The artist and the refugee: tooling up for action

Bec Dean

Refugee Island, Mickie Quick

Refugee Island, Mickie Quick

Activist artists continue to pursue the refugee issue with an intensity that reveals how deeply recent events and continuing struggles have affected and divided Australian communities. On a recent visit to Sydney, I was fortunate to meet with activist and artist for social change, Deborah Kelly. Kelly is a key figure in the Sydney-based collective, we are all Boat People—comprising visual artists, writers, media, web and lighting designers, video activists, an architect, and an IT expert. During our conversation, as a suitably ominous-looking thunderhead accumulated overhead, she talked about the complicit role of mainstream media in the creation of ciphers, faceless beings on whom we can project our worst fears and imaginings. Images released pre-election of pixilated faces and aerial shots of hundreds of huddled bodies on the deck of the Tampa seem to have presented Australians with a new tabula rasa for demonisation and hate. Moreover, the detachment of the Woomera and Port Hedland detention centres from population centres, and thereby from immediate consciousness, has laid the ground for a conflict of mediated imagery.
The inquiry into the ‘Children Overboard’ affair revealed that orders were made restricting the kind of photographs that could be taken by naval officers documenting the event. The simulacra released by the Howard government were cued by an image history and visual language that samples, enlarges, cuts, recontextualises and frames. Over the course of the last century, contemporary artists, designers, printers and advertisers have exploited the particular qualities and degenerative idiosyncrasies of mass-produced image-making. The obscured ‘Children Overboard’ photograph of partially submerged figures can easily be recognised as a deliberate fabrication.

Although the artifice revealed by the inquiry was undeniable, the government’s merciless PR machine continues to barrel along, churning out spurious imagery and rhetoric. Another indicator that we have fallen foul of our most disturbing (and Orwellian) futuristic predictions is the proliferation of ‘Ruddock-speak’ as coined by Robert Manne writing in the Sydney Morning Herald. “For [Ruddock] a broken child has suffered an ‘adverse impact’; people who sew their lips together are involved in ‘inappropriate behaviours’; refugees who flee to the West in terror are ‘queue jumpers’.” The latest of these bite-sized and easily imprinted crisis-euphemisms is ‘refusees’ which, besides distancing asylum-seekers from the legitimate status of refugee, carries the multivalent meanings of rejected and unwanted and most horrifyingly, of refuse and waste.

How, therefore, can activist artists possibly offer alternatives to the machinations of a government whose extreme policies of mandatory detention for refugees are largely accepted by Australians? Teri Hoskin, an artist from the Adelaide-based volunteers in support of asylum seekers (v-I-s-a-s) suggests, “Artists know how images work, how they make meaning, and are tooled up to both make images and disseminate them. Artists can open up the debate to a depth that mainstream discourses couldn’t and wouldn’t…I also think that artists are perhaps more willing to take risks, and have an understanding that life is essentially heterogeneous, rather than essentially homogenous with deviancies that have to be fixed.”

From a Perth perspective, the interstate connections made by artists through forums, events and conferences over the past 12 months have had far-reaching effects, enabling long-term associations to be forged and dialogue to expand around activist art practices in Australia and overseas. These have included Newcastle’s Electrofringe (part of This Is Not Art, September 2001); dLux Media’s TILT (Trading Independent Lateral Tactics, Sydney, October 2001); Elastic (Adelaide, March 2002), and the Art of Dissent (Adelaide, March 2002 and Melbourne, October 2002). These brief and often inspirational connections between artists and the larger community are bolstered by the strong electronic social change networks provided by groups like v-I-s-a-s and Octopod (Newcastle).

Artist collaborations, and actions undertaken by groups including we are all Boat People, also offer a serious alternative to political party alignment over the issue of Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers. Where the slippery territory of ideology can factionalise groups and deter people from joining an action or protest, the practices of some artist collectives emphasise inclusivity and the power of the individual to join and do something with their unique skills. Deborah Kelly says, “Our message is a simple one, and we think it says something all Australians know and understand. The only difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is circumstance. Our government has shown no compassion, and certain elements within the mainstream media have deliberately perpetuated the myths about refugees…In response, we have decided to spread our own message of unity and compassion…the strategy of the SWARM. A thousand small actions, lots of individuals doing something, anything. The message gets out, but more importantly, it gets into the minds of ordinary Australians.” During our conversation Deborah Kelly emphasises we are all Boat People’s mission to keep their ideas mainstream: “We have no interest in being marginal”.

Kelly and her collaborators are responsible for the creation of the tall ships/boat people image that identifies Australia’s colonial history and implicates all but our Indigenous peoples in its simple message. The distribution of this non-copyright artwork via flyers, downloadable PDFs /jpegs, and through a Perth T-shirt company, has enabled wide distribution across Australia. The actions of the group have ranged from large-scale projections of the tall ships image on iconic landmarks or at arts events to community activities resulting in the creation of a flotilla of 3,301 origami boats (one for every refugee in detention, on and offshore).

Their most recent actions have proved challenging and potentially litigious. On the eve of the Budget announcement, Kelly drove to Canberra to project the tall-ships image onto Parliament House, a site where protest is illegal. As Peter Costello announced an increased allocation of federal money to ‘Border Protection’, Kelly and her Canberra Boat People network were surrounded on the lawn by Commonwealth Police. Previously, on Good Friday this year, the group chartered a boat in Circular Quay as a roving, floating projection booth following the swift shut-down by security guards of several land-based attempts to project on the Sydney Opera House. Before the group had even embarked, the boat was boarded by Commonwealth Police who threatened to revoke the captain’s commercial charter license if any projections were made on prominent sites. The protected status of Sydney Harbour as a commercial tourist zone forced the group and their audience of 155 supporters to project outside Circular Quay onto an abandoned navy vessel.

