A date with Pangolin

Our Zoom meeting with Natalie Saunders from Pangolin – we all begin to “work from home”…

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.

The meeting, of course, had to happen via Zoom, the online video chat platform. (Zoom is probably one of the few commercial entities that is doing very well out of all this!) We were joined by Sam Jones from the Biennale (who has taken over responsibility for the Environmental Management Plan) and Natalie Saunders from Pangolin.

As we learned from 4A, the process recommended by Pangolin goes something like this:

  • audit your current environmental footprint
  • commit to making achievable changes in the way the organisation operates
  • buy meaningful offsets for any carbon emissions that you can’t (yet) reduce to nothing
  • commit to continuing this process into future years
  • get certification from the ClimateActive program.

Auditing the Biennale’s environmental footprint will involve gathering lots of data together in a usable form – rummaging through invoices about what was spent on flights, freight, and running the office, garbage disposal, exhibition materials and so on. Sam will conduct the bulk of this detective work, but Pangolin will help set up systems to make it easier.

According to Sam, one of the tricky things about the Biennale is that it seems to have two distinct parts. Part One is the organisation, which employs about 12 people year-round. Part Two is the Biennale festival, which happens every second year, lasts 12 weeks or so, and involves a massive swelling of employee and volunteer numbers for a short time. Something like 40 staff, 60 contractors, and 400 volunteers, not to mention 100 artists are involved! Clearly, there is a correlation between the amount of humans involved, and the environmental footprint of the Biennale at any given time.

Biennale of Sydney Environmental Impact over time (not to scale, indicative only, etc etc)

This makes it distinct from, say, an art gallery like 4A, which has an ongoing exhibition program woven together with staff employment in a fairly stable way.

“Standard” gallery environmental impact over time (not to scale, indicative only, blah blah)

Natalie from Pangolin said this can make the process of environmental analysis a bit trickier, but not impossible by any means. Her advice was to break the task into two parts. First, Sam should “benchmark” the year 2019, which was a “non-Biennale-festival” year (although clearly the team was working towards the 2020 festival then).

Looking at 2019 in isolation should be a bit simpler, if only because it doesn’t have a gazillion invoices to process. It might seem a bit artificial to focus on a non-Biennale year when the “core business” of the organisation is to present the Biennale! But Natalie recommends doing this, as a manageable way of getting started and avoiding overwhelm.

Once Sam goes through the whole lifecycle of benchmarking 2019, she’ll have a sense of achievement, and the whole organisation will begin to have an idea of what’s involved, and be ready to tackle the 2020 exhibition year.

And once that’s done, 2019 and 2020 can be grouped together (with the help of Pangolin) to give a big picture story about the footprint of the two-year cycle. We’ll then be close to answering the question:
So, what was the environmental impact of putting on the 2020 Sydney Biennale? … And even more importantly: What can be done to change things for next time?


[note – like Plastic-free Biennale, the whole Biennale of Sydney is shifting to a strategy of online engagement with audiences. You can read about this on their website.]

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