Arts, Culture, Politics and Grief

my sign at the rally against the proposed $8.5million cuts to South Australian arts funding "Fund Fresh Arts, Not Old Farts! Art That Thumps, Not Toxic Dumps!"

my sign at the rally against the proposed $8.5million cuts to South Australian arts funding

And so it begins. The bad news rolls in for some, while others breathe a sigh of guarded relief. We all know how fragile things are, for everyone. Fuck.

Arts organisations across the country are finding out this week if they got their four-year funding or not. The next funding round won’t be until 2019, so for (far too) many, that means closure. This is the outcome of last year’s $104.7million Australia Council for the Arts heist by Senator Brandis (a year to the day, pretty much). The entire arts sector has been on tenterhooks ever since — like we needed any additional anxiety to cope with. Hopefully we’ll oust this fuckwit of a government in a couple of months, but even if we did (and even if we got more money for the sector because of it), for many it would be too little, too late. For South Australia, where we have the threat of a further $8.5million cuts looming, this could mark the end of the Festival State… but it’s OK, because we will be saved by Toxic Waste, right? Ugh. No.

Before the trolls come out with “I don’t want my tax dollars wasted on you artist dole bludgers”, let me say this. The problem with these cuts is not that a few plays or exhibitions won’t be happening; it’s about the bigger picture, the long term perspective, the ecosystem. These cuts will leave a big gaping hole where less genuine meaning comes into our lives, even if just on the periphery. Everyone who has ever read a book, listened to music, been to the movies, watched a play or attended a Festival… all those stars you admire, who make you laugh or cry, who you follow on social media to feel a deeper connection to their lives because they MEAN something to you… they all had to start somewhere. Even the ‘high arts’, the swanky “Major Performing Arts” companies (who have mostly remained deathly silent over the last year), even they will notice when their orchestras, ballets, operas and stages fall silent.

Think about the sporting ecosystem. If there were no youth teams today there could be no World Cups of the future. It’s that simple. It’s the kids who won’t get to be part of a youth theatre group, the experimenters who won’t have anywhere to go to find out if their insanity might not actually be golden. We’re suffocating our future for the sake of an offensive drop in the budgetary ocean. And we’re doing it while storing planes we don’t fly and building subs we won’t use, while tax sits rotting in offshore havens. We have the money. We can afford to give ourselves a reasonable, human, existence. And art is a vital part of that existence. Art’s value is long term and meaningful, not short term and economic. We’re killing our souls, just like we’re killing our planet.

Some say that artists have it easy by comparison to, say, those affected by the end of the car manufacturing industry, or the gaping hole of transition required once the mining industry goes down (which it will). We certainly have it easier than the hundreds of asylum seekers locked up in our concentration camps or the Indigenous communities still living in asbestos-ridden homes. And yet our failure to identify arts and culture as a core element of life is one of the reasons we have ended up so commodified and dehumanised in contemporary society. We have lost touch with nature, beauty, pause and reflection. Isn’t it time we recognised that and put the needs of our souls on the same priority level as feeding our bodies and advancing our minds in these upcoming elections? Conversations about art are so often made about money in these times, but that misses the point. Life is about so much more than how much we earn, what car we drive, where we live.

Some say that yes, this is harsh, but it will be good for us in the long term. Necessity is the mother of invention, limit the artist and you lend them wings, yes, all of that for sure. We will rebuild, again, and we will be stronger because of it, again. But this is gonna hurt before it gets better.

So to my friends and colleagues across the country struggling with the rollout of news, please do something for me. Please give yourselves a big fucking hug. You’re all brilliant, strong, resilient motherfuckers, even if you don’t feel that way right now. I have the utmost admiration for all of you and what you do and I am proud to have so many of you in my personal corner of this vast ecosystem. This is shitty, really really really shitty. But you’re cunning little buggers, the lot of you. You’ll either find another way to keep going, or you’ll reinvent. After all, making the beautiful from the blank is what you do. And wow do you do it well.

After you’ve give yourselves (and each other) a hug, regardless of outcome or even your proximity to these announcements, please allow yourselves time to grieve. You may not feel you deserve to, you may feel more sorry for others than you do for yourselves, but we are all in this together — what hurts one, hurts all. Recognise the need to grieve for yourself, for your colleagues, for youth arts and for audiences of the future.

And then get angry, but turn that anger’s focus outward, toward the election. All that creative energy you have exploding within you is perfectly designed to become direct action, small or large. Organise Flash Mobs. Participate in rallies. Lie down on the streets in tutus. Read — and reply to — the comments. Door knock in Tory districts. Get out on the streets and talk to strangers. Ask if their kids enjoy dancing, playing an instrument, art class, circus school, etc etc etc… then remind them that none of that will exist if we allow this neoliberal onslaught to continue. My hope is that even Conservatives might, maybe, possibly, have souls too. Let’s use our creative passion to help them relocate theirs. We don’t need to argue in economic terms, we need to connect in emotional ones.

We can do this. We have to do this.

My deepest love to all of you. Be good to yourselves, we need you. x

rcws – no, strange dude in a ute

#‎randomconversationswithstrangers

no, strange dude in a ute, i do not want your esky, nor to shake your hand for the hundredth time. i do not want to hear you’re Aboriginal while insisting that Uluru is called Ayres Rock “after the man who found it” (found it? fuck off), or that your son wants to be a copper, “an honourable job”. i am not flattered that you think that i am “a strong woman”, that you “admire me”, that i have “powerful eyes”.

I have tolerance and patience and an open heart and home to many people, but not you. go take your drunk driving circuits around the car park somewhere else. ideally with the engine shut off and the keys in the ocean.

#oneoftheonesidrathernothavethanksallthesame #timetoleave‬

Artists, Technology, Institutions and Social Change

Art and the connected future

Last Saturday I spoke at NGV’s Symposium, Art and the Connected Future, one of the public talk programs that runs alongside their, understandably popular, Andy Warhol/Ai Weiwei exhibition. I was particularly chuffed to be invited because, given my currently dire financial situation, the last time I’d been in Melbourne I couldn’t afford the entry fee. This time not only was entry to this most excellent of shows (in both content and presentation) free for speakers and delegates, but I was also flown over, put up in a swanky hotel for the night and paid to talk – luxury! More seriously I was delighted to be part of what I imagined to be a fascinating dialogue around arts, technology and social change framed by the life and work of two of the world’s most prominent creative troublemakers. On that last point, I may have missed the mark somewhat. I’ve been in the creative digital world for twenty years now, over eight of those spent living in Australia. I hadn’t asked, but I imagine they invited me because of the work I’ve done with the-phone-book Limited, ANAT, the Australia Council for the Arts and my general technoevangelism. In retrospect I’m not sure they were expecting the techno-cynic and fully-immersed social change voice that I have unquestioningly become.

Amongst an inspiring lineup for the day (I storified the tweets for those interested in far more of the day’s excellent convo than I have given due attention to in this post), my panel session was “Technically Speaking: Art, Artists and Audiences” with Seb Chan (ACMI), Kathy Cleland (University of Sydney) and Ben Davis (an American arts critic, who had kicked us off with an excellent Keynote just before), and chaired by Simon Crerar (Buzzfeed). The questions we had been asked to consider were: How have artists been redefined by digital developments in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries? How are artists using digital and social media to shape their art, and their artistic identity? What recent developments in the digital realm have impacted the art world and the ways we engage with art? How have digital advances extended the reach and power of art and artists? Why are museums and art galleries using new technologies? What impact does this have on audience experiences?

While I hope I brought some considered responses to these areas of thought, I couldn’t help but bring things back to the role of artists, institutions and technology gatekeepers in a contemporary society dominated by capitalism. With all the destruction capitalism (and its political bodyguard, neoliberalism) wreak on arts, culture and human existence, why are we still asking the same art/technology/audience questions which simply maintain a broken status quo?

To put this in context, in January Ai Weiwei pulled his exhibition in Denmark in protest to their asylum-seeker laws… so why was the NGV’s exhibition still going ahead? This country seems to pride itself on maintaining a reputation for some of the worst human rights abuses in the Western world. I’m certainly disgusted by our Government’s treatment of innocent humans asking for help… so why is Ai Weiwei OK with Australia’s asylum-seeker policies? (I have asked, but still don’t have an answer). After twenty years in this space I’m truly disappointed with where digital culture is going as a whole. Particularly with regards increased surveillance (bolstered by physical anti-protest laws nationally and the corporate sponsorship of law enforcers), proprietary and closed online platforms (where we are the product, not the customer), and ongoing battles against net neutrality. Perhaps I’m therefore not the best person to evangelise about how artists can help institutions gain better engagement with audiences through technology in quite the way I used to.

