The Mountain Flora Project – a guest blog by donna davis

by donna davis, July 2019, Creative in Residence at Queensland State Archives.

I am very excited to be undertaking a position as Creative in Residence (CiR) at the Queensland State Archives (QSA).

I started in May and have so far had the opportunity to undertake research, visit conservation labs, meet with specialist archivists and see the inner workings behind the scenes of the Archives.  I have found the Archives an exciting place steeped in so many possible opportunities to undertake creative research; it is hard to not get side-tracked with the multiple layers of rich research material, archival processes and the pure visual aesthetic that accompanies any visit to the Archives.

The focus of my residency is to create new works that explore climate change and conservation in the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area, with respect to historical and current data; coupling the QSA CiR within the framework of the current environmental conservation project, the Tropical Mountain Flora rescue mission.

When starting the residency I had a number of creative thoughts in mind, which I am concurrently working on during my CiR. For this blog entry I thought I would share how access to the archives is helping me to conceptually develop one of my original ideas.

At first I was particularly interested in learning more about the history of the creation of the World Heritage listing of the Wet Tropics, as this area is regarded as a living museum of plants and animals. This area also boasts unique cloud rainforests on several mountain peaks that are home to many species of plants that are found nowhere else on Earth, which I should note, are currently under threat from the climate crisis. 

The ‘Tropical Mountain Flora Project’, a project led by the Australian Tropical Herbarium is currently working to safeguard 30 of these threatened mountain top flora species; and I am artist in residence on this long-term project, so the opportunity to undertake background research on the area during the CiR is invaluable for my creative process.

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Cloud layer over mountain range in Wet Tropics.
Image taken from James Cook University Campus. 
Photo by donna davis.

I was intrigued to investigate why such a unique and valuable ecological system earmarked for World Heritage listing was contested. So, when I first started my residency at QSA I anticipated searching through the case files of when the Queensland Government took the Federal Government to the High Court contesting the World Heritage Listing of the Wet Tropics –  Queensland State Archives Series ID 21068, Plaintiff’s Case Records – State of Queensland and the Attorney-General for the State of Queensland v The Commonwealth of Australia and Graham Frederick Richardson (Minister for the Environment and the Arts).

Unfortunately, this record has a 30-year restricted access period and is not set for public access until October 2019 (just slightly outside my residency dates!).  However, the description of the case, together with the item listing of documents, allowed me to follow supplementary leads both inside and outside QSA to learn more about this case and the conversation that surrounded it.

Firstly, I began searching the Archives’ digitised Cabinet Minutes from around the time of the High Court case. Reading through these minutes allowed me to understand some of the issues that surrounded the listing of the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area (WTWHA).

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Example of Queensland State Archive digitised Cabinet Minutes. Photo by donna davis.

One of the issues contested by the Queensland Government was the adverse effect on the regions’ timber industry, due to the fact that the proposed area for World Heritage listing would mean that logging could no longer take place in certain areas. Therefore, the Queensland Government initially suggested that a reduced area for the World Heritage listing could protect the timber industry. The discussion between Queensland and the Commonwealth around the creation of boundary lines was an ongoing topic for Cabinet throughout the late 1980s and included a High Court challenge of the Commonwealth’s regulation that banned “…all commercial logging in the proposed Wet Tropical rainforests of North-East Queensland World Heritage Area under the World Heritage Properties Conservation Act 1983.  Whilst the WTWHA was inscribed on the World Heritage list on 9 December 1988, the matter between Queensland and the Commonwealth was not fully resolved until December 1989, when Queensland’s newly elected Labor Government withdrew its High Court challenge (https://www.wettropics.gov.au/site/user-assets/docs/chronolgy.pdf).

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Research at the Wet Tropics Management Authority, Cairns (Library ref: 333.784 NAT).
Photo by donna davis.

To continue my research I visited the Wet Tropics Management Authority (WTMA) in Cairns, an organisation that was created in 1992 to manage the WTWHA according to Australia’s obligations under the World Heritage Convention.  I was fortunate to chat with Principal Scientist Dr Sandra Abell and the team at WTMA to get some interesting verbal histories about the declaration of the Wet Tropics as a World Heritage Site. I was particularly interested in the boundaries that were drawn to encompass the World Heritage Area and the complexities that surrounded the creation, and now the protection of these boundaries.

The boundary line is quite unique and not the ideal profile from a conservation perspective as it has an unusual shape with multiple disjointed sections and stretches from Cooktown to Townsville, along the coast for approximately 450kms, with more than 2,500 neighbouring properties. This extensive boundary creates zones for potential environmental threats such as weeds, feral species and destruction from multiple entry points along its border.

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Wet Tropics World Heritage Boundary Map: http://www.wettropics.gov.au/maps

I was heartened, however, by my discussions with the WTMA team who shared stories of conservation groups and individuals who had purchased large (and small) plots of land that back onto the WTWHA boundaries with a view to extending and protecting the unique WTWHA, whilst also providing flora and wildlife corridors between the fragmented sections.  The visual aesthetic of the boundary, coupled with oral histories and archive research, compelled me to consider an artwork based on the boundary mapping.

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During my research at the Archives I would often come across documents wrapped in paper and tied with red tape. Photo by donna davis.

This got me thinking about some of the things that may prevent and enhance conservation efforts, such as bureaucracy, economics, societal values and politics. How could I capture some of these themes in an artwork?

Spending time in the Archive research room, requesting various documents, often saw me find documents wrapped in paper and tied with red cotton tape. As I learned during discussions with archivists, this red tape has been found to leave pink stains on documents over time, and so now is being slowly phased out and replaced with white archival tape. Red Tape is synonymous with bureaucratic complexities, and I could see obvious conceptual analogies that I could explore in my work. I enquired about what happens to the red tape after it has been removed, and whether I could collect it for an artwork.  I am still deciding exactly how this will be used, but can see the relevance of using it in artwork that speaks about the mapping and conservation of the WTMA boundaries.

Interestingly these boundaries, that were part of the initial contention surrounding the listing, are still a point of interesting discussion.

References:

Queensland State Archives Series ID 142, Cabinet Minutes (Decisions and Submissions): June 1987 – October 1988

https://www.wettropics.gov.au

https://www.wettropics.gov.au/boundary-maps

https://www.wettropics.gov.au/site/user-assets/docs/chronolgy.pdf

About the author:

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donna davis is an artist working across sculpture, installation, assemblage and digital media. She says of her practice: Exploring the nexus between art and science, I like to create new ways of working with scientific data in order to develop works that capture and create sites of ecological observation. As an artist I am intrigued with the idea of connection, and work across a range of media including assemblage, installation and digital media to explore connections and relationships with the natural world in a way that evokes curiosity and reflection; by providing new ways of ‘seeing’ and creating new ‘connections’ in the mind of the viewer.

 

About Queensland State Archives

For more information about Queensland State Archives visit www.archives.qld.gov.au.

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