Skip to content

The Tyranny of Geography

July 22, 2015
Image of the Lake Burley Griffin undertaker by Jeanne Mclauchlan via the Canberra Times

Image of the Lake Burley Griffin undertaker by Jeanne Mclauchlan via the Canberra Times

I currently work for an internationally-renowned arts company, on concurrent projects scattered around the country. On any one day I might speak to someone in Adelaide, Karratha, Alice Springs, Hobart, or Sydney or Melbourne or the USA or UK, all from my laptop in the tiny study of my home. I feel that I am part of a global conversation. But I’m also a writer, and for administrative purposes this requires a geographic association. So, I am a Canberra-based writer.

In our daily lives and careers geographic limitations have begun to dissolve, and our world is expanding. Yet on the nightly news and government offices our borders are continually and increasingly reinforced. One such office is the arts funding body of the ACT government.

It‘s well documented that Canberra breeds good artists, boasting a luminous roll-call of those who began their lives here or honed a niche in which they made the first steps towards successful careers. But where once a creative young Canberran left early, never to return, there is a growing trend for these bonds to remain elastic, flexible and responsive. There are more options and opportunities than there were decades ago, a community to lift you up, the mysteries of the outside world are at the end of crumbling copper wires and home is where the wifi is.

Artists in Canberra have a view that extends beyond the ACT border. Some of our brightest may in fact spend but a few months a year, weeks even, physically within the territory – the rest of the time taking claim of opportunities to present work or conduct research interstate or overseas, undertaking residencies, mentorships, further study, short-term contracts to produce or teach, or fulfill a commission. A return to Canberra brings an equally welcome opportunity to take stock, recharge, give back, reconnect with longstanding collaborators and perhaps embark on a new project. Canberra is home base. A place where people know your name and believe in what you do.

Certainly not all artists enjoy this level of success, particularly in their early careers, but those who do ought not be punished by an onus on absence rather than achievement.

Capacity for artistic success can be buoyed by two intersecting channels: income and profile. Income gathered by employment, grants and prize money, and less often by sales/commissions/royalties. Profile is raised through networking, public events, awards and commendations. Eligibility for a great many of these are dictated by geography, and yet a wealth of these opportunities, particularly in regard to artistic profile, exist outside of the territory’s borders.

What is an artist to do? Arts ACT and prize-giving committees traditionally require hard line definitions around eligibility. Once upon a time this might have meant you had to have an ACT postal address, but these days that simplistic categorisation doesn’t fly, and artists are asked to prove their ‘status’ as an ACT artist through more involved means. (Where is your practice based? What Canberra-based events, programs or organisations are you involved with? Do you own a MyWay card? How many tits on a Skywhale? How much parking have you paid for lately?)

If you’ve been lucky enough in recent times, have worked hard enough, to be able to engage in activities farther afield and subsequently significant time away then you can consider your eligibility seriously in doubt. Even if you intend to premiere you new performance work here in the ACT, with an entirely local cast and crew. Even if your novel is set in Canberra and you wrote it here. Even if your album was recorded in a shed in the middle of Lyneham and your opening track is ‘Sweet IGA’, even if you’ve been burning up the highway, or bleeding money on plane fares, or sitting on a Murray’s bus that is somehow always simultaneously freezing and stuffy just to come back to this place time after time, you can forget about being supported if you haven’t been around much lately.

But at what point does your passport get completely revoked? Because Canberra’s claim on your roots lasts forever, as long as you do well, just as Australia clings to its artists who moved overseas at the first available chance. When the accolades come, everyone in your hometown played a part.

Canberra strives to be recognised as an international city, and with the emergence of the borderless artist, and the shrinking limitations on how and where we work, it has an opportunity to build upon. Roaming locals who return should be welcomed, encouraged to share what they’ve learnt, what they’ve made, and to bring with them the access to new networks and a world of possibilities. We need to recognise greatness within those who would call this place home, and be the first to call it. If we won’t have them, then someone else will, and they won’t wear the hometown name so proudly come that point.

It is clear that the ways in which we pick out excellence and give commendations and rewards are archaic in themselves, and it is clear that budgets are stretched. There is no light at the end of either of those tunnels. The ACT government hungers for positive exposure for the city and the funding bodies of the day espouse the merits of innovation, and but a creative, non-parochial approach to how one conducts one’s career across borders proves not to sit so well.

Way With Words

August 19, 2014

The long light, the glittering road.

'Midnight Beacon' (detail) by Ian Robertson

‘Midnight Beacon’ (detail) by Ian Robertson

This week I’m looking forward to the launch of an exhibition that I’m a part of – the end result of a project that has unfolded over a number of months. Wordsmith is an exercise in pairing artists with writers, and I was honoured to be invited to take part by curator Sarah Norris (no relation!) To begin, Sarah asked each writer for a submission, and the guidelines were wide open. In what could have been misconstrued as a kind of brattish move (unintended) I submitted a single line of text. Sarah paired each written submission with one of her selected artists, then encouraged us to enter a dialogue with one another, toward the end goal of an artwork (or artworks) in response to the written word.

