Makaela Rowe-Fox. Photo: Kikei [dot] net.
Features, News, Performing arts, Visual arts

Mobilising artists for climate action

The School Strike for Climate movement, spear-headed by teenage activist Greta Thunberg, has mobilised school students around the world. This Friday – 2o September 2019 – the students are inviting adults to join the movement in a global strike to demand climate action.

Makaela Rowe-Fox (16) is one of the organisers of the School Strike for Climate movement in Perth, and a performer with Co3 Youth and Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company. The young activist/artist has joined forces with her father Sam Fox (a Perth-based director, writer, choreographer and producer, and long time activist) and a committee of WA artists and arts workers, to form Arts and Cultural Workers for Climate Action (WA). Ahead of Friday’s Global Strike for Climate, Nina Levy caught up with Makaela and Sam to find out more.

Nina Levy: Makaela, tell me about the School Strike for Climate movement, and your involvement in the cause…
Makaela Rowe-Fox: So, the School Strike for Climate Movement began last year when Greta Thunberg, a Swedish teenager, began to strike outside her local parliament every friday. From there, many people were inspired by Greta’s actions and the school strike movement began.

Over the last year, the School Strike movement has exploded. Currently, over one hundred countries have students striking for climate action in over one thousand locations. With students not having the ability to vote we often feel that we have no voice; we strike to tell the world that we are taking action on climate change. Striking is direct action and has been proven throughout history to be one of the most effective ways of making change.

There are key mass mobilisations organised within the School Strike movement, one being March 15 earlier this year. I was an organiser for March 15, which saw 1.5 million students and supporters strike for climate action. I joined the movement through a family friend of mine who thought I might be interested. We organise almost solely online and I joined the national organising database through my family friend.

NL: What do you feel the School Strike movement has achieved to date?
MRF: I believe the School Strike movement has achieved world wide recognition on the reality of the climate emergency. We have created the sense of urgency that is necessary to make change. Our actions have led hundreds of governing bodies to start declaring that we are in a climate emergency, that can be seen in the 990 jurisdictions found in 18 countries across the globe. In the coming weeks, the United Nations will be hosting a climate change summit, which is the direct result of the School Strike movement demanding action.

I think you can also see that we have begun to shift societal understandings of what is possible. My generation realises that we have to take serious action if we want a future on this planet and that is resonating with many older generations. I feel that we will have shifted the mentality from “what can we achievably do about climate change” to “we will do what it takes as we take action on climate change”.

NL: Now the young strikers are calling on adults to join the movement in the Global Climate Strike, Friday 20 September. Tell us more about this strike. 
MRF: On September 20 there will the Global Climate Strike. In Perth it will start at Forrest Place at 11am. From there we’ll march through the city but we’re hoping it’ll be the biggest strike action in the history of this city (and the world) so it’s hard to say what it’ll be like. It’s not just a protest. It needs to be a big stop-work, a moment where the people of Perth take a big step in activating change. We’re working towards a general strike. In history general strikes brought about the 38 hour working week and led to revolutions. This strike won’t be the end point but it’ll be a huge step.

NL: And why is the Global Climate Strike so important?
MRF: Because we can’t address climate change while we’re stuck in a system that is built around destroying the planet. The Global Climate Strike is a way to halt this system and change direction. And if we don’t act immediately, we will face a chain of mass extinction events. It’s about survival and it’s about our responsibility to each other and the land.

Sam Fox addressing the audience at the Arts and Cultural Workers for Climate Action (WA) sector meeting in August 2019. Photo: Steven Alyian.

NL: Sam, you’ve been an activist for many years. Tell me about this latest chapter, the evolution of Arts and Cultural Workers for Climate Action (WA)… 
Sam Fox: Yeah, for a long time I’ve tried to find the balance between making art that is politically engaged and directly participating in activist campaigns. And I think this dilemma of doing our jobs versus taking actions as citizens is something we’re all trying to figure out now. My activism has gone up and down over the years but when Makaela got involved in organising the School Strikes I was blown away by how sophisticated and articulate their campaign platform was and, as a parent, I had to try to match my daughter’s commitment.

