Thursday, 29 January 2015

Postcard from Perth 39

Postcard from Perth Fringe World: Week 1

It’s that time of year again in Perth. The Urban Orchard and Pleasure Garden outdoor bars are buzzing at either end of James St, the Spiegel and other circus and cabaret tents are sparkling, and regular and pop-up indoor venues are humming around the Cultural Centre and all over town. I’m seeing about twenty shows this year – local, interstate and international – and for the first time I’ve broken my own rule and asked for complimentary tickets, so I’m going to have to be super-efficient, see and review all of them one way or another, and keep the Postcards coming over the next few weeks.

Fresh (or not so fresh) back from the Australian Theatre Forum in Sydney (I’ll keep the Postcards coming on that event too), on Sunday night I caught two surreal New Zealand one-man shows in the hand-picked Blue Room Summer Nights season: The Bookbinder by Trick of the Light Theatre, written and performed by Ralph McCubbin Howell, and directed and designed by Hannah Smith, and physical theatre/mime artist/clown Trygve Wakenshaw’s Kraken.

The Bookbinder is an enchanting, witty and haunting work of visual storytelling theatre for adults and kids. The performance I saw was in fact haunted by quite a few very young, energetic and voluble sprites whose parents had presumably seized on the opportunity to keep them occupied on a sultry summer Sunday evening the night before Australia Day. Ralph coped manfully with the extra challenge, and kept us all enthralled.

The text is a Babushka doll of stories nested within in at least four layers of narrative, fantasy, dream and performance, reminiscent of the 1001 Nights (or more recently Neil Gaiman). Ralph’s storytelling protagonist adapts his voice and physicality to play mutliple roles while maintaining a beguiling intimacy with the audience and operating (or seeming to) lighting and sound cues; but the central performance thread is his manipulation and animation of the set and objects. Indeed the star of the show is a picture-book (beautifully designed and made by Smith) which contains hidden and multi-dimensional surprises. The Bookbinder is a small gem of a work that like all good fantasy manages to be artful and entertaining, light and dark, to speak across generations and indeed across time.

My second treat for the evening was Kraken, across the way at PICA. Trygve is also remounting last year’s Fringe hit Squidboy (reviewed in one of last summer’s Postcards) at PICA this week. God knows how he manages it, as both shows are virtuosic feats – Kraken in particular in terms of its demands on his body and imagination. It’s basically an extended improvisation – parts of which are doubtless premeditated and rehearsed but much of which is spontaneously elaborated ‘in the moment’, prompted by audience interaction and the performer’s impulses. The result is a stream-of-consciousness physical ‘monologue’ in which the body rather than language takes the lead. In a nutshell, it’s mime: but talking and thinking aloud also feature heavily along with numerous other transgressions – including plenty of scatology, sex, violence and even auto-cannibalism. I found it totally exhilarating, occasionally horrifying and continually hilarious.

Trygve trained with legendary French alternative clowning maestro Philippe Gaulier and embodies the latter’s ethos of play, complicity and amorality – all of which make the performance feel thrillingly risky and unrepeatable. Trygve’s ambiguous clown persona is hypersensitive yet cruel, hyperintelligent yet foolish, physically adept yet hopelessly clumsy, human and non-human, omnivorous and pansexual: in other words, ‘the poor bare forked thing’ Lear calls ‘unaccommodated man’. He’s also an incredible physical performer. I’m an unabashed fan.

On Tuesday it was time for some local content: a remount of longstanding local indie outfit Weeping Spoon’s Trampoline followed by new kids on indie block The Cutting Room Floor’s I Can Breathe Underwater. Trampoline is written and performed by the very talented Shane Adamczak, who plays an avatar of his familiar dopey geeky lovelorn harlequin persona, who in this instance has a hyperactive form of waking REM which causes him to continually hallucinate. He’s joined in this production by Ella Hetherington – doubling as his therapist and (literally?) the girl of his dreams – and Brendan Ewing, who continually threatens to steal the show in multiple roles as a series of real or imagined obstacles or ‘magic helpers’ on our hero’s quest.

