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.

REBLOG: The Power of Pause [hammocktime]

One of our guides, Ines, with a guest reclining in #hammocktime

One of our guides, Ines, with a guest reclining in #hammocktime

I’ve been a media artist for two decades. I mostly make lengthy, complicated work, where I tend to be responsible for the form and invite others to make the content. hammocktime is different. It’s my first solo artwork, and my first work as an artist at Adelaide Fringe. It’s simple, subtle and potentially powerful. Given my typical veer toward digital, large-scale, longer-duration work, I’ve struggled to believe it is enough, but battled to let it be itself regardless. I’m still tweaking this and that, but I’ve managed to avoid letting myself attack it with the sledgehammer of reinvention despite so many panic attacks driving me to want to. Imposter syndrome is a bitch.Its simplicity is what has worried me. Criticisms of ‘but you can buy a hammock and use it for years for the same price as your half hour in one’ are common. Yes, you can – and you should. But hammocktime is about more than just lying in a hammock. Would people get that? Would it work? Would people use the opportunity, the permission to pause, and let themselves commit to 30/45mins of reflection? And if so, what effect would that have on them? Would they understand the social change aspect within it? Would that have meaning for them if they did? Is that nod to social change prominent enough, without being preachy?

hammocktime isn’t for everyone, it’s not meant to be. I’ve always said with media art, still a niche artform, you don’t aim for the masses, you aim for those who get it, and, if lucky, let their engagement catalyse a natural ripple effect. hammocktime is aimed at those who know the world is broken and it hurts them. They try to be the best humans they can but all this capitalist destruction of our daily lives, our independence, and our planet has far reaching physiological ramifications. Activists have an extremely high burnout rate, and a far-too-high suicide rate. hammocktime is a gift to them and others with the same heavy hearts.

It says “hey you, yeah, the world is kinda scary. but in order to get through it, you have to take care of yourself and you have to think positively, act positively. here, come lie in a hammock, I will be here with you the whole time. I will help you enter a short period of relaxation, contemplation, reflection, and then I’ll just sit here in total silence with you while you take yourself wherever you want to go.”

That’s it. That’s its simplicity.

One of our guides, Guillaume, shading a guest with a parasol as they recline in #hammocktime

One of our guides, Guillaume, shading a guest with a parasol as they recline in #hammocktime

For those who get it, they take that gift and they 100% allow themselves to let go. The relaxation injects them with something akin to a powernap boost. The social change questions confirm the positive potential in any dark surroundings. The bringing together of all the guests’ one word answers at the end presents a collective shared consciousness of the will to believe in something better, and a subtle nod to the actions we can take individually and collectively about those thoughts.

While so often over the last few years I have desperately yearned to grab people by the scruff of the neck and yell furiously in their faces “don’t you fucking SEE?” I know that’s not the way to enable change. So I’ve been trying to find a way to trigger the same impact but through love, generosity and empowerment. The hammock is a trick, a distraction. Everyone loves hammocks, so many of us own them but so few of us give ourselves permission to use them as often as we should – or for as long as we should. The same goes for meditation. Many people try meditation but give up because their brains won’t shut up. They don’t realise that the brain doesn’t shut up – if it did, you’d be dead. Meditation isn’t about stfu it’s about learning to pass through.

In the guided intro we don’t do a body scan or deep chakra breathing, we simply drop mentions of the elements you may or may not want to consider as you drift off. Breath, body, distraction, sound. Then silence, your silence, where you can listen intently to the noise in your own head, or to audiences/performers in one of the nearby venues, or the not-so-silent disco next door, the pop up street festival stage outside Gluttony on the weekends, people chatting as they walk down the path next to our site, and in the 45min evening slots can return to the one consistent – our acoustic musician in our space. Or you can play with that cacophony, make your own live remix, adjusting your own sliders and channel controllers.

If you let go, totally release yourself to your physiological connection with your hammock, your trees, your soul, you can go somewhere truly beautiful, and truly your own. And all this is just a device, a way of thinking about and approaching life. We give you a card at the end, the same promo business card which may have gotten you to our space, and tell you to put it somewhere that stress occurs – your office computer monitor, your car’s visor. That image behind the text is those trees you gazed at for 30/45mins, those words “STOP! #hammocktime”, a trigger. Look at that card in times of stress and it’ll take you back, a reminder that there can be calm in any storm, if you choose to find it.

It’s been a slow start for us at fringe, partly because we’re running on the smell of an oily rag without marketing budgets or paid staff, and partly because getting people to give themselves permission to take pause is bloody hard (ironic given that’s kinda the point of the project!). I’m not running the project to make a fortune, I’m running it because I feel it’s needed. Sure it’d be nice to (at very least) cover costs, pay myself and reward my amazingly generous volunteer guides and musicians with more than just an artist’s pass, but we still prefer that all three hammocks are full for every session – so if you’re an artist, it’s worth checking in to see if we have any available slots and we’ll let you in for free (donations welcome!).

