Wednesday 22 May 2019

Return To Escape From Woomera - Live Art Review

What: Return To Escape From Woomera
When: 21 - 25 May 2019
Where: The Stables, Meat Market
Created and presented by: Appelspiel
Set and Lighting by: Emma Lockhart-Wilson
Simon Vaughan and Nathan Harrison
It is Melbourne Knowledge Week all over town this week and, as usual, Arts House are bringing two fascinating, challenging, and conversation challenging events which push the boundaries of what is art and why we make it. The first of these events, Return To Escape From Woomera, opened last night in The Stables as the Meat Market.

Return To Escape From Woomera was commissioned and presented by Performance Space last year in Sydney. The creative team behind it, Applespiel, created this event as a step along the way towards a project with much greater scope - an idea which combines esports with a stadium experience. As the team were working through ideas it was Jeff Khan who suggested they look back at what activist gaming has been created in the past and this led them to Escape From Woomera. "Playful is not trivial, and so we play."

Escape From Woomera was a video game prototype developed with an arts grant from the Australia Council and was created by a group of 15 game designers and programmers in 2003 as a response to mandatory detention of refugees, the Tampa affair, and the ongoing human rights abuses. It is sadly incredibly appropriate to bring out the game again now with our Sovereign Borders policy and the even worse conditions we inflict on already traumatised refugees (at least 97% of which have been proven to be legitimate asylum seekers!).

At the time, the game prototype caused quite a controversy with the 1st person player engaging in a series of quests to lead to his escape from the Woomera detention centre.  Escape From Woomera is a point and click game built on the GoldSrc engine and is from the era where conversations appeared as text at the bottom of the screen.

Instead of having lives or energy, the character's life is displayed in a hope meter. Once you (Mustafa) run out of hope the game ends and you have to start again. All of the details in the game were meticulously researched and are as authentic as possible whilst also creating an intriguing gaming experience (for it's time). This is a single player game although there are a plethora of non-player characters to be interacted with.

In Return To Escape From Woomera up to 6 lucky people have the opportunity to play the game live with the audience watching the game play and with a panel of experts discussing issues surrounding the game and refugeeism at the same time. Before each new player begins Roberts tells us some history and facts about the funding controversy surrounding the game and Australian refugee policies over time. This is followed by some questions to and from the audience. When each player finishes their turn they are interviewed about their gaming experience from the players perspective and how much awareness of the political content were they affected by or engaged in. "Playful is not trivial, and so we play."

At the same time as the game is being played Vaughan and Harrison lead a discussion with two guests which may vary every night. On opening night one of the guests was Katherine Neil who initiated the original 2003 project, and the other was a refugee and advocate, Norman. "Playful is not trivial, and so we play."

For the first part of the night I found myself more intrigued by the game - both the play, but also Neil's stories about the surrounding controversies such as Phillip Ruddock's condemnation of funding for this kind of project and also - less well-known - the secrecy with which the gamers had to work. All of them published under pseudonyms because it was a breach of their work contracts to be engaged in this kind of project. Neil also talked about how nascent the idea of games as political tools was back then although it is becoming more common now. As Neil says, they were before their time. "Playful is not trivial, and so we play."

Once I understood how the game worked I became far more interested in the conversation Norman was engaging us in. As I said, the game measures character 'life' on a hope meter and Norman kept talking about how important hope is and how strenuously our detention centres work to take it away. I interrogated him further on his understanding of the word hope and it seems all he was talking about was giving people a reason to believe tomorrow is worth sticking around for - some good food, shelter, a kind word... What makes your tomorrow worth being here for? "Playful is not trivial, and so we play."

The show blurb talks about the myth of Australia as 'the lucky country' but it is worth remembering white Australia was a penal colony long before it became a tourist attraction. It does not surprise me we do prisons well - it is in the very fabric of our DNA as a nation to lock people up and treat them cruelly. We are just getting better and better at it. First it was the POMEs, then it was our First Peoples, then it was the World War II immigrants, now it is the refugees. This is what we do and we do it so well some other countries are taking notes and emulating our horrid customs. "Playful is not trivial, and so we play."

One of the questions put to us last night was whether it is worth staging events such as Return To Escape From Woomera. I say yes. Even though not a peep was heard about our refugee national shame during the election campaign we have to keep the conversation going because once we stop questioning there stops being any reason for the Government to adhere to human values. Once the voices stop we lose our humanity. "Playful is not trivial, and so we play."

Many ideas and thoughts are covered across the evening of Return To Escape From Woomera and this will be influenced by the panelists. The one thing which can be guaranteed though is incredibly stimulating ideas and a lot of sticky questions to ask of ourselves and each other. Oh, and the gamers all seemed to have a good time! "Playful is not trivial, and so we play."

3.5 Stars

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