Ever committed to adventurous playing and commissioning of new music, Sydney’s Ensemble Offspring has also enlarged the scope of chamber music performance, engaging over the years with experimental film, opera, cutting edge pop and dance and installation. Now the ensemble has teamed with seven composers (Amanda Brown, Kyls Burtland, Jodi Phillis, Bree van Reyk, Jane Sheldon, Sally Whitwell, Caitlin Yeo), video artist Sarah-Jane Woulahan and writer Hilary Bell to venture into the making of a collaborative world governed by seven fundamental stories, but ones told from a distinctly female perspective.

The story types, contentiously delineated by Christopher Booker in The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories (2004), comprise The Quest, Overcoming the Darkness (sometimes a monster), Rags to Riches, Fatal Flaw (or Tragedy), Comedy of Errors, Journey and Transformation (sometimes described as rebirth). I spoke by phone with Claire Edwardes, Artistic Director of Ensemble Offspring and director of Seven Stories about the making of an ambitious, highly collaborative multimedia event.

Seven Stories ensemble, photo courtesy City Recital Hall

Where did the idea come from for creating a concert driven by seven fundamental stories?
Ensemble Offspring was approached by Jodi Phillis of The Clouds and Amanda Brown of the Go-Betweens. They’d wanted to collaborate with five of their musical colleagues. And we all took it from there.

Given the nature of the concert, which involves composers, musicians, a writer and a filmmaker, was there a creative development stage?
Many. In musical terms, we went through a lot more creative development than usual. Usually, the writer writes the words and the composers go off and compose and then maybe, if you are lucky, the video comes after that, kind of reacting to the music. But often, the video is made simultaneously and, as you probably know, videos don’t always synch up and are not always completely related to the music.

But in this case, we had several creative developments with the writer Hilary Bell and the video artist Sarah-Jane Woulahan who were always in the room. Hilary especially was constantly reacting to changes we made in the music, adjusting her text and reacting to feedback from the composers and musicians. Likewise, the composers would keep revising their music based on the musicians’ feedback. So it was like a total everyway stream of feedback. I’ve never really been involved in something so open and fluid in terms of the way this project was developed.

And you enjoyed it?
To be honest, it’s a more challenging mode of working for the creatives because we, the performers, are very direct in our feedback. But it’s also hugely rewarding because it became obvious very quickly that it was all in the name of honing the best possible musical outcome and that was self evident in the final works which are simply stunning!

How is the text delivered in the performance?
Sometimes the words appear on the screen with the music or like a silent film still. At other times, they’re spoken or incorporated into the songs. The text is not a narrative that runs through the whole concert—each of the stories is quite separate—but there is the poeticism of Hilary’s words.

Jane Sheldon doesn’t sing a song in every piece; her role is sometimes as narrator and sometimes as singer. For example, in Bree Van Reyk’s piece, Jane’s a conductor/woodblock-player understudy. That’s what Bree has called her. Of the seven story types Bree got Comedy and so she went for slapstick. We have to laugh and do wolf whistles. One of the movements is a woodblock concerto for me, which is hilarious, and she’s got Jane as my understudy.

Tell me about the compositions.
Jodi and Amanda are from two quite famous rock bands in the 80s, The Clouds and The Go-Betweens, so as you can imagine their starting point musically is quite different from the composers with whom we usually work, who are generally classically trained. Many of the Seven Stories team hadn’t previously notated detailed music for live instrumentalists before so the process was a new learning curve for them. But it worked out nicely in terms of musical and aesthetic balance. Then we have Sally Whitwell who is a trained classical musician and writes very accessible songs. Kyls Burtland and Caitlin Yeo write a lot of screen music and for television.

For an Ensemble Offspring concert, the scores are quite tonal. And then Jane Sheldon is writing for the first time. Her piece ends the whole show. It’s called “Transformation” and it’s an exquisite piece working on tone-colour variation, which I think is a really great way to end the concert given we’ve had simple, touching songs and then Jane’s takes you up into the aether, sonically speaking.

The compositions might be simpler ones than you usually play but were there challenges for the ensemble?
Yes. I guess this was the whole point of the creative development. We really wanted to work with these composers to make the instrumental parts so we’re all really using our skills. We’re really multi-tasking to the max. There’s a huge percussion set-up. It’s definitely not simple for us to perform this show. It’s just that tonally it’s very melodic, very beautiful and I guess that often Ensemble Offspring concerts push boundaries. This is pushing boundaries in different ways and we hope that lots of people will like it.

Did Hilary Bell’s text emerge from the creative development to-and-froing as well?
It was very much part of it. She came to the rehearsals, wrote text, sent it to the composers and myself—as the director—and then we’d all feed back and then she’d do another draft. A few months would pass and then she’d send it to us again; we’d reflect, listen to the music and then she’d do another draft. She really changed her text based on everyone’s feedback. She’s been so open to that. It’s been wonderful working with her. No ego there! She’s amazing.

The seven stories, are these micro-stories?
Sort of, but it’s slightly more esoteric than that. There are references to fairy tales without each story being a complete narrative. It’s a more suggestive approach, referencing what people remember from their childhoods and throughout their lives and that we know these kinds of stories. Hilary hasn’t been too obvious, which I think is really nice.

How seriously did the collaborators take themes like “the quest” and “overcoming darkness?”
Very seriously. They spent a lot of time reflecting on them. The interesting thing about Hilary is that she responded to the composers and their interpretation of the story rather than the other way around.

The video trailer for Seven Stories is very dramatic: roiling waves, turbulent clouds and a young woman foregrounded before them. Tell me about the video.
I gave Sarah-Jane a brief that it would never be obvious who this protagonist is or what her story was. She’s more like a person returning in each of the stories. A number of them are linked to the sea and natural elements. There are mermaids with silver tails and so on in stories and all of that is very much picked up in the video.

Christopher Booker’s book The Seven Basic Plots, which drew on the works of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, has been very influential, but it has been roundly criticised for being a masculine theory. Is Seven Stories an antidote in some ways?
Yes, we realized there was this guy who was maybe not the most supportive of women [LAUGHS]. So we’ve remade them and taken them in a more feminine direction. It’s absolutely not a feminist work; more like a female take if you will on these ‘universal’ stories.

Watch a preview of Seven Stories below:

VIVID Sydney: City Recital Hall, Ensemble Offspring and Creative Music Fund, Seven Stories, composers Amanda Brown, Kyls Burtland, Jodi Phillis, Bree van Reyk, Jane Sheldon, Sally Whitwell, Caitlin Yeo, visuals Sarah-Jane Woulahan, text Hilary Bell; City Recital Hall, Sydney, 3 June

Top image credit: Seven Stories, Bree Van Reyck, Ensemble Offspring, photo courtesy City Recital Hall

Large, geodesic, candy-pink: at first appearance Future Method Studio’s Buckminster Fuller-inspired dome tent, filled with white pebbles and bits of flint, is a surprising presence in a gallery show about Australia’s long paddock. That phrase—long paddock—is a colloquialism, a settler-colonial buzzword for the travelling stock routes (TSRs) that once traversed and now patchwork the continent. Joni Taylor from the New Landscapes Institute has curated a show situated at the intersection of architecture and art that explores the layered histories of the TSRs at a time when access to public land is more contentious than ever. The exhibition is the first iteration of a long-term project engaging with the uncertain future of this important public resource.

