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Performer strapped to balloons
Photograph: Daniel BoudCherophobia at Antidote

10 big ideas from Sydney Opera House's Antidote festival

Written by
Time Out editors

Sydney’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas ran for nine years, bringing controversial topics and speakers to the Opera House that incited anger, joy, frustration and inspiration. It was an emotional ride that sometimes derailed at the very concept that certain topics would be considered ‘dangerous’. Last year we rated the ideas for their danger levels and we’re thankful that shock-factor didn’t need to be a selling point for the new festival in its place: Antidote: A Festival of Ideas, Art and Action. Curator Danielle Harvey, who introduced BingeFest at the end of 2016, delivered a more positive – though still rattling – line-up of speakers for Antidote. So what were the solutions? Was it a hopeful festival? Our editors relate their main takeaways from the weekend of performance, discussion and artistic activism.

The Onion Live: Real Fake News
The Onion Live: Real Fake News
Photograph: Prudence Upton

1. Fake news is older than Trump
Super serious about satire, The Onion team were surprisingly reserved at their Saturday night Concert Hall session – but also satisfyingly cynical. In a part performance, part interview, we learned that what makes satire so impactful is time, hard work and an egoless team. The Onion Live: Real Fake News was a combination of show-and-tell and slightly drier analysis of what makes good quality satire so difficult to achieve. Managing editor Marnie Shure revealed just how many upset emails she received after a not-so-hard-hitting article about the Olsen Twins (2,000) compared to a dark, risky story about 9/11 (only one). Video director Katy Yeiser and senior writer Dan McGraw explained just how many writers it takes (sometimes 12), and how many weeks it takes (sometimes years), before a killer headline makes the cut. And all three showed us that there’s no room for ego when it comes to upholding the reputation the publication has for good quality satire over the last three decades. The Chaser’s Craig Reucassel shared as many insights into Australia’s comedy writing scene as The Onion team did, but the main takeaway was that we’ve been chewing over fake news for yonks and we really enjoy it – the more twisted the headline, the more likely we are to cringe-laugh and reveal far worrying aspects of our sociopolitical beliefs than when we glide over the genuine news stories of the day. Plus, Donald Trump is bad for satire. There’s no reveal when the magician shows you all his tricks.

The Money performance at Antidote
Players deciding how to spend the cash at The Money
Photograph: Prudence Upton

2. Unanimous decisions are possible – and can make a big impact
In their participatory theatre piece The Money, British collective Kaleider puts a pot of cash in the hands of the audience, and gives them an hour to decide what to do with it. The catch? They must come to a unanimous decision. Even trickier: While some of the audience are active participants, others are ‘silent witnesses’ – and at any point in the 60 minutes, any one of those Silent Witnesses can buy in (by putting $20 in the pot) and potentially subvert the proceedings. There are so many rules and system bugs within this set up that we can’t cover them off in a short review; suffice to say, the ideas being explored are collective action, social dynamics, game theory, and – potentially – the psychology of altruism. We participated as Silent Witnesses and the discussion we witnessed quickly turned to charitable causes (although the rules proscribe giving the money ‘to charity’). Arguments arose as to which cause was more important – positive psychology kits for kids, planting trees, cancer research, or supplies for the homeless. Certain criteria emerged that, while not surprising, were interesting – particularly the importance of feeling that the money donated was making a measurable impact, rather than being a drop in the ocean of need. Good ‘theatre moments’ included a young woman stepping up within five minutes of the timer running; she told an emotional story about the session she witnessed yesterday – and why she felt compelled to come back today; and an older man bought in midway through discussions and threatened to veto any decision to fund projects connected to individuals at the table. Our session of The Money – unlike others on the weekend – did in fact manage to successfully allocate the money ($580 at final count) within the time frame; but that victory was, for this audience member, somewhat outgunned by the rumour that the final session of the day before had managed to deliver a pot of more than $3,000 to the Marriage Equality campaign – not just because of the amount of money, but because it seems like a cause that is both more urgent and more contentious.

Micah White at Antidote
Micah White calls for a strategic revolution
Photograph: Prudence Upton

3. You’ve got to work with the system before you can smash it
Activist Micah White has been fighting the system since he was 13. The Occupy Wall Street protester gave an introductory speech about the history of revolution – running through theoretical and statistical correlations to divine intervention, Russian cosmology and food prices. “I’m going to make you feel uncomfortable”, was how he started, and for secular audience members (and possibly statisticians) he most certainly did. However, White’s main point was that through the failure of Occupy – which failed in its objective to give power to the 99 per cent – he’s come to the conclusion that the current model for protests isn’t working. Instead, we (the anarchistic) should strategically protest to win elections. By that he means using the model of street protesting to collect signatures, to back (ideally) leaderless movements and take seat in office. Why? Because we’ve naively believed that western democracy is underpinned by the will of the people. Micah argued that democracy as we understand it is broken. Our only options now are to claim sovereignty and destroy the system from the inside. One audience member shouted, “Fuck sovereignty”. But in White’s mind it’s either start a revolution or go to war. Call him when you’re ready to revolt.

