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The artist/curator/artistic director

Keith Gallasch talks with Kristy Edmunds

Kristy Edmunds Kristy Edmunds
Since the mid-90s Australia’s international arts festivals have increasingly become the realm of artists turned festival artistic directors. Barrie Kosky (Adelaide 1996) did it as a striking one-off, but Robyn Archer (Adelaide 1998, 2000; 10 Days on the Island, 2001, 2003, 2005 [advisor]; Melbourne 2002, 2003, 2004) and Lyndon Terracini (Queensland Music Festival, 2001, 2003, 2005), both music theatre virtuosi, have made it a serious career move, and both are significant festival innovators. American stage director Peter Sellars (Adelaide, 2002) struck out, leaving a new model only partly realised, while Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Stephen Page (bearing the weight of the post-Sellars reaction, Adelaide 2004) and opera director Lindy Hulme (Perth International Arts Festival, 2005) have presented standard model festivals where you get diversity but little in the way of thematic depth or formal challenge.

Now another artist is taking on the Melbourne International Arts Festival after Robyn Archer’s 3 year program which gave local artists the highest profile they’ve ever had in that festival and which successively focused on text, body and voice, yielding rare insights into where the arts are moving. Her successor is the straight-talking Kristy Edmunds, a Washington State artist turned curator who established a successful alternative artspace, PICA, in Portland, Oregon in 1995 and subsequently transformed it into the producer, from 2000 on, of an annual 10 day festival of international contemporary performance, dance, experimental film and installation titled TBA, the Time-Based Art Festival. It’s a unique event for regional USA, in fact for the USA all over, and its programming is innovative, provocative and enviable (for the range and character of the programming see This doesn’t mean that Melbourne will neccesarily get that kind of program from Edmunds; the 2 festivals are very different, and Edmunds will doubtless create her own careful trajectory over her 2 to 3 year tenure (the third year is optional): she conveys a sense of pragmatism as well as vision. The bold shift of PICA’s focus to TBA was not without its critics, and a glance at the Portland press online reveals an uncertainty about the benefits of sharing her with Melbourne while a new director is sought. Edmunds, as founder of PICA and TBA will stay on in an advisory role. She lives in Melbourne with her partner, innovative Australian dancer Ros Warby, and their son.

I met Edmunds recently in Sydney to discuss her work as an artist and festival director. Her 2005 festival program is due to be launched in June, much earlier than usual. But we didn’t discuss that. Who knows, we might get to see some really progressive American work, a rarity here in the cultural wasteland of US movies, pop and TV selected for us.

What kind of artist are you, other than many kinds?

I tend to be an artist who gravitates towards the idea first and then figuring out how to make it real. It could come from film, theatre, visual art and I’ve tended in the past few years to mostly be making visual works and objects or installations. I have an idea and then I hope I actually don’t have to pursue it–because it’s too hard. [LAUGHS] The great fun of art-making is that there’s a feeling state and then the rest is about labour, hard labour usually and convincing people or collecting a lot of yesses from every other industry that you need support from economically or materially. I start from an idea which in some works has led me to learn a whole different medium...I might feel like making a film, but the idea is best suited to being written on the back of a napkin and stuffed in a shoe box. But at other times it’ll work better as a body of etchings or prints...or photography quite a lot. I sketch photographically.

The images of women wading in water...[photomedia works produced by Edmunds]

I was on sabbatical here from PICA working for a lot of time on 3 bodies of work, one was a set of monoprints which came from photographs, then some photographs that were called Signs of Life. I blew the photographs apart and reassembled them as monoprints. And then I did a video installation as well.

How important is your art practice when you have a life as a curator and a festival director?

I’ve been working as a curator for 15 years. It’s interesting, coming from the US in particular, when you’re curating you’re also advocating for resources to come to bear on other people’s ideas, so you erode your own economy to make work. You have to sit on the grant panels, and you encourage the collecting of other artists’ work–the collectors become the funding base for PICA. So I don’t make work a lot but it’s probably the first thing that drives how I see the world, from the perspective of an artist, but not in conflict with the curatorial work I do. A lot of curators abandon their own work.

In 2000 you choreographed a dance work. Where did that come from?

[LAUGHS] A dancer asked me to set a solo on her, which I did, and oddly enough the artistic director of the ballet company then commissioned me to make a piece on the company, which then toured to New York. Again, it was conceptual: how do I convert this idea into dancing bodies. I can’t exactly do the movement. I had to describe it, see what was possible, but I had a very clear idea of it, the lighting, the set–it was like an installation using movement and very technically sophisticated. I taped their pinkies to their ring fingers because I didn’t want that gesture. I had ballerinas in Doc Marten full-laced boots so that their feet did different things. All the movement was very scripted.

Sometimes an idea takes the form of movement, so it’s not that I have a particular affinity for dance. Curatorially I find dance very hard. It’s an incredibly diverse field, and in any of the different mediums or disciplines what I resonate with is the thing that actually manages to really get out an authentic voice. I find it in dance but I have to sit througth a lot of dance where I don’t see it at all. The same is true of theatre, and film and...

You curated performance at the Portland Art Museum

I was working there because an alternative space had merged into the museum at a time when the museum had been actively criticised by the community for not seriously addressing contemporary work. I was to take on the live arts with a mandate of drawing on work from around the country. It was really about introducing a contemporary dialogue into the museum at a quite aggressive level.

Was this where you started thinking about PICA?

