It feels as though the past few years have been a constant rinse-and-repeat of Donald Trump screaming “fake news” on Twitter, Facebook mishandling our information and refugees trying to escape brutal regimes. Antidote aims to be a panacea for all this turmoil. Or, at least, a way to engage with it that doesn’t feel suffocatingly futile.
The line-up of this year’s one-day Sydney Opera House festival, curated by Edwina Throsby, the organisation’s head of talks and ideas, has been designed to confront audiences with experiences outside their own. It brings together prominent figures (who it’s unlikely you’d see at a music or literature festival) across fields including journalism, politics, music and big data. Stemming out of what used to be the Festival for Dangerous Ideas, Antidote’s remit is to get people who have different lives and perspectives into one room.
“I think hearing voices like these has never been more important,” Throsby tells Broadsheet. “There’s massive political uncertainty at the moment: elections haven’t been going the way people expected and there’s a lot of instability. Things have been shifting and people don’t know why.
“These in-real-life events, like Antidote, mean people are in the same place, talking face-to-face. It helps them find solace, and gives them a sense they’re part of a global community that has similar concerns to them.”
Chris Wylie, former director of research for Cambridge Analytica, was instrumental in revealing how social-media data was exploited by militaries, governments and companies to undermine elections. He’ll be speaking on a panel about “dark data”.
“We’re more connected than ever,” says Throsby, “but people are concerned about online behaviour and how our information is being used. Social media and the internet have created the opportunity for us to be closer, but we’re more frightened.”
Much of the festival will revolve around the role of journalists, including how they work in hostile environments and who gets a voice when talking about society’s most controversial issues. The festival has partnered with the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas to tackle these questions. Neilson is an Australian philanthropist who is probably best known in Sydney for setting up the White Rabbit Gallery in Chippendale. Late in 2018 she donated $100 million to celebrate and encourage quality journalism in Australia and the world through education and grants and by hosting events on the big issues of the day.
There will be a number of journalists visiting for the festival from countries whose governments are aggressive towards them, including Maria Ressa (Philippines), Steve Coll (America), and Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan (Russia), who will appear on a panel called “My Crime is Journalism”.
“Increasingly journalists are under attack,” says Throsby, who started her career in a television newsroom. “Journalists in Russia are being killed, they’re detained in the Middle East, and in the US the president is calling journalists from one of the world’s most respected news outlets [the New York Times] ‘traitors’. It shows how necessary journalism is.”
Civil liberties and racism will also be a key theme of the festival. Prominent Black Lives Matter figure DeRay Mckesson, professor of modern Jewish history Deborah E Lipstadt and Indigenous Australian author and journalist Stan Grant will all be speaking about xenophobia, the rise of populism and how, amid violence and racism, there’s still hope.
Other speakers include North Korean defector Thae Yong-ho; Rohingyan refugee and author Habiburahman, Mausi Segun, the executive director of Human Right Watch’s African division; and Zing Tsjeng, author and UK editor of Vice’s Broadly channel.
There will also be panels on the problem with polling and the growth of wellness and binge cultures. Throsby says that the festival doesn’t aim to be a binary, black-and-white, Q&A-style event, with people on opposing sides going at it.
“The idea behind Antidote is to encourage productive solutions, they’re applying themselves to the same problem,” she says. “There’s a range of different viewpoints at Antidote. What we do is provide discussions and events with many different participants, so that attendees can find out about different parts of the world.”
It’s not all talk, though. Workshops will be held throughout the festival, teaching participants practical skills to help them more easily navigate the world. There’ll be a session teaching dads (or any parents who lack the skills) how to plait hair, a mass tarot reading with Psychic Sarah and the team from Sew Make Create will teach visitors how to mend their old clothes.
While Throsby hopes attendees come out of Antidote feeling optimistic, she says an iota of panic wouldn’t go astray.
“A little bit of panic can drive action. I want people to come out feeling empowered and part of a wider humanity. Thousands of people will be coming to the Opera House, who knows what movements will – or already have – come out of it.”
Antidote will be held at Sydney Opera House on September 1. Multipack tickets go on sale at 9am Tuesday June 25; presale for single tickets begins at 9am Wednesday June 26, and single tickets to the general public go on sale at 9am on Thursday June 27. The full line-up and tickets available here.