NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

A response to the Bushfires of 2019-20

By Associate Professor Kim Cunio — In Canberra no-one is saying Happy New Year. It is not that we have lost our manners but that it seems somehow immoral to talk so lightly when we have been encircled by the suffering of others in a never ending Summer of bushfire. There was more.

A freak hail storm caused significant damage to much of the ANU. In our music school we were relatively unscathed, though one of our pianos became inundated with water, and everyone who had parked near to the school had their cars written off. Then we have the Covid 19 virus which has required immediate thought and action. What do we do for our international students when we truly have no idea how this virus will play out? Is your experience a little like ours?

What comes from last Summer is a profound challenge. The challenge is the opportunity to reflect on the role of academic art and its potential to make a significant contribution to our society right now. Is there something we can and should do now? I would say that tragedies cannot be papered over by physical recovery strategies, financial help, tax breaks or any other government policy. There are too many things that do not make sense yet for us to simply move on. Questions need to be answered. How much are these fires a direct result of global warming? How might Indigenous land care and fire management practices help us manage our land into the future? How will we as a nation adjust to longer fire seasons that threaten more of us?  The answer is probably quite simple, that for now there is no answer.

Instead we can feel and learn together. To do this we need three processes. The first is to bear witness truthfully and with depth to the experiences we have had, allowing us to sit with the suffering of others without responding intellectually, or reducing their experiences to generalised impressions. The second is rigorous academic engagement with ideas, which is what universities do very well. We can take the time to find the thinkers and doers who can find solutions or at least give us the scientific reasons as to why these fires were so larger in scope than anything else on record. We can study mitigation and ways to move beyond the carbon economy. The third is in artistic response, the chance to make something that contains everything that cannot be resolved in words or ideas. While others can do one or two of these processes I feel that creative academics have the skills and the methodology to play a crucial part in the recovery of our country.

I remember in 2011 working at the Queensland Conservatorium, Griffith University, where we were planning a new opera. We decided to make it in response to the recent Queensland Floods. As soon as we had done that, something profoundly changed for us. We could make this opera because we did not need to rush, we could have multiple viewpoints and styles of art and thinking, and to do this we asked four composers to write a self-contained act. We committed our resources to something important to us and our community, and we hoped that we could heal a little as a result.

It is therefore a special time to be at the ANU for myself, and for all of us to be at a University. We at the ANU School of Music are opening dialogues with our Indigenous colleagues, the Fenner School of Environment, climate scientists and health professionals. We have a role to play in the debates that have already started. That role is to combine scholarship with art; to allow people to move beyond the simple binaries that are so seemingly reassuring after a tragedy. We aim to make something profound, something to help us grieve as a community, that inspires us to take the social and environmental actions we so desperately need.

We will do this in two stages. In April the School of Music will produce a benefit concert, that is a little like some of the others we have already seen. Our staff, students and the foremost musicians of Canberra will play to our community to raise money, premiering a number of works by Australian composers that can start our cultural response to the fires. Later in the year we will partner with the larger ANU and a number of other institutions to make a night of mourning for the fires. This will be total art as defined by Wagner, because it will have scientists, philosophers, artists and musicians working together. We, in a purely unrestrained way, can respond to the profound losses we have seen.

It is my hope that all of us can use our unique experiences and skills base to help shape our society at this crucial time.


Kim Cunio, Head of the School of Music at the ANU, is an activist composer interested in old and new musics and the role of intercultural music in making sense of our larger world. A scholar, composer and performer, Cunio embodies the skills of the exegetical artist, showing that writing and making art are part of the same paradigm of deep artistic exploration. The ANU School of Music is entering a new renaissance, again valued by the university and the community of Canberra due to the work of its academic staff and the fearlessness of its students.

More from this issue

More from this issue

By Dr Jenny Wilson — “Change” is defined as the act of transforming or making something different from what would have been if left alone. In academia we are in a constant state of change. Things are always transforming – small wins here, steps back there – like a giant snakes and ladders board that can mask the bigger longitudinal picture.
By Associate Professor Lizzie Muller — It will be “business as usual” for arts policy and funding, said Paul Fletcher[1] Federal Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts, commenting on the disappearance of the word “arts” from the title of his government department. A statement that anyone interested in the quality of life in Australia should not find reassuring.
By Paul Dalgarno — Artists and art lovers flocked to the Art Schools for Fire Relief opening night at the Margaret Lawrence Gallery on 30 January, 2019. More than $100,000 has been raised for Wildlife Victoria and the Gippsland Emergency Relief Fund in an art exhibition hosted by the Victorian College of the Arts at the Margaret Lawrence Gallery.
By Professor Paul Gough — I’m back in the UK, back here after a really memorable and innovative time at RMIT University; six deeply enjoyable and action-filled years as head of a college crammed with all the creative industries including the oldest School of Art in Australia, with its exquisite studio-based activities in gold and silversmithing, and innovative research and galleries that stand comparison with anything on the global stage.
by Professor Herman Van Eyken — In the Scandinavian countries, Artistic Research is often defined as the creation of an original work of art in combination with a critical reflection on the process of creation, and publication is when the art work meets an audience and the critical reflection is disseminated to the broader community of artists in the field.
Dr Julia Prendergast and Professor Craig Batty — We are thrilled to contribute to this NiTRO edition focusing the theme of Change. In this article we consider the theme as it relates to the activities of the Australasian Association of Writing Programs (AAWP), the peak academic body representing the discipline of creative and professional writing in Australasia.
By Dr Tim Cahill — It is accepted that Australian universities run research at a loss, with research cross-subsidised from student fees. Across the sector this results in around a $4.1b difference between research revenue and research expenditure, or about 42 per cent of research which is funded from non-research revenue.[1]
By Steven Alderton — In 2022, the National Art School in Sydney will celebrate 100 years on the site of the former Darlinghurst Gaol, where the tall, convict-built stone walls date from 1822 and the first prisoners arrived in 1841.