How an activist group from Western Australia called Grevillea used the power of creative activism and innovative approaches to challenge militarism and exploitation, as well as shake up stale approaches to creating social change.
One group who attempted to inject some vitality into the political life of Western Australia during the late 1980s and early 1990s was Grevillea.
In a time when traditional forms of protest often felt repetitive and uninspiring, Grevillea chose to inject creativity and dynamism into their actions. They recognized the limitations of conventional methods such as petitions and marches, which often failed to engage people on a deeper level or inspire real change.
Instead of just conveying a message, they aimed to provoke thought, inspire engagement, and empower individuals to think critically about important issues.
By crafting actions that were both playful and thought-provoking, they managed to capture attention, challenge beliefs and generate conversations in unique ways.
Grevillea’s emphasis on empowerment and energization through their actions is a powerful lesson for activists and organizers. It highlights the importance of not only conveying a message but also fostering a sense of collective ownership and enthusiasm among participants.
Their willingness to challenge conventions, both in terms of action and identity, showcases the value of thinking outside the box when it comes to protest and activism. In a world where protest methods can sometimes feel repetitive and stagnant, the story of Grevillea serves as a reminder that creative, dynamic, and multi-layered approaches have the potential to reinvigorate activism and spark meaningful change.
Read more about the creative tactic and stunts they used in the following interview with Mar, a member of Grevillea at the time. They discuss how the group applied a dynamic and creative perspective to approaching issues such as militarism, pollution and international solidarity.
This interview originally appeared in the book How To Make Trouble and Influence People: Pranks, Protests, Graffiti & Political Mischief-Making From Across Australia (PM Press, 2013).
When did Grevillea first come together?
It was during the late 1980s. It started out, as the best things do, by accident. There was one of the regular US war fleet visits happening in Fremantle. During the 1980s we would get visits about four times a year. These involved battle fleets composed of an aircraft carrier, a battleship, three or four destroyer escorts and often a submarine as well, which meant that at any one time there could be anywhere between seven and ten thousand American sailors in town.
For us, it felt as though we were living in an occupied city. For mainstream Perth, it was a cultural celebration. That was really distasteful. There had been a long series of demonstrations with varying degrees of success in response to the visits. In particular, a group I was involved with, War Resisters Fremantle, had done a lot of actions against them.
On this occasion an anarchist rang around to friends saying she wanted to get some sort of specifically anarchist response together. About eight people turned up to the meeting and the general mood was one of wanting to do something creative and wanting to do something quite different from what had been the run of the mill responses to the warship visits.
War Resisters Fremantle and other people doing stuff in relation to the warship visits were not happy that the primary response to warship visits was to worry about nuclear weapons.
We saw nuclear weapons as just the extreme manifestation of something that was horrible from start to stop — it was a side issue to the military occupation of our city.
What we decided was to do something which emphasised the military aspect of the warship visits rather than the nuclear. There was a march already organised by an anti-nuclear organisation, either PND (People for Nuclear Disarmament) or FPND (Fremantle People for Nuclear Disarmament). These were a regular thing and for the most part were stupid, boring affairs.
We were used to, as a part of our political life, attending activities like demonstrations and going home feeling worse about ourselves and the world than when we had turned up. You got to the point where people preferred to do nothing rather than do what was on offer from the mainstream organisations because you felt all the energy was being taken out of you. So we wanted to do something where not only would we provoke a more creative response from other people, but where we would energise ourselves, empower ourselves.
That can sound very vague and touchy-feely, but there’s a huge difference in going home from a demonstration where at the very least you have affirmed your collective opposition to what was going on, rather than just going along and feeling like you’re making some token flag-waving effort that anyone could safely ignore. With this in mind we decided to put together a piece of theatre.
We decided that we would stop the demonstration as it was going through the busiest part of Fremantle. One of the people who turned up to the meeting could walk on tall stilts. We decided that she would be the person who would halt the demonstration by striding out in front of it and yelling, “Stop.” At that point the rest of us would attack the demonstration.
We wanted to do a few things at once. We wanted to ridicule the military, so we got some costumes together and dressed up as military clowns. We put on silly make-up. We all wore one sort or another of a military jacket or shirt, with clown pants. For weapons we used domestic things like frying pans as machine guns. We ran around the crowd doing the most mad laughter we could while yelling, “Join the army. It’s fantastic in the army. Join the army. It’s fantastic in the army.”
