NiTRO + Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

Sugar vs the Reef? – Socially Engaged Art in the Field

By Dr Lucas Ihlein — I'm writing this article from the road, as I slowly make my way down the coast to Wollongong from Mackay in Central Queensland. For the past two months, together with my family and my collaborator Kim Williams, I've been stationed up in Mackay.

 This was the first extended period of field work on my ARC DECRA research project “Sugar vs the Reef?” – a practice-based creative arts project focused on a contentious environmental situation: the impact of industrial agriculture (in this case sugar cane) on the health of the Great Barrier Reef.

Just last week, the Queensland Government issued its Great Barrier Reef Report Card 2015 – a document which collates data about water quality in the Reef.[1] While the major threat to coral ecosystems is rising water temperatures due to global warming, local human activities also have a significant impact on the quality of the water, which in turn affects the reef’s resilience.[2] Chemicals and sediments from terrestrial agriculture (principally cattle, horticulture, and sugar cane farming) run off the land during high rainfall events, polluting the reef, encouraging algal blooms and the growth of crown of thorns starfish.

Federal and state governments have over the years issued a variety of carrot and stick directives aimed at reducing agriculture’s environmental footprint, and these do have some impact. However, many of the sugar cane farmers that Kim and I have been spending time with in Queensland feel that their sector has been unfairly singled out for attention. The farmers comply – as they must – to the minimum terms of the legal requirements, for example to reduce the amount of nitrogen applied to their crops, or to use more accurate herbicide spraying techniques. But changes imposed from above tend to be expensive and last only for the lifetime of each program. What if farmers were to initiate their own changes, rather than waiting to be told what to do? That’s exactly what our project is interested to find out. Sugar vs the Reef? explores the emerging grassroots desire to transform (agri)cultural practices from below.

What has all this got to do with the creative arts? Our approach – using the method of socially engaged art (SEA) practice – involves a lot of hanging out on farms, and listening to farmers, industry representatives, reef scientists, and natural resource managers. Using storytelling on our blog, we’re trying to map out the social ecology of connections, networks and power flows which create an equilibrium (or disequilibrium) in the relationship between agricultural industries and the Great Barrier Reef.[3] It’s not easy – it takes a lot of time and patience to build up these relationships – and we are not going to “solve” anything anytime soon. However, one of our goals, as the project slowly evolves, is to expand public understanding of the forces which affect farming communities. We’re discovering that some of these forces (for example, the fact that many farms are in significant debt, or that the average age of farmers is 58, or that habits accrued over multiple generations are not easy to shift) mean that top-down directives to “CHANGE – NOW!” are not likely to be as instantly successful as governments and reef scientists might wish.

In the final week of our period of field research in Mackay, we had a breakthrough. The Mackay Botanical Gardens agreed to partner with us in the development of a four hectare piece of land art. This work involves the planting and harvesting of a “dual crop” of sugar cane and sunflowers over a two year period.[4] It involves collaboration between farmers, artists, horticulturalists, soil scientists, Natural Resource Management (NRM) groups, and members of the Australian South Sea Islander (ASSI) community.[5] We’re excited about this project as it will allow all the complexity we’ve been wallowing in (the nexus of environmental management, economics, industrial relations and the cultural traditions of agriculture) to be focused through a set of concrete activities. Also on the horizon is a major exhibition at Artspace Mackay regional gallery in mid-2018, which will provide further opportunities for this research to feed back into the local community.

Our hope is that the stories and experiences in the field which this project generates will foster a more nuanced public dialogue around agriculture. While these experiments and public presentations may help to catalyse improvements to the way sugar cane is grown, we are also hoping to be able to generate new insights into what role socially engaged art can play by working “in the field”, beyond the relative safety of the university and art world environments.

Dr Lucas Ihlein is ARC DECRA Research Fellow at University of Wollongong. Lucas is also an Australia Council Fellow in Emerging and Experimental Arts, 2016-17. He is a founding member of several artist collectives, such as Big Fag Press, SquatSpace, and Teaching and Learning Cinema. With his UOW colleague Brogan Bunt, Lucas has just completed guest editing a special edition of UNLIKELY Journal, on the theme of Field Work.

The current project, Sugar vs the Reef?, is a collaboration between Lucas Ihlein, UOW PhD student Kim Williams, veteran Australian artist Ian Milliss, retired farmer John Sweet, canefarmer Simon Mattsson, and many others.

Vist Lucas’ website. 


[2] Roberts, Callum, Ocean of Life: How our Seas are Changing, Penguin, London, 2012. Roberts writes:

Research in Australia suggests that coral reefs could cope with a couple of degrees more global warming before throwing in the towel if the water that bathes them is clean, clear of sediment, and free of nutrient pollution. (Roberts, 2012, p. 285)


[4] The idea of the dual crop of sunflowers and sugar cane comes from farmer Simon Mattsson, who has been experimenting with multi-species intercropping in his sugar cane for the last few years. The sunflowers improve soil health, as well as being an aesthetic magnet which creates the opportunity for broader public attention to be paid to the complex issues surrounding industrial agriculture. See Mattsson, Simon, 2016, Making the Most of Your Soil’s Biological Potential: Farming in the next Green Revolution, a report for Nuffield Australia, Moama NSW.

[5] The ASSI community were “blackbirded” to Mackay from Vanuatu and Solomon Islands 150 years ago as cheap or free labour for the establishment of the sugar cane industry in Queensland.

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