METRO ON THE MOVE

METRO ON THE MOVE

The announcement last week of the news of Metro’s future felt monumental.  To me. To the Metro Board and staff. And I suspect to many who heard or have since read the news.  Change is challenging to say the least, but I know we can’t see what’s over the hill if we simply stand still.

So, we are on the move.

I was going to write about future ideas and potential visions for the future, but I know it takes time to digest the information and to heal first.  I’ve decided instead to share some of my process – how I arrived at the point where I am comfortable with selling our Old Broad. Late last year, for the Performance Space LiveWorks Conference in Sydney, I was asked to speak about something that was keeping me up at night and something I was passionate about.  This speech reflects the rawness I was feeling at that time, and the struggle to find a way through for all of us now and into the next 40 years.

In January this year when I launched the 2017 Metro Arts program I said the following:

“I’ve thought a lot about our 2017 program – the works we’re creating and presenting and the artists we’re collaborating with….  They are a reflection of the world we’re living in, of the changes and challenges we see all around us. Artists are here to witness, to testify but also to challenge, to question, to console, to empathize, to inspire…  to produce ideas that make new ways of seeing, thinking and feeling possible! This is the driving vision behind Metro Arts as a cultural organisation and I suggest behind the artists and art you see in the building. Nothing here is safe or gently snuggling up to the status quo – that’s not our job!  Our job is contemporary art, live and living art, challenging and experimental and diverse art and in a time where not much is making sense in the world I believe these artforms are the ones to articulate a new understanding, and a new way forward.

2017 is a very big year with a very big program offering more support than ever to independent artists and we have done this as a deliberate response to the funding cut-backs made specifically to the small-to-medium sector and to independents.  We are here at Metro Arts to support and collaborate, to witness and to testify – to make sure unique independent voices are not lost in our cultural landscape.”

Ten months later I’m looking backwards and reflecting on a really tough year.

I have long been an advocate for independent and experimental artists, the cultural value of their work, and the important role artists play in the sociological landscape as provocateurs, as feeders, experimenters, those who challenge and push…

But I’ve been thinking about inequity of access, lack of diversity in stories and on stages and walls, the plight of our First Nations peoples, the constant reduction of funding, the invisible arts and culture policy in Australia as a nation, the struggling artists and arts-workers who constantly prop up the industry, mental health and self-care concerns, homelessness, the effect of the NDIS on service organisations for differently abled artists and audiences…. these are all cultural issues for me and I suggest cultural failings.

Someone very dear to me recently suffered a severe psychosis.  During a moment of lucidity we talked about creative thinking and new ways of looking at the world and how to find a better way forward.  She talked about ‘the solution’. She talked about how she felt she had to solve everything, fix everything, be great at everything and the pressure that overwhelmed her.  She said she was listening to Beethoven before she ‘went crazy’ (her words)… Beethoven. An artist – one might even say an independent artist of his time. Someone who saw the world differently and offered a response.

Now, more than ever the world needs cultural solutions, connection to art, beauty, truth, authentic expression……My friend reminded me that I had always had an artistic mind, a way of working that sat outside the norm….

And so

…after all of these musings, all of these critical, crucial and large issues, I look closer to home, I look intimately at myself, as an artist, and a woman, a cultural ‘leader’ and a mind, body, heart and soul, as one who has given and tried to find cultural solutions and offer something.  But right here, right now, I feel defeated and burnt out and angry.

I do not feel I have been able to do enough for our artists, I do not see a shift in thinking or support or policy, I have not been able to solve some extreme problems for the nearly 40-year-old small arts organisation I love and have been associated with in one way or another since 1999.

I reflect…as an arts and culture leader when is it time to say enough?  We have tried and succeeded and tried and failed and tried again. Is it enough?  I don’t want to quit. I don’t want to be angry and defeatist but… Everything dies, from grandparents to goldfish.  Sometimes organisations, programs, companies also have to stop….

In order to truly shake the status quo, and hopefully to renew and start again.

And so, I will return to the art and artists…to look for hope and inspiration… I am proud of the work we are making and presenting in Queensland.  Highlights for me this year include Warraba Weatherall’s stunning inaugural solo exhibition exploring deaths in custody of our Indigenous people, 30 years after the Royal Commission and nothing has changed;

And finally, I offer you some words from a Canadian-Australian group, Too Close to the Sun, who presented their work, Bluebird Mechanicals, a few months ago at Metro Arts. This monologue spoke to me – it made me sit up and listen.  It was beautiful, poignant, poetic and urgent work by independent artists. Due to the difficulty of gaining sufficient ongoing support to create new work, over three years the artists sought assistance from each of the following:  The Australia Council for the Arts, The Banff Centre, Canada’s National Arts Centre English Theatre, Arts NSW, the Council of the Arts in Quebec, the Rex Cramphorn Studio’s Artists-in-Residence Program at the University of Sydney, HotHouse Theatre’s A Month in the Country, Playwrights’ Workshop Montreal and Metro Arts.

A thank you and acknowledgement to Talya Rubin (and her collaborator Nick James) for allowing me to use these words….

Everyone wants a drink, I know.  I know, I know you all want one.

You have escaped the humdrum, the ho-hum.  You have escaped your own mind, you’ve escaped your own head, your own soul, your own thoughts.  You’ve escaped. It’s OK now.

You don’t have to worry about pretence or pretentiousness or keeping up appearances cause we are all doing that together all the time, so drop the mask, and put on your face.  It’s OK now, we are no longer on solid ground. That means everything is shifting and whatever you’re thinking, feeling, experiencing is acceptable…. as long as you keep it to yourself and shut up.

God only knows what you people do.  You disgust me, each and every one of you with your fat smiles and your big red lips and your engorged mouths swallowing constantly – you can’t even see your flaws……

Well it’s been delightful speaking with you.  I will be back later on to announce the entertainment services and meal times and menus.

