Monday, 23 April 2007

Brandis vs Garrett: arts and politics on the international stage. A rant in five breaths.

1. Along with several hundred other arts industry, university, and media types, I trotted over to the Seymour Centre at the University of Sydney last Tuesday to bear witness to some ritual rhetorical combat, parliamentary-style, with position statements and a very short 'debate' between Federal Arts Minister Senator George Brandis and the Labor Shadow Arts Minister MHR Peter Garrett. The occasion was, at least nominally, the launch of the book Australian Arts: Where the Bloody Hell are You?, the published proceedings of a symposium of the same name from late 2006. And yes, I dutifully bought the book, if only for Dr Ian Maxwell's fascinating introduction to the vexed intertwining of artistic and nationalistic imperatives around national government arts funding for international arts activities. This includes comparisons of the cultural funding of bodies such as the Goethe Institute, Alliance Francais, and the British Council, all of which are funded to promote their respective local artists to the world, and all of which seeming to have much greater hard currency investment from their governments than our own efforts with Asialink and the Australian International Cultural Council (a part of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and chaired by the Foreign Minister and karaoke enthusiast Alexander Downer, currently the subject of a fascinating Australian Story on ABC TV). Well worth a read. It's a pretty complex and fascinating set of debates about the place of the arts within the promotion of national cultural identity, and within international relations and foreign policy, and some of this is addressed in a recent article on international arts diplomacy as 'soft power' by Rosemary Sorenson in The Australian newspaper. Propaganda anyone? In a political and social environment characterised by a series of so-called 'culture wars', it's clear that the politics of cultural practice, and the modes of expression and spaces such practices ought to allowed to adopt and occupy are high on the list of Federal Government priorities. As a student of politics and performance, I have a particular interest in the performances of politicians, rhetorical and otherwise. After all, these are the bread and butter of my current research and aesthetic practice, at least for the last five years or so. And here we have a selection of ministerial performances who stage themselves directly around aesthetic practice.

2. In part, this writing is as much influenced by the way the media coverage of the event on ABC TV's Lateline program last Thursday framed and added to the (pretty limited) debate, a program that I just happened to be watching, transcript here. In particular I was struck by two things in the TV coverage. Firstly, Education Minister and excessive rhetorician par excellence Julie Bishop (remember the Maoists in our schools anyone?) presenting the obligatory big pretend cheque as a metonym for an actual cash commitment, in this case to the Bell Shakespeare Company, stating: "It's not legal tender, so don't try and cash it. But a photo opportunity of a cheque for $1million." A great media stunt performance, the big fake cheque. Even The Chaser boys did that, in their case presenting a cheque for $290 million dollars made out to Saddam Hussein to AWB manager Charles Stott at the Cole Inquiry last year. Despite the lesser amount of his fake cheque, John Bell felt much less that he had been assaulted, and I'm sure his lawyers weren't complaining in the same way that Stott's did. In fact, he seemed pretty chuffed. As you would. It's not every day that that sort of money gets thrown at the arts, unless its for capital works, such as the latest foyer redevelopment at the Sydney Opera House, costed at $38 million, a works project approved immediately after the rumoured $55 million spent on the Western Loggia additions, opened in 2006 (couldn't find any specific numbers on this one in a quick search). Perhaps appropriately, the fake cheque was handed over in the Utzon Room at the Opera House, itself a $4.6 million refurbishment finished in 2004. From the ABC camera I had a good look at the Jorn Utzon-designed tapestry, with real gold threads woven into it. Who says there's no money in the arts?

