Is now the time to make art?

What kind of time is this? And what might such a time mean for artists and their work?

Beyond the very real financial hit that many artists are currently taking, a great many of us, artists included, are welcoming this abnormal moment to ask other questions – existential questions, and questions about our regular habits and commitments, for example. It is suggested that to try to carry on with business as usual, however tempting and well-intentioned that might be, would be to forego a rare opportunity to reimagine and re-embody other modes of our living. Others are turning to all kinds of creative endeavours. Others still – including artists – are asking whether now is really the time to make art at all?

Of course, we’ve been here before. This is hardly the first time in our history that such questions have been asked.

In the aftermath of WWII, where the dominating backdrop was clearly otherwise than it is today, the philosopher Theodor Adorno, in his Negative Dialectics, raised the question of whether the traumas of Auschwitz mean that ‘we cannot say anymore than the immutable is truth, and that the mobile, transitory is appearance’. It is not, he insisted, a case of an impossibility of distinguishing between eternal truth and temporary appearances (Plato and Hegel had already showed us how that could be done); it’s just that one cannot do so post-Auschwitz without making a sheer mockery of the fact:

After Auschwitz, our feelings resist any claim of the positivity of existence as sanctimonious, as wronging the victims: they balk at squeezing any kind of sense, however bleached, out of the victims’ fate. And these feelings do have an objective side after events that make a mockery of the construction of immanence as endowed with a meaning radiated by an affirmatively posited transcendence.

Put more plainly, our emotional responses to horrors of such magnitude ought to outweigh all our attempts to explain them. It was this conviction too that led Adorno to state famously (in his essay ‘Art, Culture and Society’) that ‘to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’, and that ‘the task of art today is to bring chaos into order’. The line between explanation and intelligibility has been severed. In the wake of such, we are left with the possibility of Adorno’s ‘negative theodicy’, a kind of theodicy in which the old intellectual and philosophical distance is impossible. If we are to make any headway at all in recognizing how the Nazi death camps succeeded in the destruction of biographical life, and reorientate our thinking in response, Adorno argues, we must learn how to regard Auschwitz as the culmination of a trajectory embedded in the history of western culture in the wake of the Enlightenment. In other words, there can be no genuine acknowledgement of the Holocaust that does not begin with the realization that ‘we did it’.

Today, our questions may be otherwise. For some of us – for those, for example, trying to discern (or create) lines between unbridled capitalism, ecological disaster, and global pandemics – perhaps they are not so.

In his latest post for The Red Hand Files, musician Nick Cave responds to a series of questions about his own plans for this time during the corona pandemic. His reflection is worth repeating here in full:

Dear Alice, Henry and Saskia,

My response to a crisis has always been to create. This impulse has saved me many times – when things got bad I’d plan a tour, or write a book, or make a record – I’d hide myself in work, and try to stay one step ahead of whatever it was that was pursuing me. So, when it became clear that The Bad Seeds would have to postpone the European tour and that I would have, at the very least, three months of sudden spare time, my mind jumped into overdrive with ideas of how to fill that space. On a video call with my team we threw ideas around – stream a solo performance from my home, write an isolation album, write an online corona diary, write an apocalyptic film script, create a pandemic playlist on Spotify, start an online reading club, answer Red Hand Files questions live online, stream a songwriting tutorial, or a cooking programme, etc. – all with the aim to keep my creative momentum going, and to give my self-isolating fans something to do.

That night, as I contemplated these ideas, I began to think about what I had done in the last three months – working with Warren and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, planning and mounting a massive and incredibly complex Nick Cave exhibition with the Royal Danish Library, putting together the Stranger Than Kindness book, working on an updated edition of my “Collected Lyrics”, developing the show for the Ghosteen world tour (which, by the way, will be fucking mind-blowing if we ever get to do it!), working on a second B Sides and Rarities record and, of course, reading and writing The Red Hand Files. As I sat there in bed and reflected, another thought presented itself, clear and wondrous and humane –

Why is this the time to get creative?

