The diversity of creativity never ceases to amaze, especially when it’s taking place in a location so different to that which you are used to. The practical opposite of Finland in climate, location and history, the wet tropics of Northern Australia offer Russell Milledge and Rebecca Youdell both opportunities and a lush historical cultural environment, with a sensitivity towards the indigenous cultures that reflects in their art. Together, they form Bonemap, an art duo known for international collaborations as well as their own individual work.

TaikaBox: Thanks for taking the time to have this chat. Should we start with some Bonemap history? How did you start, and how did you develop?

Russell Milledge: Well, thank you very much for inviting us to speak with you, it’s really nice. There’s a Qi gong exercise that we do where you imagine a red string going through your body, through the earth. Imagine this imaginary string going through our bodies and right through the centre of Earth connecting with you. We are joined by this.

Yes, Rebecca and I work and live together – we’re partners and have two children. We’ve worked together since the late 1990s. We have drawn together through an interest in contemporary performance and cultural development. We’re based in northern Australia, in a very regional area – there are no large cities nearby. In fact, the closest major capital is Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea. We’re in Queensland; our state capital, Brisbane, will host the Olympic games in 2032. Our ancestors are immigrants to Australia from the United Kingdom and Europe. This part of Northern Australia is known as the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area, we’re a city in a swampy, jungle environment. It very tropical, and the World Heritage site is adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef. The area is promoted as reef and rainforest and has a lot of adventure and eco-tourism.

The values associated with these environments have a lot of sentiment around them. 30 years ago, there was a romantic ideal of wilderness and the concept of protecting and conserving wilderness areas. But as you come to understand the place, it’s very much an ancient cultural landscape. It has First Nations cultural heritage, and Indigenous people still living and thriving in their homeland. The psychological shift was quite interesting, to go from a scientific and colonialist view of the environment, from this ideal of a jungle wilderness to a realisation that actually these are cultural spaces and that there’s a whole lot of cultural protocols wrapped around that. One of the first things we did with this idea was work in an environment or a landscape and create images and dance works. But what claim do we make on that space by imposing our aesthetic and cultural values on it? We have ended up working very closely with Indigenous people and working with world views or values that are sympathetic to understanding their unceded claim on Country. It’s an environment where sovereignty was never ceded by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and there’s never been a treaty or any kind of compensation for the atrocity and attempted genocide of the indigenous population by colonial forces. The story is more complex than that and certainly not unique in the world. We live in a part of Australia that has a strong presence of Indigenous people living in proximity to tribal lands. These places have only recently been subjected to Western demands of progress and development. There is an amazing contrast acknowledging ancient country and a connection to place while making significant contributions to contemporary society. The Indigenous artists we work with are very sophisticated, working in contemporary forms. But there is a proximity to those traditional values, to the sensibility of an ancient culture. It’s an interesting melting pot for us to work in and ally to. 

We engaged in the creative development of a new work called “Untethered” in November 2023 with Japanese artist Tetsu Tabata, who’s been based in Tokyo, but has recently immigrated to Cairns with his partner and artist Mariana Verdaasdonk. David Gumbs, an Afro-Caribbean artist who lives in Martinique was a remote participant. Zane Saunders, a First Nations collaborating artist, is displaced from his traditional homelands as a result of what is known historically as the Stolen Generation affecting his family ancestry. We formed a micro-community of practice around media and performance. It is similar to where Rebecca and I came together 30 years ago, and we are still finding curiosity and experimentation in collaborative media and performance. It was basically looking at cultural identity through the use of image-making and dance. Along with the use of technology in design and methodology to create interactive experiences for our audiences. As a creative development we looked at alternative types of spaces to stage our presentations. 

Zane Saunders and Rebecca Youdell in Justicia (2021)

TaikaBox:. So when you think about the trip that you’ve taken as artists, the imagery of your artwork has changed quite dramatically from your early pieces when compared to, for example, Zane Saunders’s “Cure”, which is probably more of him than it is of you. You have gone from the stark landscapes into a wide spectrum of visual things. How would you describe this – I wouldn’t say it’s mellowing down, but there is an increasing complexity. 

