, respecting the Country that you're now a part of. And it's also djeembana, how you will build a stronger community, how do we unite community within Monash University. And it's about respecting sacred ground or Parbyn-ata, Mother Earth. These are the guiding pillars of Wurrung biik, the law of the land. Come with a purpose. Womindjeka mirambeek beek. Boon wurrung Nairm derp bordupren uther willam. Ngondjin.

Helen Hughes: Hello and welcome to the second Form x Content lecture for this semester which today will be given by Rachel O'Reilly and Tony Birch. My name is Helen Hughes. I'm speaking to you from my office on Monash University on the Caulfield campus, which is to say on the unceded lands of the Kulin Nations to whose ancestors and Elders, I pay my respect. My office is also about 30 metres away from Wominjeka Djeembana, the Indigenous research lab here on the Caulfield campus that leads significant decolonising and Indigenising programs across many aspects of the MADA faculty including its curricula.

Two of the lab's members, Associate Dean Indigenous, Brian Martin, and Associate Professor, Brook Garru Andrew, gave the first Form x Content lecture of the year last week titled, 'More than a guulany (tree): Indigenous knowledge systems,' which was also the inaugural Climate Justice lecture here at MADA.

Tony and Rachel's discussion today again centres on climate justice and Indigenous knowledge with a focus on the politics of extractivism. For those tuning in for the first time, Form x Content is a mix of 14 live and pre-recorded events featuring the voices of renowned First Nations, Australian, and international artists, designers, architects, curators, and academics. The program is delivered every Wednesday lunchtime during the Monash Uni teaching semesters, both online and broadcast on the Big Screen at Monash Caulfield campus.

Today, it's with great pleasure, not a little humility, that I introduce our guest speakers, the acclaimed writer and activist Tony Birch, whose many books and collected stories, such as Shadow Boxing, Ghost River, Blood, and more recently The White Girl, you're all likely familiar with as he's won numerous awards including the Patrick White Literary Award in 2017, and our other guest is the artist and poet Rachel O'Reilly, originally from Gladstone, Queensland and now based in the Netherlands, where she teaches at the DAI, and in London, where she's a researcher at Goldsmiths. Although I think she's actually sitting at her mother's house in Brisbane right now.

Today, Tony and Rachel will be addressing the topic 'Art, Mine Power, and the Cultural Work of Climate Justice,' and they will be reappearing on campus in a week's time on Monday the 15th of March where they will hold a discussion, continue this discussion, around the extraordinary Boon Wurrung Scar Tree that has recently come into the care of Wominjeka Djeembana and the Monash Collection as part of the Tree School exhibition in the MADA Gallery.

The format of this talk will be that Tony is going to respond to Rachel's recent film, INFRACTIONS, made in 2019, for the first 20 minutes and then Rachel will respond to Tony's comments. And I should also let you know that the film itself will be made available online in about a week's time and this will be in conjunction with Rachel's contribution to the Tree Story project at MADA Gallery at Monash University. So I will now hand over to Tony and Rachel.

Tony Birch: Thank you very much and thank you everyone for listening. So I'm Tony Birch. I'm coming to you from Carlton in Melbourne, which of course is on Wurundjeri land. So I want to pay my respects to Wurundjeri Nation and all Wurundjeri people. I also represent a group called the Melbourne School of Discontent , which are a group of what we call Fitzroy Blaks, who started up a virtual institute to combat some of the misinformation that we see being disseminated about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, particularly in tertiary institutions, and we want to make sure that there's an alternative voice and what we would consider an activist voice available to people who are interested in issues such as, but not exclusive to, climate justice.

So I've been asked to respond to Rachel's film. I just want to say at the outset that it was, I think, a remarkable narrative for me to be able to watch because I've been working on climate justice and issues around climate change activism for many years now, and I found the film to be not only thought provoking. Certainly it was a film that reiterated to me many of the key issues that I've been interested in, many of the concerns that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have to deal with, and the incredible struggle that we face to get the rest of non-Aboriginal Australia to wake up to what needs to be done to protect Country on this land and of course to protect Country, Sea Country and Land Country and the air that we breathe, across the globe. So I just want to talk about I think issues to me that I want to reflect on that really hit home in regard to what I've been thinking about now and I'm talking to people about for many years.

So I just want to thank Rachel for the work that she's done. I think it's a remarkable film and the first thing I want to say about the film, it gives so much privilege and precedent to the voices of Aboriginal people on Country, which is often lacking or even in this space, often Aboriginal voices take sort of a secondary role to those who are making these documents in art, in film, et cetera, and I think Rachel's ability to ensure that our voices are privileged I think is a testament to the quality and ethics of the film generally.

