How is contemporary Australian performance responding to the climate crisis and what does this work teach us about inhabiting an emergent reality that is, as Timothy Morton has observed, “much larger, and more intractable, than we had supposed”? Drawing upon Marianne Van Kerkhoven’s “dramaturgy of the spectator” and the “oceanic dramaturgy” of Pacific Island performance (Hannah et al.), this article examines the Refuge art program, a six-year experiment in participatory performance and emergency preparedness that took place in Naarm/Melbourne between 2016–21. The dramaturgy of Refuge was based upon forging connections between communities, knowledges and practices not normally brought together. These interconnections made the reality of climate crisis apparent in new ways, as well as opening navigational pathways where others have seen only dead ends.
Keywords: climate art, climate crisis, climate philosophy, disaster planning, dramaturgy, participatory performance, preparedness
Part One: Dramaturgies
On May 16, 2021, the Tongan-Australian performance artist Latai Taumoepeau led a public performance in Flagstaff Gardens, an inner-city park in Naarm/Melbourne. Beginning with a series of questions—“How and why does one depart their home? Who is at the destination? Who has always been there and how do we attune to the First Peoples? What did we bring with us?”—MASS MOVEMENT FOLAU: The Arrival drew attention to the forced displacement of Pacific Islander Peoples from their homes as the climate emergency deepens. Accompanied by drummers from the Cook Islands, audiences were invited to participate in a “mass choreography of 100 bodies” (Arts House) using body percussion to mimic the shape of waves on the ocean. In the rhythmic repetition of claps and body slaps, the collective group became the rising waters of the Pacific, bodies rocking, the pace accelerating and slackening to simulate changing oceanic currents. State Emergency Services volunteers dressed in high-vis orange were in attendance as part of the performance. Semaphore signals were performed in blue. In an explanatory video accompanying the work, Taumoepeau explains that “folau” means both departure and arrival in her language; the choreography is inspired by emergency drill assemblies and traditional Samoan dance.
On the day of the performance, Taumoepeau’s final question to the audience intimated that, despite its evocation of distant places and peoples, the work’s true locus was here, in Melbourne: “What needs to happen so we may remain at home?” Her question underscores the urgency of the double movement raised by the work’s title: the collective movement of bodies as an incitement to movement for political and social action. In a radio interview about the performance, Taumoepeau said, “We are in control of our own bodies. This is the way that we channel all sorts of things . . . The transformation has to be channelled through the body.”
The theatre scholar Paul Rae was a public participant at the event. Reflecting on his experience on the day Rae noted that the connections between the performance’s various elements remained oblique. Taumoepeau’s questions, the Pacific Islander cultural context and the embodied experience of the choreography did not form a clear narrative or message. And yet in the gaps between setting, action and meaning, an uncanny coalescence took hold. Rae explains:
These connections were quickened . . . by an accident that played out in the background. A tram collided with a car, and the emergency services soon arrived to manage the situation. The ‘coincidental’ appearance of fire engines, sirens, bystanders and so on seemed both to intensify the focus of the performance on climate emergency (which is often diffuse until all of sudden it isn’t), and to bear out Taumoepeau’s intuition that there are standard operating procedures to disaster preparation, and that performance can take its place among them. The fact that personnel from the State Emergency Service who were in attendance at the performance as Taumoepeau’s collaborators then broke away to help manage the traffic incident, underscored the point.
While Rae is familiar with Taumoepeau’s work and wider traditions of Pacific performance, we refer to him here not as an authority on the performance but as one of the few documented first-person accounts of the participatory experience. His commentary suggests a sense of the performance breaking open and spilling over into the wider scene of life. Noting this palpably uncanny moment, Rae cuts to the quick not only of the subtlety of Taumoepeau’s work but of the dramaturgy of climate crisis itself. This is a dramaturgy that cuts both ways, informing the logic and process of how art might meaningfully engage with climate crisis, on the one hand, and engendering the unsettling drama of inhabiting the crisis, on the other. Viewing MASS MOVEMENT FOLAU: The Arrival from Rae’s vantage, we see how Taumoepeau’s climate dramaturgy invites a disturbance of the distinction between background and foreground, revealing in this disturbance the dramaturgical formations of emergency in civic life.
