jess cook says... oh alfred!
In celebration of its reopening, Prince Alfred Park is getting a little makeover, initiated by the folks behind Token Imagination. As part of this year’s Art & About Sydney festival, Oh Alfred! is transforming the boring ol’ boundary that surrounds Alfred Park Park into a “fence-ciful” work of art. Each Saturday in September, Sydneysiders can take part in this collaborative project, alongside school children and 10 local artists, to help give that fence the sprucing up it needs. We got founder of Token Imagination and curator of Oh Alfred!, Jess Cook, to show and tell.
Audrey Lee: We understand that during the last month, Oh Alfred! has been calling out for participants to get involved in the final phase of a collaborative project as part of Art & About Sydney 2010. For the sake of our readers who haven’t yet caught wind of the project, can you tell us a little more about Oh Alfred!?
Jess Cook: Oh Alfred! is a massive outdoor art extravaganza. We are using the construction fence around Prince Alfred Park as our ‘canvas’ to transform area and herald the reopening of the park.
Prince Alfred Park has been under construction for quite some time. It’s a park that local workers, resident and school kids enjoy as well as being very much in the eye of many commuters. As a local I would walk past the construction site and think, “Oh Alfred! how can we make you look pretty?”
So the brainstorming began on what, who, who and when?
We really needed a great team to make this all happen! We knew we wanted to work with the local community and have open working bees. We knew wanted local artists to bring their own interpretations of the site.
Art & About seemed like the perfect match and so we began carving a project plan to present an application for this years festival. It was very exciting to hear that we had been selected and that Oh Alfred! would be this years village project.
AL: The project will transform the current unsightly fence around Prince Alfred Park in Surry Hills. Besides the obvious aesthetic changes what kind of impacts do you anticipate Oh Alfred! having on the Surry Hills community and, more specifically, the local arts community?
JC: On Saturday, 4 September, we moved down to the actual fence and began weaving pretty much everyday. The best thing about this has been the response from the public. We have had people yelling “YEAH … NICE ONE!” and “Oh its wonderful” etc. We made this artwork for people to enjoy without buying a ticket or being invited. It’s for everyone who drives past, walks their dog, has their lunch break etc. I love art making to be open and collaborative, fun and accessible.
We have a creative crew of around 30 people – its great to be able to offer work to local art workers.
AL: You started work erecting the artwork last weekend. How is it progressing so far?
JC: We have a really big install period on three weeks so we are being careful to slowly roll things out. It also makes it fun for the public as they see each part of the fence slowly morph! Its so much fun painting colour and shapes with fabric. Garth Knight is the first artist to install. His rope weaving is just magic and is inspired by the Yellow Orb Spiders web.
AL: I believe you are looking for some assistance in mounting the work created by artists. Why should people take part in the project and what opportunities are still open to them?
JC: Every Saturday up until the 25 September, we will be down on the fence weaving and attaching the sculptural elements made in the community working bees. Email us at email@example.com if you would like further information on how to get involved. Also check out our blog www.ohalfred.wordpress.com for details about the artists, community groups and schools we have worked with to make this all happen.
OR just come down to the fence and get happy making with us!
AL: We see that Sydney’s Lord Mayor, Clover Moore has thrown her support hat into the ring. Having the backing of the City of Sydney must have made things a little easier but it wouldn’t have all been smooth sailing, can you tell us about some of the challenges you faced setting up this project?
JC: Sydney is my favourite city and it is so fantastic to have a Mayor and City Council who understand the importance of the having a healthy Creative Industry. Sydney is a very creative city full of amazing art workers and Art & About really celebrates this.
We have never worked on a construction site before! WOWSA things keep changing all the time and so we have had to be very flexible with our install. We have been very lucky to have a wonderful team who are able to work with changes and rearranges.
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Hello and welcome to my side of the block. I’m Audrey. Or better known as the bargain hunter, shark advocate and the girl who has a penchant for lomography and anything handmade, from the past or out of the norm. I’m a lot of things but mostly just a simple gal with an aspiration. In pursuit of my young upstart’s dreams of encouraging a new trend from the monochrome-clad and career driven crowd that is Singapore today, here is where you’ll find all that inspire, delight and question. I also purport to be a rising platform for emerging designers and artists through my knack for words. So come join me on my journey in search for our little town’s hidden talents and traits. I think we are off to a good start!
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This story was featured on Reportage Enviro on 6 September 2010.
Beneath the first blush of an early September predawn light, a fierce wind lashed the sullen, logy waves, stirring up a blast of fresh salt air that consumed me. The loud droning of the engines interrupted the tranquility of the untamed sea as our speedboat jetted across the ocean just off the coast of Gansbaai in South Africa. With 15 others onboard this 11-metre catamaran, we were on an expedition most would call a ‘reckless’ one. The one animal we fear most was the one we were hoping to meet that morning: the great white shark.