I want to start by talking about thinking. The film opens with the esteemed Professor Irene Watson, talking about several things including the hypocrisy in relationship to the way that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people think about land and regard their place in Country as opposed to a European notion of exploitation and extraction. But towards the end of the opening address or the opening conversation that Professor Watson talks about is that she simply talks about the need for thinking and that there is a lack of thinking within non-Indigenous Australia and non-Indigenous people globally in regard to our place on the planet and our place working with the planet as, if we want to call ourselves nominally, a global community.

And I think this is the first and most telling issue that we have to deal with. We can talk about practical issues, we can talk about immediate political issues, but there is a clear absence of ethical thinking, of engaged thinking, of respectful thinking, of respect for the thinking and intellect of Indigenous peoples globally in relationship to how Country and how land is seen. And for all the work that I've done in this space in regard to protection of Country and climate justice, until we get a much more broad sense of how we defer to Country, how we respect Country, and how we privilege Country, the ability to protect the planet and the ability to protect ecologies is always going to remain a constant battle because once you start to weigh up what we might call capital gain or monetary gain or material gain against the values of Country, the very fact of doing that is that it itself, it means that you are not giving privilege and authority to Country. So we need to change our thinking.

One of the things that Professor Watson's comments evoked in me was a reflection on some of the work I've been reading for many years and some of the work that I've been writing about. So two other people I'd like to mention is the First Nations scholar on Turtle Island, Dwayne Donald. Dwayne Donald is a writer and Indigenous activist whose work I've been following for many years and what he talks about in his work, it's something similar to Professor Watson's, in that he says what the non-Indigenous world lacks, and what he calls settler societies on Turtle Island lack, is what he calls an 'ethical imagination'.

So it's not only to be imaginative in regards to how you see your place in a community and in a family, see your place on Country, see your place in relationship to land and ecologies, what Dwayne Donald is talking about is that imagination also needs to have a very strong ethical basis. If we take those two provocations together though, they offer up I think really exciting possibilities because what Donald would argue is by being imaginative and then grounding that in an ethics, in a sense of ethics, there are incredible possibilities not only for Indigenous communities globally but for one of his other interests is to get and enable Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities to work together effectively. So he sees that as not something that weighs our discussion down or not a burden, he actually sees that notion of thinking ethically and imaginatively together gives us greater possibility and potential to do something new and something exciting.

And the other thing I think that links to this is an American philosopher whose work I've also followed, Elizabeth Minnich. And Elizabeth Minnich is really interested in the place of thinking in Western education. Now, she's not a scholar who is interested or concerned with how Indigenous thinking operates. She actually defers to that. She talks about the qualities inherent in Indigenous thinking and what she would argue is that these qualities are lacking in Western discourse.

And at a very practical level, I think that why I'm interested in Minnich, and why I think it relates to Rachel's film, is that what Minnich would say is that what we see globally today in relationship to say climate denialism or the exploitation of Country, the extraction of Country for capitalist gain, is that it comes with a deliberate overt attempt to shut down thinking. So in other words, climate deniers, deniers of colonial violence, denialism around the rights of Indigenous people, what that comes with is an attempt to shut down thinking, in other words, to ask us as global citizens or as citizens of a Country to critically engage with these issues so that— I'll give you a very practical example of that.

If you're a person who might be concerned about climate injustice, if you might be concerned about climate change, but like everyone you're a busy person, you have family, you have work, you have all sorts of difficulties to deal with in your day-to-day life, Minnich would argue with a climate denier who also happens to be a politician says, "Look, a lot of this stuff around climate change, it's not as problematic as we think. The ability to extract gas from Country, it's not a problematic issue. The science can do it. You don't have to worry about it. We've got your back on this." It's saying, "Defer your thinking to us. Let us look after this issue."

So in other words, it's asking you not to think about these issues. And in doing that, it allows those who wish to exploit Country, those who wish to exploit Aboriginal land, in Australia's situation, it allows people to get away with crimes against Country and people because it is promoting an absence of thinking in the community.

So watching the film, the first thing I want to implore upon people, and particularly at an educational institution, is that you must engage with critical thinking, you must engage with imaginative thinking, and you must engage with thinking that listens to and privileges the voices of First Nations people, of Aboriginal people.

The second issue that I want to talk about is in relationship to this, is the shocking disempowerment that comes and the hypocrisy surrounding what is called Native Title legislation, which is discussed in the film, and to put that in opposition to what we might call a genuine sense of land rights and a belief in land rights. And to quote an activist friend of mine, Robbie Thorpe, when we talk about land rights, we're not talking about land rights for people, we're talking about the inherent rights of the land, so the inherent right of Country. That is nothing like Native Title legislation. So that many of the Aboriginal people in this film who talk to Country, who show us around Country, they are not thinking about land rights in relationship to themselves, they're thinking about land rights in relationship to the inherent right of land as an entity. Professor Watson talks about water itself as an autonomous entity.