I thought the performers suffered slightly from an unfriendly pop-up venue that did them no favours – and perhaps also from the evident lack of a director or outside eye. Nevertheless it’s a charming show, and Shane is a poignant clown, especially when he slings the guitar strap over his shoulder and circles his beloved in a serenade-duet while she (impressively) sings and bounces on the show’s eponymous trampoline.

I Can Breathe Underwater is a new show by an emerging company who’ve achieved a phenomenal output over the past year locally and on tour. Some of their most talked-about shows have been in found locations and site-specific venues like private houses and cafés, and I felt that I Can Breathe didn’t quite…well, breathe in the confines of The Blue Room Studio. It’s a touching exploration of anomie, suicide and grieving among a group of twenty-somethings, but in the context of a (relatively) more conventional theatre space, script and staging felt messy, dialogue clichéd and performances strident: perhaps holding the mirror up to nature, but making it difficult for me at least to feel compassion for characters so self-absorbed they seemed incapable of compassion themselves.

The most effective performances for me were voiceless: Jacinta Larcombe as a wild dancing seducer, observer and life-and-death spirit; and DJ Louis Frere Harvey providing live sound at the edge of the stage. Meanwhile the most effective exchanges of dialogue for me took place as ‘live’ but disembodied digital dating-app ‘chats’ projected on the back wall. Somehow these artificial ‘devices’ spoke more eloquently to me than the more naturalistically staged ‘scenes’ of the chronic disconnection between and within characters lost in a sea of social dysfunction.

On Wednesday night I went down to Cottesloe Beach, headphones and mp3 player in hand, for my own private immersive experience of Everything Unknown by UK company non zero one. Basically, you stand on the shore, follow a few simple instructions and listen to a voice and soundscape that’s been recorded on the other side of the world in winter on a beach in Kent. The conceit is that you’re listening to them in real time, and are thus somehow ‘connected’ – which of course you’re not.

These and other potentially interesting phenomenological complications remained largely unexplored in what I felt was a disappointingly banal text, delivery and use of technology, all of which failed to ‘augment’ an otherwise beautiful evening on the beach at sunset. Others may feel differently, but for me the message fell far short of the medium – and both fell far short of the lived experience of actually being there. I had a nice time at the beach though.

Last but not least, tonight (Thursday) I’ve just got home from two shows at The Blue Room. The Dirty Cowboy is a new production by Tim Solly and Steamworks Arts, directed by Sally Richardson and written and performed by Solly with set and costume design by India Mehta and lighting by Joe Lui. Basically it’s a Gothic country-and-western song-cycle linked by short stretches of monologue. Solly plays a hard-drinking ‘black sheriff’ in ‘a town called Suicide’, whose story of fatal love and loss gradually emerges much like the protagonists of Schubert’s song-cycles Schöne Müllerin or Die Winterreise – or perhaps closer to home the protagonists of ballads by Tom Waits or Nick Cave.

It’s a great idea, Solly has a fabulous Johnny Cash/Tex Perkins growl, and set and lighting conspire to recreate the ambience of the Cohen Brothers classic noir-Western Blood Simple. Musically I have to admit I’m not a big fan of country, or the maudlin self-pity that comes with the territory – and despite his gifts as an actor and singer, I found Solly’s performance a bit one-note in terms of pace, volume and emotional dynamics. In contrast, Waits, Cave, the Cohens and even Schubert all know how to mix things up a little and keep us on our toes. Nevertheless it’s a very stylish evening.