Cherophobia at Antidote
Noëmi Lakmaier in Cherophobia at Antidote
Photograph: Daniel Boud

4. It's the space between weight and weightlessness that makes us human
Cherophobia means aversion to happiness, or fear of happiness. That was the name of the artwork featuring 20,000-odd party balloons that you’ve probably seen posted on Instagram over the weekend. It was an impressive spectacle that drew many children to the Concert Hall, but its durational and physically challenging aspect may have been lost in translation. British-Viennese artist Noëmi Lakmaier was strapped down over a nine-hour period, without water or bathroom breaks, and the discomfort she experiences is part of the performance – it’s supposed to display those contradictions of freedom and restriction, of play and constraint. And, depending on when you visited Cherophobia, even the tension between weightlessness and the weights holding her in place. We visited at the moment of ‘launch’, which was carefully managed for Lakmaier’s safety and balance. There was a ripple of applause from the visitors who’d taken a seat and a moment to contemplate the work, but most took snaps and made a swift exit. Did it matter? Not necessarily. Lakmaier’s Cherophobia may not have captured attention for long, but for the patient few the complex feelings of frustration, boredom, delight and wonder seemed fitting for the moment.

Julie McCrossin and Benjamin Law
Benjamin Law and Julie McCrossin
Photograph: Prudence Upton

5. Memories of the First Parade give hope for marriage equality
Julie McCrossin is a ’78-er – one of 500 protesters in the first Mardi Gras (though it wasn’t named Mardi Gras at the time, and as Julie jokes in her talk, she wasn’t in the parade part). Broadcaster McCrossin was an active protester in the ’70s, calling for an end to the criminalisation of homosexual acts – and she’s seen her share of prison cells. “There’s nothing like being bashed and thrown in a cell to build camaraderie,” joked McCrossin, who told of being the conservative, religious, private school girl haunted by the notion that homosexuality was supposedly “against god’s will”. In her keynote, she delighted the audience with anecdotes about the films and books she consumed as a young woman gradually understanding her feelings for the same sex. The Loudest Whisper – “ends in suicide”, she says. The Well of Loneliness – “The title alone!” McCrossin said she wanted to “save other kids from feeling that way”, which is why – at a time when gay sex was illegal in Australia – she says she risked so much by joining the fight for equality. Now, she’s ‘New York married’ to her wife Melissa and still an active member of the South Sydney Uniting Church. Though she calls herself a dag and “the friendly face of suburban lesbians”, it was clear from the audience reactions that McCrossin is a bloody hero – her recollection of what has changed, but also what hasn’t, was a timely reminder that hope is a powerful ally.

Eve Ensler on stage at Antidote
Van Badham and Eve Ensler at Antidote
Photograph: Prudence Upton

6. We need to talk more about our vaginas
Confession: This writer has never seen a production of The Vagina Monologues. But I sure want to, after hearing about its impact from writer (and original performer) Eve Ensler. The most fascinating parts of her informal keynote were anecdotes demonstrating the real change that this show – and by extension, theatre generally – has had in the world over the 20 years since it premiered in a tiny room in New York. Among these: a performance in the Philippines in which a front row of nuns laughed “so hard they were literally falling off their chairs”, and within weeks of that a law preventing violence against women was finally passed – after 30 years of congressional deadlock; and a performance in Bosnia in which a divided crowd of Bosnians and Croats broke out wailing, and hugged each other, when Ensler performed the monologue ‘My Vagina Was My Village’. Ensler’s talk was also uplifting as an intersectional manifesto of female power and solidarity at a time in which feminism is beset by a steroidal patriarchy, and racism and poverty are flourishing. “Why do we still need to talk about our vaginas?” she asks. Ensler believes that our vaginas are the centre of our “life force” and power. She also argues that we need to keep talking about our vaginas “because our sexuality has been repressed, depressed, oppressed, censored, mutated and made simple; because the threat of rape and violence, and ongoing attempts to shame us, have robbed us of our vision, our voice, our dreams, our instincts and our sisterhood… They have tried to stop us even naming our private parts, but here’s what I’ve learned: if something isn’t named, it doesn’t exist. Now more than ever it’s time to say tell the crucial stories and say the words.”