Classified as crown land, today TSRs are liminal zones used for myriad purposes. Farmers, birdwatchers, beekeepers, bushwalkers, ecologists and traditional owners all have a stake in their future. Up on the gallery wall, near the dome, Future Method Studio has created a map that charts the locations across NSW where the TSRs intersect with places of Aboriginal significance. It’s an impressively detailed and important document and to my knowledge no other map like it exists.

Emilqua East, The Bullwhip Effect, 2017, Zanny Begg

As the artists in this show acutely understand, the problem with maps is that they formalise a kind of forgetting. By prioritising one set of concerns, others fade away. Living and working in the Riverina, The Wired Lab (see a 2014 RealTime TV interview with director Sarah Last), are particularly sensitive to this, using two different maps, one historical, one spatial, to contextualise a mesmerising soundscape featuring local activist Peter Beath speaking in Wiradjuri—a language declared extinct in 2007 but which in fact survives—and field recordings from TSRs local to the area, a lively racket of cicadas, birds and insects. It’s The Wired Lab work, Lines of movement, a Wiradjuri history, that feels the most essential; human and non-human occupants are given equal ground from which to speak.

Looking at the TSRs from an economic perspective led artist Zanny Begg to the bullwhip effect, an economic term that describes accelerating unpredictability within complex supply chains. The bullwhip is also a uniquely Australian whip and the first human invention with the capacity to break the sound barrier. Begg’s film, The Bullwhip Effect, features a virtuosic demonstration by 17-year-old Emiliqua East, one of the world’s best whipcrackers. Slowed down to 200 frames per second, she becomes a medusa-like figure, totally focused, barely blinking, two whips writhing and cracking around her with stunning precision. Shot and soundtracked in a manner that playfully engages Western genre tropes, East enters and exits the film walking slowly through a labyrinthine, stainless steel cattleyard.

In Untitled Incognito, Megan Cope and Bill Buckley present a reworked version of an Aboriginal windbreak made from a mix of traditional and non-traditional materials. Its ochre-painted surface is used as a screen, onto which two images are overlaid: rippling water from the Murrumbidgee and a map of local TSR coordinates. The work asks important questions about who the TSRs are for, and what they might become. As of April the NSW TSRs have been placed under formal review. What if this land were to be repatriated to traditional owners?

The Plant, Stock Route Stories, 2017, Grandeza, photo courtesy the artists

Architecture collective Grandeza offers a global perspective in The Plant, presenting a case study on similar stock routes throughout Spain. Alongside this, they have created a portable conversation arena and an adapted version of the cattle crush (a holding stall), programmed with recordings from members of the community telling their stories about the TSRs. The architectural contributions of both Grandeza and Future Method Studio bring a sense of public agency into the gallery and activate the exhibition as a site of political action.

Back to the dome, which on closer inspection represents the concept of “a keeping place” — a place where Aboriginal cultural materials are held safely. Setting aside places as symbolic space where Aboriginal systems can be honoured is a concept that has been written into bureaucratic systems; for example, there are keeping places held on-site at mining locations where artefacts have been incidentally dug up. Cultural items are stored temporarily and then repatriated once the land is no longer being used.

In Future Method Studio’s Future Acts, the keeping place marks an important moment in their research. While they were at a stock route location, artists from the Studio and their Aboriginal collaborators came across a significant number of Aboriginal artefacts sitting in the topsoil. The experience resonated in two ways: it showed just how twinned the relatively recent history of the stock routes is with the long history of Aboriginal land custodianship. And it showed just how bad whitefellas have been at seeing what’s in front of them. The pink dome, a shape that recalls the activist politics of the US counterculture movement, operates recursively, as aura and totem. Presenting and representing the concept of keeping place, a warm ethics of care washes over the gallery as a whole.

The Long Paddock, curator Joni Taylor of New Landscapes Institute, artists Zanny Begg, Megan Cope & Bill Buckley, Hayden Fowler, Future Method Studio, Grandeza, Josephine Starrs & Leon Cmielewski and The Wired Lab; Wagga Wagga Art Gallery; 6 May-17 July

Emily Stewart is poetry editor at Giramondo Publishing and a doctoral student in the Writing and Society Research Centre at WSU. She is the author of Knocks (Vagabond Press 2016). 

Top image credit: Future Method Studio, Rylestone Travelling Stock Route, fieldwork for The Long Paddock, 2017, photo Rosie Krauss

The wearing of the veil, in its various manifestations in Muslim communities in Western countries, continues to be the subject of rancorous debate. New York-based, Israeli-born and internationally exhibited photographer Lili Almog offers a fresh perspective in a series of images for Sydney’s Head On Photo Festival that constitute a preview of a major exhibition to be mounted in Israel later this year. I met the artist and discussed the show and its other dimensions with her.

Almog’s concern is with the veiling of women in any number of cultures and religions. In a recent visit to Israel she encountered heavily veiled women whom she assumed to be Muslim. They were in fact conservative Israelis who are imposing the same dress code on their daughters. The difference between the women of two quite different cultures was, in effect, erased. Without identity, Almog said, the women “divided the landscape, cutting the horizon in two.” The distance between herself and a veiled woman seems profound: “What is she thinking? What am I thinking?” Hence the title of the show, The Space Within. This particular impact will be captured in the exhibition in Israel when Almog adds a series of landscape images, one of which was on show.

Almog’s focus in this exhibition for the Head On Photo Festival is on veiled bodies in a deep, almost metallic grey life drawing studio in which a mostly totally covered woman (often in black, sometimes in bright prints, eyes showing only once, finger nails painted yellow in one image and a naked leg exposed in another) poses amid sparely spaced easels, sketches, paintings and, strikingly, the stark white statue of the Venus de Milo and, in one image, her male counterpart.

Drawing Room #5, Lili Almog, Martin Browne Contemporary, photo courtesy the artist and Arthere

While the juxtaposition of covered and naked is at once amusing and disturbing, there are subtler ironies at work for the alert observer in terms of posture, the deployment of clothing and references to the history of portraiture. The texture of the photography likewise works from apparent binaries of light and dark with many shades between, yielding a satisfying painterliness which the veiled figure disrupts, like a ghost in black. Lili Almog very effectively lifts the veil on a complex gender and cultural tradition.

With a palpable sense of excitement, Almog revealed other aspects of the exhibition for Israel that she’s working on. They include a video, bumper stickers (revealing the diversity of cultural veiling) and heat sensitive ceramic statuettes—covered on one side, naked on the other as they turn—that utter telling statements as viewers draw near. With an aesthetic at once deadly serious and cheekily provocative, clearly Almog feels that the ideas embodied in her art have to reach beyond the photographic frame.

