A powerful new creative collaboration straddles the line between art and public education.
What does it take to survive a car crash? We're so accustomed to hopping behind the wheel of a car, or into the passenger seat, that we rarely stop to consider how vulnerable we are. Perhaps if we knew better, we'd take more care on the road.
"Our real risk starts at 30 kilometres per hour, that's when we start to break," says Samantha Cockfield. "In a head-on crash at a 70-kilometres-an-hour approach speed is survivable, but that's because we have a big bonnet and engine in front of us. If you go sideways off the road and hit a tree with the side of your car, your ability to survive is limited above 30 kilometres per hour."
As the Senior Road Safety Manager at the Transport Accident Commission (TAC), it is Samantha's job to promote driver education and awareness, to help achieve the TAC's 'Towards Zero' strategy, aimed at reducing death and injury on Victorian roads. Part of the strategy involves teaching us how fragile we really are.
Historically, the TAC has sought to reach its audience through mass media campaigns. Working with their media agency, the organisation looks for clear and emotionally resonant messages to improve driver behaviour, and pushes them out via television campaigns and extensive print and outdoor advertising. However when it came to driver vulnerability, the TAC needed a new approach. The issue was too complex for a 60-second television commercial.
Sometimes the surreal helps us to better understand reality, which is why the TAC decided to develop Graham. Designed by acclaimed sculptor Patricia Piccinini in collaboration with Royal Melbourne Hospital trauma surgeon Christian Kenfield and Monash University Accident Research Centre crash investigator David Logan, Graham has been designed to show what a person would need to look like to survive a car accident.
A sculpture both incredibly lifelike and unnatural, Graham has specific evolutionary features. His torso is huge, holding extra ribs and fluid pockets designed to act like airbags. His neck is gone, with the powerful ribs extending up to the skull to protect the spinal cord and the brain. His facial features are flattened and his skin is toughened, to prevent topical damage and abrasions. His legs are extended, like powerful animal hooves, to help a Graham as a pedestrian spring over the height of a family four-wheel drive to avoid blunt force trauma. His skull is thick with in-built crumple zones.
The idea, so beautifully executed by Patricia, was to create a distorted human that teaches us about our own human frailty. Graham is a strangely sympathetic creature, designed to make us take better care of ourselves.
The power of up close and personal
"The immediacy and reach of mass media is undeniable, but we decided that we needed to be more involved with the Victorian community and involved greater community engagement and experiences," says Samantha. "You don't really get a personal experience with a TVC, no matter how good they are. We wanted to get a bit closer to people."
Graham made his debut appearance at the State Library of Victoria in August 2016, where visitors could observe his strange humanoid shape, and explore his internal features with the help of augmented reality. Teenage students were particularly fascinated with Graham, pouring over the details of his unique body while learning about the vulnerability of their own.
Rather than see thirty seconds of a TV campaign, the students were spending half an hour or more at the exhibition – a deep dive into the TAC's 'vulnerability' message. And of course, because Graham is both extraordinary and oddly photogenic, they shared photos of him via social media, disseminating the TAC campaign into the broader community.
"The idea was so good that it just took off. We haven't had to engage or drive the project in the way that we thought we might because it's taken on a life of its own," Samantha enthuses.
Graham hits the road
After leaving the State Library, Graham began a tour of regional destinations throughout Victoria. Regional communities are over-represented in road trauma and the TAC were particularly excited about the opportunity to bring a deeper conversation about vulnerability right to their front doors.
Regional communities are excited about the opportunity, too, with galleries across the state set to host Graham, and demand rolling in from various from regional areas where he isn't yet slated to travel.
Graham has proven so captivating that interest is only getting stronger, and the longevity of the project is one of the key markers of its success. "A TV campaign lasts 12 months to three years, but we'll have Graham forever," Samantha says. "He's based on science and the science isn't going to change."
Graham is a public education tool, but he is also a work of art. His power as a work of art is timeless.