It was a rare treat to be at the formation of a new work by artist and activist Deborah Kelly, with her three‑day workshop CREATION: Sustenance presented at Vitalstatistix’s annual experimental hothouse Adhocracy. Spread over three days, Kelly invited participants into a shared food pilot workshop, where the processes of making, sharing and eating would contribute to the creation of an emergent belief structure. The workshop was an early step towards a speculative and ambitious new project for Adhocracy, proposing “lateral, experimental ways to creatively engage with climate denialism.”
For Kelly, climate denialism has itself achieved a kind of cult status. She says, “I am responding to the rise of public lying, by which I mean the repudiation of scientific expertise, by governments all around the world that want to persist in climate endangering activities and in supporting a capitalism which is eating us alive.” She acknowledges that facts and evidence are not working against a systemic scepticism and that “Perhaps some more hysteria is required in order to make our resistance more alluring, to get more traction and also to be more fun.”
Kelly is well known for her unique and intricate collage works, that explore identity, sexuality, queer politics, religion, the sacred and the profane. She has a distinct visual language, that takes the imagery of the everyday, transforming small fragments into exquisite and sometimes monstrous parodies and representations. In this new work it is as if she takes the imagery from the page, using tropes of religion and ritual to mobilise believers in support of a common cause to create change. Kelly has often used religious symbolism in her work to comment on patriarchy, morality, suppression and systems of control. She returns to Christian origin stories as a strategic template for cultural activism to circumvent the deliberate obfuscation of scientific facts.
For food guidance and preparation, Kelly invited Ruth De Souza (Academic Convenor of The Data, Systems and Society Research Network at the University of Melbourne) to act as cuisine collaborator. They had previously worked together, when De Souza was a subject in Kelly’s No Human Being is Illegal for the 2014 Biennale of Sydney.
The food inspirations are from De Souza’s own experience, “I’ve been a double migrant in my own lifetime, I am diasporic and have strong connections to Goa where I’m from. Food is anchoring and grounding, particularly in a context where you are not made to feel welcome, it’s a way of recreating home and teaching about your own world.” Indeed, as the workshop participants arrive they are greeted by the seductive fragrance of aromatic spices and flavours of India. Participants had been asked to bring along something they had grown and these small offerings of herbs, flowers and plants are added to a large colourful buffet prepared by De Souza.
Some awkwardness arose when several participants realised they were not attending a Deborah Kelly collage‑making workshop, and instead of learning something new, were being asked to give something of themselves. Kelly was interested to know what ritual and religion meant to the participants, what are the anxieties around climate change and what could be done in response to climate denial. It was unstructured, but with purpose as Kelly took notes, made illustrations and gently guided the conversations in the room. Participant Erica McCalman provided anchoring depth with her lively readings from Bruce Pascoe and other thinkers around culture and survival.
About an hour in to the workshop, it was time for food. Everyone was invited to take a plate and sample from the many colourful delicacies. For De Souza, the food offerings were all about having fun, “I have made Indian street‑foods papri chaat and bhel puri. My strongest memories are of family in Mumbai, warm nights, beautiful smells in the air, full of atmosphere and aliveness and colour, this food is delicious and playful.”
Eating this street food was a workshop in itself, with De Souza providing instructions on how to make a hole in the fragile hollow balls of puffed rice and fill them with tasty tidbits. There was a sense of playful ritual, with the elements of the feast presented as an offering and summons to the spirits. It was exactly as Kelly and De Souza intended: fun, informal and a gentle way to encourage participants to open up about their own experiences of religion, climate anxieties and strategies for disruption.
If Kelly was after converts, she definitely succeeded. The participants in the workshop were charged and ready to take up arms for the new belief system. Kelly will continue to work with several lead artists to run further workshops. She says, “There will be music, food, dance rituals and iconography to build a fuck‑off church, a congregation of insurrection.” Where will this church exist? Kelly imagines it manifesting as an installation and performance, “I see it appearing in the artworld eventually, with institutions who will help it to be born but then it will spread, I very much want it to be contagious.”
Adhocracy, celebrating its tenth anniversary in 2019, was the perfect vehicle to kick-start this new religion. As an event that is based on principles of generosity, co-operation and ideas generation, giving Australian and international artists the opportunity to develop new works, Deborah Kelly and Ruth De Souza were there to seed the foundations of a movement, as a form of communion, in which food and nourishment are the drivers for climate action.
Deborah Kelly’s CREATION: Sustenance Workshop sessions were held 6–9 September, as part of Adhocracy 2019 presented by Vitalstatistix. All photos courtesy the artist and Vitalstatistix.
Julianne Pierce is an independent producer, writer and artist based in Adelaide.