Yes. It’s one thing to have a program with a loyal following inside a major institution, but if the institution changes its mind, that small thing can go away quite quickly. In certain US cities you’ll have often the high beacons of artistic culture and the self-made, independent arts community. I was interested with PICA in that small to mid-sized animal which was a big gap in the ecology. So PICA was set up so that it would be absolutely dedicated to contemporary forms, ideas, language, emerging and international, as well as national and regional work.

Who did you have to convince? It grew from tiny to big.

I was 29 years old so it’s not like I would have looked at it through the lens of ‘who do I have to convince.’ It was more that unbridled energy of knowing that there was a gap and a need and that I was in an unusual position of being able to have contact with and good relationships with artists nationally and internationally to an extent at that time and locally for sure. And then giving it a go. And I had an identity as an artist as well which gave me access to a certain kind of collecting base and different people, and had a little track record from curating the museum. It was really more about bringing people along one by one. Audiences were certainly there for it. I remember thinking, well I’ll set it up, that couldn’t take more than a couple of years [LAUGHS]. There’s curiosity, there’s all this interest, there’s capacity, there’s will, it just needs someone to flip the switch to start moving it forward and then I’m sure it can deliver.

Your vision was cross-disciplinary, and included film?

Sure. I was filmmaker-in-residence for North-Western Film Festival and also curating the regional film festival and the young people’s film festival. Film less, because there wasn’t as much of a gap: the North-West Media Centre was really doing quite a lot of things. After a number of years I was taking PICA forward with time-based art forms–film, cinema, micro-cinema, performing arts and everything that wasn’t object-oriented–and saying I think a festival format would work really well for this, which allowed us to address cinema better.

When did TBA start?

When PICA’s annual program changed in 2000 from an annual season to a 10-day condensed event. It was a major structural shift for an organisation. Year-round there were still visual arts, residencies and development opportunities for artists, which we were very involved in. In the US we work quite collaboratively and you start realising you’ve got a lot of responsibility around big projects across the whole country, tours, co-commissioning, co-producing, development periods in different parts of the country–and then coming into PICA for the show–or cultural policy, conferences and discussions so that PICA would be very involved in a lot of the national discussions.

What is PICA’s role?

PICA is a presenting organisation as well as helping commission, which isn’t grant giving, but about investing resources, whether human or in-kind, and getting onside with an artist about how they want to make it real. Yes, there’s producing that goes on in that, you’re taking responsibility for the economy of the life of the project, but it’s not done with any artistic input. It’s not like saying ‘I could really sell this show if you collaborated with so-and-so.’ It’s much more about how do you use an institution’s capacity to reach economies and colleagues and audiences in ways that artists often can’t do on their own. You use the nimbleness of the organisation to help the project. So I don’t think of PICA’s role as a producer, but certainly as an instigator, a facilitator.

What’s the scale of TBA?

It’s 10 days and it’s on a much different scale than the Melbourne International Arts Festival. Its absolute, complete focus is on emerging international ideas, again in all the performing arts genres and some cinema and some digital, and a lot around ideas and workshops and teaching and institute behaviour. There are 18 venues. Portland’s not a huge city, and there’s no really huge art centre although there is a performing arts centre, so it’s run from the masonic temples, concert halls, sometimes church facilities and then the major theatrical venues. And we usually convert a warehouse space or something for late night. It’s like PICA has the main programming and its own fringe all programmed in the same bundle.

What kind of audience? Is it a gathering point for artists?

It’s a European model festival and the US doesn’t tend to do that. There are usually 3 day festivals that focus on jazz, or blues, or events where the primary concern is not usually the arts, or BAM’s Next Wave lasts a couple of months. TBA is a place for artists to gather and increasingly a place where an international community of curators, colleagues and artists gather. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to make it a festival: you’re not going to fly into Portland, Oregon over one weekend in May to see one performance from Japan. We also try to keep the artists performing in the festival in the city as long as we can, so that they have a chance to see one another’s work as well. This was one of the reasons for creating the festival.

Are local artists involved in TBA?

There’s lots of them, lots of inclusion in TBA in different contexts. It’s a challenge in a certain way, because you can’t disrupt the independent self-producing mechanism of artists, because it creates a feast and famine moment. At the same time you really want to get behind the work, so it’s all about the appropriateness of that sort of balance. Then there’s selection: is the project ready for an international gaze upon it?

Where do you draw the work from? It’s increasingly international.

It’s not about drawing on countries, but on artistic talent that you put in a context that you can facilitate to a localised community. The work has ranged from people like Elizabeth Streb, Robert Ashley, Cecil Taylor, Philip Glass and Spalding Gray or artists on a much more emerging level, for example Lone Twin (UK). You don’t know if history will recognise these artists, but in the time period they are mobilising themselves they are making the forms question themselves and they are adding a huge contribution. It’s about identifying the pulse points that are really authentic and the people who are pushing boundaries, and asking how do I build a bridge to a curious public, rather than a complacent public.

Regional arts development here is at an important stage with collaborations between city and regional artists playing a key role. How in your experience should this be handled?

I’m loathe to give advice from another culture. Sometimes regional developments are driven by funding bodies or a sponsor’s interests. The most important thing is that artists initiate the relationships together, and then you have at least half of a chance of it working out well. If artists are mutually interested in one another, they can at least see one another’s work. That kind of detailed long-term relationship is a really important part of regional development and of international development. I see them as very similar. International collaborations are as complex as regional ones. It can’t be led by a carrot, it has to be driven by an organic artistic interest.

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 14,

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

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