This was followed by Melbourne-based low-fi alternative-storytelling clown Stuart Bowden’s new show Stuart Bowden: Before Us. Like Trygve Wakenshaw’s Kraken, this a less narrative-based, more improvisatory, even dilatory work than its precursor She Was Probably Not a Robot, which like Squidboy was one of my highlights in last year’s Fringe World. Unlike Trygve, however, Stuart has a uniquely vulnerable, melancholic stage persona that reaches out and connects with the audience less through performative prowess than a kind of anti-performative pathos which makes us laugh while filling us with pity and even a sense of cosmic compassion.

Here he delivers a meandering monologue by the last survivor of an unknown and fantastic species that embraces and manipulates the audience to the point where, incredibly, we all ended up lying on the floor and singing after he’d made his final exit. Comic, tragic and musical artistry (he plays a series of electronic keyboards, sings in a quavering but pitch-perfect David Byrne tenor and is a deft foot with a delay-pedal) have never looked so artless, and the hand-made sleeping bag costume is to die for. In fact, death and extinction lie at the deepest layer of the text (which by the way is a superb piece of writing while seeming to tumble out without forethought or consequence). This is a form of theatre as sui generis as the novel-form Laurence Sterne invented with Tristram Shandy – and a show not just to be seen but experienced.


The Bookbinder, I Can Breathe Underwater, Dirty Cowboy and Stuart Bowden finish on 31st January
Kraken finishes on 1st February
Everything Unknown runs till 21st February

More Fringe World reviews next week.

Monday, 26 January 2015

Postcard from Sydney

The Australian Theatre Forum 2015: Art and Politics

As with my previous Postcards from over east, I’m beginning this one on the long flight back west. The occasion this time: the Australian Theatre Forum in Sydney, which I attended as an ‘independent’ delegate, courtesy of an Artflight grant from the WA Department of Culture and the Arts which partially covered the cost of my trip.

There were 23 of us there from Perth, compared with 7 from the the Territory, 8 from the ACT, 9 from Tassie, 28 from South Australia, 32 from Queensland, 102 from Melbourne and 104 from Sydney – which I guess pretty much reflects national discrepancies in terms of population, arts funding and cultural empowerment (not to mention even bigger discrepancies between the capital cities, regional centres and remote areas across the country). In other words: as an actor and a regional artist I was in a double minority.

The first ATF was in 2009 at Arts House in Melbourne. I didn’t go; actually not many ‘independent’ artists (actors, playwrights) were invited; it was mostly people with ‘positions’ in organisations and their staff. The companies were however allocated a limited number of extra places to distribute to chosen ‘guest-artists’; I was offered one at the last minute, and pointedly declined.

Apparently it was wonderful. An overseas ‘guest-expert’ in a brainstorming conference technique called ‘Open Space’ came and facilitated the whole event. Delegates told me they found themselves thinking ‘outside the box’ and having ‘creative’ conversations they’d never had before. Then they all went back to their jobs.

ATF 2011 at the Brisbane Powerhouse broadened the brief: a limited number of subsidised places were made available for ‘independent’ artists; successful applicants could then then apply to their respective State funding bodies for a grant to assist them in attending. I jumped through the hoops and went.

This second ATF was a bit of a let-down, at least according to those who’d attended the first one. After an enthusiastic opening address about the current state and projected future of the theatre industry (which felt a bit like a revivalist prayer meeting), a high-speed version of Open Space followed that afternoon. We were invited to call out concrete proposals for the future, from which a list of topics was drawn up on butcher’s paper, as the basis for discussion in sub-groups over the next few days. The final afternoon culminated in a manifesto of ‘resolutions’ for the future, which we all felt great about before going back home to our jobs (or lack thereof).

Actually, I had a great time. The Brisbane Festival was on, so I saw some theatre (some good, some awful); got to know Brisbane a bit; caught up with some mates; and felt part of ‘the national conversation’. There was a great sense of collaboration between freelance artists and company staff, all of us sitting at the same table. It was a glimpse of what could be, in the German philosopher Habermas’s phrase, ‘the ideal speech situation’. Of course it didn’t last.