Free marketing is always a huge boost for niche projects like this, and the attention of famous people is a rare and beautiful luxury. We had a rather special guest at last night’s 45minute session; Hugh Sheridan (in town with his band California Crooners Club) came along … and he absolutely loved it. He got the simplicity, the need for positive reinforcement and active social change. He got it so very deeply that he actually thanked me for making the work. Through his and many other responses to the work I’m finally beginning to shrug off imposter syndrome and believe that hammocktime’s simplicity is in its truth. It works. People come in stressed, hungover, busy-minded. They leave, relaxed, smiling, grounded, wearing that gentle gaze which comes from a deep inner sense of calm. Even if that wears off, it was there… and it can be there again (with or without a hammock).

I’m very proud of this little piece of ‘activation through inaction’ and even if we don’t win the attention of the masses, I don’t care. If the people who come get it, my work is done.

We’re open Weds-Sun throughout the Festival from 5-9pm for 30min sessions, with late-night acoustic musician sets on Weds, Fri and Sat nights from 9.30-10.15pm. We’re also calling for more guides so that we can add earlier daytime slots from 11am on weekends – ping if that timing suits you better as a guest and I’ll let you know when they’re scheduled. Book online via Fringetix, or chance your luck on the door at Gluttony (we’re down the left hand side when you walk in the front entrance, look for the bamboo screening between Silent Disco and The Carry On). $20/23 for 30mins or $30/33 for 45mins.

Long missive, but heartfelt. Come try it, everyone, you might like it x

[Originally posted on http://www.hammocktime.cc/the-power-of-pause.]

Not In My Name

I’ve been getting angry on the internetz, again. I was about to go for a walk, try to calm down and disconnect from the rage, but I’ve decided to write this instead. Because sometimes it’s good to have that rage, sometimes it’s what’s really needed. So here goes.

letthemstay

It’s yet another day of yet another barbarity inflicted on yet more innocent people. Today’s is that the High Court of Australia just said “yeah sure, go ahead and send 267 innocent people (including 80 children – 41 of them babies for crying out loud) to our homegrown, corporate profiteering, torture chamber. Sure, women and children are raped and abused and men are tortured and die from curable illnesses there, but that’s OK, carry on”. Because apparently that’s the kind of country Australia is. That’s apparently OK in a 2016 world.

I don’t get it. I cannot for the life of me understand why we are letting this happen. Not just this despicable treatment of refugees, already so desperate for a better life that they risk such a dangerous journey in the hope of finding safety, but all of it. The climate, racism, employment and welfare systems, gender inequality, profiteering warfare, the TPP, all of it. Our governments are inhumane, corrupt and disconnected from reality. Their laws are defunct, designed to protect corporations instead of wethepeople. AND YET WE CONTINUE TO ELECT THEM. What in the fucking fuck is wrong with us?

I know no one likes to be blamed for anything, especially when we feel ourselves innocent victims as much as the next person. But this is our fault, guys. WE did this. WE do this every election by voting them in. WE do this every day with our compliance within this system. WE are responsible. Us. Every Single One Of Us. I don’t care if there’s ‘no one else to vote for’, that’s just a cop out. By voting them in -and by accepting their governance- we agree to live in their house by their rules. Repeatedly these governments demonstrate that morality has no place in their house or rules, and by accepting their ‘leadership’ we have to face up to the fact that morality no longer has a place in ours, either.

Yes, I just told you that you have no morals. Worse, I told you that you have no right to have any morals. Pissed at me yet?

My typical mantra at this point is “we don’t know why we exist on the planet and yet we’ve somehow ended up in a nightmare, 9-5 commuter belt, feedback loop to hell”. Once upon a time a bunch of human-shaped bodies somehow arrived on this sphere. Sometimes we bumped into each other and fought, sometimes we fell in love and had babies that connected us as families, tribes. Mostly we learned how to adapt; with each other, the ravages of weather and terrain, seasons of plentiful foraging, and periods of drought, famine and disease. I wasn’t there at the time so I can’t really assume much more than that. But however it all worked out in the details, we somehow continued to keep going without decimating each other entirely.

If we’re prepared to listen, Aboriginal culture -the oldest living civilisation on the planet- tells us that we have a responsibility to each other and the Earth. The basis of Aboriginal lore is “do no harm”, to each other and to nature. You take care of the planet, the planet takes care of you. Sounds simple, eh? Once upon a time in much more recent, westernised human history, we had The Commons – communities shared land and waterways for hunting, grazing, foraging, travelling, living. Then we had Enclosure, where we supposedly exchanged protection for our communities with a percentage of our crops. Then that protection became oppression, if we didn’t share all our crops then we were enemies of the state and must be punished. Then we had the Industrial Revolution, where we all (regardless of age) worked in the factories with our meagre salaries docked for ‘food and board’ (if you’re lucky, meaning a bed in a shared house with some stale bread and water for sustenance) while trying to not get mangled in the machinery. Then we had a more official form of slavery, where white underclasses finally had someone else to officially look down upon – hello racism. The white rich get richer while the white and non-white poor die of starvation, slavery, or just plain old legalised murder.