Together we have stepped into history and are now living inside an event unprecedented in our lifetime. Every day the news provides us with dizzying information that a few weeks before would have been unthinkable. What deranged and divided us a month ago seems, at best, an embarrassment from an idle and privileged time. We have become eyewitnesses to a catastrophe that we are seeing unfold from the inside out. We are forced to isolate – to be vigilant, to be quiet, to watch and contemplate the possible implosion of our civilisation in real time. When we eventually step clear of this moment we will have discovered things about our leaders, our societal systems, our friends, our enemies and most of all, ourselves. We will know something of our resilience, our capacity for forgiveness, and our mutual vulnerability. Perhaps, it is a time to pay attention, to be mindful, to be observant.

As an artist, it feels inapt to miss this extraordinary moment. Suddenly, the acts of writing a novel, or a screenplay or a series of songs seem like indulgences from a bygone era. For me, this is not a time to be buried in the business of creating. It is a time to take a backseat and use this opportunity to reflect on exactly what our function is – what we, as artists, are for.

Saskia, there are other forms of engagement, open to us all. An email to a distant friend, a phone call to a parent or sibling, a kind word to a neighbour, a prayer for those working on the front lines. These simple gestures can bind the world together – throwing threads of love here and there, ultimately connecting us all – so that when we do emerge from this moment we are unified by compassion, humility and a greater dignity. Perhaps, we will also see the world through different eyes, with an awakened reverence for the wondrous thing that it is. This could, indeed, be the truest creative work of all.

Love, Nick x

Like Cave, Adorno too challenges us to ‘take a backseat and use this opportunity to reflect on exactly what our function is – what we, as artists, are for’ – and to lean into ‘other forms of engagement’ that such uncertain and time-altering times render (almost) unavoidable. It is certainly a time to consider our responsibility to and involvement in all kinds of violence, for example.

But is this the only or final word on the matter? Returning to Adorno and his book Minima Moralia: Reflections on Damaged Life, he suggests that:

The only philosophy which can be responsibly practiced in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption. Knowledge has no light but that shed on the world by redemption: all else is reconstruction, mere technique. Perspectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light. To gain such perspectives without velleity [fancy] or violence, entirely from felt contact with its objects ­– this alone is the task of thought.

Is not what might be true for ‘philosophy’ and ‘thought’ not also true for art? Redemption, the ‘messianic light’, exposes the incongruity between the world as it appears now and the world as it might be. That exposure – birthed and sustained by profound and counterintuitive hope, hope born not of trust in markets or in a change of conditions but which is the wholly unanticipated gift of the God of life – serves as both a judgement upon all that threatens and overcomes life, and as a promise that there is a love that is stronger than death.

That exposure also brings new possibilities for artists – in their freedom – to find their banjos, their pens, their brushes, their shoes, their voices, their humanity, etc. etc.

Human poiesis (and theology too, for that matter) can be – and in this world ought to be, as Jonathan Sacks put it in To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility – a form of protest ‘against the world that is, in the name of the world that is not yet but ought to be’. It can like placing oneself right in the midst of a broken world – something like the way that the cellist Vedran Smailović placed himself in Sarajevo’s partially-bombed National Library in 1992 – and refusing to accept that the way things appear is the way that things must or will be.

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JASON GORONCY IS A THEOLOGIAN, ARTIST, AND FOLK FESTIVAL TRAGIC WHO LIVES AND PLAYS ON WURUNDJERI LAND.

Entries now open for the Spiritus Short Film Prize

Spiritus Short Film Prize; enter now

Call for entries for the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture 2020 Spiritus Short Film Prize:

  • The renamed biennial national 2020 Spiritus Short Film Prize aims to contribute to a vision of hope and the common good for Australia
  • Expert panel of four judges will award up to six prizes in three categories based on five criteria
  • Entries opened Monday 3 February and close Tuesday 30 June, with winners announced in September

Entries are open for the biennial national 2020 Spiritus Short Film Prize, an initiative of the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture (ACC&C) at Charles Sturt University.

ACC&C Executive Director Professor Stephen Pickard said, “The biennial prize began in 2015 as the Religious Short Film Prize but was renamed as the Spiritus Short Film Prize in 2020 to better reflect its purpose and aims.