In fact it was at that ATF that I had a road-to-Damascus moment. My proposal on that first afternoon was to establish – and fund – a genuine ensemble theatre company, like the one I’d been part of in Melbourne back in the 80s. It didn’t make the final cut (in fact no-one at my sub-group meeting agreed with me) but I took it home with me. It also clarified my mind wonderfully about what I felt was wrong with the industry: essentially, that it was no longer being driven by artists.

I didn’t go to the 2013 ATF in Canberra. I felt like I’d had my bite of the cherry, and to be honest I wasn’t sure I wanted or needed another. Apparently the mood this time was a lot angrier, and there were some chaotic discussions about race. One story that struck me was about a colleague of mine, who stood up during an argument and said he wanted to be identified simply as an artist without reference to the colour of his skin. He was rounded on by an Aboriginal artist for being a typical white male – only to discover that my friend was in fact Chinese.

This year I decided to go. It would be in Sydney at The Seymour Centre, during the Sydney Festival; there was a more structured daily agenda of speakers, panels and topics to choose from; and I’d just received a Creative Development Fellowship grant from DCA that would shortly see me heading overseas. I was also a month down the track from a knee operation that precluded me from performing for a while; so it would be the first tentative step, as it were, on my forthcoming travels.

In short: it felt like a good time to check in on ‘the national conversation’ and see where it (and I) was at.


ATF Diary

Tuesday 20 January

Thanks to the time difference (plus the added insult of daylight saving, which puts Perth even further behind the rest of the country), I leave Perth at 10am and get into Sydney at 5.30pm with barely half an hour to get to the opening Public Keynote Address and Panel on ‘Art and Democracy’. I’ve got a date with a Sydney friend and colleague who’s waiting for me when I arrive.

The event is staged in the largest of the three theatres in the Seymour Centre, and it’s a bit of a mish-mash. The opening speaker is Goenawan Mohamad, an Indonesian poet and playwright who presents a sweeping account of the last thirty years of Indonesian theatre in the context of its political history. He’s urbane, witty, conceptually rigourous and emotionally restrained, but the urgency of the body of work he refers to is plain. I’m struck by what appears to be its evident emancipation from literalism or didacticism: it seems to owe less to Brecht than Artaud. ‘At the end of the day,’ Goenawan points out, ‘a play is an event.’ He describes the outbreak of radical Indonesian theatre in the 60s and 70s as ‘no longer shaped by the need to represent an idea, big or otherwise’. Specifically, ‘the visible took precedence over the speakable’ so that ‘words are no longer a force that gives the world external to language a form’ but instead become themselves ‘parts of the world’. He closes with the statement that Indonesian (and implicitly all) theatre is political ‘not because of its loud protest but because of its challenge to the words of power’. He also draws a clear distinction between political engagement and artistic autonomy, both of which he acknowledges as essential but essentially differentiated forms of activity. At one point he refers to Ho Chi Minh as an activist who also wrote poetry that was not ‘about’ politics. I could listen to him all night.

Unfortunately the facilitator (a TV presenter and journalist with no background in theatre or the arts) is out of her depth, the questions that follow are clumsy, the other panel members don’t gel, and the discussion drifts in circles. I feel like I’m watching TV, as I often do with panel discussions; there’s something inherently glib, superficial and sensationalized about the format itself. I notice a simplistic tendency on the part of the Australian speakers to politicize art and reduce everything to content without recognising the role of form and the function of representation, which is surely as central to the art of theatre as it is to democracy. Not for the last time during the Forum, there’s a failure to analyse the terms of the debate.

My friend agrees: it’s a bit of a let down; we’d both much rather have listened to Mohammad, perhaps in conversation with the most astute of the panellists. We have dinner and dissect the event, the theatre industry, and our own recent and forthcoming professional adventures. I’m glad I came after all.