So stay tuned.

Jo Thomas
Metro Arts’ Creative Director & CEO
December 2018

CAN THEATRE MAKE YOU LIVE LONGER?

CAN THEATRE MAKE YOU LIVE LONGER?

I have exhausted one third of my probable life expectancy. So says a website that offers death predictions based on health and demographic data. I found this estimate a couple of years ago and recorded milestones in my calendar so that I would know exactly how I was tracking. The one-third mark was last year, Friday the 29th of September at 2:55pm. I didn’t really celebrate.

This year I had another date in my calendar. The 16th of June – this was my ten thousandth day on earth. That morning to mark the occasion I tried to take a dramatic photo of myself looking weary. Anyone who has been around for a bit longer might disagree and roll their eyes, but look – lately I’m feeling old.

Time seems to be rushing along, disappearing at a quickening rate. And maybe in the middle of Deathfest, now might be as good a time as ever to reflect on our collective mortality.

I often feel that theatre has a lot to do with mortality. Unlike other art forms, theatre depends on us giving over units of our own lives in order to participate. When it works, theatre transforms those pieces, amplifying our experience of being alive and heightening our awareness beyond that of the everyday. But of course, anyone who has seen enough theatre will agree that the opposite can be true – bad theatre can suck away at your life force, intensifying the feeling that by the act of living you are also slowly dying…

Andrew Upton (former artistic director of Sydney Theatre Company) claims that performance is bound by the same constraints as life itself. It takes place within units of time and space, and so we experience theatre in the same way that we encounter reality. As fictional as it might be, our time spent in theatrical worlds is still an application of our own reality.

I’ve become a bit obsessed with these ideas in my own practice. I don’t want to waste any part of someone’s life! The work is here & now. So how can it be very here and very now?

In my postgrad research, I went down a rabbit hole of neuroscience to try and address these impulses. For example, now becomes a different kind of challenge when you realise that humans do not actually perceive the present. Neuroscientist David Eagleman explains that our senses are not actually a live feed to the world. Rather, our brain has to laboriously construct its perception of reality using data from a range of delayed feeds. Our eyes don’t process information at the same speed as our ears, and our nerves transport information slower than the speed of a car on the motorway. The result is that our brain has to carefully synchronise all of this data to give us a retrospective understanding of what has happened in our immediate surroundings.

It can take up to a tenth of a second for the brain to reach its conclusions. So in fact our lived experiences are all about a tenth of a second behind the reality of their circumstances. We don’t perceive this delay because we don’t know any better – our brain self-corrects, and this becomes what we understand as the present, even though we are caught in a lag.

Considering that we are therefore all caught in the past, now becomes something that we can’t necessarily exploit, but rather have to construct. The feeling of now. Alan Burdick explains that we do not perceive empty time until it contains something. An empty moment simply doesn’t register to us until it contains an event for reference – even if that event is the movement of a clock’s second hand, or someone declaring the word now.

“Look up into a clear blue sky: how far away is one hundred feet? How far is a mile? With no landmarks for reference, one can’t say. It’s the same with time. If we perceive time’s passage it’s because we perceive change, and for us to perceive change, the time must be somehow filled; an empty duration alone won’t stimulate our awareness. So what fills it?”

- Alan Burdick quoting William James

Theatre is an elaborate declaration of now. An ambition to fill our empty time with something significant, so that it might be recognised. To give more resonance to this unit of our life than what we otherwise might have had.

But here’s the interesting part – that tenth of a second processing time is relative depending on what we fill a moment with. Eagleman found that when the brain took in extra information, the processing time increased and the moment expanded.

For instance, if I were to swing a golf club towards your face, or if the balcony on which you were standing were to suddenly collapse – in those threatening moments, your brain would kick into overdrive. The amygdala would commandeer excess resources so that your brain would become intensely focused on capturing and understanding the circumstances at-hand. The resulting data would take longer to reconcile.

After this heightened experience, your memory of it would move in slow motion. The richness of your data would also mean that your senses were more vivid. You would feel as though you had lived for longer in that moment.

Eagleman uses this same principle to explain why time seems to speed up as we get older. In the same way that our perception of time can expand by ingesting more detail, so too can our time be rushed by an inattentive lack of detail. The more familiar we get with the experience of living, the less data we tend to capture. Whether due to routine or disinterest, we have less curiosity and therefore less inclination to observe intensely.

“This may be why time seems to speed up as you age: you develop more compressed representations of events, and the memories to be read out are correspondingly impoverished. When you are a child, and everything is novel, the richness of the memory gives the impression of increased time passage—for example, when looking back at the end of a childhood summer.”

– David Eagleman

The author Carleton Noyes described how the world around us closes in as we grow up and lose our childish curiosity. In this transition, “imagination surrenders to the intellect; emotion gives place to knowledge,” and so we cease to play.

But perhaps this is our obligation as artists. To stimulate newfound curiosity. To defamiliarise the familiar. To heighten experiences so that our brains are prompted to ingest more data once again!

This is why I revolt against tradition. Why I find repetition and routine so draining. Experimentation is urgent. Form needs to be reinvented, ruptured, re-birthed. With my life in your hands, show me something new. Something now. Something so unexpected that my brain can’t fill in all of the gaps.

I’m not about to swing a golf club at your face, I promise. But I’d certainly like to heighten your present.  Counterpilot projects are all about transforming the familiar. We like to find surprising combinations of things we recognise, and subvert them using rich design or gameplay.

The result, if we are to believe Eagleman, is an expanded duration of experience. With such art, we can stave off our own mortality. Kind of.

Can theatre make you live longer? Not really. Not if measured in units of time. But considering that our perception of time is not constant, maybe it shouldn’t be about measuring the minutes.