Lili Almog, The Space Within, Martin Browne Contemporary, Sydney, 27 April-21 May

The Space Within has been brought to Sydney by Arthere for Head On Photo Festival.

Top image credit: Drawing Room #5, Lili Almog, Martin Browne Contemporary, photo courtesy the artist and Arthere

Digital media screen works by Japan’s teamLab were a highlight of Adelaide’s 2016 OzAsia Festival. Now four new works are featured at Sydney’s Martin Browne Contemporary.

In Gold Waves, a four-channel continuous loop that simulates a traditional room screen, roiling, curling and crashing waves suggest a Hokusai print come to life. Comprising hundreds of thousands of tiny ‘water’ particles which coalesce into lines of movement, the waves pound hypnotically, and as in a real ocean, unpredictably.

The water in Black Waves, a rivetting single channel loop, appears more blue than black and more suggestively akin to woodblock print colouring.

The exquisite single channel Enso (5 minutes), described by the makers as an exercise in Spatial Calligraphy, mimics the single Zen brushstroke that makes a circle but here adding a remarkable depth of field, shifting perspective and inky detail (fans of the film The Arrival will feel an immediate affinity).

Impermanent Life is a relative of the glorious, perpetually evolving Ever Blossoming Life which appeared in the OzAsia Festival. Across a four channel cluster of what appear to be gnarled tree roots, a mass of tiny blossoms drift and fall as a large circle forms and fades in another of teamLab’s celebrations of the life cycle.

These are engrossing screen works which invite reverie and contemplation, and are best seen on their big screens in a quiet gallery,

For our reviews of teamLab at the 2016 OzAsia Festival, go here and here.

teamLab, Impermanent Life, Martin Browne Contemporary, Sydney, 27 April-21 May

In Pippa Ellams’ The Carousel, an intense portrayal of agonising sibling co-dependency, two sisters work through a kind of madness towards release without abandoning their love for each other. It’s a torturous, illogical process underlined by scene-switching between pre-adolescence and early adulthood and amplified by the years that separate the older Christa (Tasha O’Brien) and younger Jamie (Alex Francis).

Reasons for their co-dependency are not literally delineated. Most patently it’s the absence of parents in their lives—they’re just angry noises off. There’s no-one to counter the misinformation about changes in the female body which preoccupy them early on or, later, to thwart Christa’s cruel mishandling of her well-intentioned efforts to draw the regressive Jamie out into the world, which the youngster fears “is full of sadness.” Christa is isolated too—her affair with a married man is sexual, not social; she explains, “There are no dates” and she’s heard that “sex is the best kind of self-harm.” Ellams’ pared-back reality renders the girls’ naivety frantically comic when they’re not helplessly combative and their behaviour dangerously surreal when there’s a failure of care, the toxicity of the relationship embodied in a pet spider that is as symbolic as it is apparently dangerous when it does bite.

The volatility of the relationship, inherent in Ellams’ pulsing dialogue and taut scene-making, is a powerful driver of the production, with O’Brien and Francis (and director Hannah Goodwin) excelling in realising the characters’ oscillations between stultified stillness and outbursts of teenage exuberance and hurtful anger. Just when we think they’re doomed, we’re reassured by the palpability of their discrete personalities, eruptions of humour and the energy dedicated to perpetually changing clothes or Jamie’s out of the blue song and dance number for her sister, a sign of incipient release.

Alex Francis, Tasha O’Brien, The Carousel, Treats Showcase, photo courtesy Shopfront

Other moments are anxiety-inducing: Jamie’s nigh psychotic killing of the spider or Christa’s protracted, nervy account of stopping traffic to rescue a turtle stranded on a road, but then abandoning it—driving home the ambivalence at the root of her imposed duty of care for her sister.

The play’s drive towards resolution is painfully suspenseful, but keeping track of the narrative is not always easy: a couple of scenes are confusingly repeated with variations, suggesting short-term alternative outcomes—but in whose head in a play that doesn’t otherwise give one consciousness greater sway than the other? Then there’s the melodramatic stringing out of a convoluted plotline built around the spider bite, utilising device rather than psychology. What’s stayed with me is the sheer immediacy of the writing, acting and direction, the physical and emotional palpability of diminished young lives struggling to achieve some kind of wholeness, each sister fundamentally alone, however bound by ties and a love they don’t understand, until they reach the point where the younger can say, “We have to take care of ourselves now.” This modestly staged but imaginatively large work is the creation of recent University of Wollongong performing arts graduates, guided by Shopfront and revealing their substantial potential.

Another UOW graduate, Kirby Medway, created the first work in the Treats program, Unit, in which the audience, wearing headphones, settle back into their seats or on cushions on the stage floor and listen to an unfolding tale of emotional complications and indifference overtaking an anti-development protest in a Sydney suburb. Again the focus is on young people, with Medway at his best when, and too rarely, sardonic about youthful self-interest; one of the protagonists, not keen on attending the protest, makes excuses (he’ll lower his carbon footprint) but worries that he’ll miss a “life changing” event in which he might play a key role. Another point of view is introduced: the developer who has a penchant for standing naked atop his latest, completed project. Wind sweeps away his clothes but he’s eventually rescued by one of the protesters he’d glimpsed weeping and a kind of bonding ensues.

Listening to Unit, Treats Showcase, photo courtesy Shopfront

A sense of pathos pervades Unit and although these voices reside as if inside our heads, so does a feeling of distance, of dominantly third person narration or even where more personal, of a writerly neatness that represses immediacy and formalises vocal delivery. The writing is able, the performances focused and the sound—wisely eschewing overly literal effects—well designed, save for two passages when it disappears from the headphones and is heard through the theatre speakers, presumably to suggest the outdoor space of the protest, but leaving the un-directed listener confused, sound muffled and the narrative flow interrupted. Unit is an interesting experiment, one of a number of recent works that prioritise sound in the theatre, but Medway needs to now reflect more precisely on the potential dynamics of the sound/stage nexus.

Shopfront Arts Co-op, Treats: Unit, by Kirby Medway, mentor Miles Merill, sound design mentor James Brown, performers Matt Abotomey, Steve Wilson-Alexander, Sarah Meachan, Dave Molloy, Mara Davis; The Carousel, writer Pippa Ellams, director, designer Hannah Goodwin, performers Tasha O’Brien, Alex Francis, sound design Christine Woodhouse, mentor Anne-Louise Sarks; Belvoir Downstairs, Sydney, 21-30 April

Top image credit: Tasha O’Brien, The Carousel, Treats Showcase, photo courtesy Shopfront

I love films, and I especially love seeing them on a big screen in a dark cinema. I love seeing all sorts of different films: silent films, old films, new films, films from different national cinemas. And while I can find plenty to see, both at the Sydney Film Festival, and the seemingly never-ending stream of national and themed film festivals that crowd the calendar, what I’ve always yearned for is a cinémathèque to provide for Sydney something like the wonderful Melbourne Cinémathèque at ACMI has been doing: a year-round program, a challenging and diverse selection of classic and contemporary films, both retrospectives and thematic series, using archival and new prints sourced from all around the world. I’ve been aware, and jealous of, their program for years; I used to go to Melbourne quite often, and tried to catch a session or two whenever there.

