Published: 01/06/17

A collision of the philosophy of academia with the insight of art.

The story that has emerged out of ‘Black Crows Invaded Our Country’ is the successful collision of the philosophy of academia with the insight of art.

This multi-disciplinary performance artwork brought together contemporary performance artists from dance, theatre and projection with researchers and activists to decode the public lecture and view academia in a new light.

Based on Associate Professor Thom van Dooren’s (UNSW) research paper, The Unwelcome Crows: Hospitality in the Anthropocene, Animateur Michelle St Anne juxtaposes this lecture to the issue of human migration, to highlight the inconsistencies of logic, scapegoating, justifications and fears of people seeking asylum often represented as ‘unwanted’ like the Black Crows in the Port of Rotterdam.  In the face of climate change, this issue will only become more prevalent as people most affected by climate change attempt to flee their home countries, as theirs will no longer exist.

The voice and story of Torres Strait Islander geographer Leah Lui-Chivizhe provided a pivot of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander life, an ethic that sees humans as part of, rather than outside their natural world.

The significance of this collision is measured in the way both academic, and arts audiences received the work. These audiences are often devoid of each other, with elements of exclusion due to a misconception of each sphere being exclusive. Contemporary art structures can often be intimidating to the general performance goer who might feel more at ease with a common narrative structure. The Living Room Theatre asks the audience to receive the work through a different lens and so often artist talks have been the avenue to which to bridge this gap. Academic lectures too can be isolating, through its language and often speaker tones. Using the framework of theatre Black Crows successfully merged these audiences for mutual benefit.

The work had a well-balanced approach, by manipulating visceral worlds the audience arrives at the lecture with an open heart, mind and senses inviting the audience to reflect on the content of the lecture on both an emotional and intellectual level.

“….we can without arrogance say that these times demand of universities ways of understanding and communicating that go beyond those we have historically embraced. In this sense, we might all receive Black Crows as a welcome invasion, to paraphrase the words Michelle St Anne spoke at the beginning of the performance, a possible presence, suggestive of another way of relating to, of crafting worlds with, others. “

Danielle Celermajer is a professor in the Department of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Sydney,

Collaborators came to appreciate the contemporary theatrical forms, the diligence required to create such a work and the respect for the academic and artistic processes. The academics showed such enthusiasm for their research being translated into such an artwork, where their concepts and stories found universality. Just like environmental ethos – that we are all connected in a myriad of ways.

The underlying message and stories of ‘Black Crows’ worked to inform and awaken the audience about issues of human migration and othering of people seeking asylum so that each person left feeling empowered to take the actions required to transform our shared condition. This is most evident in the Call to Action speech given by David Ritter, CEO of Greenpeace Australia Pacific in the last segment.

After the performance, the audience members were encouraged and given the opportunity to be a part of the social and environmental change by signing a petition for Greenpeace. The audience was provided with information by Greenpeace staff, on what they could do on an individual level to contribute to change. This unique aspect of the performance gave individuals the power to feel like they can make a difference and contribute to change on an individual level.

‘Black Crows’ presented the audience with the information on the destruction of crows and issues of human migration while ending on a positive note, which allowed for the audience to actively do something about it. In today’s political climate, individuals are inundated with stories and details of the sad state of the world but rarely given information on solutions. Black Crows provided individuals with information on what they can do, and this aspect of Black Crows was highly important, as people were empowered with information and given the opportunity to engage in change.

Furthermore, members of the public were also integral to the performance space and the overarching story being told. An aspect of the sound art in Black Crows was that members of the public, from different backgrounds, professions and ages recorded the words “we will decide who comes to the country and the conditions for which they come.” These words were originally used by Former Prime Minister John Howard, to evoke fear and exclusion of people seen as ‘others.’ Through these recordings, these words were ‘reclaimed’ and used to give voice to those who believe that people seeking asylum should be welcomed.

This immersive theatrical lecture utilised a university precinct in an imaginative and innovative way – opening up closed and often intimidating spaces.  Residents of the building saw their workspaces anew, through light and sound we recontextualised corridors, lecture theatres and historical anatomy labs, opening up the senses and seeing space beyond its daily function.

The future:
The City of Sydney has provided a small independent theatre company to continue its work in the old idea of the avant-garde – the experimental, radical, and unorthodox.  The grant provided double value but not only providing financial support but lending credibility.  The grant did open doors, with the City’s brand giving the project validity, everyone needs a champion; a referee for those without exposure, or access or trust in their own judgment.

This performance of ‘Black Crows Invaded Our Country’ brought a new voice to the culture of the City and the University Campus. It celebrated the diversity of thought, of process, of discipline, of culture for a deeper understanding of indigenous and academic philosophy and its relationship to the environment.

Michelle St Anne