The dramaturgy of MASS MOVEMENT FOLAU: The Arrival can be connected to a wealth of diaporic Pasifika scholarship situating performance within the Indigenous epistemologies of Pacific Islander peoples and their response to the existential threat that climate change poses for their nations and communities (Chao and Enari; Enari and Viliamu Jameson; Brown and Reihana-Morunga; Hannah). Drawing upon the heterogenious but interconnected cultural knowledge of various Pacific communities—twenty-three ancestries, according to Enari and Viliamu Jameson (149)—this scholarship centres Pasifika voices marginalised from global debates on climate change. While a deep enagement with this work is beyond the scope of this article, we draw attention to the way that climate advocacy and calls for climate justice are being articulated through cultural practice and performance. As Enari and Viliamu Jameson state:
Although our communities in Australia have used traditional forms of human rights activism, we have also embedded cultural practices into new ways advocating for climate action. We have reinterpreted traditional methods such as oratory (spoken word/story-telling), cultural dance (storytelling through movement), and talanoa (in person meetings and online dialogue) to innovatively organise and campaign for climate justice.152
A distinctive dramaturgy surfaces through the various performances and events documented in this scholarship. One primary distinguishing feature is an oceanic sense of time and space that refuses the instinctive boundedness characterising “terrestrial,” implicitly Western imaginaries. Dorita Hannah and her co-authors describe an “oceanic dramaturgy” where the ocean is a container and connector rather than simply an expanse between continents: “As a liquid continent, the region tends to imagine itself through the ocean, te Moana-Nui-a-Kiwa: a connective space of currents, vortices, drifts, suspensions, sediments, tides, foams, and flows that resists fixity: performing in-flux” (90).
A second distinguishing feature of Pasifika performance is an imaginary embedded in placed ways of knowing and embodied connection to human and more-than-human worlds. As Choa and Enari write:
Storying beyond-human worlds involves engaging sensorially with the environment in crisis. Rather than adopting a distanced, disembodied, and putatively omniscient perspective on the world, multi-sensory imagination takes as its starting point the literal grounds in and upon which planetary life arises, transforms, senses, and senesces. It also moves away from framing the imagination as a purely conceptual or ideological praxis, conjured by our (human) minds and detached from our (more-than-human) surroundings.
Situated within an oceanic imaginary and embodied, more-than-human connectedness, Taumpoepeau’s dramaturgy makes sense not as a rupture of performance into the “real world” but as framing a sensorially embodied, dynamic and multi-scalar reality. It is our argument here that it is this sense of the real that might shape the imaginative co-ordinates required for both knowing and living in the emergency of climate crisis.
This article is a preliminary attempt to grasp and communicate something of the way contemporary Australian dramaturgy is responding to the climate emergency. Drawing from Refuge, an art program held in Naarm/Melbourne from 2016–21, of which Taumpoepeau’s performance was a part, it inquires into what this work might teach us about inhabiting an emergent reality that is, as Timothy Morton has observed, “much larger, and more intractable, than we had supposed” (229). Our method here is more curatorial than analytical. The vast expanse of the Refuge program—more than thirty artists and scores of exhibitions, installations and performances—makes it unwieldy to attempt an interpretation of individual artworks, generative though they are. Rather, drawing upon a loose archive of participating artists’ planning discussions and reflections on their practice, we seek to capture a sense of the dramaturgical logic running through the program and its relevance to understanding how we live as citizens within the uncanny reality of climate emergency.
* * *
From a Western performance paradigm, some of the qualities of Pasifika performance are echoed within the theoretical precepts of new dramaturgy. In a widely cited passage recognised for its poetic resonance (Trencényi), Belgian dramaturg, Marianne Van Kerkhoven, describes how theatre should adapt for the twenty-first century:
a production comes alive through its interaction, through its audience, and through what is going on outside its own orbit. And around the production lies the theatre and around the theatre lies the city and around the city, as far as we can see, lies the whole world and even the sky and all its stars. The walls that link all these circles together are made of skin, they have pores, they breathe. This is sometimes forgotten.“The Theatre” 67
In Van Kerkhoven’s philosophy, the “walls that link all these circles together” (67) might be called dramaturgy: walls made of skin that form a permeable barrier bringing performance into constant and complex relations with its location, cultural context, and social moment. Importantly, Van Kerkhoven called upon performance makers to turn away from the revolutionary impulse that drove theatre in the twentieth century. Instead, she encouraged deeper engagement with the material and symbolic conditions through which art is made. “We have to focus on dealing with the actual relationship of the artist with this world, on the dialogue, that is or could be held between the artist and the audience, on the relationship between theatre-practice and its theoretical questioners . . .” (“European Dramaturgy” 7). These principles have long been employed by feminist artists, art activists and First Nations artists, but more recently, have been largely normalised within contemporary theatre and extended into broader practices of socially engaged art. But the significance of artists turning outward to reflect upon their material conditions, an impulse at once cosmopolitan and cosmological, is given new force and urgency in the context of climate crisis because of the profound challenge it presents to our capacity for ethical response (Bristow and Ford 6).
