This weekend’s Antidote festival promised to be a chance to listen to and contribute to solutions to the world’s big issues. There were fish butchery workshops, natural wine tastings, art made from plastic straws and hundreds of people engaged in topics from “should there be a black Captain America?” to “how can we kill the zombie jellyfish?” Did we come away with solutions? Not quite. Did we learn something? Absolutely. Here are the seven most impactful statements made by seven of this year’s speakers:
Ta-Nehisi Coates: “I can’t emphasise how common it is for police to kill people”
Author, journalist and Black Panther comic book writer Ta-Nehisi Coates was one of the headline speakers for this year’s event. In conversation with Richard Fidler, the Between the World and Me author said he was fearful growing up in Baltimore as an African American. “I can’t emphasise how common it is for police to kill people,” he said. “There are more guns than people.” The talk was presented under the banner ‘politics, protest and pop culture’, in which Coates read an excerpt from his New York Times bestseller. He said that not enough pop culture talks about the fear of living as a black man in a country that “[has] white supremacy at its core.”
Coates talked about how he was shaped by his parents (his father Paul Coates was the leader of the Baltimore Black Panther Party; his mother was a writer), why he was arrested in the ninth grade and how his Howard University classmate was shot dead by police. “I cannot tell you how angry I was when nothing was done,” he said. “The reason I wrote that book is so Prince [Jones] would not be erased from history.”
In the Q&A, Coates responded to a question about whether he thought Captain America could be portrayed as an African American. He said: “It was important to me that Storm was black, but I didn’t think about Wolverine as being white. I like the blue-eyed, blonde version of Captain America. Captain America is the vision white America has of itself.” And in response to a question about Kanye West’s comment that slavery was a choice, he said: “I wanted to speak for my students who were deeply injured by Kanye’s comments. I think he should be brought to account.”
Chelsea Manning: “Please don’t dead name me”
Probably the most anticipated speaker at this year’s festival, and one the organisers lost a lot of sleep over, was Chelsea Manning. The former whistleblower and current transgender activist was denied a visa to enter Australia and so she gave her Concert Hall interview via video link from LA. Festival curator Edwina Throsby said, “Chelsea Manning wasn’t coming to incite hate, she is not a threat to our security,” and the audience showed their colours by making as much noise as they could in support of the visibly fragile speaker.
Things started badly. Chair Peter Greste made a big mistake in his very first question by referring to Manning by her former name. “Please don’t dead name me,” said Chelsea. Many in the audience cheered in support for the speaker. Greste, who to his credit no longer used Manning’s former name, sadly did not apologise. It was a mistake he did not recover from.
Despite their shared experience of having been political prisoners, Greste did not regain Manning’s trust as he probed for insight into her experience in the US military. Manning revealed she enlisted at 19, as the career offered a sense of security, but that her perspectives changed when on the ground in Iraq. “You see the worst of humanity, but you also see the best,” she said. Manning was visibly uncomfortable during some parts of the interview; she had a lot to say about how we’re compliant in surrendering our freedom of information and personal data to those in power.
“We live in an era of domestic surveillance,” she said. “I think the Information Age is as destructive as the Print Age. Personal information should be protected. We’re largely being terrorised by our own states.
“We have to start doing things ourselves. Going vegan is a political decision. Not doing anything is a political decision. We have more political agency than putting paper in a ballot box.”
The talk ended with a teary response to a question aimed more at Greste (“should he become a politician?”) in which Manning, who was defeated in her bid for the Maryland Senate seat, said, “I get the sense that there are two countries [in the US], in terms of how these places view the world.” She talked about canvassing for votes and her eyes welled up as she told the audience of the pain of hearing people’s stories and not having an answer for them. She said: “I didn’t want to bullshit them with a robotic answer.”
Liz Jackson: “Plastic straws are life and death for disabled people”
“Society needs to shift who they think of as experts; it’s not the charities, it’s the people,” said disabled designer and founder of the Disabled List, Liz Jackson. Jackson, who described herself as an amateur historian, ran through her own history – in 2012 she “woke up with a new body and literally crawled to the hospital” – through to how the term disability was introduced in the era of industrialisation. Hacking everyday design became an act of political protest for her when she was given choices with her glasses, but not her cane. “I decided I needed a badass identity: the girl with the purple cane.”
She told those in the Utzon Room that disabled people are the original lifehackers. That people living with disability are disabled not by medical diagnosis but by society and those touch screens, audiobooks or bicycles you use: “You can thank us for these.”
“Design should be an obvious career choice for disabled peoples, but we’ve never been given credit for this impact,” she said. “I’ve long struggled with this concept of universal design. Our experiences are not universal.”
Jackson said she “found a distaste for design terms like ‘inclusive’, because people don’t want to say the word disability” and so she supports campaigns like #saytheword disability. “What if the ‘dis’ means ‘apart from’, rather than lacking,” she said. Jackson called out companies that claim to design ‘for’ disability but not ‘with’ disability. “Did you hire anybody to create this technology that’s designed to get disabled people hired?” She also called out the shameful waste of the artist on site at Sydney Opera House who is using 15,000 straws in the lobby to create art: “plastic straws are life and death for disabled people.”
“Because we’re not invited to the table, there’s a process of ideation and there being an expectation of us saying thank you for something we didn’t need. They position our bodies as tragedy. There’s always been this idea that there’s only one solution. It’s about what the product is intended to do: is it still about fixing us?"
Ronan Farrow: “I didn’t know if I was doing the right thing”
Saturday’s headline talk was between Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Ronan Farrow, who broke the story about Harvey Weinstein’s alleged abuses of power and sexual assaults, and The Guardian Australia’s editor Lenore Taylor. And it was a game of cat and mouse as Taylor probed Farrow for more details of so-called ‘catch and kill’ tactics to silence stories in the US media and Farrow used his entertainer charm to deflect and give cheeky plugs for his next book, memorably titled Catch and Kill.