We pretended to shoot people and we’d arranged with some friends in the crowd that when that happened they would fall over “dead”. On the day, thankfully, there were enough people in the crowd who were awake to what was going on. Everyone, three or four hundred people, just fell down dead in the road outside the café strip in Fremantle. After a while of that we gathered together at the front of the march and led it down onto the wharf where the warships were. We had a great time and it got a good response from people.
Following the success of that action was there a decision to formalise things more?
Yes. We were very pleased as the action had done what we had set out to do and had done something extra. It brought people together who didn’t know each other or who only vaguely knew one another, into a cohesive little group that was very keen to do more of this sort of stuff.
It sort of emerged that we were the Fremantle Anarchist Street Theatre Group.
This was actually misleading as only half the group were living in Fremantle, only half the group were anarchists and only half of what we did was street theatre. We were always called that as we only gave ourselves a name (Grevillea) just before we broke up.
What sort of approach did the group employ?
As I mentioned, we weren’t a street theatre group as such. What we were about was creative intervention, which meant that we were looking at creative, artistic, positive ways of addressing issues with humour and energy.
Most street theatre is didactic, preachy and obvious, and we wanted to get away from that. Some of our actions were straightforward and had an obvious meaning, but many of them were designed so that they had multiple meanings. The point was to not limit ourselves to the accepted political, cultural forms.
What sort of actions did the group do once you started meeting regularly?
I can’t remember the exact order of the things that we did after that, but we did a lot of things around the issues that were important for us. So, for instance, I remember that we did a very large painting, about five metres square, with a picture of the earth and stuff about various important rainforest issues that were going on at the time.
This focused, in particular, on the destruction of the culture of the Penan people in Borneo by logging activities, and celebrated their resistance to that. They weren’t going to win, and that was clear to them all along, but they set up fantastic blockades that went on for years. To highlight all that we did this painting and glued it to the footpath in the Perth Cultural Centre, with a little rope barrier around it. It stayed there for a whole weekend and thousands of people would have walked past it. A piece like that is clever in that most people would just assume that it was meant to be there.
The thing you need to think through with each of these activities is, “How do you do this in a way that makes it look as though it does belong? How do you give it its own air of legitimacy?” The way to do this sort of thing is to act as though you have a right to do it, because people get caught when they are acting nervously, or as if they shouldn’t be there. What’s even better is if you not only behave as if you have a right to do it, but as if it’s your job. If you look bored, then everyone will assume that you’re supposed to be there.
Grevillea was involved in one action where we were almost certain to be observed while doing it. We printed up a whole lot of stickers to put up the night before another war fleet visit, that said things like, “No credit to US sailors”, “US sailors not welcome here”, and so on. We literally stuck them on the front door of every shop in Fremantle. You’re not going to do that and not be seen.
So how can you do it? There were eight or twelve of us involved and we just went out in male/ female pairs, holding hands. What can be less suspicious than a man and a woman with their arms around each other in a shop doorway? If anybody stopped to look you could just start kissing. No one was caught and the stickers went up without a problem. Was there a public response to the stickers? The Chamber of Commerce was a bit on the upset side. Various business people said it was a disgrace.
You did some other actions around the Art Gallery didn’t you?
Yes. One of the members of the group, who was a keen surfer, said that he really wanted to do something about plastic waste because he was dealing with it on a daily basis. Every beach he went to had plastic waste washed up on it. We made a very large sculpture, about five metres tall, about eight metres long and about three metres wide. It was a fantastical creature that was part-dragon, part-dinosaur and part-machine monster with five heads.
It was constructed entirely out of plastic waste and we installed that in the Art Gallery pond. We did it at 5 o’clock on a Friday when any of the arts bureaucrats who would be likely to call the police had gone home. There were just a few people hanging around when we stuck it in the pond. It took quite a while because the thing had to be transported in parts. It was huge. Each of the heads had to be put on separately and it had legs that had to be tied on, but was it fun installing it!
We made an information leaflet to explain what it was about and they were left on a stand made out of plastic milk cartons. The creature stayed there for ten days in one of the busiest places in Perth for pedestrian traffic. The other point about using the Art Gallery pond was to respond to the hijacking of art by a very squeaky clean Art Gallery.
So by using this location you were able to generate multiple meanings out of the one action?
Yes. By making a monster out of plastic waste we were making a statement about plastic waste; by putting it in the Art Gallery pond we were making a statement about the Art Gallery; and by doing it without permission we were making a statement about claiming public space.