It is through these principles—collective activation expressed through an oceanic and multi-sensory imaginary, a performative logic alive to the complex relations of its context—that we might understand how Taumoepeau’s dramaturgy, conscripted her participants into a drama beyond the stage. As a participant, Paul Rae experienced a sense of aliveness that chimes with Van Kerkhoven’s expanded dramaturgy—in his words, this quickening of connections. Equally, we might say that this aliveness signals his entry into the dynamic, multi-scalar reality expressed through the oceanic dramaturgy of Pasifika performance. He leaves the Flagstaff Gardens but cannot leave the performance. Multiple contexts converge and the drama of emergency, at once civic, climactic and cosmic, runs wild through the city.
Part Two: Refuge
Taumoepeau’s MASS MOVEMENT FOLAU: The Arrival can be interpreted as a microcosm of Refuge, a six-year experiment in performance, participation, community building and climate action. The integration of participatory methods, the involvement of emergency services and other disaster response professionals, and themes of displacement and environmental destruction, were defining features of Refuge. Hosted by Arts House, a City of Melbourne contemporary performance venue, Refuge put art at the centre of preparing for climate-related disaster by partnering artists with experts from the Australian Red Cross, State Emergency Services (SES), Emergency Management Victoria (EMV), the Peter Doherty Institute (a cancer research centre), the University of Melbourne and many other local community organisations.
Over its duration, Refuge imagined how climate-related disasters of heatwaves, flooding, mass population displacement and a global pandemic would impact urban communities as global heating accelerates. Arts House is listed as a relief centre within the City of Melbourne, and for its first two iterations, Refuge: Heatwave (2016) and Refuge: Flood (2017), took this listing literally by simulating a twenty-four-hour refuge. Publics entered the building as both audiences and climate refugees, invited to register their details with emergency services personnel, as they would during a real emergency event. Installations, games and participatory performances were scattered throughout the building, leaving audiences to make their own connections between the various artworks and the simulated disaster experience. Later years shifted from this concentrated model into more diffuse programming staged over multiple days across different locations in and around Arts House’s inner-city locale in North Melbourne.
As Refuge progressed from year to year, First Nations perspectives became more prominent in both the content and curatorial direction of the program. Histories and memories of dispossession and displacement, forced migration and exploitation surfaced through the artworks. These themes were linked to the climate crisis both as contributing causes and as stories of survival that spoke to the necessary skills for navigating a future in climate breakdown.
The partnerships established through Refuge were substantive and enduring. Artists, emergency services experts, researchers and community members met every year for two-day Labs designed as non-hierarchical spaces to exchange knowledge and develop the program. They met again for an Evaluation Day to reflect on what had happened and what could be learned: practical learning that informed the knowledge base of disaster management and preparedness, and creative learning that influenced the practice of many of the participating artists. As an evaluation report on Refuge’s second year observed, “The different spheres of knowledge brought together in Refuge—creative, scientific, governmental and logistical—are rarely given such pronounced liberty to interact with each other” (MacDowell and Fraser 4).
As the comment by MacDowell and Fraser indicates, much of the evaluative writing on Refuge focuses upon the innovative ways the program centred artistic and creative approaches to disaster preparedness and community resilience (Yue et al.; MacDowell and Fraser; Fraser et al.). This analytic focus is warranted. While the role of art in post-disaster recovery and repair has attracted some attention (Kennedy-Borissow), there has been little wider institutional recognition in Australia of art as a knowledge producer in its own right and a valuable contributor to defining the social, cultural and technical parameters of disaster preparedness.