Sarah handed over my little line to painter Ian Robertson, who I have been acquainted with for years through the art school / gallery circuit. Having just recently moved to Braidwood from Canberra I was sadly unable to join Ian in his M16 studio to contribute more fully as the work unfolded, but we have communicated over email and I am blown away by the beautiful image he has created.

The idea behind this project really struck a chord with me. I gave a brief explanation as to why in my writer’s statement in the exhibition’s accompanying catalogue:

I studied painting at art school, and so badly wanted to be an artist. But making art didn’t come easily to me – not like writing did. I thought in words and phrases, not images. I would sit in my studio and fill my sketchbooks and canvases with lines of text. ‘It’s not really painting, is it?’ my sympathetic and long-suffering lecturer would say. I tried so hard to make those words into artworks, but nothing translated properly.

Now I do write, but there are often single lines left lying around. For the Wordsmith project Ian Robertson has turned one of these orphans into a luscious painting – the way I have never been able.

The exhibition launches 6pm this Thursday 21 August, and continues until 7 September at M16 Artspace. See the M16 site for more information.

The other participating artists and writers are Gina Wyatt, Jacklyn Peters, Julian Laffan, Caren Florance, Sarah Rice, Nigel Featherstone, and CJ Bowerbird. Thrilled to be in such great Canberra-region company!


The Chop Shop – Don’t Stop

July 24, 2014

10500275_1451974648405600_7478720731193982591_nWe hear again and again that Canberra is a ‘cultural capital’, that it’s ‘vibrant’, ‘artistic’, ‘unique’. Come for a holiday! We say. Come here to live! Go to our universities! Unfortunately for us, no city ever became a vibrant cultural capital because of its fire regulation adherence, because of its perfect egress, because the ceilings were the correct height or the treads on the stairs the right depth. No one fell over themselves to visit a city to see how perfectly undamaged the tiles were, how un-slippery the floor, how ample the parking. Look at all these empty buildings! they will say; at least nothing can go wrong when they’ve got nothing in them.

Of course no one, not anyone, wants to put the lives of their staff, artists/performers, patrons/audience at risk. No one wants to do anything that will cause people injury or illness. We are all doing our best. Entrepreneurs and small business people who choose to stay in this city (who choose us) and pour their life savings, their incredible ideas, intellectual property and energy into it deserve to be treated with utmost respect and given the utmost support. They are the clients. These are the fucking experts.

If the vision for Canberra really is what the government spouts, then trust and goodwill needs to be placed with people who work with arts and culture, all of it, on all levels. The vision for Canberra DOES NOT BELONG IN THE HANDS OF ACTPLA or any other bureaucratic organisation. Do you know how to make a hole-in-the-wall café that lights up a whole street? No, so calm down. Do you know how to run an artist space that curators from Biennales will visit to recruit artists? No, so shut up. Do you know how to produce a festival that performers from overseas will travel to participate in? No. Do you know how to set up a venue for the best music, graf and street art this city has, and fill a gaping hole in the community that you didn’t even know existed? No, so step back. Ask them what they need for their venture to be a success. Ask them how we can carry this thing off together.

It’s another whole tragedy that art spaces, music venues and independent businesses are becoming relegated to pop-up industry. Ie: not so important we need them for long Ie: a bit of a luxurious accessory to the city Ie: a sometimes food. But that’s another thing.

I know that I’ve given up on plenty of things because of red tape. I know that mostly I’ve been to tired or lazy to fight things through. I know how infuriating it is when you’re just trying to play it right, and fill out your forms, check the boxes, pay your fees, get your inspections – when you get told five different things by five different people within the same department. When the dude at the office of regulatory services has never even heard of a thing like an exhibition opening, where people might have a complimentary glass of wine (‘for free?’ He says. Yes, for free) and doesn’t know whether or not you need a permit.

Those ultimately calling the shots may know a whole lot about buildings, and access, and ventilation and fire and disaster and insurance and insurance and insurance, but they seem to know bog all about what’s actually going on on the inside. And that’s a problem.

It’s the little red hen story again and again. It’s all shit up a hill now but once the Chop Shop puts Canberra back in the pages of the New York Times or whatever other popularity test is passed the government will put them on a pedestal faster than you can say #CBR, will parade through the street waving newspaper flags like it was in the master plan all along.

For more about The Chop Shop go HERE, and to follow the story read this:

Recent Writings

July 2, 2014

A few things are up and about at the moment. First of all, some poetry. This year marks the first time I’ve shared my poetry publicly, or in fact with anyone. Terrifying.