But that’s just history, right? Things are better now! We have a UN declaration on human rights! We have medicine so people live healthy lives for longer! We have an abundance of supermarkets and fast food joints so we’ll never run out of food! We have welfare for the old, infirm and unemployed! Um. Yeah. We have human rights abuses that continue, legally, on our own doorsteps and all over the world. We have bigpharma so those who can afford medicine can live forever and everyone else can just get addicted to things they don’t need that’ll kill them when they try to come off them, while naturopaths are quacks and cannabis is criminal. We have a healthcare system that suffers cut upon cut, privatisation upon privatisation. We have welfare recipients who have to justify their existence in a jobless future, fighting for a pittance on a debit card system which controls where they spend it, all while being labelled doley bludgers. We have pensions which force the average Jo/sephine to work until they’re 75, without carers, heating/aircon and the little things in life… like food. We have farmers who battle against genetically modified crop corporations while being told ‘customers don’t like curved carrots but you’re under contract to us supermarkets so you can’t sell them elsewhere, and here use this pesticide which kills bees’, adding entire harvests to landfill whilst people starve. And we have fast food outlets that serve up what can only be described as ‘plastic’.

“Do no harm” has become “Get rich quick”. The “Aussie fair go” and “American dream” have become an expectation that we work under conditions devised during the Industrial Revolution – long hours for minimal pay; living in tiny rabbit hutches with huge mortgages which we can never pay off, unable to afford (or have time to grow) the fresh fruit and vegetables that we so fundamentally require. Attempts to take care of the planet have become “lawfare” with whistleblowers and activists being sent to overflowing prisons. People who live any kind of life which veers from the mainstream white, western, corporatised dominance are labelled “other” or “terrorists”. And people, like me, who were brought up within the Western model and chose to drop out of its controlling tendrils are called ‘radicals’, ‘selfish rabble‘, ‘hippies’ and ‘lefties’. Hell, Jeremy Corbyn, the only UK potential-PM in my lifetime who both has morals and lives by them, has been labelled a radical socialist by his own damn party, simply for returning to the core values on which the original Labour Party was built.

But it’s OK guys, we’re gonna be fine, because we have celebrities and TV and Hollywood and the internet, right? Wrong again.

“What movies like Harry Potter 7 and Star Wars the Force Awakens take away from our psyche is that sometimes fascism doesn’t come all wrapped up in the trappings and trademarks of Nazi Germany. Sometimes fascism comes with a smiling face and promises of wealth and security. Sometimes fascism comes slowly, endorsed by the major media networks and seeming so innocuous, just slightly worse than before, maybe a little overzealous with the patriotism, but not too far gone to come back from…. And before you know it, your country is running concentration camps where children are sexually abused, women are raped, and young men are allowed to die of curable illnesses and injuries… and whistleblowers can go to jail for 10 years for exposing the truth. Fascism is here, but you wouldn’t think it, because Hollywood has us believing that unless the cops are wearing khaki grey Hugo Boss uniforms and shiny boots, there’s nothing to fear. [Millie Bird’s facebook status yesterday]

I’ve ranted before about the dangers of our current internet culture, so I’ll leave that one for now. I love a good bit of escapism, and I have a lot of love for well written and produced TV drama (though I have a rant that one day I’ll share about its evils). I’ve recently been watching “The Man in the High Castle”, based on the 1963 novel by Philip K Dick. Its premise is an alternative history where WWII ended differently; Japan and Nazi Germany run the world with totalitarian dominance. I’ve been watching this thinking that actually, the inhumanity depicted there, the lack of basic human rights, basic freedom to just be, is exactly the kind of authoritarianism that we all face today.

Aboriginal peoples talk about assimilation, the eradication of their own culture and connection to country by submitting to white, western ways. But we’re all assimilated, it’s just that so many haven’t seen it yet. I find myself feeling sorry for those Reclaim Australia racists and Men’s Rights/’neomasculine’ types. They’re scared, hurting, lost, struggling and desperate, and they think it’s just them, that no one sees their reality, that no one cares. The crazy thing is that they’re kicking out at the wrong people. People of colour, of different cultural/religious beliefs and women are not to blame for everything wrong with the world – how could they be, when they have never been in control of their own lives, never mind anyone else’s?! Our governments, our legal systems and capitalism are the culprits. Fight the real assholes, ffs.

So, it’s all broken, we’re all powerless, wtf do we do?

I urge you, ask you, gentle you, to please not spend your spirit dry by bewailing these difficult times. Especially do not lose hope. Most particularly because, the fact is that we were made for these times. Yes. For years, we have been learning, practicing, been in training for and just waiting to meet on this exact plain of engagement.

Regarding awakened souls, there have never been more able vessels in the waters than there are right now across the world. And they are fully provisioned and able to signal one another as never before in the history of humankind.

Look out over the prow; there are millions of boats of righteous souls on the waters with you. Even though your veneers may shiver from every wave in this stormy roil, I assure you that the long timbers composing your prow and rudder come from a greater forest. That long-grained lumber is known to withstand storms, to hold together, to hold its own, and to advance, regardless.

One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul. Soul on deck shines like gold in dark times. The light of the soul throws sparks, can send up flares, builds signal fires, causes proper matters to catch fire. To display the lantern of soul in shadowy times like these – to be fierce and to show mercy toward others; both are acts of immense bravery and greatest necessity.

