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Regional Art Stories Groundswell: where art, farming and science meet

Regional Arts Australia: Groundswell: Where Art, Farming and Science Meet, has been described as a "forum in the field". Can you tell me why and how the event has come about? What can guests expect to be part of?

Laura Fisher: Groundswell grew out of the project ‘An artist, a farmer and a scientist walk into a bar…’ (AFS), which is led by the Kandos School of Cultural Adaptation (KSCA). This project involves 9 artists and several collaborators exploring aspects of soil, carbon, solar energy, wild foods and Aboriginal country. When we embarked on AFS we knew we wanted to stage an event that would introduce these collaborations to the public in an open forum. What better place to do this than an agricultural site – The Living Classroom in Bingara. This is a converted town common dedicated to education around regenerative land management, and a major partner on AFS. Bingara is in Gamilaraay County, in the New England region of NSW. It’s not a quick trip for city folk – but that’s the point! We’re taking lessons here from KSCA’s previous event Futurelands2, when we took the audience to a farm and to a natural amphitheatre in the Wollemi National Park. Those contexts will always enrich our conversations about land when compared to a lecture theatre, function centre or gallery.

When you visit a place like Bingara you get to see a lot of farming landscapes that are in a poor state, and better understand the challenges so many small rural towns face. Bingara’s population is shrinking. Obviously, there is the pull of the city and regional centres where there are better work prospects. Also, younger generations are running away from the hard work of farming. But in addition to this, the mechanisation of agriculture means there’s less and less need for human labour. There are two ideas that ring in my head about this: the beautiful Indigenous ethos ‘country needs people’, and the fact that ‘people are the agents of restoration’. We can’t turn these damaged landscapes around unless we have stewardship. That means land owners and land custodians need our support across the continent, and these little towns need to survive.

The other intention behind this event was to mingle all sorts of people who are creating cultural change. It’s vital that we open up all the specialised communities we’re part of – as professionals, scholars or cultural producers, or even in our familiar social environments. I harp on about this constantly, it’s the sociologist in me! We are often speaking very different languages about land (or water, climate, energy) whether we are in rural or urban Australia, a farmer or an environmentalist – the list goes on. There are a lot of forces at play that encourage us to focus on our differences and look past what we share. That’s incredibly self-destructive for us as a society. We are seeing again and again how canny politicians capitalise upon that behaviour. My hope is that guests experience a different dynamic at Groundswell.

RAA: As a visual artist how did you become interested in land regeneration and sustainable food systems in regional Australia?

LF: I started out as a painter, then studied sociology and the humanities and ending up with a PhD about the moral quandaries that surround the Aboriginal art movement. Then two things came together for me: 1) I realised that the most adventurous and adept sociologists were in fact socially engaged artists. And 2) I became more and more curious about art that was embedded in the natural environment – whether it was what is known as ‘outsider art’, public art, Aboriginal art, or art that seeks to directly contribute to landscape health. The Yeomans Project, by Ian Milliss and Lucas Ihlein, was a wonderful discovery that led me to explore land regeneration, the magical universe of soil, the creativity of farmers, and to learn about how dysfunctional and unsustainable our food system has become.

RAA: The keynote at Groundswell will be delivered by Charles Massy. Who is he and what will he bring to the field?

LF: Charles Massy is ‘artist’, ‘farmer’ and ‘scientist’ all in one. He has mountains of experience as a farmer and in the agricultural sector (particularly around the sheep and wool industry). He has been through his own painful journey on the family farm in the Manaro region, forced to recognise how damaging his methods were and that something had to change. He then investigated regenerative agriculture, and the science of soil biology, hydrology, biodiversity, the carbon and mineral cycles, in order to rescue it. But perhaps most importantly, he has a rare gift as a storyteller. He unveils the mysteries of nature so eloquently, while also portraying human journeys of crisis, loss and change in a sympathetic way. When you read his book ‘Call of the Reed Warbler’, you’re really there with him observing the birds, listening to the stories of farmers and Aboriginal elders, and delving into complex natural systems to understand their inherent brilliance. We’re very lucky to have him on board.

RAA: How has socially engaged art been able to open up dialogue between the areas of science, farming, and Indigenous knowledges?

LF: Wow I could write an essay answering this question! I’ll throw a few ideas at it, but so much more can be said. The key potential of socially engaged artists is that they work in the realm of experience. Now, thanks to advances in modern science and technology, more people than in any time in human history have no experience of the working landscape. It’s of course fantastic that we have liberated so many from the task of growing food, but we are now confronting the consequences of that process. Wendell Berry has written a lot about how farming has been changed through industrialisation: ‘In the loss of skill, we lose stewardship; in losing stewardship we lose fellowship’ (I’ll throw in here that urbanisation exacerbates this problem further). Skill, stewardship, fellowship – that all points to Indigenous people’s relationship to the land. That relationship is fundamentally about immersion, recurring interactions with elements of the environment, traversing, observing, labouring, provisioning for the family, and so on. Arguably we need to regenerate those practices and attitudes across our culture. That’s a real challenge to laboratory-based agricultural science, which is dedicated to eliminating the need for human labour in the landscape. It’s also a challenge to many in the ecological sciences, who tend to focus on unpeopled landscapes: the wilderness, oceans, or to look at species in isolation. So, I’ll wrap it up with that idea: if we need a science and culture of stewardship that refocuses our attention on our interdependence with the natural world – as Aboriginal knowledge exemplifies – then I reckon socially engaged art has a lot to offer. Perhaps we can create new ways for people to participate in a landscape, to learn what it feels like to both care for land and extract something from it to serve our needs.


The 9 artists involved in AFS are Jono Bolitho, Diego Bonetto, Karla Dickens, Laura Fisher, Lucas Ihlein, Georgie Pollard, Mark Swartz and Alex Wisser.

Groundswell is being staged in conjunction with Pulse of the Earth: a Festival of Regeneration, which is hosted by the local community in Bingara. The combined program runs from 6 – 8 September, all at The Living Classroom.

The organisers respectfully and gratefully acknowledge that we are staging these events on the lands of the Gamilaraay people. The AFS project is an initiative of KSCA working in partnership with Cementa Inc., The Living Classroom & Starfish Initiatives. It is supported by the NSW Government through Create NSW.