So what we understand as land rights is a belief, an absolute belief, in the inherent right of Country, whereas Native Title is a very restrictive governmental legislative form of rights, which in fact doesn't allow Aboriginal people to practice autonomous control and engagement with Country. And one of the things that comes out in the film, which shows this to be such a hypocritical issue is that when we listen to the people who are talking about land rights versus Native Title, what we know is this, is that you may have Native Title rights, and I use the term 'rights' advisedly, and then if you as an Aboriginal community are engaged with government or a mining company wanting to protect your Country against something like fracking, other forms of extraction from Country, the very fact is that if you don't agree to a government decision to allow mining on your land, your Native Title rights can be revoked.

So in other words, you are trapped in this situation as an Aboriginal community where you have to enter into some agreement with government, enter into some agreement with mining companies. And if you refuse that, which many communities do, actually the threat of even losing those threadbare rights under Native Title are held over your head. So there is no possibility for any community then to act in any sort of equitable way because basically what it is saying, what you're being told is, "If you don't agree with what we want to do, if you don't agree to allow us to exploit and extract from your Country, we will take your right to Country away from you anyway."

So there is a position here, which is not a position that Aboriginal people can defend. So when people talk about Native Title rights, what we need to understand that it's not a right in a sense of— it's not a basic human right, it's not a basic right protecting Country, it's a form of legislation that can coerce people into agreements that they would prefer not to make. So it entraps Aboriginal people in a situation, which I would suggest there is no way out. There is no win for Aboriginal people in regards to the power of Native Title legislation.

The other thing that this links very strongly to, and I think very closely to, is in the film, there's a wonderful interview in Queensland with three Aboriginal women. Remarkable. Just listening to them talk, I was awestruck by the power and the dignity of these women and their voices. But one of the things that comes out in that and one of the women, she talks about the fact that she was part of a community that had signed over a lease agreement with a mining company and now regretted it very deeply.

Now, there are two things that are at play. Well, there are more than two things that are at play there, and one is that when Aboriginal people are confronted by a mining agreement, there is often a discussion about what that would bring to a community. So there's a discussion about jobs, education, health services, et cetera, and these are basic services that these communities do not have or they will have at a very basic level. And then what they're being told, "If you allow this mining lease to go ahead, not only will we bring education and jobs to your community, yeah, you'll get something you've never had before, which is a running toilet. We'll give you decent sewage."

Now, that in itself, I want to talk about the hypocrisy of that in a moment, but if you imagine as a community, as a family, that you don't have access to basic facilities, you don't have jobs for your children, you don't have proper education standards for your children, and then someone says, "We can give you all of those things," again, you're weighing that up against the protection of your Country. And while people understand the protection of Country is paramount, in the immediate sense, it's very hard to make a decision when you think you may be able to benefit your family and community because of these so called services that are promised to you.

But as we know in the film, several things occur. We know that in the case that there were communities who were getting so called 'royalties' for mining, which amount to $50 a year. $50 a year in some of the places that people have to shop in the Northern Territory wouldn't buy you more than a couple of litres of milk and a few other basic goods. We know that the jobs that are promised as these three Elders talk about never eventuated. So the promises that mining companies make to Aboriginal people often fall short, are often non-existent, are often available for the short term.

But I would like people to think about this in a much more basic way. I want you to imagine this, that these Aboriginal people who own land, their land that has been stolen from them or is under threat of theft, they live in circumstances of sometimes abject material poverty. In other words, yeah, you look at the conditions in one of these scenes here, when after a cyclone, the most basic accommodation is not even repaired, where people are living in very desperate conditions.

And then to get the most basic facilities, you have to sign away the protection of your Country. Now, to think about that, these people are Australian citizens. We are all supposed to be Australian citizens. And what Aboriginal people on Country face is that they are not able to be guaranteed basic services that we should all take as a human right, that we should all take for granted, unless they are willing to sign away the protection of Country. And that is no different than any of us here living in, say in the city in Melbourne or any other major city in Australia. If we were to want our toilet repaired, then a plumber comes around and he says, "Okay, I can repair your toilet, but if you want a running toilet and you want hot and cold running water, if you want your kids to go to school and get basic education, you have to sign this piece of paper, which will allow a mining company to come and dig up your backyard."

Now, as ludicrous as that sounds, that's the shocking imposition that these people face, that they cannot be guaranteed basic human rights unless in fact their human rights are subject to abuse. So either way, if they get these basic facilities, the cost of that is to lose the right to Country as Indigenous people or the right to control Country as Indigenous people. So it's a shocking injustice when you consider what these communities have already been subject to.