Some sense of Refuge’s expansion beyond the usual domains of art filter through the critical and mainstream media coverage it received (Symons; Eslake). Many journalistic articles present individual profiles of a participating artist, or provide brief reviews of individual works in that particular year’s program. This evaluative and journalistic writing is valuable for expanding the potential reach of Refuge into the orbit of policy and planning—sectors it hoped to influence—and for bringing it to a wider public. What is lost, however, in both these genres is its dramaturgical logic as a program. What we seek to convey about Refuge is not necessarily contained within each artwork, nor does it necessarily surface through individualised portraits of Refuge’s artists and other participants. Rather, as we’ve suggested elsewhere (Wyatt and Pfefferkorn), the dramaturgy is made visible in the discursive circulation around and between artists, artworks, and audiences. These relationships have been documented across the six years of the program through annual evaluation reports. The raw data from these reports trace the evolution of a network of relationships, at once social, institutional and imaginative. Juxtaposing fragmentary perspectives from this material, primarily interviews, but also planning documents and meeting notes, reveals some sense of the dramaturgical logic running through and between Refuge’s many varied actors and outputs.
Part Three: Drawing Back the Curtain
We take our cue for decentring the artwork within our frame of reference from former Arts House Artistic Director, Angharad Wynne-Jones, who co-conceived Refuge. She comments to journalist Georgia Symons that “looking back on the project, the actual content of each year’s Refuge project (almost) didn’t matter” (Symons).
The thing that came through in some of the evaluations was that connection between people was the critical elements of resilience . . . If connection is the thing, it doesn’t matter how that happens. It doesn’t have to be named as something that is directly connected to the crisis of climate change . . . [I learned] not to be precious; to understand the value of that connection, no matter how or where it’s created, or for what purpose.Wynne-Jones qtd. in Symons
Similarly, the artist and curator David Pledger, who produced a comprehensive account of Refuge after the program had finished, observed that, “In some years, an artist has taken up a residency and not made or presented a work. The refusal to foreground a ‘result focus’ in the dramaturgy is distinctive, even more so when the dramaturgy must be explained to non-arts stakeholders who tend to be result-focused”(42).
Pledger’s perspective here is grounded in his decades of collaborative performance and his careful development of a cross-disciplinary dramaturgy. He is one of the few commentators on Refuge to locate its dramaturgy beyond the figure of a centralised artistic director or artist. The emphatic distinction he makes between creative process and outcome—“result-focused”—orients us to seeing its dramaturgy as an unfolding of relationships and contexts brought into proximity with each other and allowed to gestate and grow over time. In his words:
Creating is the heart of [Refuge’s] dramaturgical premise: to create responses, shoots and nodes, rhizomes that grow from the plant stem (the dramaturgy) that then evolves into new conventions, traditions and institutions. This is certainly the case in the emergency services sector and the local community. In both instances, new protocols have grown out of Refuge.40
This sense of Refuge’s dramaturgy as an open process that creates the conditions for new things to grow is rearticulated in the commentary of Jen Rae, one of the program’s principle artists:
You see, for the artists in Refuge, there were no rehearsals in the way we would prepare for a public performance or exhibition. Many of the works simply unfolded in a relational and improvisational manner. They were the testing ground for observation, experimentation and provocation alongside participants and audiences. New questions arose providing fodder for potential future iterations and refinement.Rae qtd. in Pledger 12
There are strong resonances between the generative, open-ended approach to creative production that Pledger and Rae see in Refuge and the Tongan concept of Talanoa. The Tongan education scholar Timote M. Vaioleti describes Talanoa as “a personal encounter,” almost always face-to-face, in which “people story their issues, their realities and aspirations” (23). Etymologically, Talanoa “literally means talking about nothing in particular, and interacting without a rigid framework” (23). Vaioleti goes on to explain how matters of substance and cultural significance arise out of this casual storying: “Potentiality is a cultural aspect of Talanoa. It allows people to engage in social conversation which may lead to critical discussions or knowledge creation that allows rich contextual and inter-related information to surface as co-constructed stories” (24). While the word Talanoa does not appear in the documentary record of Refuge, the term is useful for grasping its loose, improvisatory and relational qualities not simply as creative methods but as a distinctive dramaturgy. Consciously or not, Refuge taps into and can be understood through an epistemology that has long been a foundation for Pasifika forms of knowledge creation and transmission.
