Gerrit Rietveld Academie & Sandberg Instituut Research Fellowships Reader 2023
Fellows Published —

What was the starting point of your research project?

My work on onshore unconventional energy has moved to include littoral zone research—where land meets sea—given the necessity to attend to offshore imaginaries and the interaction of land and sea not just in actual weather systems but also in key innovations of capitalist legal and policy history. My earlier animation work on the Torrens title system—in which Australian property law based land on a model of shipped property coming out of the instruments of slavery—was part of that.

What approach did you take for the fellowship research project, and how does it relate to the role of research in your practice?

I always conduct interviews, both formal and informal, wherever I go. I return to places that seem familiar and try to disimagine how I think I know them to get to other research. That has contributed. But it has also been crucial to locate the archive of the campaign to save the Great Barrier Reef from oil drilling in the 1960s and 1970s. This successful campaign was unprecedented in world history and involved a broad-based attempt with international expertise. The role of artists, amateur conservationists, and an unprecedented trade union black ban were key to the success of a movement that managed to protect the entire reef system from oil drilling applications in perpetuity. It was also a significant disciplinary power struggle of biology, and the emerging field of ecology, against the funded Goliath of geology. Given the current scale of speculative investment in unconventional fossil fuels, it is important to think also about how much of what could happen doesn’t happen and how tenuous these finance imaginaries are. Such archives illuminate so much contingency and so much exemplary labor.

Your research is very wide and touches on many urgent topics, among which you are interested in how contemporary western art education continues the extractivist practices instituted during the so-called Enlightenment and how these practices clash with climate justice. How do you research such broad themes while simultaneously narrowing the scope to workable issues?

Partly, I do this out of a necessity to explain Southern contexts to Europeans and show the continuing material impact of their thought and industrial practices on faraway places, partly to keep thinking geopolitics comparatively, but also for an Australian audience on an island in which the violence of settler capitalism as history is consistently thinned and erased. Any state or corporate formation is part of the world history of capitalism, and the role of Enlightenment law in coding capital’s movement continues to play out today. You need to only look at legislation for biodiversity, protected species, water management, etc., to note how the human and the non-human or the cultural and the natural continue to be split up into separate terrains in ways that distort material thinking about what occurs and what is to be done.

Dialogues in the Field of the Extraction/Protection Matrix of “North Australia”

I tend to move through research as a way of moving through time and space and vice versa, in order to arrive at a problem that makes sense as a problem, importantly, not just for me but for a certain field of protagonists in a broader field of contingencies and urgencies—where a certain intimacy with a particular field or an event or a set of people is what starts to produce the work. Theorist Elizabeth A. Povinelli writing about her concept of geontologies problematizes essentialist ideals of place and location that haunt site-specific work vis-à-vis regional abandonments and dematerializations. She talks about how, right when you think you have a location you need to zoom out and think laterally through the scenes of a problem: “the global nature of climate change, capital, toxicity, and discursively immediately demands we look elsewhere than where we are standing. . . . As we stretch the local across these seeping transits we need not scale up to the Human or the global, but we cannot remain in the local. We can only remain hereish.”1 Actually I would argue that the abuse of essentialized notions of location is a key feature of neoliberal environmental and cultural governance paradigms that work almost always on the side of the capitalist state and against broad-based movements of solidarity and action. When it is used against First Nations it tends to deny the mobility and interconnectedness of peoples, languages, and culture and the broader spatiality of those responsibilities. When white people do it, it can easily play out as a non-(infra)structural “not in my backyard” politics of conservation and aesthetic “improvement.” So concepts of place have to be thought of more critically than this, through governmentalities across space, and not just materially and historically in relation to a single research object—or spectator—in any one particular landscape. You will often note in environmental campaigns how leaders or key agents in a movement also bring their own literacy of conflicts from other times and places—from a kind of commitment to comparativism vis-à-vis thought and action that sees difference as a making thing. At stake in terms of aesthetic politics are competing realisms of environmentalism—a European concept and outcome of European legal systems—in settler colonies. Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists show up or do work quite differently inside and against these realisms, inside and outside of art space, as part of movements which are often but not always being led by First Nations leadership groups.

