Overcoat Issue Six: Education

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issue s

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Covers: 300gsm Maine Recycled Silk Body: 130gsm Maine Recycled Silk Typeset in Whitney Overcoat is an independent production publication. The articles appearing within this publication reflect the opinions of their respective authors and are not necessarily those of the publishers or editorial team.


Editors: Pete Saunders, Jessie Webb Designer: Pete Saunders Illustrator: April Wright Cover: Vincent Buret, Darryl Chandler, Lenny Gitonga — A WormHole allows a traveler to catch a glimpse of a different universe or connect to the past/or future. As it stands, trans-versing this cosmic shortcut is physically impossible, however, for a fleeting moment a vortex has been captured and stabilized allowing for an unexpected connection to an alternate reality. hello@undercoat.net www.undercoat.net

contributors Kara Burns (RMIT University) Dale Campisi (Deakin University) Melanie Doucakis (University of South Africa) Ross Henderson (University of Canterbury) Jennifer Lavers (Monash University) Matt Leach (CATC Design School) Chris Lyons (Rochester Institute of Technology) Sunny Nyssen (Photography Studies College) Bec Tudor (UNSW/University of Tasmania)

additional images Kristin Ballard Michael Brady Bryan Edwards Andrea Hickey Ian Hutton Jessica King Tash Street Keeland Tracy Overcoat is an online publication that aims to share the highest standard of work being produced in creative and professional fields from different institutions globally. It is a platform designed to inspire and connect students and alumni within their own community and with like-minded people around the world. If you would like to contribute work to Overcoat, please send us an email.

contribute@undercoat.net 4

education/editor Education is a hot topic in Australia at present: it is an election year, the education system has been reformed into a national curriculum, and the names of various reforms and reviews — Gonski, Behrendt, and Bradley — ring in our ears. But in our daily lives, and for those of us whose engagement with formal education may be behind us, what significance does ‘education’ hold? How does it shape our lives? Education is close to Overcoat’s heart, so it is fitting that this issue follows on from our last theme of ‘love’. What is education, and where does it come from? What is it to be taught, or to teach? As the collection of stories within these pages shows, education will mean something different to each of us depending on the place we occupy, the opportunities we are afforded, and the people who surround us. Is it possible, these stories ask, that we learn as much from the processes of learning and teaching than we do from any chosen field of study? Beyond the acquisition of knowledge, they suggest, these processes can feed our creativity, and grow us in ways that give meaning to our lives. Can banality, for example, teach us the dimensions of our imagination? Can change or chance or defeat teach us, unexpectedly, the scope of our own possibility? And who, or what, guides us in these educational journeys — is it a place, a mentor, a sense of responsibility, a community, or our culture? Is it the actions of a role-model, the belief of a teacher, or the love — and here we come back to our last theme — of a mother or father? And beyond that: what have we yet to learn? What are the effects of our actions, our choices, and our lives on the planet — and on each other? What are the realities we are oblivious to? What is the impact we don’t yet know we make? These are the questions our contributors turn over in this issue of Overcoat, told in a collection of sensitive and personal stories that come to us from across the country and around the world — educating us as they unfold.

jessie webb 6

Contents 09/ the joys of teaching

chris lyons 21/ portrait of a violinist ross henderson 29/ the wonder years sunny nyssen 39/ great expectations dale campisi/bec tudor 49/ biting off too much? matt leach 61/ educating beyond the school melanie doucakis 79/ sent from my ipad kara burns 87/ seabird islands in a plastic soup dr jennifer lavers


the joys of teaching Helping young designers realise their creative potential. chris lyons rochester institute of technology

I walk into my classroom and there they are: 16 wonderful faces, looking at me, their teacher, like students have done since Aristotle first took attendance. These are my seniors at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in our world-class, tertiary graphic design program. It’s almost like we share a private joke. Half-smiles, a little chatter, some direct shots about a bad haircut or a sudden fashion adjustment. “Where’s your panda hat, Kev?” or, “What’s up with the shorts, Ryan?” (it’s Rochester in February). I make direct eye contact and greet each one as I walk around the room. It’s awkward for a second, but comforting for all of us. It’s inclusive — us against the world. We are in this together. The easy 9:00am exchanges belie the fact that it’s time for Tuesday morning crit. We get after it. Good honest crits are a byproduct of trust. Give and get. And grow. The work improves. The ideas expand (or contract), and we learn. All of us. These kids are smart. And very cool. Good kids, and talented. All of them. Once you adjust to the fact that you are not walking into a conference room filled with professionals, but rather a room full of hungry young creatives and that your 30 years (and counting) in this meat grinder of an industry is why they listen so intently, you realise that you really do have some things that they will benefit from in a big way. You have experience and perspective. And you’re still mostly sane, which is promising. I love this. And I love these kids. These much-maligned ‘millenials’, these alleged ‘narcissists’, are some of my favorite people on the planet. And I have the privilege of spending a couple of days a week with them. It’s the highlight of my professional existence and it has been for ten years. And I’ve got a pretty good gig! I’m a freelance illustrator for crying out loud — I was above-the-fold on the front page of the Wall Street Journal last month! But I didn’t even pick up a copy (ok, I did, but it was the next day in a recycling rack at Starbucks). The teaching is what I talk about and it’s what defines me (in my head) professionally. I’m gearing up to make this my final act. Have I mentioned that I love this? 10

Illustration created for The Atlantic Monthly.

Self Promotion Illustration. 12

It’s a cliché to say that these kids keep you young, keep you engaged and plugged in, and challenge you to ‘bring it’ every class. But it is also the truth. I’m an Adjunct Professor, which means I only teach a couple of classes every semester and I’m unencumbered by faculty meetings and committee responsibilities. That’s a blessing. I focus on bringing a heavy dose of real world sensibility from my lifetime of experience in advertising, design and illustration, my history as a Creative Director — and my success as the lucky father of two lovely and smart ‘millenials’ — into the classroom every day. I think it’s the perfect mix of talents and experience. I know what these kids watched on TV when they were little, because my kids were watching the same things. I know what they listen to now. I can quote Family Guy and sing along to Mumford & Sons. It all gives me energy and I can’t wait to get into the classroom most days. There are lots of effective, involved teachers in our program — people who bring fantastic experience and accomplishment into the classroom. There is so much to teach and to learn in a relatively short amount of time. The more academic aspects involved in teaching at the foundation level — Typography, 2D, Web, Design Theory and History — is certainly best left to the experts. By the time I get these guys they are seniors and it’s about ideas and professionalism. And that’s what makes it so much fun. Watching ideas bubble up and become real (a depression-era whiskey brand, with supporting advertising and a solid social media strategy, out of thin air? Right here: http://www.undercoat.net/john-sinsabaugh-peddlers-reserve/) and then be pulled together and presented as an engaging, smart, disciplined story. It’s the best. I got into teaching to make a difference. I didn’t have great professional guidance many years ago at my university and it left me lacking. No road map to a successful career. No focus. Then I got an internship at Milton Glaser’s studio in New York City and I saw what was possible. Here’s a man who is an icon in the creative world, has a global reputation, unparalleled skills as a designer, thinker, and illustrator, and yet he was most at home as a teacher. Whether it was at the

i got into teaching to make a difference. i didn’t have great professional guidance many years ago at my university and it left me lacking. no road map to a successful career. no focus.