Rebecca Youdell: Well, our practice is about ecology. The body is a central part of our dialogue, harnessing creative technology to investigate the body and environment. I don’t think you can ever remove yourself from the greater environment, so we’re like a microenvironment within the macro environment. Our work as Bonemap reflects that, and over time, we began our investigation with questions, “who are we? What are we doing? What does it mean to be living in the Asian Pacific region? As we evolve as artists, we engage with a broader global community while being a destination ourselves – we have a lot of international tourism going on in this region. However, the impacts are serious when threats of introduced species are coming all the time. As representatives of a settler society, we are sensitive to and understand the impacts of invasive forces that are pathogenic and can do irreparable environmental damage. So, as you can see, there are many viewpoints, concepts and issues to explore as artists.

The more we investigate ourselves in the world, the more other people have become a part of that journey. We now fall into discussions where artistic collaborators come and want us to assist them with what they need to say, and then we become a part of producing their vision. Our contribution plays out through the production of work, either through work we’re making for another artist or work that requires the role of a producer. We assist artists in realising what they are driven to say. We generally do not require attribution or significant acknowledgement, but it can be useful to show how we have been spending our time.

I think we’ve always worked in a very site-specific way. Collaboration is central to what we do, and we don’t feel like individuals. It’s like a conversation. So, what is that conversation, and where is it taking us? How do we use what we know and what we have access to? The cultural development work allows us to facilitate that for ourselves and others.

Russell: It is also a cultural sensitivity. A journey of realigning an attitude or mode of appreciation. It is the suppressed truth story of Australian society and the displacement and cancellation of Indigenous culture. Without overtly stating a political message, it is the values that we have changed for ourselves. There’s a sensitivity to the representation of place; if we go to a beautiful natural landscape, create a dance work, and take photos there, then politically, we’re culturally claiming that space. If we do that, we need to be aware of what cultural overlays already exist there, and what is the cultural significance for the Traditional Owners. It could be an initiation site, a women’s birthing site or a story place. All of these probabilities now arrive in the landscape rather than some aesthetic or scientific appreciation of it. I think a withdrawal from making images with landscapes is not a withdrawal from it because we’re doing other things; it’s because we’re sensitive to the cultural values that exist there already. We are much more likely to work with First Nations artists who have some visceral and embodied value in those landscapes and assist in working with their expression or representation of it. That is why you see in our work over the years that Indigenous artists can focus as the lead artist; it is Indigenous-led work. We don’t necessarily make a distinction and say who the lead artist is. It is more satisfying to work in collaborative teams than to brand our own creative vision, even if this goes against society’s expectations.

Rebecca: I think the environment, as do the flora and fauna, has a voice. How can our voice also work with that voice? It is not in contrast, but it is like sharing a space rather than just separating. We are not separate from where we live or who we are in that space. 

Russell: I think Australian society is intrinsically conservative. We struggle to find critical mass, particularly in what is regarded as a remote urban location. Operating so far from a capital city, we don’t see a lot of experimental artists congregating to do transgressive things and push each other to find new ways and forms of expression. In regional places, aesthetic appreciation is more conservative and risk averse. We have struggled but have built an audience over those years for what we do – it’s still a hard sell. We have persisted, it’s a lot of work to get the resources to do contemporary or experimental work. For example, we could have easily packed up and gone off to Sydney and continued to practice there with affluent and appreciative audiences. However, it is partly about promoting the tolerance and diversity engendered in creative practice. The diversity of culture is important. Rather than accepting urban regionality as intrinsically and irreversibly imbued with culturally conservative ideals, this is another approach. Bringing contemporary and experimental work into those communities helps lift the tolerance levels for different expressions of culture. It is then not just a whitewash of Western cultural ideals, overlaid by settler societies, informing Australian identity. It has been a part of what we do, but it’s definitely been an ongoing challenge. 