Theatre declares our now in a bolder way than our everyday life might be able to. It is a mode for our reality that transcends what we expect from what is real.  In perception and memory, a life regularly stimulated by intrigue and curiosity would feel as though it had lasted longer.

If you don’t believe that theatre can save lives, then at least believe it can do this.

Nathan Sibthorpe

November 2018

OPEN LETTER TO EMERGING ARTISTS

OPEN LETTER TO EMERGING ARTISTS

When I read Aaron Dora’s blogpost (Art Speak #7) about pathways for emerging artists, I felt the urge to express my support for his positive approach. Jo Thomas suggested I might like to expand this into an open letter, so here I am!

My original message:

Hi Aaron, I don’t usually connect with people I don’t know, but I have just read your piece on the Metro Arts website about pathways for moving into the industry, and I admire the way you are setting out to negotiate this tricky journey. One of my passions has long been to nurture the Brisbane industry by doing what I can to encourage opportunities for young and emerging theatre-makers. You clearly have the drive to initiate projects, and, importantly, to take others with you. It is people like you who are our future. I wish you all the best with the [Fresh Blood] festival, and with all your projects. I hope we get to meet some time.

It turns out that we had indeed met (sort of) when Aaron attended an open rehearsal of ‘2 Guys in a Box’, the show I co-wrote with Andrew Cory for Bris Fest last year. (Shameless plug – we’re following that up with ‘A Coupla Dogs’ this year.) That viewing came about because Sean Mee was directing and he invited his students to a run-through. A win-win situation. The students got to see a professional work in progress and as artists we were able to pick the bright lively minds of future theatre-makers.

It is just this kind of exchange that enables our industry to develop. Sam Strong recently wrote about artist pathways from his position as Artistic Director of a State Theatre company (’10 things theatre companies can provide to artists’, ArtsHub 14 August 2018), citing a comprehensive list from tickets and space through access to decision-making and makers, to cooperation and hospitality. It was an example of what can be achieved with a responsible outlook, an attitude of generosity and – let’s not be naive – an awareness of what the company itself needs if it is to develop and thrive. Win-win.

But there remains the challenge of getting started in the first place, or, as Aaron puts it ‘[finding] your way into an industry that seems so hard to crack.’ Aaron rightly says that pathways from university are not clear, and that ‘you have to go beyond your studies to actually get the skills you need’. In fact, this is in many ways the nature of the industry.

Let’s be frank: just as there are no clear pathways at the start, there are none throughout a theatre career. This can be daunting, but also liberating.

It is easy as an emerging artist to perceive the industry as fixed and established. But the wonderful thing about theatre is that it is not fixed. Companies come and go. Who now remembers the vibrant work of TN! or Kooemba Jdarra? Who remembers that La Boite was once on the point of collapse and clawed its way back from the brink? The industry shifts shape as different theatre-makers make their mark and move on. I’ve been an active member of the industry long enough to have seen several generations of artists emerge. Some quickly submerge and disappear without trace. Others re-emerge if they’re lucky. But some find their feet and stay afloat (to mix my metaphors). One way is to crack into the existing industry. Another is to do your own thing and let the industry expand to include you.

We are all shape-shifters. If the pathways are not clear, then it is up to us to create them. I remember an enthusiatic trio of young graduates harnessing support to do just that, and in October this year Bridget Boyle, Robert Kronk and Liz Skitch are celebrating the 20th anniversary of Debase Theatre! The Dead Puppet Society are another group who started small and have changed our industry. Circa emerged out of Rock’n’Roll Circus. Imaginary changed our way of making theatre for children and The Good Room continue to challenge our preconceptions of theatre-making with and for all ages. And so on.

Through a mix of passion, skills, drive and pragmatism, these shape-shifters have put in the work to turn their artistic vision into reality. No doubt they have compromised, had disappointments, probably had to work Muggle jobs along the way. But they have built their resilience, played to their strengths, taken risks and made a commitment. And the industry is healthier and more exciting as a result.

So, to all you emerging artists, I say play to your strengths, take a risk and commit. Create your own pathways and don’t be afraid to ask for help along the way. Resilience is key. Seize the opportunities presented by such organisations as Backbone, Metro Arts, Brisbane Powerhouse. Investigate the range of paid work you can take which is related to the performing arts, even if it’s not central to your interest (ushering, box office, admin, teaching, etc.). Seek out individuals as mentors – be cheeky, just ask! We all started out once, and we need you to succeed.

Sue Rider

September 2018

IN CONVERSATION (LIKE A CASUAL CHAT)

IN CONVERSATION (LIKE A CASUAL CHAT)

Mel: Oi, I’m sick of people thinking this show is just two obnoxious women being like “OOOOO REMEMBER WHEN WE WERE SLUTS, MEN ARE TRASH.”

Lia: Anything but… (That’s what I say to my boyfriend, zing)

Mel:  Yeah, I always think about when our dear friend Aleea said to us, after the first season in 2016, “What would this show be like if it wasn’t two hot women?” or something along those lines.

Lia: Then Matt, our producer, said “Oi, what if all the f**kbois got together and wrote a play about you?”

Mel: Yeah, well, my ego would f**king love it.

Lia: And I would welcome ANYONE talking about real feelings on stage, that shit is juicy!

Mel: I think that’s where the power of this works sits. In the honesty and vulnerability of what we are saying.

Lia: I had a lot of qualms about being this honest on stage. Will people think we are interesting?

Mel: It’s also super challenging when the people you have written about may show up.

Lia: Which they have done, but we just keep on keeping on.

Mel: Anyway, I digress, what’s with boys following me on instagram the morning after? Like literally, just after they’ve left my house.

Lia: What is that?! Boys do this thing, where they follow me on social media when we haven’t even matched on tinder, and I find that really creepy. Invasion of privacy, not taking a “no, we haven’t matched for a reason” as an actual “no, i don’t want to talk to you.” I hate it. Makes me mad.