Designer: Andrea Hickey Photographer: Bryan Edwards Class: Creative Career Search Self Promotion: Crime Scene Fashion


School of Visual Arts, or with all the quivering interns on Tuesdays at 5:00pm in his library in the studio on East 32nd St., he was a generous mentor and an inspiration. I wanted to someday be that person who inspired and opened eyes and dished it up unvarnished but with great enthusiasm and warmth. We just finished up the year at RIT. We had our final crit, our senior show, and our traditional wrap-up at the pub. Now I’ve got another group of graduates with whom I’ll stay connected for the rest of their careers. Peers now. What a kick that is. It’s a real joy to teach at a top-level design school. Our grads are designers at TIME, Sports Illustrated, GQ, Zynga, iStrategyLabs, Leo Burnett, BuzzFeed, Soldier Design and R/GA or they’ve started their own places like the wonderful Carrot Creative in Brooklyn. These young people are really fun to be around and there is great mutual respect — there has to be in order for this to work. To stay connected after graduation there just has to be respect. I believe you have to care about your students and really take an interest in their success. You can’t fake that. The days of indifferent professors reading from behind a lectern are over. Who wants that anyway? You dig in and get to know each student as well as you can. What are their professional goals? Where do they want to live? How will they define success? And then you do your damnedest to help them get there. Why else would you teach if you didn’t approach it this way? The academic world can be exasperating when you see teachers mail it in, or operate from a position of fear, or worse, indifference. My parents were hard working, dedicated educators and excellent role models who all loved to teach — and for the right reasons. When my stepdad died a few years ago, the service was packed to the rafters with his former students who were very emotional and enormously thankful for his presence in their lives. It was powerful. He made a difference. I want to make a difference.


i believe you have to care about your students and really take an interest in their success. you can’t fake that. the days of indifferent professors reading from behind a lectern are over.


Senior Portfolio Show at the Vignelli Center for Design Studies at RIT. 20

portrait of a violinist as a young jock

ross henderson university of canterbury

Over the years, the number of people who have misheard me say “I teach violence” is both amusing and alarming. I may never know whether to blame loose enunciation or my brutish exterior. Becoming a violin teacher was not what I had planned. Having begun lessons at five, I guess at about the time I started high school I felt playing the violin was something I wanted to do forever, which made it an appealing profession. I kept doing a wide range of things, and enjoyed the sense that my identity was not narrowly defined, but music affected me more powerfully than anything else and allowed me to express myself in a direct and honest way. My sport was every bit as crucial to my merriment growing up. I had a cricket bat in my hands before I first held a violin, and played rugby until basketball took over. Cricket was in my blood, and just as the violin amplified the bond with my mum (a pianist), our shared love for cricket gave (writer) dad, my brothers and me endless joy-filled hours to spend together playing and practising. As I excelled in music, I continued to play representative cricket, attending national age-group tournaments throughout my school years while playing in the regional senior competition. It should not be considered surprising for someone young to be indulging multiple passions, but as I got older my own particular combination often drew this response. Even if aware of the clichés, people seem so conditioned by stereotypes that this kind of reaction is almost given without thinking. I resented the sometime perception that not having a sole focus meant I cared less about either vocation. For me it was simple: I loved doing both, and wasn’t going to sacrifice one for the other. More than this, I felt that far from being incompatible, they fed into each other in the best possible way. Being wholly absorbed in one sphere allowed me to return refreshed to the other, and dealing with the respective challenges empowered me. I can’t recall where I first read the description of violinists as being “athletes of the small muscles”. Though at first it sounds dubious, I have to agree with the metaphor. To witness a worldclass violinist in full flight is to see an extraordinary display of 22

miniaturised gymnastics with no margin for error. At the same time, the impression of effortlessness warrants more comparisons with supreme athletes who make the physically tricky look easy. For me, playing the violin and playing sport has never felt incongruous. Both involve the exacting of particular movements to achieve specific outcomes. Each relies upon rhythm, synchronisation, balance, coordination, reflexes, stamina, and muscle memory. Parallels lie in the constant, disciplined training in order to master subtleties, and the complex technical process that ultimately must lead to a free, uninhibited style. To be original and creative you need to draw upon existing knowledge without being constrained by it. Above all, both place you right in the moment, producing the meditative and euphoric experience to which so many attest. As I started my performance degree, I knew I was postponing the inevitable when it came to giving up cricket. I think I imagined myself doing post-graduate study somewhere remote like Siberia, where the game did not exist, which would make it easier. At nineteen, midway through my degree, I shattered the middle joint of my left index finger while batting when the ball jammed it against the bat handle. I was instantly cut off from the two things I loved most, and spent the next four years trying to get the finger right. Although the recovery was pretty amazing given the damage to the joint, I wasn’t left with enough reliable dexterity to cope with the habitual demands of professional playing. I was annoyed by anyone who attributed what happened to fate or destiny; that it was “meant to be”. I knew it was an accident, irrespective of the context. Feeling obliged to be defensive about the circumstances quickly got tiresome. It was surreal enough as it was, without the added sense that some expected me to acknowledge that I had simply gambled and lost. People can, and do, injure themselves in a number of ways. Most injuries occur during ordinary living, and I’ve met, read, and heard about enough musicians throughout my life to confirm that no amount of bubble-wrap can avoid it. As far as placing myself in jeopardy is concerned, the distinction has to be


made between conflict and the simple possibility of an injury, which applies across the spectrum of everyday life. In terms of inherent risk, I wonder whether a career-ending injury sustained while driving a car or doing the dishes is really that different from mine. My dad, Michael Henderson, was a fiction writer and an accomplished cricketer, who represented New Zealand Universities. During a game in his early twenties, he first met life-long friend and poet, Brian Turner, who was in the opposing team. Recounting that initial encounter with dad, Brian, later a New Zealand hockey representative and successful road cyclist, remembers the proud, open way in which they both discussed their fledgling creative pursuits. I love this recollection, not only because it challenges the notion from either side that sport and the arts are mutually exclusive, but also because it reveals the way in which the most creatively significant friendships in life can emerge from unexpected contexts. By remaining insular, we close ourselves off to contact with those who could influence or inspire us in an infinite number of ways. An expanded understanding of people through broader interaction can give artists more insight into the human condition. I can’t imagine missing out on all of the friendships that evolved growing up, through my sport. It’s hard to avoid sounding sentimental in stating this, but the profound way the sum of these relationships has formed my outlook on life is impossible to deny. I think the thing about both environments to which I’ve always been so drawn is the intrinsic intensity juxtaposed with light-heartedness. I have always loved being around people who comfortably flit between the serious and the absurd, and quite like this approach to existence in general. I appreciate so much the diverse experiences I had as a kid. I’m very aware, no matter how talented the student, of the pitfalls of limiting the scope of their interests to the violin alone. Particularly with hindsight, I see that what hurt me as much as anything after my accident was the fact that the brave trust and belief my parents had in my following my own path went cruelly punished. I would want the same parental support and belief extended to any child.

an expanded understanding of people through broader interaction can help give artists more insight into the human condition.