3. Which is of course what this whole debate was about. Money for the arts, money for the arts as 'cultural diplomacy', money for arts as an intrinsic element of a civil society. Money makes the world go round, and if you let some of that money go to arts, then the going round will be nicer. Or something like that. But it was clear that no one was going to talk numbers. Peter Garrett helpfully mentioned in his address a quote from Ian Maxwell's intro to the book (itself a citation from Asialink's submission to the current Senate Inquiry into Cultural Diplomacy) whose launch was the frame of the evening that "Australia spends just 17 cents per capita on cultural diplomacy, compared to Germany which spends approximately $3, and the UK, which spends an impressive $19 per capita." (as cited in Maxwell 2007:1) While this only indicated that Garrett had read the first page of the book, and this set of figures are somewhat rubbery (after all, the budget for the Goethe Institute includes a lot of German language teaching as well as arts), this was the only appearance of hard numbers in this supposed policy debate. Neither party was able to answer Peter McCallum's very direct question about the very real need for the arts to get not just a little bit, but a rather huge influx of additional money. My paraphrase of his question is this: the director of the Goethe Institute states that his budget is the same as one Eurojet fighter aircraft. Why then can't the arts in Australia have the equivalent of a Joint Strike Fighter? OK, I added the reference to the JSF, whose price per aircraft the Australian newspaper estimated today at $40 million. UPDATE: The defence section of The Weekend Australian on May 26-27 now estimates the price per aircraft of the JSF at $80 million. All in all, our commitment to the JSF or F-35 is now reportedly $20 billion over budget and almost ten years overdue (that reference is from an issue of The Bulletin last year, which I can dig up should anyone be interested. The reason why we recently spent $6 billion the other month on the F/A-18 Super Hornets was as a stop gap to cover the decade that the JSF is running behind schedule. But I digress...). Peter McCallum asked why can't the arts get the equivalent of a fighter jet and the crowd goes wild. But neither of our policy champions on either side of the electoral divide deigned to answer the question. By this stage of course it was clear that their primary target was not to explain arts policy to a hall of interested parties, but to attack each other. Parliamentary-style.

4. To back track somewhat. I was very excited when Brandis became Minister for the Arts. I think he's a good political performer and a very intelligent man, and not only because he was a character in version 1.0's performance of CMI and actually came to see our show (or perhaps simply himself onstage). At last, I thought, at last we have a minister who actually is interested in the arts. Not like McGauran or Kemp (though I must confess a distinct bias against Kemp, as he actively intervened to withdraw about $150,000 from Performing Lines to try and kill a proposed tour by version 1.0 last year, a decision that was never about political content. oh no. As David Marr stated of this issue in his 2005 Philip Parsons address, "Censorship is never censorship. There’s always some other principle invoked." Needless to say, with the help from the venues and some anonymous donations, the tour still went ahead). I've been impressed with Garrett's recent performances too, as would anyone who witnessed his amazing performance of official Labor policy on Lateline the other week, supporting so-called 'clean coal' technology against his much-publicised prior opposition to such a concept. And yet there he was, smiling away, speaking calmly and staying on message, avoiding the pressure to let the facade crack. Its been a couple of years, but I think he's almost there now. The eco-warrior-rock star has truly become a political actor, and in the process has become a damned good performer. Definite deputy Prime Minister material. Watch out Julia Gillard!

Brandis however, is a master politico-performance artist, giving a truly astonishing performance on SBS TV's Insight program last June, in which he not only defended Australia's policy of mandatory off-shore detention for asylum seekers with calmness, reasonable-ness and conviction, but managed to make all of the refugee activists, and even the refugees themselves in the debate sound and look like raving lunatics. Really, the man was extraordinary. Obviously he learned the lessons of cognitive linguist George Lakoff, in the section entitled 'How to speak to conservatives' in his book Don't Think of an Elephant (2005). A paraphrase: If you stay calm no matter what the provocation, you can always make your opponent look unreasonable. If you can do that, then your ideas will sway an audience. What Lakoff suggested for progressives can, and clearly is also be taken as good advice for their opponents. Know your enemy as much as you know your values.

In short, based on their recent performances, with these two confirmed as speakers, I hoped for a clash of the titans, complete with clay-mation skeleton warriors. What I got was considerably less than that. But I suppose the arts are only truly important on the days where ministers are giving out big fake cheques.

5. So big fake cheques were out. But the rhetorical warfare was on, as was the battle to get the last word in and to give the sound bite to frame the debate. The sound bite the ABC chewed up was the following exchange:

PETER GARRETT, OPPOSITION SPOKESMAN: We don't see the Prime Minister and the senior ministers embracing Arts and art practitioner in the way that we see them embracing sports people and soldiers.

GEORGE BRANDIS, FEDERAL ARTS MINISTER: Leave the cheap shots alone. Because you - you claim that, that senior ministers in this government are not interested in the arts and that's just not right. Perhaps they're not as self advertised as you are Peter, but they have a deep interest in the arts.