TaikaBox: I think the situation you describe repeats itself everywhere when Western countries have indigenous people, like the Sami people in the Nordics. The change in respecting indigenous cultures has been fairly recent, something like thirty years, for us at least. Do you think that Sydney, for example, it is easier to use the cultural locations of the First Nations, or is it more of a typical Western viewpoint – more of a hubbub than thinking of the heritage of your continent?

Rebecca: I think proximity is important. We are living in an area where Indigenous people are more prevalent. We have a grassroots engagement with Indigenous communities. The Indigenous culture and values are much more proximal here. In Sydney, the awareness and celebration of Indigenous culture is more symbolic and expressed as civic and monumental. For example, through art galleries or for special occasions, Indigenous designs are projected on the sails of the Sydney Opera House. However, residents of Sydney are more removed from personal contact with Indigenous communities and extended families. It is a heightened urban context there; with the growth of population and density, multiculturalism is more prevalent than Indigenous values. And in that way, we are just closer to the Indigenous values of sacred Country. It’s more apparent and quite interesting to live in that proximity. 

Being in an urban space becomes quite self-referential, whereas here, you’re always being pulled with your values or questioning them. You see things from other people’s points of view or have empathy for a different way of being. Because it’s a different language or a different point of view, the values are different from what I grew up with or maybe what Western values might be. And that’s an interesting space to create questions like who you are and what you think. 

Russell: Being in a cultural place grounded in ancient wisdom is exciting. The big cities in Australia appear to look towards Europe and America as their cultural guides. They risk reverting to benchmarks emulating Western cultures in the Antipodes. However, in Northern Australia, we have forgotten that bit. We have to keep reminding people that there are dominant Indigenous cultures aggregated in Northern Australia. There are not just the Aboriginal people of Cape York Peninsula but also the Melanesian Island people of the Torres Strait, both of which are part of the Queensland State structure. I think we have a strong influence from Melanesian culture and the tropical environment, which creates a slightly different and unique prospect for culture and aesthetic response. One of the great things that has happened is the re-emergence of indigenous art and culture from this region. We are seeing fantastic contemporary First Nations work going all over the world from this region, it is just fantastic. You might say, “Well, what happens to the settler and immigrant artists that get left behind in that?” There will always be tension between people who are succeeding and those who are struggling. But at the moment, there’s a lot of emphasis on the First Nations cultural output. It’s almost like an overcompensation for the many decades of suppression. 

Rebecca: But there’s also a difference in climate as well. Here in the tropics, it’s dry, and then it’s wet; those are the seasons. But as you move further South, there are four seasons, and it is less humid. We naturally identify with people who are north, which is more into the tropics. The south becomes less tropical or subtropical because we are in the Southern Hemisphere. And I think we can work with people familiar with the tropics around that equatorial band.

Russell: Australia is not considered part of the Great South economic region. It is a gross generalisation in the socioeconomic sense. Economic terminology designates countries like those in southern Africa and South America, for example, those with lower living conditions as Second and Third World. On that economic scale, Australia is considered to have a high quality of life, and people make good wages, which is associated with First World economics. So, it’s a bit of an enclave of Western culture on the wrong side of the Earth. However, this viewpoint disregards the reality of Indigenous communities that do not have great living conditions and experience high levels of incarceration. Global politics can appear Eurocentric or influenced by American political influences.

Still from The Exquisite Resonance of Memory (2018 version)

TaikaBox: Before we started, you mentioned a film premiere. Would you like to elaborate a little?

Russell: The film we have worked on over the last couple of years is a documentary about Aotearoa/New Zealand artist Geof Dixon, who lives here in Cairns. It was made during COVID, and the producers, who are also the directors in Aotearoa, remotely engaged us to do the cinematography, so that was quite interesting. We are yet to meet these great people face-to-face. The documentary “Portraits of Us“ has already premiered at the New Zealand International Film Festival. It has been acquired for screening by a broadcaster in Australia called SBS. It is also available to rent online through the Ronin Films website.