Increasingly in children’s sports there is an intense, professionalised focus — long the case with promising young musicians. Kids are expected to practise the sport year-round and to have the sport become the singular focus of their life. There is a danger in allowing our strengths to forge identities that can end up constricting us. A kid who thrills in physical activity may evolve into a risk-taking musician and artist who is free from prescribed conventions and cultural expectations. Sacrifice will invariably be an element of reaching our potential, but giving up the things we love, especially early on in life, harms the very essence that feeds our creativity. In an interesting way, things have gone full circle, with my weeks now filled with the same blend of music, cricket, and basketball I relished growing up. Although I’ll always wonder how things might have panned out had I not injured my hand, I am happy through teaching to be immersed in music. Though not a substitute for performing, I have found that in its best moments teaching conjures up the same emotions, and channels a similar freedom of ideas and expression. The facility I have in my left hand enables me to play for my own enjoyment, with opportunities to perform from time to time, and just as I like plotting ahead future repertoire for my students, there is a never-ending world of music I look forward to working on myself. Music has always flooded my life and in return, my experiences have flowed back into my music. As everything exists in art, we need to be open to everything in life contributing to it. Most of us acknowledge the wisdom behind living life not to please others, but too often we limit creative potential in young people by not allowing them to shape their own existence.


the wonder years

Schoolyard architecture and the psyche. sunny nyssen photography studies college

When I think of education I think of high school, those formative years in a young person’s life where being rebellious is almost a necessity. It’s only natural to indulge in stereotypical adolescent behaviour when surrounded by a world of subjugated conformity. Recently I have wondered: what effect does school architecture have on a student’s psyche? What did it have on mine? For me, education at the high school level was about containment and following rules. My remembered experience is wearing a uniform and being lectured to in drab and banal surrounds — banality that I was almost oblivious to by the end of my high school years. No doubt, the six-hours-perday, five-days-a-week over six years had an effect on me. I’m sure it succeeded, counter-intuitively, in expanding my imagination. I remember a teacher pontificating that the lessons to be learned were ‘all about preparing you for the outside world’, as if, shackled to our desks, we were on the ‘inside’ going through a rigorous rehabilitation process. After spending almost ten years of my working life in an office, the irony isn’t lost on me! I think my frustrated high school years have melded into my time as a disillusioned employee. Not until after high school did I discover the wonder, colour and expanse of the ‘outside’ world — the Western education system doesn’t cater for those more interested in creative pursuits. School placed too much weight on maths, English and the sciences for my liking. Along with mainstream society, it seemed to teach us that capitalism, consumerism and success were the keys to fulfillment. Now, after all my studies, I push a pen for ‘the man’ instead of the teacher — but I’m trying to make up for lost time, and I see the light (which comes in handy for a aspiring photographer). The monotony and sameness in so many school building designs demonstrates the lack of creativity that brought them to being. Private schools may use better building materials, but however you dress them up, schools remain fenced-in spaces, not dissimilar to juvenile prisons. Schools without students really have no personality. The empty grounds remind me of a post-apocalyptic vision: a past once left behind. The best part of high school for me was the bus-ride home — my daily Great Escape. And, I loathe to say, the feeling remains as I walk out of my very ordinary office at the end of each day. 30



http://www.sunnynyssen.com/ 36


great expectations Walking away from a PhD

dale campisi and bec tudor deakin university university of new south wales/university of tasmania

Bec Tudor and Dale Campisi first met at an

As it turned out I fell in love with Hobart

Australian Arts and Business Foundation

and relocated there six months later under

(now called Creative Partnerships Tasmania)

the premise of completing my BA cross-

networking event in Hobart in early 2012.

institutionally. I can see now that I used study as

Dale attended as the newly appointed editor

a way to catalyse big change in my life, though

of Island Magazine, Tasmania’s leading

I wasn’t aware I was doing this at the time!

literary journal, and Bec was present as a

Instead of returning to Sydney to start

board representative from Contemporary

Honours as I’d expected, I took up an

Art Spaces Tasmania.

invitation to study a Masters of Art, Design

They had much in common as young

and Environment (MADE) in Hobart: a new

professionals who were ambitious and

coursework postgraduate degree at art school.

optimistic about creative possibilities in

Within ten months I had delivered a research

Tasmania. But it was a shared past experience

paper, an exhibition of art works, and received

discovered over a beer the following week

the equivalent of first class Honours.

that truly cemented their friendship: Bec and

I had a strong concept for that Masters

Dale were both PhD drop-outs.

research (it examined the structures of

After years of working on research projects

lookouts in national parks as aesthetic and

and carrying the real or perceived expectations

ethical framing devices for place) and loved

of peers, family, institutions and — most of

the challenge of doing that degree. But when

all — themselves, both had passed up the

a staff member visited me before my Masters

opportunity to become a doctor before the age

exhibition was even up to urge me to apply for

of 30 to take other paths. Today, they each

a PhD scholarship I was genuinely surprised

have a successful career in the Arts. From

to learn that I was eligible. Of course I was

this perspective, they reflect on the fraught

flattered too. I couldn’t get my head around

decision to discontinue what is typically

the idea of another research project while

considered the ultimate academic achievement.

on the final straight for Masters, so I went through the motions of applying for the

Bec: My doctoral research was in art theory, a different discipline to either of my two

scholarship and thought: ‘I can always turn it down if I do get it’.

previous degrees. I did my Bachelor of Arts

Dale: Oh wow — the journey to PhD application!

with a major in philosophy in Sydney, where

Is it always a quest for validation? Or is it just us

I’m originally from. Environmental ethics was

dropouts who have that in common?

my particular interest back then, and studying

As a second-generation migrant living in

the historic Lake Pedder environmental

country Victoria, just gaining entrance to

campaign inspired me to visit Tasmania.

and attending university was a big deal. 40

Honestly I’d always envisaged it like it was

starting doctoral studies I was told that I

my destiny, but it was only a goal — I never

had to commence immediately if I wanted

really understood the role it would, or could,

the scholarship. At this stage I had been in

play in career terms.

education non-stop for nineteen years. I just

I don’t think I even knew what a PhD was until

forged ahead.

I was in my final year of university. I studied a

I was really lucky to be able to handpick

Bachelor of Arts (Professional Writing) with

the supervisors I wanted to work with.

majors in philosophy and editing. I got great

I conceived a project under the title of

scores throughout university and by third year

‘Visual Art, Environment & the Development

all my lecturers were dutifully encouraging

of Values: investigating the confluence of art

me to pursue Honours, which I did because

practice and environmental engagement’.

my Bachelor of Arts didn’t make me feel

I loved the fields I was exploring, but as this

employable, and the prospect of becoming

title indicates I lacked a strong focus for

an assistant manager at The Dirty Bird wasn’t

my research. As time went on and I tried

particularly desirable. My Honours supervisor

harder to pin down my project I only felt

quickly became a kind of mentor — a good

increasingly lost.

start for further studies. I worked closely

I’m not sure why I was encouraged into a

with her to get my practical training as an

PhD. Sure I was a good scholar, but not all

editor, and together we knocked out an idea

good scholars want to — or should — take up

for a thesis that drew together my interest

PhDs. My Honours supervisor was lukewarm

in literary magazines and cultural change in

about the idea, I remember — presumably

Australia in the 1960s and 70s. There was

she knew before I did that I didn’t really have

loads of interesting material to work with

a concrete research project that could sustain

here, and it sustained my interest long

me for three years. But I felt like I was on a

enough for me to write a first class thesis.

trajectory. And there I found myself at 22:

I guess that when you’ve always strived

a PhD candidate in receipt of a three-year

to achieve it’s very difficult to decline an

scholarship at a prestigious university.

opportunity. I also had practical reasons

What an achievement!

for accepting the PhD scholarship — I had

I never identified my reasons for doing a

recently started a relationship and wanted

PhD. I really didn’t understand the difference

to stay in Hobart, but I had no job. Here was

between research and coursework until way

an offer of tax-free income doing something

too late. And whether it was a cause or a

considered prestigious.

symptom of a problematic project, the daily

When I asked if I could take a six-month

routine of being a PhD student didn’t make

break to recharge my mental energies before

me feel great.