The extractive zone to which the last decade of my artistic work has referred is the broader speculative development geography of North Australia, which has always been a failed development geography since colonial modernity. The main infrastructure project that my work has been dealing with is the rollout of “unconventional” fossil gas (falsely marketed as a “transition fuel” toward renewables). I gave particular focus to the industry in Queensland, where I grew up, and the Northern Territory, where I shot most of my first feature-length installation Infractions (2019).2 The more recent research I’ve done—supported by the Sandberg Instituut Research Fellowship and also UQ Art Museum and the Ninny Rise Foundation both in Queensland, Australia—is taking a broader lens to this geography of extractivism as it appears with the emergence of modernist conservation paradigms traversing the connected waters of the Great Barrier Reef and desert groundwater in the north and center of Australia. My work understands the unprecedented success of the 1960s and 1970s campaign to save the Great Barrier Reef from oil drilling as taking place within a broader rollout of increasing extractivist and conservationist projections of settler legal imagination across North Australia in the post-WW2 and neoliberal era—a moment which non-coincidentally aligned with the peak political influence of the national pan-Aboriginal land rights movement as well as the expansion of Australian imperialism into the Pacific. In Queensland, a state where only one half of a percent of the land base is protected from development, white property is not just a weapon of development, but also a weapon of pragmatic environmental conservation. Such ancestral inheritances can only be interrogated and engaged with.

I’m interested in littoral exchanges partly because it is in littoral zones that the desert and the reef essentially meet to make up a kind of carbon geography, which has a global print. It is also interesting to track the regional specifics of long-durée carbon dramas in such spaces. I try to show how if one actually attends to carbon metabolically, one will be dealing with non-human geontological processes that are totally disobedient to shallow and unit-like western or settler property imaginaries of land and water, ownership, and sovereignty. In my opening presentation of the fellowship, I talked about the fact that artistic engagements with environmental conflicts and extractive industry frontiers inevitably remediate and therefore need to critically attend to a more expanded field of juridical, scientific, and cultural industrial entanglements—for the sake of dealing more fully with contestations of power and knowledge, including at the level of the audience’s own conflict literacy. In my second talk I connected the desert to the reef in the specific geography of North Australia through an unpacking of the metabolic politics of limestone within and beyond an extractive frame.

Research tour to Ninny Rise, Mission Beach, North Queensland, heritage-listed building site of the 1960–1970s campaign to “Save the Reef.”

A memorial of geontopower, Mija Memorial (Hull River Settlement Monument), commemorating the impact of the 1918 cyclone on the displaced Indigenous community, later relocated to the prison of Palm Island.

I have not spent a lot of time in North Queensland where much of my new fieldwork during the fellowship took place, but I bring with me some understanding of Australian property and Queensland frontier histories and the specificity of Queensland environment laws and their designed, purposive separability of ‘the environment’ from Indigenous land recognitions and knowledge systems. In the settler colony, with few exceptions, there is so little environment law and policy that is really written for the environment. Environment policy is industry policy, written for industry to make decisions about how much of the environment can be destroyed or lived without or moved or abstracted away, to make way for various kinds of development. Only very recently are policy mechanisms like water triggers, climate triggers, or carbon caps being added to the so-called environmental policy landscape so that governments can appear to be doing something rather than nothing about industry’s increasing encroachment on planetary systems that are fundamental to survival. In this sense, imaginative juridical-aesthetic activism can and does sometimes make a huge scalar difference to planetary outcomes, given the scale of the violence that is ordinarily playing out everyday that all beings negotiate and experience in very uneven and unequal ways. The successful campaign for the protection of the Great Barrier Reef from oil drilling in the 1970s and into perpetuity, by promoting it as “one organism” of intrinsic value to world heritage—an idea first conceived by the settler artist John Bust at Ninny Rise—was quite a remarkable feat of (European legal) imaginative action against a status quo comprador development culture in that sense.

