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Navigating life in art

THERE WAS A cynicism creeping up on me: the idea that all we did in the arts world, or in galleries at least, was get people splendidly drunk in front of attractive backdrops once every six weeks or so. I was comfortable in my job at the Contemporary Art Space. The pay was relatively good, for a twentysomething anyhow. It was relaxed. The people were great. I knew I could easily stay there forever, and so I knew I had to go. With a few thousand dollars saved I resigned, with no plans other than to write my blog and see what happened.

Elsewhere in Canberra, something was eating at David, too. With his science/theatre collective, Boho, he was testing the possibilities of getting away from the art world, or rather, putting it to better use.

I met David Finnigan in 2009 at This Is Not Art – the way so many art-world stories begin. He was co-founder and director of Crack Theatre Festival, and I was incumbent co-director of the Critical Animals symposium. In late 2010 I took a phone call from him out of the blue. Would I meet for a coffee, to talk about a project that had come his way? And I would, of course – I had nothing else to do.

It was a festival designated by Robyn Archer as part of the Centenary of Canberra. Underground, emerging, youth. ‘Activating vacant spaces’; on-trend and spouting all the buzzwords. David knew about festivals, and especially knew enough that he didn’t want to go it alone. Despite my inexperience I could see this wasn’t the kind of gig that came up often. The fact it had a budget was rarer still. I googled ‘what is a producer’ and said I was in.

In a city so small and folded in on itself, it still surprises me that David and I hadn’t met much earlier. But then, my focus was quite narrow – as was his. I wanted to be an artist, and painting, drawing and galleries was all I thought about. David was reading fantasy and science fiction, trawling his parent’s bookshelves, fronting up to the Canberra Youth Theatre, and always knew he would write.

As bookish and precocious middle-class children from neat suburbs, school appealed to our sensibilities, and the accolades came easily. University was another matter. In thirteen years of Catholic education I hadn’t learnt how to have an original thought, and my four years at the ANU School of Art saw me reckon daily with that fact. Studying English at the ANU, David, also accustomed to private-school rigor, floundered in a lack of structure and supervision. I needed to break out, he needed to pull in. In both cases art compensated for a lack of social capital.

At the beginning of the century, Canberra was a town where you either got out or got involved. You created what you needed to thrive. Perhaps it was because we had both travelled and lived overseas as kids that, when our peers made the exodus to the flatlands of Melbourne, we were among the relative few who remained. In this tiniest of ponds, the independent art scenes were strong. The city was not yet within the velvet-gloved grasp of developers, and there were still places to play, still a small-town ease and a concentrated population of young and emergent artists.

There was a fervour for theatre and a swathe of independent companies. David was embedded in this scene, known as a playwright, poet and performer. He was publishing play scripts and other writings via a blog, throwing them at the world. Bored with television, I set up a blog too and started to write about the exhibitions I saw, the artist studios I visited, works that caught my eye.

At some point people started calling my blog posts reviews, and me a critic. Neither things I had intended, but it was sort of seductive to imagine people taking me seriously for the first time in my young life, and to recognise the currency of my own opinion. I seemed incapable of making what I considered ‘art’ but I knew about nothing else, and knew only artists and musicians. I started to understand that they needed people like me. Art needed words and words were all I had. Putting those words out into the world had never been easier – from your laptop, you could present whatever face you liked, and in that first decade of the 2000s David and I were becoming what we invented.

 

WE NAMED OUR festival You Are Here. It was an opportunity to workshop every obscure or unwieldy idea either of us had had, rallying all the creators and makers we knew in our little city and a handful from further afield. By the festival’s debut, in March 2011, we had a ten-day program of over a hundred free events, but no idea if anyone would come.

At first I found David insufferable. The days leading up to the festival were long and in close quarters. I tolerated his snark, his loud typing and inability to be still, and he my endless negativity and constant need to eat. We drank coffee after coffee because we had no office and therefore had to pay our way around the tables and power points of the city while we met with artist after artist after venue owner after government and corporate suit. Our personalities and modes of working were almost completely opposite. I was conservative, cautious, good with people, good with aesthetics. He could be erratic and took big risks creatively, but seemed to hardly register the visual world at all.

