For the Sake of the Climate and Indigenous Culture: It’s Time for Australian Arts to Break Up with Mining

In Australia, a furore has erupted in the arts community regarding its relationship to the mining sector.

It has been simmering for years now, but 2020 has seen a reaction like never before. In what feels like a different era, January 2020 saw anger flood onto the streets of Perth where Fringe Festival artists protested against Woodside, bringing anger about the mining companies role in the global climate emergency to their front door. This is a company, alongside countless other fossil fuel businesses, that has decided what the Perth city skyline would look like for generations, with building upon building being erected along St Georges Terrace, leaving an architectural footprint that reminds the City of Perth of the financial dominance that mining corporations have over us.

(As an aside: if you want to hear how artists in A Rational Fear at the Queensland governments Climate Week shows in 2019 dealt with a ban on talking about the Adani mine, give this episode of Like I’m a Six-Year-Old a listen. It is understood that Perth’s Fringe Festival has a clause that forbids artists from saying anything negative about sponsors.)

There is precedent for this kind of action abroad, with activists like Art Not Oil in the UK protesting against museums and galleries, pushing for them to sever ties with the fossil fuel industry. Progress has been made, with the National Theatre ending its relationship with Shell from 2020 onwards, and the Royal Shakespeare Company ending its relationship with BP. In Scotland, the National Galleries of Scotland have also severed ties with BP, city the ‘climate emergency’ as reason for their financial divorce.   

And then, in May, with the approval of governments long gone, Rio Tinto destroyed the 46,000-year-old sacred site in Juukan Gorge, Western Australia, in an act of cultural violence that the devastated traditional owners of the land say they were misled by the fossil fuel titan in the lead up to the destruction. The Puutu Kunti Kuurama and Pinikura peoples of the region have had a continuous connection the their land for tens-of-thousands of years, and yet, for the sake of the minerals underneath it, it is gone.

This is not just an act of climate emergency, it is an act of cultural genocide. 

The AFL’s decision to sever ties with Rio Tinto is a sign that cultural behemoths like the national sports code simply will not stand up for the destruction of Indigenous history in the name of profit. Indigenous leader Professor Marcia Langton stated that this move means that Rio Tinto has lost its ‘social license’, highlighting that a social license meant having ‘the standing and approval of the Australian people and the Australian government in how they operate’. Given that this relationship was worth up to $1.5 million to the AFL, with much of that going towards Indigenous programs, it means that they will have to find sponsorship elsewhere.

Closer to the arts, Rio Tinto’s relationship with Western Australian film festival destination Cinefest Oz will likely come under greater scrutiny , with their partnership nearing renewal after 2020. The valued $550,000 financial support from the mining company goes towards the festival Cinesnaps School Program, supporting the local volunteers, as well as promotion of the IndigifestOZ program. Given the acts of Rio Tinto and the role the fossil fuel community has in the climate emergency we are currently in, it’s likely that this relationship is untenable, and certainly should face further community scrutiny going forward.

When I attended the 2019 Cinefest Oz festival, I often felt conflicted about my attendance. Screenings featured a jubilant promotional video prior to the film, with various mining workers employed by Rio Tinto all championing the industry they work for. While the mining industry does provide plenty of West Aussies with employment, and boosts the economy substantially, there’s something about seeing a cheerful ad for a mining company prior to Rod Rathjen’s eco-conscious, modern slavery film Buoyancy that just carries an uneasy weight. The cognitive dissonance is real, and while mining and slavery are two separate issues, they do both operate in the same realm as the climate emergency we’re in.

Buoyancy’s disturbing immersion onto this sickly salty fishing boat is upsetting, forcing viewers to reconcile with the seafood they feed their pets and to question their complicit nature in the role modern slavery plays in today’s society. It’s insidious, existing under the surface of the food we eat. Our quinoa, our chocolate, our coffee, our tea, is all our shame, our burden, our social inaction to wear. Watching that Rio Tinto ad just hammered home the manner that mining has assimilated itself into society, making it a core aspect of our culture. Pull it away and the whole arts community could collapse.

As the Covid-19 pandemic wreaks havoc on global economies, the Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety, and the Arts, Paul Fletcher, is equally inflicting irreparable damage to the arts community in Australia through horrifying media reforms that are being sold as industry supportive actions, when the truth is quite the opposite. Presciently, executive director of the National Association for the Visual Arts, Esther Anatolitis, wrote about the Morrison governments decision to push the arts into the background, ignoring its dominance in the Australian economy, for The Guardian.

In it, they state:

The places where we make and experience art are the heart and soul of every place, every town, every city – and every home.

At a time where social cohesion is needed to redress the most perilous problems of our times, we need to invest strategically in the creative thinking that will create our future.

Making the arts invisible is retrograde, dangerous, and so disappointingly unimaginative. Let’s get truly creative about the contemporary Australian culture – and the future Australia we want for our children.

Those words rung true in 2019, but they bellow loud in 2020 with an industry on the brink of collapse.