I think a lot of things seem very stuck in their art form. It’s probably the same where you are; galleries deal with visual artists, theatres deal with theatre, and we have music venues, etcetera. And for us, we’re very much a multi-art form practice. We engage across all of these discipline spaces and often try to tug them together so there’s less compartmentalisation in how we approach creative practice. We’ve been doing that for over 30 years, and it’s rare that we find places or venues with multiple art forms as a core value.

We also noticed that some artists we have worked with, particularly the First Nations artists, are often doing several things. They might create objects, but they’re also dancing as well. In terms of Western culture, there is a strong ideal of segmentation, breaking things up into boxes, and wrapping specialisation and expertise around it. The expectation of keeping disciplines in silos within their domain is a product of the European academy. It is an ideal that creates a fixed identity for creative practices. One of the things that is great for us working away from capital cities is less risk and more opportunity to experiment with bringing art forms together in hybrid forms. And I think that’s probably reflected in what we do. There might be a curatorial project with a very strong gallery museum outcome, but then the next month, there might be a dance-based contemporary performance. And it’s quite exciting to work like that. We’re kind of responding to opportunities but also to places without the idea that we’re creating a dance work or a gallery exhibition. Do you have much of that where you are? Do you feel that there are people working across the arts like that? 

TaikaBox: I think there’s quite a few. We have a lot of blending of circus and dance, of course. And then there’s some crossing over from visual arts, the traditional contemporary arts like sculpting and painting are accompanied by a dance piece or live music – low level stuff. But it can grow into something where you are creating another ruleset than what you’re used to. You might be a comic artist and have to draw to music or something else. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but I think the main point is to allow yourself to be vulnerable when you create. If it doesn’t work well, it’s not the end of the world. I wonder what would have happened if Rembrandt played the accordion during the breaks, or something like that. 

Russell: Well, we don’t know what sort of operas might have developed and disappeared as ephemeral expressions. There’s a tradition in the 60s and 70s of intermedial and interstitial work. It is still quite a struggle to get multipurpose infrastructure. We still have infrastructure being built that becomes very much about just one set of expressions along the disciplinary lines of the Western art academy ideal. This is a gallery; it will look like a gallery. The reality is that the gallery in question will probably see more video projections and digital media work than paintings because that’s what the reality is these days. It would be good to be in a position where we can start to influence how the infrastructure is created to be more appropriate for what’s happening and what contemporary work is doing and going into the future. So we’re kind of looking forward to that. There are a few opportunities we’ve been involved with in terms of developing infrastructure – one is a transformation of WW2 oil tanks, which were built by the American Army for the Pacific Theatre of War in 1940. They are big concrete structures made to hold crude diesel oil; several of them are in a series, creating a precinct. It so happened that they were gifted to the city in the 90s, and naturally, the city had no idea what to do with them. Economically, removing them would have been too expensive because of the long-term contamination. Eventually, a small group of artists lobbied that they should be turned into an arts centre. I think a lot of the stuff on our website up to 2007 or thereabouts was work in that venue. 

Tanks Arts Centre in Cairns

Rebecca: As well as the most recent residency we did. 

Russell: Right. It’s called the Tanks Art Centre. It’s a great spot and has residencies; it is open to international artists. There’s a house nearby that accommodates artists when they visit, it’s fantastic. Other cultural spaces in the area are a little more difficult. The city seems to think they have a civic responsibility to have a certain type of theatre or gallery. There’s a new proposal for a gallery precinct in the city. It would be wonderful to break open the concept a bit, to say, “You shouldn’t build just a gallery but include multi-purpose infrastructure.” That is how artists work now and, in the future, instead of just hanging paintings on the walls. And, you know, they’ve just built the Cairns Performing Arts Centre, which would be the perfect place to have a gallery and multi-purpose spaces because nothing happens during the day – there would be something for people to do and draw people to visit and use that civic space maximising the community investment in it. We still have the mentality that things get fixed in these academic boxes. 

