Since 2001, Australian government fear-mongering about refugees has characterised every national election. Race-baiting phrases like ‘illegal migrants’, ‘boat people’ and ‘migration queue jumpers’ have taken hold in the national imagination.
Australia celebrated 100 years of nationhood in 2001. The festivities iconised the image of the 18th century tall ships which brought the first European invaders to Australia.
Through a series of linked workshops at festivals and conferences, a group of artists and media activists joined me to think about history, nation and borders. We became a collaborative group, working to intervene in and delegitimise the malevolent rhetorics of border panic, race hate, and historical amnesia.
Our first art action was an unauthorised projection onto the sails of the Sydney Opera House. We reused the BOAT PEOPLE phrase with the image of a tall ship to remind the non-indigenous population who we are and how we got here. Using a domestic 35mm slide projector and a small generator (concealed in handbags) we projected a 15 meter image onto the sails of the iconic building.
For ten years we ran a multi-function website from which thousands of people across the country downloaded our ‘activist toolkit’.
We made performance works, projection events, a public mourning, helium balloons, boat trips, tshirts, exhibitions, badges, subversive origami, an experimental history project with its own beer, giant drawings and gallery installations in Melbourne, Leipzig, Weimar, Sydney and Durham, North Carolina.
Boat-people members: Zehra Ahmed, Safdar Ahmed, Stephanie Carrick, Dave Gravina, Katie Hepworth, Jiann Hughes, Deborah Kelly, Enda Murray, Pip Shea, Sumugan Sivanesan and Jamil Yamani.
'The artist and the refugee: tooling up for action,' RealTime Arts, Jun-Jul 2002