My office was basically in the school’s

cause, but inside I was weary and wanting

administration centre, while those doing

permission to unburden myself, even just

practice-based PhDs had wonderful active

for a short while.

studios on other levels of the building.

I didn’t actually have anything to write

For stretches of time I was the only full-

about. I was broadly interested in non-linear

time art theory PhD candidate at the school.

storytelling — like the Choose Your Own

When I look back it seems the PhD involved

Adventure books of my childhood, but digital.

long periods of isolation, punctuated by

How would hyperlinks change the way we

moments of confronting public exposure

communicate? Change our understanding

in the form of critique sessions and

of narrative? Yes these were the early days

conference presentations.

of the Internet — not then embedded in our

Opportunities to get professional experience

everyday lives as it is today. They were big

lecturing and tutoring at the university

questions, but they were far from formed

were so rare they were virtually non-existent.

and I had no research methodology guiding

I tried to ground myself, to connect with

my lines of enquiry. That would come, I was

people and things outside my research

told, by immersing myself in the work.

project. I took up roles in an artist-run

Unfortunately it didn’t for me, though it

initiative and the postgraduate student

did for friends in similar predicaments who

union. I started a side career writing articles

have since gone on to complete first class

and critical reviews for the national art

doctorates. While they were finding their feet

magazines. I worked part-time in several

I just became consumed with all the possible

contemporary art galleries.

narratives I could write, finding it impossible

All the time, I carried the troublesome

to structure and control what I had started.

PhD along with me, hoping for a solution

Undertaking a PhD is kind of like an act of

that would help.

religious devotion, and I was in way over

In 2008 I finally applied for the suspension

my head. I reached out to my supervisors,

from studies I had needed from the start.

of course, but so absent were they from my

I wrote to the institution: “I am feeling

academic life I can barely recall their faces.

fatigued and intellectually burnt-out…

Maybe they decided I was too far out to sea,

overwhelmed and unreasonably oppressed

and that they should just cut their losses.

by my project — while objectively I view

I should certainly have worked harder to

the research to be strong, legitimate and

have the right people around me, like I had

interesting.” My lack of conviction seeps

in my Honours year. Despite what you might

through that last sentence. I was trying

think, no one completes a PhD alone. (I also

to convince someone that I wasn’t a lost

missed out on collegiality at the university


I attended. I didn’t complete my undergrad

perplexed and hurt. This was the outwards

there, so did not have an established clique.

sign of what it took for me to voluntarily step

I attended all the seminars and forums and

away from my PhD after fighting so long with,

postgraduate gatherings, but still I remained

for and against it. Even now I really don’t

an outsider. That’s the only time I’ve ever had

know how to explain what was going on for

that problem. Shit happens).

me. Maybe it was a form of grief. It wasn’t

I would be lying if I said I made a decisive

rational, but it was very intense. Then, all of a

decision to step away from the PhD. In fact,

sudden the realisation hit me that my new job

I resumed study after the break then applied for

was about to start. I withdrew from the PhD,

a totally amazing job that came up: my current

let go, and never looked back.

role at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery.

By the time my confirmation (what felt like a

Yet again, I set the wheels of fate in motion

probationary hearing) rolled around, I knew

but neglected to engage fully with the possible

it was time to put an end to the hope and

consequences until they became a reality for

the bluff that a project would miraculously

me. When I got the job the friends, family and

emerge like a phoenix from the ashes of my

partner who had supported me throughout

academic destiny. My supervisors concurred,

the PhD and job application were so pleased.

and that was that. But by this time I was

Even my supervisors were supportive.

lecturing in publishing, and I couldn’t just

It emerged however, that many expected I

erase the failure of my PhD. It was with me

would do both the PhD and the full-time job.

every day when I shared cigarettes with

How could people be encouraging me even

friends at the bike racks and worse, whenever

now, given my struggles to date?

I passed one of my former supervisors in the

My partner forced me to face the fact that my

corridor — an uncomfortably skinny bridge

options were mutually exclusive. To attempt

between towers where two people had to turn

both would have been a decision against any

side on to allow each other to pass —and he

quality of life, and would also prevent me

would look the other way!

from succeeding in my job. The choice was

The personal investment other people can

obvious, yet to make it I retreated darkly into

have in someone else’s PhD is really weird.

myself for several days and avoided contact

Acquaintances still ask me “You’ll go back

with anyone. The PhD project I’d created and

to it one day, won’t you?” as though it had

had carried so long was now like a splinter.

been true love thwarted; as though order

I just had to take myself away, lock the door

could be restored to the world if only I’d

and rip this thing out of me.

say “Yes, I’m going back in”.

I was a ball of vague, unthinking fury and

Getting ‘Doctor’ in front of your name,

the people around me were understandably

getting the piece of paper and attending


the graduation ceremony are tangible

I’ve told a dozen Australian stories in a bunch

outcomes that people can understand.

of different ways.

To miss out on obtaining these things must

I continued writing myself, too — in all kinds

seem like a shame after the time put in.

of different forms and styles so that I could

But I’ve learned so much through that

extend my range. Having been around the

undignified process of trying to wrangle that

publishing industry for more than ten years,

PhD. I am less likely now to confuse hopeless

I’ve worked on many projects two or three

wishful thinking for worthy persistence, and

years in the making. But these days I always

I now know what a viable project does and

know how they end.

doesn’t feel like. I proved that I can write about contemporary art — an ability that has increased my employment prospects

Bec Tudor is Coordinator of Art Education at

perhaps more than any other single skill

the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery.

— and I learned that a life in academia isn’t

She manages the state-wide art education

for me, for now anyway. I understand now

program, AccessArt, established through a

that institutions can set you on tracks and

philanthropic donation by Detached Cultural

that it’s up to you to be brave enough to

Organisation. Born and raised in Sydney,

know when to jump off. Best of all, stepping

Bec moved to Tasmania 10 years ago and is

away from the PhD allowed me to participate

now based in Moonah, a culturally burgeoning

in another form of learning through work:

northern suburb of Hobart. She is a voluntary

one that relies on direct experience,

Director on the board of Contemporary Art Spaces

participation in culture and the arts industry,

Tasmania (better known as CAST), a nationally

connection with community, collaboration

recognised organisation committed to developing

with peers and being part of a team.

professional art practice. She writes occasionally

I look forward to the possibility of maybe

for national arts publications.

choosing to do a PhD later in my life. But it

Dale Campisi is a writer and entrepreneur.

definitely won’t be a return to that project.

