UA15 CHATS: Brienna Macnish x Nathan Harrison

July 24, 2015

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, water scarcity, air quality, Coal Seam Gas: this year’s Underbelly Arts Festival features several works that address specific environmental issues.

Two of these artists, BRIENNA MACNISH and NATHAN HARRISON, spoke with ASH BERDEBES about art as activism; when it works and when it doesn’t, and the struggle of making important issues-based works that stick with the audience.

The Becalmed Heart_Promo Image 1

Can you tell us a bit about your work?

BRIENNA MACNISH    The Becalmed Heart is an immersive installation that we’re building with over 20,000 recycled plastic grocery bags – the grey ones that you get in the supermarket.

The work explores ideas of human impact upon the natural world, and in the work we try to recreate images of natural wonders out of plastic bags.

NATHAN HARRISON     We’re making a theatre-ish show called Hectoring Apocalyptica – which is about water security and water scarcity over the coming decades, and how we might have to deal with very big problems very soon, and the ways in which we are and are not prepared for that.

Was there a moment where you thought ‘this is what I want to do for my UA15 artwork’?

NH I was in London last year and the tap water in London tastes disgusting – so I ended up just having to buy a lot of bottled water. Someone I was working with there mentioned that Asia will run out of water in 50 years time.

I wondered – what’s the deal with water? It’s not a very sexy aspect of climate change, it doesn’t rank up there with disasters and all the big stuff. Then I kind of looked into it and I got scared very quickly.

Do you have a sexy water fact you can share right now?

NH The UN predicts that by 2030 – that’s only 15 years away – we’re going to have a 40% shortfall in the amount of water that we need. As a world. We go through a lot of water and in 15 years time we’re going to have just over half of that. Half of the water we need to keep going. Which is a lot of thirsty people, and a lot of things stopping working.

BM Oh man I’m terrified already!


NH That feels like something that I should have already known about, but something that no one is talking about.


What about for you, Brienna, was there a moment when you thought ‘I want to cover this; I want to visually represent this issue?

BM Myself and Clare McCracken and Robert Jordan actually been working on The Becalmed Heart for quite a few years, and we had always wanted to do this in a post-industrial ruin.

The last development of the work, we did it in a sub station down in Melbourne. But there’s nothing, there’s nothing like Cockatoo Island down in Melbourne. I was so excited when I heard about the festival and the kind of spaces that were available to work in. I was just like yes yes yes this is EXACTLY where I want to do it.

What gave you the impetus to actually start working with thousands of plastic bags?

BM I was really inspired by two things: one was images and stories from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – which is like a floating soup of plastic fragments in the Pacific ocean. And the other is the photography of Edward Burtynsky Who’s a Canadian photographer who takes amazing photos of open cut mines, and fields of tyres, and shipbreaking in India. All of these amazing images of our planet post-humanity. Basically asking; what does our world look like after humans have been here?

Are you pursuing these issues because you want to start a dialogue?

NH Yeah, I think so. I feel like maybe not all artists, but I feel as an artists some kind of responsibility to try and look into this stuff and respond in some way. Hopefully the end goal is a really productive conversation that then leads to change, and whether that’s individual change or just more people lobbying and being like ‘yeah, we should be doing something about this.’

But I think, well… I’ve seen a lot of climate theatre – not that I think this show is even specifically climate theatre – but I’ve seen a lot of theatre that deals with that kind of stuff, environmental concerns, and I get frustrated. It’s not specific. It’s just about climate change as a thing.

An in to create generalist fear?

BM And it’s like “oh noooo climate change is happening… and it’s baaad”.

NH And then you have an audience of art people who are just like ‘Yes! I agree!’ Well, nothing in this room is being challenged in any way. It’s not helping. But I think that by starting to hone in on specific issues you can at least get something more productive out of that exchange. Even if it’s just direct information that’s going across, so people say ’oh I didn’t know x and now i know x’. 


So you must have done a lot of research to put this project together.

NH Yeah we have so many stats and figures. And I don’t know how we make that into a show.

BM How do you make that palatable? How do you make that not overwhelming for people?

NH I have no idea. That’s the challenge for, I think, the next week and a half. Ha ha ha ha.

But that feels like something productive to be doing at least, it’s like here’s this stuff, and it’s not very palatable. But, supposedly, if we have these skills as theatre-makers, maybe we can make that work in some way.

BM Yep. Yeah I have a similar thing – there’s like a lot of um… I call it Facebook-friendly art. It’s recycled materials art; fodder for Facebook and BuzzFeed and sites like that.

But it’s just things made out of recycled things.

NH #makeyouthink

BM Yeah! I really don’t want to be making that.

I know that our work has a lot of the trappings of that stuff. But I hope that there’s some sort of way to move beyond it, ‘cause I don’t think that that stuff lands. I don’t think that it has real impact – and maybe it’s about the specificity. Maybe when you actually like (waves a handful of grey plastic bags) ‘these are your bags, we didn’t buy these bags. They come from the supermarket. You use these bags’. Maybe there’s something in that.

In Australia, since greenbags were introduced in the late 2000s, our plastic bag consumption has skyrocketed since then. It briefly went down when that campaign launched. And now it’s gone right back up past the levels it was at originally.

It hasn’t had the impact that it needed to have. But now that we’ve got this little thing that I think makes us feel a bit better, we think that maybe we’re doing something. But as a society, we’re not.

Do you look at your art as activism at all?

BM Yeah, absolutely, I think that any art that engages with the social concerns of today or the political concerns of the now is political, and I don’t think people should be afraid of saying they make political art, because it can be a dirty word and it can be very unsexy. But I think that if you’re an artist and you’re not engaged with what’s happening around you now, like, fuck you man! (laughs).

Yeah! Aren’t you worried about shit?

BM Of course there’s a different place for lots of kinds of art. But I just don’t want to be making art that isn’t engaged with my world. Um, I think that as an artist, you give yourself this privilege which is a public voice.

And if you don’t use that to talk about something you care about, or that means something to you, it’s a little bit of a waste.

You’re wasting a platform?

BM and NH Yeah.

BM You’re wasting a platform.

NH Kind of on that we were talking before to Pippa Bailey from Performing Lines, and we were like, ‘We have all this info and we don’t really want it to be this didactic theatre show, and Pippa was like ‘well… Why not?’ I think people are too afraid of making didactic stuff that’s like “Here’s information: deal with that.”

BM I think the trouble is giving people access points. You’re right: there’s nothing wrong with presenting information and presenting an argument in an argumentative way, but how will you capture people’s hearts and not just their minds? That’s the challenge of theatre. How do you let people enter your story, and access it, rather than having them just be like “ooh i just got told a lot of scary information, oh dear I’m gonna go away and forget about that”.

I think that’s the question.