“The Spiritus Short Film Prize initiative is part of the Centre’s commitment to promote the lively interaction between arts, sciences and culture, which is one of the Four Pillars of its work and mission.

“The Centre believes that there is wisdom to be found in such an interaction which can contribute to a vision of hope and the common good for Australia.”

There are six prizes in three categories, and entrants can enter their film in more than one category and can receive more than one prize.

The categories are:

  • Spiritus Short Film Prize – Regional Australia Prize (open to entries outside an Australian Capital city). Cost to enter $5
  • Spiritus Short Film Prize – School Category (This is open to entries from school students (under 18 years of age) who attend a school in Australia. Cost to enter $10.
  • Spiritus Short Film Prize – Open to all. Cost to Enter $20.

The judges award the prizes, but they do not have to award all prizes:

  • Regional Australia Prize for entries outside a capital city – $500
  • School category (for school students only in Australia) for equipment for school to value of $1000
  • Spiritus Short Film Prize – Winner $2000
  • Spiritus Short Film Prize – Highly Commended $750
  • Spiritus Short Film Prize – Commended $500
  • Spiritus Short Film  Prize – People’s Choice $250 (Awarded on the night)

The panel of judges are Ms Genevieve Jacobs, Father Richard Leonard, SJ, Dr James Mairata, and Dr Andrew Pike, OAM.

“The judges provide theological and creative counsel, and represent many decades of experience in media, film, distribution, and directorship,” Professor Pickard said.

“They will assess films on five criteria: high artistic quality, wisdom for the common good, human and planetary flourishing, universal impact, and inventive expression.

“The judges will nominate eight films for The People’s Choice Award from any category, and a film may already be a category prize winner.”

The ACC&C will present a roadshow to screen the shortlisted films at selected Charles Sturt University campuses in August, with more details to be announced later about roadshow screening dates and times.

Winners will be announced in September 2020 in Canberra at the Chapel, Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture, and the Award Night will be held during the Canberra Short Film Festival.

The People’s Choice award winner is decided by the attendees to the touring festival at the Charles Sturt campuses and award night in Canberra. Attendees will vote on the night and the winner will be announced in Canberra.

Entries for the Spiritus Short Film Prize opened Monday 3 February and close Tuesday 30 June. More information about the 2020 Spiritus Short Film Prize ‘Conditions and Criteria’ can be found here: http://about.csu.edu.au/spiritus.

George Gittoes: Prophet or Provocateur?

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George Gittoes, Soljah, Love and Pain,  2019. Stencils, oil on canvas. 152.5 x 122.5cm. Artist collection.

For the last two years I have been working on the exhibition ‘George Gittoes: On Being There’ which opens at the Newcastle Art Gallery on 8 February 2020. It has been a wonderful opportunity to work alongside a unique artist who is more at home in a war zone than the usual haunts of inner-city cafes favoured by creatives! This exhibition covers fifty years of Gittoes’ artistic production from the heady days of his involvement in the Yellow House artist community in Kings Cross, through his documentation of the working conditions of the steel mills of Newcastle, to his work in the field in war zones, the creation of another Yellow House in Jalalabad, Afghanistan and his most recent sojourn in South Side Chicago, a place which has the worst statistics for gun violence in the USA. In each situation, Gittoes has sketched, painted, photographed, and, more recently, produced feature-length documentaries about what it is like to be there, in a way that draws in viewers to consider the ethical and moral dilemmas of what it means to be human in these difficult and limiting environments.

Rather than the usual structure of an artist survey, this exhibition offers a unique opportunity to get under the skin of what motivates this artist. It seeks to address the questions about why he goes to such inhospitable places to make art and why he puts his life at risk. His answer is as simple as it is profound: ‘I feel privileged to have been able to spend much of my life creating beauty in the face of the destruction of war. I have been waging a personal war against war with art’. These works offer insights into the manner in which Gittoes works and how he sees, what catches his attention, and how this shapes his responses through his art-making. Against the backdrop of dangerous and emotionally charged contexts, Gittoes is drawn to empathise with the human person, as a site for bravery, resilience, hope, and despair, inviting our involvement as compassionate participators in a world that has moral and spiritual implications.