He is primarily interested in storytelling,

That particular learning curve ran its course

and over the years has been a writer, editor

and was valuable for exactly what it was.

and university lecturer. He is a co-founder of

Since I left the PhD I’ve moved on and on.

cult history publisher Arcade Publications and

At least, I feel the guilt less and less now!

Melbourne concept pop-shop Melbournalia.

Best for that was finally leaving the academy

Raised on a dairy farm in country Victoria,

— I’d been in school since preps! I bounced

Dale now splits his time between Melbourne

around magazines for a while before

and country Tasmania, where he is restoring

establishing Arcade Publications, where

the frontier community of Hunting Ground.

Photography: Jessica King, pp. 32 Michael Brady. pp. 34, 36, 38


biting off too much? Tackling the future in a single day. matt leach catc design school

VIVID is a three week cultural event in the City of Sydney, focused on ‘light, ideas and design’. It includes Australia’s longest-running design competition and an innovation showcase for new and emerging designers. When they asked Tractor Design School if they would like to hold a panel about creative education they chose the biggest topic they could think of: the future.

The day was perfect, Sydney Harbour was shimmering in the afternoon light and the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia’s Harbour-side room was probably the best place to view it. Two hundred design educators shuffled in, made polite chitchat and took their seats. On the stage sat a panel of design industry heavyweights: Kevin Finn, Chris Laws, Nick Gower, Christopher Doyle and me, the slightly out-of-his-comfort-zone moderator. Shaping the future of design education: on your marks, get set, go. In hindsight we should probably have had a week’s discussion, not the hour we’d planned. On top of that the panel had a decidedly masculine weighting, amplified by the number of beards. This was a point the audience noticed right away and made comment on. Things were tense. In truth, this is what we’d always planned. It’s a tense subject, and one people prefer to skim around rather than tackle head on. The very premise of ‘shaping the future’ suggests there is something wrong with today’s version. This can seem a bit like a slap in the face for design educators who are constantly struggling with the tightrope of industry relevance and ever-increasing government regulations. I’ve been in the business for over ten years and the current environment is by far the most inhibitive, especially when it comes to introducing innovation into curriculums. The fact 200 design educators turned up shows the battle is not lost. Prior to the panel we had sent out a controversial survey where every word was aimed to entice a reaction. Statements questioned whether design educators should be allowed to sit on industry councils and 50

whether schools should cap their enrolments in line with available jobs. It was always going to be contentious. Personally, I think the debate needs to be contentious. Some of the questions we had on the survey have been around since before I started design school. The catcall of ‘there are too many graduates and not enough jobs’ has probably been around longer. I remember speaking with the late Ross Renwick about his experience establishing Billy Blue Design School. On day one they expected six students and got 60. He reminisced about the abrasive phone calls he would get from creative directors, something along the lines of — ‘What are you playing at Ross? You trying to wreck the industry?’ That was in 1987 and there are many more graduating students now. The survey question read: ‘Design schools should be capping their enrolments in line with how many jobs there are.’ People could either choose to strongly agree (20%), slightly agree (30%), slightly disagree (50%) or strongly disagree (0%). This makes the results a perfect split with 50% on the affirmative and 50% on the negative. What’s interesting is that no one strongly disagreed. When I posed this to the panel it was Nick Gower who spoke up first. He felt it wasn’t the place of industry, government or society to decide whether someone could or couldn’t study design. He questioned how we would make that selection. First in, first served? What would happen if the next great Australian designer were next in line? What would we do with them — send them off to learn hairdressing because there are more jobs available? Put like that, the question becomes a little mute. Chris Doyle wondered whether fine artists or musicians ever complain about the number of current students studying their area. Probably. The creative arts have been a very popular vocation to study in recent years, and that seems to be in line with the growing strength of the Australian creative workforce. When I recently attended the New South Wales Creative Taskforce launch they were really excited about the fact the creative industries now employ more people than agriculture and mining in Australia. It shows no sign of slowing


20% Agree Strongly 30% Agree Slightly Design schools should be capping their enrolments in line with how many jobs there are

50/50 0% Disagree Strongly

50% Disagree slightly

Letting design educators have a leading role in industry associations is a conflict of interest

5% Agree. Educators should be relegated to a separate tier of membership

10% Agree. Educators should only be able to have a leading role if they maintain a professional client list

11% Disagree. Schools should have more say within industry

74% Disagree. There must be a balance of educators and professionals


down, either. While other industries like hospitality and finance are plateauing, the creative arts are growing. What does this mean for Australian society if we have more creatively minded people ‘running amok’? Kevin Finn finds it hard to think of as a bad thing and added that the term ‘design thinking’ was now entering the common vernacular. Designers are being asked to solve problems they would never have been consulted on previously. Case in point is the Sneaky Minds workshops that ran in May. The workshop’s premise is based around solving problems using different styles of thinking — design thinking being a major focus. Attendees sign up for a one-day workshop where they learn a style of thinking and then apply that newfound knowledge to a problem. For the second year running, the workshops have collaborated with the City of Sydney, who supplies real-world problems. This year focused on minimising noise for city residents and enticing ‘over 40’s’ into the city after dark. The great thing about these workshops is that professional designers only make up a fraction of the audience. This year we had people from all walks of life who were looking for a chance to flex their creative thinking muscles. When you think about what this means for the future of design education — more people wanting to have a taste but not necessarily do it for a career — it can only be a good thing. Chris Laws also thinks it points to the need to have more choice for short-term courses rather than just 3-year degrees. This is probably the reason why unaccredited courses are gaining momentum in Australia. Shaking off the shackles of regulation means you can focus more on what the industry wants from graduates, and you can do this instantly, without having to have gain approval from a governing body. Kevin Finn was quick to draw the comparison to Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) like Coursera who offer short online subjects, an area only set to grow exponentially. As the sun sank and the lights of VIVID lit up the Opera House sails we realised we’d barely touched the surface of the topic. We had also only covered a handful of the survey answers. What was clear was



that this could only have ever been the beginning of a conversation that will, hopefully, carry on. I may yet get my weeklong discussion. It was also clear that the tension hadn’t decreased. In some ways it had increased, as multiple discussions and debates sprang up around the room and carried on into the surrounding bars. What a great position for design education to be in, to have so many people this passionate about it’s future. In the coming weeks, as one of the organisers of this monster, we will try and work out what the next steps are to keep the discussion going. There will at least be some more (all female) panel discussions and a chance to publish more of the survey results. One attendee mentioned to me that a workshop might be a better choice to get some concrete results — I think she may be right. A week long workshop anyone?