I’ve got to admit, twenty years ago I had high hopes for the future of our digital world. I believed the internet could finally gave us all a much-needed equal voice, that it would connect niche like-minded communities across vast geographic distances and empower users to meaningfully engage with anyone, anywhere, regardless of physical or economic capability. I’ve been pondering a full article reflecting on twenty years of my role in creative geekery and the trends (both good and bad) which I have watched emerge, but in summary: the doubts which had always lurked in the back of my naively optimistic mind have sadly come to fruition. Instead of the utopian digital democracy the internet could have become, we find ourselves addicted to algorithms that commodify our character and homogenise our humanness. Instead of enthusiastically embracing innovative business models and amplifying the increased voices of the many, our media monoliths have somehow managed to both profit behind paywalls and abuse our airwaves – simultaneously! The same tools which enabled us to participate in vital social movements like Arab Spring and Occupy are equally those which threaten the freedoms of whistleblowers. Indeed in at least one of Ai Weiwei’s documentaries in the exhibition, The Fake Case, he mentions that his very name is banned from Chinese internet. What sets us free can also destroy us.

But what does all this geeky social change talk have to do with artists? For me, everything. Over the last few years, as I have shifted my existence more fully into the activism world, I quickly noticed the similarities between processes. An artist has a concept, an idea they wish to communicate, and (most of the time) a clear idea of who they wish to communicate it with. They then need to find partners and resources to enable that idea to become real and present (be that in physical form or not). Then they have to create a buzz, awareness, marketing, to bring those audiences to the work, evaluate those engagements and reflect on what was revealed and what that means for future work. Then the cycle starts all over again with a new development of the same concept or a whole different tangent altogether.

Now go back to re-read that section but replace the word ‘artist’ with ‘activist’; ‘a concept, an idea’ with ‘a cause, an issue’ and ‘audiences’ with ‘supporters’. See? It’s the same process.

One of the roles of the arts is to hold a up mirror against society. What we see reflected back at us is often unpleasant, uncomfortable, unnerving… and necessarily so, especially in contemporary times. As Alison Croggan says in “On art as therapy” (Overland):

Sometimes art makes you anxious. That is part of its job. Sometimes its therapy exists in bringing to the surface our hidden traumas, our worst crimes, our darkest, most secret desires, and then forcing us to confront them. Making art is a process of examining our psychic unease in order to see it more clearly, inflaming rather than anesthetising our discomfort and pain. Art names our terrors as well as our joys. Sometimes, in order to make things better, art first has to make them worse.

This ‘unease’ is something that both Warhol and Weiwei do quite superbly, and for which they are much loved… by some. Sadly others disagree. The Australian’s 2014 article, “Sydney Biennale Shame Risks Funding says George Brandis” (published behind a paywall) gave us a glimpse of the dark times to come (a story we all know well). Artists boycott the Sydney Biennale because one of its key sponsors, Transfield Services (now called Broadspectrum, presumably to confuse us), make significant profits from maintaining the inhumanely-legal torture chamber known as Manus Island. Brandis spits his dummy, demanding that The Australia Council punish these -and future- sinners for biting the hand that feeds (despite the fact that increasingly it Does Not Feed!). Australia Council maintains its ‘arms length to the Government’ stance… and subsequently gets fined $104.7million… from budgets that largely affect the independent and small to medium arts sector… who are the ones most likely to create work that demonstrates our social unease and challenge the status quo. Sigh.

Still reeling from the ramifications of these OzCo cuts (and the newly proposed $8.5million cuts to arts funding in SA – for heaven’s sake, why can’t we be more like VIC?!), a couple of days ago we got a whole new kick in the gut: “Catalyst” (Brandis’ personal, non-transparent, slush fund for already-doing-quite-well-thank-you-very-much-but-sure-we’ll-take-a-few-hundred-thousand-more-because-we-can organisations, and one or two well-we-don’t-happen-to-be-your-friends-but-we-promise-not-to-be-naughty artists and orgs) is pork barrelling, using drip-fed grants announcements as photo opps for their election campaigning. [I read this news as I was about to board the flight back to Adelaide. I was horrified, disgusted, and so physically upset that I worried my visibly shaking body and laser-angry eyes wouldn’t be allowed on the plane. I even spent time exploring a delicious daydream of forcing some kind of legal action against them (imagine, the arts taking down these scumbags! bliss!)… but sadly that was not to be. I’d never heard of pork barrelling before. It may be immoral and unethical, but shamefully it turns out using public funds designated for the arts is neither illegal nor breaches electoral commission regulations. They’re good at that, this Government. If nothing else you do have to admire their astonishing capacity to make you physically ill while fully complying with the law… but then they do get to write those laws, sooooo… yeah. You see why artists need to be activists?! But I digress…]

As I wrote recently, the arts are increasingly becoming commodified and we, as the creative sector, need to both be aware of this fact and be ready to act on it – whether we are indies, SMEs or the ‘I’m alright Jack’ larger, safer, arts organisations and institutions. The arts is an ecosystem and we are ALL at risk if ANY of us are at risk. Any self-determination we felt we had as a sector is being both subtly and overtly chipped away, through internal funding cuts and bully-tactics, and external proprietary platforms and the power they wield (which in itself perfectly mirrors our social condition as a whole, not just within the arts).

 

a slide from Ben Davis' Keynote featuring a fabulous quote from "The People's Platform" by Astra Taylor

a slide from Ben Davis’ Keynote featuring a fabulous quote from “The People’s Platform” by Astra Taylor

Our NGV symposium chair, Simon Crerar, kickstarted the day by proudly sharing the recent viral success of Buzzfeed’s exploding watermelon on Facebook Live. Some online felt this astonishing feat foretold ‘the key to the future of TV‘; Simon, perhaps, felt it was the exciting future of digital arts. To me, not so much, but as we observe independent, otherness, voices struggle to gain attention or support amidst the myriad of homogenised, force-fed-by-algorithm tripe that our mainstream world has become… maybe I’m wrong.

As academic Hugh Davies mentioned in his talk on Ai Weiwei, frustrated by an all-encompassing police surveillance he established a live broadcast of his home and studio… which was shut down by police after 46hours (too much of a good thing, maybe?!). Hugh’s point – these days we may struggle more with a “fear of NOT being watched”, than the fear of “to be watched is to be an activist” (latterly referring to the German film, The Lives of Others“. I’m all for ownership of the creative experience by audiences, but these days I fear the author isn’t so much dead, it’s just getting a damned sight harder finding their signal through the noise. Personally I prefer the cheeky subversion of Paolo Cirio’s Street Ghosts and the Surveillance Camera Players over complicit acceptance of the pervasive panopticon of technological giants and the masters with whom they share our most private of correspondence.

Ben Davis’ illuminating keynote dropped a fascinating statistic into this with his comparison of high arts and games engagement. Where current tracking technologies have calculated that a museum or gallery-goer may spend up to 30seconds on a single artwork, an immersive gamer is spending 72hours a session, fully engaged and hyper-stimulated. This begs the question: where is the sublime gaze lingering longest, and what does that say about our current appreciation of the arts and culture? (… at least the kinds of art one may find in your average gallery or museum). Bring on more Slow Art Days, and alternative spaces outside the hamster wheel where we can pause, reflect, take stock before continuing with a calmer, more focused mind (like maybe hammocktime, heh). We’ll need them when the global shortage of colouring pencils hits hard.

Perhaps we as artists and our symbiotic relationship with museums and galleries is part of the problem. As Ben pointed out, John Berger’s Ways of Seeing mooted that in the future museums will be replaced by the equivalent of mood boards… enter Pinterest. Tom Uglow (Google’s Creative Lab) talked of “Art Project“, ‘The world’s art at your fingertips’ and the joy of accessing astonishingly high-resolution scans of artworks from the world’s foremost collections. Yes the technology and access potential is remarkable… but does that access negate our need to experience these works in the flesh, for ourselves, with all of the user-journey that comes from the sights and smells of the physical contexts outside the doors of the Uffizi or the Musée d’Orsay? Are we risking archiving our creative collections as artefacts instead of living, breathing, contemporary influences?