Rebecca: One thing we have been able to do working with other people is help create a Centre of Contemporary Arts, and it’s recently been reconfigured to support more Indigenous development of performance and visual arts. It is now called Bulmba-ja Arts Centre. By making a presence here and bringing people along on that journey, we’ve been able to lobby for different kinds of spaces to be built and created. That has been an interesting journey because people who didn’t have a voice can now have a greater voice. They can develop and present, and an Indigenous branded space didn’t exist beforehand, and space for contemporary art practice didn’t exist before that. It is evolutionarily, over time, and potentially, the future will happen like that.

Russell: The Bulmb-ja Arts Centre has galleries, rehearsal and theatre spaces, so it approaches the multi-arts venue we’ve discussed. And you know, we don’t see much of that in Australia. The urban population growth that we’ve had in our little city has come with these infrastructure opportunities. We have been so present and engaged with the community that we’ve had quite a bit of influence on what has happened and how things have turned out without presuming any kind of authority. That has been quite good. 

TaikaBox: Yeah, it’s good to be able to have a say. 

Rebecca: Actually, we were able to lobby for the money to make it happen. It’s not just having a say; it’s making it happen as a team, along with other artists, particularly around film, performance, and visual arts. 

Russell: The Centre of Contemporary Arts developed around the turn of the century through a capital infrastructure fund from the State. We pitched for a visual and performing arts centre and got a few million dollars towards establishing this centre. We are regional and remote, but we are also in a city with strong arts and cultural infrastructure, and we tend to engage with it; we don’t shy away from it. We’ll do projects in any of these spaces if we get an opportunity. They can be projects as artists or producers. 

TaikaBox: You mentioned the importance of cultural sensitivity and awareness. Do you have a social or political feeling you need to express when you start doing things, or does it evolve as you go along, depending on the location or some other aspect?

Russell: I tend to have more aesthetic and agnostic responses to things rather than politics, but the people we engage with often will bring a political viewpoint to it. And we’re quite happy to engage with that and help bring those viewpoints to the forefront through art.

Rebecca: For me, it’s more about experience, something that happens to me or I observe, and then there’s a conversation about that. And then, it could be something like an aesthetic or political influence. 

Russell: There is an emphasis on crafting experiences rather than objects or static presentations. There is more engagement and expectations on the audience in that sense. I enjoy making things for myself, and it’s a very personal process; I think it’s lovely. But it’s nice when that can also find and bring an audience into engagement. Many of our processes are about finding ways for the audience to own the cultural expression. It appears particularly pointed in a regional location where people are much more decentralised. We have a small urban hub of a couple of streets, but then there’s a whole hinterland of artists and people on their acreages and indigenous people on their communities. Cairns is a cultural hub for remote people and communities 1000 kilometres away without urban infrastructure. Despite the distances, our little city is still their hub, too. It is a much more dispersed engagement than those in dense population centres. If you don’t find ways for people to own a part, it’s not very interesting to them. We tend to work with communities over long periods of time, and things just emerge from that. Whether it’s through expression, representation or whatever, it’s something about helping them express themselves.  

TaikaBox: You have individual and combined work, your whole artistic history is a blend of this. 

Rebecca: Russell and I met through an artist collective here in Cairns, and through that, we had a conversation that grew into Bonemap. But we were, in parallel, investigating the possibility of art and environment, the body and experience and meaning, and that was a shared point of interest. We started working with groups of artists around those ideas, which have gone on for decades. But through that time, we’ve also worked separately with other interest groups, like my work with the Indigenous youth performing arts company or Russell’s work at the Shine on Gimuy project, which is about Indigenous placemaking and large-scale ephemeral public art, dance and music programmes. So I think we can come together and create these teams, whether for our own interests or with other groups, particularly about environmental and arts ecology.