Mel: Oi, I read a really good bio on tinder he other day: “Class struggle in the streets, comrade snuggle in the sheets.” I messaged him “omfg too good” and he never replied.

Lia: To digress yet again, I am a big fan of a man who is openly into cuddling. Could fang a cuddle ASAP.

Mel: I’m really into ‘the modern new age man’, offering to brush the sex knots outta my hair, it feels very intimate to me. But also I’m like “no, you don’t know how to do it”.

Lia: I will never know this pleasure, because even BEFORE the sex, I have the tousled hair of lion. Which is funny, because I also think men don’t know how to grab my hair, the fro, like “Is it a loofah? How do I hold it?” It presents a funny conundrum in the boudoir.

Mel: I think there’s a lot of things that men don’t know how to do.

Lia: And if we’re on this train, there’s a lot I don’t know how to do!

Mel: Sometimes, I think people assume we think we are experts on sex and intimacy and all things love, because we wrote this show. But ya couldn’t be more wrong. I guess this show is our way of trying to understand and process this stuff.

Lia: I’m just trying to live my life and be an ethical slut.

Mel: I think I’m past my slut days, my misspent youth.

Lia: Not what you said last night!

Mel: Don’t you dare write that!

Lia: I think the dumbest thing I’ve ever done, was break up with someone three days before my birthday.

Mel: I cry every birthday. I think there’s a lot of pressure on days when you’re meant to have fun.

Lia: Can confirm. It was probably the loneliest birthday ever.

Mel: I’ve never celebrated Valentine’s with someone before.

Lia: But again, I feel like that’s the power of the show. I feel like every performance we come together as a group and feel connected, I feel the comradery with a group of strangers. It always just feels like I’m gasbagging with some friends over a vino, or seven.

Mel: I feel like we could have used this time to go deep on theory and talk about #metoo movement and the culture in Australia in the wake of Eurydice Dixon, but sometimes, you don’t need theory, you just need some girlfriends to have a debrief with, and I guess, that’s a mood this show tries to cultivate.

Not with Love,

Wightman and Stark

August 2018

THE IMPORTANCE OF PRACTICAL PATHWAYS FOR EMERGING ARTISTS

THE IMPORTANCE OF PRACTICAL PATHWAYS FOR EMERGING ARTISTS

So I’ve been asked to get up on my soap box and write a little spiel about pathways for emerging artists in Brisbane. How do you find your way into an industry that seems so hard to crack?

As an emerging director and producer, I feel there doesn’t seem to be any clear pathways to paid work. Maybe that seems bleak, and maybe it’s the angst of a person just about to graduate an arts degree, but it seems to be a truth for many in my position. A degree doesn’t magically grant you a career in the arts. You need to work hard to find hands-on experiences. These opportunities are the pathways – the ones you create for yourself by making your own work.

In the past three years of my bachelor studies, most of my learning has come not from being in a lecture chair, but from being at rehearsals outside of university. The practical experiences in my degree seem to be getting less and less like the “real world”. Everywhere a three-hour tutorial can be turned into a two-hour tutorial, it is. Our teaching team are outstanding sources of knowledge. Why is it that our rehearsals that are supposed to be like professional experiences for us seem to be bubble wrapped taste testers where we all go through the motions for a score on a scale from 1 to 7? I’m not sure.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m very thankful for having the opportunity to attend university. It’s important to be able to discuss art and art making with knowledge in a shared language. (I also love the fact that I can impress my parents by talking about postmodernism or the importance of cultural democracy.) However, the truth is that the pathways from university into the industry aren’t clear, and you have to go beyond your studies to actually get the skills you need.

It’s places like Metro Arts that support artists in making this first step. Just this year I’ve worked on three projects at Metro, each in different capacities from digital media designer to assistant producer. I’ve also been working with Metro all year to try to create pathways for others. If you didn’t already know, Vena Cava Productions is QUT’s student theatre company, run completely by students for students. I’m lucky enough to be at the helm as Artistic Director in 2018. This year Metro Arts have welcomed us as Student Company in Residence 2018. I can’t stress enough how fantastic this is.

We’ve been working alongside Metro to present an entire festival dedicated to creating pathways for emerging artists. It’s called Fresh Blood Festival. All sorts of live performances have been created, bound only by the fact that the works have never been seen before, and that they have been created completely by students. We’ll be having a dramaturge in residence to give feedback on the shows, and an industry panel discussion on theatre making in Brisbane. It’s a place for learning, experimentation, connecting experienced artists with emerging artists and for showcasing some the future of Brisbane’s arts scene. I’m so glad to have been part of this, and it makes me hopeful that pathways for emerging artists will continue to become more prominent through initiatives such as this.

Aaron Dora

Artistic Director, Vena Cava Productions

July 2018

SISYPHUS COULD BE SMILING

SISYPHUS COULD BE SMILING

Imagining Futurity in Aishla Manning’s Soft Blow 2018

The leaf blower, through its own efforts, only meets dull thuds. All it can do is blow, or not blow. Do, or not do. These are its only choices. When not blowing it dangles limply, in isolation, bungee cord and pillow strapped around its midsection, waiting (?), tame in its parameters (?), complacent (?), in the crude MDF box clamped by clamps together at the top corners. We can see the makeshift pseudo integrity of these joins, but it’s the same thud to the leaf blower when it chooses its only agency, the pillow ill-situated to soften any blow.

The leaf blower is a symbol of capital’s conquer of the “natural” environment, a last little frill of unnecessity (because what symbolises rule better than unnecessity?). It is the tool of the one who decides where the leaves shall not be, not on the lawn, not on the driveway. I have a friend whose job is to blow the leaves off the lawns at University of Queensland every single day(1). Things have to be natural in the right way. What then of this tool of the system that naturalises? What then of this apparatus when it enacts upon itself? Well, it takes turns flying about like a christmas beetle under fluoros, banging into the walls of its pen, then succumbing to idle suspension.

