BUG Spray Community Profile: Ian Milliss (Vol 2 Iss i)
In this Community Profile we talk to Ian Milliss, founding member of the Kandos School of Cultural Adaptation. KSCA was formed in early 2016 by a group of artists, writers, and activists in order to pursue an idea of art as any activity that brings about cultural change.
Much of its work revolves around the post-industrial town of Kandos, in Wiradjuri country, in the Central West of NSW. However its members come from many places, and its projects bridge urban, regional and rural Australia. It aims to support creative work that reaches beyond the familiar contexts of art to investigate new ways of acting in the world. Plus, Ian is working on a Commoning project right now!
"The people KSCA call artists often don't even think of themselves as artists but they are people involved in creating adaptive cultural change, the constant process of understanding the world differently and presenting that new understanding in useful forms that help others to understand."
At KSCA, you’ve got artists working with farmers, scientists, traditional owners and all sorts of community members. Tell us more about the role you believe that artists can play in futuring a better world, outside the arts?
Rather than asking what is it artists can do it's more a case of asking who exactly should we call artists? At the heart of KSCA is the idea that art is about cultural change, not about manufacturing product for a luxury trade market.
The people KSCA call artists often don't even think of themselves as artists but they are people involved in creating adaptive cultural change, the constant process of understanding the world differently and presenting that new understanding in useful forms that help others to understand. Once we understand the world differently then the other changes, political, legislative, social, all follow as a matter of course.
Can you give a couple of examples of how KSCA projects have created meaningful engagement and some particularly special outcomes you’ve witnessed?
We have a strong emphasis on practical outcomes, we only use symbolic works as part of the publicity or educational process.
So two good examples. First, the Futurelands 2 conference held in Kandos in 2017 to discuss the future of agriculture. It was two days of conference and farm visits and the keynote speaker Bruce Pascoe set our overall theme which was how do we create a sustainable agriculture, can we recreate an indigenous agriculture based on the idea of looking after the land and soil, almost managing it like a garden, rather than the current extractive industrial approach to agriculture. We tried to limit it to 150 people but it filled up in days, more turned up on the weekend and we could probably have filled it several times. The audience was large scale farmers, smaller scale landholders and permaculturists and artists of various sorts. It's still being talked about. And our “an artist, a farmer and a scientist walk into a bar” series of projects have developed from this.
A typical example is the project by Lucas Ihlein and the inventor Allan Yeomans who have installed Allan's new soil carbon testing equipment in Monash University Art Gallery partly to demonstrate it using soil samples they are collecting on bus trips to farms around Victoria, but also to set the ground work for the machine's certification for use in taxation and funding programs that would reward farmers for changing to farming practices that sequester carbon, so a very practical project.
You’ve got a project about Commoning currently in progress! Can you tell us a bit about it and what you hope it will achieve?
We thought we had a venue but it fell over so its back to the development stage again. The commons has been a major personal interest of mine for twenty years, or maybe longer as I read a lot of William Cobbett in my early political education in the 1970s. But I have been particularly involved since 2000 because of my interest in Open Source and Open Standards in software – there is a lot more to the whole commons concept than just land use for instance, and KSCA has members whose interests are in other areas, like blockchain or architecture.
Our Commoning project involved all that, a sort of mini festival of how to manage shared resources covering everything from goat herding, to roof top solar virtual power plants trading with themselves using specialised internet of things cryptocurrency (no, crypto isn't dead), to large scale musical projects about air as a commons. We'll get another opportunity for it at some point.
What does effective Commoning look like to you in a real-life context? (Do we all get along? Do we make space for discussion? Do we care for each other better?)
Almost every thing associated with climate change can be seen as a crisis of the commons, the abuse or pollution or theft of the commons by capitalism, so effective commoning is inevitably a battle against inequality and capitalism, reversing privatisations, confiscating what should be a public monopolies, making it illegal to sell private data that you have not paid for, for instance. In other words a battle to seize back resources that belong to all, belong not just to humans but also to all other forms of life, and that have been basically stolen and misused. And in terms of fighting that, the personal may be political but it doesn't solve a lot of things.
We do small scale projects that point the way to the largest scale humanly possible and there is no problem that is a larger scale than climate change. That means the most important solutions are on a gigantic industrial scale, involve national and international activist political action as well as technological change. But as always it starts as cultural change, the beginning of a different understanding, and can start with as small a spark as a Swedish fifteen year old schoolgirl staging her own school strike against climate change political inaction that almost instantly spreads to school kids around the whole world, making every politician quietly panic as they realise that they are only a few year away from being voted out by very angry young people who want action before their lives are completely ruined.
That is powerful political action that is basically about claiming back the most important commons, the atmosphere and the biosphere. And in KSCA terms she'd be an artist, she used the tiny amount of agency and media available to her to create an entirely different understanding for her peers and they have begun the final push that makes change inevitable, all they need to do now is keep on growing up and keep on pushing the politicians.
Funny question (but relevant to this edition of Bug Spray and the last); what do you do when it all feels hopeless and the ecological anxiety starts to seep in?
My first artworks about climate change were in 1992 and I'd been thinking about it for longer than that, back to the Club of Rome's Limits To Growth publication in 1972. So I've had a lifetime to go through all the stages of grief. Eventually, quite a while ago, I even got past complete despair to an almost euphoric sense of freedom, that humans will inevitably go extinct but evolution is an absolute truth, life will continue in other forms so we should go down fighting to rectify as much of our noxiousness as possible so that our replacements, which may well be inorganic, can survive a bit more comfortably.
I know that would horrify others but I subscribe to a few old cliches, nothing is forever (including humans) and you can go a long way if you don't know where you are going, so it's best to just enjoy the journey and try and find love among the ruins (which is incidentally an essay/poster I once made).
Check out more about the Kandos School of Cultural Adaptation here.