Russell: Bonemap is a micro business entity, a legal structure in which Rebecca and I have a partnership. It serves the purpose of having a legal status and paying taxes. Many visual artists trade by their name; they become a name brand registered for business purposes. We, as individuals, move behind something called Bonemap, and that’s how we trade. So whether we’re doing a project in a theatre branded as Bonemap or editing a film, it still goes through Bonemap accounts – it’s a business entity and a performance unit. We have to make it sustainable and diversify because we are not going to get a gig every month doing an environmental or experimental media performance; those things are once or twice a year. So, in downtime, we work with other people and as members of a team, and both Rebecca and I are separately engaged in different teams with other projects, and we try to come together and collaborate as much as we can as a Bonemap project. The model for that is collaborative, we usually curate a group of people together to create a small ensemble and work to present a contemporary performance in a venue. The outcomes might change; sometimes they’re performative in terms of medium, sometimes the performance happens and is recorded, and then we’re presenting an exhibition of that visual record. And I think that’s the sort of model that we like. We have been raising a family and have commitments restricting touring activities. Therefore, we have developed other types of participation in the sector that concentrate on a very narrow geographic area.

To have sustainable careers, we must also break out and work with other people. We tend to attract work that is a good fit; some are delivered in a festival context. We put ourselves in line for local festival commissions. We ended up with a recurring project called “Light Moves”, a concept for suburban satellite events as part of a city-wide festival. The festival was focused on central city venues. Festival producers realised audiences could be dispersed and have large distances to travel to attend city venues. Outlying communities said, “We’re paying our taxes, and you’re doing all the art in the city centre; what about coming our way?”. We started to engage with this idea of distributed events around the main city festival, and it was called “Suburban Satellites”. We ended up building quite a large audience; a few thousand people would come to these events in beautiful, spectacular parkland locations. We used techniques like projection mapping onto treelines across lakes in the World Heritage rainforest. There’s some value in building up the skills to work in site-specific ways; it’s not just a response to the environment but also to meet people in their environment and to be able to present something that they can also participate in. We’ve done that probably for the last five or six years, and that has been an ongoing commission around a local annual festival. We have a festival season, which is not the wet season, so much demand is concentrated around our few dry months. 

Light Moves

TaikaBox: Let’s talk about that for a bit – not having summer and winter kinds of seasons, but having the wet and the dry season. Which is it now?

Rebecca: We’re in the wet season now. 

Russell: Summer for us is the wet season; it’s usually flooding or cyclones and can get quite prolonged. We have had some large floods this year in February, and we’ve had four or five cyclones already. These large aggressive storms tend to head straight for us and then suddenly change direction and go somewhere else. We haven’t had any direct hits, but they create a lot of rain. The dry season is in the winter months – we say winter, but it’s still warm, tropical and humid. 

Rebecca: It’s the peak season when many people come here because it’s quite mild. 

Russell: We have the natural world wonder, which is called The Great Barrier Reef. This city is the gateway to that world, that underwater wonderland of tropical fish and colour. There is quite a large annual intake of tourists, and tourism is the mainstay industry. 

TaikaBox: That gives me a nice tangent to the next thing that I was supposed to ask you about. You consider yourself in a somewhat remote location, and you respect the habitat. You are very aware of the cultural ties to the region, and you try to adhere to different cultural boundaries that you know are there and that you want to respect. So, there’s ecological and cultural sustainability built right into what you do. How does this feeling of responsibility affect you personally?

Russell: I will tell this story because you made me think of it. It may or may not answer your question that well, but it goes a little way. There is a World Heritage listing, where the United Nations determines certain spaces around the planet have heritage value. They have categories for different kinds of heritage. There is cultural heritage and then natural heritage. In the early 1980’s The United Nations declared that this region had natural heritage values and declared it a World Heritage Site under that category. That introduced many legislation and legal restrictions around land use and access. What the declaration did not recognise was the area’s Indigenous cultural heritage. The Indigenous people still inhabiting their ancestral tribal lands, now in this World Heritage zone, suddenly were restricted on how they could access and move through their land. They appealed and fought for recognition over two decades until it was finally recognised that these were, in fact, cultural landscapes. The values of Indigenous custodianship and the high scientific biodiversity were finally brought together. That is one thing we’ve experienced. We did a series of engagements to highlight the value of culture and nature.