Sisyphus comes to mind, for obvious reasons. The leaf blower is both him and his boulder, blowing forth (backward?) only to ricochet back (forward?). And it seems so damn sad! Then Albert Camus was like, “but who says Sisyphus isn’t smiling? Who says he is in torment just cause his work like obtains no production, gains no ground, is technically an eternal punishment, and is, like, essentially meaningless? Y’know, maybe he found some meaning in it.”(2) Haven’t we all, at one point or another, arrived at the meaningless conclusion about our lives, or life in general? And then continually make our best efforts to dull that knife on carving our own meanings, and stabbing at bits of joy, that knife that sharpens persistently on the whetstone of our disappointments and depressions? Hmm, sounds a lot like Sisyphus. Following Camus’ logic, perhaps the leaf blower could be smiling too? I mean, the scene is kinda funny, in its absurdity, and in a slapsticky way. Appreciation of absurdity requires a step back perspective, it takes us out of the game for a while. Here, we’re given a two-fold reprieve- through comedy, and through the distancing this perspective affords us. We laugh at it because otherwise we’d cry for ourselves. Otherwise, it’s too real.

But this situated distinction (us/it) fades pretty fast, and ohh no, here comes the empathising… Y’know, I feel a lot like the leaf blower. [begin scene] I try and I try and I try and sometimes, no matter fuckin what I do, I’m brought thudding back on my arse, in one way or another. *throws arms up in indignation* And I know that doing nothing at all won’t help either. So all I can do is try right? And just hope that one day, it’ll be the system that gives way, not me! [end scene] I wonder if Sisyphus ever thought that one day the boulder would not roll back down the hill, but he’d manage to get it to the top. And then what? Have a bit of a breather and just push it back down the other side of the hill? Isn’t that the same thing? Maybe he saw that, this hill, or that hill, he couldn’t escape the meaninglessness. Besides, he gets to be outside right? And he enjoys listening to the bird calls and the insects’ songs as he toils, and at least he’s not condemned eternally to office work! Those poor chumps, he thinks, they sure are alienated from their labour! I can at least keep physically fit and breathe fresh air, and listen to interesting podcasts, he says to himself as he works on his Positive Mental Attitude. I always thought Sisyphus was doomed, and then I learnt that I am him, except I have more variation in my day-to-day. And now it appears that Sisyphus could be smiling.

Okay, so let’s say the leaf blower has also worked on its PMA and carved some strivable life meaning out for itself and it is hard at work trying to bring down the closed system of the clamped MDF pen it finds itself in. Clamps upon clamps seems to me an apt metaphor for the structures that hold the given world together. They’re not permanent fixings, not preordained truths, it’s not “just the way things are”, they’re just clamped there. Maybe the leaf blower is trying to huff and puff and blow those naturalising parameters down from the inside! If they were clamped there at some point, then they can be unclamped, right!? Maybe that’s what the leaf blower is hoping, although, for all my anthropomorphising, I just can’t seem to see its hope, just its futility. Maybe that is because (through my humancentric lens) it is a tool, a doing thing, that has a use. And on this occasion, its doing is rendered void, useless, pathetic. The tool out of the hands of the leaf oppressor lacks direction, it blows back, it backfires. I guess tools just aren’t supposed to work on their own. But hang on, perhaps I am doing this leaf blower a hypocritical disservice. On one hand I humanise it to represent me through metaphor in my humanny struggles, because at my distance I can relate safely, I can laugh, not cry, and enjoy the artistic gesture. Yet, on the other hand, I deny it any hope and therefore, perhaps, any futurity outside of this situation. And I’ll admit, in a conversation after the show a friend said that they want to see the leaf blower break apart the walls, and I said “I don’t!” Because, like if Sisyphus got his boulder to the top of the hill, what then for the leaf blower? It no longer has to bang its arse around against those walls – cool, but it’d still be swinging around aimlessly in isolation under a rental house in Highgate Hill. Y’know, as Bob Dylan said (ergh I can’t believe I’m quoting Bob Dylan), “are birds free from the chains of the skyway?”(3)

In saying all this, am I also doing myself a disservice? Am I denying myself hope and futurity in a bargain to temporarily soothe my feelings of futility and meaningless through this dissociated solidarity with the leaf blower? An existential crutch which only remains in tact in its closed sisyphean loop? Is it easier to just externalise an apprehension of harsh reality, and distance myself from it through a critique of the systems of domination? Than to like, imagine otherwise? Donna Haraway reckons that critique alone is idiotic because it doesn’t imagine other ways of being.(4) And I reckon my friend was right.(5) Against this “tools just aren’t supposed to” business, and beyond this “it’s all the same meaninglessness anyway” dejected rhetoric, I need to be imagining other possibilities. Maybe I need to imagine those clamps losing grip, and those walls clamouring down and, after that, I need to imagine another way of being (or means of becoming) for the leaf blower and for myself, and I guess while I’m at it, for me smilin’ mate, Sisyphus, too.

Aishla Manning Soft Blow (2018).
Exhibited at Kunstbunker Artist Run Initiative, Brisbane, 2018.
Image Credit: Naomi O’Reilly.

Kinly Grey

June 2018

I ONLY BECAME AN ARTIST SO THAT I WOULD BE CRITICISED

I ONLY BECAME AN ARTIST SO THAT I WOULD BE CRITICISED

Attendance figures dictate our livelihood and means of production. We rely on the numbers gleaned from door counts, ticket sales and surveys and are held hostage by the ebb and flow of patrons through the thresholds of our galleries. Sadly, the echo chamber that constitutes a large part of audiences at small-to-medium art venues is often not sizable enough to warrant an exchange of money from the wallet of the government into the hands and pockets of artists and art workers. This places us in a position where we have to defend the relevance and value of cultural affects that have such little reach.