Thank you to Verity La for publishing my first tiny piece 8am

and to Grapple for publishing Four Days in the lead up to the release of the Grapple Annual.

In other writing, it was great to be invited to contribute to new journal Feminartsy, where I am in great company. Lyrebird and a leap of faith was published online yesterday and I’ll be doing a reading (doubly terrifying) next Friday at The Front here in Canberra – check here for details and come along!



Thinking About Galore

June 16, 2014

GaloreI haven’t written about a film before. Partly because I don’t see a great many, and many of those I do can be the kind so ridiculous they leave my mind at the exit of the cinema, if not earlier. Empty calories for the brain. But here we are, and here I go.

Thursday I went to the hometown premiere of Galore, a feature written and directed by Rhys Graham. I confess my interest was piqued in part by my familiarity with Graham’s documentary work but largely by the fact the film is set and filmed entirely in Canberra. I’ve thought and written about this town so frequently I was hungry for another perspective on what is apparently a topic I cannot get over. The film will the interest countless others based on the C factor also – few locals can resist the very novelty of seeing this city fed back at us– a noxious combination of narcissism, self-conciousness and need for attention. Reviews and write-ups of Galore are already much concerned with the shock of it all.

The thing is, the fact that the film is set in Canberra is in no way the most interesting thing about it, but it certainly isn’t the least, either. I thought it would be interesting to write about Galore without referencing Canberra at all, but I have failed so much already.

Forget about that now.

This film has stuck with me, and has come to mind each day since last week. I’ve had a hard time giving shape as to why. I think it might be because Graham captures something masterfully. A certain something about young people, wherever they live. Something to do with the tense, glowering of time, that innumerable glut of days at the end of one school year before another, blissful yet terrifying in its slow crawl. It’s the rightfully set scene for so many life changes, in so many lives. Definitely in mine, maybe yours too, tucked away in everyone, I suspect.

Throughout Galore, days come up and days go down, dragging mesmeric. The sun burns lazily and the cicadas drone and bushfires haze every movement with anxiety.

To be a teenager is to live minute to minute boredom in day to day chaos. To be constantly on edge yet nonplussed, watched closely and easily dismissed. Perhaps at no other time is life so out of control yet seemingly your own invention. Unbearable, delicious. A ricochet of occurrences that you pretend to understand.

Maybe only in films such as Graham’s do we take the time to acknowledge the at times seemingly insurmountable task of living that is set before our young people, and to remember, grimacing, it was a task we faced too. The years when life is experienced so directly, abrasively, and close to the surface. Where the present is all-important and fully inhabited, in a way we eventually forget how. When you fall in love so hard because you don’t do things by halves. ‘Eyes wide,’ the main character narrates ‘unblinking, heart full’.

Galore is a close-to-home take on what I can only suppose is a universal experience, unerringly real, neatly sidestepping pastiche and a minefield of clichés to be delivered with conviction.

This is a film to see to remember yourself, and to remind you what it’s like to be young. And yeah, it’s got to be said, Canberra looks crazy beautiful.

For actual, practical insight and details about Galore there are plenty to be found here and here. Or watch the trailer. Or the film itself, in cinemas from June 19.

To Festivals I’ve Loved Before – You Are Here 2014

March 12, 2014

Usually this time of year I am over-caffienated, harried, hardly sleeping and excited to the point of nausea. Usually this time of the year I am producing a festival.

In 2011, 2012 and 2013 I co-produced Canberra’s You Are Here festival. Now the festival continues, but with a new team of producers and new funding sources (the original iterations being commissioned by Robyn Archer for the Centenary of Canberra) and I’ve made the transition to other things. It’s been strange letting go. I always felt the festival was special and of value to Canberra, which is why we worked so hard, but for the first time I am seeing the whole thing from the outside, perhaps a little bit like the general punter might.

This year I held off finding out anything about the program until the thing was printed and box fresh. I went along to the program launch and grabbed the first copy I could. And holy hell does it look good. For the first time I am realising how great it actually is to have ten days of once-in-a-lifetime events to go to, all costing nothing, all within easy reach. To be home delivered incredible artists from the bigger cities. To be given license to break away from the art I would regularly see, the venues I would normally haunt and stretch myself; get uncomfortable even. I think people fall in love at festivals like this. With cities, art works, art makers and each other, or in the least get to know one another better.

The things I have seen in three years! Strangers touching fingertips, synchronised moves, santa claus, babies dancing, painted snails, cooking wrestlers, bearded divas, bread bartering, mass jogging, a funereal march, theatre in flippers, theatre in lab coats, theatre in the bath, theatre in a car, hipsters, anarchists, grandparents, bands and bands and bands and bands, basketball, chips and gravy, secret doorways, treasure maps, palm trees, taxi rides, cardboard cities, concerned citizens, five eulogies and more mashups than most people will ever hear in one lifetime. Approximately 215 other things, and hundreds more to come from hereon in.