I worked on a curatorial exhibition project with the Wet Tropics Management Authority, a statutory organisation formed after the World Heritage listing. They had a consultative group of Indigenous leaders and tribal Elders, and we put together an exhibition and campaigns around visual culture and traditional knowledge to help awareness and recognition of their cultural value. The implications of World Heritage Listing will not always be obvious or favourable for everyone. Nature conservation is generally positive as a sustainability process where you think, “OK, it becomes World Heritage listed, and it will have a high level of conservation protection”, but then it comes with blanket exclusion. For Indigenous people with an embodied and spiritual connection to that place, the impact of World Heritage represented a deepening of colonial control on their lifeblood. I think part of emotional sustainability is the power of endemic knowledge. It concerns the depth of emotional engagement and feelings for the environment. 

Rebecca: And the environment is often what people see as an economic resource just to be used, but actually, it’s not; it’s where we live.

Russell: We have that conflict even within our own extended families. They see the environment as a resource to be exploited for economic gain. The world is to be consumed, and you can chop down trees or move mountains to take gold or anything else to make money. So, there’s a conflict regarding Western capitalist and modern consumer values set against the embodied and spiritual Indigenous values. There’s a shift, and many ongoing natural disasters are helping to cause that shift towards listening to Indigenous knowledge. For instance, Australia has catastrophic bushfires, and those fires have claimed many lives and property. Aboriginal fire practices have shaped much of the pre-contact Australian landscape. Therefore, Indigenous knowledge can mitigate land care practices to avoid catastrophe. The hurdle has been getting civic authorities to listen and accept Indigenous practices and knowledge as a viable solution.  

Aboriginal fire practices include the concept of cultural burning, which induces change in the flora and fauna. Many Australian native plants germinate after a cool burn has passed through. This relationship between fire and germination results from thousands of years of Aboriginal continuity in the same landscape. After colonisation and exclusion of Aboriginal people from their land, the amount of fuel left to accumulate in the undergrowth intensifies modern bushfires that spread devastatingly fast to large areas and disrupt the germination process for native trees and grasses. And even though we’re in the wet tropics, we can still have really dry years that lead to wildfires. The trend is to listen to those few Indigenous fire knowledge holders left. Because the fires have been so constant and so bad, people have started to listen to that remnant knowledge from indigenous people. One of the Indigenous artists we work with is the leading proponent of that knowledge. Using cultural burning to protect the forests, it’s good to see people waking up to those values. 

TaikaBox: Has the increasing amount of natural disasters become a talking point? Is that going to be a big issue here because of the uniqueness of your location?

Russell: There is real concern about the Barrier Reef and the impact of coral bleaching. It is caused by minor increases in water temperature in the Coral Sea, which nonetheless causes significant and extensive bleaching. It can be quite contentious, with different leading scientists fighting to legitimise the threat around those issues. How can we combat that? The coral can recover over time, but as the water temperature rises have occurred more frequently, there is an argument that at some point, the reef will be unable to recover sufficiently and will fall further into decline and extinction.

Rebecca: And water rising. For people on the Torres Strait Islands, it’s changing how they live on their islands, both with food and ceremonially with their loved ones who have passed. 

The Great Barrier Reef

TaikaBox: Desalination, shifting currents, there’s a lot of things going on we don’t know enough about yet. The anticipated water level rise estimates don’t bode well for the Island Nations.

Russell: Although that kind of water level rise has been happening for a long time. The local Aboriginal people talk about a land bridge and much more land, and the shoreline has receded from thousands of years ago. What science attributes to the passing of the last ice age. There is already in the imagination and local dreamtime stories that effect of retreating from the coast. Some Torres Strait Islander communities have already been relocated to start new community sites on the mainland because their islands have been swamped. It’s an ongoing and deepening crisis. 