Struggling souls catch light from other souls who are fully lit and willing to show it. If you would help to calm the tumult, this is one of the strongest things you can do.

[snippets from “We were made for these times, Letter to a young activist during troubling times“, by Clarissa Pinkola Estes]

What I think we need to do, what I am trying so hard to do myself, is to stop for a moment. Get off the hamster wheel and look deep into ourselves and around us. Peer behind the curtain and reveal the lies which hide behind, the world we have become. Then fight back, in any way we can. Not amongst ourselves, tearing down those on even lower rungs of the ladder, but upwards and outwards. Call out inhumanity, stand with the oppressed, engage in dialogue – especially outside of our physical and social media echo chambers, especially with ‘otherness’. Listen, with patience, tolerance and a willingness to be proven wrong. Educate ourselves without waiting to be taught and question those voices which may have their own motives. Trust our instincts, wear our hearts on our sleeves and our souls on our faces. Stand together, in all our glorious differences, and say loudly, and for as long as our lungs have breath:

NOT IN MY NAME.

Open Letter to Regional Arts NSW re Artlands Dubbo

OPEN LETTER published via reallybigroadtrip and sent to admin@regionalartsnsw.com.au

Artlands - Part Conference, Part Festival

Dear Regional Arts NSW,

I am writing in response to your reminder for a call to presenters for Artlands Dubbo 2016: http://artlands.com.au/artlands-conference.

After much thought and with great sadness, I shall not be applying to your event. I say this despite being a maker and supporter of regional/remote community creative practice and a previous Keynote Speaker for RAA at Kumuwuki in Goolwa.

My reason is that it is impossible to work and travel without any form of payment, never mind being expected (on top of working for free and at great personal cost) to then pay for registration, even at the early bird discounted rate. It is also unacceptable to expect us to apply elsewhere for limited available funding so we can cover these costs for your events.

This isn’t a personal attack on Artland Dubbo’s organisational team; I know many previous RAA gatherings have also adopted the same policy (also resulting in my non-attendance at those events). I understand that budgets for events like these are tight, but so is the economic environment for artists and educators, especially those in the community arts and experimental/emerging arts sector.

I wish I didn’t have to write this letter, nor bring the discussion to a broader public attention, but I feel that without speaking up about this issue nothing will ever change. It gives community arts and regional arts a bad name to not fairly support those who wish to share their skills, knowledge and creations with your attendees. This policy limits your presenters to those who have the independent means by which to cover their own costs and does not give a fair reflection of the expertise and enthusiastic efforts of the broader sector.

The attendance fees themselves ($625 Early Bird / $825 Full Price) equally present a massive barrier to independent artists and producers wanting to attend any RAA events as delegates.

Independent artists have for far too long been told that their work is worthy enough to be selected, but not worth enough to offer anything more than ‘exposure’ in return, and this has to end.

Yours with deep regret and a hope for a more constructive, contribution to the development of our collective sectors,

Fee Plumley
reallybigroadtrip

I’m white, I’m British, so why am I running an Aboriginal Rights project?

I’m a white, British immigrant with Welsh blood and no ties to Australia, bar the decision to move here almost eight years ago. And I’m running a project about creative digital culture for social change, with a specific focus on Aboriginal Rights. No one has yet asked me “why?” but I think it’s useful to give some background for those who don’t know me. It’s timely, too, given that 26th January is once again upon us.

2003 – My first trip to Australia as a visiting artist.
My only exposure to Aboriginal Culture was the first time I experienced a Welcome to/Acknowledgement of Country at events. I ask a lot of questions, all the time, and was told that this was a very arts-scene thing and not common elsewhere. The next year, back in the UK, I sent a “Happy Australia Day!” email to everyone I’d met while visiting. I got -rightly- Ripped To Shreds (in the most beautifully constructive way, for which I remain truly grateful). This rapid-fire education explained why Mourning/Invasion/Survival Day was not a thing to be celebrated and how it was more about beer, bogans and flag-waving nationalism. Lesson One – which of course comes with #allthequestions and prompted my desire to learn more and, maybe, one day, work with community.

2005 – My third trip to Australia as a visiting artist.
One of our gigs over a three month trip was with the Awesome Arts Festival in Perth. They sent us up to Karratha as part of their community outreach program. While there we randomly met the wife of one of the local rock art experts who invited us to go out to view two sites in the Burrup. One was prolific with what Glen called ‘sketches’ (rock-artists-in-training!); the other contained less work but of a much greater detail and more narrative-driven. I took some photos at the time which aren’t great resolution but you get the idea.

big hands, aboriginal rock art, burrup WA 2005

suddenly i see where crumpler got their logo from!

2010 – Working as Digital Program Officer for the Australia Council for the Arts on a business sponsored visa.
One of my ‘clients’ was Bangarra Dance Theatre, so I had the luxury of watching a couple of their stunning performances. I also worked with them to find the right Geek in Residence for their needs (GiR was my favourite of all the initiatives I created in my role for OzCo), so had a great deal of conversations about Indigenous use of digital culture both on Country and urban areas (like “can you get online in the desert?!”). My curiosity was increasingly piqued, especially on learning that there wasn’t a word for ‘art’ in Aboriginal languages because art was so intrinsically linked within every aspect of their worlds *swoon*.