I can’t help but fear that our habitual colonisation – the capture, collection and selective release of paintings or sculptures depicting the natural environment (like some kind of Royal Society pioneer with his samples, carefully harnessing the magic of reality and preserving it in formaldehyde, or with a pin, in a glass box) – has sucked the very life out of them. The very act of taking these images or shapes from their natural context (owning it, co-opting it into our everyday, a form of scientific-cyborg assimilation) removes their otherness, their magic, their rarity. Knowing that they are always there, on demand, ticks some kind of psychological box negating our desire to even remember that one day we might want to experience them – perhaps even in person.

Don’t get me wrong, I recently visited the “Santos Museum of Economic Botany” in Adelaide (note the corporate branding) and it was a rare pleasure to view their permanent collections. But consider how little access children have to the natural world in its raw context these days – we have zoos, parks, botanic gardens, but are these not just factory farms? Colonies of artefacts, preserved for posterity while we destroy every last remaining natural habitat on the planet in the search for profits? We all grieved when ISIS destroyed the Palmyra and countless precous artefacts. But are we all simply heading toward a dark age where we will no longer require the original because we have a high-resolution scan, modelled in virtual reality for us to investigate through a mouseclick or 3D Print for ourselves at home? What if our scientists, artists and institutions are just as much to blame, or at very least partly accountable, as our capitalist enemies for bringing forward the end of the world as we know it (albeit with diametrically opposed intentions)? What a terrifying concept. And if this is true, what can we do about it, as individuals and collectively? And what power, if any, do I, we, as independent artists hold in turning things around? Pointing a finger alone risks biting the ubiquitous non-feeding hand, and even that strikes a chord of fear (this post’s critical backlash concerns me, and I’m not even answerable to anyone other than myself).

And what of artists collaborating with these technological giants? Media artists are always inventing, innovating new technological solutions as they problem solve in the process of their making. What if those inventions may inadvertently cause harm if controlled by the wrong hands. I asked Tom a ‘somewhat hyperbolic question’ (his words, justifiably), “Knowing you’re essentially working for ‘evil corp‘ (despite their claims to the contrary), what barriers, if any do you place on the development of new works which could end up in the wrong hands? Are your Creative Labs no-holds-barred, or do you ever stop to consider the potential risks? Would you cut down a project in its prime if it were, say, to become the equivalent of the next atom bomb?” (His answer was that the tech is usually already Google’s IP which artists are accessing, but that yes some of those thoughts are present).

Ben’s detailed, contextual talk revealed that the concept of ‘independent artist’ is a relatively new construct. Most major artists of yore operated in studio environments with apprentices, making work to order in a manner more akin to contemporary design than what we understand of contemporary DIY makers/producers. These emerging independent artist roles coincidentally revealed themselves around the time of the Industrial Revolution; the beginnings of capitalism begets the ‘artist labourer’. So in fact the relationship between independent artist and social change warrior has never really changed since its inception (I feel somehow empowered by that!).

As an artist your projects change you, or at least, they can… if you let them. I know my lifestyle choice has changed not just my outlook on every aspect of life and my place within it, but my entire physiology (I wasn’t expecting that!). I think about my own responsibilities a great deal, so naturally left the event pondering the responsibilities of institutions like NGV, what their role in society might be amongst the multitude of threats we face today. I wondered if hosting an exhibition of major international arts activists had changed the NGV in any meaningful ways. I’ve left them with that question and genuinely hope to receive an answer… to that, and a few more they won’t be expecting.

As seems to be my habit these days, I’m going to close yet another TL;DR post with some thoughts that risk biting the hand that feeds. I realise after the debate around the changing role of Adelaide Fringe and its backlash (both public and, more painfully, in certain deafening silences) that I’m going to earn myself a reputation of uneasy critical reflection. But if we don’t ask these questions, reflect these mirrors, then we are accepting of these status quo’s. I do not comply with the trajectory our society is on, and surely where is this civil disobedience more appropriate than in a discussion about Warhol and Weiwei? I am grateful to NGV for a really inspiring day and for being treated quite fabulously – spoiled, in fact. But these questions remain, and I am left needing to ask them, for better or worse, not just to NGV (although some below are specific reflections from the day) but to all our cultural institutions, worldwide. Even if you’re not hosting a socially engaged arts practice within your walls, shouldn’t every artistic institution (and indeed every institution) step up – speak out against injustices, reflect on adaptations to their own status quo, fight back against this never-ending, destructive, capitalist onslaught?

I started this post mentioning the exhibition ticket price ($26 – yes I really am that poor right now) being outside my reach, and certainly I wouldn’t have been able to afford to fly over and pay the symposium’s $70. If that was a barrier to me, what would that mean for others? Had they made efforts to seek more diversity in their audiences by removing those economic barriers other than simply a concession rate (still expensive at $22.50)? And although there was a good gender balance in the speakers, we were all gleamingly white. The auditorium itself was far from packed, and also largely white. Had efforts been made to invite broader diversity in cultural and economic background? If so, what could they have done to improve things, and if not… why not?

Should any conference held in times where we’re faced with undeniable ecological disaster, provide water in small bottles destined for landfill, not from a jug and a few glasses? Were leftovers from the kitchens that provided our deliciously decadent lunch offered to the many homeless people shivering on the cold street outside, with cardboard signs that began “I don’t want to be here…” What else can we do – as organisations and individuals – that can redirect our significant privilege to those who struggle to even exist? Sure we don’t get huge salaries in the arts, but we still have more than others. While our governments refuse to step up, hiding behind ‘austerity measures’ and immoral legal systems, it’s up to us to consider these painful truths.

And then there are the even bigger questions, imbalances from so long ago they can seem too distant to even fathom. The National Museum of Australia in Canberra has been hosting ‘Encounters’, a temporary exhibition of Indigenous artefacts on loan from the vaults of the British Museum. Shouldn’t they be returned for good, not just to Australia, but to their living custodians?

And why, when independent artists are so definitively under threat, are these institutions still asking us how we can help them to maintain their engagement with audiences, when so few of them have stepped up and spoken out against these cuts? Is it seriously the role of independent artists, digital or otherwise, to preserve our cultural institutions, when perhaps it is us ourselves who are most in need of contemporary artworld preservation?

Perhaps some of these questions can be brought forward to tonight’s Art & Activism debate – if so I would love to hear their responses. I note sadly that no independent artists are speaking, something that was questioned by our audience and is all too common at these discussions. But then when you invite indies, treat them fabulously and then watch in horror as they speak with a criticism that burns, perhaps I’m doing both myself and others a disservice for speaking my mind. Time will tell…

5 things I learned from living life as a solo, bus-dwelling, nomadic woman.

homeJames out bush: CC:BY Fee Plumley

homeJames out bush: CC:BY Fee Plumley

I’ve lived in a bus — as a single woman, travelling almost exclusively alone — for over three years. Here are 5 things I’ve learned.

1. Trust your gut

It’s late, you’re tired, you want nothing more than to pull over, stop driving and go to sleep, but you can’t quite find the right place. Right, for me, means safe, private, not pissing anyone off and — ideally if you can find it — not illegal. Safe is right up front for good reason.

There’s something quite wonderful about the connection to place you get as a nomad. Everywhere you go there’s a communication between you and that location. A deep instinct, a gut feeling, tells you if this place is OK or not. If you have even a tingle of doubt, you leave. Drive away, find somewhere else. Immediately.

It doesn’t matter that your bus is a safety shell, it matters that you’re not putting yourself in harm’s way. There are enough risks out in this big dark world that you simply don’t need to chance it. Listen to your gut. Find somewhere else. If your bottom line choice becomes ‘this place which is safe but illegal’ and ‘this place which is legal but doesn’t feel safe’, then break the rules. You’ll find, as I have, that all but the most bitter security guards/police agree that safety is more important than a bit of ninja-parking now and then.

2. Otherness is bliss: own your right to be different.

Mostly I find people love my bus and are gently curious about my lifestyle choice, but sometimes I’m faced with the ‘get off my land’ types. Instead of simply bowing to their superiority, I like to challenge this. Not to be belligerent, but because I genuinely seek to understand what causes their bigotry, and, if at all possible, encourage them to question that mindset in themselves.

