Beyond The Floods
How a community arts institution is doing its bit to bring Lismore back to life.
Zeb Schulz has spent most of his working life flipping switches. He’s not an electrician or even a sound engineer. It’s the switches in people’s brains that interest Schulz — the ones that can take you from seeing someone’s disabilities and deficits to envying their strengths and talent. And the ones that transform individuals and organisations into inclusive, vibrant communities. Schulz is the General/Creative Manger of RealArtWorks, a post Disability Arts Company based in the Northern NSW town of Lismore. RealArtWorks’ flagship building and artists’ studios, SeeSpace, took the full brunt of the flooding that occurred on the town earlier this year.
Lismore is a flood town, but in the early hours of February 28, water levels of 14.4m were recorded — more than 2m higher than the previous record — and SeeSpace was inundated. The aftermath has been devastating and exhausting but, with a little help from their friends, RealArtWorks are building back, “flipping the switch” yet again to turn disaster into opportunity.
In the days leading up to the flood Schulz was on tour with his partner Sunita, RealArtWorks’ Creative Producer. The couple decided to head home to Lismore urgently due to a COVID scare, becoming aware of potential flooding in the town along the way. On only a few hours sleep, they spent the day of February 27 enacting SeeSpace’s comprehensive flood plan, which included moving everything upstairs to above the 12.5m mark. By midnight, with torrential rain and localised flooding continuing, the news emerged that the town’s levee had been breached and the water was going to go higher. It was too late and too dangerous to return. Everything — bar some precious artworks that had been stored in SeeSpace’s newly built mezzanine section — was submerged, with most of the building’s electrical, IT and sound production equipment damaged beyond repair. Some items were swept way in the torrent, and mud filled the building.
The months since the flood have delivered Schulz and company a rollercoaster of experiences and emotions. Shultz describes the “initial euphoria” where he was energised by practical tasks such as cleaning, and was inspired by fellow artists pitching in to clear up the worst of the mess, and empty the building. They worked from first light till after dark for weeks, but then some inertia set in as he realised the enormity of the task ahead. He recalled, “I can remember about 2 ½ weeks in and I was thinking we were nearly half way there, and actually we’re maybe nearly half way there now, three months later!” He now realises that recovery will be “a marathon, not a sprint.”
RealArtWorks’ predicament first came to the attention of Technical Audio Group’s Chris Hamer-Smith via a friend’s Instagram story a few days after the flood. A crowd-funding campaign listed items that had been destroyed and Hamer-Smith realised TAG might be able to help. This led to a series of emails between Hamer-Smith, Schulz, and TAG’s Max Twartz, followed by a visit from Streetheart’s Rik Johnson who provided emergency supplies, TAG’s generator, and a shopping list of cleaning products. Further visits from TAG Directors Max Twartz and Tony Russo saw them being able to offer support, provide further supplies, and were able to monitor first-hand what else was needed.
Hamer-Smith says, “We have been fortunate enough to assist RealArtWorks with getting ’SeeSpace’ up and running again. We’ve shipped up speakers, microphones, headphones, and a mixer. Store DJ have also generously donated all the bits to connect, mount and interface. Together we’ve got them back recording, rehearsing, and performing. It’s been an absolute privilege to be able to support the great people that run RealArtWorks and we hope to collaborate further with the team on future projects.”
In the inevitable moments of grief and anger, Schulz says that offers of help have provided solace. Seeing that others have recognised the importance of RealArtWorks — and are willing to pitch-in to save it — has allowed him to grieve and given him impetus to carry on. The personal connections made with people who have turned up to help have been healing in themselves. He has also found expression in writing poems, one of which he performed for a Lismore Radio event soon after the flood.
There is something incredibly powerful and transformative about creatives.
“There are good people everywhere
The universe, which modern science tells us is may be sentient,
Is more possibly concerned with the health of the river
Than my tiny part of the everything that is
Than my colliding atoms as consciousness are.
The serpent and its lungs look healthier after the good flush
It was here before any human eyes saw it, and will be her after we are gone
Horseshoe Creek flowing almost clear my friend tells me
She’s been there nearly 30 odd years
The earth is weeping
And has no care for my weary tears.”
KEYS TO A COMEBACK
RealArtWorks’ core characteristics, embodied in SeeSpace, are perhaps key to the company’s resilience. SeeSpace currently provides studios for seven artists who work with supporting artists, as well as being a hub for artists in the community and from further afield. Musicians, visual artists, writers, poets, puppeteers, projectionists, and artists of all ilks are welcome and encouraged. The organisation works within the social model of disability.
Schulz says, “People experience disability rather than have a disability. The disability that they experience is the barriers that society put up to disable them. We’re not a disability organisation, we’re an arts company. We have supporting artists and supported artists, and that line blurs. We’re a bunch of artists, some of whom experience disability and some who don’t. We don’t really say who does and who doesn’t. The barriers that we face to create art, we face them together.”
Underpinned by this way of working, facing the devastation of the flood together has strengthened the SeeSpace team. Schulz says that a recent team meeting — where all the supported and supporting artists shared their enthusiasm and visions for the future — has been re-energising. “For me, it’s not actually about re-building, it’s about re-setting. Both our personal visions and our collective visions are informing the re-set. I guess we’re seeing it as an opportunity. It’s like a blank canvas.”
INTO THE FUTURE
Amidst the clean-up, and despite the ongoing threat of further flooding — as Australia’s dangerous east coast weather patterns continue — the SeeSpace team has been creating new work. The artists have returned. The sound of musicians jamming fills the building again, and the recording studio is taking shape thanks to the arrival of the final piece of the equipment puzzle — a new Allen and Heath mixer.
For some time RealArtWorks has been undertaking a creative investigation called Nothing Is Useless. This looks at society’s compulsion to consume ‘the new’ through the creation of interactive artworks that repurpose obsolete technology. Since the flood they’ve had to throw out a lot of stuff, but they’ve managed to salvage two huge collages that have been through two Lismore floods. These are made up of damaged audio cassette tapes from an exhibition in the Wagga Regional Art Gallery in 2016.
In late June, RealArtWorks produced and performed LOVE LEVEL 2022 — a ‘happening’ compiling the expression of flood narratives from the SeeSpace team and the wider Lismore community in a kind of creative debriefing. Schulz initially had concerns that the event entitled ‘LOVE LEVEL 2022: A Series Of Unprecedented Events’ might be “too soon” for the artists and the community but the group worked hard to honour each person’s story and the night was a success.
Schulz adds, “There is something incredibly powerful and transformative about creatives — who are committed to both their own narratives and community driven narratives — coming together and making great art.”
RealArtWorks will continue to be part of the Lismore and South Lismore community’s healing process. As well as their current activities, they also recently received a donation of professional gallery lighting and funding to turn one of their spaces into a No Commission Gallery which will host regular art exhibitions. RealArtWorks plan to take the LOVE LEVEL 22 concept to surrounding flood affected towns so that they can tell their own stories, and would like to see audiences from further afield come to Lismore to see what RealArtWorks is doing.
Despite the challenges, RealArtWorks has a clear vision of the future — to strengthen the connection they feel with this group of artists, to have fun and create valuable work together, and to make SeeSpace a place where the team can create community. Schulz is confident that when people see what RealArtWorks do they will also have their eyes opened to possibility rather than disability.
He finishes by saying, “That is our work; our primary work. It’s to create shows engaging the skills of artists of varying abilities that flip switches in people’s brains. That’s our core job.”