As has been the case around the world, the arts have been tragically brought to their knees by Covid-19. In Australia, the $110 billion industry is actively ignored and sabotaged by the Australian government. All of which makes the news that due to iron ore royalties, Western Australia has been able to forecast a budget surplus of $1.2 billion, hard to swallow.

Understandably, as artists clamber to find their next paycheck, struggling to get by on Jobseeker, they may see the red hand of the mining giants as a limb for support pulling them up out of destitution. I’m not going to stand here and criticise anyone who decides to take the money of a mining company as we head into a recession, I understand completely what an empty bank balance and rent past due looks like. But, there is a need to diversify the arts in Australia.[1]

The Australian arts scene has been intimately entwined with the mining sector for as long as they have both existed. Norma Latchford’s fascinating PhD case study, A Study of the Relationship between Mining and the Performing Arts in Australia 1850-1914, documents the beleaguered relationship between the two. It’s a fascinating read, and one that I highly recommend from a cultural perspective, especially to see how the manner of Australian performing arts evolved from immigrants and colonisers who came to Australia to seek a fruitful life with financial success and freedom from the avenue of mining. In their downtime, music and performance became a way of tethering their homeland to their new country, bringing their own culture to life here.

(As an aside, the fascinating deep dive read by Sam Cook called Dancing the triple bottom line on Artlink is a vital slice of literature that explores the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander relationships with mining throughout history. It’s a sobering read, but an essential one.)

Yet, as we address our colonial history and the injustices against the First Nations people of Australia, and our global inaction during this climate emergency continues, it is clear that the relationship we have with destroying and crucifying the land for financial gain has to stop.

The relationship between construction and destruction is absurd – a mining company destroys Indigenous history, all the while funnelling money towards arts festivals in a bid to look like they’re culturally active. It’s the same as a native reserve being knocked down for housing where the gates are floral designs of trees that once stood where the heat sink houses flourish. But as Ross Gittins acidic and essential piece for The Sydney Morning Heraldtitled Mining’s economic contribution not as big as you might think meticulously details, Australia’s relationship and reliance on the mining sector is mostly hot air. Yes, it does make up 7 per cent of the GDP, but as Esther Anatolitis also stated in their Guardian piece:

Arts and culture is a $111.7bn industry, according to the government’s own figures. It employs more people than mining, IT or essential services. It is also among the fastest-growing. Policies that propel the arts propel the entire economy, with flow-on effects in education and health as well as infrastructure, and urban and regional development.

I know asking ‘why is Australia so reliant on the mining industry’ is a question that will be met with an emphatic point towards the Morrison government and the political institution that put him in power, but why?

With China’s purported threat to stop importing coal from Australia, there has been a greater need to diversify our financial interests across Australia. Consecutive Liberal lead governments have ingrained mining and the fossil fuel industry into our economy in a manner that makes it like an insidious beast, infecting every aspect of society as a whole. There is a clear push and desire for clean energy from the industry, yet a failure from the government to implement a top down approach to carbon pricing or targets, tangible things that would give the private sector goals to work towards, has ensure that mining is an unavoidable aspect of Australian life. It is a continued act of colonisation, with richer than rich businesses and business leaders having unceasing leases on public land, destroying what they want for the minerals that hide beneath the Indigenous artworks. When Andrew Forrest suggested the idea of the government taking up a cashless welfare card, they ran with it like a dog with the Sunday roast – they couldn’t get away quick enough to devour it whole.

An easy answer to this is to ‘vote the bastards out’, and sure, those of us who are angry enough and have grown sick and tired of complacency, have been doing exactly that. This isn’t the piece to go into the acts of the funhouse mirror version of the Liberal party – aka the Australian Labor Party – right now, who have also championed the notion of a gas-lead ‘clean future’ – a fallacy like saying that the Big Mac is healthy because it has lettuce on it, any clean energy future that still uses fossil fuels is dirty business – but they don’t have clean hands when it comes to this.

And, in the same turn, the population of Australia also don’t have clean hands. By bleak association, we are complicit in our own destruction, both ecological and culturally.

I’ve been tinkering with writing this piece for a while, and have long stopped myself because I’ve been unable to answer the question that makes this all carry water: how do the arts move forward when so much of its existence is tied to funding from mining companies?

As with many of the institutions that have removed their relationship with fossil fuel corporations, the statement they’ve put out as to where they’ll receive funding falls under the banner of ‘exploring options’. Given the impact of Covid-19, they might do best to employ Indiana Jones and see what exploring he can do to help out.

That’s a glib remark, but the reality is is that you remove one toxic funding source, another will rear its ugly head in its place. This happened with sports and cigarette companies in the 1990’s, where the durries were given the ditch for gambling companies, alcohol titans, and McDonald’s branded kids football. Yes, smoking is bad, and you should quit if you do smoke, but is replacing it with equally predatory and harmful corporations any better? I’m not sure how to maintain an ethical association as we tumble headfirst into the death rattle of capitalism, and I’m certainly not suggesting ‘give up, let them win’ is an option, it’s just that there are no easy answers.