Lost causes

Somehow, however, despite several significant attempts and much talk over the years, Sydney could never achieve anything similar. While it’s often been argued in debates on film culture that not only would audiences profit from such regular screenings of films from other national cinemas, curated seasons of the work of particular directors, screenings of specific genres and of rarely seen gems, but that our own filmmakers and film students could benefit from being exposed to such a rich diversity of filmmaking practice, such ideas have not been enough to make it happen. Suddenly, however, there’s a little ray of hope!

MCA briefly fills gap

Last year I discovered that the Museum of Contemporary Art was having free, curated screenings on Saturday afternoons. I’d already missed some, but I found out in time to see four films by one of my favourite filmmakers, Korean director Hong Sang-Soo, two of which I’d seen but was very happy to see again, and two that I hadn’t—and was delighted with. The next month promised four new Portuguese films curated by film writer and scholar Adrian Martin; the first to screen was Others Will Love the Things I Loved (2014), Manuel Mozos’ loving cinematic essay and tribute to the late João Bénard da Costa, who was apparently a cinephile extraordinaire and one of the most important figures in the history of the Portuguese Cinémathèque (there’s that word again!). I loved this film, even though I knew nothing about either the subject or the filmmaker.

Next in the program were four films by the wonderful Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul. But the MCA did make things difficult—screenings were sometimes changed from the Saturday to the Sunday, or to the next week, sometimes cancelled altogether or perhaps played later (without telling you when). And at the end of the year, they finished; the MCA is now using the screening space for video and electronic artworks, connected to its exhibitions.

A previous try

Ironically, it was the MCA that had spent 10 years from the early 90s trying to achieve a vision of an additional building which would house a cinémathèque, encompassing a national gallery, screening venue and study centre for film, video and computer-based media. But despite many high-powered supporters from the film and performing arts sectora, and many meetings, workshops and architectural competitions, the seemingly interminable negotiations between the many interested parties eventually crashed to a halt. When the additional building finally eventuated, it had only one screening room.

Cinematheque Francaise, building designed by Frank Gehry

A new approach

I had met James Vaughan, the film enthusiast who had been organising the MCA screenings and who was determined to find an alternate venue and some assistance to continue, and when he asked me to join the Sydney Cinémathèque, the volunteer-run film initiative that has now developed a proposal to put to the Sydney City Council for support, I enthusiastically agreed. James had also been inspired by the Melbourne Cinémathèque. As he says, “I lived in Melbourne from 2012 to 2014 and was a regular [there]. There is no debate regarding Melbourne Cinémathèque’s pre-eminence in Australia for the regular screening of rare, experimental and culturally significant cinema.”

Back in Sydney, talking to film friends and colleagues about the lack of any comparable institution here, Vaughan found many lamenting how long Sydney has been bereft of something comparable, and so, working at the MCA, he worked out a way to utilise its theatre space. That experience has led to the current proposal, a weekly guest-curated contemporary cinema program that would build on the success of the MCA initiative.

As Vaughan explains, the regular screenings would provide the Sydney community with access to rare and culturally significant cinema from around the globe. It would also aim to open a dialogue between acclaimed film practitioners, scholars, curators, and the audience. Guest-curated each month by different Australian and international institutions, filmmakers, critics and festival programmers, it should bring some of the most exciting contemporary cinema from around the world to Sydney audiences.

As Vaughan says, “We see this as a rare opportunity to consolidate and expand on what worked so well at the MCA—the creation of a space for the best curators, critics, theorists and practitioners of cinema to be part of an environment where both complementary and contradicting voices are accommodated to affirm, in all its dynamism, the awesome power of cinematic art. If funded we’ll be seeking curatorial partnerships, and we’re also committed to and passionate about everything which would support the screenings—Q&As, panel discussions and live director Skype-ins. We strongly believe that our proposed program which, at its core, is fascinated by the nebulous zone between conventional narrative cinema and long-form video art, has the potential to revitalise screen culture in Sydney.”

Why a cinémathèque?

The name and the model come from the Cinémathèque Française in Paris, which has had a chequered history since it was founded in 1936 through the passion of the legendary Henri Langlois, who started collecting and preserving films in the 1930s. Dedicated to rediscovering, restoring and conserving all sorts of cinema, to make it available for public screenings, it is the first and most famous institution of its kind and is now a cultural icon in France.

After Sydney became the second international City of Film in 2010, joining UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network, a global network of key cities committed to promoting economic development through their creative industries, filmmaker Gillian Armstrong was quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald as saying that you have to feel slightly embarrassed about the fact that “we’ve been given this incredible honour: City of Film, and we don’t have a cinémathèque, we don’t have a film centre.” Surely it’s time we did.

Our previous coverage of the campaign for a cinémathèque in Sydney appeared in RealTime 96 in which Tina Kaufman traces the history of Australian screen culture and in RealTime RT105 in which she details the campaign in 2011 for a cinémathèque based at the MCA.

Top image credit: Harold Lloyd, Why Worry? (1923), now screening at ACMI Cinematheque

Top image credit: Kip Williams in rehearsal, Chimerica, Sydney Theatre Company, photo Hon Boey

Artlands is the new “brand” name for the bi-annual national Regional Arts Australia Conference and Festival which this year hosted international speakers alongside delegates from across the nation. Held in Dubbo, its ambitious and densely packed program was animated by the themes regeneration, connectedness and emergence. While it was possible to experience these in various combinations, this report reflects my own interests in the program, focusing on several highlights of its investigation into what we might mean by ‘regional’ in contemporary global culture.

 

A UK perspective: diversity and community

Skinder Hundal, Chief Executive, New Art Exchange, Nottingham UK spoke about New Art Exchange as a hub of cultural and social reinvention through diversity and experimentation in creative practice, focused on local/global interaction, and the engagement of local audiences by using local histories and practices. As well, he questioned our assumptions about how the arts ecology works, delivering a timely case study on the arts as a driver of inner city regeneration and bringing communities together. Rather than rethinking the idea of region, he proposed that we rethink the idea of centre. This was an exciting proposal, although the differences between UK and Australian regions are very marked.

 

Art practice and health

Focusing on ways to engage artists as agents of change in immediate and direct ways, exemplary presentations on this complex topic ranged from a discussion of art and social justice to art as a measure of quality of life, especially made meaningful through creative expression, including in the face of death and in tackling a serious crisis, such as HIV in the Free State of South Africa. When health funding is very limited, artists can be instrumental in creating strategies and discourse.

Here in Australia, Kym Rae, Director of the Gomeroi gaaynggal (Babies from Gomeroi lands) program, was very frank about the way fostering creative practice in First Nations communities could have a significant impact on mental health outcomes in much quicker timeframes than a solely medical approach.

