Art and protest – If a tree falls

Tarkine, Aerial. Photo: Peter Beeh

Eloise joined our team this year, and writes about her experience as an invited artist, to Tarkine in Motion

This year I attended Tarkine in Motion, ran by the Bob Brown Foundation, who are campaigning for 450 000 hectares of forest and coast to be declared a National Park and World Heritage Area. The event, now in it’s fourth year, sees artists venture into the north west corner of Tasmania, to document, experience, and be inspired by the beautiful wilderness that is the Takayna/Tarkine.

At the Arthur River camp the first thing I can hear is the distant roar of the ocean. It’s the end of the day and sunset isn’t far off, but I really want to go down to the waves. Slipping away before anyone can follow me, I crawl through the knotted scrub near the camp, climb over a fence and start following a freshly cleared fire track. In my heavy steel cap boots I run towards the sound of the waves, feeling energised but  also worried that it’s getting dark. I’m not sure if I’ll even make it down to the shoreline, the ocean could be much further away than I think, and the fire track seems to be turning away from the beach. I keep running until the short trees give way to low scrub and grass, and then eventually to huge sand dunes, and I’m sure that I’ll make it. I scare birds and wallabies hiding in the scrub as I run, sending them flying away. I tread a little lighter, listening for the birds whistling away in the tall thick grass. There is a little fresh stream of of water appearing out of nowhere, it’s course covered in bright green water weed and moss, and I follow it down to where it trickles out onto the beach, running under a huge pile of drift wood. I leap across the pile from trunk to trunk and jump off onto the flat smooth beach, walking down to where the water licks at the sand. Waves are crashing past mammoth boulders far out in the surf,  and the wind roars with the waves. I watch a tiny sand piper shuffle comically along the shoreline, stopping every few meters and eying me off. I feel absolutely joyous, and a laugh escapes me. I walk a little further up the beach to inspect an oddly coloured rock that looks like a seal. I want to stay to play on the piles of massive drift wood piled up at the high tide line, explore the little streams of water running across the sand and sit still for a while to wait for whatever creatures will come by. But it’s getting close to sunset, and I don’t want to be the idiot who gets lost in the dark on day one of Tarkine in Motion.

The main reason I chose to be based at Arthur River, along the coast, was because of the opportunity to connect with the indigenous heritage and culture there, and learn from some Palawa women. I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to visit King’s Run, a 338ha coastal property that was recently handed back to the aboriginal community. We were shown the middens, seal hides and hut depressions on the property and told about the indigenous women who hunted seals, dived for shellfish, and lived for thousands of years there. That day I felt glued to the hilltop, standing by the hut depressions, looking out over the coast, and down at the waves, imagining women diving for shells in the freezing waters. I wanted to stand there forever.

Although the coast is breathtakingly beautiful, it is the forest of Takayna/Tarkine that truly engulfs you. In the callidendrous rainforest surrounding the Tarkine Wilderness lodge, old fallen giants slowly decompose, covered in moss and ferns. You have to be careful not to put your foot through a hollow in the soft and spongy forest floor. Weird and wonderful fungi are waiting to be discovered around every tree trunk and bend in the path. The muffled silence amongst the trees feels peaceful and calming. It was there on the last day that a small group of us ventured into the forest to visit the Myrtle tree. It’s buttress was so big that it took seven of us linking hands to reach the whole way around. It must have been hundreds of years old. I felt inspired, awed, and humbled standing at the base of that ancient tree.

The Tarkine is the largest temperate rainforest in Australia, and the second largest in the world. It’s home to rare and endangered species, including one of the last disease free populations of the Tassie Devil. The cleanest air on the planet blows across the Tarkine, and the forest has been ranked number one in a collection of the world’s great wilderness areas. It should be listed as World Heritage. After five days in the forest I felt healed and refreshed from the stress of the city and of people. I felt grateful for this wild refuge, and I felt fear and sadness too – that one day it could be sitting in the port at Burnie, ripped into wood chips at a loss for profit.

The ingenious thing about Tarkine in Motion is that it primarily engages artists. To be honest, even though I am an artist myself, before attending Tarkine in Motion, I was somewhat of a pessimist when it came to art and activism. Art and Activism for me sat in the box of complicated topics and things that are easier to ignore than unpack. Since stumbling into tattooing, and with some serendipitous encounters with kind rich people who like my art, all of my bills and adventures have been funded by the art I make. I guess that makes me an artist. But I often struggle with finding motivation and meaning to create. Pacific islands are sinking into the ocean, the refugee crisis is well past boiling point, our politicians are trying to force a mega coal mine down our throats, and here I am making pretty pictures to sell to rich white people. As far as the intersection between art and social change, the only example in my life I can really see is that being a freelance artist gives me the money and flexibility to volunteer a huge amount of my time for non profit groups and organisations. My finely detailed artworks inspire awe, compliments and the handing-over of cash. Pretty, but not the kind of thing that will change hearts and win the revolution.

Even before reaching the forest though, I could see the effect of bringing hundreds of artists into the Takayna/Tarkine. At the train station the PSO struck up a conversation and asked me why I rode all the way over this side of town – I needed to pick up camping gear for Tarkine in Motion. The woman who sold me my thermals at Katmandu asked if I was going somewhere cold. I told her about the project and left my Instagram on a sticky note for her. I’ve had heaps more similar conversations with friends and strangers, before, after and during Tarkine in Motion.

This year 168 artists supported by 46 volunteers from all over Australia visited the Tarkine over the easter long weekend. Each one of the artists has committed to contributing to the Tarkine in Motion exhibition to be held at the Long Gallery next year, and will be taking their inspiration back to their communities to spread the word about Takayna/Tarkine through their art locally.

The role of art in protest and the protection of places goes further than just spreading stories, thoughts and ideas though. Favianna Rodriguez, an American artist, activist, cultural organiser, and co-founder of the immigrant rights organization Culture Strike, believes that in the world of art and culture, artists help to create conditions that lead to climaxes in political and social movements. In her article, Change the Culture, Change the World, she says that “Artists are central, not peripheral, to social change.” and they “shift and frame public sentiment as they create the cultural ocean we live in every day.”

“To think about how art shapes politics, we need to look far beyond the next political event to consider how we build up a cultural space. Jeff Chang, a brilliant hip-hop critic and journalist, and one of my collaborators in co-founding Culture Strike, has encouraged us to imagine a wave when we think about political change. Normally, when we envision a wave, we think about a climactic event, but in order to reach the peak, all kinds of forces—many of which you cannot see—need to come together.”

Olafur Eliasson, an icelandic-Danish artist who works with sculpture and large installation art, believes that one of the major responsibilities of artists is to assist people not only to understand issues with their minds but also to feel things emotionally and physically. “By doing this,” he says “art can mitigate the numbing effect created by the glut of information we are faced with today, and motivate people to turn thinking into doing.”

By putting what I saw and felt in the Tarkine down on paper and into skin, people can see the Tarkine through my eyes – every single gorgeous tiny crack in the bones I found, every perfect delicate leaf on a myrtle tree twig, every beautiful strand of a sea eagle’s feather. I hope it’s enough to make them feel the inspiration, awe, hope, healing and humbleness that I felt in the Tarkine, and that it’s enough to motive them to do more than just sharing an article on their facebook account. I hope too, that with every conversation that happens about a tattoo that I inked into somebody’s skin, we come that one tiny little drop closer to the big wave of saving the forest.

To get involved with the fight to save the Tarkine, go to The Bob Brown Foundation.

By Eloise, CounterAct artist in residence, and team member.

For resources and ideas on creative activism, check the collection we will be growing here.

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