Afterwards she helps me with my hand-luggage while I hobble down Glebe Point Road to my guesthouse, a beautifully restored old Victorian terrace with a bus-stop and a fruit-shop across the street. My first-floor room opens onto a balcony; there are bats in the Moreton Bay figs outside; the air is humid and sweet. Ah, Sydney.


Wednesday 21 January

Day Two begins with a Welcome to Country and a Curator’s Welcome from David Williams, followed by a Keynote Address from actor, director and Artistic Director of Ilbijerri Theatre Company Rachael Maza. It’s the first of three successive morning keynote addresses by Aboriginal cultural leaders and arts professionals, though not all them of them are exclusively or even principally known as theatre artists, the other two being Richard Frankland and Rhoda Roberts. Astutely, Williams has structured this year’s Forum to address the issue of Aboriginal theatre head-on, but has he chosen the right people to do it?

Rachael is a brilliant speaker, and begins by lightly tracing the issues as they surface in her own life-story and its historical context, before taking a deep breath and plunging into the substance of her address: a political demand for ‘land-rights, sovereignty and self-determination’; and a cultural demand for Aboriginal people to take charge of telling their own stories, rather than continuing to rely on well-intentioned white directors and playwrights to do the job for them, with inevitably one-sided results (The Secret River gets ritually speared for using language to further marginalize the Aboriginal characters).

‘Aboriginal theatre’ is bluntly defined as ‘theatre created and performed by Aboriginal people’. At last, a definition of terms – and one that immediately throws up a host of questions, if not apparently for anyone in the audience. I applaud along with everyone else the existence of Aboriginal directors, artistic directors and theatre companies; but I can’t help asking if other imperatives (colour-blind casting, for example, especially on the mainstage) aren’t equally pressing; and more profoundly what the (essentially colonial, European, generalized) term ‘Aboriginal’ means in a post-colonial, multicultural and increasingly deterritorialized world. This isn’t to say the word doesn’t have a meaning; perhaps it has more than one; and perhaps none of them is entirely stable. And if there are multiple, labile ‘Aboriginalities’, then there’s a much more differentiated discussion to be had about identity, culture and politics.

And beyond this, a strictly artistic question: can an artform like theatre (or indeed art itself – as opposed to a person, a culture or even a nation) be Aboriginal, or indeed ‘black’ or ‘white’? Or do terms like ‘theatre’ or ‘art’ belong to a different language-game – one that throws into question notions like ‘Aboriginal theatre’ or ‘Aboriginal art’ (or indeed ‘white theatre’ or ‘white art’) as somehow reductive of the very theatricality or artistry in question. This isn’t to say that works of theatre or art are somehow beyond culture or politics; but perhaps their theatricality or artistry needs to be determined according to more differentiated criteria than simply the culture they belong to. This is what Adorno calls ‘the autonomy of the aesthetic’: an endangered species in postmodern culture, but one that we neglect at our peril, if not at the risk of artforms and even art itself becoming extinct.

After morning tea, I attend a ‘Breakout Session’ on ‘The Betterment Clause’, a proposed amendment to the standard MEAA contract that would enable actors to be released by theatre companies in the event of a ‘better offer’ – typically a film or TV role. It’s a focussed, meaty and honest discussion by a panel facilated by a general manager and featuring an MEAA representative who is also an actor; another actor who is also an associate director with a major company; an artistic director of another major company; and another general manager and CEO.

I’m struck by the absence of an actor's agent on the panel – or for that matter an actor who isn’t also a union rep or on a company payroll. Agents and freelance performers are after all the ones most likely to invoke such a clause. Needless to say, a similar clause already exists allowing employers to break contract and dismiss actors, but this doesn’t receive the same level of scrutiny.

Unsurprisingly, the general consensus is that such a clause on behalf of actors would be deleterious to the interests of companies and audiences, and would have a direct negative impact on the all-important box office. Again, the direct impact on an actor’s wages and profile (positive or negative) of getting a film or TV role or, conversely, being dismissed isn’t given comparable weight. After all, it’s the actor, not the company CEO, who gains or loses a job.