 

Rural routes

On recasting art and theatre practice in rural communities, Henk Keizer, Co-Coordinator of Rural Routes in The Netherlands, spoke about long-term projects in the farming areas of the Netherlands that have needed, and employed, artists to articulate community experiences and concerns to government, commissioning theatre and performance to communicate more effectively. With regard to methodology, including in terms of research and development and the need to invest time in rural locations and communities, this was an effective lesson in the demise of fly-in-fly-out approaches to cultural production.

By contrast, even with a distinguished line-up of speakers—Michael Brand, Director, Art Gallery of NSW, Dolla Merrilees, Director, Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, Blair French, Director Curatorial and Digital, Museum of Contemporary Art, Caroline Butler-Bowden, Director of Curatorial and Public Engagement, Sydney Living Museums and Steven Alderton, Director Programs, Exhibitions and Cultural Programs, Australian Museum—the institutional presence of large key organisations provided little more than animated press releases (albeit quoting some impressive regional audience numbers for their programs), but a dearth of considered embedding of cultural process over time. The MCA’s C3West, a long-term project in Western Sydney (in partnership with councils and businesses) was an example of artists working with communities to deal with urban social and cultural issues, but without necessarily serving as a transferable model for regional needs.

The exceptions here were Sydney Living Museums, clearly taking the initiative with ongoing programming, and the Australian Museum with its considered repatriation of Indigenous objects program and community building through working with families and in relation to artefacts in its collection. These programs seem symbolic of real institutional change, deep understanding of cultural issues and the inclusion of Aboriginal history.

 

Taken from Country, Jason Russell, Wala-Gaay, photo Liz Bradshaw

First Nations

The heart of the conference was without question the generous and rigorous presentations by First Nations speakers. I cannot stress enough the power of their direct address—based in personal experience—to move, inspire and galvanise.

In his opening keynote about sovereignty Mark McMillan, Associate Professor, Melbourne Law School invited us to consider creative making as a meeting place, where acknowledging sovereignty is a personal, transformative and mutual experience that takes place through culture and cultural production.

Lee-Ann Buckskin spoke eloquently about mentoring and agency, championing the expertise and experience of First Nations artists and arts workers; and Rhoda Roberts articulated the impact of institutional intent in including First Nations content and context across all aspects of cultural production. I particularly valued her impatience with ‘closing the gap’ rhetoric and her provocation that instead of First Nations people adopting Western cultural aspirations, that the broader population should “sit down with us.” I can only hope that these ideas are taken up by all who attended, and that this translates into action across the sector.

 

Wala-Gaay

A highlight of the Festival program was a small but coherent exhibition at the Fire Station Arts Centre. Wala-Gaay was an ambitious group show of artists who were part of the Orana Arts Left Field Project, a long-term creative mentoring program in its second year. It presented a collection of powerful, visceral, diverse works engaged with historical references, lived experience and culture in the present. All were by local regional artists who were encouraged throughout the project to work in new ways with previously untried materials.

Jason Russell’s (Worimi) Taken from Country is both a visceral image of violence and colonial rule, and a highly resolved physical presence that brings the viewer into the work. Arresting from the moment you enter the space, neck irons hang in line in front of an old saddle, keys attached—symbols of imprisonment and subjugation, equal parts beauty and horror.

Locked up, by Dylan Goolagong (Wiradjuri), reflected on museum practice and its historical roots in theft and acquisition, asking who has access to and who act as gatekeepers for First Nations cultural artefacts. A series of crosses and carved wooden blocks hidden in a set of old steel lockers, the work questioned viewers’ notions of what is sacred by placing a physical barrier—a closed door—between us and some elements of the piece, while echoing the systems and structures of collection and display.

Our girls by Paris Norton (Gamilaroi) is a lyrical and painstaking memorial to young women who were stolen and taken to homes to be trained for a life of domestic servitude by the Aboriginal Protection Board. Each hand-painted and hand-cut circle of paperbark, as personal as a fingerprint, is an eloquent stand-in for records that were lost or destroyed, and lives profoundly altered, under this regime.

All these works are direct yet densely layered and moving. There is not space here to discuss the equally accomplished works by Aleshia Lonsdale, Alex Nixon and Robert Salt; and credit must also go to mentors Blak Douglas, Jonathon Jones, Chico Monks, Nicole Monks and Jason Wing, and curators Khaled Sabsabi and Emily McDaniel. While there were moments where the viewer could see the influence of a mentor, there was more a sense of artists entering into a field of practice rather than imitation, and the diversity of the work was testament to the benefits of structured support and creative dialogue. It was exciting to see a local event that so clearly stood out in an abundant program of interesting work from around the nation. This is a show that deserves to tour; and I hope to see more work – more bodies of work – by these artists in the future.

 

Our Girls, Paris Norton, Wala-Gaay, photo Liz Bradshaw

Conference/Festival divide

One of the troubling issues of the event however, was something of a separation between the conference and the festival. This was particularly visible for me as I spoke to local artists who felt ‘priced out’ of a conference where the frameworks and practices that shape the arts system with which they engage were up for debate. While being part of the festival was of course a valuable opportunity, and included artists from other regions as well, there still seemed an unnecessary and problematic divide between the makers and the decision-makers. Few artists were involved in articulating how to proceed in the cash-strapped present. (And if organisers think that the cost to attend was not prohibitive for many artists, then they need to get to know the reality of artists’ incomes a little better.)

Equally, given the ways artists were being recognised as the motor of engagement, community building and delivering outcomes, a dialogue with what artists need to produce these outcomes—over the long term, and with adequate remuneration—should have been an important inclusion. Austerity politics and diverted funding have devastated budgets within the arts, but also in arenas where artists are increasingly the service bearers of not just creative or cultural outcomes, but diversity, health and community outcomes as well. And in this context is it too much to expect inclusivity to extend to queer artists and artists with disability? Both were conspicuous in their absence from the programs I attended.

 

Rethinking ‘regional’

The conference concluded with a discussion of the future and a panel on thought leadership, bringing together Wesley Enoch, Artistic Director, Sydney Festival, Lindy Hume, Artistic Director, Opera Queensland and Mathew Trinca, Director, National Museum of Australia to imagine futures, collaborations and new approaches. While attempting to redefine the idea of what the regions are—in their diversity—there was a clear call for us as a field to name and promote and value what we already do, and to articulate that value more effectively in order to have it recognised.

I think Wesley Enoch queried the term ‘regional’ in the most productive ways: through speculating about working region to region, relocating large companies to regional towns and suggesting that large established institutions and organisations forego government funding. I took this to mean in favour of the smaller organisations that form such a significant testing ground in the arts ecology. He also proposed no longer taking culture to the regions, instead developing and supporting culture in the regions, and in a global not just national context. He also suggested how we can all take action in the current climate: go to more shows, practice your elevator pitch and meet five strangers and start a dialogue that lasts at least a year.

The next ARTLANDS will be hosted by Regional Arts Victoria in 2018.

ARTLANDS Conference and Festival, Dubbo, NSW 27-30 Oct

Liz Bradshaw is an artist and cultural researcher. She gave a presentation at ARTLANDS on creative education for dLux Media Arts.