In Europe nomads are labelled Gypsy or Pike, both derogatory labels used to describe lower-class, disreputable people who (simply due to their otherness) must surely be mistrusted. Nomads are no more dodgy geezers than your house-dwelling next-door neighbour who never manages to put their rubbish in the bin and always plays their music loud on a school night. Sure some travellers have the audacity to do their laundry in public, literally hanging their knickers on a tree to dry in the sunshine, but seriously… is that so terrible?

The world is full of diversity, in landscapes and in human kind. We are all oddballs; unique in our similarities, connected by our differences. Contrary to the way our mainstream media, film and TV industries would have us believe: otherness is the norm, globally. Celebrate that; own your otherness.

3. Sexism can sometimes work in your favour.

I try to be respectful and park away from residences — makeshift neighbours can be funny old protectionist beans. It’s amazing the number of times rangers or security get called to come investigate the stranger parked on a public street. I’ve been woken in the early hours more than a few times by loud aggressive banging on the outside of the bus. Not just a gentle rat-at-tat on the front door, but a booming reminder echoing through your metal home that YOU ARE WRONG. These bangs are always delivered in multiples, the community bodyguard encircling the bus ensuring you are aware of their domination.

When I, a bleary-eyed woman, open the door that aggressive masculine stance more often than not rapidly falls away. You are not the bloke they were expecting and they’re not quite sure what to do about it all any more. Their eyes say it all; they find themselves stuck between their paid role, which demands they defend the self-imposed rights of the local rate paying residents, and a deep-rooted instinct to help a woman in need.

While patronisingly old-fashioned, this is helpful for me. I don’t want to have to pack up and drive off before I’ve had a reasonable sleep — in fact it’s inappropriate for anyone (even a policeman) to ask you to drive when you are not properly rested. You could cause an accident. Run with that. Discuss the situation with them. You don’t need to play any kind of nonsense weak and feeble girly card or step up to match their aggression. Just be calm and rational — and human. Politely, but firmly, explain your situation “I’m sorry, I didn’t realise you couldn’t park here, I’ll leave first thing in the morning”. And then both do so and don’t go back there again; you’re clearly not welcomed round those parts.

4. We have a basic human right to The Commons.

Not all nomads are tourists. Not all of us are on holiday. And not all of us have budgets that enable us to stay at a hotel every night. When we Brits colonised Australia we brought with us a whole raft of English and Welsh laws… except The Commons. The Commons doesn’t really exist anywhere any more in these dark ages of greed and privatisation, but it used to mean that everyone had the right to access and use land and waterways, equally. The only stipulation was that your use couldn’t negatively impede anyone else’s right to the same use. This shared ownership was the foundation of our legal system, except, it seems, when claiming other countries as our own.

It’s my belief that The Commons should continue as a basic human right, and I live daily in precarious ownership of this right. Caravan parks are for holiday-making families, not for nomads (unless you maybe need to do some washing and fancy access to a hot shower every now and then).

5. Random conversations with strangers are the absolutely best thing about nomadicy.

It’s easy to feel an outsider, other, when travelling. Especially alone and especially as a woman. You know you’re already vulnerable, living on the streets (albeit in a more protective shell than a high street doorway), but that doesn’t mean you should hide away and reject possible interactions with other humans. There’s nothing I love more than sitting on my bus’ doorstep having a coffee in the morning. I smile at the locals passing by, sometimes they catch my eye and smile back, and sometimes this results in a conversation.

I’ve had so many lovely exchanges that I started sharing them online. Sometimes they result in tips about hidden gems of suggested parkups, sometimes fresh homegrown veggies, herbs and eggs still warm from their delightful chooks. Sometimes they’re homeless people wanting to recharge their phone on my solar rig, or just curious about the bus and why a woman is travelling on her own in it. The great British tradition of ‘a cuppa’ is a fantastic social lubricant, always offered and often accepted.

. . .

So do I think it’s ‘safe’ for women to travel solo? Of course I do. Sure I’ve had rare moments where my definition of safety has been challenged, but I have had those when I lived in bricks and mortar too. Despite our otherness from mainstream society, we women are not the problem. The problem is a homogenous patriarchal enclosed system which tells women what we should and shouldn’t do with our minds and bodies and tells men it’s OK to dominate, threaten and rape women simply because she ‘shouldn’t have been there in the first place, never mind wearing those clothes’.

Some people are assholes, but for every single one of those douchebags there are thirty more who are astonishing examples of the human race’s generosity, curiosity and otherness. When I was eight years old I would go tromping through the Welsh mountains accompanied only by my dog, a miniature wire-haired dachshund called Barney. When I was thirteen I would roam the streets of London while my mum was in business meetings. I have always and will continue to unapologetically walk through unlit parks late at night. I don’t own a gun, rape alarm or any other form of device which some corporate marketing company tells me will make me feel ‘safe’, I just use my common sense and gut instinct.

Buslife isn’t for every woman, or every man, that’s for sure. But it’s the only life for me, regardless of what hangs from my chest or doesn’t hang between my legs.


THE BACKSTORY

This post was originally published via the “5 Things I learned” channel on Medium, thanks to an invitation by Matt Locke of Storythings. Matt was the first person to commission me as an artist via my old company, the-phone-book Limited, a verrrrry long time ago. I’d really enjoyed his kick-off contribution, “5 things I learned working as a short order chef“, and messaged him to say so. His reply? “I’d love to read ‘5 things I’ve learned riding a bus around the world for 3 years…’”.

I’ve always known there would be a book/film/transmedia-something-or-other to come out of reallybigroadtrip. I’m even getting to the point where that’s beginning to take its own shape, but I still don’t feel ready to distil three years (and a complete change of life, perspective, everything) down to five things. At least, not yet. I thought maybe ‘5 Things I’ve learned from hammocks‘ and left my subconscious to mull it all over.

A few days later a friend posted about the #viajosola hoohah, which went something like this: 1) Solo women travellers get attacked. 2) Society tells women they shouldn’t travel alone because they only have themselves to blame for getting attacked. 3) Twitter gets involved. 4) Women respond with outpouring of why we should do what the bloody hell we want. 5) Fee gets cross and throws her hat in the ring, realising this makes a perfect “5 things” post.

What’s been so wonderful for me is that since it’s been posted I have had so many people (particularly, but not exclusively, women) contact me, both publicly and privately. They have told me how reassuring it is to have their own beliefs confirmed; how encouraging it is to hear this positive perspective just before they embark on their own solo buslife adventures; how even British Citizens didn’t know about The Commons and what we’ve lost through enclosure and capitalism.

Women have shared their own experiences of life on the road. Men have told me they’d never considered how women have to be extra-vigilant while telling me of times they too have found situations where they had to quickly devise their own safety mechanisms. Phrases like “renewed hope”, “inspiring and reassuring”, “liberating and empowering”, “reigniting the dream” have been filling up my inboxes and newsfeeds. One woman even told me that after struggling with isolation and then reading my post, she actually sat outside her bus with her morning cuppa and a smile, resulting in several delightful conversations and possible new friendships! Wonderful!

What this has helped reveal for me personally is that after all these years struggling with “Am I an artist? If so, what kind?” I’ve become reminded that I have always dearly loved writing, but have never given myself permission to own that role. “I’m not poetic enough”. “I know so many astonishing writers, I could never ever be that good”. And of course “I’m #TLDR” and all the other imposter syndrome nonsense. The multiple responses to this post have been so complimentary that I’m now exploring more writing opportunities outside my own blogs. In writing more, working with editors and reaching broader audiences than my own niche communities, I aim to hone my voice and maybe even bring in some income from it *gasp*.

Thank you to everyone who’s read that post and any of my other rantings over the years, you rock x

Fringe, or Binge?

“In 1960, fed up with the limited opportunity for local talent in the exclusive Adelaide Festival of Arts, a small group of independent artists created the Adelaide Fringe”.

So begins the Adelaide Fringe Festival’s webpage about the history of the event that runs annually (alongside the Adelaide Festival of the Arts, Clipsal and WOMADelaide) in making Feb-March the glorious “silly season” we know and love. The page goes on to detail how the festival grew from a local event to a more Internationally-open one by 1988. Growth was tremendous in every way – the number of artists, the duration of the season, the geographic spread of activity, and, of course, the revenue generated for the city.

But is all growth good?

“Capitalism creates wealth through advancing continuously to ever higher levels of productivity and technological sophistication; this process, known as creative destruction, requires that the “old” be destroyed before the “new” can take over” Observation by Economist Joseph Schumpeter [1].

