Next week is BIG.
On Wednesday evening I join The Childers Group to facilitate ‘We Should Talk’ – a session for emerging arts leaders in the ACT. With this event the Childers crew are test-driving a new model of informal discussion and networking that they hope to manage alongside their major events and ongoing advocacy. I’ve loved participating in their sessions in the past but this one is close to my heart, dealing with questions around career development in the arts and navigating that sticky middle-world of being neither really emerging or established, glass ceilings and imposter syndrome etc. I HEAR THAT. The event has been pulled together by Jack Lloyd and I join Rosanna Stevens and Michael Bailey. Pretty solid gang there. Register now to come along.
4-6pm Wednesday 30 September, Canberra Museum and Gallery. More info can be found on The Childers Group site.
Then, at the week’s end I take a This is Not Art road trip for the first time in quite a few years, joining Crack Theatre Festival to present a seminar/workshop on grant writing. In that session I’ll take people through some grant ‘how to’s’ and ‘how not to’s’ but we’ll also talk a bit about the role of grants and I’ll share some thoughts from other arts and theatre-world professionals to unpack what can be a contentious part of the industry. To compliment we’ll do a bit of work on writing about your artistic practice, which I know can be a harrowing and discombobulating experience. Anyhow, come hang out if you’re up TINA way. I’ll share some notes and resources on here following the event, so sit tight.
12-3pm Saturday 3 October, ‘The Production Hub’. Visit the Crack event page for full info.
Relocating to Braidwood, I’ve been slowly getting more acquainted with some of the artists working in the region (and there are A LOT). Most recently I’ve been getting to know the work of Lizzie Hall, and following the development of her exhibition Shelter Object which opens at Canberra Contemporary Art Space Manuka next week. Here’s a piece I wrote after spending time with her in her studio. Looking forward to seeing the show, and I think you ought to take a look too – Sept 17 to 27. This kind of thing doesn’t come around every day.
“I scath a chéile a mhaireann na daoine / It is in the shelter of each other that the people live.”
Old Irish saying
Shelter Object borrows its name from the concrete structure built to encase part of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, following the disaster of 1986. Its purpose was to seal the plant’s most dangerous areas, preventing radioactive contamination of the environment, keeping the poison from coming out.
Lizzie Hall’s Shelter Object has an unusual structural composition – Weet-bix bricks. The familiar contents of the breakfast cereal package have been crushed, pulped, mixed with glue and cast in molds. Reconstituted, the fragile biscuits meld easily into a dense, monotonous bulk. Our ‘national foodstuff’ is presented to us now as the ubiquitous house brick, some identifiable as convict bricks from NSW and the famous Canberra red brick.
These new objects prompt examination of a Weet-bix commercial reading of Australian identity, and there are not many leaps to be made between Hall’s bricks and her perception of nationalistic constructions both literal and figurative.
The cereal will never be looked at in the same way again, nor will its sunny jingle. A brick is a symbol of order and progress, containment and control. Aussie kids are Weet-bix kids. Is this how we identify ourselves? Does it fit who we really are? Has it ever? The constructed identity, like the constructed wall, is divisive and resistant to change, breeding intolerance, fear and protectionism, obfuscating truth. For everything a wall keeps out, be it real or perceived, something else is kept in.
Shelter Object embodies mainstream ideals of security, unpicking a desire for safety sought out and clung to as a by-product of fear and distrust; safety in numbers, safety in conformity and alignment with approved archetypes. The illusion of safety is an illusion in and of itself, meanwhile suspicion and fear balloon unchecked behind closed walls, isolated from external influences. Which threat is more real, more damaging?
Perhaps the only real security is to be found in the generosity and care of community – it is in the shelter of each other that the people live – and it is interesting to learn there is an alternate translation of the saying, being: we live in each other’s shadow. The Gaelic word ‘scáth’ can be taken to mean shadow and shade or shelter and protection. These readings are as changeable and ambiguous as our relationship to one another, so easily skewed by a culture of fear.
Only by relinquishing fear and suspicion are we open to creating meaningful connections; by reaching out our hands to a stranger we can build something truly strong. Walls down and lines blurred we are more able to accept that the potential for the best and worst of humanity is latent within each one of us. When we rule what we are or are not as a nation we forgo the opportunity to imagine what we are capable of or what we might become, of what we can do for one another.
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.
The long light, the glittering road.
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!
We 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: http://www.canberratimes.com.au/act-news/the-chop-shop-faces-the-axe-as-stopwork-notice-issued-20140723-zw30q.html
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!
I 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.