So what I want to say in closing is just to close with two really important points. I would like people to get away from the notion of mining companies and their relationship to protect so-called sacred sites. We understand, of course, that sacred sites need to be protected and we know in recent months, we've heard the shocking cases of a mining company like Rio Tinto destroying very, very important sacred sites, and we know that mining companies have a long history of destroying sacred sites of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

One of the things about fracking we need to understand and in thinking about the water table under Country in the ground is that the notion that a mining company can come into a community and even talk about protecting sacred sites should be seen as a complete anathema because what we're talking about is the whole of Country being affected by this form of mining, the whole of Country being poisoned by this form of mining. Once you poison the waterways of any community, it doesn't matter whether you're protecting a so-called sacred site, you're destroying people's access to water, you're destroying Country at a wholesale level. So we need to stop mining companies, getting over the notion that it can go to communities to extract gas and they can do it in relationship to protecting Country because it can't.

And the final thing I want to say is in regard to what I've learnt I think from doing the climate justice work I've been doing for several years, that is reinforced through Rachel's remarkable film and through the voices of the people who speak to us in this film, is that we need a fundamental philosophical change in this Country if we're ever to protect Country, if we're ever to deal with climate change in a comprehensive way. It's pretty simple, we have to defer to Country, we have to defer to the authority of Country, and we have to defer to the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living on Country. Their authority has to be upheld.

And I would say that listening to the voices in this film, I was deeply, deeply moved by the power of those voices. And when you hear people talk about whether it be a protest on a bridge, whether it be taking people out to a waterway and engaging in ceremony, whether it be listening to three old Aboriginal women sitting on a couch talking about the history of mining company abuses on their Country, these are the voices that we must give authority to if we're going to ever protect Country in the way that we should do.

So I just want to finally thank Rachel for making the film. I think it's very inspiring and I think it will be very influential in shifting the thinking of a lot of people. That's it.

Rachel O'Reilly: Thank you so much. I'm going to try to follow on. It's really wonderful that you were able to respond to the film and speak for it in Narrm, and I don't have so many connections in Narrm and I'm really conscious of how ongoing the kind of urban story of pan-Aboriginal rights is as a conversation that crosses countries. So I think there's so much there in the work that you're doing that connects to the important connections that we can make, not just about the present tense, but refusing the erasure of all the work that you've done in previous decades as well, which I think is part of the work I was trying to point to in some of the research that I do for kind of settler-run art spaces.

At the moment, I'm in Meanjin, on Yuggera and Turrbal Country and I'm really grateful for the activism that's happening here on some of these issues. I'm just going to talk a bit about how gas ends up here, as such a neocolonial formation, but also just slips through urban consciousness so quickly. And then I'm going to just mention something about the timing of getting these films out because the timing is really important, and a little bit to demystify the making of the film because I think that's really important, how I ended up making this film in the context of how much amazing Indigenous-led activism is happening around this issue, climate change, et cetera. And then I'll just leave with some points I think which also reinforces emphasis on thinking because I think yeah, I really appreciate that comment about what contribution non-Indigenous people need to be making to kind of deconstruct their education, basically.

So I'll just share some slides. Great. Okay, so I guess it's important to kind of think about the kind of media space that we are in. So there's been recent attention, again, to the situation of media ownership in this Country. One of the reasons I started this research is because there was no conversation, not just putting Indigenous voices on the table to be in the early fracking documentaries, but actually there was no conversation about the continuity of land dispossession in some of the most actively defended Country in Western Queensland when this industry first came in.

If you look at one of the first big fracking documentaries, Frackman, there's a line in that film where he says, the main character says, "This is the worst thing to happen in Australia since the asbestos disaster." And I really kind of hooked into that as this kind of total erasure at the level of the whiteness of the environment movement in a moment when the environment movement was really reorganising around this industry because it's so sloppy in how it fractures Country that it reorganises political imagination among white people and it crosses class differences, but there was hardly any conversation amongst those Western Queensland activists at that time about the land they were on and the history of that Country and the ongoingness of the Indigenous presence on that Country.

So I was living in Gladstone. I grew up there. My family, on my father's side, were union organisers and so my contribution, I kind of perceived at that time partly was just about documenting the scale of the remediation of the landscape that was happening so quickly. The harbour was really ruined by the dredging project to make way for the industry. But also, because of Native Title, the women in the film, the Gooreng Gooreng aunties, they weren't able to speak up at the time that they were negotiating those agreements. So their silence in the media space was really palpable. And the connectivity of those really high paying mining jobs to the destruction of other people's Country, they were really conscious of.

And these industries kind of entangle a really complex... well, it's not that complex, but it's really vastly spread in terms of how they kind of massage the presence and the reality and the productivity of this kind of industry against an understanding of its toxicity and it's coloniality. So you can see the kind of propaganda that comes out at that time when there were no Indigenous voices in the Queensland media at that time. Obviously, it's 100% Murdoch, so that's not an accident.