Back in 1960, Fringe took the premise of a major celebration of creative culture and it innovated, devising its own natural path according to the needs and contexts of the time and the place. It saw an ecosystem which served only the elite few and creatively developed a new approach to envelop others, difference, the unknown. It worked. And not by ‘creatively destroying’ its competition, the Adelaide Festival of the Arts, either.

The needs and contexts of the time and the place

Fast forward to 2016, where the Fringe Festival brochure and website explode with over 1100 events and more than 5000 artists over a frenzied five week period. That’s some significant growth right there. But let’s pause for a moment and reflect on the current “needs and contexts of the time and the place”. According to ABS’ June 2014 stats, South Australia consists of 1.69million residents, 1.30million of them in Greater Adelaide. Currently 7.5% of these residents are unemployed; the highest unemployment rate in the country. We have no industry, no manufacturing, and a comparatively small number of residents paying rates and taxes back into the system. Thanks partly to Mad March we have a pretty decent tourism sector, but clearly not enough to underwrite the entire State year-round. By comparison, it’s worth noting that Edinburgh Fringe has a potential audience of 300million within a 3hr flight to the city, and 70million just a day’s drive/train journey away. If Australia wasn’t throttled by the tyranny of distance and the subsequent greed of our travel industry this wouldn’t even be a discussion.

Let’s face it, SA is facing a disastrous economic crisis, and while “innovation” has been the buzzword on everyone’s lips (again) it seems the only prospective solution this State Government can envision is to become the world’s nuclear waste dump. A recent Royal Commission has proudly declared that $445 billion could be pumped into the the coffers over at least 70 years and create 1500-5000 jobs. This International centre of toxicity would cost an ‘estimated’ $257 billion to set up, which is a pretty hefty cashflow injection for a near-broke State, especially on a prospective ROI of less than 50% (plus we all know what happens when estimates become reality). And then there’s the small matter of the ecology and the humans who happen to live within it. I’m no scientist, but good old Wikipedia tells me the half life of radioactive waste is somewhere between 24,000-15.7 million years. Um, can I have a cost benefit analysis on that please?! I guess if we’re prepared to take such an unfathomably long-term risk for such absurdly short-term economic goals, South Australia really must be deeply and truly fucked.

The value of arts and culture

But what do toxic waste dumps have to do with the arts in general, never mind a wacky festival of gritty otherness? As any arts worker knows only too well, the first thing to go in times of austerity measures is the arts and culture budget. Just before its launch this year, the Adelaide Festival for the Arts were warned of a $1million cut to its funding, and they’re far from the only victims. That news coming on top of Senator Brandis’ $104million heist on our Federal funding body, the Australia Council for the Arts, last year explicitly demonstrates that Australian arts and culture (especially the Independent) sector has never been so truly fucked.

The perception that arts/culture has no commercial value ergo it has no value at all has been allowed to continue for far too long. Museums and Galleries are supposed to be free for the public [aka: art matters, people!] yet funding to enable their existence diminishes year on year, whereupon they’re criticised for not having better business models [aka: art is irrelevant to the public purse, even if it’s the Government’s decision to cripple any potential business model]. Arts Organisations battle to maintain core revenue for infrastructure (buildings, staffing, etc) as well as funding artistic programming. At least Arts Orgs have the potential interest of Sponsors and Philanthropists, though, with their promises of big names and shiny buildings. In the luxurious case of the meagre 28 Major Performing Arts companies (who already control around 57% of Australia Council-managed funds), they are both Federally sanctioned from cuts and eligible for “Catalyst“, Brandis/Fifield’s new slush fund. If the meek shall inherit the earth it seems that our future planet won’t have a great deal of high arts content…

So what of Independent artists, those who form the very basis of events like Fringe, trialling new experimental concepts, building experience and reputation that both delivers in its own right and incubates the necessary talent pool for the entire arts ecosystem? Well we clearly don’t often get a look-in when it comes to Sponsorship and Philanthropy, and certainly don’t benefit from tax breaks or subsidies. Nope, we have to scrabble for tiny (and ever-decreasing) pots of project funds and a handful of fellowships. If we talk about money at all we get criticised for being too commercially focused… which is ironic given that those comments are typically more about the struggles we all face than the profits we [never] make.

Independent artists are frequently labelled “doley bludgers”, which is laughable when you consider how little income can be sourced either from welfare or highly competitive funding rounds. In tragicomic hilarity this debasing moniker is rarely applied to those in receipt of mining corporation subsidies, mainstream media payoffs, legal tax loopholes for corporations and the global banking system (although the latter is significantly more apparent in the Northern Hemisphere). And don’t get me started on the billions we dole out on the militarisation of a country that’s never seen an international war threat on this land since the one we whitefellas started when we colonised it.

No, Independent artists are not doley bludgers, we’re a necessary part of a highly committed, deeply networked ecosystem. Every Independent artist I know around the world works several (part time, low paying, high demand) jobs while still being expected to work “for exposure” at commercial events desperate to up their cool ratings or corporate responsibility rankings. That those unstable paid roles are generally in education and social/community development roles is further damaged by Government cuts to those areas too. We whinge but we comply, scared of biting the hand that feeds. But if the hand is Government funding and mainstream appreciation of the arts, it’s important to point out that it is not actually feeding. This mythical hand is more realistically a drug dealing pimp: the first hit’s free; no you can’t do that, especially not there; thank you I’ll take my 30-50% of your labour now plus tax deductions… and don’t you dare complain or we’ll cut you off…

“It’ll never change” we say. Well no, it bloody well won’t if we don’t DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT!

Adelaide Fringe Festival

All that context might not seem relevant to many audiences of the Adelaide Fringe Festival, but it’s important to understand the ecosystem we all operate within. Especially when a bit of public controversy kicks off around a few ‘private’ facebook feed posts and impassioned face to face conversations at the grassroots level, between artists simply trying to protect themselves and their peers from falling down the same deep pits of self-funded fringe productions.

Basically, a few exchanges over the weekend are turning into a much more public-facing dialogue prompted by an article in InDaily yesterday, in which I’m quoted – along with other Adelaide Fringe Festival artist-friends Alexis Dubus (UK) and Tomas Ford (WA) and others – about a survey I’ve drafted. Later in the day The Australian followed up with another article on the same issue, with several radio interviews doing the rounds and even a UK network jumping on board. Last night the standard arts buzz had turned into a blur of actively engaged socio-political discussions. (What? Art and politics? Be still my beating heart!)

Honestly I think it’s a great thing that these conversations are more prominent – and why I want to work with Fringe to develop, distribute and analyse my survey so we can find out what audiences want too. In doing so my hope is that we can perhaps provide an opportunity to inform those audiences who might love the city’s festivals but be unaware of the situation Australian arts and culture currently faces, and more importantly, what they can do to more proactively work with us to protect it.

The contention is that the significant growth of Fringe over many years has been far too focused on a short-sighted Capitalist strategy which completely guts the grassroots heartbeat it was originally designed to pump. Sommat’s gotta give and we need to decide -collectively- how that change can be manifest for the betterment of both big names/budgets and small indies/low-no-budget productions. If we do this right, we can also remind the State (and hopefully by precedent, the country) that art and culture has an important value both within and additional to economic bottom lines.

Gentrification

Every single year of the eight years I have lived in Australia, we have had the same discussion in Adelaide at the end of the Mad March Festival season. “Is Adelaide Fringe still actually a fringe event?”; “Why do so many big names and big budgets always have to take over niche events?”; and of course everyone’s favourite, “Why does Adelaide’s entire cultural calendar have to happen in the same damn two months of every single year?!” Not to say this is exclusively an Adelaide thing, it’s not. I grew up in UK with Edinburgh Festival as the highlight of my year from the age of 13; god knows they have struggled with the same debates. Perth Fringe World, which has grown at an astonishingly rapid rate in only a few years, was fraught with similar outpourings this year. And yet growth continues… but at what loss?

We know the cycle, and it’s far from just a festival-centric one. The dirty end of town is ignored by commercial interests until the creatives move in and turn ugly to beautiful, empty to buzz, derelict to designer. At which point commercial interests are piqued, property rents soar and the creatives are evicted, only to move on to the next hovel and start the cycle all over again. Gentrification is the curse of creativity, and we are our own worst enemies for complying. Yet comply we do. Over and over again.

