Festival offers remedies for global ills

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If an antidote is a medicine that counteracts the effects of a poison, then next weekend's Antidote Festival, which the Sydney Opera House will present as a ticketed live-stream event, aims to offer a similar remedy on a cerebral level.

"When I am pole-axed by the world's problems, I get hope and comfort from knowing there are people with vast intellectual resources applying their minds to come up with solutions," festival curator Edwina Throsby says.

"To me, that is an antidote to the overwhelm and sense of helplessness I feel."

And it is precisely those sorts of people whom Throsby has programmed into her fourth Antidote Festival, which takes place next Sunday.

Featuring 30 local and international guests in conversation across 10 sessions, the think-fest of "ideas, action and change" will be interactive, with audience members encouraged to ask participants questions via a link provided with ticket purchase.

The diverse range of topics up for discussion include tackling the rise in race hate, dismantling capitalism, exploring the myth of the 'fair go' and understanding the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

New Yorker staff writer Elizabeth Kolbert, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2015 for her book The Sixth Extinction, will beam in from her Massachusetts home to discuss solutions to the climate crisis.

Throsby calls The Sixth Extinction "a hit-by-a-truck book".

"Reading that was the first time I'd heard someone engage with the idea of the anthropocene, (which proposes that we are in a new geologic time period defined by our impact on the environment), and with the notion of human culpability in the vast acceleration of climate change," Throsby says.

Kolbert's latest book, Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future, surveys the people, companies and industries harnessing cutting-edge technology to deal with the fallout from climate change.

In Iceland, engineers are converting carbon emissions to stone. In the United States, waterways laden with invasive species such as Asian carp have been electrified. In Australia, biologists are attempting to create a genetically engineered super-coral to withstand warmer, more acidic oceans.

Throsby says the book sits somewhere between optimism and pessimism in its detailing of the true costs of 'techno-solutionism'.

"The title comes from an idea that is being seriously investigated by physicists at the moment, which is that we could shoot light-reflective particles into the stratosphere to deflect solar heat, but that it may turn the sky white."

Kolbert will talk with Australian investigative journalist Paddy Manning, whose own book, Body Count: How Climate Change Is Killing Us, picked up the 2021 Victorian Premier's Literary Award for Non-Fiction.

A significant aspect of Throsby's work on Antidote involves matchmaking the talent to ensure a lively and fruitful session.

"The aim is to generate events that are a lot more back and forth than one person talking the whole time," she says.

"The most interesting and generative ideas happen in dialogue rather than in monologue."

Also appearing by link from the US will be Korean American poet Cathy Park Hong, whose 2020 collection of essays, Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for autobiography.

She will be joined by screenwriter and journalist Benjamin Law and journalist and producer Beverly Wang for a session titled #StopAsianHate.

"Over the course of 2020 (and into this year) we've seen an incredible spike in hate crimes against Asian people across the diaspora, across the western world," Throsby says.

"Asian businesses have been vandalised and Asian people assaulted and even murdered because of their race."

Throsby wanted to find out who around the world was writing most interestingly on the subject.

She asked around and a colleague put her on to Hong.

"She wrote Minor Feelings last year in response to (the surge in Asian hate crime) and I was deeply moved," she says.

"It's poetic and personal and it really engages with that grey zone that people in the Asian diaspora, particularly Asians living in the west, fall into when it comes to broader conversations about racism."

Hong writes: "In the popular imagination, Asian Americans inhabit a vague purgatorial status: not white enough nor black enough; distrusted by African Americans, ignored by whites, unless we're being used by whites to keep the black man down".

Throsby selected Law and Wang to chat with Hong because the pair engage with similar themes on their pop culture program Stop Everything! on ABC Radio National and on social media.

"I thought they'd be the best people to frame the conversation for an Australian audience," she says.

While Antidote tickets are $15 per session or $75 for a festival pass, Throsby has programmed a free session into the mix, focusing on the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which was awarded the 2021 Sydney Peace Prize.

Released in 2017 at the First Nations National Constitutional Convention, the document calls for a constitutionally enshrined First Nations Voice and a 'Makarrata Commission' for agreement-making between governments and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and truth-telling about history.

'Makarrata' is a Yolngu word meaning reconciliation following a struggle.

The architects behind the statement, Megan Davis from the University of NSW and Alyawarre woman Pat Anderson, a community leader and advocate, will join in discussion with Thomas Mayor, a Torres Strait Islander man born and raised in Darwin on Larrakia country.

Following the convention, Mayor spent 18 months travelling Australia with the Uluru Statement canvas, packed in a postal cylinder, spreading the word and gaining support from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

"Megan Davis and Pat Anderson (also) did an enormous amount of work and community consultation to make sure that the document was properly representative of a diverse series of communities that make up the beauty of Indigenous Australia," Throsby says.

"But I don't think it's very well appreciated how complex it was to get the statement done, and the intensity of the process that went into that.

"This will be a great opportunity to hear from the people who drove the entire process."

Throsby hopes audiences leave with an understanding of where the process is up to, where it's come from, and where it's headed.

Other guests appearing at the all-day event include Greek economist, politician and author Yanis Varoufakis, Norwegian-born British author and broadcaster Afua Hirsch and Australian author Michael Mohammed Ahmad.

The festival is Throsby's fourth and last. She has departed the Opera House to become managing editor of the arts at the ABC.

Needless to say, she will make a guest appearance at Antidote.

"I've absolutely loved my job here, so it's a tough one to walk away from," Throsby says.

"Festivals and cultural organisations have to respond to what's around them and I've been privileged as a curator and programmer in the last four years to be able to shape that."

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