Alex Kelly is an activist, make no mistake. When she speaks, you can tell that she’s used to having difficult conversations with people about issues that have profound impacts on society. She’s considered and incredibly well-spoken and has a way of breaking down her activist work without using jargon. Trust me, that’s a special skill.
She spoke to me from Alice Springs where she was pushing a friend’s two year old around a park. Originally from a sheep farm outside of Albury-Wodonga it was activism that drew her to the Territory. The Jabiluka mine, to be exact.
“That’s the first time I visited the Northern Territory,” she said. “In 1998. I moved to Coober Pedy in 2003 to support a campaign there for Indigenous women against a nuclear waste dump proposed near Woomera. They were successful and then I moved to Alice Springs after that.”
Alex has been working with arts company Big hART for a long time. In fact, she started working on a project in Coober Pedy which she continued in Alice. Called Ngapartji Ngapartji, which means I give you something, you give me something in Pitjantjatjara – a concept of reciprocity and exchange. Alex explained what its focus was.
“It was a bilingual, cross-cultural project,” she said. “Working in Pitjantjatjara and exploring the impacts of the Maralinga atomic tests on communities in the central desert.” The project also looked at using Language as tool for crime prevention. As well as shining a spotlight on the significance of maintaining and promoting Indigenous languages it also had a very specific end goal.
“We were working towards getting a National Indigenous Language Policy established,” Alex told me. “And that happened in 2009; an example of using an art project to promote and change policy.”
I’m curious now as to whether Alex mastered the Pitjantjatjara language while working on the project and she laughs, “I’m a very basic speaker.”
The project resulted in an online language course as well as a theatre show in both Pitjantjatjara language and English. People would learn some language in the online course before coming to the show. Alex said they ran ten seasons of the show including the Melbourne Festival, Perth Festival, Sydney Opera House and the Dreaming Festival in Woodford.
We chat about concepts around activism and how society often pictures the extremes: locking on to gas lines, abseiling down. Alex says there are lots of ways of facilitating and influencing change and we need all of them.
“I really support what people call diversity of tactics and I’ve been involved in all different types of activism,” she said. “But I have a particularly strong interest in art and culture and making change.”
Alex believes that the way our society functions and is run is based on the stories that we tell as well as the stories that we believe in. “So art and culture have a really powerful role to pay because they can introduce new ideas and new ways of thinking of things into the culture.”
“And the profile of arts projects – like when we did a big show in the Sydney Festival and then talked about Indigenous languages, provides a pretty powerful platform to talk about things.”
Alex has travelled the world making documentaries and working on a large range of political projects, with a focus on art and culture in her approach. At the moment she’s working on a project called This Changes Everything with Canadian author and social activist Naomi Klein and her journalist and documentary-maker husband Avi Lewis. She just spent seven months in New York as Klein’s book was being published.
The book was published immediately prior to the People’s Climate March, the largest climate march in history with nearly 400,000 people participating in the streets of New York City. The march was a response to the UN Climate Summit of world leaders which took place in the city two days later.
“A lot of my work is about finding ways to put the book and film at the service of movements,” she said. And the climate movement is just one of those. She lists anti-fracking, labour rights, access to public transport and Black Lives Matter amongst others.
“I really think about how we can share our platform and the convening power that Naomi has, to bring people together to have a conversation to reframe climate change,” she said.
“And we’re really looking at climate change not as a green issue, but as an economic issue, and unpacking why some people don’t want to take action, realizing that a lot of that is connected to their interest in maintaining the economic status quo.”
Alex argues that responding to the climate crisis is going to be an amazing thing for the world. She says we can fix things that are broken and make a more just world in the process.
Alex goes on to talk about a new genre in the arts world called Cli Fi – climate science fiction.
“There is no shortage of films that tell us about the doom and impending disasters coming, but we don’t have a lot of stories that looks at a future powered by renewables and local economies or sustainable agriculture. What we need and what artists are really capable of is a new vision for the future – not based on disaster and resource wars – but based on creativity and mutual collaboration.”
“Theatre, visual artists and other practices assist us to imagine a different future.”
But Alex says climate change is just one of many issues that artists can impact.
“We’re always told that this is the status quo, that it’s normal and inevitable,” she said. “But we can see from droughts, floods, fires, bank bailouts, economic collapses, that there is a lot of upheaval and change happening all the time. So we actually need different stories to think about how we respond to that and to be able to think that we can all play a part in creating a different future.”
So what does that future look like?
“I’m lucky enough to live in a really connected and strong community in Alice Springs on a property very close to my neighbours and we share a lot of resources,” Alex said. “In some ways I don’t think the future I imagine is that much different to now except that we won’t have as big a gap between the extremely wealthy and the rest of us.”
“And we will see the majority of people given access to education, health care, transport – because if we have a society where everybody has access to be healthy and to participate in that society, we’re going to see a much more innovative and creative world because everyone will have the opportunity to express their potential.”
I ask Alex about the key message she’ll be bringing to the Gold Coast when she speaks at 2970° The Boiling Point running 26 – 28 June and she says she’ll been putting a lot of thought into her presentation.
“A lot of it is about the critical role of artists in imagining the future,” she said. “And the need for new narratives to respond to crisis, to see it as an opportunity and a gift to create a more just world.”
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Alex Kelly is one of the internationally renowned future thinkers who will take centre stage on the Gold Coast as part of 2970° The Boiling Point from 26 – 28 June. More at moregoldcoast.com.au/2970.