Farrow, who at age 15 became the youngest graduate of private liberal arts Bard College, reminded us that he didn’t always know what he was doing – and if what he was doing in publishing the Weinstein story was the right thing to do by the victims of power.
“I wish I could tell you I was confident in that moment. I didn’t know if I was doing the right thing,” he said, telling the Concert Hall audience of being followed, having to move out of home and being scared. He recalled a phone call with his partner saying he knew he wouldn’t be able to live with himself if he stopped. He “had gambled too much and swung too wide”.
“You don’t know in the moment how important the story is going to be. You can have a feeling, a gut reaction, an instinct. Trust that inner voice and fight like hell,” he said.
Taylor pressed Farrow on the blackmail and intimidation he experienced in the lead-up to breaking the Weinstein story, but Farrow gave little away – only satisfying but broad sweeping comments like, “Freedom of press is not automatic. Our right to the truth is fragile. It’s a privilege.”
Dr Lisa-ann Gershwin: “Jellyfish – they are zombies, I’m telling you”
Dr Lisa-ann Gershwin was a hoot. She was a quote-a-minute kind of speaker and she described her “epic love affair” since 1982 with the beauty and beast of jellyfish with veracity. What she doesn’t know about the spineless blobs without brains isn’t worth knowing.
You probably knew that the deadly box jellyfish can kill a healthy adult in two minutes, but did you know the Irukandji (which may be the smallest jellyfish in the world) can cause you to vomit every minute for 12 hours, feel like there’s a drill firing into your lower back or that you have such an impending sense of doom that you’ll beg doctors to kill you? And, in most cases, people recover from an Irukandji sting? Gershwin showed the audience a fully grown specimen floating in a test tube that she pulled from her back pocket. “They’re the perfect assassin, which is why I admire them so much.”
She told us even though we’re overfishing, filling the ocean with plastic and pollution, and changing the environment every day, those jellyfish are having a field day in places where we are destroying the coast. They are the cockroaches of the sea.
She told us “millions of jellyfish meet for an orgy every day for month” and that they can clone themselves 13 different ways. “They are zombies, I’m telling you.” But the most fascinating part is that fossils of jellyfish blooms have been found, meaning that “jellyfish have been blooming since the beginning of time.” It’s what they do. “We can fish all the jellyfish out of a bay, but it’s like taking an apple from underneath an apple tree,” she said.
Scariest of all – there are at least four species that are known to be immortal (such as the turritopsis dohrnii, a species of small jellyfish found in the Mediterranean Sea and in the waters of Japan), so when the world ends, we welcome our gelatinous overlords. “I don’t think we can stop them.”
Sally Rugg: “We’re either going to rise up or cook ourselves alive”
Speaking to the converted, the 29-year-old activist with Change.org and Get Up on her resume spoke about “what she knows so far” as a proven strategist and visionary for motivating people on important issues from marriage equality to safe pet food. Simply put, you have to know what you’re fighting for, said Rugg, as she took the audience through a critical path for ‘housing for every Australian’.
“You have to know what you’re fighting for and you must be able to articulate it clearly,” she said, showing a number of protest signs that displayed either chaos or cohesion. In a time when we’re able to digitally organise ourselves, there’s power in numbers, but the starting point is always that you need to make people care about a cause. “People will do extraordinary things if they feel that their action will make a change,” she said.
Rugg talked about power methods (voice, time, money and body) and various tactics that have worked in the past (posting glitter, sliding into a journalist’s DMs). But in the end “you can’t do it by yourself”, so build your list of contacts, hack the system (call your MP). “We’re either going to rise up or cook ourselves alive.”
Marwa Al-Sabouni: “I found a home despite of – or because of – the war”
Architect Marwa Al-Sabouni joined Fauziah Ibrahim on stage in the Studio to share a series of slides depicting the ruined buildings and subsequent patch-ups of her home in Homs, Syria, and the closest city of Damascus. Sixty per cent of the city was destroyed during the war and she argued that French colonisation played a role in the way Syrians felt about their buildings and community, saying “‘Home’ is somewhere else, not the house they lived in.”
“What was built last was destroyed first,” said Al-Sabouni, who stressed that her argument wasn’t born from nostalgia for the old style but from the social coexistence of different classes of people which the former architecture afforded. The French style of boulevards created spaces for the rich and ghettoised quarters for religious affiliation; the former Syrian architecture allowed for churches and mosques to be built side by side.
As a working architect, she is now rebuilding Syria, but Al-Sabouni made it clear there were still issues of corruption, mismanagement and misguided aid from foreign agencies. She showed a series of mosaics built in a park that people can no longer access as it is deemed too expensive to risk having people play in the area. “It tells you how chaotic it can be.”
The architect is angry that the city no longer accommodates real people and that the high rise apartments being built do not foster community living. “We have no pride in these buildings,” she said. “Home is identity; it’s the reflection of how we express ourselves.” Her own designs are inspired by Homs’s souk, which was destroyed in the war. She believes Syria is guilty of following the same footpath of European design and that the generations of people who fled the war zone are now returning because they’ve experienced “loneliness, racism, no jobs.”
When asked why she decided to stay in her home during the war, Al-Sabouni said: “This is the place I would like to contribute to.” Despite encountering snipers, surviving water, electricity and internet shortages, and a whole winter without heating, she said she’s glad they never left. “When you live in a war, all the odds are against you. In one word, it’s faith. I found home despite of – or because of – the war.”