The artists of the Save the Reef campaign worked at a grassroots level, but also internationally with European wildlife organizations and by writing to the British royal family; they self-published their own wildlife journals; they turned up to the earliest conservation conferences in Queensland universities presenting their own papers; and they worked particularly well and closely with a new organization started at University of Queensland called The Littoral Society. What is interesting with that campaign was not just its broadly scaled targets, use of popular media and academic forums, but especially the way it eventually weaponized the national union movement against a state government; a black ban was put on all supply ships and transport units to the drill sites, which went against Australian law at that time. The same thing would not happen today because of the extent to which the unions have been absorbed by the corporate state with neoliberalization, which is one reason why the artistic and political labor of artists has only become increasingly more important in contributing to the contingent powers and actions of grassroots environmental activist campaigns.

Interview Sample: Margaret Moorhouse, Townsville Marina

Among the many conversations and connections I made in my fieldwork in North Queensland during the funded period, I was interested to interview Margaret Moorhouse, not only because she was of the generation of activists who directly inherited the legal and policy operating system of the Great Barrier Reef’s world heritage protections from 1970s onward. Moorhouse was heavily involved in the 1990s campaign to save Hinchinbrook Island from large-scale tourism infrastructure—threatened then despite the Island sitting inside of the supposedly achieved world-heritage-protected area zoning of the reef since 1975. She remains an unfunded activist mentoring others until today, and has experienced numerous periodizations of environmental governance in her lifetime. With that knowledge she also plays a role of reminding settler environment institutions of their own histories of reform and regulation. An indomitable storyteller, Moorhouse has been a longtime sailor, goat farmer, motorbike racing champion, and clinical psychologist. She gained her literacy in coastal ecologies and their poor management in her time spent moored living at Gladstone Harbour on her boat, surrounded by industrial waste and dredging disasters - a landscape that appears in my previous film Infractions (2019). It is as yet unclear to me what of this rich material with Margaret—shot during a first set of conversations we produced on her boat at Townsville Marina during this early research—will be part of a final film or artwork, but such conversations are important for research and pedagogical purposes, and as movement memory, such conversations activate other archives and relations.

In the first excerpt, titled “Protection,” I asked Moorhouse to talk about the aesthetic operations of the Environmental Protection Act, and how it continues to work for industry and on the side of an extinction-oriented paradigm, regardless of its possible initial governance intent.

1. “Protection,” Margaret Moorhouse interview excerpt, Townsville Marina

In the second excerpt “Aesthetics,” I asked her to be more explicit about her understanding of the use of aesthetic philosophy by settler governance spaces of environment policy and struggle in Queensland and Australia.

2. “Aesthetics,” Margaret Moorhouse interview excerpt, Townsville Marina

Looking back on my work on unconventional gas through this historic archive of disastrous developments that did not happen, one sees how conservation success stories become their own archival memory “structures” amidst much more complex plural threats to the reef’s—and the desert’s—survival. Capitalist imperatives are increasingly projected onto only recently “protected” areas, seen in the commercialization of relatively recent settler national parks. Decolonial climate justice paradigms, as old as resistance to colonization, will always challenge binary settler narratives of extraction and protection simultaneously. Artists are often there, preoccupied, seeing and feeling and thinking through the spaces of prefigured infrastructures; tarrying with the modern against the planetary; and thinking with the planetary against the colonial modern, still trying to figure out what is the alternate to such destructive plans. This kind of sensitivity to and problematization of European and settler legal realist ontologies and speculations is precisely critical art’s potentially active, antagonizing relationship to the bureaucratized settler colonial logics of “environmentalism.”

1Elizabeth A. Povinelli, ”Geontologies: The Concept and Its Territories,” e-flux Journal 81 (April 2017),

2See and Ben Gook, “Fracking for Truth in Northern Australia,” Goethe Institute,