I can’t help thinking: surely it should be enshrined in contracts that actors are free to leave their employment for personal as well as professional reasons, for example in the case of illness or bereavement? Of course, this happens in practice all the time without any need for lawyers at twenty paces. Once again, though, its ad hoc nature underscores the relative powerlessness of actors, and contract workers generally, in comparison with their employers.

I’m also struck by the relatively small number of actors actually attending the conference, let alone appearing as guest speakers, on panels or even as facilitators. This structural imbalance of power reflects that of the industry as a whole: the real politics, perhaps, of ‘Art and Democracy'.


Humph’s ATF Diary continues later this week. 

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Postcard from Perth 38

Art and Creativity

1.    The Jargon of Creativity

‘Creativity’ is the new buzz-word in arts funding, sponsorship and administration, as well as in other spheres of government, business, education, training and personal development.

A recent piece on Arts Hub entitled ‘How to Have Creative Conversations’ tells us how to ‘spark creativity and collaboration’ (another buzz-word), citing a study by ‘the Social Psychological and Personality Science (SAGE)’ alongside ‘author and journalist Myke Bartlett’, who ‘points out that all kinds of art are essentially a conversation’ and talks knowledgably about ‘the creative process’ before proceeding to instruct us ‘how to add a dash of creativity to your next conversation around the water cooler’ (which I’m sure will be of great interest to all those artists out there who spend their time around a water cooler).

Another recent essay on Arts Hub by Professor Dan Hunter (Dean of Law at Swinburne) on ‘Why Cash and Copyright are Bad News for Creativity’ begins by conceding that ‘creativity is a tricky thing to understand’ before going on to claim that ‘one thing we do know about creativity is that a really good way to make people less creative is to pay them’. Professor Hunter bases this claim on ‘a series of studies’ by motivational psychologists allegedly showing that ‘primary school kids don’t learn to read if they’re paid to, artists produce their worst work if they’re paid to produce it, and people get worse at solving puzzles better if you reward them for creative solutions’. Perhaps the findings of motivational psychology need to be handled with a little more caution when it comes to art, arts law or business ethics. Motivating children to read or adults to solve puzzles strikes me as being of dubious relevance to artists; and I’m sure Michelangelo would be interested to learn that he did his ‘worst work’ on commission.

The jargon of creativity is now well-established in the language of arts bureaucratese. 2013 saw the launch of the long-awaited (and short-lived) ‘Creative Nation’ cultural policy document by the previous Labor federal government. The same year saw the launch of Creative Partnerships Australia, which according to its website aims ‘to innovate giving to the arts in support of creating sustainable and robust creative industries in Australia’. Meanwhile the Arts Victoria website announces that ‘on 1 January 2015 Arts Victoria formally transitioned into Creative Victoria, a new State Government body dedicated to supporting, championing and growing the arts and creative industries’. Rumour has it that the WA Department of Culture and the Arts is shortly to follow suit.

The phrase ‘creative industries’ generally comprises advertising and marketing, fashion and design, toys and games, software and computer games. Indeed the term ‘creative’ began being used as a noun in the 60s in the advertising industry, presumably in an effort to dignify the latter with connotations of artistic merit. With the increasing corporatisation of the arts, this usage has since returned to haunt the theatre industry, where it now applies to the director and design team – though significantly not the actors, who as skills-based artists are presumably not deemed ‘creative’ enough to deserve the title or bounce ideas off each other in ‘creative meetings’.

2.    Art and Creativity

In philosophical and psychological terms, art is to be distinguished from creativity and the imagination. As Kant pointed out, the imagination is a faculty that performs an essential synthetic role in all thought and experience. Under this faculty, the capacity for aesthetic contemplation may be further distinguished from creativity, the latter being what Kant’s contemporary Schiller also identified as the capacity for play.