Taking the microcosm of cinemas and film as an example, it would have been easy to suggest in pre-Covid times that the massive windfall international films have at the Australian domestic box office should help partially finance the arts industry in Australia. Much celebration is made of the French model (of which is assessed powerfully in this 2013 article), where box office takings help finance the French film industry, but it’s questionable whether that would ever have taken off in Australia given our reliance on Screen Australia funding. It’s clear that, despite its financial success, the Australian arts industry is still intrinsically tied to both the government and the mining industry, so much so that Australian films open with the Screen Australia vibrant colour logo, and end with a ‘thank you for your financial support’ to Rio Tinto or BHP.   

I’ve long suggested that we just need to find a group of generous philanthropists and plunder their pockets, but in this New York Times article, the reality of muddying both government funds and private financial support is a difficult one. It might be more ethical than relying on mining funds, but on the same hand, Nicole Kidman and Chris Hemsworth are yet to open their pockets to support or lift up the Australian arts scene. Making a film here only goes so far.

Additionally, with the downturn in the mining industry in the early 2010’s, and the drop in corporate donations, the Perth Theatre Company had to cancel its performances of Of Mice and Men, showing that a reliance on mining funding alone will leave audiences with nothing to watch.

From a personal perspective, there are things I can possibly do to combat the insidious nature of mining in Australian arts and culture. In his book Hatchet Job, Mark Kermode writes about a film critic who would note the amount of funding a film received from gambling proceeds. They asked, how can they enjoy and condone this ‘entertainment’ if it is benefitting off the misfortune of others? While I cannot state exact figures for funding, I can certainly highlight when a film has received funding from mining companies. Would this help, or would the announcement of whether a film received funding from a mining body at the conclusion of a review become so frequent as to being nausea inducing?

Going to the furthest extreme, one could easily treat films or art festivals that have received funding from mining companies as the kin of Woody Allen and co. – as entities to avoid. Yes, the whole separate the art from the artist discussion comes into play here, but maybe with a little more nuance. How can one separate a festival or a film from the mining company that helped fund it?  

That’s a personal decision that I can’t influence or decide. I can only put the facts in front of you and lead you decide what happens afterwards. We are ‘all in this together’, and our own personal decisions do carry weight.

There are changes happening, with Richard Sowada of Perth’s Revelation Film Festival setting vocal battlelines about mining funding in the arts, with a chorus of welcome Perth artists also championing his cause. That article highlights the extensive nature of mining in the Perth arts scene, highlighting the complex relationship that almost all arts companies have in Western Australia:

Two of Perth Festival’s nine board members are from Chevron and Rio Tinto. Woodside supports the state ballet and youth orchestra, and the Barking Gecko and Yirra Yaakin theatre companies; FMG sponsors Black Swan State Theatre Company; BHP the Awesome Arts Festival; Tianqui Lithium the state museum and symphony orchestra; and Rio Tinto numerous visual and Indigenous arts programs as well as CinefestOz.

I agree with Richard’s statement and support the Revelation Film Festival, but it would be duplicitousness of me if I didn’t mention that my support of Australian film means that I’ll always support Cinefest Oz as a festival that champions Australian films.

But, I do so with the hope that they push past their mining funding and find other avenues for financial support. It’s a great festival, one that embraces the Australian film community, but their continued funding from Rio Tinto is only harming and damaging the Australian films they act to amplify and support. After this year in particular, it is – repeating myself here – untenable that any arts institution gains financial support from mining companies like Rio Tinto. That extraction process is going to be a long, drawn out one, only hampered by the current pandemic, but it is a vital one.

It’s clear that a green future that encompasses Indigenous culture and allows it to heal is possible. There is a clear indication that through empathy and the arts, we can get through climate change and Covid-19 together. North Stadbroke Island is a prime example of this, with the former sand mining site being turned into an Indigenous art and cultural landmark. Elsewhere, the drive for ‘rewilding’ the planet would help stem the climate emergency we are in, while supporting wildlife, and drawing down the carbon in the atmosphere. If the arts can embrace this approach, then there is hope.  

I don’t know how to close this article, other than to say that through all that I’ve written, I find myself struggling with the ethics of the world at large. We live within the belly of an enormous ouroboros made up of the horrifying spirit of capitalism, one that devours itself with fervour in spite of its own existence. No matter how hard you try, stabbing at the stomach walls in a bid to get out and reach safety is a futile effort. If it’s not one thing, it’s another.

However, the ‘thing’ this time is climate change and colonialism, and the death and destruction of us all. Culture is who we are, it lives and breathes in us all, shouldn’t that be the most nourishing, wholesome thing possible? If so, then we simply must divest from fossil fuels now.

Arts organisations in Western Australia, it’s up to you now. Follow the AFL, follow your conscience, follow your heart, and most importantly, follow the community you represent and stop taking money from mining organisations.

[1] It’s worthwhile noting that the UK government is pushing different tactics that further intoxicate arts workers by suggesting they move to ‘cyber’.

Andrew F Peirce

Andrew is passionate about Australian film and culture. He is the co-chair of the Australian Film Critics Association, a Golden Globes voter, and the author of two books on Australian film, The Australian Film Yearbook - 2021 Edition, and Lonely Spirits and the King. You can find him online trying to enlist people into the cult of Mac and Me.

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