For more info about any of the events or people mentioned above see these links: The survey — still up so get along and have your say: https://tractor.typeform.com/to/MHdgmN www.tractordesignschool.com.au

Chris Laws — Moon Design www.moon.com.au Chris Doyle — Christopher Doyle & Co. www.christopherdoyle.co Kevin Finn — The Sum Of www.thesumof.com.au Nick Gower — Mentally Friendly www.mentallyfriendly.com NSW Creative Industries Taskforce — www.business.nsw.gov.au/doing-business-in-nsw/industry-action-plans/creative-industries Photography: Keeland Tracy


educating beyond the school Reaching out to communities in South Africa’s Eastern Cape. melanie doucakis university of south africa

Education in South Africa is one of the country’s biggest challenges. While it is defined as a ‘right afforded to all’ in our Constitution, it remains a journey filled with obstacles for the larger percentage of South African children. For those in the most isolated and rural parts of the country, simply reaching a source of learning is the first obstacle. Following this, children are faced with the challenge of learning in an environment that makes learning difficult: poorly resourced and severely overcrowded, to say the least. While working in the Eastern Cape Province earlier this year — one of the country’s most isolated and impoverished areas — the reality for children in this part of the country was shown to me. As a nation, South Africa has got a long way to go in providing access to quality education for all children, and the gap that has existed for so many years has prevented much-needed knowledge from reaching isolated communities. These cut-off communities have very little access to information or systems that could assist them in addressing some of their challenges. In many instances, basic health and nutrition knowledge is lacking. A young person who wants to apply for a bursary for tertiary education may not have the first idea how, nor know anyone who could help them. A teenage mother may not know how to best care for herself while pregnant nor help her newborn baby to remain healthy once born. In some of these communities, ignorance of laws which may not exist in the community’s traditional framework can lead to violations of basic human rights. Young girls, for example, are being married off at a young age, therefore being denied the education to which they have a right. However, I became aware of another kind of education in the Eastern Cape, which is of invaluable importance in these isolated and marginalized South African communities; I was convinced I needed to tell this story. There are dedicated and hard working heroes in these parts of the country who are undertaking the vital task of reaching these communities with information and outstretched hands of help. Paralegal Advice Centre in Lusikisiki is a small yet very important organization of committed people who do everything from conducting 62

workshops with parents at schools in isolated communities to equip them with knowledge of South Africa’s Children’s Act and laws that pertain to their children; to helping a young girl who comes in for help after being beaten by her boyfriend. Tobeka is one of their stand-out staff members, a feisty young woman with a diva-esque attitude, who does not let much stand in her way when it comes to standing up for the rights of others. She has worked on numerous cases of forced child marriage and voices her opinions without fear, regardless of push back from community members. She is young and makes great use of the fact that she came from one of these impoverished and isolated communities herself. Funeka is a ‘Mentor Mother’, who works with an organization called Pilani in rural Eastern Cape. The ‘Mentor Mothers’ program was initiated to educate mothers in these communities around everything relating to pregnancy, motherhood and childcare. The program then works to equip these mothers to become mentors in their own communities, thereby passing on vital, life-giving knowledge and help when needed — whether physical or emotional. Funeka was one of the first mothers assisted by the program and is now teacher and counsellor for women who may never travel further than their neighbour’s homestead. The importance of this work is unequivocal in these parts. As studies have shown, the development of a child does not begin when they reach school, but long before that. Without the care needed as an infant, these rural children start with their first obstacle very early in life. Supporting communities is a difficult and complex matter, but it cannot happen without the efforts of the likes of Tobeka and Funeka. They do much with very little. They are heroes.

Tobeka outside Paralegal Advice Centre’s office in Lusikisiki Eastern Cape.


Both these photos are of posters inside Paralegal’s offices, they speak to some of the issues that Tobeka and her colleagues deal with on an almost daily basis.


Tobeka at one of Paralegal’s parent education workshops taking place in a village over 40 kilometers away from Lusikisiki.

A baby sneaks a peek at my camera in the workshop, taking place at a junior school in the village. Almost all schools in these remote areas are hugely under resourced; desks and chairs often times being a luxury


Young mothers, who are unlikely to have finished school themselves, attend the workshop with their babies.

A crĂŞche in Eastern Cape. Few children are lucky to attend a place of learning such as this.


Funeka at the homestead of one of her clients, a young boy is undressed to be weighed. Funeka has a book in which she tracks the weights of all her clients babies from birth, keeping tabs on their growth and health.

A little boy weighed by Funeka. 72

Another of Funeka’s clients with her new baby

The mother’s eldest daughter (16, who was married off at 13) with her own baby, sitting with her younger siblings.


Another mom and baby weigh-in.

Another client, another baby being weighed by Funeka


Funeka counseling a young mother to be.

A young expectant mother is monitored by Funeka. With Funeka’s assistance, complications may be picked up during pregnancy, which, without detection can pose a risk to both mother and baby, particularly in isolated communities. 78

A young mother and her daughter.

Funeka showing a new mother how her baby’s weight compares to the graph of a healthy baby’s weight. This little one is spot on target. 80

sent from my ipad A guest in Berlin. kara burns rmit university

I had not planned to visit Berlin. As a second-generation post-war migrant from a Polish-Jewish family, I had other places I wanted to see in Europe. But in mid 2013, on the invitation of a good friend completing his Masters in Arts Research with the Staatsoper Unter den Linden (Berlin State Opera), I was given an open invitation to stay as guest in the country’s capital. Berlin is a city of contrasts. Despite its location in the wealthiest country in the Euro-zone, the city is called the ‘Capital of Poverty’, because in 2005 an estimated 15.2% of the population received welfare. While other major capital cities in Europe are growing (greater London for example has seen an increase of about 1 million people in the last ten years), Berlin’s population has fluctuated and is still well below the 1925 level, when it was the third-largest municipality in the world. Berlin’s difficult history holds the key to its lack of population growth. The people of Germany, and especially Berlin, have taken the brave step of being honest about their past, and today Berlin dedicates great wealth and space to historical places documenting World War Two (WWII) and the Cold War. It is through Berlin’s monuments that we understand how education was used in the propaganda of the Third Reich. Through them we also understand education’s importance in allowing Germans to come to terms with their history, promoting peace and tolerance. From a tragic history, Berlin has transformed and reclaimed her past, proving to be a vibrant, intellectual European capital city where living costs are low, the quality of life is high and the people, cognisant of their past, are cautiously sharing their new found identity with people from all over the world.



In 1933 Berlin was the press capital of the world, with over

The Bebelplatz, outside the main entrance of Humboldt University,

4000 newspapers in circulation covering the entire political

is known as the site of the infamous Nazi book burning ceremony

spectrum. By 1943 only 1000 existed and 80% conformed

held in the evening of May 10, 1933. Party members and students

to the scripts created by Propaganda Minister Goebbels.

alike burnt 20,000 books whose writings were viewed as subversive or whose ideologies undermined the National Socialist Administration. An underground memorial to the lost books can be found outside the entrance to the University where a secondhand book flea market runs everyday.

The Luftwaffe (German Air force) Headquarters survived the

Checkpoint Charlie (or “Checkpoint C”) was the name given

bombing of WWII. The 2000 offices inside were controlled by

by the Western Allies to the best-known Berlin Wall crossing

the Luftwaffe High Command, which was established by the

point between East Berlin and West Berlin during the Cold

cabinet’s Minister of Aviation, Reichsmarschal Herman Göring.