However, while everyone is at least in principle capable of imagining, contemplating, creating, playing or watching others play – and by extension enjoying or even making art – it doesn’t follow that everyone is an artist (or even a critic). Alongside a heightened capacity for imagination or creativity – which may or may not go on to manifest itself as a particular talent or gift for a specific activity like drawing, writing, singing, dancing or indeed looking or listening – to become an artist (or critic) requires time, effort and discipline in the acquisition of skills, technique, knowledge and experience; and perhaps even the development of a unique and original personal vision – in other words, having something to say, as well as the means to say it. This is a far cry from simply being ‘imaginative’ or even ‘creative’.

The difference between art and creativity is not merely psychological or ontological but also social and historical. The terms ‘artist’ or ‘critic’ (or even more specifically, for example, ‘actor’ or ‘theatre critic’) imply a socially and historically determined activity, occupation, profession or vocation like teaching, law or medicine. In short: ‘artist’ or ‘critic’ are social categories, with an attendant history that cannot be reduced to the psychology of personality. The first time I called myself an actor was when I was in my thirties and filling out an arrival form on an international flight. It was the simplest way to describe what I do, rather than being a profound statement about what I am.

None of this in any way implies a value judgment that elevates artists or denigrates the work of amateurs. It is simply to recognize the difference between Haydn and his patron Prince Esterhazy (who was also an accomplished string player, but had other social duties to perform as an aristocrat that prevented him from spending his time on pursuing a career as a professional musician). This difference becomes less pronounced as society itself becomes increasingly de-differentiated (foreshadowed by the disappearance of the very class to which Esterhazy belonged).

Again, this is not to insist on social hierarchies or the division of labour. As Marx wrote, in an ideal world we would all be able to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, raise cattle in the evenings and philosophize after dinner. In the meantime however, like most things, having artists and being an artist in our society involves making a sacrifices and comes at a cost. Otherwise (as Marx also wrote) ‘all that is solid melts into air’.

In the ancient world, creativity and talent were viewed as external forces or gifts from the gods; in the Middle Ages they were regarded as being divinely inspired and directed by God. During the Renaissance this changed with the emergence of the cult of the individual artist, and the process was further secularised by the Reformation and refined by the Enlightenment. The notion of ‘the creative genius’ became a central feature of Romanticism, and largely prevailed throughout Modernism up until roughly the Second World War. With the onset of postmodernism in the post-War era, the notion of ‘genius’ begins to evaporate, and with it the separation between artforms and the distinction between art, entertainment and other forms of industrial production. Enter Andy Warhol and The Factory.

Perhaps it’s no accident that in the age of de-differentiation the affect of indifference or ‘cool’ becomes the dominant aesthetic style and form of response. This indifferent coolness is accentuated as artistic production, distribution and consumption become increasingly organised along industrial lines, and are increasingly divorced from the body or physical presence of the artist, artwork or audience with the advent of digital technology and the ubiquity of the screen in postmodern society.

If the process of professional differentiation was characteristic of modernity, then perhaps a generalized de-differentiation of all spheres of human activity and identity is characteristic of postmodern globalized capitalism (with a concomittant regression from what Durkheim called ‘organic’ to ‘mechanical’ solidarity as the binding agent of community and culture – which in the language of the internet is now euphemistically called ‘connectivity’). In place of specialization we now see a simplified division of labour into three classes: the owners of the means of production (governments and corporates working hand-in-hand in ‘creative partnership’), their salaried managers (bureaucracy and administration) and a contract labour force (which includes ‘creatives’). Meanwhile difference between one form of industry or organization and another begins to disappear. Such a regression in social terms is analogous to a de-differentiation of biological cells in organic life. As such, artists are reduced to being little more than fungible ‘creative’ stem-cells that can be successfully cultivated and grafted into the body-politic of an increasingly de-differentiated labour market.