Top image credit: Locked Up, Dylan Goolagong, Wala-Gaay, photo Liz Bradshaw

At its most overt, Wesley Enoch’s 2017 Sydney Festival programming is about sensory engagement, indigeneity and innovative art-making. Alongside works that challenge the senses there’s a cluster of works by and about First Nations peoples and an overlapping one, principally theatrical, from independent Australian and visiting artists. These are complemented by discrete programs of contemporary circus and Canadian performance amid diverse festival fare from around the world, beyond easy summary.

Unlike most festival directors, Wesley Enoch is, expectedly, forthright about matters social, cultural and political. Although his festival might not be themed top to bottom and despite its considerable breadth, it has a core, the man himself. Towards the end of our conversation in the festival office in the Rocks, he asks rhetorically, how it could be otherwise: “How am I so of this place and of this time that I’m responding and reflecting what’s here?” It’s a question he thinks all festival directors should ask of themselves.

He adds, “When I look through the program, I think my politics are there for everyone to see—my way of seeing the world. The big thing I find challenging is going from being someone who makes theatre to someone who curates a festival. I still think like someone who’s got to make it. It’s not a curated experience this one. It’s about me going, this is what I want to happen; can we make it happen? It’ll succeed or fail or spark conversation or people will go ho-hum. This is what a festival is about.”

 

DIY festival

The large format program features the colourful festival logo breaking up over a lively black and white portrait of a Sydneysider. There are eight of these selected from public submissions and eight program covers to match, depending which one you pick up. As well as inviting the public to make art, Enoch says play with the festival logo is “all about extensions and connections; about it being broken apart and finding its own way back together again. It’s an invitation to the audience to make their own Sydney Festival, literally from bits and pieces, to have confidence in themselves as individuals now that everyone’s a maker—having at their fingertips the means of production to make a film or do whatever.”

Enoch hopes that the curiosity festivals can excite might counter “the fracturing of our body politic. Individuals are now tribal in the way they see the world and we get a lot of [self-reinforcing] feedback through social media or our choice of news media. Things get reflected back to us that an algorithm says we’ll like. I find that fascinating. It builds a confidence that I don’t always like…We really need to say, ‘Be creative in your own thinking, be curious in the way you see the world, engage with otherness, with difference, so that you bring a quality to your life that is outside your lived experience.'”

Enoch’s program, delineating the sensory, Indigenous, Canadian and circus/physical theatre mini-programs, provides festival-goers with clear starting points for entering what at first glance might appear to be a maze. He underlines the importance of clustering, arguing, “If you do one [of a kind of work], it’s saddled with the idea that it has to be representative of a whole practice. Once you do a number of them you have a diversity of approaches.”

 

The Encounter, Complicite, photo Gianmarco Bresadola

A festival of the senses

A featured festival work is conceptual and olfactory artist Cat Jones’ Scent of Sydney, to be staged at Carriageworks. I mention Indigenous artist Archie Moore’s ‘perfume portrait’ series, Les Eaux d’Amoore, with its robust scents. Enoch recalls, “One of them was stale beer and cigarettes wasn’t it? That was full-on! As we’re living in an increasingly digital, disembodied world in our leisure time, in our work, artists are asking, how do you get back into the corporeal, the body of things? I wonder if we have lost the subtle vocabulary for our senses.”

Cat Jones will tell us about Scent of Sydney in next week’s RealTime. In the meantime, Enoch explains that the scents will be made by the artist in response to the recollections of a small group of participants of the aromas they associate with subjects like democracy, resistance and landscape. Audiences will be able to experience the outcomes and ponder their own associations.

Also on the sensory front, in deafblind artists Heather Lawson and Michelle Stevens’ Imagined Touch the audience wear goggles and earphones to share a quiet, dark, complex world. It can be experienced as a performance or a free installation. House of Mirrors in the Festival Village offers another kind of sensory disorientation. In Encounter, the UK’s Complicite, utilising the depth of field and detail generated by the binaural microphone, takes its headphoned audience on a recreated journey up the Amazon.

 

Champions, FORM Dance Projects, photo Heidrun Löhr

Australia’s bold independents

Parramatta’s FORM Dance Projects is mounting Champions. Focused on women’s football, it’s directed by Sydney choreographer Martin del Amo whose engrossing signature works have often sprung from the act of walking—a short step to field moves. Created in consultation with Western Sydney Wanderers W-league, the work features 11 female performers enacting the drills, tactics and rituals of the game and expressing the joys of playing along with the frustrations of imposed gender limitations. We have an interview with del Amo in next week’s RealTime.

Enoch was keen to premiere Champions at Carriageworks: “It doesn’t have to be that Western Sydney is just a colony of Sydney.” Conversely, Ich Nibber Dibber by those proud Westies, post—featuring the astonishing trio reproducing excepts of conversations from their 10-year performance history—will open at Campelltown Arts Centre.

Prize Fighter, photo Dylan Evans

Prize Fighter from Brisbane’s La Boite plays out as a convincing real time boxing match in its telling of the life of a Congolese child soldier relocated to Brisbane. It was written by Future D Fidel, himself a Congolese refugee. Reviewer Kathryn Kelly wrote that it “showcas[ed] the breadth of African-Australian talent in this country with local performers Pacharo and Gideon Mzembe matched by recent NIDA graduate Thuso Lekwape…The opening night felt genuinely significant, evoking descriptions of the first night of Wesley Enoch and Deborah Mailman’s Seven Stages of Grieving at Metro Arts in the 1990s.”

Urban Theatre Projects and Blacktown Arts Centre come together to present Home Country, a work about intra- and cross-cultural tensions—Indigenous, Algerian and Greek—played out in a Blacktown car park from scripts by Andrea James, Peter Polites and Gaele Sobott. Also in Western Sydney is Hakawati from the National Theatre of Parramatta, featuring shared food and song from the Middle East.

Jacob Boehme, Blood on the Dance Floor, photo Bryony Jackson

Innovative Australian works from across borders include Melbourne’s Patricia Cornelius, with her play Shit (about class and misogyny), Jacob Boehme’s dance theatre work Blood on the Dance Floor from Melbourne’s Ilbijerri Theatre (read the review “To live, dance and love with HIV“), Brisbane’s Circa in Humans, from Tasmania, Terrapin Puppet Theatre’s You and Me and the Space Between and from Cairns, Dancenorth’s Spectra. Enoch says of the strong interstate showing, “I don’t think Sydney sees enough of the work that’s created outside of Sydney. Is that terrible to say?” I’m also interested in what happens when works like Prize Fighter get a rare second outing. There are things that can change, mature. Jacob Boehme’s Blood on the Dance Floor is another example. Aesthetically, it’s a real step on for Indigenous storytelling.”