Some of the earliest documentation of Refuge provides insight into the motivations that drove its dramaturgy of open enquiry and experimentation. In the minutes of a Working Party meeting in 2016, the discussion revolves around art’s contribution to disaster preparedness:
What can [Arts House] contribute to existing plans and the (local North Melbourne) community’s experience of the emotional and aesthetic experience of emergency management?
How can we prepare and build resilience locally, regionally, nationally and internationally during a climate catastrophe?
As the decision to simulate a relief centre indicated, Refuge took this idea of preparedness literally. Its creative team recognised that preparedness for disaster does not result from top-down information delivered by experts, but requires sensorial experience and embodied encounter. Artists understood the theatrical qualities to this felt sense of preparedness. In one of the most evocative commentaries on Refuge, principal artist Lorna Hannan said:
Refuge takes one of the biggest ideas that we have to confront in our daily lives . . . which is behind a curtain like it’s there but people aren’t looking it directly in the face. Refuge pulls back the curtains and says come in here and try thinking about it. It’s a new approach to problems in your life involving yourself . . . and the people around you in facing the reality of a problem but also working at how you get through it, not only get through it but make something positive out of it.
Hannan’s image of the curtain is at once vivid and ambiguous. Perhaps pulling back the curtain reveals the reality of climate crisis behind the stage of our life, the fiction we have created to insulate ourselves from confronting reality? Or perhaps our human-centred sense of the world is too fragile and narrow to entertain this reality, and it is “art” that Hannan is inviting us into, a protected, safe space in which we can “try thinking about it”? If we refuse to choose between these two interpretations, Refuge becomes not only a “testing ground,” in Jen Rae’s terms for arts practice, but also an entrypoint for audiences to grasp the deeper, discomforting understanding of what it means to live in climate emergency. In Hannan’s metaphor, we might be both on the stage and outside of or behind it: an uncanny, multiplied position. As Taumoepeau’s MASS MOVEMENT FOLAU: The Arrival makes clear, bringing the reality of climate crisis into the body, to be experienced and felt, was part of Refuge’s wider dramaturgical logic: a destabilising of reality because we recognise ourselves as both participants and observers of the crisis.
What is unambiguous, however, is Hannan’s commitment to the transformative power of interpersonal relationships for confronting the un-confrontable. It is significant that “the face” and “facing” recur in her reflection. Every year of the program, her contribution revolved around hospitality. She staged familiar, comforting scenes that invited neighbours and strangers in together to communicate face-to-face. Often, climate art is charged with the responsibility of representing the “hyper-object” of climate crisis, of finding new, ever more spectacular and shock-inducing forms to capture and communicate a scenario of destruction in which humans are both central and decentred. Hannan’s work, and the wider dramaturgy of Refuge resisted this. In Van Kerkhoven’s poetic language, the face is a wall of skin that breathes. It allows the other in. In the storying work of Talanoa, open-ended face-to-face talk brings a “potentiality” for knowledge creation. It is in creating opportunities and settings, often intimate and minor, for facing each other that Refuge brought a larger reality into relief.
The vision of the confronting, big idea is not presented as an overwhelming spectacle, separate from us, yet threatening to engulf us. Rather, it is known and felt through the eyes of the other and in our ability to communicate. It is in this sense that Refuge’s dramaturgy compels us into an active role in the production of meaning, away from the position of passive observers of disaster spectacle, and not simply recipients of expert knowledge, but into the embodied and social work of preparedness.
