New Economy Journal

What is the Point of Art in the Apocalypse / Pandemic / Recession?

Volume 2, Issue 2

May 6, 2020

By - Catherine van Wilgenburg

Piece length: 2,134 words

Cover image by Michael Donnelly
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Catherine van Wilgenburg writes about her March 2020 FLOAT Artist in Residency on a houseboat in Lake Tyers, East Gippsland; in collaboration with photographer Nilmini de Silva.‘Swimming Upstream’ is a series of podcasts and photo-portraits about how East Gippsland creative entrepreneurs have been impacted by bushfires, COVID19 and the threat of economic recession.

It’s January and I’m raking the leaves while watching the smoke roll towards us in East Gippsland. The pall of grey is eery and full of grief for just a tiny patch of blue sky. In the silence everything has changed in the twinkling of an eye; it can never be business as usual again.

We have been told by the CFA the tree lined gully behind our place will just go up if a north wind races through.

In the light from the flames of the fires my FLOAT Artist in Residency at Lake Tyers East Gippsland proposal now seems pointless. Only three weeks ago my intention to make podcasts about creative entrepreneurs in East Gippsland had some traction in bringing focus to individuals and small groups working to live sustainably within a new regenerative economy. Now in this permanent smoky atmosphere the priority has become survival; water supply to hose the gutters, to keep the power line to maintain the fridge to store the food to maintain the house that Jack built!

What is the point of making, buying or looking at Art, writing or performing when your house is burning? When the whole world is on fire the business as usual artforms become the indulgences of the Unthreatened; those who can, just move to another house that Jack built and keep making and looking and hearing Art which will get performed and bought and collected to maintain the memories of that old burnt down house. And now COVID 19 is among us, what does it mean for those artists whose reason for practice is rigorous questioning of the foundations of culture, acculturation, aesthetics and values? What will it mean in the forthcoming economic recession?


The wind changes and from looking at the leaves on the trees and holding up our fingers we feel it's coming from the south but we check our screens to get confirmation. We breathe a sigh of relief; knowing we cannot sink back into denial and complacency that the fire won't come again! Raking the leaves is going well now, as I can simultaneously prune the lower limbs of the Grevilleas, Eucalypts and Banksias which could easily ignite the canopy. With architectural precision we pack more piles in the trailer and drop off four loads at the local Transfer Station.


With such a well packed trailer we easily arrive with our load intact to the Transfer Station (local tip!), struck by the wonder and placement of the mountains of mulch shredded from the Green Waste. George the Transfer Station Manager marshals at the front gate, telling us that even though the Apocalypse had been forecasted as far back in September, no action had been taken to plan for the onslaught he was facing at the Transfer Station, packed with cars like Flinders St Station. 


George said that if the tip goes up this would set the nearby forest alight and imagine the outrage in the Shire!  This was the Theatre of the Apocalypse at the Transfer Station, an electric performance with smoke and the ten metre high mountain of mulched trees and leaves from blocks and gardens and forest yards. Rakes and shovels and gloved hands gesticulated the emergency as we lined up and deposited our trees and fallen branches and leaves soon to be shredded for a freshly mulched Shire! During the Coronavirus iso we see not only gloved hands but masked faces, even though the distance between trailers is more than the required one and a half metres!


On my phone I saw the FLOAT Facebook post by Michael Donnelly below; a human head in burnt leaves, gender, age and race unspecific.

It speaks of what remains after the apocalypse; the human spirit carried on the burning winds in an image rearranged with recognisable essential, simply human features, open at the edges to let in a breath of almost fresh air allowing new opportunities to emerge.

Is this what’s happening during the COVID 19 isolation and the forthcoming recession? There is no end to the crises we face - only adaptation to constant changes, not to return to any previous normality but survive to thrive. We must rethink our values and that’s what artists do best; leaving the edges open.

Burnt leaves on a beach, by Michael Donnelly

Burnt Leaves at Lake Tyers Beach, East Gippsland, Victoria by Michael Donnelly


By April we can only meet virtually, rendering public venues, clubs, pubs, community centres, schools out of bounds!

According to the Office for the Arts within the Australian Government Department of Infrastructure Transport Regional Development and Communications…there is a $27 million targeted support package for areas of the arts industry identified as being most affected by COVID‑19, with dedicated financial support immediately available for Indigenous visual arts, regional arts and the live music and performance industries.

This is in view of the fact that the Cultural and creative activity sector contributed to $112 billion (6.4% of GDP) to Australia's economy in 2016-17.

When so many arts jobs in this economic model were in managing other artists and projects  at local and state government levels,  managing infrastructure organisations, overseeing grant allocations, developing funding partnerships, administering trusts and foundations what will the impact be in the forthcoming recessions?

According to Emma Rose Bienvenu in her Medium article ‘Predictions for a Post-Coronavirus World’: remote work, automation, and telemedicine could soon become the new normal, signaling an explosion in med-tech innovation. The nationwide student debt crisis will finally abate as higher education begins to move online. Goods and people will move less often and less freely across national and regional borders After an initial wave of isolationism, multilateral cooperation may flourish.

Reduced numbers of workplaces, more online learning and teaching, more online working and communication systems  but no mention of arts and culture as work! In order to transition to a new economic model of the cultural economy, artists need to pick up the threads from the old economic system of cultural production and weave innew strings in familiar patterns in individual creative practice arising from an inner necessity, the basis of the New Regenerative Economy.