Arts and Cultural Workers for Climate Action came about through a small group of us getting together who wanted to answer the call of the Student Strikers for September 20. I think it’s been clear to many people for a long time that governments won’t take action on climate change but we haven’t had a vehicle that’s struck across society and the world until now. The young people can feel that we’re out of time and they’re showing us how to take action.

Our small group — starting with Aimee Smith, Deb Robertson, Petros Vouris, Janet Carter, Sue-Lyn Aldrian-Moyle and Noemie Huttner-Koros — recognised that the call for a Global Climate Strike could be the vehicle that changes our course and shifts power back to everyday working people. For us, that’s artists and cultural workers. So we decided to build an open platform for arts and cultural workers to call their own climate emergency and to get on board with the Global Climate Strike. We got some great help from Paper Mountain and PICA and organised a large sector meeting that was attended by 80 people and we built a platform from there. Janet Carter has initiated a whole lot of strike preparation workshops and we’ve all done a lot of communicating and promotion. As well as social media campaigns, we’ve got a list of public signatories that is growing every day.

Our list of artists is in the hundreds and features people of all creative disciplines. Our organisations now include: Spare Parts Puppet Theatre, Artsource, Art on the Move, Community Arts Network WA, pvi collective, Cool Change Contemporary, Circus WA, Mundaring Arts Centre, Midland Junction Arts, Propel Youth Arts, the Blue Room, West Australian Music (WAM), the Last Great Hunt, RTR FM and this great space, Seesaw Magazine.

RTR has been a particularly incredible advocate. They have organised community service announcements featuring student strikers and are going to get the students to co-host breakfast in the week of the strike. They’ll also be closing down for part of the day and broadcasting from the strike. We’ve got bands, collectives, indie groups, festivals.

Our sector is drawing a line in the sand for ourselves and as part of the broader movement. We’re mobilising from the grass roots up. We’ve never had such an overwhelming impetus for change and we don’t know what’s possible.

NL: What role can artists and companies play in the fight for action on climate change? 
SF: The great thing about our sector is we really have broad consensus among us that we need to call a climate emergency and that culture is tied to both people and the land. The broad values of our sector align with the climate strike movement and a transfer of power back to everyday working people. We have a big opportunity to lead by example as a sector and take action. However, I think the challenge for our sector is recognising that we can’t just do our jobs and expect change to happen. Essentially, we have to play our role just like any other sectors of society because we’re all in this situation together. The young people are saying that there’s no point to education on a dead planet. The same can be said for art as well as health care or science or any other vital industry. Just doing our jobs is not taking responsibility for change because our jobs don’t challenge the current system of flagrant ecological destruction for profit. It seems pretty clear after 50 years that transnational capitalism can absorb all the science and art we can throw at it.

If we can show out at the Global Climate Strike we’ll make a major impact. We’re already being used by the Student Strikers as an example of how industries can self organise and take political power back from those to whom we’ve delegated it. And we’re getting inquiries from national organisations and festivals on the east coast about what we’re doing.

The Arts and Cultural Workers for Climate Action (WA). Phot0: Steven Alyian.
The Arts and Cultural Workers for Climate Action (WA)’s sector meeting last month. Photo: Steven Alyian.

And how can audiences support artists and companies who take action?
That’s an interesting question. There are audience groups independent of our movement that are calling on arts organisations to disassociate from fossil fuel sponsors. This is something we have to negotiate and take seriously. I don’t think arts should have to lead the way when the rest of society is still addicted to petroleum, gas and air travel, but that’s what’s so important about the Global Climate Strike. It is calling for a just transition for workers and communities that are currently tied to unsustainable industries. That’s a good chunk of the arts as well as your miners. Just as it would be totally unfair and unethical to ask a miner just to quit their job with no other means of support, I think it is it unfair to expect a small-to-medium sized performance company to just turn off sponsorship that provides for people’s lives. We need to be part of a whole of society solution and the Global Climate Strike can be a key vehicle. The break from fossil fuel needs to be a negotiation that we all get involved in.

