24 // 5.05.21

Walk-Off Country
Rachel O'Reilly

Water and mineral stories, anti-extractivism, portrait of a place, anthropocene nightmares, lineages and inheritances, colonialism, alternative documentary, geography and imagination, climate justice.

This week Prototype presents a fragment of INFRACTIONS, an hour-long work by settler artist and researcher Rachel O’Reilly that upends conventional documentary formats to tell of the destructive stakes of developing the north of Australia with fossil gas. 

In the selected fragment, Walk-Off Country (Newcastle Waters, NT), we journey with Dimakarri Dixon, a musician and former bore runner from Marlinja community to a river that carries the songlines of ancestral spirits. We find a riverbed that is cracked and dry from climate pressures already, before gas rigs are set to arrive upstream. 

Newcastle Waters was the site of a historic Aboriginal pastoral workers strike in the 1960s that preceded the Wave Hill walk-off and a national, pan-Aboriginal land rights movement. Today it is an epicentre of resistance to the controversial practice of fracking, a novel form of gas mining that has rolled out across most Australian states since mass onshore approvals in Queensland from 2009. 

With the lifting of a moratorium on fracking in 2018, British, US and Australian mining companies threaten 50% of the Northern Territory with the expansion of a toxic industry across terrain in which 90% of the population rely fully on groundwater. 

In the larger work of INFRACTIONS, the camera foregrounds the voices and testimonies of other renowned artists and activists including Jack Green, Gadrian Hoosan and Que Kenny, who are leading campaigns to stop the colonisation of culture and water by ever-deeper extractions of fossil fuels. The work uses the format of the split-screen to inventively reveal more information – of past activism, of unregulated mine spills before fracking arrives, and of the nature of Indigenous law – than what is visible on screen.

This approach rearranges our expectations of what we think when we think of environmental art, as well as European ideals of justice, art and knowledge. The work’s disruption is that it refuses to promote environmentalism or Indigenous rights within the limits of a society based on endless growth. We come to understand that protecting living waters means defending the autonomy of First Nations peoples in language, law and kinships inseparable from vital places despite 250 years of colonisation. Protecting living waters means Indigenous self-governance and kinship, which the settler culture has refused to learn from, at inevitable risk to itself and the planet.

Grounded in a respectful ethic, Walk-Off Country (Newcastle Waters, NT) leaves behind the narrowness of the conventional documentary format to blast away the frontier imaginaries that still dominate life on Earth’s driest continent.

INFRACTIONS can be viewed in full at:

Featuring: Dimakarri ‘Ray’ Dixon (Mudburra), Jack Green (Garawa, Gudanji); Gadrian Hoosan (Garrwa, Yanyuwa); Robert O’Keefe (Wambaya), Juliri Ingra and Neola Savage (Gooreng Gooreng); Que Kenny (Western Arrarnta); Cassie Williams (Western Arrarnta); the Sandridge Band, and Professor Irene Watson (Tanganekald, Meintangk Bunganditj).

In addition to the above countries, the filmmaker would like to acknowledge the Turrbal and Jagera people of Meanjin, on whose land the Institute of Modern Art tour of INFRACTIONS was organised, and pay respects to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people past, present and future, protecting country, culture and water across this land.

About Rachel O'Reilly

Rachel O’Reilly is a settler artist, writer, curator and researcher who works between Berlin and Meanjin/Brisbane. She teaches at the Dutch Art Institute and is a Phd candidate at the Centre for Research Architecture, Goldsmiths. INFRACTIONS is the final work of The Gas Imaginary series (2013-2020).

Artist's website