News & Insights

Unfinished Business

Jen Rae

This piece is from the collection, In The Time of Refuge.

Writing this reflection hours after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Changed released their Sixth Assessment Report – Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis, labelled by the United Nations Chief as a ‘code red for humanity’. The evidence is irrefutable. Global temperatures are likely to rise by 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2030, a threshold where climate impacts will inevitably wreak havoc on humanity. Only drastic intervention in the next decade may limit the fallout of climate breakdown. We knew this news was coming. It is sobering and heartbreaking, nonetheless. I’ll probably sleep tonight with a light on.

There is a black box in my studio marked Unfinished Business. Inside are components of projects past – notebooks from creative labs and productions filled with facts, ideas and questions; hard drives of documentation along with diagrams and instructions sheets representing six years of speculative experimental practice within the REFUGE project. It also offers insight to a trajectory of prescient thinking where we (the core group of REFUGE collaborators) imagined possible, probable and preferred future scenarios in a climate emergency disaster-preparedness-and-response context. Opening this box is alarming when we consider the contraction of time and the quickening pace of runaway climate change between 2015 and now. 

Inside the box are ration packages and returned task cards from Fair Share Fare’s Food Store and corresponding Underground/Black Market (2016 with Dawn Weleski). The project was a data generator, providing intel into people’s rationale and understanding of climate-related food security, and the provisioning of empathy and altruism in emergencies. There are over a hundred confession cards where people expressed their intimate sins, secrets and desires to the bee colony at Arts House before being subjected to ‘therapeutic treatments’ in Apitherapy Quarantine (2018); there are recipe cards from WWII austerity cooking programs for Fair Share Fare’s Austerity Cooking Demonstrations (2016-17) that are collated with provocations and menus from 3 Meals to Anarchy or Revolution and Feral Feed (2017); there is a string-bound folder of interviews and diagrams scribed and collated for the Future Proof Survival Guide (2017 with Leisa Shelton-Campbell). You see, for the artists in REFUGE there were no rehearsals in the way we would prepare for a public performance or exhibition. Many of the works simply unfolded in a relational and improvisational manner. They were the testing ground for observation, experimentation and provocation alongside participants and audiences. New questions arose providing fodder for potential future iterations and refinement.

Each of the archived components represent works that at one stage I intended to develop further and resolve for exhibition or other art purpose…that is until 8 October 2018…when authors of the landmark report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) declared to the world that we had 12 years to limit climate catastrophe. The key word here is ‘limit’. Time contracted in that moment when I read The Guardian’s headline on that memorable Monday morning. No longer was runaway climate change something temporally and spatially distant and disconnected from our everyday. Climate catastrophe was on our doorstep and in our face. The reality sunk in….fade to black. I was gutted. 

Everything exists in darkness. In waving my torch, I found that I was not alone. Others close in the REFUGE project were feeling the same. In reaching out, the obvious did not need to be said – the REFUGE disaster rehearsal/simulations as they were, were over. All of a sudden, the stakes were higher and the urgency greater with pressing questions emerging. Within a short time, some of the scenarios we imagined, mapped and practiced were materialising in real life with the Australian Black Summer and Covid-19 overwhelming emergency services, communities and governments here and abroad, including in my own suburb of Fawkner, Victoria. 

The most food insecure suburb in the City of Moreland and heavily impacted by Covid-19, Fawkner had over 180 cases and 45 deaths in 2020, most within 20 metres of my home. From my experience with Fair Share Fare and the REFUGE project, I was able to recognise a potential crisis unfolding around food security and mobilised all of the local community food organisations into a Zoom call to discuss a collaborative response. This resulted in my partner and I co-founding and launching Fawkner Commons (The Age, December 14, 2020), a community-led Covid-19 response food hub operating out of the local bowling club. Between May-December, Fawkner Commons distributed over $116K of no-cost/low-cost food boxes and over 2,400 prepared meals amongst other community social cohesion and food justice activities. 

In response to the initial sequence of lockdowns, Fawkner Commons was a highly energised, community-resilient activity with the majority of our volunteers identifying as women, LGBTIQA+ and/or CALD. As an artist, I saw its operation and communications as choreography. I drew upon my practice regarding audience experience, aesthetics, story and form to collaborate and participate with community in a meaningful way either through volunteering or consumption. I thought what we were doing was a stop-gap operation until the second wave of government and/or NGO-led support mobilised and we would be prepared for next time. In hindsight, I did not anticipate the heightened scale and ongoing need for food relief in our impacted community or that being prepared for next time would be illusive as we head into our 6th lockdown. Exhaustion is rampant.   

Disaster-recovery psychologist Rob Gordon (OAM), explains that in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, a complex society will reorganise into a simplified survival-oriented social system often with a social cohesion or solidarity focus. People will set aside personal identities and boundaries in their initial response to help, but without the presence of structured and transitional social infrastructure to support the next steps of response and recovery, there is a risk of erosion to the social fabric which may lead to disillusionment, unrest and mental health deterioration (Gordon 2012, pp 125-130). Systems are strained and now, in 2021, as the pandemic disruption extends, we are all tiring of novelty and pivoting. Everyday frontline workers (e.g. teachers, nurses, childcare workers, food systems workers, disability carers, etc.) continue to do the heavy lifting in this long unfurling pandemic and I am reminded of a question from REFUGE 2016: Who cares for the carers in disasters?

As we move through and become more accustomed to living in a climate emergency impacted world, it is vital that we consider who are our everyday frontline responders and who are those who carry on the second, third, fourth and fifth waves of response, recovery and support. You might have to hold the torch or you may have to light the way. From Future Proof (REFUGE 2017):  What do you know, that you don’t know that you know, that we all might need to know in a disaster?

My participation as a core artist in REFUGE has fundamentally changed how I practice and define myself as an artist and how to speculate on alternative climate emergency futures. The gift of six years ‘playing in the dark’ together in whole and in parts with other REFUGE artists, partners and collaborators, reflects a depth of inquiry and commitment to collaborate differently, knowledge-share and experiment outside of disciplinary boundaries and cultural comfort zones. Care is integral to the methodology. 

It seems futile to return to my box of Unfinished Business. It is not solely about the art anymore.


Header Image: Portage: Flotilla by Jen Rae in collaboration with Giant Grass, Refuge 2019: Displacement, Photo by Bryony Jackson.

Image description: Three people with lifejackets sit on a bamboo flotilla with a large sail inside a pitch black room lit with warm orange and yellow lighting. On the back of one of the life jackets it says SES Rescue.



About Jen Rae

Dr Jen Rae is a Narrm (Melbourne)-based artist-researcher of Canadian Red River Métis-Scottish descent from Treaty 6 Territory. Her 16-year practice-led research expertise is centred around cultural responses to the climate emergency, specifically the role of artists and discourses around food justice, disaster preparedness and speculative futures.

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