War. Checkpoint Charlie became a symbol of the Cold War,

In 1941 the Luftwaffe employed 1,700,000 people.

representing the separation of east and west. After the

At the end of the war on 8 May 1945, more than 97,000

dissolution of the Eastern Bloc and the reunification of Germany,

would be reported dead, wounded or missing. Today the

the building at Checkpoint Charlie became a tourist attraction.

building is Germany’s National Tax Office.


Among red-roofed communist houses from the 1980s,

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe was designed by

a car park sits below the spot where Hitler committed

the Jewish American architect Peter Eisenman and consists of

suicide with Eva Braun in 1945. The air-raid shelter was

a site covered with 2,711 concrete coffinesque slabs, arranged

the last head quarters of the Third Reich and is marked

in a grid pattern on a sloping field. According to Eisenman the

only with a small plaque and wild flowers.

sculpture field is designed to produce an uneasy, confusing atmosphere and represents an ordered system that has lost touch with human reason. The project was controversial, costing 27 million Euros, but is a meeting point for local children, who are required to visit the memorial with school and choose to hang out there after hours. A German student jumps across the block, posing for his friend’s camera.

Tourists visit the Neue Wache, a memorial to the victims of war

Youths sit below blocks of the Berlin Wall that have

and tyranny. Inside, a sculpture by local artist Käthe Kollwitz

been made into artworks to demonstrate political opinion.

shows a mother and in her arms, her dead son. Kollwitz’ own son

Originally, the Berlin Wall was a barrier that completely cut

died in the First World War and her husband and grandson died in

off West Berlin from surrounding East Germany, creating a

the Second. Buried underneath the sculpture are the remains of an

divide known as the Iron Curtain. It also marked a separation

unknown German soldier and the victim of a concentration camp,

between the political ideals of democracy and communism.

along with soil from the different battlefields and camps of WWII.


Travellers, locals and music students listen intently to a

Originally considered one of the oldest airports in the world,

free lunchtime performance given by members of the Berlin

Templehof was in full operation as an airport in the mid 1920s.

Philharmonic Orchestra. It is not unusual to see people lying

The Nazi government increased its size in the mid-1930s in

on the floor of the foyer with eyes closed or their backs turned

anticipation of growing air traffic, and it served as a construction

to the players. Mothers bring prams with babies and children,

site for war aircraft for the Third Reich. In the spirit of reclamation,

who sit quietly throughout the whole performance.

Berliners have transformed Templehof into a park for picnics, kite surfing and vegetable garden plots.

Teufelsberg (German for ‘Devil’s Mountain’) is a hill in Berlin,

The custom of attaching a padlock to a fence, gate or

and the site of a defunct listening station constructed by the

bridge by sweethearts to symbolize their love has appeared in

US National Security Agency in the late 1960s. Post-Cold War

Berlin and across Germany. This symbolic act aligns

development on the site was vetted, however the 2006

Berlin with her neighbours in Europe and many other parts

land use plan of Berlin categorized the hilltop as forest,

of the world. This freedom of expression typifies the spirit

eliminating the possibility. The radar domes still remain today

of the new Germany.

and serve as a squat for local artists who create elaborate spray art on the remaining buildings and earn a small fee letting tourists into the park.


seabird islands in a plastic soup The remote areas where worlds collide. dr jennifer lavers monash university

My plastic addiction started in the most roundabout way. It began with another addiction: islands. The more remote, wind-swept, and animal infested, the better. Got an island you know nothing about? No power, no running water, no outside communication? No problem. With more than 800 days spent on 31 uninhabited islands from northern Canada to southern Australia, I’ve experienced just about everything beautiful and brutal about island life. The summer of 2003: when everything that could go wrong, did. Having grown up in the Canadian prairies, I knew almost nothing about oceans or, for that matter, seabirds. This was something I neglected to mention when, in May 2003, I accepted a PhD project studying seabird ecology. It was going to be an adventure, for more reasons than one. The first challenge was to make my way to my field site. A vehicle malfunction on day one was not what I had planned, but the research technician and I had never properly met, so being stranded in in a small town in south-eastern Quebec gave us just enough time to discover we had almost nothing in common. We were about to spend four months together living in a tiny shack on a remote speck of land off the coast of Labrador (northern Canada), and this was sounding less and less like a good time. We sat in the empty ferry terminal making signs from cardboard we’d scavenged from a trash bin, while waiting for a rescue phone call that would never eventuate. Our repeated attempts to hitchhike to the town of Cartwright all failed due to a complete lack of vehicle traffic. Had we read the road signs at the start of the Trans-Labrador Highway, we would have understood why: no more than a gravel ditch in summer (and an icy death trap in winter), the road boasts “sharp curves, steep grades, and no fuel for 288 km”. Two dust-filled days later, the first glimpse of our ship, the Down North, sitting alongside the wharf in Cartwright brought huge relief. Reunited with the other two members of our team, the seabird field crew was finally ready to set sail for the Gannet Islands. Located at 54°N, the Gannet Islands Wildlife Reserve is one of Canada’s largest and most diverse seabird colonies (ironically, gannets don’t actually 90

breed on the Gannet Islands). The six tree-less islands form a cluster, surrounding visitors with their rugged beauty. We would spend the next four months living in a 3 x 4 metre shack on Island #2 in the center of the cluster, catching Atlantic Puffins and other seabirds in order to place numbered rings (bands) on their legs. This would enable us to monitor their survival and behavior over the coming years. By the end of August, we bore the scars of countless sharp beaks and jagged boulders and it was finally time to return home. We waited with excitement for the Down North to round the corner of the island and appear in our tiny, sheltered bay. Many hours passed with no word from the ship. Worried, one of the team members climbed to the top of the island to get a better signal on the VHF radio. She returned with bad news: the boat had turned back. We were advised, in sentences broken by static, to seek immediate shelter. We stared out, confused, over the glassy ocean surface and clear blue skies. Our only option was to take the wooden planks down off the cabin windows and re-locate our sleeping bags in the mountain of field gear piled among the boulders. We turned to walk up the beach, and in an instant, a storm was upon us. By the time we’d scrambled up the cliff, chaos had erupted. We grabbed the emergency bungee cables attached to the cabin door and pulled with all our strength. It closed behind us — just. The next 24 hours are a blur. The cabin shook and squealed as violent 65-knot (120-kilometre) winds blew through the night. We sat, hunkered down in silence, wondering if the cabin or any of our birds would survive. In the morning we surveyed the damage. Huge waves crashed against the island like thunder, spraying froth thirty meters up the side of the island and causing the ground beneath our feet to shake. The seabird colonies were gone. Small black and white bodies floated by the hundreds in the sea at the base of the cliffs. All our gear — two boats, three motors, four months of trash, our drinking water, food and clothing — was gone, washed into the ocean. Three days passed with no news from the outside world. To keep busy, we collected the rubbish and bodies of our banded seabirds that washed up onto the beach each day.

A pair of Atlantic Puffins on the Gannet Islands. Photograph: Jenn Lavers.


