In 1979, Australian performance artist, Jill Orr did a performance for camera on St Kilda Beach. It involved the artist laying down on the sand, clothed in a white dress, black high heels and sunglasses. She lay there with wild and domestic fish on and surrounding her body, and with a cob loaf on her stomach. Lunch with the Birds was Orr’s chance to “commune” with the birds while “exploring the play on flight, ascension and the nature of scavenging sea gulls” (Orr 2010).
I have fond memories of going to the local park as a child to feed the ducks old sliced bread. I engage in similar rituals as an adult. I regularly go down to Flippers on Hobart’s waterfront and buy fish and chips for $14.50. It is likely that by the time I’ve finished I’ve spared a chip or two for the seagulls. Sometimes I will offer up all my left over chips. I’m aware of how I’m not supposed to feed the birds but I do it anyway because the act is dripping with nostalgia and it’s for my own amusement and pleasure. It is difficult to comprehend how my actions as an individual affect the overarching wellbeing of the planet, especially since I know that for change to be substantive it needs to be collective. I often feel an awkward combination of helplessness and guilt as a result of not not feeding the birds.
Brunch with the Birds (a performance for the camera) is a parody of Orr’s work and responds to the subject of the Anthropocene through video and performance. During this performance I dress up in drag to look like Orr and buy hot chips from Flippers. Then I lay down outside the punts and scatter the chips all over my body in preparation to share my brunch with the birds. I lay back and let a flock of seagulls eat chips off my body. The performance is filmed using an iPhone and a selfie stick. This work uses humour to highlight the absurdity of the contradiction of wanting to experience the natural environment, to be part of it and preserve it while contributing to its destruction at the same time. The use of an iPhone draws attention to the performative politics of the privileged and how they often use technological apparatuses as tools to broadcast their opinions surrounding climate change while simultaneously shielding themselves from taking any accountability or action. This work embraces these contradictions and uses absurdity and satire to establish connection between concept and audience.
Brunch with the Birds (a performance for the camera) is also a critique of the relationship between radical queer culture and contemporary art. Agitating at the tension between queer humour and queer politics, I draw upon my experience of the paradoxical policing of queer activism within our community—that work must be serious in order to be activism or even art. I feel pressure from some in the community to devote my practice to facilitating an understanding of the political movements of our moment, using it to catalyse awareness and action. If I don’t, the reasoning goes, I am not using my ‘platform’; I am not making ‘good’ work, and worse, I am not being a ‘good’ queer. I use playfulness, messiness and vulnerability in this performance to disturb expectations and relax the boundaries between art and activism.
Did Jill Orr lay on St Kilda beach with fish in her eyes and contemplate the Anthropocene at all? If she was holding a placard would that make it self-aware protest? What are the limits of what is considered useful political dialogue? What are welcome interventions in our natural environment? Brunch with the Birds (a performance for the camera) is a playful exploration of our guilt, the tension between humour and seriousness in debate, and the tangled boundaries between individual and collective action in our environment.