growing food, growing ideas

sarah miller: siteworks 2012: future food feast

Gary Warner installs his Geodesic dome

Gary Warner installs his Geodesic dome

Gary Warner installs his Geodesic dome


The prototype for Siteworks was the creative development residency called Ten Trenches in 2009. Led by the Cohen brothers, creative producer and artist, Michael and scientist, Tim, this project saw auger holes drilled, and ten slot trenches dug, in order to examine the flood behaviour of the river from up to 8,000 years ago. The purpose was to reach the Pleistocene period when the sea was about a metre higher than present—a level which is predicted to reoccur within the next 100 years. The project culminated in the night-time performance, Site by Night animating the trenches, illuminating the flood plain and generating a sense of the extraordinary regenerative potential of our planet.

In 2010 and 2011, extended residencies by artists and thinkers saw a number of commissioned artworks and performances, creative laboratories and an increasing number of collaborations between local residents, artists and thinkers taking place with the public outcomes presented over a weekend each Spring. This has led to a growing understanding of the land from cultural and scientific perspectives, encompassing both Indigenous and non-Indigenous histories of place, and inevitably, considerations of land usage and discussions around the future of food and water.

I’ve been privileged to be an audience member at successive Siteworks which have involved some truly wonderful performances and artworks as well as important conversations around the compelling and urgent issues of our time. I’ve planted trees and whacked weeds, wandered the river at dusk and heard the echoes of voices past and present ricocheting across the water and off the hillside. I’ve eaten weed pie, local black fish, freshly slaughtered beef and seaweed salad. I’ve watched the construction of an iron bark canoe and a geodesic dome, and listened to birdcalls both live and recorded. I’ve seen more kangaroos, wallabies and wombats in one place than just about anywhere else in Australia, and I’ve stood in deep trenches and marvelled at the layers of earth, rock and clay dating back ten thousand years.

As each Siteworks rolls into the next, the conversations continue and deepen. Of course the fact that Bundanon is a working farm, makes the topic of food and water particularly pressing, and provides a relevant context. For instance, an exemplary presentation by Professor Lesley Head, Director of the Australian Centre for Cultural Environmental Research (AUSCCER) on the cultural ecology of wheat in 2010 articulated the “perspectives on human-plant interactions by tracing and connecting the cultural, economic and ecological networks in which wheat is embedded from production to consumption.” Taken in tandem with Diego Bonetto’s social tactics with weeds, an understanding of human-plant relationships has been enabled in new and compelling ways for participants.

being there

Weed Whacking; Siteworks

Weed Whacking; Siteworks

Weed Whacking; Siteworks

To arrive at the Bundanon Homestead on a glorious Spring day is to pretty much arrive in heaven. The rolling green pastures, the rich perfume of the cottage garden in flower, the beautiful colonial homestead housing an extraordinary collection of art including several new commissions; a band—Paul Greene and the other colours—playing under the coral trees; fresh produce by local market gardeners, a fantastic coffee experience and happy families everywhere. Somewhere out in a paddock, Gary Warner is constructing a Geodesic dome. There are 100s of young seedlings to plant and lots of fireweed to pull out. Two of Brooke Andrews’ caravans from his Sydney Festival project, Travelling Colony, house videos documenting artists’ projects: Cross (X) Species Adventure Club: Australian Safari by Natalie Jeremijenko and Food for Thought by Tom Rivard, Jodie McNeilly and Michael Lewarne. It’s cosy viewing squished into a caravan watching the adventures of artists and cultural activists.

performance by Robyn Backen & Plank, Siteworks

performance by Robyn Backen & Plank, Siteworks

performance by Robyn Backen & Plank, Siteworks

In the lushly chintz music room of the Boyd’s family homestead, Nigel Helyer’s 8-track sound installation, Milk and Honey, references the biblical book of Exodus whose poetic language is in stark contrast to the prosaic diary entries written by colonial settlers in the 1880s. The murmuring of voices, the humming of the bees, the sound of waves lapping against a bow, transports listeners into a poignant and resonant sonic space. In the evening we all wander down to the riverbank and, as night falls, listen to the voices of Robyn Backen’s performers (Plank) echoing across the river, reporting the weather from a century and a half ago. Flickering torchlight occasionally illuminates the scrubby hillside, throwing up strange shadows, as a ghostly procession of performers climbs the hill, to disappear mysteriously into the blackness.

postcards from the future

Punctuating these bucolic experiences were two key conversations. The first, Postcards from the Future, was facilitated by Fiona Winning. The brief was to imagine, optimistically, what the brave new world of future food might be in 2032. I suspect that it was the optimism that each speaker found most challenging…Chris Presland, from the Southern Rivers Catchment Management Authority (CMA) and chair of the Greenbox Regional Food Cooperative, addressed a postcard to his granddaughter, imagining a world in which government and community finally recognise the fundamental necessity of prioritising a healthy natural environment, as well as the need to make conscious choices about food. Artist Barbara Campbell’s postcard to her niece, on the occasion of the Spring Equinox Festival, was a celebration of all the things that connect us, cultural and plant diversity and the importance of planting seeds both conceptual and physical. Shane Norrish from Landcare Australia, writing to his partner Rosemary, celebrated the achievement of sufficient water on tap in Kenya, allowing him to note that 40% of the world’s populations live in river basins currently suffering severe water stress. Chris Andrew from Greening Australia talked about the importance of ‘joined-up thinking,’ of the need to break out of discipline silos to address the pressing and profoundly connected issues of energy, food and water.

