Compassionately adrift

Vic McEwan: Scott Howie, Boat/Person

Scott Howie, Boat/Person

Scott Howie, Boat/Person

Scott Howie, Boat/Person

On Wednesday 9 July, Tony Abbott appeared on the Today show where he addressed questions about the reports of mothers on Christmas Island attempting suicide in the belief that their children would then have better success at achieving asylum in Australia. Abbott’s response was that his Government wouldn’t “capitulate to moral blackmail.”

So as Australian citizens, what are our options? What do we do when our government won’t answer questions of deep concern? When our government doesn’t serve our needs, our natural cravings to see ourselves operating with humanity and compassion?

Scott Howie, a Riverina based artist and cultural leader, felt this despair as he watched the media coverage. What followed was a very public series of posts on social media which saw his compulsion to act develop, just three days later, into a durational performative action on the Wollundry Lagoon, in the centre of the civic precinct of Wagga Wagga.

Scott Howie, Boat/Person

Scott Howie, Boat/Person

Scott Howie, Boat/Person

Regional Australia, especially areas like the Riverina, which has a deeply conservative white history, isn’t witness to much protest let alone public durational performance. So to watch this event unfold in the public realm felt exciting. Scott’s initial, dismayed post quickly led to the idea that in quiet, respectful protest, he would sit in solidarity with refugees by launching himself in an inflatable boat into the middle of the lagoon where he would “sit and weep for some time.”

He assembled a group of Observers who would be on the banks, protecting his belongings, looking out for his safety, addressing any concerns with police, rangers or media and answering any questions from the community. The proposed action was both an act of rebellion and an act of love, of personal expression and protest. Scott’s direction to the Observers was to not become antagonistic or be drawn into conflict with any opponents who might be encountered.

As Scott launched himself into the Lagoon, just after 9:30am on Saturday 12 July, drizzly rain got heavier, the adverse conditions only adding to the weight of the artist’s actions—the fog, the rain, the boat drifting into the middle of the lagoon, blown around its edges, the lone figure trying to keep it from crashing into rocks, from getting snagged on lagoon debris.

He sat, restricted in movement in the precarious dingy for a period of ‘settling in.’ As the rain fell harder, he attempted to move about carefully in his raft, using his meagre possessions to create some comfort, some shelter from wind and rain. He placed plastic over his body and used an old tarp to umbrella the boat, to stop it taking in the rain. We felt empathy for Scott in his plight out on the water, a small figure in a big landscape, his actions engaging and mesmerising from afar.

Scott Howie, Boat/Person

Scott Howie, Boat/Person

Scott Howie, Boat/Person

Onboard were a few supplies: a tiny suitcase, some food, a thermos and personal mementos. Also on board was another passenger, Scott’s puppet, a regular collaborator in works over recent years referred to affectionately as “Old Man.” Sometimes they were in conversation, sometimes they wept, sometimes they just sat slumped.

Scott’s action lasted until 3:30pm when cold conditions proved too much for him and the effects of exposure to the elements were deepening. As he made his way to the shore, he was helped out by supporters, some of whom had sat on the bank all day. With cramped legs that made walking difficult at first, he was helped up onto the rocks until the circulation started flowing again and he stood drenched and shivering.

Some watchers engaged with the action, some asked questions. One man held up an imaginary rifle and pretended to shoot the boat before explaining to those within earshot that he didn’t like refugees because they once broke the window of his shop. Many engaged in lengthy conversations.

In the Riverina on this day, people were brought together by a durational performance to witness one man’s personal expression of empathy as the rain fell and the boat slowly filled and the man sat huddled in the fog and wept.

Boat/Person, artist Scott Howie, Wagga Wagga, 12 July

RealTime issue #122 Aug-Sept 2014 pg. 31

© Vic McEwan; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

18 August 2014