The last fortnight has seen a massive shift in … well, pretty much everything! With the Coronavirus sweeping across the world, Plastic-free Biennale (like everyone else) has had to change tack. We had been planning to spend every Wednesday in our installation at Cockatoo Island as the HQ for our ongoing activities throughout the duration of the Sydney Biennale. But now the entire Biennale – and all galleries everywhere – are shut down. All the “physically visitable artworks” in the Biennale are on ice until further notice, which is maddening because we and so many others put a shed-load of effort into making it happen and the exhibition was only open for a short time!
Despite the shut down there is still momentum on another major part of our project. The Biennale as an organisation wants to transform its resources use and emissions, and it’s never been able to make time for this in an insanely busy schedule. So, following our recent meeting with 4A, we set up a connection with Pangolin Associates, an environmental consultancy in Sydney.
Among the 36 artists and projects displayed on the industrial Island is a space dedicated to resources on the Plastic-Free Biennale, created by socially-engaged artists Lucas Ihlein and Kim Williams. Striving to holistically embody NIRIN’s focus on environmental care, Biennale staff asked the pair to improve sustainable practices on an organizational level by minimizing use of plastic. The project, composed of implemented strategies and events, highlights the need to shift expectations of what Biennales and museums should look like if they are to be environmentally responsible, including rethinking use of exhibition staples such as vinyl and foam core – NIRIN instead features wall text hung from clipboards and nails. It is more important than ever to look after each other and our planet, especially in light of recent Australian bushfires and today’s heightened global unrest. NIRIN poignantly reminds us of art’s power to challenge the ‘normal’ and make us rethink, acknowledge, take action, and come together.
Towards a plastic-free Biennale – by Tracey Clement. March 25, 2020
Kim Williams and Lucas Ihlein are socially engaged artists. As a practice, socially engaged art has been going on for a while, since the 1960s at least, but it has been growing in popularity and garnering more and more critical attention. If you aren’t familiar with the phrase, Tate Modern offers this handy definition: “Socially engaged practice describes art that is collaborative, often participatory and involves people as the medium or material of the work.” Which is not to say that artists working in this field don’t also make actual stuff. Some of them do.
When I meet with the artists to talk about their latest collaborative project, Plastic-free Biennale, Ihlein, laughing, hands me a white sheet of paper covered in typed bullet points and scrawled notes. “We joke about how as artists what we do is develop Google documents and produce A4 sheets of paper for meetings,” he explains. “It’s one of our mediums!”
Great news! Following the recent board meeting, the Biennale has appointed Sahar (Administration & Operations Coordinator) to lead the charge on creating a new Environmental Management Plan. The Biennale is making time available in Sahar’s work day so she can put some effort into this project.
Sahar has never done anything like this before, and she’s very excited about the opportunity – she strongly believes that it needs to be done.
But the first job, it seems, is to define the parameters of the job! How to begin?
This photo is from Belle, Exhibition Coordinator at Sydney Biennale, and Cherie, the Head of Exhibitions, who have been supporting our project.
Here in the boot, Cherie and Belle are transporting some hessian to the Art Gallery of NSW. Belle told us that Brook Andrew (the Artistic Director of the Biennale) has been looking for ways to change materials use in the exhibition, which happens across a bunch of different venues.
Sometimes when people ask “So, what kind of art do you do?”, I answer “Oh, mainly I make Google Docs”.
This is a joke of course, but it’s not entirely untrue. Alongside making things out of wood, printmaking, growing crops as artworks, and producing videos and songs, Kim and I do seem to create a plethora of Google Docs. Our projects have many moving parts, and we collaborate with heaps of people. Google Docs might not look very “arty”, but they can help guide a discussion, especially when you’re meeting with Important People with Limited Time.
Case in point – the time had come to meet the Biennale of Sydney’s Board of Directors. After hanging out with the staff semi-regularly for several months, we were ready to get some top-down support. So Belle, our main Biennale contact person, did her magic and booked us a spot at the January Board meeting.
In the last blog post I talked about how we have been working with kids to make a song which swims around in the mess of plastic in our everyday lives. While we’re working on all that fun stuff, and preparing for the exhibition at Cockatoo Island, we’re also working behind the scenes with the Biennale of Sydney staff, in activities which look more grown up.
The Biennale, via the Artistic Director Brook Andrew (himself an artist) has commissioned us to work on this project about plastics, in the hope of transforming some of the Biennale’s own processes. So we’re hybrids. We are making “artwork” for the exhibition, and at the same time we’re play-acting at being “organisational consultants” (if you can come up with a better name for this, let us know!).
Plastic-free Biennale has a whole bunch of moving puzzle pieces. Some of them are very “grown-up” looking, like meeting with the Board of Directors of the Biennale of Sydney (to urge them to update their environmental policy) or researching the science and history of plastic.
But other aspects of the project are pure fun, and allow an alternative way for our audience to engage with the complex world of plastics. For example, Kim Williams wrote a brilliant and ridiculously catchy song called “Plastic in the House” which we recorded with some local Wollongong kids.