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Building the future Performance space

Fiona Winning talks to RealTime

Fiona Winning Fiona Winning
Fiona Winning is Director of Sydney’s Performance Space at one of the most difficult stages of its provocative history as home to artistic practice that doesn’t fit the standard categories. Winning was a theatre worker and actor in Queensland working with the Popular Theatre Troupe and La Boite, moving towards a more community-based practice in the mid 80s with Street Arts. Sydney became her home in the 90s. She worked as Artistic Co-ordinator of Death Defying Theatre (DDT) from 1990 to1995 collaborating directly with culturally diverse communities in Western Sydney. Winning also made connections between the company and members of the performance community working at PS. After freelancing she became Artistic Director of Playworks, the national women performance writers network. And then in 1999…

What made you take on Performance Space and what have you learned?

I believe that it’s an important conceptual and physical space for the development of hybridity. The community around PS was a vital culture I wanted to work with, be an integral part of.

I’ve learned a lot in the job about making strategic choices because the reality is that there’s less money than there used to be and prices, like rent, have increased at the same level as the rest of the world. So we’ve had to make choices about focussing our resources on particular areas of practice, like performance, which has such a history here.

The other learning curve—and one I hadn’t expected to be so important—is the political arena that you have to operate in. The DDT thing had a far more specific agenda than a national organisation like PS. For example, at PS you’re not just responding to the Small to Medium Performing Arts Sector enquiry, but also to the Myer Visual Arts Enquiry and Marketing for the Visual Arts research and to a range of others because there are all these worlds we operate in as well as performance—new media, visual arts, community, satellites like antistatic and Pacific Wave.

What about dealing with politicians?

We’re mostly dealing with the representatives of politicians. We’re not a large cultural institution. We don’t have the profile or kinds of colleagues and friends who are powerful in the business or political sectors. We have an active board involved in talking to a range of people—it’s partly about a series of networks that interlock into a bigger conversation. What I love about it is the diversity. It’s certainly argumentative. I like the engagement. While I have to take responsibility for a lot of things, I don’t have to take responsibility for making the art. The artists do that.

I’ve seen you nervous on opening nights.

Some people might say I’m a meddling producer. So I care about the outcome and how they got there but ultimately it’s the artists who....

What are the challenges for PS this year?

There’s lots of good stuff coming up but one of the issues about where we are now is the number of artists who are operating under extraordinarily difficult conditions. A lot of experienced artists are struggling to get 1 project up a year, so imaginations and practices are inhibited and diminished by the current economic climate. Rosalind Crisp (choreographer, Omeo Studio) talks about a time 10 years ago when a community of dance practitioners who lived on the dole or part time work could sustain their training and subsidise the work that they put on at Performance Space. It’s much harder now with the expense of living in this city for young artists to do that.

And the performance world has shifted. There are less opportunities for training and with that comes diminished opportunities for developing new work. For me, the PS is now at a point where we’re trying to offer strategic interventions for people to practice given that they’re not necessarily able to find the funds to produce work.

What kind of interventions?

A residency program, which I’ll fill you in on later. There are a couple of programs that are specifically about professional development and training. Doing things like The Museum of Fetisihised Identities (2001) which engaged local artists in a different kind of process with Guillermo Gomez Pena. There are the forums that we’ve done jointly with RealTime that invite people to come and converse on a practical level around particular issues. This means they’re feeling part of a culture, in touch with what the issues are, and it means that they touch base with other practitioners and talk. They’re small interventions. They won’t solve the problem. It’s like a Depression. Keeping people fed. One of the other interventions is more and more co-production agreements with independent artists and small companies. Not only do we want to support artists but it’s good for us because we want to have good works in our program.

If these artists are getting less funding, less often, what ‘s the impact on PS?

It’s hard to have a high profile program. There’s less on, and when it’s on its only on for 3 or 4 days instead of 2 or 3 weeks as it once used to be. There’s the impact on audience development but also the technical challenge of getting things in and out within a week. More of a worry is that it makes it harder to compete with everything else in town. We can say we have this fantastic work that’s exploring contemporary ideas in new ways and all of that but it’s hard to make a splash when you’ve got a marketing budget of $1,000 and a short season.

One of the ways the PS used to run was that there was nearly always something on, so people would think, oh it’s Friday night, what’s on at PS? Last year we did manage to have a very busy series of seasons. This year it’s tougher to do that so we’re having periods that are specifically seasons of work, over 6 or 8 weeks, and then there’ll be periods where we’re not anticipating putting anything in the theatre other than developmental works. So the space will always be active.