Finally aboard the Down North, we set sail for Newfoundland (four days south). Battered, bruised, and exhausted, we foolishly hoped the ocean would be merciful. But as we approached the remote town of St. Anthony, the captain advised us we had two options: dock overnight, or sail directly into a storm brewing off the coast. Desperate for home, we sailed on. The exhilaration of being back onboard such a beautiful ship — full sail, top speed — was short lived. Three hours out of St. Anthony, the Down North shuddered and groaned. The rudder had snapped in the huge swell. Home would have to wait. I returned to the Gannet Islands in the summers of 2004, 2005, and 2006. Drawn by the abundance of life and inspiring local people who generously shared their stories of struggle and triumph in a remote wilderness, Labrador had become part of me. Each summer was to be my last and I would sail away teary-eyed, watching the islands disappear into the distance, wondering if I would ever have the chance to return to this remarkable place. I’m grateful the islands were so hard on me and everyone else — their bad attitude is what keeps them pristine. But as I quickly learned, even the harshest and most remote islands in the world are vulnerable to the activities of humans. A decade of islands: 2003–2013 I was busy analysing my data from the Gannet Islands when I overheard my PhD supervisor say he was looking for someone to catch seabirds on French Frigate Shoals, a remote coral atoll in the middle of the North Pacific Ocean. Four days by boat from Honolulu, French Frigate Shoals was pretty much the farthest I could get from civilisation. Perfect! Located within French Frigate Shoals is a tiny sand spit called Tern Island. Constructed as a runway during World War II from dredged coral, it spans only 300 x 1000 metres. Tern Island was sold to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the 1970s and designated as a wildlife refuge. It is now home to thousands of seabirds and sea turtles, and researchers from all over the world descend here to study marine ecology away from damaging human activities. But it was here that the impact of humans was most apparent.

The Gannet Islands, with the research cabin in the foreground. Photograph: Jenn Lavers.


Each week during my stay I would walk the perimeter of Tern Island, collecting and sorting plastic debris that washed up on the beach. In only a few months I collected more than 3,700 items, most of them fishing floats and plastic bottles. The centre of the island was even worse: its surface was blanketed by tens of thousands of plastic items that were distinctly different to the coastal debris. These items, mainly cigarette lighters, toothbrushes, and bottle caps, were located more than 100 metres from shore. Something other than waves had brought them here — adjacent to countless plastic bits were the skeletons of Laysan Albatross chicks. The cause of death was obvious: their rib cages were packed with hundreds of pieces of plastic. Adult albatross foraging at sea mistake plastic floating on the surface of the ocean for food and then feed it to their chicks. The chicks have no way of disposing of the plastic once ingested, so with each feeding, the quantity of plastic in their tiny stomachs increases leading to starvation, and ultimately, death. Shocked by what I witnessed, I wanted to see if this issue was occurring elsewhere. Next stop: Lord Howe Island. Arriving at Lord Howe Island for the first time is quite an experience. For over an hour, uninterrupted ocean passes below the aeroplane until, quite suddenly, the remnant of an extinct volcano appears above the surface. Lord Howe Island is one of only a handful of World Heritage listed islands in the world, and an Australian icon: famous for it’s incredible bird life, small population size (380 permanent residents), and isolation (the nearest city, Sydney, is more than 700 kilometres to the west). Together, these features provide the backbone for what should be a remarkably pristine island. In many respects, it is. But Lord Howe is under attack from a distant enemy, one that spans all the world’s oceans: plastic. It blankets Lord Howe’s beaches, and just like Tern Island, the interior of the island is littered with thousands of tiny plastic items and seabird skeletons, only this time they’re Flesh-footed Shearwaters (a type of muttonbird). Plastic perils My addiction to islands continues, but for entirely different reasons. I return to Lord Howe Island year after year, in search of a solution

Tern Island from the window of the plane. Photograph: Jenn Lavers.


to the rapidly increasing problem of plastic ingestion. In only a handful of years, the rate of plastic ingestion by Lord Howe’s shearwaters has increased more than 20 percent. Over these same years, the world’s oceans went from containing six times more plastic than plankton to more than 40 times (an estimated 3–4 million new pieces of plastic enter the oceans each and every day). These plastic items contain an array of chemicals (e.g., heavy metals) used during the manufacturing process. Once in the ocean, plastic acts like sponges, absorbing other contaminants to levels more than 1000 times the concentration of the surrounding ocean water. Animals who ingest this plastic are then exposed to these contaminants. On Lord Howe, the Flesh-footed Shearwater chicks — barely three months old — contain more than six times the safe level of mercury, a heavy metal known to cause neurological disorders, infertility, and death. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Tiny bite-sized particles of plastic — the remnants of bottle caps and other household plastic items that have broken into pieces after decades in the ocean — now fill the stomachs of marine animals at the very base of the food chain: mussels, sea cucumbers, and even algae. Fish alone are estimated to ingest more than 24,000 tones of plastic each year. This plastic, like that ingested by the shearwaters, is toxic, and humans are at the top of this contaminated food chain. We are eating our own waste. Breaking your plastic addiction The first step to addressing an addiction is admitting you have one. And, like any bad habit, adopting a healthier lifestyle will take effort and dedication. Pay attention to what you buy: how you spend your money is your vote for the future. If a company isn’t environmentally responsible, refuse their product. An obvious but overlooked example: billions of colorful, bite-sized, micro-plastic beads (exfoliants in body scrubs and facial cleansers) are washed down the drain and into the ocean in the pursuit of flawless skin. In an instant you can halt this unnecessary and dangerous waste, and it won’t cost you a cent. While it may not sound like much at first, if each Australian family

The welcome sign on Tern Island. Photograph: Jenn Lavers.


used one less bag per week (i.e., remembered to bring their reusable bags to the shop), a whopping 253 million fewer bags would enter the ocean each year. And finally, don’t assume products are safe for you, or the environment, simply because they’re available for sale. One of the most dangerous household chemicals is actually fabric softener, found to contain more than 100 different Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) that are directly linked to cancer and respiratory illness. Read the ingredients list on products you use. If you can’t understand the names, you shouldn’t be putting it on your skin, or in the ocean. All the products mentioned here cost the earth, but removing them from your daily life will cost you nothing. Where to from here? The Timor Sea is an ocean of contrast; bounded by the remote and (mostly) uninhabited coast of Western Australia to the south and heavily populated Indonesia to the north. The influence of plastic pollution on this region is essentially unknown, which is exactly why I’m here. The 500-kilometre journey to Ashmore Reef provides an incredible opportunity to gather data on new species and new islands. Why? Well, a small part of it is my island addiction, of course, but the driving force behind my research is to change the public’s perception of plastic. As I travel the world in pursuit of seabirds, I take the opportunity to talk to people about plastic. Most have seen stories about plastic debris in the news and they speak with great sadness about Hawaii’s plastic epidemic. I show photos of Lord Howe Island’s shearwaters, stuffed to the brim with shards of broken plastic. The response is always the same: not in Australia! It’s a lesson some find hard to accept, but possibly the most important one we all need to learn. Plastic pollution is global, and what we need is a revolution. From friend to foe, disposable drink bottle to toxic waste, we must learn to view plastic in a whole new light. For more information and tips on how to end your plastic addiction, visit www.jenniferlavers.org.

(opposite) The skeleton of a Flesh-footed Shearwater chick on Lord Howe Island. Photograph: Ian Hutton (over) Brown Boobies on Ashmore Reef incorporate plastic debris from the Timor Sea into their nests leading to entanglement of adults and their chicks. Photograph: Jenn Lavers



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