By Danielle Wyatt and Jasmin Pfefferkorn
Artists often talk about the importance of process in their creative work as something fundamental to and definitive of their creativity. Process might describe an artist’s habitual practice, the daily discipline that hones their skills to expand their mastery of a medium or subject. For many artists, the discipline of process is integral to cultivating a distinct creative identity or signature. It is how they create something new out of the creative lineage that precedes them. Process is also how artists enter uncharted territory, a way of keeping faith with the work when conditions are uncertain and they cannot see its final form.
It is this latter conception of process that surfaced when artists and non-artists talked about participating in Refuge, an ambitious, long-term creative experiment that put art at the centre of preparing for climate-related disaster.
Running from 2016-2021, and hosted by City of Melbourne’s Arts House, Refuge partnered artists with experts from Australian Red Cross, State Emergency Services (SES), Emergency Management Victoria, University of Melbourne, First Nations elders, and local community organisations. Through these collaborations, Refuge sought to demonstrate art’s utility for transforming institutional policy and practice around disaster, animating community action beyond the lifespan of the project. Refuge responded to recognition by emergency services experts that as climate disasters become recurrent and compounded, communities will need to assume a more active role in their own disaster preparedness rather than being passively reliant on emergency personnel for help (Rae et al 2017).
Refuge’s original artistic director, Angharad Wynne-Jones, sought to ‘build a community around the problem’ (Pledger 2021, 32). In its first two years, Refuge 2016: Flood and Refuge 2017: Heatwave, the project involved artists working alongside emergency services to turn North Melbourne Town Hall into a 24-hour relief centre. Within a dramaturgy combining order and confusion, local residents had their contact details registered with the SES. Children played in makeshift cubbies constructed on the upper floor of the building. Visitors were invited to have spontaneous conversations with strangers over cups of tea. In its third year, Refuge 2018: Pandemic, artists, emergency services experts and medical researchers came together for a two-day lab session at the Peter Doherty Institute to plan for a future imagined pandemic. Aboriginal storyteller Uncle Larry Walsh recast the pathogen in his memories of the story of The Breath of the Mindye, as punishment from the creator spirit Bundjil (Pledger 2021). As Refuge evolved in its final years, its format became more temporally and geographically dispersed. The creative team, Tara Prowse, Sarah Rowbottom and Emily Sexton, took a step back from curatorial control, allowing the work to evolve in multiple directions.
Participants of Refuge, both artists and non-artists, described their experience of the project as ‘working in the dark’. Rather than imposing rigid structures and themes over the top of their work, they found their way through processes of listening and creating a sense of hospitality. The domesticity of cooking, sharing a meal, sleeping over in the 24-hour relief centre fostered bonds between diverse people. Playing with expanded temporalities of programming and performance enabled new collaborations to form. And relinquishing directorial or authorial control made space for the emergence of First Nations cultural leadership.
None of these methods are new. From the Dadaist experiments of the early twentieth century to the meals cooked and served by Rirkrit Tiravanija, artists have adopted unorthodox processes to invite novelty into their work. But it is rare to see these processes employed at the scale and duration of Refuge, and to see them put to practical use towards an urgent social problem like disaster preparedness.
While process is considered vital to artistic practice, it is usually vaguely defined, often situated in binary opposition to the rational and intellectual processes of academia or science. Artists describe their creative process as intuitive, or as coming from an emotional, unconscious, elemental or dream state. In this sense, process often remains elusive, if not unknowable (Forgasz 2011).
Deriving its power from this ambiguity, it would be reductive, even impossible, to attempt to ‘capture’ the creative process; to systematise or instrumentalise it would erode the very qualities that make artistic practice distinct. At the same time, however, the common mystification of creative process makes it difficult to move beyond romantic and individualistic understandings of art.
Some insight into the distinctiveness of creative processes is particularly vital for any critical engagement with projects like Refuge that seek to engage directly and constructively with real world issues like climate change. This socially engaged art is less about projecting a symbolic representation of the world than it is about modelling, in Nicolas Bourriaud’s words, ‘the realm of human interactions and its social context’ (2002, 14). It was hoped that by rehearsing disaster scenarios, Refuge could contribute to collective wellbeing by building community resilience. For the public, ‘working in the dark’ became ‘playing in the dark’, animating communities’ own creative responses to disaster. This is a recognition that you can never be entirely prepared for a crisis. Resilience requires learning to respond to the unexpected with creativity and community mindedness.
Working with lived social relationships as its materials, projects like Refuge attempt not just to communicate contemporary crises, but to play a direct role in shaping how these issues are framed and understood. It is by recognising the specificity of creative processes that we might open up a radically different social role for art in the construction of knowledge.
In a defunded environment art has had to prove its relevance and usefulness by making itself into an instrument to alleviate social ills. Refuge refused this instrumental role at the margins of social knowledge and instead created conditions for the rational discourses of disaster management and planning to recalibrate around the inclusive, dynamic and intuitive processes of art.
For more information about Refuge, see its website.
Bourriaud, N 2002, Relational Aesthetics, trans S Pleasance & F Woods, France: les presses de réel.
Forgasz, R 2011, The Myth of the Mysteriousness of the Creative Process, Australasian Drama Studies, pp. 41-54.
Pledger, D 2021, In the Time of Refuge, North Melbourne: Arts House.
Rae,J McMillian, A and March, A 2017, ‘Refuge– Adaptation’, Arts House Listening Program podcast, 25 October, http://www.artshouse.com.au/whats-on/listening-program/. [Accessed 12 April 2018]
Thumbnail image: Jen Rae, Apitherapy Quarantine (Zone III detail), 2018. Photo: Bryony Jackson.
Header image: Ked de Souza, North Melbourne School of Displacement (detail), 2019. Photo: Suzie Fraser.
Dr Danielle Wyatt is a cultural researcher at the School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne. She writes and researches about the public life of culture, particularly the intersection between cultural spaces, networked technologies, arts practice and cultural policy.
Dr Jasmin Pfefferkorn is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne. She is currently working on the ARC project ‘Digital Photography: mediation, memory and visual communication’.
The Creativity and Wellbeing Hallmark Research Initiative (CAWRI) is currently funding the project Finding Refuge, which is aggregating and cataloguing the numerous resources generated by Refuge.