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Keith Gallasch: Interview, Andrew Donovan, Experimental Arts, Australia Council

Andrew Donovan

Andrew Donovan

Andrew Donovan

Andrew Donovan’s benign manner goes hand in hand with his gentle enthusiasm and quiet determination to encourage adventurous Australian artists through his role as Director of the Australia Council’s Emerging and Experimental Arts section, formerly the Inter Arts Office. I met with Donovan at the Council offices to discuss the change in terminology to “experimental” and its ramifications for the Council, artists and audiences. Will it be business as usual but with more meaningful nomenclature engendering greater opportunities to support innovation?

Over the last 30 years at least, interactions between art practices and disciplines have proliferated, yielding mutations of existing forms and unexpected crossovers as well as terms aimed at explanation or containment. These include ‘cross artform,’ ‘multimedia,’ ‘interdisciplinary,’ ‘intercultural’ and ‘transdisciplinary’ as well as ‘new media arts’ and post modernism itself.

In the last decade ‘hybrid arts,’ has been widely deployed, but as exchanges between practices and disciplines flow into mainstream arts and become the norm, it is no longer useful as a descriptor for innovation—a word itself that has unfortunately become tied to Western notions of endless progress. To rephrase Paul Virilio’s dictum on technologies and accidents, for every innovation there’s a likely exploitation.

For Andrew Donovan the choice of ‘experimental’ is about communication within the Australia Council itself, with artists and the public: “There’s the arts community that knows what we do, what we fund and the sort of work we mean when we talk about hybrid or interdisciplinary practice or media arts practice. Then there’s the other side, the broader community that tends to glaze over when they hear those terms. There came a point when we felt it was important to be able to communicate much more succinctly to the Australia Council, to the governing board of the Council, to the broader community and also to politicians and people who really don’t know much about the sort of work we’re funding—to try to find a short-hand way of letting them in.

“The full name of the section is Emerging and Experimental Arts. ‘Emerging’ refers to emerging art forms and practices, not the emerging artist. The shorthand version is Experimental Arts. Since we’ve made the change I’ve certainly found in my interactions with people who really don’t know anything about what we do, they understand what ‘experiment’ is and they don’t have too much trouble putting it together with ‘arts.’ They immediately have a sense that it’s something that is pushing boundaries, trying stuff out without necessarily needing to succeed or having a predictable outcome.”

Donovan believes “the governing board and the Council have really embraced this notion and are very supportive of Australia having a strong reputation in that space. I think that’s where people see the really cutting edge of innovation happening, in the crossover between the arts and the broader culture—programs like Synapse that sit within experimental arts but also things we’ve done over the past few years that see artists working in non-arts settings, whether it’s in business or the food sector or universities or whatever. ‘Experimental arts’ is a lovely umbrella term for everything we’ve funded over 40 years in this space. So the change doesn’t say we’ll not be funding any of the stuff we’ve funded in the past.”

I wondered how we know when a work is experimental and how it can be assessed for funding. Often it’s a sensory response; the work plays with perception, sometimes disorienting us, putting us in unusual situations, as in many a Live Art work. It’s not necessarily your intelligence that identifies a work as experimental. Donovan recalls that at the Emerging and Experimental Art forum held at Carriageworks, 5-6 May this year, “there were wonderful terms people were using to talk about the work, such as ‘anti-aesthetic’ or ‘problem-finding’ rather than ‘problem-solving.’ Those sorts of concepts are quite abstract but I think when you see the elements put together in an application, the assessment panel recognises that’s the kind of thing we’re looking for.”

Given that ‘experimental’ can suggest a scientific model I wonder if loose notions like risk-taking and uncertain outcomes might be usurped by a strict expectation of definite outcomes. Donovan is adamant: “Certainly the way we’ve set up the funding criteria, it’s not like the artists are making an application to the Australian Research Council! This is the Australia Council. There was, however, a very strong response from the panel that looked at the first round of Experimental Arts grants this year to say, ‘Look, you need to be very clear about what the experiment is.’ I don’t think we’re going down the road of asking, ‘What’s your research question?’ But we are certainly saying, ‘Be very clear about what you’re investigating and what ideas you’re wanting to push through a project.’ I think in some of the applications in the first round there was an assumption that ‘Oh, well, you know what we do; we’ve always done this so just fund this application.’ There was a strong response from our assessment panels to say that people need to be very clear what they’re experimenting with and where it sits in the continuum of the historical context of their practice.”

However, an aesthetic response can be hard to quantify compared with the outcomes demanded of scientific experiment. Again, Donovan is firm, “The people we have around the table are not scientists; they’re artists. They’re looking for that aesthetic angle within a project as much as they’re looking at the experiment. We’ve left it quite deliberately open. We don’t want to prescribe what we think an experiment model is. We want people working out there to tell us why they think what they’re doing is experimental and we’ll put together a group of people to assess those ideas.” Presumably, given the technologically and scientifically advanced nature of some artworks nowadays (for example, the works of Efterpi Soropos and George Khut detailed in our Art, wellness & death feature in this edition), doubtless specialists in non-arts areas (including the increasing number who have worked with artists) might need to be called on for opinions in the future.

The importance of being able to share the knowledge that comes out of experimental art-making came up at the National Experimental Arts Forum. Some worried about ‘business in confidence;’ others said, ‘my project’s so long-term I don’t want to be putting it out piecemeal; others wanted everything open-sourced and acquittals made publicly available. Donovan declares “an interest over many years in how we might unlock a lot more of the information we get through acquittals. But the people who are pointing out the barriers are quite correct. At the moment, a lot of the information we receive is covered by the Privacy Act. We’d need to adjust our systems in some way to alert artists that, if they wanted to, part of their acquittal could be made public. We need to approach it fairly carefully to make sure that artists can see that there’s a clear benefit to them doing it.

“The Australia Council also has a great interest in how we evaluate the impact of our programs. A lot of the focus has been on the granting process. That will still happen, of course, but I think you’ll see an increasing shift in some of our resources to the evaluation of the impact of those programs and the impact of the work that artists are making. It’s certainly something we’re talking about.”

The diversity of examples of work described at the forum was quite amazing, much of it highly unusual. Donovan says, “One of the pleasing things about having ISEA in Sydney this year was the very positive response to Australian work we got from the international audience. After I did a presentation on what we’re doing through Emerging and Experimental Arts, a number of people from other countries rushed up saying, ‘I wish our funding body was doing that!’ I’m very keen to focus on communicating over the next few years a very comprehensive sense of the diversity of this work.”

Donovan is already planning for the next National Experimental Arts Forum which will probably be held in early 2015. “The first one was limited by financial restrictions but the next one we’ll tender out and it’ll be a much more open process and hopefully have a lot more delegates as well as making it a really great national discussion about experimental practice.”

I ask if this indicates long term commitment to the experimental for Andrew Donovan himself, who by 2014 will have been with the Australia Council for 20 years. “Absolutely,” is the answer. “I have always approached the experimental as a kind of slow-burn field of practice. You need to build up the credibility and the reputation for it over many years. It’s the absolute excitement and wonder of the work that keeps me engaged. You see the most amazing things and watch artists working in the most amazing ways. It just constantly surprises me.”

RealTime issue #117 Oct-Nov 2013 pg. 18

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

14 October 2013