How do white artists use refugees to make art? Return to Escape from Woomera prompts Robert Reid to ponder well-meaning political art in the Age of Morrison
I’m at Arts House to see Return to Escape from Woomera, a critique of the computer game developed by Katharine Neil, Ian Malcolm, Stephen Honegger and Kate Wild with a team of anonymous coders and developers, presented by Sydney’s Applespiel collective.
Presented as part of Melbourne Knowledge Week at the Meat Market, the old building is host to the hippest collection of booths and projects that I’ve ever seen here. And that’s saying something. There’s new technologies, new interfaces, dancing projected skeletons that follow your movements, a 3D printed map of the CBD that highlights infrastructural elements at a command. Plus a cash bar that serves snacks including sourdough bread, hemp oil and insect dukkha. The well-dressed, intelligent young folk still glance sidelong at me suspiciously as I sit here working on my touch screen laptop with my $10 under-filled glass of cab sav.
Maybe I radiate cynicism. Maybe they can sense it. The venue staff seem friendly enough but maybe, despite ostensibly being about sharing knowledge, Melbourne Knowledge Week just isn’t as inclusive as it could be. Maybe this is just what I get for turning up early and having to be around people.
Escape from Woomera is an independently released game from an age long before streaming platforms and the boom in independent design companies. It was supported by the now-defunct New Media Board of the Australia Council and almost immediately drew criticism form government and the conservative media. Then Immigration Minister Phillip Ruddock was quoted in The Age, describing the decision to fund the game as reflecting “poorly upon the Australia Council and its judgement, that the organisation should lend its name to the promotion of unlawful behaviour”. The same article noted that a “ministerial spokeswoman added that the office would be contacting the Australia Council to “express a fairly firm view about the allocation of (its) resources”.
That “fairly firm view” might have been reflected in the rapid decommissioning of the New Media Board after the release of this game, its funding priorities redistributed to the pre-existing Visual Arts and short-lived Inter-Arts board.
Why such outrage? Because, as the name suggests, Escape from Woomera is a first person point-and-click adventure repurposed to tell the story of detainees at Woomera Detention centre staging a prison break. A mod based on the Half-Life game engine, blocky and pixelly, the original game does a decent job of simulating the repetition, boredom, anxiety and hopelessness of those camps.
Of course, plans and photographs of the camp were strictly unavailable at the time, and so the developers based their design on aerial photos and a map drawn by a camp survivor. On seeing the game subsequently, other survivors of the camps describe it as being far too clean and too sparsely populated (and also missing all the children that filled the makeshift sheds that passed for housing). Still, for the largely white Australian audience it was designed for, Escape from Woomera had, and still has, chilling overtones of our collective imagining of Nazi concentration camps.
I remember Escape from Woomera coming out. I remember downloading it onto my work computer at one of the call centres and playing it while I should have been taking calls. I remember the outrage that it had been funded by the Australia Council. At a time when the arts had already come under fire for waste of public funds, on painted blue trees and mosaics at Flinders Street Station, a time when Labour and Liberal governments could only seem to agree on the need to protect Australia’s sovereign borders with deep and sustained cruelty, producing (and even playing) Escape from Woomera seemed like a brave act of rebellion. At the time, it seemed like a clever appropriation of a platform and format that had hitherto been the handmaiden of patriarchal capitalism and a propagandistic mouthpiece for glorified violence and toxic masculinity.
Return to Escape from Woomera places that original game in dialogue with today, asking how much has changed since the game is released. The answer is, ultimately, not much. If anything, things are worse.
Applespiel had no connection with the original game. Most of the creative team were only in high school at the time of the Tampa incident and the establishment of the camps. Instead, they tell us, their interest was in competitive computer gaming and e-sports. In discussions with the Performance Space about these as the base for a new work, they were instead directed towards making a work about Escape From Woomera, to look back rather than forward. I think this is at the core of the problems with the final piece.
The evening is constructed around the playing of the game by volunteers from the audience. The game is projected live onto the wall behind the players and, for the first playthrough, two of the Applespiel members discuss the game and the gameplay, commentating in a reserved e-sports fashion. These play-throughs are continued throughout the evening but, after the first, the attention shifts to the panel discussion. Two guests (on the night I was there, film maker Osamah Sami and human rights advocate Akuol Garang) are invited to the stage to join two Applespiel members in a panel discussion about the game, the issues it addresses and the refugee experience in Australia.
A brief aside here to note that the two panel members are both the men from the company (Nathan Harrison and Simon Vaughn) while the two women (Emma McManus and Rachel Roberts) are placed on the fringe of the evening, book ending the panel discussion with short performance texts, awkwardly interviewing the crowd and helping the volunteers get set up to play the game. Maybe they mix this up through the season. I hope so.
For a company that’s interested in games and play, there is distinctly little engagement with the game being played. We’re told its history, we’re told its context, we’re read excerpts from the Scott Morrison speech to refugees from (“you will never live here” – that’s our newly-elected prime minister, folks) all with a deadly earnestness that feels unearned by the presenters. We’re told repeatedly by Roberts that “playful doesn’t equal trivial, so tonight we play”. I struggle to find the playfulness. There is participation, to an extent, but it is largely restricted to four or five people being able to play the game and then contributing half-formed feedback on the experience.