Much like the gentrification model of urban restructure, profiteering sharks are never far from creative buzz. In broad terms, from every festival I have ever known around the world (which are many), where there is a DIY energy it won’t be long before some entrepreneurial type pops up promising a return on investment. What this mostly boils down to is all the unpaid/low paid energy of the many being siphoned off by the smug few (… hello Capitalism). I’ve known festivals where the volunteers (often in Management positions) work themselves into a frenzy and end up emotionally and physically wrung out, promising to never do that again. But those up top don’t care – plenty more eager volunteers ready to step into their shoes next year. And so the cycle continues. Yes festivals are an incredible opportunity for significant exposure and work experience, but if the rewards aren’t shared equally it simply cannot be sustained.

Some of the bigger venues in the Fringe lineup have that reputation. I won’t name names but I bet any of you who know this scene will know precisely which venues I’m referring to. Stories of crappy treatment at both paid and unpaid staffing levels have been rife for years. But what upsets me even more than this ongoing DIY-abuse cycle is that these days some venues don’t even bother to thinly disguise their core interest: profit from booze, not investment in the artists or an all-encompassing, sustainable, Fringe culture ecosystem.

When a popup venue is designed with the feature attraction being the sale of alcohol and sells tickets just to enter the site for that purpose alone, you’ve gotta wonder what’s going on. When they also leave limited space for an all-encompassing Fringe experience (forbidding the use of Fringe Festival Artist Passes to fill empty seats, berating artists for giving away comps to artist colleagues despite empty seats being available, and prioritising the distribution of their own venue-specific programs over holistic Fringe programs) you’re likely to question what little respect they have for the broader Fringe ecosystem. But when ticketholders can’t even get in to see the shows they have paid to see because the venue is at full capacity with people who are mostly just there drinking; or when a city-wide blackout causes shows to be cancelled and the site refuses to pay the artists whose shows were abruptly cut off; or when big shows are flyering ticket lines with free seats because they can afford to…. oh come on.

I understand that these people invest a great deal of money into making vibrant city popups and that the Capitalist way is to prioritise their own significant return on investment. But I can’t help question: who do we do this for – the artists, the audiences, or the profits of venues? Not all venues act like this, yet all venues have their own bars and necessary commercial interests. Some appear to be team players and others less so. Fringe festivals are by their very nature built upon grassroots energy. When stories or evidence of imbalances occur they stick out even more than they would at a more overtly commercialised event. Yes there are many amazing shows and spaces and humans and a crazy amount of choice for audiences, but as with all life there are also sharks who care more about their own profits than they do the overall ecosystem. They just ruin it for everyone, which for some means they simply won’t return.

Audiences

Something’s not right here any more.
When I first came here in 2009 it felt like a genuinely experimental and exciting creative hub, with audiences seeking out tucked-away venues and subversive shows.
Having visited Adelaide before, I was blown away by how much this sleepy town got behind the weird and the wonderful offerings that Fringe threw at them.
Seven years on and those people seem to have vanished.

I’m not sure what can actually be changed at an open access festival that’s now seemingly allowed greed and complacency to dictate its direction, but part of the change has to be the attitude of Fringe-goers, who need to re-evaulate the meaning of “fringe.” I don’t want to be a hypocrite and be the one telling punters what they should be watching, but audiences choosing soulless, mass-produced bollocks over thoughtful, innovative works in quirky spaces is what has now turned the Fringe into what it was initially rallying against.
And when the enormous venues choose to throw out hundreds of free tickets (because they can), sometimes to people actually waiting in the box office queue to buy tickets for smaller shows that need their custom, this only creates an atmosphere of entitlement among Adelaide audiences, believing they should now get their entertainment for free. Time and time again, flyerers have been approached by folks who want a free ticket or are simply not interested.

[excerpt from Alexis Dubus’ facebook post]

While we all love to joke about the tumbleweed that exists outside of the annual Feb/Mar explosion, it is simply not true that nothing happens in Adelaide outside of festival season. There are a crazy amount of cultural events that happen year round, some are part/whole funded but many many more run on pure passion. The thing is that you have to go and seek them out far more than when they land on your doorstep thanks to the major efforts of a festival or big bucks promoter.

Adelaide has this bizarre ‘never book in advance’ attitude that I have never seen anywhere else (made all the more bizarre because we often do rock up on the night in our droves). As mentioned in the InDaily article, this results in us often losing out from big international names who, unfamiliar with our little quirks, simply don’t dare absorb the risk of expensive empty venues. These audiences moan about being seen as a small country town, but their actions do absolutely nothing to suggest they are anything more than exactly that. I love the intimate size of this city, it’s my Australian home and I regularly stand up for it against national criticism of the place. But we are our own worst enemies, and we need to accept that if we act like spoilt brats, becoming lazy and entitled in our expectation that art should come to us, we will continue to miss out.

So yes, I agree with Alexis that a large part of the problem lies with audiences; where are the audiences who want to think, not drink? However, I don’t really blame them for being this way. My finger points to the much bigger threats I started the post with: a broad societal misconception that arts/culture has no commercial value therefore it has no value at all, and the gentrification affect of commercial enterprises looking to cash in on cultural capital. Plus I have another wagging finger aimed at the heart of homogeneity: mainstream media.

There is a desperate lack of cultural criticism in the arts, and I don’t mean people who whinge (there’s certainly no shortage of them). As journalists and photographers are laid off, mainstream media relies heavily on puff pieces scraped lazily from press releases, and ‘reviews’ sourced via social media or volunteers. It’s an ongoing concern that I’m extremely familiar with from 20years in the media/experimental arts world (where we are simply too weird to bother writing about) and have had many passionate conversations about since living in Murdoch-land.

Adelaide local, Jane Howard, has been working tirelessly to kick this nonsense in the face for many years. Not only does she write professionally for Guardian Australia (and many other mainstream and journal outlets) but she recently called out a rather shonky ‘competition’ by Aspire Magazine, resulting in them changing their terms and conditions and creating a paid position (Go Jane!). And as if that wasn’t enough, she’s even published the secrets of her trade, all the more laudable given how little paid opportunity there is for a skilled craftswoman like herself in this undervalued arena.

Not only is mainstream media vital for the promotion of the arts (especially so for indies who can’t afford exorbitant advertising rates) but without a serious critical discussion around artworks and cultural practice, audiences can only witness a shallow veneer of our vitally rich and meaningful sector. How, when denied such awareness, can they even begin to appreciate Fringe as anything more than a few pretty pink fairy lights and the novelty of stilt walkers and fancy new bars for a few weeks? Perhaps given the homogeneity of mainstream culture we can’t blame the audiences at all.

Solutions?

So, what do we DO about all this? I’ve got a few ideas of my own from many years of festival engagement at all levels (including running them) and across many countries. Obviously I have also been actively engaged in recent discussions with ‘grit fringers’ and trying to keep up with the avid commentaries flowing from social media posts and media articles (when they’re not deleting them… ahem). Here’s a few ideas starting with direct actions we can take immediately and a few proposed models we can explore and reflect on over time.

1. Hold a Fringe Forum. The first thing we need to do (as I have proposed every damn year I’ve spent at Fringe, knowing what happened in Edinburgh and watching the same slow motion car crash happening here) is to actually get together and talk about it. Not a mud-slinging match, but a serious, open discussion featuring representatives from Festivals Adelaide, the Fringe team, the major and minor venues, big name producers, and independent ‘grit fringe’ artists. If needs be I’ll help organise it, webcast it and live-tweet it so we can get the broadest possible open-minded, ecosystem-centric dialogue and action plan kickstarted.

2. Survey artists and audiences. This is my first Fringe as an artist, so I’m guessing this happens anyway, but as the InDaily article mentioned* I’ve drafted a survey that asks the kinds of questions I’d like to know the answers to and I’ve shared with with a few other artists who have added suggestions. I have no interest in working against the Fringe, there’s a wonderful opportunity here to collaborate. Certainly with FringeTix designed how it is, only Fringe HQ get the contact details for audiences so it’s nigh-on impossible for the artists to get in direct contact with the people who attended their work (another bugbear of mine but that’s not for this post).

If Adelaide Fringe is going to continue to exist on the international indie’s ‘most desired festivals’ list, we are going to need bold shifts internally and an actively engaged public who are prepared to put their views out there. Even if their view is ‘we don’t care’ at least we can all pack up and stop wasting our energy. Not that there’s anywhere else to go as most countries struggle with the same concerns, but why bother investing good energy into places/people who don’t give a shit?