Tell us about the action in which a Grevillea member got to lecture Perth’s elite about the Chilean junta?
That didn’t even start out as an action, but it showed what’s possible when you have this creative approach in mind. I wasn’t there, but some members of the group had turned up for a protest against an opening at the Art Gallery of Western Australia that involved one of Alan Bond’s Van Gogh paintings.
Bond [a high profile magnate at the time] had just bought into the Chilean telephone exchange, which the Pinochet regime was using to bug people whom they later tortured. All the “nice” people were standing around with their drinks when this woman noticed that the microphone was unattended. She got up as if she was one of the intended speakers and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Art Gallery of Western Australia. While you are sipping on your chardonnays, I hope you are very happy with the idea that the money that is funding this event is coming from the torture of dissidents in Chile.” At that point people sort of realised that, “Ah, this isn’t what we came to hear.”
Nice people don’t like being reminded that their wealth is being supported by the torture of dissidents. She was escorted out of the building, but she’d made her point. It was great.
While the spontaneous approach worked that time we tended to discuss every action beforehand and at great length, if necessary. We’d focus on what the action was for. We’d also discuss what our attitude to the media would be. Most radicals don’t do nearly enough of this, this actual thinking it through.
We would ask ourselves if we wanted media coverage and, if so, what kind?
Another action the group did concerning Chile illustrated the need to organise our handling of the media. We did an action outside a concert that Alan Bond had organised which was supposedly raising money for street kids. It lost money and was a stupid publicity stunt. It was at Subiaco Oval, the main football ground in Perth. One of our members was interviewed by a Channel 9 reporter.
Alan Bond owned the channel at the time as well as the Swan Brewery, so he had people’s drinking and viewing habits well under control. The reporter asked, “Are you saying that Alan Bond shouldn’t organise this concert?” and our member said, “No. We’re here to talk about Chile and Alan Bond’s connection with the torture and the massacre of the dissidents in Chile, in which Alan Bond is closely implicated.”
The reporter kept asking the question, again and again and again, until the member started a sentence with “Yes”. That was all that went to air. “Are you saying that Alan Bond should not have organised this concert?” “Yes.”
We took that as an important lesson in dealing with the media. When dealing with journalists you only speak in single sentences that can stand alone and still get your message across.
You targeted Alan Bond on a number of occasions. Why?
He owned the bloody town. When he went to jail some people said, “Of course, we all supported Alan Bond back in the ’80s.” That was bullshit. Anybody who opposed Alan Bond wasn’t going to get in the newspapers at the time because Alan Bond owned the newspapers. I thought he was a disgusting creep and a thief, but it wasn’t possible to say so, even in the alternative media.
To say it publicly left you open to the defamation laws. Now I can call him a thief in public because he has been convicted of thieving, but it was obvious that what he was up to involved large-scale deception and the asset-stripping of companies. It was as plain as day.
Everybody knew it, so it was important to try and do something to disrupt the smooth flow of everyone’s cash into Alan Bond’s pockets. At one point the two women who’d been there at the start of Grevillea said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if LILAC came out in support of Alan Bond?” There was a group in Queensland called LILAC — Ladies In League Against Communism. It was a sub-group of the [quasi-fascist] League of Rights. So we did that.
We set up this organisation in Perth — Ladies In Line Against Communism — and we held a number of public events in support of Alan Bond. Now, obviously, if you’ve got an organisation which is called Ladies In Line Against Communism and it’s being run by a group which is fifty-fifty men and women, which Grevillea was, then you have to set up a Men’s Auxiliary. Which was a very nice take on the sexism of the Ladies’ Auxiliaries at bowling clubs and so forth.
We found lilac coloured dresses of various sorts and the men all dressed up in the daggiest clothes we could find.
The first thing we did was to hold a cake stall to raise money for Alan Bond, which was closed down by the Health Department of the City of Perth. It was hilarious and got us a fair bit of coverage.
Alan Bond was actually crying poor at the time, wasn’t he?
Yes. His creditors were suing him to try and get some of their money back, to which Alan Bond’s response was, “No chance, and by the way, I haven’t got any.” So we tried to raise money for him. We held a cake stall and then we held a press conference in response to the banning of the cake stall. It was very, very funny because a reporter from Channel 7 turned up — he was the only person who turned up — and he’d come along thinking we were for real. He didn’t realise that it was a prank. He had worked out how many lamingtons we’d have to sell to pay Alan Bond’s debts. He said to us, “Do you realise how many lamingtons you’d have to sell?” When we started answering him he realised what we were up to and played along with it beautifully. He also gave us a wonderful tip. He said, “If you want to do something and get it on the telly, then do it on a Tuesday.”