So, we turn to the general public and ask them to sample our wares.

The public doesn’t always like us, and, why should they? It’s not as though we provide a service for free, expose the inner most parts of ourselves as a form of entertainment or deliver experiences or ideas that have been the product of years of consideration… except we do, and we offer this invitation to share in our domain while asking for little in return.

Who in our industry hasn’t heard the phrase “I don’t get it,” or been on the receiving end of an unsolicited sermon denouncing ‘conceptual art,’ as elitist because curators and artists are out of touch art wankers?  In accordance with these verbal jousts, art must be visually appealing, its lone significance is how good it looks on the wall. Emerging from this is a mistaken belief in a conspiracy of anti-aestheticism that is continuously being unpacked by artists and writers.

These opinions are typically parroted from the mouths of people who seem deeply personally offended that they “don’t get it.” As though artists and arts workers are inconveniencing them simply by creating something that doesn’t fit neatly within their narrow definition of art. This criticism of contemporary art as elitist is a thinly veiled form of anti-intellectualism disguised as inclusivity.

The public feels alienated, while artists, authors, organisations and funding bodies go to great, unsuccessful lengths to reach them.

Should art be accessible? Yes, absolutely. But who is to say those of us making it are the ones creating barriers. Art civilians do not need protecting from dangerous or challenging ideas. Yet as artists and art workers, we are constantly negotiating how the public perceive us. What this says to me is that the voices of the people speaking, the artists, are not worth being heard – that our narratives are not credible enough because they aren’t consumable enough.

While I truly believe that art is an open dialogue, sometimes it feels like we’re just yelling into an abyss from our ivory towers.

Caity Reynolds

May 2018

MANDY QUADRIO MOVES OUT OF THE GALLERY FOR MAIWAR FESTIVAL

MANDY QUADRIO MOVES OUT OF THE GALLERY FOR MAIWAR FESTIVAL

Under an Indigenous curatorial premise of ‘interconnectedness’, my sculptural work Continuing Connections 2018, will feature as part of a collective of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists invited to participate in the 2018 annual Brisbane festival of ‘Maiwar’.

The Maiwar festival (a local Aboriginal word for the Brisbane River) acknowledges and celebrates Brisbane’s main waterway and honours stories about change, adaptability and endurance – referencing both Indigenous and non-Indigenous engagements with the watercourse. Maiwar provides a platform for the telling of Indigenous people’s stories outside of the institution and the gallery where they are brought into visibility and into the public domain. On building walls, laneways, bridges and random Brisbane city spaces, artists bring a wide range of artistic styles and media to represent the diverse range of experiences from contemporary black Australia. Often embedded with socio-political content and layered historical references and narrative, these works validate and strengthen our cultural continuity, community networks and exchange, and our enduring sense of pride in our identity.

At a time when racist commentary is still very present in the media and popular culture and our Indigenous identity is under constant attack it is imperative that we continue to make artistic and cultural representations that provide a counter-narrative to fictional Western discourses and justifications of colonisation. Increased Indigenous curatorship will ensure Indigenous stories and lived experiences are foregrounded and acknowledged, and provide appropriate environments where our ideas are centred and not historically embedded in Western canons. Skilful curatorial direction and tactical approaches can provide a challenge for Western institutions to take on Indigenous ways of knowing, teaching and being, and strategically enact positive social change in the wider society.

As a palawa woman from tebrakunna (North-East Tasmania) living in Brisbane and a contributor to Maiwar 2018, I bring my Indigenous worldview to the premise of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander interconnectedness. I have reflected and contemplated on ageless stories and more contemporary urban histories. My response to these contemplations has been to develop three-dimensional, sculptural works entitled Continuing Connections 2018, that connect our mutual and diverse cultural water stories. Using materials that invite curiosity such as rusting steel wool along with fresh and decaying Tasmanian bull kelp, I have developed work that celebrates and emphasises our cultural heritage, identity and resilience as well as metaphorically referencing colonial history, encounter and memory. These ephemeral works have been installed in two glass, boxed vitrines, centrally located within Brisbane city streets.

The cessation of the three month long Maiwar festival will see my sculptural works removed from the contained and confining spaces of the enclosed, public vitrines. This departure point will provide an opportunity to expand upon and continue socio-political dialogues around my changing and transforming work as I move forms into the Metro Arts Gallery space where I will be Speaking beyond the vitrine.

Mandy Quadrio

April 2018

MAKING LIVE ABSURDIST ART IN AN ABSURD CONTEMPORARY DIGITAL WORLD

MAKING LIVE ABSURDIST ART IN AN ABSURD CONTEMPORARY DIGITAL WORLD

Director Heidi Manché writes for Art Speak about making live absurdist art in an absurd contemporary digital world.

Our communication in the digital age has indeed taken an absurd turn. We are inundated by hyper-sexualisation, curated images, the meme, the troll, stalking and the inward gaze as we curl into our smartphones.

One of the results of this is an increased anxiety about interacting with the real world. This is the experience of the orphans in The Eisteddfod. Playing out their adult longings and anxieties through curated roles enables them to both avoid the real world and understand the strange world which they have come to inhabit.

After the accidental death of their parents when they were young, the now adult children, Abalone and Gerture, spend their days in child-like games, acting out memories of their parents and other relationships. They remove themselves from the outside world and live among rising decay in a suburban room. The orphaned pair live out their days on the blurred edge of fantasy and reality.

The Eisteddfod is their story. They explore past trauma through role playing in a bid to understand and release it. The playwright herself, appears in the play and interacts with her characters – a comment on the act of creation and its role in helping the writer explore her own sufferings.