While superficial interpretations of Refuge might focus purely on its contribution to preparedness in a practical sense, its engagement with the procedural work of disaster planning also drove it into many of the same speculative questions driving climate philosophy. Preparedness features, perhaps unconsciously, in this literature. In illuminating the failures and fault lines of Western modernity, climate philosophy prepares cognitively for disaster and ontological collapse. Timothy Morton exemplifies this diagnostic impulse. The Anthropocene, he argues:
collapses the difference between the human realm and so-called nature. Boundary collapse has resulted in what I prefer to call the end of the world. Which is to say the collapse of a meaningful and stable background against which human events can become significant, as on a stage set. In turn, the loss of distance has resulted in a powerful sense of the uncanny and the strange.233
Like Lorna Hannan’s curtain, Morton invokes a theatrical metaphor to underscore the precarity of human-centred reality: the drama of human life requires the stable background of a stage to feel meaningful and significant. Implicitly, for Morton, the stage presumes an enclosed, hermetic space for human dramas to flourish; disturbing this enclosure results in collapse. Here, then, we see a striking contrast between Morton’s brittle reality and the sense of reality put forward by Refuge in resonance with new dramaturgy and the oceanic dramaturgy of Pasifika performance.
For Van Kerkhoven, walls of skin bring the stage into living contact with the social world. Pursuing these connections is an ethical responsibility that ruptures the hermetic seal of the stage. But far from resulting in terminal collapse, it is precisely in this unstable, permeability that the “production comes alive” and finds meaning. The Wiradjuri artist, Hannah Donnelly brings an instructive, First Nations perspective that resists the inevitability of Morton’s boundary collapse. Her commentary on her involvement in Refuge makes repeated reference to a history of 60,000 years of Indigenous storytelling and knowledge as a resource for preparedness:
Yeah, preparedness . . . I guess there’s two parts, there’s one part where when the services did come in and talk to us about the work they do and trying to create community preparedness around emergencies and disasters that people will kind of . . . the idea of people kind of knowing what they should do or having kids ready or those kind of things. I was surprised at how much of an industry was behind that, I really had no idea. And yeah, that really struck a chord with me because at the same time, the second part is preparedness is you know within the country and the land and that’s something I’ve been taught from a very young age, that if you know the country you know exactly when things are going to happen anyway so when I look at using language in the project and stuff, even though I’m from New South Wales it’s kind of looking at the idea that preparedness can extend beyond this recent understanding of preparedness in disaster responses to kind of look at indigenous histories and preparedness as well.
There is something at once disorienting and reassuring in Donnelly’s connection to a deep past of accumulated knowledge and cultural inheritance. If Morton’s philosophy posits that meaningful human action requires an enclosed stage as a stabilising background, Donnelly can envisage meaningful human drama across a vast timescale that extends far beyond Western temporalities. Moreover, this human realm is not in opposition to “so-called nature,” but resides in it, in knowing country. Donnelly does not reject the immediate timeframes that disaster-planning experts bring to preparedness. Rather, this urgency, this present-ness to emergency, is accompanied by, and coexists with preparedness as a long, intergenerational transmission of knowledge that can look back as well as forward.
In this spirit, we return to our opening gesture and Latai Taumoepeau’s MASS MOVEMENT FOLAU: The Arrival. She chose to perform in the Flagstaff Gardens because topographically, it is a highpoint in the landscape, a lookout toward the bay where new arrivals were observed and announced. It is also a burial ground (Taumoepeau). The choice of site then speaks to what Chao and Enari describe as Pacific Island ways of being, “premised upon an holistic and relational harmony between humans, the environment, and the afterlife” (36). Taumoepeau says “folau” means both departure and arrival in her language, reflecting, perhaps, an oceanic imaginary in which a departure from somewhere carries within it an imminent arrival somewhere else. Other interpretations translate folau to mean travel, to navigate, to sail, to sail through. Movement is at the heart of the concept: the physical movement of migration, but also, surely, the imaginative movement between states and worldviews, between timeframes, spaces and epistemologies. Accommodating to this kind of movement makes it possible to be at home within uncertainty and instability. This too, along with establishing open-ended conditions for communication and experimentation, is part of the dramaturgical logic of Refuge, and how its dramaturgy reveals ways of living within a reality that, however destabilising, we are compelled to navigate.
 For an account of the full Refuge program, participating artists, curators and further links to project traces and online performances, see Arts House Refuge website. An audio pilgrimage of MASS MOVEMENT can be experienced here.
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*Danielle Wyatt is a Research Fellow in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. Her interest in climate art sits alongside research into public and community art, cultural policy, public space, and everyday forms of cultural participation.
**Jasmin Pfefferkorn is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. Her research spans museum studies and digital media.
Copyright © 2023 Danielle Wyatt and Jasmin Pfefferkorn
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