I professionalised as a curator of installation practices at the State Museum and I really feel like I was studying the gas industry as a kind of large scale corporate installation project. It's not an accident that it was easily installed in Queensland, precisely because of the weakness of land rights in Queensland. And when I teach internationally to my art students, I make a point of saying that contemporary art was declared prematurely arrived in Australia in the context of a land rights movement that had only just nationalised in media space of that time and the infrastructures of artistic freedom that we have that are based on, still I think, for a lot of settler art schools that are based on this idea of European freedom, are fully bound up with the unfreedom of people still defending land. And so that's the professional kind of infrastructure that we operate in.

And so my personal opinion, which is not only mine, is that we have a responsibility to not just promote Aboriginal art practice, but to talk about what's actually happening on the Country that those practices come from and to take some responsibility in our cultural institutional work and outside of our paid jobs, to thinking about if that is the kind of justice project that we are aesthetically invested in, well how does that materially translate into other kinds of practices, including redistributing labour and value to sites that need to be defended.

A study came out recently that said there's something like 19 different ecosystems, local ecosystems, threatened by collapse in this Country alone in the next 20 years, and I think those kinds of things that seem like news to settlers, that's not news to our Indigenous colleagues, but there are increasingly questions about the contradictions I think of our professionalism that I think needs to be talked about more broadly.

So for me, I think what artists do have and I think what our aesthetic training does teach you is kind of sensitivity to media and I think in this case, I was quite sensitive to the art form of sort of the corporate mediation of these kinds of investment projects. And if we're thinking about how land is abstracted away from Indigenous governance and from the palpable power of the people in the film, there's three, at least three kind of operative ways in which that happens.

And one of them is the ongoingness of the kind of Terra Nullius erasure of history, Aboriginal history and land management. The second is private property, which my early, kind of, film sought to contribute to thinking about those kind of contemporary space from a distance because I was in Europe and trying to make kind of a more research-based film, in the film before this one. And then what I think settlers could do a lot more of is thinking about the amount of cultural work that corporations do in this country and what we think about the power of that cultural work.

These things become more apparent once you see some of these supposed kind of artistic renditions that corporations will publish when they're trying to license these projects, not just in courts of law, but in newspapers and in local communities. So on the left-hand side, there's a kind of image of private property combined with a mining plan that's supposed to show how clean the industry is in tapping through the groundwater and just producing minor earthquakes and just affecting that one slab of land. Obviously, the connectivity of that land is the reality, but the reverse is the surrealism.

On the right-hand side, that's an actually an image that was used by one of the mining companies in Gladstone to explain the spacing of its infrastructure and what you'll notice is that at this time, that export infrastructure in Gladstone was actually built to export gas from up to 60,000 wells in Western Queensland and you'll see only one spot that is registered for gas wells. So the complete anti-empiricism and anti-science of these kinds of visual projects really can be quite remarkable and it's something that we can, kind of, intervene in, I guess.

For more on the corporate history of, the relationship of corporate Australia to the destruction of land rights and it's turning of land rights into Native Title, I would recommend among all of the work of people like Gary Foley, and that land rights archive. In addition to that, people who study corporate Australia are quite useful. So this book on the right-hand side, Lindy Nolan, has kind of gone through and looked at how many kind of reconciliation projects and this kind of thing come out of the invention of corporate Australia.

It's not an accident— She starts in that book with the fact that the Business Council of Australia was actually a dream of the head of Rio Tinto and at that time, the corporations were quite terrified about the land rights movement and they organised what was essentially a union of corporations to push back against the relationship of the unions to the land rights movement.

So I was invited based on the previous works that I'd done on the gas and the whiteness of the environment movement to come to this meeting in Katherine in 2018 that followed the lifting of the moratorium on anti-fracking and it was called Stories From the Frontline, and some of the people in the film I met at that event. And I also met people from the Protect Country Alliance at that event and that was, I guess, my kind of connection to the communities.

I didn't actually pick any of the speakers in the film. I think that's important to say. They were actually people that were already speaking up for their Country to many, many journalists and well, not enough journalists, but some journalists, and have the authority in their communities, and so I really just kind of was speaking to people that were pointed to me as who the people were that I should be speaking to.

And the bottom there, I wanted to include this image because it gives you an idea of the scenography of power that went into the Northern Territory Scientific Inquiry into hydraulic fracturing. It wasn't the first inquiry, but it's the most recent one that went through all the rigamarole of a supposedly democratic inquiry project. No Aboriginal people are obviously on the board of inquiry. Importantly, there was very minimal translation available for people to testify against the industry in their own languages and there were a lot of artists and important land rights activists involved in turning up to the inquiry and really pointing to the performativity of it and the fact that even though they're sitting in the room, the way that their knowledge was being understood was basically blocking the transmission of their authority, basically.