3.    Artforms, Cultures and Communities

Recently the Australia Council has also restructured itself along more ‘creative’ lines, scrapping the old separate art-form-based boards, funding ‘silos’ and assessment panels in favour of a more flexible new model which (again according to its website) will allegedly ‘make it easier and simpler to apply for grants’ (as if the challenge for artists was in applying for grants rather than actually getting them). The ‘new model’ is meant to address in particular the emergence of interdisiplinary and multi-artform projects that don’t fit the old traditional categories. The emergence of hybrid and multi-media work certainly needs to be accommodated, but one can’t help wondering whether this wouldn’t be better served by designating a new board, new funds and a new peer assessment panel of experts in the field, rather than trashing the old model completely. 

This also applies to regional diversity, community access and participation, which was surely better served by maintaining distinct regional and community arts boards, funds and panels. Instead the Sydney–Melbourne nexus inevitably tightens its grip, as most of the applicants are from within those communities and their work is familiar to most of the panellists, who are now assembled on an ad hoc basis in response to each round of applications. In the name of ‘flexibility’ and ‘responsiveness’, the dissolution of art-form-specific and community-specific funds and assessment panels threatens a loss of collective identity, expertise, knowledge and memory from one funding round to the next. As with ‘creativity’ and ‘collaboration’, terms like ‘regional’ or ‘community’ become buzzwords that apply everywhere and to everything under the sun. The risk is that actual regions, communities and artforms begin to disappear off the radar and wither on the vine.

This is in no way to decry the development of national, international, multicultural, multimedia, new, hybrid, ‘nomad’, interdisciplinary, interactive or participatory art. Nor is it to insist on a return some kind of ‘identity politics’ in terms of artistic form or content. It is simply to avoid a situation where everyone and everything becomes the same, while individual artforms, traditions, cultures and practices are lost in a manner that parallels the loss of biodiversity in the natural world – or are preserved only in recordings, archives and museums.

The reality of course is that the new funding model is partly the result of having inadequate funds to go round, as a reflection of political and corporate priorities. However it also reflects the logic of de-differentiation which is characteristic of postmodern culture and society.

4.    Conclusion

So what is to be done? Conceptually and discursively, we need to distinguish between terms like creativity, art and industry. Creativity is a psychological faculty that belongs to everyone; art (like athletics) is a social category based on cultural tradition, individual talent, and physical and cognitive skills that can be innate, taught or learned by experience; and industry belongs to the sphere of economic activity.

We also need to distinguish between individual artforms, industries, cultures and communities: performing arts, visual art and literature; hybrid and multimedia arts; community and regional arts; the various arts industries and other creative industries like games or advertising. These terms and distinctions aren’t mutually exclusive: for example, creativity and artistry are both required in the advertising industry; creative marketing skills are required in the theatre industry; and all three (creativity, artistry and marketing) are required by a particular community or culture if it is to thrive. But they need to be distinguished in theory and practice in order to be applied properly and done well.

In the spheres of arts policy, funding, law, education and employment, these distinctions are of critical importance. Creativity cannot be legislated, funded, taught, bought or sold: like the imagination, it can only be freed, and freely applied. With regard to the arts, artists, audiences, arts organisations, arts workers and arts industries, however, the function of the state is precisely to nurture, protect and enable them to thrive through acts of legislation and funding, from copyright law to the establishment and support of art-form-specific and community-specific institutions and activities.

Without this kind of specificity, we are at the mercy of the market, which means that market-imperatives alone hold sway, while individual artists, artforms, cultures and communities are diminished, suffer or disappear. It’s the same for the arts as for the natural environment, ecosystems, species and individuals: governments exist precisely in order to nurture, protect and enable them to thrive.

And finally, we need to reassert the role of the body and physical presence at the heart of aesthetic experience. Technology and mechanical reproduction are no substitute for the creation and reception of works of art in real time and space. The ubiquity of the screen as a platform or device does not displace the specificity of the page, the stage, the canvas, the hand, the body or the voice as instruments or media of expression. Otherwise we lose not only our art, but our humanity.