Spare a thought for Sydneysiders of a certain ideological persuasion as they are faced with an embarrassment of riches in the form of two competing Festivals of Woke in the next few weeks. Over in Redfern, mandatorily masked, but not socially distanced literary enthusiasts will come together in May for the taxpayer-funded Sydney Writers’ Festival. Meanwhile, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, along with the Walsh Bay and Bangaroo precincts, is currently hosting the 23rd Sydney Biennale, also courtesy of the taxpayer.
Let’s first tackle the Sydney Writers’ Festival. This year’s theme, ‘Change My Mind’ is being ambitiously billed as an ‘invitation, a challenge, and a promise of intent. Because uncertain times – a world divided and ruptured, at odds and in crisis – require a willingness to be open-minded, and a commitment to generosity and reciprocity.’
That any of the 400 artists, writers and other creative types presenting their woke wares will show a willingness to be open- minded remains to be seen. I can say with a fair amount of certainty that it will not be outgoing artistic director Michael Williams, who has made up his mind that our society is one in which ‘structural power and privileged perspectives drown out lived experience and voices of dissent.’
It won’t be professional misandrist Clementine Ford, nor will it be professional victim Yassmin Abdel-Magied, whose minds appear to have been welded shut. In fact, Abdel-Magied is so triggered by diversity of opinion that she not only walked out of Lionel Shriver’s presentation at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival in 2016 but she also walked out of Australia. It is highly unlikely that it will be guest authors Michael Mohammed Ahmad and Amani Haydar as they delve into ‘how racism and patriarchy perpetuate harm by dehumanising fathers.’ And I have a feeling that the five self-proclaimed LGBTQI+ writers who will tell ‘vulnerable and fierce, heartbreaking and hilarious Queerstories’, will be of a similar bent.
If not the presenters, then what about the attendees? Presumably the punters who turn up to this Carnival of Conformity are going precisely because they have read the program and have been satisfied that none of their opinions will be challenged in any way whatsoever. Unsuspecting ticket holders who accidently stumble into the event featuring token conservative Greg Sheridan, might have to endure a discussion about a Christian God, but they can soon rectify this by attending the 23rd Sydney Biennale.
During the month-long Biennale entitled Rīvus, ‘several aqueous beings’ will be invited ‘into a dialogue with artists, architects, designers, scientists, and communities, entangling multiple voices and other modes of communication’. These ‘aqueous beings’ will then be asked the following ‘unlikely questions’: ‘Can a river sue us over psychoactive sewage? Will oysters grow teeth in aquatic revenge? What do the eels think? Are the swamp oracles speaking in tongues? Do algae reminisce about the days of primordial soup? Are waves the ocean’s desire? Can a waterfall refuse gravity?’ These questions are not just unlikely but they constitute the kind of incoherent interrogation you’d expect from either a three-year-old, or someone who has been sectioned.
Speaking of incoherence, every Wednesday the audience will be treated to a performance called Contact Call which ‘combines the gestures of drag performance with improvised ASMR, humming and whistling – offering queer directions of grief-work in Anthropocene. Contact Call is an abstract lip-sync against a backdrop of looped marginal sound and approximated bird calls – a faggy lament for compounding biological losses amid vortices of extinction.’
‘Faggy laments’ aside, if there was any doubt that the Biennale is nothing but pagan Gaia worship, one need look no further than the ‘vow’ which participants are encouraged to recite together before the ‘After Dark’ event. With hands clasped, and heads bowed, they are to say: I let my feet fall in the spring; so shallow and yet I’m afraid. I say a few words in prayer and acknowledgment. Water-spirit, spirit-water. My words are offered in protection and in respect. The intangible carrier of memories, creator of stories – even those yet to pass. I promise to look after and care for you; to honour your being from this second forward as others – of human and non-human grace – have done before me since time immemorial.
The festival will also include portraits of climate activists made of grass, ‘river Horror’, ‘fish philosophy’, ‘multi-species justice’ and ‘hydro-feminism’, whatever they are. While some artists will campaign against dams, others will impersonate rivers. The Netherlands collective which calls itself ‘The Embassy of the North Sea’ is of the opinion that the water mass ‘owns itself’ and it should be made into an independent legal entity. Predictably, there will be ample opportunity for interested parties to talk about mass extinction, climate warming, planting virtual trees, recycling as well as weaving and sustainability classes.
This year’s program reveals that the people behind the Sydney Biennale are not remotely interested in arts or culture. Nor are they remotely interested in putting on an event which will appeal to the public. The Sydney Writers’ Festival, despite its claims of open-mindedness, will not tolerate any view which it deems unacceptable. Yet, both are content to keep taking money from the public.
The Australian Charities and Not for Profit Commission’s latest financial figures show the Biennale received 57 per cent of its income, or $3.2 million, from government grants. What is more, the Biennale of Sydney has multi-year agreements with the Australia Council for the Arts, Create NSW and City of Sydney that contribute 38 per cent of its overall budget. The writers’ festival claims that it only receives 30 per cent of its income from the government. This is 30 per cent too much. Both events are such a sorry and depressing reflection of what is currently passing itself of as culture in this country that they make one yearn for the days of yore, when art and literature were interesting, and when they were allowed by their creators to be apolitical things of beauty.
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Dr Bella d’Abrera is the Director of the Foundations of Western Civilisation Program at the Institute of Public Affairs.
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