David did what he said he was going to do; he made plans and lived by them. He delivered. He defended. He was indefatigable. Though I hardly knew him, and wasn’t sure I liked him, I trusted him immediately and tried to keep the peace. We learnt to hold our own in meetings via a complex language of eyebrow raises and nose twitches, and the occasional under-the-table shin kick. We found a groove, and it worked.

Our budgeted fee was small and Canberra rents were high. David stayed with his parents to keep out of the red. I held on tight to a retail job in the city, selling dresses, jewellery and trinkets. As we got busier in our festival preparations, the shop got busier for Christmas, so he would come and meet me at work, trailing me around the shop floor with laptop open, speaking animatedly, then trying to look inconspicuous when a customer entered.

On the first night, our festival audience arrived first in ones and twos, then in a strong stream. The venue filled, the windows fogged and the walls sweated, and it was going to be okay. There’s nothing like that feeling, of building something that didn’t exist before, of watching other people discover it. Seeing them form an ownership, and seeing them feel proud. Robyn Archer was proud too. She gave us a contract for the next two years.

I was deeply loyal to Canberra – passionate about it. For me, home was a place to invest energy. But home was not part of David’s vernacular. It was just a place to return to, between other things. Since his early twenties, David had been cultivating the means to divide his working year between the UK, the Philippines and Australia. Following that first You Are Here festival, he had to choose between Canberra, and doing it all again, or a series of opportunities in London. It had a big pull for him, as did Manila. His creative practice, both as an independent maker and with Boho, came to life in these more complex, diverse and demanding worlds. But the festival was rare and reliable work, calling him back each time.

In late 2011 I was leading the planning for the second festival, but didn’t have an internet connection at my share house. I would walk three blocks to a friend’s place to use hers, and sometimes feed her dog in return. When David was in the UK, my nights were his days. We would sit chatting – work and idle conversation tripping over one another onscreen, becoming closer because of, or in spite of, the distance.

One night, we talked shop over Skype for a good twenty minutes before I mustered up the courage to tell him I was pregnant. I was quick to add that it wouldn’t get in the way of my work, so far as I could tell. I didn’t know anybody else who had had a baby, or was having one. When my round stomach tumbled and twitched above the table edge during meetings, I was aware of all the eyes upon it. My partner Mat and I got married, and had a party in the backyard of our mouldering duplex. Our housemates had been extricated and a tiny bedroom equipped with what we could only imagine a baby might need. I kept working.

I was panicking, submitting an Australia Council application for the festival on an intermittent internet connection, half an hour from deadline, when my waters began to seep. It’s happening! I emailed David, before completing the application and sending a barrage of half-finished tasks his way.

After my first son was born, I was gripped by a ferocious drive. I had a new perception of time, and I had something to prove. I began to write again. I was moving away from the blog – getting commissions for articles and being published. I wrote more pieces and had more work published in my first twelve months of motherhood than I had had in the five years preceding. Suddenly I wrote poetry too, if only for the fact that the form suited the small windows of opportunity available for creative pursuit. We took the baby to festival meetings, David pushing the pram or carrying my bags.

In 2013, David and I turned thirty and Canberra turned one hundred. We produced our third and final festival together, packed up the venues, gave back the keys and handed over to a new set of young producers. We continued speaking every day because, after three years, we didn’t know how not to.

 

MY SON WAS nearly one when home life began closing in. Some days I wept from boredom. I decided I needed a ‘real job’, after so long living precariously from one invoice to the next. What might lack in creative satisfaction could perhaps be made up for by a regular income. I set my sights on an entry-level role with the ACT’s arts-funding body – cocksure at first, then deeply rattled when I didn’t secure an interview.

‘You really need to have had some policy experience,’ they offered by way of explanation.

‘You would be miserable there,’ David said.

Instead I found a role as program manager for an arts centre, nine to five, five days a week. The regimentation felt awkward and archaic but I knew I needed to play the game. Mat took care of our son and brought him to me for feeding during the day.

That winter I was in the Canberra Theatre Centre audience for the premiere of Big hART’s Hipbone Sticking Out. A sprawling, freewheeling thing – heartbreaking, jubilant, haunting, acerbic. I left that night transformed; something had been lit inside me. Something to do with art as a means to understanding the world, its strengths and its weaknesses.

I needed to get closer to whatever and whoever it was that made that work a reality. And so, late one night, after a particularly disheartening workday, I shot off a gushy email to Big hART’s national producer. I hit send before I could second-guess, experienced a shudder of embarrassment and horror at my own presumption. And yet they responded, asking if I knew anyone who would be interested in part-time work.