And on the top right-hand side, you can see this is not a new investment imagination. This is the colonial heritage from the 19th century that we know from old fictitious maps that dreamed of a vast array of water at the centre of the Country that is actually underground. What's interesting about that is it completely coincides with the analysis of the industry and energy market. The gas-led recovery, we've got images here, yeah. The gas-led recovery is prioritised as possibly the only major economic response to COVID, really, as well as the obvious point that it's stacked by gas industry professionals.

If you actually do the math on it, as many industry people have, it actually doesn't make sense. If you're only wanting to profit from that space and had absolutely no regard for any people that live there, it's still such a great risk that the federal government has basically tried to prop up this industry that many oil companies around the world are pulling out of at the same time. The coloniality of power is key to these federal leaders' investment in actually producing this kind of scale of destruction, I would say. I'm really moving quite quickly through these slides, but I think that that's an important point to point out.

So the film, if you haven't seen it yet, it's been showing, we've shared it with five venues around Australia and at each location, First Nation speakers are speaking to the film in those places. You can see the first three discussions are already online at the Institute of Modern Art, and there's some amazing responses of artists and activists, including some from the film but also from SEED and from the land rights movement within Australian art, speaking up there to the film and the conditions that it's kind of articulating.

My contribution in the exhibition space, which is also coming out of that literacy in corporate history, is about pointing to the major issue of the disconnection of land rights from water rights. So not many people know this, but John Howard made sure that even in the weakness of Native Title and in time with corporate interest in separating property rights in land from property rights in water to create a private water market in this country based on ideas that were brought here by US corporate consultancies in the very early 1980s. Based on that interest, Howard made sure to disconnect Indigenous water rights from Indigenous land rights and Native Title rights.

So even if people do win back their land, as you see in the film like Ray is sitting at the heart of walk-off country, which is such a historic space for the achievement of land rights in the Northern Territories. He has Native Title, which means he can't say no to mining, but even if he had land rights, he can't comment on the water rights connected to that land because that severance has already been made much earlier than now.

The film— I don't think I would've been able to make this film with predominantly Australian funding. Maybe I'm wrong about that, I've been away for a while, and being away and seeing how this situation compares to what's happening in other countries was helpful for thinking about coming back and kind of speaking to the right people and also making some of those footnotes, making sure they make sense to an international audience that really already is invested in Indigenous rights in a general sense, but don't necessarily know the full kind of history of the struggle that's local to those places and to the kind of pan-Aboriginal story that continues needing to be told.

And one of the most interesting and important things I think we did the, Que did her first international talk to a bunch of academics that were assembling as part of a conference called Extractable Matters at Arts Catalyst, and that was actually bringing together artists and activists working between north and south who were thinking about how these collaborations can work tactically better together, but also how they can understand how the north and how a kind of European capitalism sort of continues to affect very local struggles and situations on the ground of Country where people live.

So we did a tour with the London Mining Network who turn up to shareholder meetings at all those famous Australian mining companies, are right in the middle of the city next door to Buckingham Palace, and we got that kind of local corporate feel for how connected that kind of history of empire remains to the struggles that are happening now. We met some really amazing people that turn up day-to-day to those shareholder meetings.

Just to end on a more positive note and also to correct some of the things that have happened since the film has ended, the Butchulla people in the Wide Bay area have been the first in the country to annul old gas licenses based on the free prior and informed consent laws that are in UNDRIP that Professor Watson talks about as being a kind of weak protection that was installed in 2007. Gemma now works one day a week for Lock the Gate and is making sure there's more Indigenous presence in Queensland in that NGO.

And the court case that I didn't film— Sorry yeah, the action that I didn't film when I was in NT because I wasn't there and I feel weird about putting actions in the film that I wasn't part of, but this is such an important gesture and such a provocative rational response to the situation in the NT, the Barroloola community came together and produced this action where they went and drilled the lawns of the Parliament house and they've been held up in the court for quite some time. And it was just decided on recently by a judge who gave a very positive response in terms of the rationality of the gesture in relationship to minimal other routes of defense of Country, but also the obvious climate case for not fracking the NT. So the scientific inquiry, as well as many other critiques that you could have of it, climate change wasn't actually a part of the kind of terms of reference of that scientific inquiry, even though the plan to frack the NT would release six times the emissions of the current emissions of the Northern Territory.

Finally, I just wanted to say in the film, there's a map there of current gas approvals and it's a really horrifying image, I think, but I put it there because I think people, particularly in the inner cities, don't necessarily know how much Country is at threat. But I also want to say and am really careful to say that these light yellow marks, yes, fracking has been approved in those places, but it definitely hasn't happened in many of them. So a lot of capital from the federal government and a lot of confidence from the mining companies is required to actually make that happen. And until that moment, there's a lot of contingency politically and economically around the possibility of these spaces being fracked.

