I was sitting at my desk writing when the Super Hornets began their flyovers across the city – practice runs for Riverfire, a celebration of pyrotechnics and music that marks the end of Brisbane Festival. As they thundered past I wondered, not for the first time, at the incongruity of the relationship between warplanes and arts festivals.
The day before had been the helicopters’ turn. Four ADF choppers flying low through the city, sending birds and old ladies into panic mode. From my high-rise apartment it looked like Obama was back in town. It didn’t take long for social media to light up with images of them hovering mosquito-like around the CBD; everyone seemed to have Instagrammed it. Later in the day I was out with my dog when a guy and his mother walked past, obviously discussing the military displays. “At least they’re not dropping bombs, imagine living in a warzone.” Quite.
It seems to me a bizarre thing to celebrate arts and culture with fighter jets and reconnaissance helicopters. I understand they’re loud and fast and occasionally shoot flames out their arse (which in fairness does have parallels with at least one show I saw during Brisbane Festival) but surely at this point in time, with Australia undertaking airstrikes in Syria, and our troops still actively engaged in operations in Africa and the Middle East, there’s something a bit gross in celebrating the existence of a warplane? There is nothing celebratory in the sound of combat aircraft overhead. It is the sound of war, a terrifying daily occurrence for a large percentage of the world’s people. To make a spectacle of it seems…I don’t know. Arrogant? Insensitive?
Perhaps it’s a hangover from the Golden Age of aviation, when flying was still a novelty and pilots considered daring. Back then, there was at least some cultural value in planes in as much as they opened up new worlds and ways of thinking, made icons of Lindbergh and Earhart and helped advance the status of women. But there is little cultural value to be found in a Super Hornet, a machine capable of carrying air-to-air and air-to-surface missiles, unless it’s in the untold destruction of cultures ravished by war. They have no artistic merit, designed only to inflict damage. They drop bombs, ruin towns and destroy life. They kill people. Should we really be quite so proud of their existence?
The arts community, for the most part, likes to sees itself as a socially aware sector. Often we’re the barometer by which the rest of society sets their moral compass, whether that be in agreeance or dissonance. We inspire, we outrage, and we provoke discussion. A little more than a year ago a considerable number of artists boycotted the Sydney Biennale over Transfield’s sponsorship of the event, an issue that damn near brought one of the largest arts festivals in Australia to a halt, but also gave rise to an important ethical discourse. It was a discussion that needed to be had, and the Arts community were are the forefront of the debate. But is it not a little hypocritical for the sector to take such an impassioned stance on the treatment of asylum seekers in detention, yet celebrate with one of the very things they were fleeing in the first place?
We now know there is no glory to be found in war; it is evil and insidious, and serves only to inflate the egos of already overbearing leaders. It is the antithesis of everything that the arts community as a whole sets out to provide society with. And while I understand that for some the supersonic booms are an absolute highlight, there are plenty more people in the world for whom there is no sound more distressing.
So go tonight and enjoy Riverfire – it really is a spectacular event, and a fantastic end to three weeks of theatre, art, music, fun and love. But perhaps when the ADF go across your heads this time, save your cheers and hug your friends and family instead – and say a silent prayer for those for whom a celebration of culture is as unlikely as a Super Hornet on a joy flight.