This tale is otherworldly, dreamlike, driven by the subconscious. It depicts both the absurd lure of cruelty and the need for protection from our own delusions. There are questions of love and loss, yearning and ambition – logic and a linear narrative fall short of expressing these experiences. In The Eisteddfod, the imagination, metaphors of agoraphobia and magical realism express a truth that our everyday communication simply cannot.

These characters are stuck in space and time, struggling to free themselves. Does the digital world create a similar sense of agoraphobia? Our need to feel connected and liked remains the same, however our methods of doing so are perhaps increasing our sense of isolation.

Art and imagination are a way to make sense of this bizarre world.  If digital communication is our most efficient and prevalent mode of communication then art, especially unorthodox in presentation, can present an alternative to this. A moment to reflect, feel and converse with real people in real time. Perhaps that is why we have congregated around fires, churches, arenas, theatres for millennia.

As absurd as this tale is, it is a critical observation of tomorrow’s world. It’s a contemporary tale and yet the oldest yarn in the world.

Heidi Manché

March 2018

FEMALE LEADERS UNITE!

FEMALE LEADERS UNITE!

Brisbane Arts organisations came together to empower future female leaders at the 2017 Matilda Awards.

Elise Greig, Chair of the awards, writes for Art Speak about the new award added for 2018 Emerging Female Leader and why it matters.

When Penny asked me to write a blog post I jumped at the chance.  Having sat in the auditorium of the Powerhouse Theatre the night before, watching the 2017 Matilda Awards ceremony, I was inspired, moved and empowered to witness six women I admire (Katherine Hoepper, Jo Thomas, Sandra Willis, Fiona Maxell, Paige Rattray and Kate Fell) announce the new Matilda Award category for Emerging Female Leader. They are personally financing this award as a sign of their commitment to the inclusion of women as leaders within the theatre sector.  Putting their money where their mouths are. Backing their words with deeds. A wealth of feminist literature tells us that recognition, attribution, acknowledgement, inclusion and respect are issues women have fought for throughout history. What a relief to see action addressing these issues.

The landscape is changing and there’s a palpable feeling that we are right in the middle of a milestone moment, not only in the arts, but in the broader community.  The goings on in Hollywood, the ructions closer to home, the #metoo and #timesup campaigns and the reactions, responses and resistances to these events are shaping the zeitgeist.  As I reflect on these issues as a middle-aged, middle-class white woman who is the mother of a daughter and two sons; a daughter herself; a wife; a sister; a human being and an artist, I’m drawn time and again to the central idea of change needing a balance of deeds and words.  The words come through conversation, written reflections, blogs, facebook posts, articles, personal letters, plays, song lyrics, journals, diaries, books, you name it. The deeds come through actions, opportunities created, sought, seized up and demanded. That’s what I saw last night.  That’s what sent shivers down my spine. Action. A group of women reaching into their pockets, so they can reach out and help the next generation to find their way more easily by recognising, not only merit, but also potential. This award contributes to the pathways available to women. How, when and why women walk these pathways is up to them, but without the pathways it’s so much harder for the journey to begin, and indeed to continue.  Having sat on the sidelines of the industry for the last decade while I raise my children, I’ve had time to reflect and renew my commitment to contributing in meaningful ways to my chosen art form as an actor/writer and also, now, in a leadership role as the Chair of the judging committee for the Matilda Awards. Yes, we need words, but we also need deeds. A good deed was done last night.

Elise Greig

February 2018

#METOO AND MORE

#METOO AND MORE

Metro Arts artist and performer Brian Lucas discusses the ongoing potency of art, empowerment and despair in the age of celebrity sex scandals in the first of our regular series of blog posts ART SPEAK.

When we first began the process of transforming Oscar Wilde’s “De Profundis” into a performance piece – over four years ago – the issue of marriage equality was only just beginning to gain prominence in the Australian public sphere. The political, social and personal questions asked by the text, and the concerns about social justice, fairness and equity that it raised, became increasingly relevant over the two years it took to bring the work to life, and paralleled much of the debate that was occurring in our political and social spheres.

Since the premiere season of “De Profundis” in 2015, we have witnessed not only the unnecessarily difficult resolution of the marriage equality issue, but also a period of intense and often bitter public and political debate centred on questions of morality, humanity and identity. Sadly, while this debate has had many, many affirming and positive benefits for LGBTQI Australians, it has also uncovered a vein of toxic homophobia which it seems had been lying dormant just below the surface of our culture. Even with the eventual legislation of marriage equality, this homophobia has achieved a stronger voice and has unfortunately been somewhat normalised and empowered by some of our politicians and our media.

Wilde’s “De Profundis” has undoubtedly maintained its relevance and immediacy since the very moment it poured forth from Oscar’s brain, gut and heart. It is a text of universal scope and incredible individual intensity, and one that has maintained a sense of insight, intellectual power, brutal honesty and social importance for over a hundred years. To have worked on the development of the piece, and to have been able to share it with audiences throughout this time has been a remarkable experience.

Now we find that the work has taken on even more relevance to our current social climate and an even greater sense of immediacy. As we re-rehearse the piece for its latest season, the world around us is undergoing a period of massive social upheaval. Neo-conservatism is on the rise, fundamentalist religions of all stripes are again asserting their desire for control and influence over our lives, and our political and media spheres are becoming even more toxic and unsettled. In particular, we are re-birthing the piece into a world in which sexuality and sexual behaviour is being debated and contested in a way that we haven’t witnessed for some time. The advent of the Weinstein scandals, subsequent revelations and numerous accusations of sexual assault, and the powerful rise of the #MeToo hashtag are signs of a newly heated and volatile atmosphere.