I texted David immediately, in shock. I think I just got offered a job with Big hART.

It was comms work, largely online. The digital world needed words as much as the art world. I had no idea what I was doing but slightly more idea than the rest, and that was my pass in.

 

IN THE CLOSING MONTHS of 2013 I helped David prepare his application for an Australia Council Fellowship for early career artists. I riddled each page with track changes, horrified by how little confidence he demonstrated, how self-deprecating he was. It comes easy to me, this stuff. For the first time in years I wished I were an artist instead, that it were my own opportunities I were working at. I felt a sort of mellow grief for the potential other directions my working life would no longer lead. At least, not for some time.

Receiving the fellowship gave David room for more risk. His latest script was written in hotel rooms while overseas for his Churchill fellowship in 2014, and despite having not been performed or presented it was already contentious. Titled Kill Climate Deniers, the play unpicks the tangled politics of climate change while sitting in a trope somewhere between Tank Girl, Die Hard and Tarantino. We are accustomed to art going unnoticed by the wider populace, but this project was different: it was immediately taken to task by Andrew Bolt; there were calls for the ACT arts minister to resign; David was savaged online by rabid sceptics of climate change, and by those who love to hate art – and arts funding even more so. David’s career turned into a boxing ring, and I was in the corner passing the towel. He pushed on with a development of the work in Canberra, still unsure where this project might find a home, but determined that it must.

One weekend, Mat and I drove out to the town of Braidwood, eighty-six kilometres outside of Canberra, to visit a friend. The town is home to many artists, writers, fringe-dwellers and outside thinkers, and on that trip the winter light cast everything in gold. On our way home, I wondered aloud whether we should just move there, and that night, for reasons I can’t articulate, I found myself searching rental listings over dinner. Six weeks later we were headed back, this time following a removal truck.

The change was a jolt. To my colleagues at Big hART it made little difference where I was so long as there was Skype, but I worried about being away from the arts scene, the institutions and the government agencies – about dropping off the radar. This is my risk. But our rent had halved and small-town life normalised other parts of my life. Here it seems, almost everyone is a parent. Small children are everywhere. Not everybody works. For the first time in my two years of motherhood I felt okay about the role. I didn’t miss Canberra in ways I thought I might.

In October 2014 I travelled to Melbourne with Big hART, where Hipbone Sticking Out was headlining the Melbourne Festival. The audience loved it. The critics loved it. We were the darlings of the day. My son was back in Canberra with his dad, and as I sat with the cast in the festival lounge, being shouted champagne by the festival director, I was caught up in the moment, in its possibilities. But I had to come home. And home can be an artless place.

Property is still cheap in Braidwood. At the start of 2015 we combined a decade’s worth of savings with loans from our parents to take out a mortgage on a hundred-year-old cottage. The day we settled, the real estate agent presented us the keys tied with gaudy ribbon round a cheap bottle of sparkling, alongside a ‘Congratulations!’ gift box full of snacks from Aldi. Among the domesticity, knocking over the dominos of an average Aussie life, I felt misery lapping.

Write a poem. Just four words, at least. Before sundown. No fucking around! David texted. And again the next day, and the next. And I wrote them, while dinner was spitting on the stove, while my son sat in the bath. There is nowhere for these pieces of writing to live, but putting something on to paper helps a little.

I began to lose track of where David was and where he was going. He started to phone me from departure lounges.

 

IT HAD BEEN a long time since I’d seen David. I was in Canberra for the day, and David was back for a couple of weeks. We met for coffee. I’d been working with Big hART for a good six months, and perhaps it still hadn’t sunk in.

‘You’re doing so well,’ he said. ‘Right where you want to be. I know how hard you worked for this.’ Suddenly I was crying, proper crying, my face in my hands right there at the café. No one had ever said anything like this to me before, and it triggered the realisation of unacknowledged truths. Something to do with the disparity between how I saw myself and what the world saw of me. That no matter how hard I worked, or what direction I pushed, I would slide toward the identity of mother as if into quicksand.

He was alarmed, as were the waiters with their sidelong glances. I was too. I’d never realised I wanted to be seen, to be someone. I never realised how much my work meant to me. I never comprehended how much he understood that. And then I was sad for how rarely we were able to sit side by side and talk like this, how rarely he could be on the other end of the phone line.