It’s a two and a half hour performance. Despite being told at the beginning that we can drop in and out, the arrangement of the evening doesn’t really allow for this. There’s no breaks, no interval and if feels disrespectful to get up and walk out of the room to get a drink while the panel is talking.
There are several moments when the audience is asked questions by one of the company members (McManus), and a few people offer their thoughts. We’re asked when we first learned about the detention camps. No one says anything. We’re asked what we were doing in 2003, when the game came out; but after hearing Sami’s experiences of that year what can most of us offer? It’s an audience of white privilege sitting here, with the exception of Player One, who has a lived experience of immigration to Australia. Their experience is of waiting for a bridging visa and so being unable to apply for simple work rights, unemployment benefits and or support for their work from the various arts funding bodies, state and federal. Of this audience, only Player One and a woman who describes herself as “having English parents” feel comfortable enough to tell us their stories.
Everyone else remains pointedly silent. Of course we remember where we were in 2003, it’s not that long ago, but no one wants to say: “I was doing nothing.” No one wants to say: “I was watching tv or finishing school or having children”. No one wants to say: “I was moving around the country with relative ease while you were waiting to be recognised as a human being with a right to live in this country”. Even me. In 2003, I was making independent theatre works protesting Australia’s involvement in the Iraq war and the rise of anti-Muslim sentiment. Much good that did the world.
I can remember when I first learned about life in the detention camps. I was working on a project for the Justice Museum, presenting a fictionalised account of the real-life experiences of an asylum seeker who was still in mortal fear for his life, for his family. He was mostly concerned that our project wouldn’t impact his application for asylum. But I don’t answer. I don’t wanna say these things in this room. How can I? They seem so small. Instead there is only shame-filled silence.
Contrasted with the panel discussion, the game itself feels like an afterthought. Indeed, the game can’t really compete with the stories of Sami and Garang. As important as it is to hear these stories, these voices, to provide space for them to speak (and I at least applaud Applespiel for doing that) there is the overriding question of how white artists use refugees to make art.
Applespiel address this (after about two hours) and the guests speak eloquently to it. They talk about how people in these communities feel like they have to perform the roll of the good refugee, to present as representatives of their communities. They discuss the pressure they feel to demonstrate that most of these communities, these people, are not at all like the media and our politicians would have us believe. Of course they’re not, and none of us in the room really need to be reminded of this; but in the light of recent events we clearly do need to be more active in taking that message to the people who aren’t, and probably will never be, in a room like this one.
Garang makes the point that she came here as a teenager in the early 2000s, shortly before 9/11. Despite the anti-refugee rhetoric already in the air, local communities were still welcoming and friendly. However now, after nearly 20 years of divisive and racist rhetoric, the feeling has changed. People are suspicious and stand-offish or worse. She says those 20 years have seen a cruelling of Australia, a people who used to be casually racist but friendly enough in person. No more.
And now, with the formal election of the “You will never live here” Prime Monster, there have been 20 new suicide attempts in the camps, which to our deep national shame, are still open.
Asked when he last felt marginalised in this country, Sami tells a story of presenting at the AACTA awards alongside former bachelorette Sophie Monk (which I think tells you already all you need to know about that event). Sami told two jokes that called out the lack of diversity in the room, both of which got laughs (from us at least, and I’ve no doubt on the night of the awards too too) only to find the following morning that the right wing media were accusing him of racist comments.
He also tells us that when he went to find the broadcast on line, it had been edited to focus on the 12 or so other people of colour in the room in that moment, rather than the thousand or so white people, and to make it seem like the room sat silent and awkward in response. His film, Ali’s Wedding, still won its award, so it can’t have been that silent and awkward a response to his jokes. It’s all too easy to see how he’d feel marginalised by the attitudes displayed by the organisation and the media.
It was contributions such as these from the guest speakers that made the evening worthwhile. The engagement with the supposedly key material – the game – was very thin. There was little analysis of how game mechanics can be used to make political statements, nor of how they can thoughtlessly appropriate others’ experiences. Both Sami and Garang seemed reluctantly uncomfortable with the game, noting that turning these peoples experiences into a game (for mostly white people to play, let’s face it) is trivialising, but also acknowledging that at least it might get a conversation going about the issues. It feels like a kind of grudging concession in a country where this need to get this conversation going is already two decades too old.
In essence, Return to Escape from Woomera was a two-hour panel discussion held while a couple of the audience got to play a computer game that the rest of us didn’t really watch. Deeply disappointing on a lot of levels.
Return to Escape from Woomera, by Applespiel. Lead artists, Nathan Harrison, Emma McManus, Rachel Roberts and Simon Vaughan). Dramaturgy by Paschal Daantos Berry. Technical direction by Solomon Thomas. Lighting and set design by Emma Lockhart-Wilson, Guest speakers Osamah Sami and Akuol Garang. Presented as a part of Melbourne Knowledge Week, at The Meat Market.