So the darker green title sections there, they're submissions by mining companies to frack that Country. As you can see, it was a free-for-all in the Northern Territory until about 2016. In some of those places, there's not even gas in those places. So it makes it more clear how easy it is to apply to toxify the land, but actually definitely that's not a kind of a fatalistic image. It's the image that is being refused at the level of its realism. And there's no way that amount of fracking will happen, but it's going to be dependent on how many people resist it and how many people support those frontline communities, and resource those frontline communities who are really staring down the barrel of a whole lot of stupidity at the moment. That was my Thinking Otherwise slide, I'm happy to kind of talk about that or add it to the Zoom publication.

If you're interested in contributing to these kinds of projects that are protecting Country in this area, I would point you to these groups. The group that I guess I continue to be in conversation with is the Protect Country Alliance and the Central Australian Frack Free Alliance. SEED has just become fully independent, which is amazing, and you should definitely be prioritising the work that they're doing in the NT with young people who are organising, which is really amazing work. GetUp! has also been doing good work around elections.

I wanted to put in there the Moree Ecological Holistic Information Centre on Facebook. That's the group of people that are publishing the current campaign for the Billaga Forest. And the situation in the NT— Western Australia, I'm not an expert in, I'd recommend you take a look at it. But there's a lot happening in terms of things that need to be refused right now and under the cover of this kind of generalised COVID story, there hasn't been so much attention on that. And for ongoing coverage, I put some kind of journalism links there of the people that are debunking the government narrative of how realistic it is to kind of produce these new mining infrastructures.

And yeah, I guess Helen, I'd love for you to engage in any questions there. But yeah, thanks so much for having us. The film will launch online in time with its other Monash events and we're going to be ringing up Ray Dixon from the Marlinja community who appears in the middle of the film talking about the interconnection of water, and then we're going to go back to the UNSW and connect Que to the campaign from Billaga, and then we're going to end in Gladstone with the Gooreng Gooreng aunties talking about the film experience for them, yep.

Helen Hughes: Thanks Rachel, or thanks Tony, first of all, for sketching for us the longer history of the Indigenous struggle for climate justice in this country and to Rachel for outlining some of the decision making around the film and how you arrived at the content matter. I know we don't have heaps of time, but I suppose I wanted to throw an image back to both of you that really resonated for me watching the film, which was the image of the white ant who comes into a community and picks away at one person and not only through this process, sort of, gets the immediate gratification of the mining contract signed and getting there and getting the minerals or the gas, but also winnows away the possibility for sort of future collective action I guess by creating those rifts in community. And thinking also about, Rachel, you mentioning your ancestors in Gladstone and their involvement in the union movement.

So I just was wondering— And also I guess in the film you repeat this image with the white ant twice by replaying it to the three Elders sitting on their couch. So, I don't know, that was one of the most resonating images to me. If any of you'd like to comment to it, comment on it, I should say.

Tony Birch: I would because I think that clearly when they're referring to that idea, they're referring to individual Aboriginal people, as much as it could be a white fella who gets a job or who works for a mining company or who liaises between mining companies and communities. I think it's fairly simple, it's that I can imagine the excitement of being given that opportunity, but what it really points to is that no individual should be given any coercive authority in regard to collective decisions that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people need to make.

And it's clear, one of the tactics that mining companies, and we know this has been the case in regards to the Adani mine and the impact on the Wangan and Jagalingou people is that you need to find an Aboriginal voice that you can either work with, manipulate, coerce, strategically engage with that disenfranchise and disempower whole communities.

So that it goes back to, I think, the same philosophy that was talked about in this film in regard to the difference between land rights and Native Title acts or Native Title legislation is that if you genuinely believe in the autonomy and authority of Aboriginal nations to control our Country, then all decisions have to be proper cultural collective decisions and there is no place for individuals to make decisions on behalf of communities. It's that simple.

And I think that one of the strategic reasons for this, and there are many, is that it allows for the so-called streamlining of decision making and we know that communities need proper time to do proper consultation within the sort of parameters to the cultural practice in your own communities. And I think it's shocking the way that we forget that for any community or nation to make a decision on how their Country is used, or not used, or how they engage with non-Aboriginal people in regard to the protection of Country, these are decisions that take a lot of time, they take a lot of consultation, and if you're not prepared to do that, you shouldn't be even engaging with communities.

And I think it would be obvious that mining companies and governments know that if they engaged with communities and nations in a full and proper cultural way that very different decisions would've been made. So these bureaucratic institutionalised forms of engagement are really deceptive and really disempower people.