We didn’t know this at the time, but the news does work in a quite rigid weekly cycle. On Friday and Saturday the news is all sport with five minutes of headlines. Tuesday there’s no sport around and Parliament hasn’t sat since Friday. Business is just waking up from the weekend. So news directors on Tuesdays are actually scrabbling around for something interesting to stick on the news.
With this in mind we organised our big events for Tuesdays from then on in. We had a Walk For Wealth, which was a gag on Community Aid Abroad’s Walk Against Want. The Ladies In Line Against Communism managed to drag in a dozen friends of the group so there were about twenty ladies marching, with the Men’s Auxiliary lamely tagging along behind. We marched from the Stock Exchange to the Alan Bond Tower. It’s now the Bankwest Tower. At the time it was the largest office tower in Perth and it had the Bond Corporation on the top two or three floors.
Being the restrained and dignified people that the Ladies In Line Against Communism were, that march only went for about 150 metres. We then got into the foyer of the Bond Corporation offices.
You know when people win lottery prizes and they have those huge cheques? Well, we made up a huge cheque, made out to Alan Bond, for $15 or something which was supposed to be the proceeds of the cake stall. He had just had to sell Irises, which was the Van Gogh painting he had bought for lots of money. So we gave him a painting called Viruses to replace it.
I found this really bad, sub-science fiction doodle in an op shop and we turned it upside-down and added some bits to it and signed it with something silly. The security guards panicked when we got to the building. They didn’t know what to do and it took us a long time to negotiate getting in. As it was, they agreed to let us into the building.
Every TV station in Perth was there except, incidentally, the ABC. A friend of the group had written a version of God Save The Queen, which, of course, is the favourite song of Ladies In Line Against Communism. We sang God Save Our Billionaires in a rousing chorus and then two of the group were allowed up to the offices to deliver the painting and the cheque.
What was the official response from Bond’s people?
Somehow they had got hold of one of the postal addresses that the group used and the painting turned up a few days later. They didn’t send back the cheque. It had a note that said, “We received this painting and a ‘cheque’. We thank you for your efforts on behalf of the Bond Corporation, but we think we’ll solve our own financial problems.”
Despite all the gags some of the media appear to have been taken in. Looking back at the coverage the line seemed to be, “Are they right-wing loonies or are they left-wing loonies? We know that they’re loonies but we don’t know what kind”?
Some people were onto it straightaway. When we were in the Bond Tower singing God Save Our Billionaires, I recognised that one of the TV journalists was someone I’d been at uni with. He casually sidled over to me and, out of the corner of his mouth, said, “This is brilliant, Mar.” He thought it was hilarious. People at a distance, though, didn’t know what to do with the whole thing and we sent out a lot of press releases as background for this.
The spokeswoman for the group was Elizabeth Lean. She was the wife of Terry Lean, who was a character one of the other members of the group had invented during an earlier mock election campaign. Elizabeth Lean did a whole lot of radio interviews, all around the country. Some people just wanted a very basic thing and some knew what she was up to straightaway. There was a really hilarious interview with this woman from ABC Darwin who had a reputation for being a bit of a hard-head. She was quite radical, as well, apparently. She arranged for this interview with Elizabeth Lean and started out thinking that LILAC was for real. She started really getting into Elizabeth, who had all these lines prepared.
Elizabeth just worked on the principle that if you are asked a question that you don’t know how to answer, don’t answer it. Say what you came to say, anyway. After the first couple of answers the interviewer realised what was going on, but it was already live to air and it was too late to change her tack. She gritted her teeth and went on with the interview for another few minutes. We later heard through the grapevine that when she turned the microphone off she shouted, “Bastards! Bastards! Bastards!” because she’d been had.
We also made national TV. Channel 7 and Channel 10 loved it because it was a way of having a go at Channel 9’s owner. We thought that the ABC would enjoy this and were sending stuff to the ABC newsroom, but we didn’t get any bites back. Someone in the ABC newsroom was sabotaging it because the letters and press releases that we sent to a journalist who was a friend of a friend never got to him. I don’t know whether they didn’t believe it was a joke and hated it, or did realise that it was a joke and hated it.