2011 – A holiday break from OzCo.
I took the opportunity to visit the phenomenal Alex Kelly (whom I’d first met at Crossover Media Lab in 2009) in Alice Springs, attending Wide Open Space Festival and taking a daytrip coach out to Uluru (and no, I didn’t walk on the rock). This was my first time glimpsing the red centre and again I didn’t have any direct contact with community, mostly because I wasn’t invited and it didn’t seem right to poke my nose in. Regarding Uluru, while I expected to be impressed by the beauty of the scenery I didn’t expect to feel that incredible spiritual energy. Kata Tjuta (The Olgas) gave me a particularly cosmic moment… but that’s not for this post.

2012 – Keynote Speaker for Regional Arts Australia’s Kumuwuki in Goolwa, now a Permanent Resident.
My absolute highlight of the whole event was hearing the late Ngarrindjeri elder, Uncle Tom Trevorrow, Manager of Camp Coorong (a centre for cross-cultural learning in South Australia) deliver a plenary. I’m not ashamed to say that I cried three times during his talk. His gentle voice spoke of such deep spiritual connection to Country, who wouldn’t have been moved?!

“Within the Ngarrindjeri nation the 18 clan groups all have a Ngarjtis (a totem animal, bird, fish or plant) that connects us to Country. I have a duty of care to look after the Coorong, to look after my Ngarjtis because my Ngarjtis looks after me. If my Coorong dies, then my Ngarjtis dies, then I die. … So you see that’s our culture, our connection to Country. But also it’s a management plan of how to care for Country and to care for our birds, our animals and all living things. … We want to spread a message about caring for Country: Don’t be greedy, don’t take any more than what you need. Share with one another. Don’t tell lies. Be respectful. Because if we don’t then everybody will suffer, everybody will be punished.”

In writing this I’ve found a soundcloud recording of his talk (which made me cry again), although I advise caution as Uncle Tom passed away the following year and this recording contains his voice. The Sea Nation Plan which he discusses in the recording can be found here.

2013 – Invited to apply for a grant to work in Indigenous communities.
That talk got me thinking. I was about to get the bus, planning on going out to regional/remote Australia sharing what I knew and learning what they knew. I was already in talks about the Nomadic Fab Lab (talking about 3D Printing and the like)… so would these types of conversations help Aboriginal communities too? Not “hey why don’t you stop making your own work and become a plastic-producing nerd” but “what do you do, how do you do it, and what -if any- digital practices might make any of that easier/cheaper/etc?”. Much like the Geek in Residence program, each situation would be bespoke, responding to the needs of each space. The focus could be about improving digital literacy; finding lower-cost, higher efficiency solutions to general operations; creating or improving online marketing/audience development; as well as the more artistic side of things.

I knew Country Arts SA from their Geek in Residence, and my contact there, Steve Mayhew, introduced me to Merilyn Cox just at the moment my head was exploding with ideas. She invited me to apply for a grant to find out. Usually -and rightly- you don’t get funding to work on Country unless the application comes from a community. I didn’t know any communities, yet somehow I got the grant. I’d specifically framed the application around needing to go and learn more first, taking a year to do the project to give what I thought would be ample time to learn, make contacts, try things out and see what happened.

2014 – Memefest.
I’d delayed the project because I wasn’t ready, the bus wasn’t ready. Transitioning into #buslife had taken much more of a learning curve than I had naively anticipated. This project mattered to me and I didn’t want to mess it up. Another factor was that an unfortunately common trait of community arts around the world is that artists get dropped in to a place without being invited. The (usually unaware) artist makes something (often with high end swanky digital kit, or worse, with the locals not really getting to do much themselves) and then leaves, taking all their toys away. Where’s the legacy? Where’s the ownership? What the hell is the point?! My old UK based company, the-phone-book Limited, had a policy of never going down that road, and I had no intentions of changing things now. Invitation was everything, but I hadn’t yet been invited.

I’d received an email asking me to be a mentor for a Swinburne University program about design and direct action, Memefest, from Lisa Gye whom I’d met on my first visiting artist trip in 2003. Already veering more toward activism and social change, I of course said yes. Little did I know that Memefest had previously been up in Brisbane where they’d worked closely with the Aboriginal Embassy. Some members of the Brisbane Aboriginal Sovereign Embassy and Grandmothers Against Removals (GMAR) had come along. This was the first time I’d heard so many heartbreaking stories straight from the horses mouth, and not just about the past but about atrocities still continuing to this day.

I felt sick.

2015 – Canberra Embassy, Nullarbor, Nyoongar Embassy, Women’s Culture and Law Camp, Yambah.
It wasn’t long after Memefest that the threats of forced community closures hit. All the conversations I’d had there and since refocused everything else into this one area. I stopped applying for arts residencies and grants or daydreaming about future creative practice. I started helping to organise campaigns, attending and documenting rallies (see Flickr and YouTube), visiting Embassies and shouting loudly online.