 

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During 1969–1970, Gittoes was involved with the creation of the Yellow House artist community. Through his Puppet Theatre, Gittoes was able to play out the human dramas of heaven and hell, and life in between, using his skills in storytelling and the making of an extraordinary range of puppet creatures. His deeply imaginative work made a sharp response to the Vietnam War and contains some of the strongest responses to the war found in Australian art. Gittoes speculated at the time about how he could take the Yellow House experience, of incubating a creative artists community, to Vietnam, in the midst of this terrible war. In many ways, his life work has been to play out that possibility. Since 2011, Gittoes has worked regularly in the eastern part of Afghanistan, setting up the Yellow House Jalalabad. Here he linked with local filmmakers and actors renewing his earlier experiences of artistic collaboration. This process is documented in the award-winning film Love City, Jalalabad, which highlights the possibilities for hope in making art in such an unlikely context.

Through the Yellow House, Gittoes leaves aside the usual goals of western artists to highlight their own originality and prefers to embed himself in communities of creative people. Here, collaboration and the trust that is afforded to each person’s own gifts and creativity is highly valued. Gittoes’ work in Afghanistan has had a major impact on the film industry in that country incubating actors, directors, and technicians who are following through on their own projects in a country with a rich artistic heritage. Here we see culture as a form of renewal that provides stable images for a possible future. The results of this manner of working returns art-making to a community base that is concerned with the common good, the search for justice, and the creation of hope. It is a profoundly different model of valuing creativity that reaffirms the role of art to form the future as a social experience. One might say that the making of community might be the most profound art form practised by humans.

Gittoes most recent collaboration has been with the Yellow House South Side Chicago, an experience that is presented in his latest documentary White Light released in 2019:

This film explores his encounters with the communities of Englewood in South Side Chicago, and uncovers the social impact of gun violence through the stories of both victims and perpetrators. It is a film filled with tragedy, pathos, and hope, developed while living and working together with the local residents. White Light is his most beautiful and evocative film, yet it is filled with the harsh social impact of gun violence. It is a moving and deeply empathetic narrative that uncovers the vitality of human beings looking for conditions that will allow them to reach their full potential. Gittoes focuses on the stories of young lives who through the means of their own creativity deeply yearn for a life that is better.

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George Gittoes, The Scream. 152.5 x 121.9 cm.

One of the paintings produced during this period is ‘The Scream’, which is his take on the anxieties of our current time. This work examples his capacity to provide a prophetic perspective on the history that is unfolding around us. The work was based on a street mural that depicts the yawning face of Donald Trump as it looms over the poverty and violence of the inner city. The scream is echoed as despair or protest by the lone African-American figure in a mask, which allows for the possibility that they see things differently, and look towards a different future. The prophetic imagination uncovers the structures that create injustice, it works to unsettle the status quo, and to question the myths we accept for what is considered normal. Prophecy works towards an alternative future based on justice where every creatures matters. This is deeply echoed in the Christian tradition and Gittoes takes us to the churches and activists who live this out on the streets of South Side Chicago. This frightening and disturbing image is linked to the emergence of hope in the darkest of situations.

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The final work in the exhibition is a stunning 2.5-metre high ceramic form based on a traditional Afghani ewer. A collaboration with ceramicist Cameron Williams, Gittoes has decorated it with symbols from both Muslim and Christian traditions. Here both east and west come together in an act of potential hospitality. The work is entitled ‘To Cleanse the world of war’, it brings together into an imaginative conversation, cultures that are more often seen at enmity. The work evokes the ritual of welcome through the washing of hands and the serving of refreshments. it also offers a perspective that religion might contain resources for healing, understanding, and reconciliation. Religion is often considered in the popular imagination to be the problem, and yet religious faith from both Muslim and Christian traditions offer deep inspiration for mutual understanding and the solving of common problems that rob us of a peaceful future.

George Gittoes provides an extraordinary record of an artist willing to create in the face of chaos and potential destruction. While Gittoes might be a prophet, he is certainly a provocateur, alive to the ethical and spiritual dimensions of what it is to be human. Gittoes is also alive to the positive resources that religion and culture provide. This exhibition will give privileged access to his process through paintings, prints, visual diaries, field drawings, photography, and film. Through these works, we experience an amazing human journey that holds out the hopeful power of creativity in the face of prejudice and fear. This is a magnificent visual record of a creative imagination that provides a visual resource for the difficult times in which we live.