(* without asking permission to post a ‘private’ facebook status or interviewing me, by the way, but hey I know enough about digital culture to know that nothing online is private).

3. Create a genuine, year-round, holistic cultural ecosystem, part one: spread the love. It has been said So Many Times, but what if allthethings weren’t on at the same time? I understand there’s a desire to generate an extreme buzz, and a belief that one audience/artist trip can cover all tick boxes. But what this year undeniably demonstrates is that South Australia is simply neither a large enough or wealthy enough population to sustain it (especially under increasing austerity measures and unemployment). I heard rumour that Clipsal was down 20,000 attendance this year… while they’re not typically a core arts audience that still has to ring some alarm bells.

The Garden of Unearthly Delights and The Royal Croquet Club are big enough events with big enough budgets and revenues to exist in their own right. What if we let something like Adelaide Festival (and Clipsal, if it must) run in March, GOUD, RCC and their associated big bucks productions run in June, and Fringe run in September? It would spread out both cost and cultural exposure for audiences, allow the Fringe to be a ‘grit fringe’ again, and the big players can still hit up the winter season… when let’s face it, it’s not even bleedin cold here!

I’d also add that any true ecosystem would naturally have to pay it forward… what if a percentage of profits made by the more commercial events (which often don’t even stay in the State) actually got reinvested into a slush fund for local SA cultural producers? Invest in the stars of the future, stabilise a faltering economy, enable bold, risk-taking, experimental and emerging work to develop and be nurtured in a safe, mentored, fully resourced environment.

4. Create a genuine, year-round, holistic cultural ecosystem, part two: reinvent the model. In recent discussions I’ve learned about two innovations to the traditional fringe model which reinforce the basic grit fringe intention.

Edinburgh now has a “Free Fringe” which functions much more along the busking model. A hat passed round at the end gathers donations – if you liked it, throw some pounds in. All artists have to pay something back too but in time and energy not money – in return for being listed as a free fringe show you have to offer your time to support other free fringers. In a country where philanthropy has been slow, this comes with a certain amount of risk… but it’s worth considering.

Then there’s the Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals model, which is frankly brilliant. It’s based on a lottery system, so all prospective artists apply but rather than being curated they get selected by pulling names out of a hat (it’s probably slightly more glamorous than that in reality, but nevertheless maintains the edgy, open-access beauty of grit fringe diversity). Venues don’t charge hire fees, all events charge a flat $10 fee to audiences but pass around a hat at the end – if you liked it you can throw in whatever you like which goes to the venue (who of course also make bar sales).

5. Create a genuine, year-round, holistic cultural ecosystem, part three: Fringe as infrastructure.

  • Mentor program for Critics. Many years ago I was Chair of a media arts network in the North West of England. As I’ve mentioned above, media arts never got mentioned in mainstream media because it was ‘too weird’, so in an effort to confront this misconception we resourced a mentoring program with student journalists from the North West. These budding critics were treated to private views and discussions with the artists about their final work, but also had access to the development process (with media arts, concept and development is often as, if not more, important than outcome). So what if Fringe creates a mentoring scheme which trains cultural critics and publishes their work as a core part of the Fringe year?
  • Sponsorship and Philanthropy. As also mentioned above, Sponsorship and Philanthropy are sorely inaccessible for indie artists and smaller venues. Fringe HQ could negotiate overarching deals based on the specific needs of each artist/venue. Sponsors/Philanthropists gain the big-brand association of “the Fringe Festival” plus an up-close and personal relationship with the smaller producers if they want to see a different side of cultural practice. This could even go as far as booze partnerships, with Fringe HQ securing cheap deals with wineries/breweries or big bottle shops like Dan Murphy’s. All venues purchase a low-cost bulk of quality provisions from Fringe’s stash. They can then add a decent markup to go toward venue costs, while avoiding the ridiculous $10/12 per drink costs for audiences (no it’s not that bad everywhere, but in some cases… hmmm).
  • Marketing & PR. With a program featuring a smaller number of events/artists, Fringe HQ marketing teams could have more time and focus to properly augment the promotions of the indies. Yes it’s important that we artists put our own efforts into our own marketing, and yes the artist’s tent at the Fringe Club has been offering sessions on social media etc, but a little extra help on the ground and some more in-depth professional development in the form of pre-fringe training would add a significant boost to the indie ecosystem. In combination with the critic’s mentoring program and the weight of Fringe HQ groundwork with mainstream media promotions, both artists and audiences win, bigtime.
  • Insurance Club. NAVA, Guildhouse and others offer an annual membership fee that includes significantly reduced insurance rates. Overseas artists are likely to pay extra as a foreign insurance company is more likely to increase the ‘risk association’ of working abroad. What if Fringe HQ took on the mantle, offering a special deal along the same lines as accredited membership for anyone who wants to take up additional cover for their materials/tech/selves/professional indemnity and public liability?

6. Create a genuine, year-round, holistic cultural ecosystem, part four: unionisation. Yes I used the U word. We don’t have an artist’s or cultural worker’s union in Australia, at least not outside the equivalent of an Equity model for actors. What if we did? The MPAB only became the wealthy little stockpile that they are because they essentially created their own little union, AMPAG. They got together, threw in some collective $$ toward a consultation, then lobbied hard – and won! Sure we indies don’t have nearly as much clout or buddies in politics to easily grease palms, but we could certainly better organise ourselves, both for Fringes across the country and general indie-centric campaigning. Because otherwise our only option is compliance and that’s clearly not working! Someone else also proposed a small venues union too (although I think he used the work ‘coalition’, but same difference), where the needs of the smaller spaces could be heard alongside the demands of the bigger ones.

OK, this last idea is my big one. I’m a big believer in RADICAL change. The arts needs it, the country needs it, the world needs it: Let’s DO THIS!

7. Let’s be the first State in Australia to provide a Basic Living Wage. In case you’ve never heard of this, the idea of a basic living wage (or Basic Income, or Guaranteed Minimum Income…) is hitting the headlines again thanks this time to Switzerland. The Swiss case is exploring offering a basic stipend of the equivalent of AU$3400 a month to every citizen, but it’s not the first and I damn well hope it’s not the last.

As with criticisms of The Commons model (where everyone gets equal access to land and waterways providing their use doesn’t prevent anyone else’s equal right of access), cynics believe if people are paid ‘money for nothing’ they won’t bother working, but the research points clearly to the contrary. Previous trials have seen citizens proactively do things like invest in their own education, establish new businesses, relieve themselves of crippling debts, pay for medical care or treatments, or thrive instead of struggle in unpaid primary carer roles.

In a State that keeps going on about Innovation and Sustainability, the basic income would put us firmly on the map, reduce welfare costs, enable self determination, and more than likely increase the population. We are widely known as being the ‘Startup State’ because we’re small enough to safely trial new concepts, but those businesses rarely stay once the trial has ended.

From the arts perspective it would create a safety net for artists wanting to develop work without going back to welfare or the decreasing funding bodies, and it would provide spare change for audiences who would be much more willing to then invest in something unknown. I’m not an economist, but I would dearly love for the idea to be even considered at a State (or even City) level and if I can help enable that process in any way, I’m in.

“In 1975, the Fringe changed to Focus. The idea was to bring focus onto the development of our own culture in South Australia.”

So (finally!) in conclusion, as the Fringe’s website states about its own history, 21 years after it decided to “bring focus onto the development of our own culture in South Australia”… isn’t it time to do exactly that again? Let’s not fight and squabble about who gets the most attention; let’s not whinge about the venues and punters who are more interested in binge drinking than creative culture. Instead let’s work together to build a genuine, year-round, holistic cultural ecosystem for the arts by recognising the value of the gritty, edgy, core of fringe culture outside of meagre dollar values. Let’s do this sustainably, reinvesting a percentage of those more commercially focused activities back into the people and places which make Fringe the diverse, eclectic, gloriously messy space that we all love so dearly.