Buckets of diluted rancid minced fish parts, tuna blood and oil, or otherwise called chum, were tossed into the water from the stern. The bristling breath of the sea was engulfed by a long, unbroken trail of this malodorous concoction, snaking its way towards the horizon. The sharks’ sense of smell is so sensitive it can detect even a single drop of blood in the water up to 5km away.
The boat finally came to a complete standstill and we found ourselves stranded in the beasts’ lair. The choppy waves shook the boat like a rag doll, with the surrounding waters turning crimson from the chum. The cold wind blew harshly, cutting my face like piercing needles. The ocean was a sepulcher. Still raring to go, I climbed into a large cage that was fixed to the starboard at water level. The icy water restricted my legs a little, but I continued to tread to stay warm, as I waited anxiously with bated breath. All other eyes on deck were kept peeled for a triangular fin that might break the water surface.
“Shark!” It wasn’t long before a fellow member cried out in a keening falsetto. My heart began to race. Most would scurry to shore at the sound of that word, but I put on my snorkel and ducked underwater. The three-metre shark lunged towards a chunk of tuna carcass attached to a line next to where I was. Its huge jaws exposed, baring row upon row of deadly serrated teeth. Its formidable tail was thrashing around wildly, churning up sea bubbles and impairing my vision.
As the bubbles soon began to clear, the shark had already devoured its prey in a matter of seconds. Overwhelmed with a feeling of awe, I edged in closer, instantly captivated by the animal’s majestic performance. The shark glided gracefully towards the cage, its large, unblinking black eyes fixated onto mine. With only so much of a couple of steel bars separating us, I was centimetres from it. I was almost certain that the shark could easily wrench the bars out and attack me if it wanted to. But it didn’t. Like an inquisitive child, I saw a flickering light within its barely visible dark pupils, as it gazed upon me. Unthinkably, the great white disappeared abruptly into the murkiness. The most feared predator on earth… was afraid of me.
The ocean covers about two thirds of the world’s surface and is home to over 80% of life on Earth. The first sharks are known to have lived in the ocean for more than 400 million years, about 150 million years before the age of the dinosaurs. When all other life on Earth was wiped out, sharks have managed to survive five major mass extinctions. They are the apex predators in the marine environment, helping to maintain the proportional balance of various marine species in the ecosystem. They control the populations below them, essentially eliminating weaker species and thus, creating new ones.
Sharks are to known to have terrorised the hearts of people, many of whom are victims of traditional misconceptions and beliefs portrayed by the media. Steven Spielberg’s fear-provoking classic movie, Jaws, released in 1975 is a prime example. “Jaws was a completely unrealistic and over-dramatised portrayal of the great white shark,” Rebecca Davis, founder of Save Our Sharks Australia, says of the film. “Unfortunately, the fear it instilled into people who saw the movie has continued to influence generation upon generation.” Even Peter Benchley, the late author of the novel Jaws, wrote an article in 1995 titled “Misunderstood Monsters”, admitting to the damage his book has done to the reputation of sharks. “I couldn't write "Jaws" today”, he wrote. “The extensive new knowledge of sharks would make it impossible for me to create, in good conscience, a villain of the magnitude and malignity of the original.”
Scientists and experts have long tried to debunk the myth that sharks are “mindless killing machines”. Dr. Demian Chapman, a research scientist currently based in Peru of the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science and head of the Institute’s Shark Research Program, has been struggling to do the same. Growing up in New Zealand, Dr. Chapman spent most of his childhood on the beach. Like most children, he was fearful of sharks, but became fascinated with them and was “hooked” by the time he realised they were not the “monsters” he perceived them to be.
His fieldwork involves the studying of shark reproduction and behavioural patterns, and he has found them to be amazingly tame. “I’ve been near thousands and thousands of sharks,” he says. “All the ones that people are very afraid of, and I’ve never been bitten by any of those. In fact, I’ve been bitten more by my dog than sharks.”
According to a statistical study conducted by Taronga Conservation Society Australia, there have only been 52 human fatalities due to shark attack, in Australia in the last 50 years. The last fatal attack happened to actress, Marcia Hathaway, at Sydney Harbour in 1963. Michael Skoletsky, Executive Director of Shark Savers, says of death from shark bites is usually caused by blood loss. When a shark does bite a person, he claims, “it’s extremely rare that it would bite a person twice”. The bites are often not predatory. A surfer in a wetsuit on a surfboard may resemble a seal, a prey favourable to great white sharks. “Sharks don’t have arms so sometimes the only way for them to tell or to taste whether something is food is by taking a bite, and they have big mouths!” Skoletsky says.