 

Trevor Jamieson, The Season, Sydney Festival 2017, photo Simon Pynt

Indigenous culture: continuity, 1967, language

Enoch’s prominent Indigenous program ranges across theatre, play development, dance and visual arts. The Season, by Tasmanian playwright Nathan Maynard, a descendant of the chief of the Trawlwoolway Clan and of the North East Tasmanian Indigenous peoples, made its first appearance in the 2015 Yellamundie First Nations Peoples Playwriting Festival. I ask Enoch the writer’s age. “Oh, if you told me he was mid-30s I’d believe you; if you told me he was early 40s, I’d believe you—wise old man that he is. The writing reminds me of some of the early Jack Davis work where you have family environments in which cultural continuity is being expressed just through lived action. There’s a lightness of touch, of comedy, that belies a heavy burden, especially coming from Tasmania where the dominant myth is that all Aboriginal people were wiped out.” The Season addresses “cultural continuity around mutton-birding which has gone on for hundreds and thousands of years.” Also in the program is Ilbijerri Theatre’s “road trip comedy,” Which Way Home, by writer-performer Katie Beckett, about a daughter’s relationship with her single-parent father.

In Not An Animal Or A Plant, Vernon Ah Kee responds through drawings, paintings, text and projections to the 1967 Referendum which recognised Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as citizens and included them in the census.”He’s bringing together his work as a conversation about that historical event. I don’t think this country’s even cognisant of the fact that this year is the 50th anniversary. It was such a successful referendum, 90.77% of the population voted. I wonder if it happened now, would it get through? What’s changed?”

The referendum will not be forgotten with the mounting of 1967, Music in the Key of Yes, in the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall, featuring film footage from the period and a stellar line-up of singers: Leah Flannagan, Yirrmal, Dan Sultan, Adalita, Stephen Pigram, Radical Son and Thelma Plum.

Bayala, Let’s Speak Sydney Language, is a very special component of the festival’s Indigenous program, an opportunity to become familiar with—through documents, classes and a “sing-up”—with the once assumed lost languages of the Eora and Darug peoples.

 

Meeting Canada

Enoch is pleased to be presenting “a big chunk of Canadian work, including Huff by writer-performer Cliff Cardinal from Native Earth Performing Arts [Canada’s oldest professional Indigenous theatre company]. There’s been a lot of exchange between Indigenous Australians and Canadians for quite a while now, especially the further north you go in Australia and through the tri-nation agreement between Australia, New Zealand and Canada over at the past decade.

“Huff literally means to sniff, as in solvent sniffing. It’s a multi-generational story where the performer plays all 20 roles. The youngest of three brothers has the gift from the Creator to make people feel good, and by the end, with all the tortuous things that he observes or that happen to him, he’s lost it. Huff marries the spiritual nature of a lot of First Nations storytelling with this story of growing up. It has a lot of black humour. The storytelling is both beautiful and tragic as you’d expect from any First Nations story. That’s where it works best: I’m laughing, but at the same time, I’m feeling like it’s dragging me under.”

Also from Canada is Company 605 in the dance work Inheritor Album; Tomboy Survival Guide’s words and music investigation into gender identity; Montreal composer Nicole Lizée’s form-bending Sex, Lynch and Video Games; and Anthropologies Imaginaires, Gabriel Dharmoo’s fictional chants and rituals which “examine Western culture and the way we look at others” (program). Also featured is iD by Cirque Eloize, the centrepiece in Parramatta’s Circus City, where all the circus works, associated workshops, forums and films will be presented. “Canada has a rich circus tradition but amazingly, we hear very little of it, except for Cirque du Soleil,” says Enoch.

 

Wesley Enoch, photo Prudence Upton

Remembering Myuran Sukumaran

Myuran Sukumaran was executed on 29 April, 2015 in Indonesia for drug trafficking. Sydney Festival, in conjunction with Campbelltown Arts Centre, is staging an exhibition of his paintings, curated by friend and mentor, the Australian artist Ben Quilty, and CAC director Michael Dagostino. Programming it makes a strong statement. “It’s important,” says Enoch. “Next year is the 50th anniversary of the Ronald Ryan hanging, the last legal execution in Australia. So there’s a sense of convergence. I think that as a festival we’re here to prod debate and discussion. There’ll be some people who’ll say, ‘How dare you elevate a drug dealer to the ‘hallowed halls’ of art!’ Well, if we believe that you incarcerate people because there’s a possibility of rehabilitation, there is the case to argue for the redemptive power of art. And after 10 years, my opinion is that those two people (Myuran and Andrew Chan) found a way to be rehabilitated. Capital punishment is such a final thing.”

We began our conversation with scents and senses and end with what is so evident about this Sydney Festival, its great sense of occasion—timely celebration of the 1967 Referendum, remembrance of the unnecessary death of Myuran Sukumaran, an embrace of Canadian art, and acknowledgment of the breadth and depth of Aboriginal culture and the innovative Australian art-making of which it is a sharer and driver. For all the breadth of its summer festival fare, Wesley Enoch’s 2017 Sydney Festival is a rarity among its peers for its sense of purpose, its aesthetics inseparable from its politics. It looks to be the festival Enoch sought of himself, “of this place and of this time,” of this city, of Australia in all its cultural complexity.

In a companion article, we offer a personal guide to shows RealTime readers might like to seek out.

Sydney Festival 2017, 7-29 Jan

Top image credit: Cliff Cardinal, Huff, Native Earth Performing Arts, photo Akipari

Sydney College of the Arts is fighting for its future. Dedicated, articulate and formidable students currently occupying the Dean’s Office in the Callan Park campus have faith in their education and in the history and significance of this institution; and they are supported by alumni, artists and communities who recognise the value of both SCA and visual art education to our culture.

It is a much bigger issue than the future of a single art school. This is an important fight, and potentially a turning point for culture in Australia. The protest is a defense of the integrity not only of SCA, but all other Australian art and design institutions, including increasingly beleaguered TAFE college departments.

 

Undermining culture

The NSW Government’s land grab for Callan Park, the SCA site, and the old Darlinghurst Gaol, home to the National Art School—shifting the classification of both from education to property—and the devaluing of art education are not isolated events, but symptoms of a concerted undermining of art and culture more generally. This insidious push towards privatisation comes at the same time as arts sector funding cuts have devastated small to medium arts organisations and those funds diverted to pork barrelling by Arts Minister Senator Mitch Fifield—arts spending without transparency, consistency or expertise. At the same time we see, more broadly, a profound erosion of civil liberties, including our rights to protest and to privacy.

 

Slow death by asphyxiation

Thus far, the proposed closure of SCA by merger with UNSW Art and Design has been effectively prevented, but under the University of Sydney’s strategic plan, released last year, SCA is slated to be absorbed into the massive Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, ostensibly to reduce bottom line costs, including devastating cuts to staff numbers.

Moving SCA to the main campus of the University of Sydney could easily result in slow death by asphyxiation: in other words a continuation of the current management strategy that has overseen, rather than countered, falling enrolments at SCA. The numbers of those enrolling in creative tertiary education had slowed markedly 2008-2013 (The Arts Nation: an overview of Australian arts, 2015 Edition Australia Council, p16). This legitimises as much as creates the short-term economic arguments for closing art schools. The University of Sydney has form here, having overseen the dilution of the once vibrant Tin Sheds Art Workshops.