It is into this atmosphere that we bring Wilde’s “De Profundis”. It is indeed a prescient work, detailing in almost painful clarity the poisonous ways in which celebrity, power, sexuality, scandal, media, public opinion, and political opportunism can combine to provide toxic outcomes. Wilde’s case was indeed the first celebrity sex scandal of the modern era, and so many of his experiences and insights have an intensely contemporary feel.

Ultimately though, “De Profundis” is also a redemptive work, redolent with truths about love and humanity, and infused with optimism, hope and a sense of redemption. It is also a profoundly moving expression of the individual’s need for clarity, purpose, passion and love, and of the necessity for each of us to find our own sense of strength and empowerment.

Brian Lucas

January 2018

Year in reflection

Year in reflection

In January this year when I launched the 2017 Metro Arts program I said the following:

“I’ve thought a lot about our 2017 program – the works we’re creating and presenting and the artists we’re collaborating with….  They are a reflection of the world we’re living in, of the changes and challenges we see all around us. Artists are here to witness, to testify but also to challenge, to question, to console, to empathize, to inspire…  to produce ideas that make new ways of seeing, thinking and feeling possible! This is the driving vision behind Metro Arts as a cultural organisation and I suggest behind the artists and art you see in the building.  Nothing here is safe or gently snuggling up to the status quo – that’s not our job!  Our job is contemporary art, live and living art, challenging and experimental and diverse art and in a time where not much is making sense in the world I believe theseartforms are the ones to articulate a new understanding, and a new way forward.

2017 is a very big year with a very big program offering more support than ever to independent artists and we have done this as a deliberate response to the funding cut-backs made specifically to the small-to-medium sector and to independents.  We are here at Metro Arts to support and collaborate, to witness and to testify – to make sure unique independent voices are not lost in our cultural landscape.”

Ten months later I’m looking backwards and reflecting on a really tough year.

I have long been an advocate for independent and experimental artists, the cultural value of their work, and the important role artists play in the sociological landscape as provocateurs, as feeders, experimenters, those who challenge and push…

But I’ve been thinking about inequity of access, lack of diversity in stories and on stages and walls, the plight of our First Nations peoples, the constant reduction of funding, the invisible arts and culture policy in Australia as a nation, the struggling artists and arts-workers who constantly prop up the industry, mental health and self-care concerns, homelessness, the effect of the NDIS on service organisations for differently abled artists and audiences…. these are all cultural issues for me and I suggest cultural failings.

Someone very dear to me recently suffered a severe psychosis.  During a moment of lucidity we talked about creative thinking and new ways of looking at the world and how to find a better way forward.  She talked about ‘the solution’.  She talked about how she felt she had to solve everything, fix everything, be great at everything and the pressure that overwhelmed her.  She said she was listening to Beethoven before she ‘went crazy’ (her words)… Beethoven.  An artist – one might even say an independent artist of his time.  Someone who saw the world differently and offered a response.

Now, more than ever the world needs cultural solutions, connection to art, beauty, truth, authentic expression……My friend reminded me that I had always had an artistic mind, a way of working that sat outside the norm….

And so

…after all of these musings, all of these critical, crucial and large issues, I look closer to home, I look intimately at myself, as an artist, and a woman, a cultural ‘leader’ and a mind, body, heart and soul, as one who has given and tried to find cultural solutions and offer something.  But right here, right now, I feel defeated and burnt out and angry.

I do not feel I have been able to do enough for our artists, I do not see a shift in thinking or support or policy, I have not been able to solve some extreme problems for the nearly 40-year-old small arts organisation I love and have been associated with in one way or another since 1999.

I reflect…as an arts and culture leader when is it time to say enough?  We have tried and succeeded and tried and failed and tried again.  Is it enough?  I don’t want to quit. I don’t want to be angry and defeatist but… Everything dies, from grandparents to goldfish.  Sometimes organisations, programs, companies also have to stop….

In order to truly shake the status quo, and hopefully to renew and start again.

And so, I will return to the art and artists…to look for hope and inspiration… I am proud of the work we are making and presenting in Queensland.  Highlights for me this year include Warraba Weatherall’s stunning inaugural solo exhibition exploring deaths in custody of our Indigenous people, 30 years after the Royal Commission and nothing has changed;

And finally, I offer you some words from a Canadian-Australian group, Too Close to the Sun, who presented their work, Bluebird Mechanicals, a few months ago at Metro Arts. This monologue spoke to me – it made me sit up and listen.  It was beautiful, poignant, poetic and urgent work by independent artists.  Due to the difficulty of gaining sufficient ongoing support to create new work, over three years the artists sought assistance from each of the following:  The Australia Council for the Arts, The Banff Centre, Canada’s National Arts Centre English Theatre, Arts NSW, the Council of the Arts in Quebec, the Rex Cramphorn Studio’s Artists-in-Residence Program at the University of Sydney, HotHouse Theatre’s A Month in the Country, Playwrights’ Workshop Montreal and Metro Arts.

A thank you and acknowledgement to Talya Rubin (and her collaborator Nick James) for allowing me to use these words….

 Everyone wants a drink, I know.  I know, I know you all want one. 

 You have escaped the humdrum, the ho-hum.  You have escaped your own mind, you’ve escaped your own head, your own soul, your own thoughts.  You’ve escaped.  It’s OK now.

You don’t have to worry about pretence or pretentiousness or keeping up appearances cause we are all doing that together all the time, so drop the mask, and put on your face.  It’s OK now, we are no longer on solid ground.  That means everything is shifting and whatever you’re thinking, feeling, experiencing is acceptable…. as long as you keep it to yourself and shut up.

 God only knows what you people do.  You disgust me, each and every one of you with your fat smiles and your big red lips and your engorged mouths swallowing constantly – you can’t even see your flaws……

 Well it’s been delightful speaking with you.  I will be back later on to announce the entertainment services and meal times and menus.

 So stay tuned.