The ABC, clearly in the interests of remaining fair and balanced, leaves the contextualisation of this exchange at that moving on to the several Brandis implications of much more money to come for the major arts organisations, in the vein of Bell's big fake cheque. See, the Government must really love the arts. Senator Brandis' contention of the "deep interest" of his cabinet colleagues stands uncontested in the fair and balanced media coverage. Of course, strictly speaking, he's correct. There are some great arts lovers amongst the current and former cabinet ministers and their families. David Marr again: "Inside the party, there’s no shortage of generalised, educated, middle class good will towards the arts." So, lots of gallery memberships, symphony subscriptions, ballet and opera opening night attendences. I've sat behind Philip Ruddock on several opera opening nights, and everyone knows that former defence minister Robert Hill's daughter Victoria Hill is an actor of note, so I'll take this statement as generally true. There is indeed "deep interest" in the arts on the part of the government members. But what constitutes depth? And which arts? And is this policy or ideology?

As Brandis stated with a straight face: "The arts have never been in a stronger position, and artists have never been happier. The only people who aren't happy are the commentariat, who never have to deal with the reality of arts funding."

Wow. I want what he's on. The wage I mean. Obviously myself and people like me don't have to deal with arts funding. Well, that'll save me time when the big rounds line up in June...

Because we're all happy now. Remember, happy. Happy, happy, happy. Australia is great and we're doing the best we can. Be proud and don't forget to take the soma.

Wednesday, 18 April 2007

A Fortnight across the border from the wine region, I mean in The Country

OK, back from Albury, oh land of the strange invisible biting insects and the great lack on network access that lies conveniently close to the Rutherglen wine region. It was too tempting, and on a particularly uncreative day (for any funding bodies who might read this, it was Easter Saturday - even artists who work for free most of the time are allowed to have public holiday weekends) we succumbed to temptation and headed out in the HotHouse van to sight see and wine taste. Viognier does somewhat improve creative processes in my mind, despite (or perhaps because of) the 15% alcohol.

So, back home now, much to the relief of my skeptical little black cat Stella, who likes her humans not to be gadding about being creative, but rather staying at home patting her. But only when convenient for her of course. Oh, to be a cat...

The wrap up? Well, to be honest we weren't as productive as we hoped, but after the insanity of our Wharf 2 Loud gig in February we probably didn't need to be (how many artist collaborations do you know that are able to devise a coherent hour-length performance from 8,500 pages of Royal Commission transcript in 8 days?) Still, despite being unsurprising and quite acceptable, it was disappointing. Every devising process, at least in my (limited) experience over the past decade, has gone through a phase where the big questions that animate the project need answering, but no one has a clue exactly what the answers might be, despite knowing that we'll all know it when we see it. The HotHouse residency was a bit like that for us - two weeks with the co-presence of the collaborating team, two weeks filled with questions that we can't quite answer yet. And yet, two weeks in which the stakes of the project are becoming clearer. It's clear that the AWB kickbacks scandal is a far less visceral and emotive issue than 'children overboard', and let's face it, extended discussions of contract negotiation and approvals hardly make for riveting theatre. So this is a different operation to past work, with new and frightening theatrical challenges. As is to be expected. But, in my experience at least, I find that I enter a new project (naively) expecting that the expertise gleaned from the pain of the last project will carry me through. That I'll solve the problems from the last show, now I know what they are. But each new project of course throws up new problems, new challenges, and I find that everything lurking in my (short) sleeve isn't of much use. It's a relentless and exhausting process of back to the drawing board, again and again. As I (seriously) joked in an interview in February: "Sometimes it feels like it might be easier to knock over a brick wall with my head." And as my head is shaved, this will involve a lot of blood. Scalp wounds bleed a lot, as I found out doing a bump in for the Sydney Dance Company back in 1997...

Small steps from the country retreat then. Small steps, impossible questions, loads of location video footage (lots of bone-dry wheat fields), some proto-staging ideas, some more research and editing, and a new title: deeply offensive and utterly untrue. In short, a new beginning, and opening night isn't until August 24th...

Safe for now at least. As Morris Iemma stated of the NSW Labor Government in the run-up to the recent state election: "More to do, but moving in the right direction." And just quietly, I reckon we might just be able to do a better job than them...

Monday, 9 April 2007

A couple of gratuitous plugs.

Firstly, anyone who happens to be in the London area next weekend should check out the SPILL Festival, especially the world premiere of The Last to See Them Alive: Sex, Slaughter and the City by Australian performance group Unreasonable Adults at the SOHO Theatre. The piece is devised from texts by Fiona Sprott (and if I sound biased in this plug, I should make it clear that Fiona was my partner), and features sound and performance from regular v1.0 guest artist Jason Sweeney as well as Julie Vulcan and Caroline Daish. Highly recommended for those who enjoy performance that is dark, dangerous, and walks the fine line between ultra-black comedy and serious psycho-sexual disorders. Definitely not for the faint at heart or the easily offended.

