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revolution/reaction


contemporary performance: signs of life

david williams on resistance and emergence

David Williams is a writer and performance maker. He manages the Sydney-based
performance group version 1.0, and submitted his PhD at UNSW in June.

Student performance, School of English, Media and Performing Arts, UNSW Student performance, School of English, Media and Performing Arts, UNSW
Su Goldfish
IT’S AN INTERESTING TIME FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS IN AUSTRALIA. ON THE ONE HAND, GRANTS HAVE BEEN CONTINUALLY SHRINKING IN REAL TERMS AND THE POLITICAL CLIMATE HAS BEEN NOTICEABLY ANTI-ARTS FOR THE LAST DECADE OR SO. ON THE OTHER HAND, FOR SOME SECTIONS OF THE ARTS, EVERYTHING IS ROSY. “THE ARTS HAVE NEVER BEEN IN A STRONGER POSITION, AND ARTISTS HAVE NEVER BEEN HAPPIER”, DECLARED THE FEDERAL MINISTER FOR THE ARTS, SENATOR GEORGE BRANDIS, AT THE UNIVERSITY OF SYDNEY IN APRIL. “THE ONLY PEOPLE WHO AREN’T HAPPY ARE THE COMMENTARIAT, WHO NEVER HAVE TO DEAL WITH THE REALITY OF ARTS FUNDING.”

The occasion was the launch of the book Australian Arts: Where the Bloody Hell are You? (University of Sydney Press, 2007), which featured a brief debate between Brandis and his opposite number, Labor’s Peter Garrett. Everyone is happy, so nothing needs doing, Brandis suggested, somehow managing to maintain a straight face as he addressed the hostile, but fairly polite crowd. Brandis’ suggestion is true of course, from a particular perspective. The mainstream arts organisations are consolidating, having made over the last five years successful cases for substantial infrastructural projects and improved funding positions. Brandis didn’t mention it in his speech at the launch, but he, along with Education Minister Julie Bishop, had recently made the Bell Shakespeare Company very happy by presenting a big pretend cheque to John Bell for a schools touring program. Bishop stated of this occasion: “It’s not legal tender, so don’t try and cash it, but a photo opportunity [with] a cheque for $1 million.”

arts culling

It’s an especially interesting time for the performing arts in tertiary institutions, with widespread cutbacks, budget restrictions, reduced staffing, cancelled courses and degree programs, forced mergers of schools and departments within universities, and declining staff morale. The place of the performing arts in the tertiary education sector is being actively questioned, with many universities demonstrating a distinct lack of interest in supporting the humanities, let alone the performing arts. In a recent speech, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of NSW Fred Hilmer in effect declared that the function of the arts within the university was to provide general education electives for engineers and scientists (Australian Financial Review, Dec 4, 2006). In a university trying desperately to recoup massive losses from the collapse of the Singapore-based UNSW Asia, it seems that the arts generally will get the first and most vicious squeeze. An internal memo leaked to the Sydney Morning Herald in May announced that the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at UNSW would not provide a budget allocation to employ any casual staff until at least 2009, along with an overhaul and ‘streamlining’ of the courses taught in the faculty. Twelve out of forty-five courses currently offered will reportedly be cut, and it seems clear that amongst these will be most of the studio-based courses that focus upon contemporary performance. Interesting times indeed.

new niches

What might be the fate of contemporary performance in all this? Performance has never been dominant in the university at the best of times, existing in niches tucked away as minor strands within schools and departments whose primary focus is on theatre, visual arts and media. Straddling these disciplinary domains, performance encourages cross-pollination, the embrace of the unknown, and the formation of hybrid understandings. But the niches occupied within academia by performance makers have certainly been enriching for performance practice, providing allies, advocates, safe havens and recruiting grounds for emerging generations of artists, opening spaces for dialogue, for exploration, and for innovation. It seems, at least in NSW, that these spaces are either contracting or simply evaporating.

There is, however, a glow of hope evident in the growing number of performance makers pursuing higher degree study, enrolling in PhD programs, often ones in which they are able to pursue practice as research with the Queensland University of Technology, seen as a bastion in this regard. Artists armed with doctorates have been able to further infiltrate the university sector nationwide, spreading the gospel of performance. In undergraduate education, however, the situation seems less bright. But there are signs of a fruitful interplay of university and practice in the field.

emergence

At UNSW, in the School of English, Media and Performing Arts, lecturer Clare Grant positions her teaching very clearly in relation to practicing artists. In her view, young performance makers are able to learn “certain things from us, and certain things from other people [outside the university].” She views her role, though not strictly, as an advocate for the possibilities of performance over more traditional modes of actor training, and as a builder of bridges between students and practicing artists. In her teaching she stages interventions and introductions, encouraging students to seek their own place in the field of performance practice while also actively addressing the question: what is this field? Many of her students, she says, have gone on to further their performance training with companies such as PACT and Urban Theatre Projects before forming their own groups, recent examples including Post (see p46) and Brown Council. Of challenges to tertiary arts programs she remains encouraged by the recent exciting “flurry of work” that has occurred in the intersection of artistic practice and university programs.

Janys Hayes at the University of Wollongong agrees, having “an implicit belief that new performance practices emerge from creative young people whether courses facilitate these movements or in fact operate to stultify them. Students, artists, read, see, think beyond the boundaries and make new work.” She makes the point that “ideas travel”, and notes the recent tour to the Hanoi Experimental Theatre Festival of a group devised performance. Originally developed within the performance course at the university, the production had been reworked by the graduated students as a springboard to creating their own performance group. While Hayes recognises the threat to the performing arts in the increasingly managerial university sector, she weighs against this the ability of performance education to enrich practice, noting that: “the politics of university education is too miserly a consideration in comparison with the power of new ideas embodied in new forms.”

The performance group version 1.0 (of which I am a member) began almost a decade ago in a similar manner with a group of recent graduates of the University of Western Sydney, Nepean convening to explore and further develop aesthetic strategies first encountered as part of tertiary study. Despite the attacks upon arts practice and education that seem to occur these days with depressing regularity, the continued emergence of contemporary performance practice from tertiary education programs, even when being cut back, remains heartening.

niche shutdown

The current situation at the University of Western Sydney, however, is less than encouraging, with all of the creative arts and performance courses that have so enriched Sydney’s contemporary performance scene over the last 15 years being scrapped after being subjected to long term painful budget cuts. Programs have been abolished that provided contemporary performance with artists such as Alicia Talbot (Urban Theatre Projects), Lee Wilson (Branch Nebula), Claudia Chidiac (Powerhouse Youth Theatre), Beck Ronkson (Milkcrate), Gail Priest and almost all the members of version 1.0. Protests are continuing, but so far have fallen upon deaf ears within the university.

gene strength

In his essay Art in a Cold Climate (Platform Paper No 6, Currency House, 2005), Keith Gallasch memorably compared hybrid arts practictioners with slime mould. This was not intended to be read pejoratively, but rather to recognise the constant innovation and mutation that occurs in hybrid practices, especially collectively. In the university sector at the moment, it seems that powerful bleach is being used to try and kill off this mould. But with luck, energy and goodwill the mutations of contemporary performance will continue to linger in the corners of tertiary institutions, ever impossible to completely eradicate.

David Williams is a writer and performance maker. He manages the Sydney-based
performance group version 1.0, and submitted his PhD at UNSW in June.

RealTime issue #80 Aug-Sept 2007 pg. 14

© ; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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