Reni Eddo-Lodge and Benjamin Law
Reni Eddo-Lodge and Benjamin Law in Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race
Photograph: Prudence Upton

7. White moderates need to shoulder the responsibility of racism
The British journalist recognised the irony of her situation: Here she was on stage at Sydney Opera House, in front of a largely (but not exclusively) white audience for a session titled ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race’. “It’s amazing how people flock to you once you say that,” she tells interviewer Benjamin Law. Eddo-Lodge said it was sheer exhaustion that led her to write her blog post, which went viral and led to her book under the same title. She was sick of tip-toeing around white people’s feelings, tired of being called names for bringing up racism only to hear the issues tabled at meetings, or simply ignored. Law read out a passage from Eddo-Lodge’s book, including a quote from Martin Luther King Jr who said he was gravely disappointed with the white moderate ‘who is more devoted to “order” than justice’. Sound familiar? That’s the point – we haven’t come very far. Though the conversation touched on feminism, historical figures who’ve been written out of the white British history books and casual ‘Where are you really from?’ racism, the main takeaway was that white moderates need to shoulder more responsibility for social change. If we’re serious about ending racism, white moderates need to keep their white moderate mates in check. “If you don’t have to think about race, that’s white privilege,” she says.

Inua Ellams at Antidote
Inua Ellams at Antidote
Photograph: Prudence Upton

8. Inua Ellams puts a face on the immigration debate
British Nigerian poet, playwright and performer Inua Ellams announces his intention to put a face on the immigration debate at the top of the show. Over the following 80 minutes of storytelling and mellifluous spoken word he does just that by sharing a story that starts at birth, traverses two continents, three countries and many broken ties, and ends with him pronouncing that although he’s been programmed by the National Theatre and had afternoon tea with the Queen of England, he still hasn’t got permanent resident status in the country where he has lived, on and off, for the better part of 20 years. But An Evening with An Immigrant is also a testimony of the power of art; his breath catching in his throat as he recalls the darkest time in his life, Ellams goes on to tell us that poetry saved his life, describing it as “the cheapest way to be free”.

9. Clare Holland calls for hope in the face of Sydney’s lockout laws
In her keynote 'What We Do After Dark', FBi Radio’s general manager Clare Holland pulled off a hat trick: an effective ‘lockouts 101’ that simplifies the timeline, context and effect of the Liquor Amendment Act of 2014; a broader outline of how that legislation fits into Sydney’s regulatory framework; and a call to action for Sydney’s nightlife. It’s the first cool-headed, clear and comprehensive overview of the issues that we’ve heard yet. For Holland, music and nightlife are both natural passions (she talks movingly about connecting to both as a teenager, and about their capacity to foster community) and her bread-and-butter as the head of Sydney’s largest independent youth broadcaster. The beauty of culture, she says, is tied to its messiness and willingness to take risks – the very things that regulatory bodies seek to mitigate. She describes the goal as a city in which cultural production and regulation are balanced in a way that allows space for cultural and social experience. Holland closes by charging the audience with three tasks: firstly, to listen and make space for discovery by engaging with people and cultural output outside our bubble; secondly, to inform ourselves about – and advocate for – regulatory reform; thirdly, to go out and be a cultural participant. She says, “This [last] is the single most effective action that we can all take.” 

Yassmin Abdel-Magied and Amani Al-Khatahtbeh
Yassmin Abdel-Magied and Amani Al-Khatahtbeh in Muslim Girl
Photograph: Prudence Upton

10. We need to make room for representation of Muslim women
It was a disappointing sight to see a half empty room for one of the most influential women in America at the moment. However, those who came to hear from the founder of Muslim Girl were vocal in their support of what was possibly the first interview at Sydney Opera House between two Muslim women. Yassmin Abdel-Magied and Amani Al-Khatahtbeh were sassy, vulnerable, honest, proud and entertaining. It wasn’t the first time the pair have been on stage together and the new kinship showed as they chatted about Amani’s life as a Jersey Shore girl before 9/11, experiencing her first racial slur in the aftermath of the attack, moving to Jordan, meeting her Middle Eastern cousins who fractured any preconceptions Amani had about women in the Middle East, and coming to love her religion. Yassmin said, “I didn’t want to ask you about the hijab; Muslim women are so much more than the hijab,” but the topic came up anyhow, along with more interesting subjects, including the halal certified nail polish released by Muslim Girl, and Muslim Women’s Day – Amani’s proudest moment in her career so far. What was interesting about this session was how safe the space felt for women to ask questions, whether they were part of the Muslim community or not. Perhaps next time we’ll see a progression to those deeper questions beyond the veil.

Words by Dee Jefferson and Emma Joyce

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