Grown up stuff

Kim Williams speaking to the Sydney Biennale staff in late May, 2019

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!).

I should also note that even though our project is called Plastic-free Biennale, it seems that the focus on plastic is really just a way-in, a convenient portal. Beginning with plastic (which is all around us and so visible and tangible) we then begin to speak and think about environmental impact more broadly.

So far we’ve had several meetings with diverse combinations of Biennale staff. In the photo at the top of this blog post, Kim is holding up what looks like a circular diagram showing material flows. Most probably this diagram was something inspired by our previous work with farmers, demonstrating how soil becomes food which becomes compost which becomes soil and so forth. We probably posed the question: How could a similar way of thinking (cyclical, regenerative) be employed in the artworld?

Biennale staff workshopping change ideas

At the first meeting, staff from various departments in the Biennale got into small groups to brainstorm what they thought they could do to transform their “business as usual” model. Broadly speaking, the changes they proposed could be slotted into three categories:

  1. Personal Choice Tweaks (aka the “small stuff”) – for example, choosing not to buy coffee in a single-use disposable cup, or bringing their lunch from home, or putting on a jumper rather than cranking up the heater etc.
  2. Business Practice Tweaks (aka the “medium size” stuff) – for example, negotiating with printing companies so that the exhibition catalogue would not be delivered shrink-wrapped, or looking for alternatives to plastic cable ties or bubblewrap. Switching power supply contracts over to renewable electricity providers, deliberately choosing recycled paper for the office printer, or organising a green waste system for the communal kitchen.
  3. Redesigning the Biennale itself (aka the “big picture” going beyond Tweaks) – for example, changing what our expectations are of “professional presentation” in museums, or doing away with the gazillion air flights which have hitherto been considered essential in preparing big festivals like the Biennale, or making a smaller exhibition, or… (insert your own whacky idea here).

I myself get really excited about the third category of changes – because that’s when you get to dream up new things. But the other categories are just as important. A community of experts exists within the current Biennale staff, and they have to start from where they’re at, right now, and work within the constraints of their jobs, at least at the beginning of the process.

Making change is hard! Here are a few obstacles to change that we jotted down from the meetings:

In terms of the small stuff, habit is really the biggest obstacle. How to get into a new habit, so you remember to bring your reusable coffee cup, or make your own lunch, etc.

In terms of the medium stuff, the main constraints are time and money. Often using substitutes costs more, and/or it takes longer, or it doesn’t work as well as the mainstream product. Also extra time is needed to do the research to find out about alternative ways of doing things – and who in this modern world has extra time?? For an organisation, extra time for a staff member costs actual money.

In terms of the big picture stuff, well, we don’t really know what the obstacles are to that, because up to now we’re nowhere near redesigning the Biennale exhibition model itself. Imagination? Courage to disrupt the status quo? Ability to handle the stress of risk of getting scoffed at for being crazy?


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