We need more than ever to connect as individual creative entrepreneurs by sharing our design, manufacture and business strategies for survival in order to thrive.


With the old economic model in demise, this is an opportunity to work collaboratively in developing cultural programs and products framed within an economic model where creativity is not understood to be peripheral to the main business of the extractive economy but central to that new regenerative economy;  a system in which culture is the economic proposition; a culture based on the development of individual creativity across disciplines aligned to the protection and enhancement of our environment, and for our shared well being, for the sake of any possible desirable future for the planet.

At the time of publication the impact of COVID 19 has exacerbated the bushfire impact to the degree that the interviews and photo portraits will be reconfigured to demonstrate the resilience of this community in the light of the impact of the bushfires, COVID 19 and the future recession.


The Victorian Government has allocated $500m for workers impacted by COVID 19. For artists this is an opportunity to shape new examples of cultural practice in the new regenerative economy; an opportunity to form new cross disciplinary Creative Entrepreneurships, projects which may become solutions to hitherto existing problems in the environment, education, technology, health services, industry, agriculture, global migration, species extinction.

This places value on the ‘art‘ of cross, multi and trans-disciplinary creative critical thinking; adaptations to the new dominant online communication; to individual creativity linked  to collaborative practices, cultural democracy and renewed transparent governance at local state and federal levels.

It can regenerate the arts and cultural sector, redesigning and rebuilding connected individuals, communities and cultures.


FLOAT is a Small Town Transformation project based at Lake Tyers Beach, East Gippsland, Victoria. Small towns across Victoria were invited to imagine what transformation might mean for their town. After an intensive selection, six small towns of less than 2000 people were awarded $350,000 each, over two years, for projects that would realise their big ideas and FLOAT was successful. So What is FLOAT?

FLOAT is a STUDIO – for lake-loving artists-in-residence.

FLOATing on Lake Tyers.

FLOAT is an ARTWORK in itself.

FLOAT is for OBSERVING weather. NAVIGATING nature. Telling STORIES. Making ART.

FLOAT will produce a MAP - by which to navigate & camp @ Lake Tyers.

FLOAT will kick start an ART CAMP that can underpin a glamping social enterprise.

FLOAT FM is the radio station - that will broadcast our story to the world.

FLOAT hosted the NENA East Gippsland Hub Symposium in April 2020, where Nilmini de Silva and I first met, realising that we could collaborate in bringing attention to the creative entrepreneurs of East Gippsland through podcasts and photo portraits. The NENA East Gippsland Hub builds connections between local people in East Gippsland who are interested in building a new economy, and to connect with the wider NENA network around Australia and around the world.

Our joint residency began as the bushfires raged which necessitated pivoting the podcast focus to the impact the bushfires were having on these local entrepreneurs. And then came the Coronavirus, rendering the interviews and photos even more relevant to the widening theme of Community Resilience.


Interviews and photos of Cheryl Jacobi from Gippsland Pearls talks about the shutdown of her mushroom growing business and the opening of her Dog Park enterprise; Wayne Burnett of Red Bluff Brewers about the decline in tourism and his response by widening his range of beers; Gunai kurnai GLaWAC Cultural Business Manager Ray Thomas discusses plans to develop ten artist studios for Gunaikurnai artists, an online library and monthly Q&As as well as the Forestec Bush Cafe at Kalimna; Seasalt Bakery adapting to the take away demands during lockdown. Gary Plumley’s venison venture addresses the best way to control over abundant deer species within our National Parks, especially after bushfires have enabled deer to extend their forest territories. And Jack and Grace Whadcoat, long term members of the Lake Tyers FLOAT community,  share their interest in revivifying local council and shire decision-making and funding policies, feeding through to state and federal levels of governance.

These podcasts will be broadcast on radio stations and distributed on podcast platforms to spread the word about what it has taken for these East Gippsland entrepreneurs to transition to the new regenerative economy, long before these 2020 bushfires, Covid 19 or any talk of a recession!

An podcast and portrait exhibition will follow at the former Slipway Lakes Entrance (conditions permitting) food and gallery venue, recently funded by Creative Victoria.


The FLOAT community of East Gippsland is a resilient regenerating community of creative entrepreneurs, some having been born and raised in this country and others migrating from elsewhere in Victoria, throughout Australia and internationally.

Acknowledging Gunaikurnai Traditional Knowledge and cultural heritage while accepting  a truer colonial history than we have been taught, is foundational to cultural practice, as is the acknowledgement that the arts drive inclusion of gender ethnicity creed, age and place.

In designing a new economy, ecological arts, at the confluence of arts and ecology, in conjunction with Traditional Ecological Knowledge is core business. It will change mindsets from the old consumptive extractive economic models to a creative cultural economy in which sensory arts science technology arts and engineering (STEAM) multidisciplinary experiences of sound, sight, taste and smell will connect heads and hearts to the land in our own backyards. Creative critical thinking will solve our existential crises of climate catastrophe, global pandemics, global population displacement of seventy one million people and the extinction of ten thousand species every year.

Being related to the land we depend upon, as conscious as the butterfly in Africa flapping its wings in the smoke from Australian bushfires, emotionally intelligent enough to research possible and probable outcomes before actions, we have the capacity to rebuild responsive collaborative governance with responsible technologies for a cultural economy capable of integrity and solidarity with air land, water, flora and fauna. We can rebuild collaborations from the ground up, transforming local state and federal governments with grounded local global community leadership.

A version of this article was originally published on Medium on 19 January 2020.

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