This piece is from the collection, In The Time of Refuge.
This timely book offers an expanded understanding of the importance of the arts and communication in dealing with disasters. It is based on Refuge a pioneering program of artist-led events held at Arts House (Melbourne) from 2016-2021 concerned with the intersection of climate change, emergency services and community. The first half of the book opens with a poetic reflection by Angharad Wynne-Jones, the former Artistic Director of Arts House (Melbourne) – the host organization of Refuge – and is followed by a range of contributions from core artists – Lorna Hannan, Jen Rae, Kate Sulan, Harry Lee Shang Lun – and Indigenous leaders – Boon Wurrung Senior Elder, N’arweet Dr Carolyn Briggs AM and Taungurung Elder, Uncle Larry Walsh – who steered the program. This section ends with a commentary by creative producers, Tara Prowse and Sarah Rowbottam. The second half of the book comprises a long, deeply reflective essay by David Pledger and concludes with Noongar writer Cass Lynch’s beautiful work, Convergences.”
Even before the COVID pandemic the financial cost of extreme weather events alone was projected to exceed $39 AUD billion per year in 2050 (Deloitte 2017; Glasser 2019). Imagining a disaster is recognized as a key part in developing responses and mitigating consequences. But building such an imaginary is challenging: communities need to be able to “imagine the unimaginable” in order to prepare for disasters (Fraser et al 2019). Experts in emergency services also recognize that in complex multicultural societies conventional communication strategies are ridden with distortion effects. Pledger has addressed the imminent urban challenges arising from climate change by focusing on the events and actors involved in Refuge but also by ruminating on the wider changes in the political landscape and the different philosophical ways for approaching the question of time. Refuge involved partnerships with the Australian Red Cross, Emergency Management Victoria, State Emergency Services and The Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity as well as receiving direct engagement from community groups, Indigenous leaders, the Lord Mayor of Melbourne, Melbourne’s Chief Resilience Officer and the University of Melbourne.
Refuge cultivated a wide network of stakeholders, generated a diverse range of experiences and events, and produced extensive documentary materials across a range of media. Through his observations, interviews with key participants, and a survey of previous documents Pledger offers a prism for appreciating the significance of this program. It also provides an uncanny window into the complex relationship between art and reality, life and the imagination. In 2018, two years before COVID, Refuge staged a pandemic scenario. Artists explored communication channels. The Red Cross proposed methods for connecting with the diverse communities. Volunteers made masks for the vulnerable. Health experts discussed hygiene and sanitation. Ethicists debated “who gets thrown under the bus” as infection rates surged. Aboriginal storyteller Uncle Larry Walsh explained the new pathogen as a punishment of creator spirit Bundjil (Fraser et al 2020). Looking back, it is hard to separate past, present and future. It is not just a temporal blur, it also carries the uncomfortable feeling of a supersaturated experience: the dimensions of reality have exceeded the predicted bounds of fiction. We are now forced to hold together apocalyptic elements that were not all there in the artistic accounts of the apocalypse. It has confirmed Oscar Wilde’s maxim: “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitate Life” (The Decay of Lying 1889).
However, even more important than serving as an early warning device, Pledger has noted another compelling instance of the unique role that art plays in the world. Artists are not averse to crisis, trauma and disasters. In fact, as one artist put it, they have a proclivity to put their fingers in the wound. Art can also help us see changes that are not yet visible. It can clarify issues that are either latent or have been marginalized. Art does this by representing missing aspects of our society and bringing into view the commons in our culture. It gives us a deeper or wider image of public life. This is crucial at a time when public services are in decline and the real costs of commercialization are hidden. A genuine audit of the public accounts is a duty that has been outsourced to global accounting firms. This in itself should make us feel uneasy. However, Pledger has identified another crucial role. He has noted that Refuge was not just offering a mirror for the public to see itself, but it also served as the ground upon which it could assemble. It did not just inform the community on how to conduct itself in a crisis, it became a community in the context of an imagined crisis: it brought forth the experience of being in public, it highlighted the sensory experience of holding something in common with others, it made ‘publicness’.
There are also many practical lessons that Refuge offers. We are reminded that such lessons have not yet found their way into the macro world of public policy, but for the participants profound micro shifts have already occurred. Pledger writes with a tone of indignation and melancholy that is directed by an outlook driven by a patient optimism – a belief that the crisis will crack open with emergent signs of hope. The temporality of ruptures that evokes in this book is not a sign of collapse but rather a point at which different planes cross. At such junctures, he has faith that artists can seize the hint of new possibility, one that may already be experienced in people’s ordinary life, but has not yet migrated into the domain of institutional politics. If change is to occur, it is not just as a result of the guidance of experts from above, for more importantly, it must be seeded from below and spread horizontally. It will creep up and then suddenly appear as if it was always there.
It is estimated that Australia spends 30 times more on rebuilding after disasters than it does on preventative measures. Since COVID we have learned that in times of disaster we cannot solely rely on the existing infrastructure. The existing emergency management arrangements are only provisioned for limited disasters (Fraser et al. 2020, 5). When the emergency is extended deeper into our way of life, we are forced to turn to new habits and ways of relating to each other. If we can listen to the stories in this short book, and spawn multiple other scenarios, then there is a hope that a preparedness is developed, not just in the infrastructure but also in the imagination, before the next wave.
Deloitte Access Economics 2017, Building Resilience to Natural Disasters in Our States and Territories, Australian Business Roundtable for Disaster Resilience and Safer Communities, http://australianbusinessroundtable.com.au/assets/documents/ABR_building-resilience-in-our-states-and-territories.pdf
Fraser, S., Rudd, D., Rae, J., Papastergiadis, N., McDowell, L. 2019. Refuge Evaluation 2018: Pandemic. University of Melbourne, Research Unit of Public Cultures.
Fraser, S., Rudd, D., Rowbottam, S., Papastergiadis, N. 2020. Refuge Evaluation 2019: Displacement. University of Melbourne, Research Unit of Public Cultures.
Glasser, R. 2019, ‘Australia needs a national plan to face the growing threat of climate disasters’, The Conversation, https://theconversation.com/australia-needs-a-national-plan-to-face-the-growing-threat-of-climate-disasters-113107
Header Image: Isolate and Contain! Mapping the Pandemic by Harry Lee Shang Lun with PlayReactive, Refuge 2018: Pandemic, Photo by Bryony Jackson.
Image description: Several people sit and stand huddled around a table playing a game with squares of paper marked with English alphabet letters. There are other props on the table including a clear box filled with paper, balls and markers.