In January 2020, a group of artists across Australia organised a major intervention of public space by replacing advertising from bus shelters and walls with eye-catching posters in response to last year’s catastrophic bushfire season. A set of forty-one of these posters are now part of the NGV Collection, representing the political engagement of Australian artists, and their commitment to addressing climate change.
Under the collective name Bushfire Brandalism, forty-one Australian artists took to the streets of Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane in January 2020, replacing roadside ads with provocative images and messages calling for immediate action on the climate crisis.
Coming together on social media, the collective of artists (some of whom remain anonymous) released a statement to coincide with what they called ‘the nation’s largest unsanctioned outdoor art exhibition’:
As a collective group of Australian artists, we have been driven to reclaim public advertising space with posters speaking to the Australian government’s inaction on climate change and the devastating bushfires. We do not accept that this situation is ‘business as usual’. We are making these issues visible in our public spaces and in our media; areas monopolized by entities maintaining conservative climate denial agendas. If the newspapers won’t print the story, we will.1
Over the course of what has been named Australia’s ‘black summer’, bushfires emitted more than 300 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, resulting in an air quality index over twelve times the hazardous level in some locations. A scientific study has estimated that nearly 3 billion animals were displaced or killed by the fires, with some endangered species feared to have been driven to extinction.2
Established in the UK in 2012, the Brandalism movement is described as ‘a revolt against the corporate control of culture and space’. 3
Targeting spaces reserved for commercial advertisements and usually owned by multinational corporations, such as those found in bus shelters, artists use ‘subvertising’ to call into question dominant government responses to social and environmental justice issues.
For the Bushfire Brandalism campaign, poster designs focused on a range of topics specific to the Australian climate crisis, including the fossil fuel industry, the bravery of local firefighters, the devastating environmental losses due to the bushfires, and the disproportionate effect they had and continue to have on First Nations communities. For example, Thomas Bell’s poster depicts Australia in flames, paradoxically asking: ‘How’s the serenity?’ (a quote from the 1997 Australian film classic The Castle), while Stanislava Pinchuk’s poster simply states ‘LAND IS MEMORY’–a plea for more funding towards Indigenous fire management. A QR code on each poster links to a charity working to combat the issues raised.
The posters were printed by Collingwood print studio Milkbar, who donated their time and print costs towards the campaign, and who have printed a special ‘archival’ set for the NGV Collection, and for posterity. The prints join other activist posters and screenprints in the Gallery’s Australian print collection, such as those produced by Earthworks Poster Collective and Redback Graphix during the 1970s and 80s. As ever, bringing work that was created for the street into a state collection poses interesting questions about the boundaries (perceived and physical) between these two historically separate public spaces–boundaries that are thankfully now more fluid.
Jessica Cole is NGV Assistant Curator, Prints and Drawings. This article was originally published in the Nov-Dec 2020 NGV Magazine.
‘Bushfire Brandalism’,brandalism.ch/projects/bushfire, accessed 8 Sep. 2020
Aljazeera, ‘Nearly 3 billion animals killed or displaced by Australia fires’, www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/07/3-billion-animals-killed-displaced-australia-fires-200728095756845.html, accessed 8 Sep. 2020
Brandalism, brandalism.ch, accessed 8 Sep. 2020.