To lose a proposed 60% of SCA staff, whole departments and important equipment and space is an attempt to fit art education into a philosophical and economic model that smacks of the dumbing down and anti-intellectualism that has pervaded commercialised and privatised education internationally for at least a decade, particularly in the US and UK. Forcing art schools into conventional learning environments cannot but reduce the efficacy of teaching and learning. If you lack the resources of space, time and equipment you cannot effectively and expansively engage in the creative process, the limitations of the environment curtailing what you imagine as possible in your practice.

In the last five to 10 years, the UK has implemented a particular kind of austerity politics that has had profound effects: funding cuts, fee deregulation and short-term economic models of governance have placed even the most renowned art schools under duress. The push to sell off grounds and incorporate art schools into other campuses has also been underway for some time. The Sir John Cass Faculty of Art, Architecture and Design at London Metropolitan University effectively resisted this process until February this year, when the property was sold for £50 million and leased back to the university until the faculty moves to the university in 2017.

Students occupy Sydney College of the Arts – Photo ZebedeeParkes.com, GreenLeft.org.au

UK austerity

Part of this cultural shift has meant that art and design universities in the UK have increased their fees to £9,000 a year (and are looking at deregulating further), directly pricing out students from poorer backgrounds, but also likely deterring women, mature age, CALD and LGBT students, and those with disabilities, for whom the financial burdens seem a significant risk. Enrolments are reduced, in effect reducing the vibrancy and diversity of creative voices, debate and, in the long term, cultural breadth and depth. Education becomes the privilege of those with significant funds. My former students are now graduates with fee debts of around £60,000 and loans. The threat of $100,000 degrees in Australia is already both a cultural and economic reality elsewhere. The real deception here is the notion that knowledge and learning have definable monetary value, and that such value is predictable and tied to current ideas of employability.

Similarly, in UK further education colleges and schools, the availability of art and design study is now up for debate, as new models of assessment and evaluation of learning exclude creative subjects from essential study by prioritising instead so-called STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. This year’s art and design enrolments at GCSE level (General Certificate of Secondary Education, year 10) have declined 6%. This is not because young people don’t want to pursue creative subjects, but because access to them is being restricted by political and economic agendas. [See the NAVA letter to Education Minister Senator Simon Birmingham. Eds]

Of course this is not the only model of education on offer. If Sydney University had included art and design education expertise in developing a strategy for the future of SCA, we might even have seen a University of the Arts emerge comparable to the University of the Arts, London, which has preserved the rich, independent cultures of its constituent art and design schools while streamlining administrative functions.

Beyond UAL, London has many significant art schools, further testament that no international city should have only one art and design centre of excellence. It is, rather, an essential characteristic of creative education—and an outward-looking international city—that the range of institutions and cultures should be diverse.

Political consequences

Perhaps politicians think artists are an easy target—powerless, politically naïve, unlikely or unable to fight back. Perhaps that’s what University of Sydney Deputy Vice Chancellor Stephen Garton anticipated when he agreed to meet with very determined SCA students on 29 July.

Universities should take note of the possible consequences of the hasty and ill-conceived implementation of their short-term economic agendas. UK Labour leadership has placed arts education at the centre of debate, proposing the reversal of funding cuts to the arts and the reduction of university fees, pledging to introduce a pupil premium for creative education [as established for sport in 2013] as central to its arts policy and political platform. We should learn from this reversal of the current approach to cultural education before we lose the expertise and resources that will prove so hard to replace: we must go straight to championing creative education in Australia.

Keep up to date with the activities of the SCA students and alumni at www.letscastay.com

Top image credit: Save SCA rally, Camperdown campus photo ZebedeeParkes.comGreenLeft.org.au

Like much of the work in the Video oediV exhibition Kawita Vatanajyankur’s rewards careful viewing. The vivid digital colour spectrum alone is a workout for the eyes. Acid yellow, dazzling orange, brilliant pink or bright sky blue remind us of the synthetic colours of plastics—or Thai silk. Against each vivid backdrop we observe the artist’s slender body—dark hair pulled back from her face, a slash of bright red lipstick against pale skin—performing one of a number of challenging, often desultory tasks. All in a day’s work for Vatanajyankur includes the following:

  1. While suspended from a rope, balancing a large circular basket on each arm, catch as many grains as you can of two endless streams of rice pouring from above (The Scale 2, 2015)
  2. Hurl yourself soggy from a variety of angles into a plastic laundry basket (The Basket, 2014)
  3. Hold your mouth open and allow water to be funnelled into it (Poured, 2014)
  4. Allow your head to be repeatedly dipped into a plastic bucket as if your body were a mop (Soaked, 2013)
  5. Become a pole for carrying baskets of bananas (The Carrying Pole, 2015)
  6. Repeat

The Scale 2, 2015 – Image courtesy the artist and Stills Gallery, Sydney

To accomplish each of these tasks, Vatanajyankur’s body blends with the tool it mimics. In the sixth and definitely one of the more disturbing tasks the artist has set herself (The Ice Shaver, 2013), we observe her face-down in a solid brick of ice, using her nose, lips and chin to move it like some cruelly designed mandolin. Watch for a while and you’ll feel your own lips freeze.

On first viewing The Basket, you’ll note the artist’s deft landing but stay a while to watch the subtle grimaces on the face of the older woman in hair curlers who’s holding the receptacle and with her, feel the weight of that body.

The question as to who might be responsible for all the off-stage hurling and the dipping and the pouring remains unanswered. More important is the sense of cumulative audience discomfort generated by the subtle modus operandi of this Thai-Australian artist who graduated from RMIT in 2011 and who has exhibited widely across Australia as well as Asia and Europe. Last year, she was a finalist in the Jaguar Asia Tech Art Prize in Taipei and curated into the prestigious Thailand Eye exhibition at Saatchi Gallery, London. Her focus is on creating “works that examine the psychological, social and cultural ways of viewing and valuing the continuing challenges of women’s everyday labour…. undertaking physical experiments that playfully, often painfully, test her own body’s limits.” (Artist’s website)

As well as the often-observed juxtaposition between its seductively glamorous surfaces and the gruelling experience of this work, is the contradiction inherent in its creation—the contrast between gothically exaggerated domestic tasks and the “meditation postures,” as she calls them, which Vatanajyankur adopts to enact them. These “acts of extreme physical endurance,” the artist says, “offer a way to free herself from her mind: a mechanism to lose her sense of being. This deliberate objectification,” she says, “turns her body into sculpture.”

Kawita Vatanajyankur, The Ice Shaver, 2013, from Tools – Image courtesy the artist and Stills Gallery, Sydney

Kawita Vatanajyankur’s work can also be seen at Stills Gallery, which represents her, in Sydney until 13 February. She has posted other work, The Robes and The Dustpan, in Vimeo.

Campbelltown Arts Centre, Video oediV, curator Megan Monte, 16 Jan-20 March

Top image credit: Kawita Vatanajyankur, Poured, 2014 – Image courtesy the artist and Stills Gallery, Sydney

RealTime issue #131 Feb-March 2016

© Virginia Baxter; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

3 February 2016