For two days of Melbourne Festival in 2017, Arts House will be repurposed as an urban survival camp, with top members of Australia’s battle-hardened arts community passing on the secret skills that will make all the difference when disaster comes knocking. Survival Skills For Desperate Times is the second work of its kind presented by this North Melbourne institution, following from Refuge presented in 2016, where Arts House opened its doors to the local community. Refuge engaged through conversation and practise, leading workshops in response to the venue’s secondary purpose as an Emergency Centre in times of disaster and poor circumstance.

Arts House Artistic Director Angharad Wynne-Jones Arts spoke with The Melbourne Critique about preparing ourselves to fare against these uncertain times.

Angharad, introduce us to the themes and ideas behind Survival Skills For Desperate Times.

We were really interested in thinking about how artists have got these phenomenal skills – sometimes artistic skills, but sometimes other skills that they don’t bring into their artistic practice directly –  and how useful they might be in these ‘desperate times,’ as we’re terming it. We wanted to create this urban training camp with all these amazing artists who will share their approaches.

What do you think is needed right now in the world, and what might we need to survive these desperate times? 

I feel like everything is needed at this point. Across the weekend, there will be an amazing breadth of practises and approaches; Vicki Couzens, who is an indigenous arts maker, will be teaching us how to make a length of rope, and Frances Tapueluelu will also be making an axe and a spear. There are very different approaches to the same topics. We are asking what are the skills that we’ve got and what are the skills we will need.

In the contemplation of that, it’s sometimes really good to have a laugh in the face of danger and despair. Despair can be a very paralysing emotion. There is a practitioner, Peta Murray, who is looking at dying with grace, so if one is in a situation where for whatever reason – whether personal illness or something which is out of your control – your life is threatened, she questions how we can occupy that space with meaning, with dignity and with grace.

There is even Free Birth with Selena de Carvalhoho who literally did just that; she went off into the bush and gave birth to her child outside of all medical interactions.

What lead you to call this performance lecture series Survival Skills For Desperate Times?

I think they are pretty desperate. The marriage equality discussion is a pretty toxic space right now. Climate change is another issue across the US but also in Bangladesh. The way that these massive events impact those who are most disadvantaged and most vulnerable are also those who have the least to do with causing them through things like over consumption.

Do you really believe that these times we are in, are all that bleak?

I think we are in desperate times, and I suppose we are at this moment masters and mistresses of our own destruction. We have irrevocably changed the planet like no other generation has. But we are also the generation waking up to that; we will need all of our laughter, all of our humanity, and all of our courage to make a change, and to look each other in the eye as it’s happening, to be as just, as equitable and as humane as we possibly can be. To me, that feels like the obligation and an opportunity, and that’s what these catastrophes bring about: the opportunity to practice empathy and to practice your best behaviour. These artists we are engaging with do have phenomenal skills to share in this arena.

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