Upon hearing my shark cage diving experience, Skoletsky says the only reason the shark approached the cage was because of the chum. “That shark probably would not have wanted to come near you if they weren’t attracting the shark, and they had to work pretty hard at that. They may be chumming long before you got into the cage. So that shows you that the sharks are not there to eat you.” Albeit sharks are often seen as the “bad guys,” Dr. Chapman argues that in reality, “we [humans] are the bad guys because we kill more of them”. Much more.
Research has shown precipitous declines in many shark species. Michael Aw, founding director of OceanNEnvironment and a shark expert, estimates over 100 million sharks are killed each year, where 26 to 73 million sharks are killed purely for their fins. As a result, over one-third of the shark species are classified as endangered or threatened by extinction under the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List.
Shark finning is a common practice where fishermen would pull a shark on deck and slice off its fins while it is often still alive. The rest of the shark is then thrown back into the sea to die either by bleeding to death or suffocation. As shark meat is relatively inexpensive and less profitable, their fins are primarily the reason behind this lucrative industry. According to Dr. Chapman, there is about 20 to 25 species of sharks that make up the fin trade, such as Whale Shark, Mako, Hammerhead, Thresher Shark and Grey Nurse. Putting it simply – the larger the fin, the higher the price. As far as species that are highly valued, such as the Hammerheads, their fins possess certain “characteristics that the fin traders and consumers find desirable, and can fetch up to $140 per kilogram of hammerhead fins,” Dr. Chapman says.
Depleted shark populations are hard to rehabilitate, as Skoletsky puts it, “because sharks have very slow reproduction rate, there’s no way for them to reproduce quickly enough to overcome the fishing.” An average shark can take up to 20 years to reach sexual maturity and even then produces only 2-3 pups a year. “Shark populations may take decades to recover, if they are given a chance to, or may never recover if this slaughter continues,” Skoletsky says. However, there are currently no international laws protecting sharks, as most of the oceans are not within the jurisdiction of any one country. At the conference of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) held this March in Doha, Qatar, four species of sharks, including the Hammerheads, were up for consideration in their endangered list. Unfortunately, Japan opposed this move. “The Japanese are extremely active in lobbying against these proposals and using what influence they have to get other countries to vote the same way. It was very disheartening. The sharks came very close, which just goes to show that a majority of countries do recognise this problem and are willing to deal with it. But it’s this handful of countries that are blocking it, simply because they are making a lot of money out of it,” Dr. Chapman says of the Japanese at that meeting. “And also what’s important to note is that the proposals that were up were not to ban trade in shark fins of these species. It was just to monitor the trade in this species. Just to monitor. Which is ludicrous!”
To date, only 17 countries including the European Union (EU) have laws against shark finning, and Australia is one of them. In most of these cases where the practice of shark finning is prohibited, fishermen would have to land the entire shark and not just their fins. Australia also has regulations that protect some shark species such as the Great White and the Grey Nurse shark and has limit fishermen to a certain quota per year. Nonetheless, sharks are still allowed to be fished and fins are exported overseas.
There are nations that have banned shark fishing altogether. This May, Hawaii became the first US state to have passed a complete ban on all types of shark fin commerce. Not only are fishermen not allowed to fin sharks, landing or marketing shark fin is also strictly prohibited. In September 2009, Palau established the world’s first shark sanctuary and banned all shark-fishing activities in its waters. Early this year, Maldives banned shark fishing within a restricted zone that covers 90,000 square kilometres of water. Instead, both Palau and Maldives rely heavily on tourism for economic survival.
The global trade in shark fins is largely driven by the Chinese demand for shark fin soup. According to Aw, over 80 per cent of shark fins are consumed primarily in China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Jakarta. The IUCN Shark Specialist Group states that Hong Kong alone handles at least 50 per cent to as much as 80 per cent of the world trade in shark fin. They have also found a significant mismatch in a comparison of some national shark landings data and Hong Kong fin import data. They conclude that tens of millions of shark fins ‘missing’ from the landings data are in fact appearing in Hong Kong, which does not provide a detailed report of the extent of shark finning undertaken by fishermen.
Shark fin soup is an Asian delicacy that symbolises wealth and prosperity. Otherwise known as an emperor dish, it was historically served only to wealthy people. A bowl of shark fin soup can cost up to $100 in high-end restaurants. “Serving shark fin is a way to honour guests. Since it's expensive, it shows that you want to spoil your friends and show off that you can afford such luxury. Asia is seeing huge growth in their spending power, and more people can now afford shark fin,” Ran Elfassy, founder of Shark Rescue, says.