After a while I was warned of becoming ‘overly earnest’, which at the time confused me. Why shouldn’t I speak out? Why the fk weren’t more people speaking out?! Turns out not all white Australians had received any education about Aboriginal history or culture, let alone were told the truth about past or present treatment of these communities. Some of those didn’t want to know that such things were happening today (a kind of entrenched white guilt, maybe? I know I feel that weight). Those who had (or who had self-taught) were involved as much as they could be and cautioned me about the typical white error: “speaking for, not walking with”.

In my gusto to ‘help’, to ‘do something’, I had in my rants occasionally used my white privileged voice to talk for them, instead of stepping back, with them in front. In my ignorance the name of the project was originally “niinamarni” (Kaurna for “hello”), I’d even bought the domain name. I had no idea that it was culturally inappropriate to use language without permission – and have subsequently not renewed the domain! I still make mistakes (there’s probably something in this post which is inadvertently inappropriate – if so, tell me and I’ll change it) but I’m learning (reading Decolonising Solidarity by Clare Land has helped).

I’ve learned more about Culture and Country both from patient individuals and personal research, about the Frontier Wars and the dubious ‘recognise campaign’. I’ve had the most astonishing privilege of travelling with an Elder and into community. I’ve seen, heard and learned things which I now can’t un-see, un-hear, un-learn. I’ve subsequently been adding a better understanding of social change so I can begin to grasp what’s come before and what’s possible next. I still struggle with imposter syndrome too – what do I know? what use can I be? I still don’t know enough, I doubt I ever will. But I can try.

2016 – to be continued…
So that is why I’m calling for expressions of interest for this project. Their voices, their needs, their knowledge is what needs to be shared, not mine. My role here is as a creative producer, to discuss projects and help find the right partnerships (just as I did with Geek in Residence) or fill in any missing pieces; to drive us wherever we need to go; to support the delivery of sessions; to document what happens and help connect the physical nodes through nomadic dotted lines; to celebrate the astonishing work that has been done in the past and which continues to thrive against all the odds. We all stand on the shoulders of giants, these giants just happen to be the oldest living culture in the world. What an honour to be able to stand with them, on January 26th and every other day of the year, every year. As GMAR say, sorry means not doing it again. It’s long overdue time that this brutality ended and the beauty more readily celebrated by all Australians and beyond.

My deepest thanks goes to everyone involved with GMAR (Grandmothers Against Removals); Luke at IndigenousX; the Aboriginal Tent Embassy (Canberra), the Nyoongar Tent Embassy (Perth); the Collie mob (south of Perth, who showed me the devastation that mining causes); Uncle Chris who travelled with me for much of last year and introduced me to the other members of the Original Sovereign Tribal Federation (Alice Springs); the NPY Womens’ Culture and Lore Camp (Ernabella); Call to Action Adelaide; and the countless individuals who have inspired this perspective and held my hand through my clumsy learning curves.

I thank you for your generous introductions to your families, your knowledge, your resilience and your connection to Country which has held you together despite all harsh brutalities past and present. I stand with you in solidarity, offering my time, skills and compassion to your campaigns for self determination & self governance, and I thank you more than I can express for the world I now see with new eyes.

#alwayswasalwayswillbe x

The big scheme

This is a social change job application I recently submitted, which was rejected. One of my referees told me I should blog it, so here we go. I’ve been trying to find a way of making something like this happen for years, so if you want to hire me to make this happen, can help or have suggestions for improving it all, contact me. And if you want to help me keep going alone, I have a patreon.

Dear <redacted>,

Firstly I’d like to thank and commend you for offering this role as a remote position. I’m a nomad – I live in a bus in Australia – and find it’s exceedingly rare to find paid roles in this field which don’t require you to stay in one location. Subsequently I’ve been mostly working solo, unpaid, developing ways of bringing creativity and technology together toward progressive social change. Over the last few years I’ve been learning about social change organising, strategising, scheming, testing and delivering various approaches to this. I may well not be the person you seek for this role, but I would like to take the opportunity to share my thoughts with you. Should any of it stick, we should talk!

My process
I’m largely a Media Arts Creative Producer by ‘trade’, which for me means that I have ideas and I make them happen. I don’t work exclusively with any one media, community or cause. My process starts with what I need to say, who I need to say it to, then choosing the most suitable format for that combination. From there I can determine who and what is required to bring it to life, where it is best placed to happen, and how I’m going to be able to resource it all (I’m pretty good at fundraising). Once I’ve made it happen I evaluate how it went and progress to the next challenge.

I started living in my bus almost four years ago. Freedom from rent allowed me to follow my heart with less pressure to conform to societal norms. Subsequently I began working on more and more social change focuses, which lead me to realise that making art and making change are almost exactly the same process.