P.S. Alexis Dubus still has two Fringe shows on, both of which are fabulously crafted pieces of artistry: Alexis Dubus Verses the World at Tuxedo Cat (last night tonight) and Marcel Lucont Is at Gluttony til 13th March. My work at Fringe Festival is hammocktime at Gluttony, a project that gives you permission to pause and reflect on what really matters in life. We have one weekend left – Fri, Sat and Sun from 12-6.30pm. Come along, you might like it, or at very least GO SEE SOMETHING YOU’VE NEVER HEARD OF… because it might well become the next big hit and then you can be all Hipster about it x

[1] Gilpin, Robert (2000). The Challenge of Global Capitalism: The World Economy in the 21st Century. Princeton University: Princeton University Press. Introduction. ISBN 978-0-691-09279-9.

How can we harness the power of creative digital culture to improve Aboriginal rights?

reallybigroadtrip is calling for expressions of interest from artists, geeks, filmmakers and social change warriors. Join us in a South Australian/APY Lands Aboriginal roadtrip, any time between April – August 2016.

#homeJames, Uncle Chris and I being sent off with a smoking ceremony from the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, Canberra

#homeJames, Uncle Chris and I being sent off with a smoking ceremony from the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, Canberra

Digital literacy is often considered to be lacking in Aboriginal communities, yet smartphones, social media, games, music and film production can be prolific. Storytelling sits at the heart of social change, yet (despite increased solidarity) non-Aboriginals often haven’t experienced what life is like for remote communities such as those currently threatened with closure.

This begs the question: How can we harness the power of creative digital culture to improve Aboriginal rights?

reallybigroadtrip invites emerging or established artists, geeks, filmmakers and social change warriors to help respond to this question. Thanks to funding from Country Arts SA, travel (on the reallybigroadtrip bus, homeJames), subsistence and a negotiable artist’s fee will be provided to selected candidates.

Aboriginal applicants from South Australia and the APY Lands are strongly encouraged to apply.

About the project

The overall roadtrip will take place between April and August 2016. We aim to visit a number of Aboriginal communities, with locations and durations determined according to proposals received and permissions from those communities. Potential locations include (but are not restricted to) Adelaide, the Coorong, Point Pearce, Port Augusta, Coober Pedy, Ernabella and Alice Springs.

Our activities at each location will depend on the proposals received and subsequent conversations with selected artists. Anticipated activities include (but are not restricted to) workshops, screenings, exhibitions, creative productions and collaborations within each community. A budget for materials is available but know that we will preference legacy and agency over expensive, hard to access kit.

Expression of Interest

Please email fee@technoevangelist.net with an Expression of Interest (EOI) and a response to the question “How can we harness the power of creative digital culture to improve Aboriginal rights?” by February 22nd, 2016 (UPDATE: this deadline has been extended to March 22nd 2016). Your EOI can be informal but should include your contact details and give us an indication of who you are, where you’re from, what you do, where you’d like to take us, why you chose that location, and what you’d like to share or create in our time together there.

A selection panel will review proposals and contact a shortlist of candidates for discussion around detailed logistics and collaboration. The final selection will be announced in April 2016.

Contact

Applicants are advised to check out the reallybigroadtrip.com blog, Facebook page and homeJames flickr album to get a feel for the journey so far. You can also email fee@technoevangelist.net with any queries prior to applying.

We look forward to hearing from you!

Frequently Asked Questions

I’m getting a few common questions coming through so will add them and their answers here as we go.

Does my project have to cover the entire April to August period?
No, the overall roadtrip can start in April and will finish at the end of August. Each project can last anywhere from a week or two upwards but are expected to be individual blocks within that four month period. Of course that largely depends on the proposals we receive – some might want to start in April then come back again at further stages, or might have a physical presence in one community then continue as a digital experience across the rest of the time. We’re keen to keep things open until we’ve seen what people want to do.

Do I have to be based in South Australia to apply?
No, the project’s activities will take place around South Australia and the APY Lands, but applicants can come from anywhere in Australia. Sadly we don’t have budgets for international travel, so if you are from overseas and want to apply we would love to hear from you but you will have to seek alternative funding for the international component of your travel.

Can I propose a project but not be involved in the roadtrip?
Possibly… but projects demonstrating an active engagement with community will be given preference. If you think you can demonstrate significant engagement without being physically present then feel free to send in your ideas, but please pay special attention to explaining how you think that can be achieved.

Why are you running this project?
I’ve not actually been asked this, but I felt it would be useful to give some background for those who don’t know me.

lateral drifts

Increasingly pissed off with Facebook’s continued disrespect for our personal rights and privacy, I’ve started using a new platform for my personal ramblings, to begin taking myself out of the anti-Net Neutrality world.

Known lets you publish status updates, etc, which are then pushed to Facebook, Twitter, etc (it’s in beta so there’s a lot more to come too). This means you own all rights to your content rather than giving them away to walled gardens that are more interested in your data than providing the open service you originally signed up for.

Check out more at http://withknown.com and follow my lateral drifts at http://fee.withknown.com.

Nomads in Residence

Since things are starting to hot-up around here it seems to be time to post a bit about what I mean by “Nomads in Residence”.

These nomads are basically my guests in the bus. They must be from the creative digital culture space but I’m really broad about that. By “digital culture” I mean artists, makers, hackers, coders, practitioners, researchers, games developers, animators, filmmakers, policy folk, arts workers, cultural practitioners… ummmmmmm…. other people who play creatively with technology. The point is to be INclusive, not EXclusive, so if you’re not included by title here but feel you should be included by practice then message me regardless.

I have a list of people I have already personally invited. I also have a bundle of folk I have just loved working with/around over the years and will be contacting in due course. But there’s also folk I stumble on/am introduced to who just spark something and need to be invited. For example, I just contacted my first total stranger because her work suits my thinking perfectly, and there might be the perfect match event coming up next year.

And then there’s the unknown-yet-by-me. Of which there are many!

I do not know everyone (or everything). Obviously. This whole project is about getting out there and seeing who/what I don’t know, as well as sharing who/what I do.

So.

The ‘challenge’

  • Location: You don’t need to be from another country; plenty of you gorgeous Australians are on my list. I need to see this country through your eyes and be introduced to your networks too.
  • Your mission: I ask all my “Nomads in Residence” to define where you want to go, who you want to meet and what you want to achieve from your trip.
  • Networking: Once I know your intentions I can help make connections with people you could meet both with me and outside of your time with me. I really encourage you to spend extra time in this amazing country if you can. I can also follow up on people you tell me I should know about in case we can meet them together.
  • Duration: I would love you to stay with me as long as you can, but I understand time is a valuable commodity and you are probably travelling a fair distance. When I started visiting Australia from the UK our costs were often split across a few organisations and that worked a treat, but affects timing/demands, etc.
  • Monies: As you can see from my crowdfunding campaign, this is all very DIY. I would love to offer you travel/accommodation, a nice fat artists fee and a luxurious ‘maker’ budget, but that’s not something I can promise. Especially right now. But I can fundraise (either through crowdfunding targeted to both our communities or through traditional arts funding) and co-productions/shared visits are pretty straightforward to coordinate. You will at least get standard return flights, acommodation/food in the bus and some kind of artist fee.
  • Accommodation: The bus will have a ‘bedroom’ space, a sofa-bed in the ‘lounge’ space, a swag (traditional aussie sleeping bag/tent), and an extra tent. You can choose which you’d like, even on a daily basis.

The Bigger Picture

This often freaks people out when I talk about it; “Your plans are too big, Fee. Calm down and take one step at a time”… Um, no. I think big missions help you better achieve baby steps… but that’s just me.

The big picture plan is to start the model in Australia but then take the concept all over the world. I’ve already been talking to a University in Canada who likes the concept as a research methodology. At some point we’ll run a co-production together to raise funds for a bus and the same process over there. That bus would of course drive across Canada, down to America and then South America, scooping more locals and international en route. I’m also British, so at some stage I’ll be setting up another bus in the UK, which would go to Europe… and so on.

The really-big-picture is that eventually I would like to have a bus in (or within access of) every continent. While I’m not using it the bus would be available for other digital culture practitioners. If they maintain the bus and continue to support the concept (capturing/sharing data, etc) they can have it for free when it’s not being used. If they want to do their own thing then they can hire it and any proceeds will go back in to the project.

National / International

This really isn’t just an Australian project, it’s a digital one. Like the internet it’s inspired by community, collaboration, creativity and connection. The potential is huge but the baby steps are really manageable and realistic. It just takes a little bit of conversation and we can make amazing things happen together.

So if you’re interested, message me with some responses to the above ‘challenge’ and we’ll take it from there.

UPDATE: Get a flavour of some of the Nomads.