Martin Ollman, Plagued, 2020, digital print on aluminum, 81 cm x 121 cm

First Response is a series of four new works from artists Martin Ollman, Marissa McDowell, Anna Georgia, and Shannon Hanrahan commissioned to document Canberra’s initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The works highlight Canberra’s unique role as the national centre of the COVID-19 crisis, as well as showing the profound and personal effects the pandemic is having on individuals and communities in the ACT.

First Response showed at Tuggeranong Arts Centre from 25 July – 19 September, 2020.

First Response exhibition catalogue

First Response exhibition walk through

The Artists and their work

Plagued by Martin Ollman

Plagued is a solo exhibition of new works by photographer Martin Ollman. During the initial stages of Canberra’s response, Ollman was granted unique access to Canberra’s frontline health services, political figures, and major institutions, including the Australian Parliamentary Senate inquiry into the COVID-19 response. The exhibition includes portraits of individuals who played key roles in the COVID-19 response, including Senator Katy Gallagher and ACT Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith, as well as frontline health workers, and members of the arts and tertiary education communities.

Martin is a freelance photographer based in Canberra, Australia. He began his career in photojournalism in Canberra then in London, where he worked as a freelance photographer in the UK. He has had over 2000+ of his photographs published around the world, held several exhibitions of his work and has been awarded two national photographic awards.

Notes on Canberra Under COVID-19 (A Non-Travelogue) by Anna Georgia

Two channel digital video, 60mins
Original music by Bayard Condon

While Covid-19 has us looking outwards mentally and virtually, it has shrunk our worlds down to the dwellings in which we live, our local parks and bushwalks. In Canberra – a city defined by its middle-class suburbia, small population, high rates of government employment, manicured open spaces and sentinel mountain ranges – a quiet sense of horror and foreboding has become the backdrop to lives of relative safety and comfort, making the familiar strange.

This film visualises people’s everyday gestures and activities at home and ‘out of the house’ in the context of a global crisis. The participants are people I know personally, having grown up in Canberra.

Anna Georgia was born and raised in Alice Springs in the 1990s, but did most of her schooling in Canberra, with university in Sydney and abroad. After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts (History, Philosophy, Film Studies), she pursued a Masters of Visual Anthropology in the Granada Centre of Visual Anthropology at the University of Manchester.

This quasi-artistic field values the role that audio-visual mediums have to offer in the ethnographic description and mediation of human experience, in addition to linguistic description. Conceptually, Anna Georgia is interested in the epistemology of documentary; how, as a phenomenological medium, film ‘uses experience to express experience’ (Ilsa Barbash).

Fix Me. A dance response by Shannon Hanrahan

Fix Me, choreographed and performed by Shannon Hanrahan, explores the contradiction between the freedom of movement vs the physical restraints of self-isolation at home, the physical space transferred to the online space, and the way that dancers/dance artists can work around, and even be inspired, by spatial limitations.

Hanrahan is an independent Sydney-based choreographer and dancer, who is also an alumna of the Tuggeranong Arts Centre’s Fresh Funk urban dance program.

Hanrahan has trained at the Ev & Bow Full Time Dance Training Centre, performed at Sensation White Music Festival (2017) and Macklemore’s NRL Grand Final Performance (2017), and was an instructor and choreographer for Australian Dance Festival (2017-18).

Isolation by Marissa McDowell

Isolation is a short documentary film by
Marissa McDowell exploring the COVID-19 experience of Canberra’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community, including their unique fears and hopes for the community’s future.

The film features personal accounts from a broad range of community members, including Elders Aunty Matilda House and Uncle Warren Daley, artists Brenda Croft and Dale Huddleston, and local students, offering insights into how they felt about these new and unfamiliar circumstances, how it has affected their families, businesses and education and their
thoughts about the future.

Marissa was born in Cowra NSW, a Wiradjuri woman with Irish and English ancestry. She is an independent creative producer of Black & White Films and has worked with Indigenous communities telling their stories through documentary film making, photography, and writing.

A Response By Nigel Featherstone

In the middle of a storm, even in a violent one, wind battering windows, rain rattling roof tiles or corrugated iron, it is possible to sit back and enjoy the show – the pleasure of being sheltered and having confidence that all will be okay. Trust the people who built your house; they knew what they were doing.

But what if the storm made no sound, that it was invisible, that it could come into your house, your home? What if it could enter your body, wherever you might be? Yes, what if this silent, invisible, insipid storm could get right beneath your skin and – literally – flood your bloodstream? What if it could stop your lungs working? What if had the power to keep you from being able to care for the most vulnerable people in your community? What if, day in, day out, experts, those with qualifications, experience and skills, said, ‘There is so much we don’t know about this thing. Your best course of action is to isolate yourself, to not touch the ones you love. Stay indoors. Don’t panic. Even though people are dying every day, we’ll get through this.’ Really, what would we make of that?

Well, we know what to make of that, because, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, we have lived through it. For those in the ACT region, the pandemic is the latest chapter in a story littered with disasters: an intense and long-running drought; the worst bushfire season in living memory, one that choked the city and suburbs and surrounding towns with toxic smoke that lasted for months, which we have never experienced before (and forced many residents to remember the fires of 2003 that brought the place to its knees); and a hail storm that ripped off rooves, blasted cars, and sent insurance premiums sky high.