“Since I was 10, I have been told by my teachers and environmentalists that sharks are dying out there. And till today, they are still saying the same thing. It’s not like I eat shark fin soup everyday anyway, so really, what difference does it make,” Hung Leung Chee, a 24-year-old Hong Konger, says. Conversly, Ben Birt, a Marine Campaigner of the Australian Marine Conservation Society says, “It is difficult to know where to start when you are trying to change a culture but it is a simple fact that if nothing is done and people continue to eat shark fin soup, there will no longer be any sharks left. And of course no more shark fin soup. The sensible thing would be to stop eating it now and save the species.”
The year 2010 is an auspicious year for 27-year-old Michelle Tang and her 29-year-old fiancé, Tan Ting Feng. The Singaporean couple will be holding their wedding banquet at Swissotel The Stamford in Singapore this October. Needless to say, shark fin soup was on their menu. “It has always been a customary tradition for us Chinese to have shark fin soup on special occasions,” Tang says. “Sharks harm people so I really don’t see why we can’t eat them. They taste so good!”
Unfortunately for them, Swissotel The Stamford no longer serves shark fin soup to their customers. In 1990, Fairmont Singapore and its sister property, Swissotel The Stamford proactively launched its Green Partnership program, a commitment to reducing their hotels’ impact on the environment. The program aims to save Singapore’s environment, and promote responsible tourism. In December 2008, Fairmont Singapore removed Chilean Sea Bass and Blue Fin Tuna from its menu. Last year, shark fin soup was also taken out from various Chinese restaurants in the hotel complex, including Szechuan Court.
“Asians’ affinity with shark fin soup is more of a cultural dilemma rather than a culinary,” Carlos Monterde, Hotel Manager of Fairmont Singapore, says. “And so far, the changes in our menu did not reflect negative results in our banquet. In fact, we are pleased to note that couples who are planning their wedding banquets at the Raffles City Convention Centre including organisations conducting their events at our hotels' meeting venue are quite receptive to this eco-friendly change.”
As the struggle to save sharks reaches to new heights, Fairmont Singapore’s banquet team served 600 complimentary bowls of eco-friendly and equally delicious soups to the public in the course of 3 days in early October 2009. The soups served were Double-boiled Herbal Ginseng Soup with Organic Pumpkin and Silky Bean Curd and Bamboo Fungus, a more sustainable replacement for shark fin soup. “We believe that chefs in hotels and restaurants play pivotal roles as gatekeepers to a more sustainable seafood preference,” Monterde says. “Chefs are catalysts in spreading awareness about the essence of marine animals conservation and they have the responsibility to influence diners' culinary preferences.”
Tang says that she is not upset that the restaurant has implemented an economical change in their menu. “If the chefs are able to substitute the fin with something else and still retain its taste, I’m fine with that too. It’s not that I don’t care about the environment. At the end of the day, real or fake shark fin, I’m only just sticking to my family tradition,” she says.
Shirley Chong, a Singaporean in her 70s, says she likes the taste of the soup, and believes it has medicinal value. Contrary to popular belief, the taste and nutrients of the soup are purely derived from other ingredients such as chicken or pork broth, and none from the fin itself, most of which is cartilage. However, its appeal is due to the inaccurate notion that sharks do not get cancer. Elfassy explains that while sharks do get cancer, “there is no scientific evidence showing that shark tissue, especially cartilage, has any protective benefits when it comes to cancer”. Moreover, sharks are found to carry high levels of methyl mercury, a substance the World Health Organisation (WHO) identifies as highly toxic to people. Methylmercury, is a lethal toxin that seeps into the oceans. Mercury accumulates in marine animals and it is magnified in concentration as it moves up the food chain. With sharks being the top predators of the ocean, their meat essentially has one of the highest accumulated mercury content.
Sharks have evolved in a co-dependent relationship with the ecosystem, shaping different populations for over 400 million years. Sharks keep all those populations in the right balance. Sharks, “are really the lions, tigers and bears of the ocean, they’re the chief predators,” Dr. Chapman says. “It’s reasonable to assume that if you take the top predators out, it’s going to destabilize the whole ecosystem.” Sharks are a vital source in restoring our oceans to health and enabling sustainable harvests of the sea protein upon which so much of our planet depends. Skoletsky says, “We humans need sharks—alive, in the oceans.”
Sharks have survived 5 major extinctions. But can they survive this one? “Sadly, the public in general is those who have been misinformed by movies, media and generational stories. I feel that the responsibility lies with councils, governments and international conservation bodies to help protect shark populations and initiate public education programs,” Davis says. “It is only through education that we can create a greater understanding and empathy for sharks. It is up to the individual to seek the correct information, to want to find out more, to challenge what they have heard.
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