While you're there, you might also want to check out Forced Entertainment's Exquisite Pain, based on texts by Sophie Calle. And there's a wealth of other performance and live art works be savored at SPILL. I confess to being very jealous and want time off to go there too. Oh well, there's always next time.

Secondly, those hungry for a tiny bite of version 1.0 goodness might be interested in checking out Paul Dwyer's The Bougainville Photoplay Project in a one-off performance at UTS Gallery, Sydney on Friday 27th April at 6:30pm. The performance is running in conjunction with the photographic exhibition by Jon Lewis Bougainville Portraits: Facing the Place, which exhibits from 10th April to 11th May. The address is Level 4, 702 Harris St, Ultimo. The performance will be free, but donations to Bougainville charities will be welcomed on the night. Seating is limited, so booking is recommended on

The Bougainville Photoplay Project is described by Paul as being a "slideshow with fireside chat", and interweaves an attempt to reclaim family history through photographs with the history of the civil unrest and armed conflict in Bougainville that followed the opening of the Panguna Copper Mine by CRA Rio Tinto, a conflict in which Australia under Bob Hawke's leadership provided arms and training to the PNG Defence Force, arms which were used in committing a number of atrocities. Far more stripped back and intimate than version 1.0's main stage pieces, it’s a gentle, intelligent, and powerfully moving monologue piece, deftly cross-examining personal and political stories. If you can't make this performance, don't worry, there will be other chances, as we're trying to negotiate a short season later in the year.

Monday, 2 April 2007

a fortnight in the country

Dear cyberspace dwellers,

the rest of the version 1.0 crew and myself are making many necessary compromises in order to travel today to the lovely twin cities of Albury and Wodonga, ever in orbit of each other, and thus preventing the barbarian hordes from crossing the state borders of New South Wales and Victoria. We're heading down for a two week residency hosted by Hothouse Theatre's A Month in the Country program. OK, I am aware that a fortnight and a month are different, temporally speaking, but one has to work with what is possible, and what is available. Contingencies and compromises are, after all, our business. So thanks to Hothouse for loaning us their house, and we promise we won't hurt the cows.

Its an exciting opportunity to work in splendid isolation as a collaborative team and nut out Stage Two of our latest work, certain Australian companies, a performance inquiry into the AWB kickbacks scandal. Stage One was in February with a insane two week development process followed by a performance season for Wharf 2 Loud, for which we are grateful to the Sydney Theatre Company for letting us play at their house. A mad undertaking - start work on Monday and open to the public the following Thursday night. As one might imagine, this process was stressful in the extreme, but the resultant performance was surprisingly successful, due largely to a fabulous team of collaborators, all of whom are back for Stage Two (Sean Bacon, Paul Dwyer, Stephen Klinder, Jane Phegan, Chris Ryan, Yana Taylor, Kym Vercoe and myself). Let us hope that we can maintain that level of energy as we temporarily relocate to the country. Stage Three, the performance season, will premiere for Performance Space at Carriage Works in August 2007, and if there are any interested promoters out there, we'd be very interested in presenting it in other cities as well throughout 2007 and 2008 (OK, gratuitous plug, but what else are blogs for?)

The work is frightening but exciting, and the shape is currently looking promising, with about half of the 8,500 pages of transcript examined, discussed, and edited, and about an hour of material we presented at Wharf 2 sitting in our hard drives, video documentation, and collective memories. It is a massive endeavour though, much larger than the scope of our earlier CMI (A Certain Maritime Incident) which was only a 2,188 page inquiry, albeit about a far more emotive issue. Sifting through the litany of denials and avoidance strategies, there's a powerful work in there. Just gotta keep digging until we unearth it. Civic archeology is what we do these days it seems, and its hard to keep your hands clean as we remove layer upon layer of dirt.

I'll try and post about our progress over the next two weeks, but this will depend on network access. Splendid isolation and all that. In the meantime, I'll try and get around to posting about recent performances witnessed, including Season at Sarsaparilla and The Nightwatchman, as well as some bonus materials from last year's notebook that I feel might be worth airing.

Happy Easter compromises to all!