But, personally, I think there’s something about not being so clearly audience and presenter anymore. Maybe the challenge for all of us is to stop playing audience to our political power. I’m doing some research at the moment about the origins of theatre in Greece and the parallel rise of democracy. My very broad and nascent historical thesis is that, prior to professionalised theatre, theatre and dance were rituals that everyone could partake in it. Similarly, prior to elected representatives, power was localised; communal, village orientated, tribal etc. My working concept is that this professionalisation process of politics and culture was actually a terrible thing for society, not the foundation of civilisation that we think it is. In the contemporary world, a lot of people are beginning to question if elected representation like we have today, i.e. one person for every 150,000 in Australia, is anything but a conceit of democracy. Perhaps we’ve never tasted democratic power and the closest thing to a democratic assembly has been participatory theatre, dance and art. And grassroots political movements like strikes. Please note, these thoughts do not represent our group, just me musing in response to your question. We are a broad alliance and so I can’t speak for others beyond our commitment to our declaration of a climate emergency and committing to the Global Climate Strike.

NL: What are the different ways to be involved in the Global Climate Strike on Friday 20 September?
SF: First and foremost is we all need to stop work, turn up and enlist as many people as possible. If you’re an arts or cultural worker, you can use our platform to spread the word by sending on our open letters to peers and organisations, using our social media material (including a pretty fun and fruity profile frame) and being part of our contingent. We’re meeting outside PICA before the strike from 10:15am and we’ll walk over en masse.

Groups are putting out public statements declaring their own climate emergency and they’re asking their respective unions, councils and associations to go on strike. I know people are going to be using auto-responders so that their emails bounce back with a message about the strike. In Sydney there’s a Sound Strike movement for musicians — I’m not sure exactly what that’s going to look/sound like.

A number of arts organisations and groups are hosting placard and banner making workshops and this is a great way to broaden our alliances.

There’s no limit to what can be done. The main thing I suppose is to participate as collectively as possible. We have no power as individuals but this will be the biggest global movement in human history…

NL: What’s next, after the Global Climate Strike?
SF: After the strike, the next big challenge will inevitably be to figure out a way to deal with our reliance on fossil fuel sponsorship as a sector. But as I said before, we can’t do this alone. The call of the Global Climate Strike for a just transition to renewable jobs for workers and communities involved in non-renewable industries is so important. Once we’re done with the strike, I expect that our group will try to find a way to facilitate grass roots discussion about this. Hopefully, we’ll be beginning to transition alongside other industries.

For more information about Arts and Cultural Workers for Climate Action (WA), head to https://www.facebook.com/ArtsandCulturalWorkersWA/

Sign the Arts and Cultural Workers for Climate Action WA’s climate emergency declaration at http://bit.ly/sign-on-artstrikewa

Pictured top is Makaela Rowe-Fox at the School Strike for Climate (Boorloo/Perth): 15 March 2019. Photo: KIKEI [DOT] NET PHOTOGRAPHY.

Sam Fox
Sam Fox is a director, writer, choreographer and producer working across contemporary performance, literary fiction and community based collaborations.

Sam is currently working as: a creative Ph.D. candidate at the University of Western Australia where he is writing a novel that explores unorthodox unions and acts of auto-ideology; artistic director of DADAA’s “Experience Collider” project bringing young people with high support needs together with their peers in a performance project premiering at the State Theatre Centre in October 2019; and as an independent producer with robotic sculpture artists ololo, and with choreographer Rachel Arianne Ogle.

As director of interdisciplinary company Hydra Poesis, his performance and media works have been presented in a wide range of national and international contexts. Sam is an alumnus of the Sidney Myer Creative Fellowship program, a former artistic director of STEPS Youth Dance Company, a former associate producer of ARTRAGE, and has served as a panellist with the Department of Culture and the Arts, the Australia Council for the Arts, Committee for Perth, and as a board member of Contact Inc (Qld) and Hold Your Horses (WA).

Makaela Rowe-Fox
Makaela is sixteen years old and is one of the organisers for the school strike for climate movement in Perth. She decided to join the movement because she believes we need to take action on the climate crisis and can’t leave it to governments and corporations. As an organiser she has been involved in national calls, outreach to groups, unions and schools, managing social media, and has spoken/chanted/occupied at the major March 15 and May 3 strikes earlier this year. Makaela is also a performer with Co3 dance and Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company.

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