George Gittoes: On Being There is on exhibition at the Newcastle Art Gallery (8 February – 26 April 2020) and will travel later in the year to Casula Powerhouse Art Centre (opening 26 September) and Wollongong Art Gallery (opening 28 November).

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ROD PATTENDEN IS AN ARTIST, ART HISTORIAN, AND THEOLOGIAN INTERESTED IN THE POWER OF IMAGES. HE LIVES AND WORKS ON AWABAKAL LAND.

Shopping for a Self: Imagining Spirit in Liquid Times

Mesiti Still

Having faith used to be all about belonging. This involved finding yourself through shaping your self-worth at work, through family and relationships, and your affiliation to the group, club, or church where you lodged your formal membership. Spiritual identity was about finding your place, and living out its promise while struggling with its limitations. The hero in this kind of world was one who learnt to make do. If you were a troublemaker it was only to make changes enough so that even the stranger could join in the inherent welfare of belonging. Having a place under the sun was the goal of both the good life and the good faith, of firm citizenship, and the blessings of belief.

Belonging, however, is no longer what it used to be. In his recent study of religion in Australia, Gary Bouma points to a radical shift that has occurred in the horizon of the great Australian search for meaning. Bouma states that ‘religion and spirituality in Australia is about hope, the production and maintenance of hope through actions, beliefs, practices and places’.[1] He sees hope as being the means of linking an individual to wider connections of meaning. Hope motivates, sustains, and generates the search for a quality of life; it has a moving dynamic quality that is not found in older models of belonging. Here, hearts are on the move looking for experiences and connections to enhance the quality of their felt experience.

Clearly, this does not make for good church membership, as people on the move do not serve well on the committees that monitor the by-laws of belonging; there simply isn’t time! Having worked for ten years as a University Chaplain I am familiar with the search for hope expressed on campus. It is the thirst motivating the lives of many of the young people that I have the privilege to work with. Sometimes debilitated by choice, they struggle to find the substance of a life that is worthwhile, nourishing and worthy of their efforts; in short, something worth living for. They negotiate the frenzy of options thrown up by a consumer society, only to be looking rather more intently for the more ecstatically-charged moments that hope should be worthy of. All searches, however, require discernment, and here we are in new territory because the answers of traditional religion don’t quite work in terms of new social realities.

We currently face a world of fluid connections, a sea of social networks, that are negotiated by hand-held devices and internet connections. This new world does not reward belonging, but it does, however, like to go shopping! In consumer worlds, we not only buy products, surrounded by the promise of experiences, power, and fulfilment, but ultimately, we are shopping for a self. This is a sense of identity that comes into being through our ability to create an image of our self to live by. David Lyon uses this term ‘shopping for a self’ to describe the manner in which people create a sense of self in a consumer society.[2] Here, the emphasis is not so much on authority found in institutions or texts, but as a consumer people are concerned with questions about what is good for me, and where does this path lead, and will it create hope within the complex world that I live.

This situation creates at best discerning individuals looking for what works and makes sense, for seekers rather than believers. People shift allegiance, change group, find what they are looking for rather than staying put with what they’ve got! Authenticity is a big value amongst people who become discerning about the nature of spirituality. This process tends to create a more holistic way of thinking and in turn a more critical consciousness about the process of shopping and the inherent limitations of living in a consumer society. Such discernment might lead people to do without, to change their lifestyle and live with less impact on the earth, because they see themselves implicated within the systems that seek ‘to serve’ them.

The downside of this situation is the possibility that people fall in love with the products themselves, forming a plastic and easily discarded shell of spirituality that is traded in on a daily basis for the latest fad or new experience. This endless cycle of consumption of images of the self is one that is explored by the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman. In a string of books, he has turned his attention to the global conditions of our consumer world. Reading his books is not at all cheerful, as he tends to write with a disturbing awareness of the possibilities he explores. Bauman rather gloomily calls this period one of ‘liquid times’, because he believes that the stable structures we depend on to negotiate boundaries and to provide clear forms are simply melting faster than they can be maintained.