Congratulations on your forth year You Are Here festival. You have made me love and understand Canberra like nothing else ever could.

You Are Here 2014 runs from March 13-23 in and around the Canberra CBD. There are no reasons not to go, other than the misfortune of not being in Canberra.


Everywhere, All of the Time: I <3 Television at M16 Artspace

January 15, 2014
'Chihuahua' - Belle Charter

‘Chihuahua’ – Belle Charter

While I was studying at the ANU School of Art in the early 2000s the photomedia department was going from strength to strength. And many of the graduates are still going strong. I Heart Television gets some of the band back together to kick off the year with a killer show at M16 Artspace. Belle Charter, Clinton Hayden, Erica Hurrell, Tess Stewart-Moore, Aki Nishiumi and Sam Townsend are on board and I’ve come along for the ride – take a read of my accompanying essay below. I’ve also gotta insist you read Sam’s own words on the matter, because that, my friends, is real <3.

Television saturates our lives, our homes, our most private spaces; Living rooms and bedrooms, in the background of lovemaking and family dinners, looming over hospital beds. It gives us something to love, something to hate, or at least something to talk about. Whether we espouse or rail against it, our individual relationships to television are diverse and complex. The six artists of ‘I Heart Television’ give us a window onto their own, revealing the multitude of associations possible.

Belle Charter has carefully extracted and dissected frames from TV news programming, in a freeze-frame antithesis of our usual viewing experience. In the age of 24-hour news, click-bait and crowd-sourced journalism there is little by way of sensitive editing or censorship. With the plethora of video imagery available, real lives are being used as pawns in a ratings game as our hunger for content grows without end. Any story will do – the more horrifying, heart-wrenching or unbelievable the better. By removing the sensationalised detail and tragedy from her cutaways Charter deconstructs television, reminding us of the humanity behind what we look at.

The construct of television is one that Aki Nishiumi knows about firsthand. Working for a TV station at home in Japan, she wrestled daily with the ethics of an industry interested in getting the best story at any cost, questioning the insidious effects of her work on a vulnerable public. Television, as she saw it, was a ‘wrong truth’, and she was complicit. Outside the studio, the naked sky became an escape, free of showmanship and agenda, where you aren’t being told what to think, to want, to buy; Any moment the burden on her conscience became overwhelming, Nishiumi could step outside and turn her face, and lens, skyward.

Of course the sky itself is not entirely freed from television’s influence, dotted as it is by satellites and brushed by transmission towers. A once awe-inspiring technology, television has become part of the fabric of our surroundings, despite its clumsy ugliness. We are only now coming out of a time where to own a television set meant finding space for a lumbering box and cabinet – as deep as it was high – within the most comfortable and intimate areas of our home. Cables upon cables linking from the TV to devices that allowed us to watch films, play games, and more cables still to worm their way up walls and to roofs, to the tangle of aerials and satellite receivers. In Tess Stewart-Moore’s suburban studies the omnipresence of this hardware is front and centre. Everywhere all of the time, yet rarely considered.

For most in generations X and Y, TV has been a part of life from the earliest days. While in later life some forgo a TV set, in childhood and adolescence the television is sacred, and plays a key role in the magic of youth. While the gloss may become worn in adulthood what does remain is the association with television as a device of comfort, company and familiarity, an object of memory and ritual. Through careful documentation of his personal collection Clinton Hayden recognises the power held by the graphics, songs and catchphrases of television from his youth. The associated ephemera stands as ‘a collection of talismans for imagination and wonder’.

The capacity for emotional connection to a television series and to a TV character cannot be overstated. These are familiar friends visiting in your home, you coming to know them over the course of weeks, months and years. Devotion to television is rewarded by real-life connections forged around an on-screen world – something to talk about around the water cooler at work, on Twitter, at dinner parties. In the digital age we are quick to identify our partners, friends and community through what it is they ‘like’, and quick to assert our own identities in the same way. Erica Hurrell notes that some assertions go further than others, documenting TV tattoos with her signature sense of enquiry.

More than the sum of its programs and channels television is a reality we’ve created to mimic life and be mimicked in return. Television is our world reader, lodged within our consciousness. As a way of trying to make sense of the world, it provides easy contextualisation for our daily dramas and life sagas. Samuel Townsend’s portraits hold double meaning by virtue of his titling, demonstrating the universal strength of association and surprising gravity afforded by an apt television reference. What may seem trite is in fact evidence of a thread that binds us together culturally, cross-culturally, forming a terrifyingly accurate roadmap of who we are, what we want, where we’re going, and most of all how we see ourselves.

I Heart Television opens 23 January at M16 Artspace in Canberra and is on show until 9 February. Find the event on Facebook HERE


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,521 other followers