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uncertain times: artists in canberra

March 21, 2015

Uncertain Times was conceived and curated by Grace Blake with contributions from Kate Murphy, Martyn Jolly, Robert Guth, Louise Curham and Oscar Capezio.

I am curious that there seems to be so little reportage outside of Canberra about things that happen in Canberra. I don’t follow the art press religiously but I’ve had a good dig around. You can shoot me down easily on this one. I hunted for the artists I know quite well in Canberra and they’re there: Realtime always strikes me as quite a useful indicator for what people are actually doing. Dan Bigna’s writing about the Soundout festival pop up and coverage of Shoeb Ahmad’s hellosQuare record label are two immediate examples. And of course there’s a fair share of coverage for those with their own public profile, but it’s not within the context of Canberra’s art scene.

Still I’m going out on a limb and saying it anyway: outside of Canberra amongst other communities, there doesn’t seem to be a general understanding of the cultural life here. It’s easy for every Canberran to succumb to the temptation of explaining ourselves, even though the New York Times did it for us twice (the report on OECD rankings 6 Oct 2014 and ’36 hours in Canberra’ 5 June 2014). But both articles were quite silent about the excellently energetic communities that do stuff in Canberra. The poets spring to mind, as do the experimental musicians. There’s no reason for these New York Times pieces to mention them and how would you do that in a way that reflects the reality that such activity is just part of the woodwork of Canberra.

In my five years in Canberra, I’ve had a chance to join in on a few events that seem to energise different art communities in Canberra. These include Soundout, You Are Here, the intermedia shows the Canberra Contemporary Art Space orgainises between exhibitions and I’ve also tried to organise a couple myself. So I’m puzzled by this silence outside Canberra.

There’s a lot of creative production in Canberra – many sophisticated amateurs who are highly skilled at their shtick (be it bird photography, botanical art etc) and many who earn some money from doing this. And many whose real audience is not in Canberra – maybe I’m amongst them.

I am quite disappointed to just discover that even You Are Here was not started by Canberrans but rather by Robyn Archer’s enthusiasm (26 April 2014, Sydney Morning Herald). Did Robyn think of supporting the Corinbank Festival?

Noodling around to write this, I found Yolande Norris’ piece in the Canberra Times before Christmas pondering why it’s hard to find out about the past of the arts in Canberra. Of course it’s there, but you have to dig for it. On a recent car ride with Sarah Miller (former director of P Space, PICA, UOW academic), she told me all about her youth in Canberra in the late 70s and early 80s. It sounded quite wild. A mum friend of mine who was a doyenne of Canberra burlesque confirmed this and I also had a really interesting run down from one of the dads at school about the demise of Canberra’s metal scene (Dan Bigna has also reflected on this I discovered while reading, 23 Oct 2014, Canberra Times). Splinters and its legacy of course had a good run in 2013 and so it should.

But not all the good stuff is in the past. Sally Pryor wrote in the Canberra Times a year ago an article entitled ‘A new age for Canberra arts?’ (4 Jan 2014, Canberra Times). It struck me at the time and reading it again today, it’s quite intriguing. Maybe the question mark in her title suggests she’s not quite convinced herself. She interviewed the Canberra Museum and Gallery’s director, Shane Breynard who said lots of happy things about art in Canberra and went on to mention that the art loving public is compartmentalized – and this is the keyword – we seem to fragment ourselves somehow and this leads to a lack of critical mass. Shane described how for him, a compartmentalised public means our very high levels of participation and engagement with art in all its guises fails to bleed out into our public spaces. The sophisticated amateurs just aren’t interested in the poets and vice versa. The Gods poets aren’t interested in the Slammers etc. So this makes it hard to show ourselves and others how diverse and vibrant we are; a platform that works for one compartment won’t work for another. You Are Here isn’t a space where sophisticated amateurs want to show their work, just as the Artists Society of Canberra shows are not the place for the nightlong sound performances of YAH.

So that’s fine – no problem with each art and each audience having its own ecosystem. It’s just that compartmentalising like this bleeds away our ability to engage a wide audience. And usually there’d be no need or benefit to try to draw compartments closer except that we’re a small city and we need that critical mass.

I think what I’m getting at is an underlying hospitality to creative practice in Canberra. I think it’s there but we need to make it explicit. The American John Dewey has an idea that might be useful for us: his notion that the work of art is the work art does in shaping our experience. Maybe we can all add his idea to our sense of what it means to contribute to creative life in Canberra; we all contribute to cultural encounters, whether or not we’re crafters of objects, or an audience member.

So here’s my suggestion: keep open-minded curiosity at the fore, encourage it in each other and make people welcome.

Louise Curham

Louise Curham is a video and new media artist living and working in Canberra.