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Sydney Opera House launches ‘Antidote’, an alternative Festival of Dangerous Ideas

Inua Ellams standing before a colourful background
Photograph: Oliver Holms Inua Ellams

After eight years of running the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, Sydney Opera House has decided to can the controversial talks and ideas event to make way for a new event called Antidote: A Festival of Ideas, Art & Action. The new two-day festival includes speakers and performers who push for change in challenging times – covering racism, feminism, LGBTQIA rights, environmental injustice, the refugee crisis, colonialism, capitalism, and satire in a world of frightening news stories.

Speaking to Time Out ahead of the announcement, curator Danielle Harvey says the change was in response to what she thinks audiences want and need to hear. “It felt like this was a good time to respond to eight years of the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, six years of which I have worked on, where we’ve had excellent discussion about what’s wrong – now we have a response to that with solutions to the world’s problems. We’ve selected artists, speakers and doers who are quite hopeful in what they’re trying to do or change.”  

One major highlight from the program is a free durational performance called Cherophobia by Noëmi Lakmaier, who will be suspended in the air by 20,000 balloons for nine hours. Lakmaier is a wheelchair user, who'll explore the concepts of restraint, control and desire through her performance.

Redbull - Cherophobia (With Noemi Lakmaier) from Casual Films on Vimeo.

“It’s a great metaphor for the festival,” says Harvey. “One balloon is probably not going to lift very much but 20,000 balloons could cause an incredible moment to happen. Art and ideas have a really symbiotic relationship. I really believe in public art as something that should be experienced by everyone.”

Performance art and participatory experiences make up a significant portion of Antidote’s programming. For example, The Money, by UK-based interactive theatre group Kaleider, will give participants the chance to argue over how to spend a collective pot of cash. Anyone watching the performance unfold can opt to throw in a cash investment at any time.

Three performers in 'The Money'


Kaleider's 'The Money'
Photograph: Steve Tanner






The Money is a great one for how we talk about democracy, how we make a collective, unanimous decision. It gives you an insight into the different perspectives everyone brings to the table – everyone has to agree on how they’ll spend that money. It’ll cause a lot of great discussions afterwards as well.”

There’ll be traditional speaker events too, which are all ticketed (starting from $25). International guests include Reni Eddo-Lodge (author of Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race); transgender rights activist Janet Mock (author of Redefining Realness and contributing editor for Marie Claire); the masterminds behind satirical website The Onion; and Tamika D Mallory – national co-chair of Women’s March on Washington.

Profile of Reni Eddo-Lodge


Reni Eddo-Lodge
Photograph: Supplied



“The Onion is arguably the world’s best known source of satire and Janet Mock is one of the top trans-activists currently out there – she’s an incredible force.”

Then there's Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, the founder and editor of MuslimGirl; Rutger Bregmanauthor of Utopia for Realists – who believes in a 15-hour working week and a universal basic income; and Russian-born, British journalist Arkady Ostrovsky, who'll provide an insight into the current political climate. 

Amani Al-Khatahtbeh sitting on a chair in her office


Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, creator of MuslimGirl
Photograph: Shirley Yu



Australian speakers include Uncle Jack Charles and Archie Roach, who’ll close the festival with a performance on Sunday evening called Stories & Songs of Resilience. Celeste Liddle (creator of Rantings of an Aboriginal Feminist) is giving a talk. And Sydney Mardi Gras ’78er Julie McCrossin will be discussing women’s and gay rights.

Though what strings all the speakers and performers together is a thread of activism, protest and speaking out, there’s a spectrum of small gestures to global movements. “Kirstin Shirling personally goes out to the Calais refugee camp,” says Harvey. “Micah White, from Occupy Wall Street, is reflecting on why it didn’t change. There are different levels of action, some incredibly personal and some big.”

One of the more explicit representations of this thread is called Blank Placard Dance, Replay by Anne Collad, who’s revisiting Anna Halprin’s performance in San Francisco 50 years ago. It’s a free performance that’ll see people marching through Sydney with blank placards – its aim is to encourage audiences to question what constitutes contemporary activism.

Yeonmi Park standing with crossed arms


Yeonmi Park
Photograph: Supplied



In addition, there’ll be talks from husband-husband team Martin Goodman and James Thornton who’ll address how we’re treating the planet; The Vagina Monologues creator Eve Ensler, who’ll reflect on 20 years since the play was first staged; North Korean escapee Yeonmi Park; Indian MP Shashi Tharoor; and a hip-hop performance by Inua Ellams called ‘An Evening with an Immigrant’.

Harvey says Antidote is a “hopeful" event. "When everything is feeling poisonous you need something to stop the poison. The power of art and culture and ideas is the antidote.”

Antidote runs Sep 2-3 at Sydney Opera House.

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