eating animals

Lunch was pretty awesome. Prepared by Dank St Deport chef Jared Ingersoll chef and an extraordinary team of helpers, the feasting offered an optimistic view of what the future might hold, if only we tend to our environment, harvest wisely and eat what is grown, produced and marketed locally. On the menu was local blackfish with seaweed salad, cultured and harvested by Aquatic Scientist, Pia Winberg; organic chicken with weed salad and, of course, a vegetarian option. Undoubtedly the most confronting item on the menu, however, was the Bundanon Beast (numbered RT-106), an Angus mixed with Black Simmental steer, slaughtered for the Siteworks feast at the request of property manager Henry Goodall. The project was contentious, even for Bundanon staff, but in the end Henry’s argument about the importance of making the connection between the actual animal in the pasture and the food on our plate was an essential one.

In order for participants and eaters to more fully understand the relationship we have with the animals we eat, Goodall worked with filmmaker Mike Leggett on a video called RT-106: The Beast of Bundanon. It was screened in one of the upstairs rooms at the homestead, and just to make sure that we all got the point, we sat watching the video with our feet on the tanned hide of RT-106. As Jonathan Safran Foer wrote in Eating Animals (2009): “Perhaps there is no meat. Perhaps there is this animal, raised on this farm, slaughtered at this plant, sold in this way, and eaten by this person…”

These are not the shockingly, brutal images of a Four Corners program; the abattoir is clean, the workers efficient and there is no gratuitous brutality. The moment of slaughter is not shown, but the hung cadaver of a large steer skinned, gutted and then butchered, is in striking contrast to the images of that same, wet-nosed young steer sniffing the air from the back of a truck on its way to the abattoir, or the big eyes of cows and their calves in Bundanon’s paddocks gazing into the camera. There is respect and poignancy, but no sentimentality. We are eating animal.

postprandial conversation: future food

Cleverly facilitated by Gretel Killeen, this conversation involved chef Jared Ingersoll, an outspoken advocate of sustainable, ethical eating; Ingrid Just, media spokesperson for Choice; futurist Mike McCallum; dairy farmer Lynne Strong; Professor John Crawford, who holds the Judith and David Coffey Chair of Sustainable Agriculture at the University of Sydney; and Jodi Newcombe, environmental engineer and economist.

The point was compellingly made that our future food system must take us beyond a merely economic relationship with land, and move to smaller, more distributed networks of food production. The cost of food and food production was a recurrent trope with Jared Ingersoll making the point that we seem to want obesity and poor health delivered to us at bargain prices. Mike McCallum followed up by pointing out that governments need to make decisions about food quality; currently economic incentives make it easy to eat badly. Food typically represents 10% of the average household’s income, meaning that it’s never been cheaper. Food is now bred for quantity rather than quality; there has been a 50% decline in nutritional density from f50 years ago. Ingrid Just on the other hand, argued that Siteworks attendees were middleclass and out of touch with the realities of the average suburban household, where shopping is predicated on cost and convenience, while making a compelling point about packaging by dumping in front of us the rubbish she picked up from junk food wrapping on a stretch of roadside just outside Nowra.

Dairy farmer Lynne Strong had some good things to say but telling us that organic farming is more environmentally costly than factory farming was not one of them. John Anderson made the chilling point that no-one is thinking about the global rate at which we are losing top soil; apparently we have about 60 years of top soil left, while McCallum further commented that cities are consuming the best arable land. Strong told us that less than 6% of land in Australia is arable. Anderson also argued that the next 10-15 years would see major conflicts associated with water shortages. “Hungry people,” he said, “are angry people.”

One of the great things about the curated conversations at Siteworks is the bringing together of people from very different lived experiences and perspectives. This is not a scenario where everyone sits around agreeing with each other. Instead the inevitable paradoxes, contradictions, vested interests and passionate engagements come into fruitful but sometimes frustrating interaction. One of the particularly interesting things about putting ‘experts’ into conversation with regular punters is that they/we sometimes have to unpack some of our most treasured tenets, adopted practically as items of faith, while experts can assume that punters know nothing and having nothing valid to contribute.

where to next?

It’s clear that information is one part of the story. We can’t talk about food security without talking about health. We can’t talk about health without talking about the environment. We can’t talk about the environment without talking about culture. Growing ideas is as important as growing food. Ultimately, however, the challenge is not only to envision the future, but also to map it, and get on track. We know what we need to do. The future is in our hands.

Bundanon Trust, Siteworks, Future Food Feast, Bundanon, NSW, Sept 29; https://www.bundanon.com.au/siteworks

RealTime issue #112 Dec-Jan 2012 pg.

© Sarah Miller; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

11 December 2012