So rather than thinking maybe about the individual white ant, it's the process or the superstructure that's put in place to allow this to happen, which has to be dismantled because I think it's understandable how an individual could be sucked into this role. I can understand that. It's the manipulation around that, which I think is much more damaging.

Rachel O'Reilly: Yeah, totally. Growing up in Gladstone, that town, people make fun of it, the phases. I found it kind of interesting that it was quite an unmournable space in media. You'll never see a film about the destruction of the Gladstone harbour because it was already considered the most industry-friendly town in Australia before the gas even came here.

What I was going to say about that, that kind of argument, particularly amongst settlers who don't know enough about what's going on and don't want to have an opinion until they know more, I think that's when it also gets really dangerous. They'll circulate this idea that we can't comment on these practices because some Aboriginal people will benefit in a minor way financially from them and it's that kind of argument I think obviously it needs to be refused, but it's also the reason why I'm comfortable talking about the place where I grew up, which I care about, it's not that I want to demolish it, its kind of ethical location or whatever, it's precisely because many of my Aboriginal friends that I went to high school with are buying their first houses with mining industry money. In the history of their families, there's no wealth accumulation except for whatever happens with industry in that town and whatever happens with industry in that town is always up to one company, which has a set of practices that are more or less symbolically engaged with Aboriginal people.

And so the critiques can't happen through that space because of the economic case for it. But I was at a dinner the other night, an art dinner, and I was sitting next to a woman and she said to me that she watched Andrew Forrest's Boyer Lectures and was convinced by his argument for Indigenous development. And we've been sold that image and I think we've been sold that image also in art space, the whole happy marriage of art, remote community art centres, just sitting right next to a mine and these things being the solution to Aboriginal protection of Country. And obviously it's insane, but I think it's interesting how many layers, that we need to unpack that, to understand that basically we need to be more literate in how capitalism actually works in order to have a kind of solidarity relationship with people in all of the spaces of settler colonial society.

So I have no comment on any Aboriginal person who wants to take any money from any art exhibition or any corporate sponsoring or any mining project. The point is how does it happen, where do we position ourselves in it, and where do we put our attention and our, kind of, resourcing energy, I guess.

Helen Hughes: Thank you both so much. I think we have to stop the conversation now or rather put it on pause until next week where we continue the chat in MADA Gallery. Everyone keep an eye out on the MUMA website for the link to INFRACTIONS, which we'll put up there shortly, and thank you very much for tuning in.


INFRACTIONS is a feature length film that platforms important First Nation voices between Yallarm (Gladstone, Queensland)—where unconventional gas was first approved in Australia—and current struggles against shale gas fracking that threatens 51 per cent of the Northern Territory. The film is the final work of The Gas Imaginary, 2013–20, a project by Gladstone-born settler artist, writer and curator Rachel O’Reilly that has used poetry, drawing, moving image and lecture formats to explain the legal, aesthetic and technical conceits of ‘unconventional’ gas, in ongoing dialogue with Gooreng Gooreng elders and women environmental activists.

INFRACTIONS was made in the wake of the 2018 NT Scientific Inquiry into hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and before gas figured as a national solution to pandemic economics. Artists and community workers in INFRACTIONS speak up for songlines and refuse ‘northern development’ geographies and Professor Irene Watson, Pro Vice Chancellor Aboriginal Leadership and Strategy at the University of South Australia, explains the continuing entanglement of Terra Nullius logic with today’s intersecting ecosystemic crises.

This conversation with Rachel and writer, scholar and activist Tony Birch considers differential cultural responsibilities on the side of climate justice, and will be hosted by Helen Hughes. INFRACTIONS will also feature in The Tree School, part of MUMA’s Tree Story exhibition, running 11–23 March at MADA Faculty Gallery with Ray Dixon, a Mudburra Traditional Owner from Marlinja community near Elliott, Northern Territory.

INFRACTIONS features: Dimakarri ‘Ray’ Dixon (Mudburra); Jack Green (Garawa, Gudanji); Gadrian Hoosan (Garrwa, Yanyuwa); Robert O’Keefe (Wambaya), Juliri Ingra and Neola Savage (Gooreng Gooreng); Que Kenny (Western Arrarnta); Cassie Williams (Western Arrarnta); the Sandridge Band from Borroloola; Professor Irene Watson (Tanganekald, Meintangk Bunganditj) contributor to the draft UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, 1990-1994.

INFRACTIONS was commissioned by KW Berlin Production Series, dedicated to artists’ moving image (supported by the Julia Stoschek Collection and OUTSET Germany_Switzerland) and premiered at Babylon Kino Berlin and ICA London (discursive partner)/ It features public programs with Que Kenny (Western Arrarnta) and is being toured in Australia with the support of IMA and Arts Queensland.

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