In an ideal world you’d have 2 spaces, one for development and one for productions. What is missing in a year? What would it take to make a difference?

5 more projects that got up, but they need to get support from both levels of government. One of the things that’s happening to a lot of artists is that the different visions of the Australia Council and the NSW Ministry for the Arts means that in any one round some artists are getting one but not the other grant. So they’ve got half of the money or less to realise something. Sometimes they’ll wait till the next round to try to get the extra half. In the case of the NSW Ministry that’s only once a year so you might be putting a work off for 18 months for another opportunity to pitch it. That’s often when we co-produce.

So 5 more fully resourced, ie $50,000 or up per project, performance or dance works a year would make a difference. And some commissioning money to produce a couple of works a year. The other thing that would make an enormous difference would be for us to create a touring circuit between contemporary performance venues in Australia. We’re seriously impoverished in not being able to see some of the work that’s coming out of PICA or Powerhouse or Dancehouse and vice versa. It’s just madness. It’s not just a matter of money to get the touring thing working. But it would be great if each of, say, 4 organisations was able to tour 1 thing, ie 4 things between us per year and that would mean that we were getting 4 extra works in our space: it would make an enormous difference to us and the artists. That’s also the case for the visual arts sector, sharing exhibitions between contemporary art spaces.

What about the future of the building?

This year we’re waiting on money that the government might provide for our rent. They’ve committed themselves to working with us on finding a space. That’s great. The question is how and when it’ll happen. They’re likely to respond to a range of urgent requirements by housing a number of organisations together. That’s a fantastic opportunity. The question is where, and who will the other organisations be. It makes good sense in terms of audiences for us to be in the same precinct as other contemporary art organisations.

We don’t want to be in a position though where we’re venue managing a beautiful building with lots of multiple spaces but lose our programming and producing roles. It’s essential we continue to mount an extensive and meaningful program that is designed to support artists and artform development and audiences.

What’s in the 2002 program??

There’s the antistatic dance event this year. There’ll be another Intersections—they’re both training and talk events—and a really exciting initiative called Time_Place_Space 1 which is a hybrid performance workshop we’re doing in collaboration with the New Media Arts Board of the Australia Council, Charles Sturt University and the city of Wagga Wagga.

There’s also the Performance Space Residency Program. Six inter-media collaborative teams of artists have been awarded residencies. Each group is posing conceptual and technical questions. Some are new collaborations testing an idea, others are pre-existing, pushing into new dimensions, some will culminate in a work-in-progress showing, others are researching a process.

Layla Vardo and mik la vage will build a multi-timbral, MIDI activated, marimba-style instrument that’ll be designed to produce acoustic sound, trigger samples and control a number of stand alone electronic devices. They’ll explore the potential of real time audio/visual performance with this.

Lalila is a new collaboration between electronic sound composer Etienne Deleflie, digital artist Katherine Gadd and performer Bronwyn Turnbull. During the residency they’ll investigate the improvisational possibilities in the real time mixing of sound, video and physical performance. It’s a 3-way dialogue following a narrative of memories and re-occurring daydreams.

Trash Vaudeville and Azaria Universe will explore the interactive possibilities between large projected animations, live bodies in aerial motion and spoken word. Live, sound and visual media artists Victoria Spence, Jas Sweeney and Andrew Forster are investigating the use of digital technologies in live work driven by the urge to keep live art alive and vital. Version 1.0 ,who did Second last Supper here in 2001, will continue to develop their improvisational process as they make their new work questions to ask yourself in the face of others. Video artist Samuel James and performance group Shagging Julie will develop a performance installation using public environments as a theatrical platform.

Other work coming up includes Gary Carsley curating an exhibition with performance artists Monica Tichacek (RealTime 43, p12) and the King Pins creating works for that. We’ve got Robert Gober and Gilbert & George works in there as well. We’re continuing the collaboration with festivals wherever we can—Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, Gay Games Cultural Festival, Carnivale.

So, with all this nurturing and creativity but against the odds of underfunded artists, an over-expensive building, the suspense of waiting for additional state funding and the saga of the continuing search for a new home, how does 2002 look for PS, in a word…or two?

It’s a make or break moment for us. But I have to say I feel very optimistic…a year of good art, strategic work and big results.

RealTime issue #47 Feb-March 2002 pg. 10

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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