Technoevangelism
Most of my twenty years working within creative digital culture have been spent encouraging others to build and maintain their own online presence through education programs, initiatives and commissions. One of my central interests has been in helping people to discover their inner geek, empowering them with the skills and confidence to amplify their voice and reach with all the opportunities the internet world promised. These days my pragmatic cynicism has me spending less time on technoevangelising and more time pointing out the risks and threats to our online presence since privacy and net neutrality became the enemy of neoliberalism. The tentative balances between public/private, promotion/protection, signal/noise have me questioning where we are letting ourselves be lead, and what we can do about it. Where my previous works put technology front and centre, my recent work actively demands you switch your mobile device off before engaging with yourself, in a hammock.

Campaigning
In terms of campaign organising I see myself as a relative n00b. Despite growing up in Thatcher’s Britain, marching with the multitudes, and all my years educating artists in maintaining their own rights, I only started becoming actively involved in the back end of organising in the last few years. In that time I’ve observed that while grassroots organising is getting smarter and better equipped to initiate and harness virality, we still sorely lack a greater intra-connection between groups. Partly this can be attributed to a lack of digital literacy, partly to a lack of time available to explore the unknown potential technology can provide when done well. My feeling is that with smarter big picture reflection, research, strategising, training and implementation, we could transform a thousand grassroots siloes into a single decentralised network comprising hundreds of thousands of articulate voices. The beauty of the decentralised network is in its recognition that no one size fits all, yet no one voice or brand speaks alone.

Proposal
Here’s a ballpark of what I’d like to do, if invited to join your team (with the obvious provisos regarding your own visions and inputs, of course!):

  • Visit you and your teams, wherever they are based, along with representatives of key movements around the globe (e.g. BLM, Occupy, Liberate Tate, Whistleblowers, Activists and Citizens Alliance/WACA, Standing Rock/DAPL protesters, Voices of the 3% Aboriginal campaigners, amongst many others). Interview them about their people, process, messages and technologies and analyse them using qualitative (anecdotal, case studies) and quantitative (surveys, stats/data) methodologies.
  • Explore existing offerings (such as Network Builder, Loomio, riseup.net and others) in light of the analysis to see what’s missing and what could be improved upon. (It’s worth noting that Network Builder is currently the most popular campaign platform in AU right now, but I find it to be frustratingly expensive for grassroots movements and is often used more like a blog than its cross-campaign potential could allow).
  • Create collaborations between activists and artists (especially media artists, writers and craftivists), researchers, technologists, educators, health workers/carers, legal minds and scientists to produce training materials for each discipline working with interdisciplinary practice in mind (there’s more on my reasons for singling out these types below).
  • Build on an activist resource (something along the lines of a wiki I started sketching out a while ago, http://weareallactivistsnow.com), and a regular physical/online book club meetup for informal info sharing and discussion (again I started a format for this http://sundayafternoonactivistclub.com), which feed back into each other and feed in/out to similar online repositories/networks such as Beautiful Trouble, preventing the reinvention of wheels. This is both for knowledge sharing and a support group and could include a series of education programs/discussion sessions in ‘how to disagree pleasantly’, ‘how to check your privilege’, ‘how to motivate occasionals’, ‘how to maintain momentum’, ‘how to lobby’, ‘how to secure your communications’, etc (the kind of things they don’t teach you in school, only with teachers notes so progressive teachers can do exactly that).
  • These findings and outcomes will then become offerings – a touring training, train the trainer and ambassador program – which can be made available for free and delivered to grassroots campaigners (online and in person, wherever they are based) in many languages and from many cultural perspectives (and in whatever media format they prefer), along with a mentoring program and the open source, secure, networking and support group (helping them to better help themselves and each other).
  • Build on these expanding communities to collectively build a vision of the future which isn’t two party politics and explores alternative systems (anarchosyndicalism and The Commons are my personal preference, for the record), with progressive economists (e.g. Richard Denniss in AU) presenting analysis of things like LETS schemes and basic income models.

Target Audience
I should explain that my target audience here are largely the grassroots organisers as I feel those are the people/collectives who do the most risky work, who typically have the least digital literacy, and who need the most help. I don’t believe it’s worth wasting time trying to change the mindset of the masses and their naysayers. I feel the best strategy here is the same as the media arts strategy I have always worked toward: amplify and support the work of those who already ‘get it’; join the dots in decentralised networks so they know they are not alone and can build better network nodes of their own; support them (and let the technology support them) to make more work, better work, and for that work to reach more eyes and ears. A bespoke injection into one group leads to their own expansion, which brings in new audiences, new collaborators, new works, etc etc as a viral loop. In time our niches will inevitably become the new mainstream (something I actually believe has already happened, but we don’t realise it broadly, yet). My secondary target audience are those who are currently sitting awkwardly on fences. They may have always voted conservatively, but their consciences are poking at them; they know instinctively that what is going on around them is wrong, they just don’t know what they can do about it given the entire electoral & governance system has collapsed into a capitalist, self-serving, mess. They can be brought over with the gentle nurturing we used to apply to non-digital natives; find the appropriate reason for them to care and non-threatening actions to get them started and they’ll become their own ambassadors to their own networks.