While the anti-copyright, tall ships image has allowed we are all Boat People’s message and networks to extend as far as Perth, v-I-s-a-s have worked in a different way to bring artwork out of the Woomera Detention Centre and into an international forum. Drawings by children detained at Woomera were collected by arts worker and v-I-s-a-s prime mover Serafina Maiorano following the September riots last year. These works, depicting water cannons used against detainees by guards in riot gear, are currently being exhibited by Amnesty International at a United Nations meeting in Geneva. Although the works cannot be attributed to a particular person or place, the v-I-s-a-s copyright and web address is accessible to those wishing to discover more about refugee detention in Australia.

As an artist-initiated group, v-I-s-a-s organised part of the opening parade event for the Adelaide Fringe where participants were encouraged to adopt the symbol of a Refugee Freedom Key in opposition to the image of barbed-wire fences that has come to represent mandatory detention in Australia. “Open your heart…an invitation to all South Australians to take peaceful action to express humane opposition to the injustice asylum seekers face in this country. The punishment of people who are in search of refuge contradicts the most basic of human rights…rattle your keys…so that in time it becomes known as a refugee freedom gesture”. Aside from its public activities v-I-s-a-s hosts a particularly active website and a listserv that offers insights into the actions of other groups, with regular updates from the Woomera-based Refugee Embassy bus manned by activists Dave McKay and Ross Parry.

From Melbourne, artist and university lecturer Danius Kesminas travelled to Woomera with a group of predominantly exchange students from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong where they attempted to “revive the long standing tradition of Australian landscape painting and watercolours”. The title of this collective work, accompanied by photo-documentation, was A Soft Touch: Woomera Detention Centre Eyewitness Accounts, referring directly to one of the most quoted myths of Australia’s so-called ‘soft’ border controls. The work was shown at Kuntlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin. Danius explains “the thing to remember is that in German consciousness the 2 most significant places in Australia are Sydney and Woomera”.

In Perth, road signs are changing at the hands of Mickie Quick, who is converting benign ‘Refuge Island’ signs to Refugee Island, with the supportive male and female figures altered to a man with a gun leading an unarmed female. I spoke with Mickie Quick about his provocative culture jamming in relation to criticism that has been leveled at outspoken writers such as Philip Adams for conflating Australian Detention Centres with the concentration camps of the Holocaust. While this kind of statement can divide opinion, Mickie explains that his work is based on the sentiments of hate and xenophobia that are growing in Australian communities, leading to almost dismissive ‘just shoot ‘em’ attitudes. It’s certainly a difficult time and place for irony. Inaction resulting from self-censorship and fear of reproach also seems to be a significant factor for those who continue to be silent about the plight of asylum seekers in our country. As Teri Hoskin of v-I-s-a-s articulates, “It points to a certain paralysis of action when activism (as physical protest) is seen as the only possible response”.

Refugee Island image by Mickie Quick.

we are all Boat People, www.boat-people.org
Download the tall ships/boat people image and stickers, and spread the message.

v-i-s-a-s, http://v-i-s-a-s.net [link expired] Join the mailing list. The drawings by children in detention at Woomera can also be viewed on this site.

Artists for refugees, artistsforrefugees@hotmail.com A Perth-based collective of art-workers who recently staged the Artists For Refugees benefit concert with proceeds going to CARAD, Coalition Assisting Refugees After Detention.

Show Mercy, www.showmercy.info [link expired] The Sydney-based Rights Campaign for Asylum Seekers recently staged the Show Mercy Concert in support of asylum seekers.

Australia is Refugees, www.australiansagainstracism.org
A schools project devised by founders of Australians Against Racism, writer Eva Sallis and designer Marianna Hardwick. The project will involve year 6 and 7 students in writing the stories of refugees in their families and communities.

The Art of Dissent, www.artofDissent.com
A national symposium for artists and community activists working at the frontier of social and cultural change. Now calling for speakers: Melbourne Festival 2002, Storey Hall, RMIT University, Oct 14-16.

This Is Not Art/Electrofringe, www.thisisnotart.org/ [updated link] A national festival staged in Newcastle of young writing, music, new media and digital arts.

Digital Eskimo, www.digitaleskimo.net
A global network of digital media professionals, they work with “socially progressive organisations.”

Isle of Refuge, exhibition, curators My Le Thi & Ashley Curruthers, Ivan Dougherty Gallery, early 2003 & touring. Featuring work by refugees and their children, and émigré artists including Imants Tillers, Savanhdary Vongpoothorn, Guan Wei and Anne Zahalka.

News from Nowhere,
9am Mondays,92.1 RTR FM, Perth. Presented by anarchist & performance artist Mar Bucknell as an alternative to and critique of mainstream news.

Mobile Refugee Embassy. Support Dave McKay and Ross Parry in Woomera as they lobby government and attempt to provide legal and moral support to detainees.

Many thanks to Deborah Kelly, Teri Hoskin and Mick Hender.

See also, Identifying with the refugee

RealTime issue #49 June-July 2002 pg. 7

© Bec Dean; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2002
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