Bauman confronts most potently when he proposes that: ‘In the society of consumers no one can become a subject without first turning into a commodity’.[3] This is the chilling possibility that not only are we shopping for a self, but we are also literally selling ourselves; otherwise we are invisible in a world of things that people desire. This would explain, it seems, our obsession with fashion, image, fame, and the necessary presence on the web and the attendant necessity to blog ourselves into life! We are continually under pressure to re-invent ourselves based on the always-shifting conditions of identity. Spirituality at its worst then, becomes about a trading in trinkets of belief, and the purchasing of power through image control. This is not just simply about appearances, but more fundamentally about how we see ourselves, who we are, and where our hope lies.

To consider the dilemmas of this situation one needs the skills of seeing, of being able to circumvent the blindness of being within a culture, because things seem so natural. Travel always wakes us up to this kind of culturally-induced blindness. Such blindness, unfortunately, is particularly prone to people who believe passionately and love fully. It is part of the danger of living with a sense of faith, that can at times inculcate blindness to particular moral and ethical implications of human freedom and the will to hope. It is not hard to find people of passionate belief and kindness who are (well in my mind) simply stupid and ignorant, and who unwittingly unleash violence in the community. Spirituality or faith is no guard itself against such blindness.

Good shopping, it seems, requires eyes to see. To demonstrate that, I want to turn to the winning work for the 2009 Blake Prize for Religious Art by Angelica Mesiti. In an historic turn, the Prize was won by a work based in new digital technology rather than the more traditional expectation of a painting or sculpture. The award was met with mixed responses ranging from perceptions of deep insight to that of cynical derision from sections of the media. But art awards are often like that! It is a race where the favourite never wins.

Mesiti filmed her 10-minute video work at ‘Big Day Out’, the annual music fest held in the heat of the January long weekend. It depicts in slow motion on high-density film the response of members of the crowd, up close and intimate, in a world of ecstatic passion and at times darker, nearly tribal behaviour. The work plays out moments of rapture, delight, and frenzy as well as a sense of anxiety, and even loss. It offers a mirror about what rapture looks like in the context of youth culture. These are young people rehearsing their hopes, passions, and dark anxieties. The work is powerful because of its proximity, its visceral and intimate nearness to such strong emotion. It is rapturous and unsettles viewers not used to such strong responses.

Rapture (excerpt) from Bonnie Elliott on Vimeo.

As water, sweat, and saliva splash across the surface of the screen, rainbowed with colour, we are left to contemplate our own youthful passions and what turns us on to life, or maybe more stubbornly what simply keeps us going. As an audience we are not party to the information about where the work began, we just meet this crowd of faces, slow motion in the contemplative environment of the art gallery. We are moved to answer the place where such feelings arise for us in our own lives. In this way I have found the work to be quite subversive; on walking into the exhibition I have been consistently struck by the audience to the work, who gather around with a consistent look of wonder. Wonder, after all, is a pre-condition for hope. Perhaps the recovery of wonder raises good questions about discerning the nature of hope in our time.

For the subjects of this work, the young people of today, I find there is much to be encouraged by. While some cling to formulations, there are many who are exploring the gamut of life with gusto, intelligence, and passion. They exhibit a sophisticated understanding of how images work, and the means to negotiate life in a consumer culture. They are anxious to define what life is worth living for, and find faith refreshing and without the baggage that I associate with people of my generation. These young people give me hope and help me see. This is because they are finding resources and wisdom to live a life of spiritual nourishment in these times of anxiety and change. It is always the role of the young to see visions, as it is the role of my generation to keep dreams alive.

[1] Gary Bouma, Australian Soul: Religion and Spirituality in the Twenty-First Century (Port Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 30.

[2] See David Lyon, Jesus in Disneyland: Religion in Postmodern Times (Cambridge: Polity, 2000), 73ff.

[3] Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty (Cambridge: Polity, 2007), 1.

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Rod Pattenden is an artist, art historian, and theologian interested in the power of images. He lives and works on Awabakal land.