Tell us about the election campaign for Elizabeth’s husband Terry Lean?
We’d always wanted to run a fake election campaign. There have been a couple of prank election campaigns in Perth. A guy called Michael Crossing ran in the Perth electorate in the mid-1980s for the League of Experimental Psychiatry. He promised to increase Perth’s rainfall by 10% and to build the Narrows Dam. For people not familiar with Perth, the city is on a river with a bend that passes through a narrows with a freeway bridge over it. If you dammed it, you would basically flood Perth. He promised to be a loving electoral father to all his electoral children, and got about 300 votes. Later on Alex Manfrin ran a campaign in Perth in about 1994 for CFC (Citizens For Corruption) and got more votes than the Democratic Socialist Party did.
In 1990 we did our own campaign for Terry Lean. We looked at the legalities and the person who was going to be the main Terry Lean decided he didn’t want to change his name by deed poll. Since that meant that he couldn’t run officially we decided to make him the unofficial candidate. We made a whole lot of posters with ambiguous political slogans on them and held a couple of rallies in the street. These were run like most election rallies, but with everything not quite right. We developed a style of doing things like that. Where what appeared on the surface to be an ordinary election campaign forced people to go, “Did he really say that?” By doing something that appeared just slightly off, you forced people to think. Similarly, if you looked at the posters that were put up all around Fremantle saying, “Vote for Terry Lean”, you might have noted that, while the person on each poster wore the same hat and shirt and tie, there were twelve different faces. We were playing with the form and having a lot of fun.
We also did a similar thing called Project Baby Jesus. Two of us dressed up as street preachers and did all this ridiculous street preaching stuff. A lot of people really couldn’t tell if we were for real or not, even though we were wearing the most obvious wigs.
How did you go about deciding who you were going to target and how you were going to do an action?
It was very ad hoc, but once an idea was presented and agreed on as a group project, it was discussed in great detail. With each activity that we did we discussed what it was for. Sometimes what we were doing was as much directed at our fellow demonstrators as at the media crews. Other times we did stuff that was intended to be just pieces of TV footage.
There was a peace march held when the French secret agents who destroyed the Rainbow Warrior and killed Fernando Pereira, were released back into French custody.
Four or five of us dressed up in wetsuits with flippers and snorkels and wore various things that indicated we were French. We sat in deck chairs and the rest of the group waited on us hand and foot. It was a visual tableau designed to get ten seconds of TV coverage and that’s what it got.
In the build-up to the 1991 Gulf War I was involved in some other street theatre, but Grevillea decided to intervene in the official protests, to change it from being just another boring, ritualised march. The anarchists’ response to demonstrations for many years had been to object to the way that the police would hurry up the marches. For years we did that by just staying up the back and walking as slowly as possible. The police would overtake us and say, “If you don’t move we’ll arrest you,” but they never did.
At one of the biggest anti-Gulf War demonstrations a few of us talked about doing the opposite. We went up the front and walked really, really slowly. As well as that, we got a chant going of “Politicians to the Front.”
Going right back to the First World War, radicals in the peace movement have pointed out who does the actual fighting in wars and we did the same. The IWW had a slogan, “Let the bosses fight the bosses’ wars.”
So we got up to the front of the march and we were astounded. Half a dozen of us had started this chant. We didn’t expect it to take off, but thousands of people started chanting, “politicians to the front,” for half the march.
One of the speakers, as happens at far too many of these things, was a Labor politician. He was the first to speak and it had really shaken him. He got out, “You’ve just heard people chanting ‘politicians to the front’, and I’m a politician and I agree that we shouldn’t do this.” He muffled through his speech. A couple of weeks later he resigned from the Labor Party, which was a really great thing. I thought that it was an indication that we’d had some sort of impact, although it may have been unrelated.
Over the group’s history what do you think the response of the public and the broader Left was to its activities?
I think we had a good impact on a lot of people, and even if we had no impact on anyone else, we did have a good impact on each other.
We got significant media coverage across the country for LILAC and got significant media coverage for some of our other actions. I think we also had some impact on people who were otherwise used to very ordinary political demonstrations.
I think people started looking at doing more creative things to make their point. We were part of politicising more elements of the contemporary arts in Perth as well. Whether we were just part of this trend or whether we were just pushing it along, people responded in seeing that there was a better way of doing things than just having marches and listening to boring speeches.
About the Book
How to Make Trouble and Influence People is available for sale from PM Press.
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