7 July 2023

Concern plus hope equals action: how national institutions can create national change

| Chris Mercer
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The NFSA’s Chris Mercer says national institutions can drive powerful change. Photo: Supplied.

I was 16 when I saw Seven Stages of Grieving, a play by Deborah Mailman and Wesley Enoch. I travelled from a small town in the Snowy Mountains to the Sydney Opera House to watch Mailman become the captivating solo character, ‘the Woman’.

One scene still stands out in my mind. Taking handfuls of red earth, the Woman creates piles to represent culture, children and family. She draws a circle around them, explaining who can marry, who cannot, and the sacred interconnectedness of the community. Then, she turns to the audience and asks us: “Now imagine when the children are taken away from this. Are you with me?”

As she spoke these words, she violently destroyed the piles and the circle around them. I felt it viscerally in my body as the dirt flew through the air: sadness, anger, a desire to act.

As a young person, Seven Stages of Grieving opened my eyes and my heart to the shameful injustices perpetrated against First Nations peoples in this country.

It was also the beginning of a personal journey, exploring the rich, multi-layered knowledge, science and value systems of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. First Nations knowledge, science and values are woven through landscapes, language, song, proverbs, dance, movement and art. The power of the story has been known for over 60,000 years.

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Geographer and climate change communicator Victoria Herrmann believes stories are “one of the most important tools we have to survive climate change”.

However, she argues ‘doomsday narratives’ don’t move us to action. We need to be inspired by the personal stories of others. We also need to be part of a two-way where our concerns are heard and validated. As international climate leader Dr Mark Howden said, “Concern plus hope equals action.”

National cultural institutions have a responsibility to create spaces and platforms that facilitate these exchanges. While trust in institutions is at an all-time low, research indicates cultural institutions can be safe, unbiased spaces that enable dialogue on difficult and divisive issues.

100 Climate Conversations at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum is an exemplar, inspiring change through powerful, personal stories that resonate in our world of ‘fake news’.

The National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) sits on Ngunnawal country in a place historically used for meetings and ceremonies – a place of transformation and exchange.

Much of the story of this place has been concealed. In the months ahead, we are committed to reimagining our Acton building as a local cultural and creative hub where all Australians can feel seen, heard and welcome to explore their identity.

National Film and Sound Archive is hosting free events for Uncharted Territory. Photo: Dom Northcott.

Our contribution to Uncharted Territory, Canberra’s inaugural arts and innovation festival, is part of this trajectory. The NFSA will host two panel conversations, exploring how we create inclusive, vibrant public spaces and inspire collective action for a regenerative future.

These free events will bring together some of our leading voices for change: science producer Catherine Polcz, the driving force behind 100 Climate Conversations; Christian Hampson, founder of First Nations design and consultancy firm Yerrabingin; digital artist Dr Baden Pailthorpe; Dr Cathy Hope, an expert in play as a mechanism for connection and transformation; and Thomas Hobbs, Australian head of global architectural firm Henning Larsen. Many of these experts are working closely with us on our placemaking strategy.

We’re also thrilled to be collaborating with Capital Brewing Co, Australia’s first certified carbon-neutral brewery. I’m excited to host a conversation titled ‘How beer, art and our cultural institutions can lead the transition to a regenerative future’ with Capital co-founder Laurence Kain on the panel. We’ll have a Capital Brewing pop-up in the NFSA courtyard where conversations will continue over a range of excellent brews (including non-alcoholic options) between events.

On the festival’s closing weekend, the NFSA will screen Laurence Billet and Rachael Antony’s The Giants (2023), celebrating the life and work of environmental folk hero Bob Brown – who will join us in person for a post-screening Q&A.

Our artists, curators and programmers are our storytellers. As cultural institutions, it’s our job to create safe spaces for people to gather, listen and be heard. We can facilitate shared experiences that allow us to feel safe in uncertainty, acknowledging our multiplicity of perspectives and finding ways to come together around a common purpose.

We hope you’ll be part of the conversation.

The NFSA will host two panel events and a film screening across 14 and 15 July as part of Uncharted Territory. Register free via the NFSA and explore the full festival program at unchartedterritory.com.au.

Chris Mercer is Head of Programs and Place at the National Film and Sound Archive.

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