As if that was not enough, every week there were signs that the national economy was teetering on the edge of recession. All the while, our politicians appeared to bumble from one vacuous statement to the next, some, including those at the very top, revealing themselves to be irresponsible to the point of being inept, almost criminally so.

Oh, indeed, what are we to make of it all?

As always, call in the artists, those who, through sheer grit and determination, have the capacity to keep observing, feeling, recording, thinking, and making, even when their very existence seems to be under threat.

Through First Response: documenting Canberra’s response to COVID-19, and with the support of the Australia Council for the Arts, the Tuggeranong Arts Centre engaged four artists at various stages of their careers to make a record of the pandemic, particular in terms of its dual role as the National Capital and as a city and region in its own right.

Martin Ollman is well-known to ACT audiences, most recently through his work promoting the National Capital Region. Having begun his career as a photojournalist, which took him around the world, Ollman is a skilled maker of images, many of which are spectacular, especially those that document the beautiful urban, rural and natural scenes that make up this oft-maligned district. In Plagued, Ollman turns his talents to recording a diverse range of people – artists, medical professionals, and politicians (including Senator Katy Gallagher, ACT Minister for the Arts Gordon Ramsay, and ACT Minister for Health Rachael Stephen-Smith) – who have been trying to survive the virus. Worry, anxiety, fortitude, and calm: all of those responses are well-rendered in these digital prints on aluminium and one on vinyl. The images are displayed in such a way as to immerse – and also embrace – the viewer. There is a democratic nature to the work; indeed, most of Ollman’s images in Plagued are presented on the walls as if creating a life-sized collage, one that might be just at home in an inner-city lane. There is also a quiet inner strength to the work, and an almost palpable sense of hope: we will survive.

Anna Georgia was born and raised in Alice Springs and did most of her schooling in Canberra, Sydney, and overseas. She holds a Bachelor of Arts (history, philosophy, and film studies) and has pursued a Master of Visual Anthropology from the University of Manchester. In Notes on Canberra Under COVID-19 (a Non-Travelogue), Georgia uses the video-art form across two 60-centimetre screens to document a range of domestic responses to the pandemic: talking on the phone to a family member; going for a walk; using the opportunity to think about, if not relive, the past by going through old slides; fixing a bicycle (and the promise of exercise that comes with that); playing games; gardening; cooking; watching dogs cavort, among others. The images in Notes on Canberra Under COVID-19 (a Non-Travelogue), which are expertly filmed and presented, juxtapose the serenity of the ACT region (which is too often overshadowed by the presence of the national parliament) with those small domestic details – rituals – that can help to keep us grounded. Even smoking a cigarette when apparently alone in a backyard becomes an act of healing. The ever-present soundscape by Bayard Condon rather appropriately keeps the viewer feeling unsettled, just in case they are tempted to think that all is okay, there is nothing unusual in any of this, it’s just another day.

Writer and documentary filmmaker Marissa McDowell takes an ethnographic approach to her First Response work. Isolation documents the COVID-19 experience of Indigenous members of the community, including youth and elders, as well as artists. McDowell, of the Wiradjuri nation, removes herself almost entirely from the storytelling, preferring to leave her interviewees to speak for themselves in an open and candid way. Ngambri-Ngunnawal elder Matilda House makes the point that for the last two centuries First Nations people have survived so much, which means that they will undoubtedly survive the pandemic, before going on to say that she longs to see her great grandchild. Prominent visual artist and curator Brenda L. Croft, who is from the Gurdindji, Malngin and Mudburra nations, says that one benefit of the pandemic is being forced to slow down, to the point that she was able to identify in her neighbourhood a scar-tree that was yet to be placed on the ACT Government’s register. McDowell’s Isolation asks viewers to sit, listen, learn, and be moved by an ancient and ongoing knowledge, one that is essential to the future of the Australian continent.

Shannon Hanrahan is a Sydney-based dance artist and choreographer whose career has been informed by spending her early years learning dance through the Tuggeranong Arts Centre’s Fresh Funk program; more recently, in 2017 and 2018, she was a choreographer and instructor for the Australian Dance Festival. In footage filmed by Tim Ngo, Hanrahan is captured dancing while surrounded by Martin Ollman’s images. With flowing, graceful movements, she encourages the audience to experience – re-experience – the anxiety of the pandemic, the sense of unbalance, and the need to keep moving no matter what. Fix Me brings a dynamism to the selection of work in First Response; indeed, many would have been tempted to be brave enough to dance with Hanrahan, to keep the blues away, if only for a moment.

Human determination is very much what is revealed in and by First Response. However, that is underpinned by a willingness of the artists – and their subjects, participants, and interviewees – to be vulnerable, to be courageous enough to admit, this is tough; to say, this will change me; to say, I need you. Through the thoughtful and highly skilled work of Ollman, McDowell, Georgia, and Hanrahan, First Response documents the once-in-a-lifetime COVID-19 pandemic, and celebrates, maybe even amplifies, human creativity as the key to surviving, and surviving in new, perhaps even sustainable and equitable ways, so that transformation might just be possible. In First Response, we are all exactly that: possible – even in a storm that up until 2020 few of us could have imagined.

26 August 2020.

The Tuggeranong Arts Centre commissioned the works in First ResponseThe project has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council for the Arts, its arts funding and advisory body.