NSW North Coast: Watching the creatives

Fiona Martin

Samaan Michaelis, Spirit of the Walking Dead, <BR />Shearwater Wearable Arts Awards”></p>
<p class=Samaan Michaelis, Spirit of the Walking Dead,
Shearwater Wearable Arts Awards

From outside the NSW North Coast, Byron Bay might seem like the region’s creative omphalos. In this Newtown-by-the-beach you can’t move for poets, musicians, digital artists and visionaries. Everyone has a project. But most are just in town for coffee; artists can barely afford to live in the Bay since real estate prices hit the million plus mark. In recent years it’s more the territory of Richard Florida’s “super creatives”: retired/cashed up entrepreneurs, architects and arts executives, or those temporarily escaping the rigours of urban life.

But while wealth gravitates to Wategos Beach, the cultural ecology of the Rainbow Region is far more complex than one boho-luxe holiday spot. You have to look to the hills and valleys in the distance for creativity beyond the consumption. They host a cultural legacy based as much on alternative philosophy, spirituality and politics as a marketable lifestyle, and driven increasingly by what media studies scholar Helen Wilson describes as the “simultaneous attraction and repulsion of the city.”

Byron Shire, the most urbane of ruralities, is certainly part of the reason the North Coast ranks second among Australia’s regional areas in attracting creative professionals. It has a domestic arts tourism profile with its Blues and Roots and Writers’ festivals. Outside Sydney and Melbourne it has the highest concentration of screen industry professionals, who in 2003 hosted the first regional Australian International Documentary Conference. Briefly a radical pulse on the global electronica/rave scene, Byron is settling into the economic comfort and social hybridity of a reliable backpacker destination. However these are 1990s phenomena, pushed on by the continuous flow of bodies from polis to province.

Besides its robust Bundjalung Indigenous heritage, the coastal area from the Tweed down to Grafton has a surprising cultural vitality and distinctiveness rooted in older migrations. In documenting its transformation from a declining rural region in the 1960s to the artistic idyll of the new millennium, the essay collection Belonging in the Rainbow Region (Helen Wilson ed, Southern Cross University Press) reaches an interesting consensus. The region’s creative profile owes most to the waves of surfers and then hippies who came to the North Coast in the early 1970s, settling in the hills and valleys around Mullumbimby, then Nimbin and beyond. The influx of these “alternate seekers”, as historian Peter Cock calls them, prompted an invitation from the Australian Union of Students to host a national counter-cultural event, the 1973 Nimbin Aquarius Festival. Despite a 30 year dilution of the ideals that fuelled Aquarius—an anti-capitalist, non-violent, anarchist, back to the earth celebration—the moment arguably continues to resonate strongly throughout the region’s creative life.

Former Aquarian Christopher Dean is now one of the area’s major arts philanthropists and owner of Ballina’s Thursday Plantation Industries, producers of ti-tree oil and natural therapies products. Among other events he funds an annual acquisitive sculpture award, the largest such outdoor show in regional Australia (www.sculptureshow.net). Robert Bleakley, founding director of Sotheby’s Australia, had a juice stand at the festival. An avid art collector, he now identifies an emerging school of “Northern Mysticism”, including works by William Robinson. Bleakley rejects simplistic New Age tags for the movement, emphasising its theoretical depth and diversity, from deep ecology to shamanic spirituality.

A similar transformative aesthetic imbued Mullumbimby’s fourth annual Shearwater Wearable Arts Awards, Southern Mandala, Gondwana Opalescence. The event, which attracts textile artists from across the country and involves an entire Steiner school, local TAFEs, musicians and performers, demanded entrants re-interpret the panoply of Australian mythos, with spectacular, provocative result (www.shearwater.nsw.edu.au/wearables_frmset.html).

More pervasive Aquarian ripples have spread from the region’s intentional communities, many of which were formed after the 1973 festival as a rejection of suburban consumerism (www.abc.net.au/rn/utopias). The North Coast is now home to Australia’s highest concentration of these groups. They usually share a common ethical vision and also often share land, facilities, work and decision-making. Contrary to popular myth, they aren’t retreats for drug-fucked layabouts.

Communitarians have been instrumental in establishing the region’s craft market economy, and supporting the growth of community arts. They slowly popularised the idea of sustainable housing, provoking building code and planning reforms, developing early domestic solar energy technologies and promoting eco-waste disposal technologies such as composting toilets and reed bed filters. They fought the seminal Terania Creek forest battle, giving birth to Australia’s direct action environmental campaigns (Pegasus networks, Australia’s first public internet provider was launched in 1989 at the Terania protest site).

That communitarian ethic bolsters a broader collaborative arts and performance practice: the Piece Gallery Printmakers, Nimbin Feltmakers, Byron Filmmakers Co-op and the many community arts festivals. The ethic segues neatly from older bush traditions of resource sharing, and sparks cross-fertilisation, such as when lantern makers team up with fire-workers to travel the country, or video-makers, philosophers, historians, performers and composers come together to recreate NORPA’s archetypal Flood (see RT 61, p55). It’s an environment that belies the cliches underlying cheap shots taken at ageing hippiedom. It also runs counter to the liberal argument that bohemia’s anti-mainstream ethos is a spent force, or the more recent ‘creative classes’ thesis that the counterculture’s primary legacy was Silicon Valley, with its momentary challenge to the aesthetics and experience of work. North Coast alternate seekers are still looking for meaning, and still rocking the boat.

There are predictable ecological tensions. You often encounter a Byron-is-not-us sentiment among hinterlanders, who deride its urban facade and design-is-all attitude. Nimbinians, bypassed by the real estate boom, and affluent sea-changers regard the Bay as a place afflicted with a comfortable conservatism. There’s certainly more edge at the Nimbin Performance Poetry Cup than in the marquees of the Writers Festival.

Then there’s that metropolitan ambivalence. City immigrants tend to dominate cultural planning and snap up the available arts jobs, leaving locals to carry an unenviable volunteer load. And there’s a curiosity. With all this talent flooding into the area and all the elements of a Florida-type renewal apparent, why have the region’s creative industries failed to take off and provide serious employment, rather than a handful of part-time or project based jobs?

Other struggles are bureaucratic: public liability costs demand small performing arts groups take no risks, broadband connections are endlessly delayed and unsustainable funding strategies are devised in metropolitan areas. Despite being key players in regional innovation, many local councils are only now developing cultural plans, pushed on by ministerial edict. Some are still debating what culture is or might include. So it’s the Tweed, not Byron Shire, which has won Bob Carr’s 2-year City of the Arts grant, with an ambitious cultural development strategy. The area’s voracious developers happily fund arts initiatives and market their arid coastal estates as eco-friendly. I doubt this was what the Aquarians had in mind, but it’s a fine line between transformation and co-option in the exodus north. Marcuse might have said “I told you so…”

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg. 6

© Fiona Martin; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2004
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