I read some US research last year which said that around 80% of people believe that change is possible, but that the same amount believed others don’t believe it. I believe we have reached a tipping point, that more people now are ready for change than ever. I believe it will get worse before it gets better (especially for our most vulnerable, First Nations peoples, POC, refugees, etc) but that it will get better… if only we can harness this new acceptance of change, NOW. What we’ve got is a perception problem. This is why I feel my experience within the arts makes so much sense within all this; Artists deal precisely with perception, it’s what we do.

Collaboration
I mentioned collaborations with activists and artists, researchers, technologists, educators, health workers/carers, legal minds and scientists. My reasoning is that all humanities funding is being slashed in UK and AU, and while US funding works differently your workers in these areas face similar challenges. In the age of austerity we are told to drop these ‘hobbies’ and become independently economically viable or sanitise our messages in exchange for unethical sponsorship. This means there’s a huge group of very pissed off, very intelligent, very passionate and hard working individuals just waiting for somewhere to constructively focus that frustration. Let’s give it to them; let’s see how interdisciplinary thinking and action delivered through platform cooperativism can help agitate and amalgamate our collective noise.

Human-centred technologies
In terms of where we host this information/how we run these decentralised networks, I’m not suggesting that we build a new platform (not unless it genuinely is the only way, which right now I don’t). I do however feel we rely far too heavily on corporate platforms which are closed source, proprietary, and offer next to no privacy/protection. If/when Facebook/Twitter choose/are forced to take down those of us who use those platforms, we will have wasted all that time and energy for all concerned, and we’ll have to start rebuilding all over again. We haven’t got time or energies to invest in the unsustainable. Most technology assumes their users are static – the mobile interfaces of today are far more desktop than mobility oriented, sadly. Many campaigners work on the hoof, out on front line locations or with migrant communities whether climate or war induced. We need a return to mobility thinkings, more playfully designed serious interactions and more humanly-oriented interfaces. We need design for time saving and clarity, and full open integration to still enable messages to reach across the myriad of closed platforms (of course including fb/tw).

Everyone is exhausted, damaged, burned out. We have an intolerably high suicide rate within activism, which is hardly surprising. My belief is that we can better use technology, creatively, to change that. We can be smarter, we can connect the dots and multiply actions more humanly, strategically, and with the greatest viral impact at the moment we need it most, as well as better generating, monitoring and maintaining momentum.

My experience
You may be reading this thinking ‘she’s nuts’… and in a way you’d be right. But I’m the right kind of nuts. These ideas might sound unachievable, but I’ve previously pioneered ways of working and thinking that were considered equally unrealistic. Seventeen years ago I trained a community of elderly housing tenants to produce and run their own Internet TV studio (it’s still going today). Around the same time I co-founded and ran an arts organisation which recognised the potential of the technology you carry in your pocket and empowered artists, researchers, educators and businesses to work in the now ubiquitous mobile content sector. Seven years ago I ran a strategic initiative at Australia’s federal arts funding body which challenged the notion of intellectual property rights in the digital age and created a “Geek in Residence” program, designed to enable holistic cultural shifts within arts organisations by subsidising media arts/technologist placements within arts organisations (and which other communities have since adopted). Five years ago I created a statement within my lifestyle choice which rejects the norm and celebrates otherness and humanness in a world fixated on homogeneity and capitalism. This year I managed to use arts funding to run a social change campaign for Boandik Indigenous Peoples. I’ve traversed sectors and continents and am known and trusted to get shit done whether I’m running a $2.4 million dollar budget or bartering (although the latter is my preference). I don’t believe this is impossible. Difficult, yes. Yet another thing to ask of campaigners, most likely, yes. But not impossible.

Personally, I’m done with complying. I’m done with pretending it will all get better if only we’re just patient and play the game. The game is rigged and we – those with hearts full of anguish instead of greed – are the losers, no matter how well we play. As I mentioned, I’ve been building these ideas largely alone, but this isn’t something one person could achieve alone, nor would a single approach be successful for something like this. No matter what I do, what I learn, or with whom I’m collaborating, I am always going to perceive existence through the lens of an educated white British woman. While I’ve never lived in luxury (nor wanted to) I can never entirely deny my privilege. But if I can’t get rid of it I’m damn well going to do whatever I can to use it to improve the lives of others. This vision is where I’ve got to so far. Some of it I have practised with grassroots communities (http://carefor.country; http://artprotagonists.com), some are things I’d like to explore further. Maybe that’s with you, maybe elsewhere. I’ve tried pitching this to social change fellowships previously and been rejected because my ideas are ‘too big’ or ‘not focusing on one single cause’. As a experimental media artist twenty years ago I received the same responses (even from people who should know better – as with Douglas Rushkoff’s testimonial from the media virus I created for his novel Ecstasy Club in 1997). I was right then and I genuinely believe there’s a lot of good in what I’ve achieved with all this so far. Maybe I’m right this time, too.

Apologies for the extremely long cover letter, but I hope you can appreciate why I felt the need to present it. My CV (one for the arts works and one for social change, sometimes with crossovers) is attached. Should you require references, I have asked <redacted> to respond to requests, but can happily provide contacts for my longer media arts world experiences too.

Wishing you the very best with your selection process, whatever the outcome.
With much admiration and respect for what you do,
Yours sincerely, fee.