We have sentiments about the impact of global travel. We did some touring to Europe and Asia in the early 2000s, but if we fly to Europe, we have to consider the responsibility of the tonnes of carbon that activity will produce. We have to realise an offset for that carbon and reduce our travel. It’s hard to offset that. We have this riparian property that we maintain, which is a bit of a retreat for us up in the mountains; it is also a carbon offset. We must think about how we create work that ameliorates some of these global issues. 

Last year, we worked with David Gumbs – he wanted to come to Australia, but in the end, he uploaded the work for a projection installation. Because we understood the technology he was using, we were able to recreate the installation on his behalf. All the communication was conducted through Zoom, rather than him flying all the way from the other side of the world to join us. We could investigate participating as ‘virtual’ guests in your Dance Hack. Many artists prefer face-to-face contact and sharing.

TaikaBox: Well, in last year’s Oulu Dance Hack we hosted a Tanzanian artist through a video feed link, shown on the big screen, and through some digital inclusion it appeared as if there were other dancers on location there with him. So it’s possible technically, but whether it’s actually doable this year, I’m not sure.

Russell: I have seen the expression of interest for Oulu Dance Hack over the years through John. It is always so intriguing to think about it. We are similar to TaikaBox’s sentiment, not wanting to do that sort of travel due to its environmental impact. I think the technology is almost there to enable meaningful remote engagement. Years back, we used a Flash-based interface for an online collaborative platform called Water Wheel, developed by Suzon Fuks. It drew awareness of environmental issues on the International Day of Water each year. It was an international festival happening online through that platform. We would happily do some more of that after so many years of working with remote technologies.

Russell: One thing to reflect on is where this type of work will go. Who are the new artists, and how do we see the future of this kind of work? In a way, I think it’s a struggle because young people aren’t encouraged to be artists. The artist was inside us from the beginning for both of us. It wasn’t a conscious choice that we would be artists, but we both grew into that naturally. But I know we struggle to see the arts, particularly contemporary arts, be fully embraced in the education system, and many of our young people are pushed towards science and engineering. After all these decades, they are still being told that arts is not a viable career – that’s a shame. This means that our audiences and artists are part of an ageing population. When we find engaged young people, it’s worth supporting them and helping them find their feet. 

What’s my advice to young people? Particularly in these fringe locations, regional locations and small cities, where sustainability and practises come from the community’s diversity. It is the opposite advice to what you might do in a city, where you know things become very specialised, and you specialise in becoming an expert in something you know gives you your niche. In these smaller communities, a diversification of skills, knowledge and know-how creates sustainability. It can be hard to explain that when dealing with infrastructure and organisations that come from big city ideals and concepts. 

Rebecca: I think the other side is that arts and creativity are high in their value system within these Indigenous cultures around us. It’s how they express their language, stories, and connection to Country. Up and coming, emerging artists are fostered through those Indigenous communities. They hold high value to these people who are their Elders. That intergenerational respect is not necessarily so pronounced in Western cultural expression. Different values and priorities dominate contemporary society, like career choices, gathering finances, and securing your retirement pension into old age. For Indigenous communities, it’s about that connection of expression and family, making, singing, and storytelling. If I summed up our practice, it would be an alignment a bit more like that. 

TaikaBox: Thinking of the whole artistic community, being a tribe in itself.

Russell: It is a joy and a privilege to create. There is a joy in struggling to express yourself. And there are incredible aesthetic rewards in creating and being an artist. Those creative desires and sentiments of aesthetic things just keep you going, and you build sustainability around them. We are fortunate to live in a beautiful place. We’ve been able to ignore the cliches of the reef and the rainforest and the tourism, and we have helped to develop a place with many significant cultural attributes that are contributing to the world.

Russell Milledge and Rebecca Youdell were chatting online with Pasi Pirttiaho

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