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Timmah Ball

Timmah Ball is a writer, researcher, and zine maker of Ballardong Noongar heritage. In 2021, she was an Arts House Makeshift Publics artist, where she developed the publication Do Planners Dream of Electric Trees? She has published in a range of literary journals and magazines such as Meanjin, The Griffith Review, Artlink and The Sydney Review of Books and appears in the recent anthology This All Come Back Now.

Watching Byron Baes in a Climate Emergency

Timmah Ball

‘I’m going to have a sculpture of me on display as a mermaid!’

Leaning back on her Pilates reformer bed after another session with the crew, Elle, who identifies as a socially and environmentally conscious woman in business, proclaims with excessive enthusiasm that her boyfriend Stav is making a life-size sculpture of her as a mermaid. A few scenes later, on the Netflix reality television show Byron Baes, Stav takes photos of her in an elaborate mermaid costume.

The enormous tail, made from flexible resin mimics each discrete scale and fin expectant of the mythic creatures. The images will be later used to create a 3D printed statue of her mermaid alter ego for the CHARM fundraiser, their ocean conservation project. Within the ecology of Instagram influencers, Elle quickly emerges as one of the most vicious embodiments of the wellness industrial complex. She contorts her desire for fame as if it’s a necessary tool in her quest for climate justice, community wellbeing, and inner health.

As soft lit montages move between fashion launches, sound healing sessions, and Elle’s entrepreneurialism, it is hard to know what is bleaker. The relentless footage of flood ravaged Bundjalung Country that will vanish as quickly as the media’s attention turns to the next newsworthy disaster, because the aftermath and long-term recovery no longer provide appealing content. Or watching Elle state to the camera that, ‘me being scanned as a mermaid will bring about more conscious attention to saving our coral reefs,’ with such sincerity that it almost defies satire. She then flirtatiously asks Stav if he can make her boobs bigger as they go through the scans that will create her 3D model mermaid self. And I laugh, even though her vapid self-aggrandising is unpleasant because it is a relief to witness the astonishing absurdity. A behaviour that feels so disconnected from the social justice and climate conscious communities I surround myself in, yet oddly resembles the indulgences and privileges that can also exist within these circles but are ignored or left unspoken simply because we see ourselves as better or above a glossy pack of social media influencers, which makes the slippage into self-branding and social capital more repugnant and harder to resolve.

When the fundraiser kicks off, Elle anxiously explains how important it is to get it right because ‘the community of Byron are very very passionate about environmental issues’. The camera shifts to the venue, panning across a male performer who lounges by a pool in a mermaid costume lustrously smiling at the passing guests who welcome his smutty gaze. The guests are pleased, the farce is working. In the background their coral-making robot, also named CHARM, pumps out 3D pieces of coral that aims to replace the diminishing reefs in the climate epoch. If the government refuses to do anything about the effects of climate change on coral reefs, they’ll simply make plastic replicas and build a new one. As the lunacy of Netflix’s latest venture breaks my threshold for trash TV viewing, the nausea is only heightened by the awareness of CHARM’s absolute realness beyond the spectacle of reality television. Its website highlights Stav’s former career as a NASA engineer, details which drives the organisations scientific merits and asks people to donate to the organisation, while directing you to watch the Byron Baes episode featuring Elle’s fundraiser.

In a Guardian review, Patrick Lenton describes the series as a ‘compelling, compulsive and kind of terrifying binge’ and later, ‘a window into a strange blister of privilege and elitism set in a beautiful location’. It’s difficult to watch the blister fester in the beautiful location anguished by floods that are unlikely to impact the series participants. People cocooned by the type of elitism that fuels environmental entrepreneurialism more preoccupied with its own success than the actual problem it seeks to solve. If I turned to the series because it provided a lull from the disorientating circumstances we find ourselves in — satisfying the need to momentarily escape which is only ever available to those with some privilege — I left even more aware of our interconnectedness. Strangely conscious that these people who embody a decadence that is genuinely terrifying while addictively comical do however possess impulses unnervingly close to my own. I’ve attended international exhibition launches where gallery CEOs proclaim that ‘art is the answer’ to a world in crisis while promoting the multinational tech giant who sponsored the event as they forget to acknowledge the Indigenous curator’s name. And I remain acutely aware that exposing these incongruities is always compromised because I accepted their invitation, the free flights and accommodation in the first place. I’m not hosting parties with human mermaids as entertainment or launching environmental NGOs to leverage social capital but I am equally aware that my own actions which seek to illuminate these disparities might also contribute to the hollowness.

It is easy to deride Elle’s vacuousness, to critique her exclusive style of ‘environmental change making’ which comes with themed cocktails and elaborate hair extensions fitting for a woman who desires to become a mermaid. But to do so would remain oblivious to our own superficialities. To minimise expectations that the artist/activist also requires an image to fortify their work. That to remain relevant in the arts or literary industry requires its own public performances, savvy social media presence and look. Elle’s behaviour elicits a cathartic laugher in a time of climate emergency but it also underscores the odd ways we live and practice. I’m watching out for GoFundMe campaigns and other mutual aid that supports communities, particularly First Nations mob on Bundjalung Country, while aware of the carbon footprint I’ll leave from the flights I’ll take this year. Trips that are necessary in order to maintain the type of arts career that allows me to generate enough income to donate to these campaigns. The loop is infinite, but facing our complicity within this dread might begin to reorientate ourselves, if dreaming of escape still feels possible.

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