In 2015 I became pregnant again. I told David over the phone while trying to build a fire with my other hand on a freezing Braidwood evening. He made a joyful noise so loud that I had to hold the phone away from my head. By the time he came to visit, the summer weather was searing, my belly was huge and the heat dizzying. He had just returned from an Asialink residency in the Philippines, his ninth visit in as many years, and barely paused for New Year in Australia before trading the typhoons, humidity and chaos for midwinter in London and Sweden, working on developments with Boho. I confessed to being afraid of what this next phase holds, but didn’t admit I feel our lives are about as far apart as they’ve ever been.

I had another boy on Australia Day, 2016. I arranged my maternity leave via Centrelink and sorted my affairs with Big hART, saying I’d be away six months – still naive, after all this time. By the time my leave ended, I was barely sleeping, unable to form a cohesive sentence and having panic attacks in the bind of postnatal depression. I was sick with worry about money but incapable of working. I resigned, and for the first time in my life I didn’t have a job. It felt like disappearing. The world of airports, international travel and touring theatre seemed a universe away. My weeks were visits to counsellors, phone calls to Centrelink, trips to the doctor and the supermarket.

At tax time I took a call from my accountant. An old family friend, he gives me mate’s rates and secures excellent returns – the catch being I need to listen to his well-meaning annual lecture about the state of my career and fiscal affairs.

He is still trying to understand why I am not working for the federal arts body or pursuing work as an editor or copywriter in a government department.

‘Someone of your age and number of years working should realistically be looking at about ninety K a year,’ he mused, before quizzing me on whether I was sure I didn’t have any car-related work expenses. My profit as a freelance writer, this time around, was the grand sum of nine dollars.

‘And how’s the baby? It’s good that you’re taking the time to be at home with the kids. I know I’m a grey-haired old fogey, but boys need their mothers, especially those first five years.’

 

I CALL DAVID late one afternoon as I walk around my garden, wearing the baby on my front and hoping he might sleep. David is in Melbourne for a few weeks, and sounds worn thin. He’s doing his taxes too. The fellowship money has been paid out in full now. No more where that came from, especially after Brandis. Everywhere we look arts organisations are losing funding, downsizing, closing up shop. I’m terrified for me, terrified for him, feeling bitter and jaded. The sector’s response to its stripping of funds has me disappointed and disgusted in equal measure.

‘What’re you gonna do?’ I wheedle, ‘What am I gonna do?’

I feel like I’m being prompted to roll over, to give in – like it’s game over. Like I should put the baby in daycare, head out tomorrow and get a regular job.

‘Like what job?’ he asks.

‘Like a shop, or at the bakery or something. I’m good at retail. Really good.’

‘So you do that for six months or so. Until the next thing happens. You always tend to catastrophise these things. If that’s the worst case, then that’s pretty okay. And just remember that it isn’t forever.

‘It’s same for me’ he continues. ‘I’ll get a hospitality job, or work in a pharmacy like I used to’.

‘The worst case then,’ I say hopefully, ‘isn’t actually all that bad.’

When we are once again in Canberra on the same day, neither of us recognise the inner-city anymore, and can’t think of a single place to meet. We end up sitting at a flat-pack café facing the long window frontage of a gym franchise in the mall, eyeing the men and women running on treadmills and lunging and hugging medicine balls while we drink coffee while the baby sleeps in the pram alongside. It’s the first time we’ve been able to talk face to face since I came adrift, and since I left my job. I wonder if he knows me still.

We talk about the things we want, and the things we don’t. I tell him comms work is all-consuming but empty, even in a company I love. I thought I was carving out space for myself, but instead I feel I’m backed into a corner, going nowhere. I want a job with more creative control, with room for strategy. I want to be an artistic director, a CEO, a manager. Head of a festival, head of an org. But right now, a spot in the background is about the best as I can give.

David wants none of these things, though he’s perfectly placed for them. He just wants to keep going, to make work. His greatest fear is losing the faculties that make it possible. He is about to head back to Sweden for a long stint. I won’t see him again until the very end of the year. Won’t be able to call.

Our time is up. Before loping away into the crowds of lunchtime strangers he presses a small paper parcel into my hand. It is well into the night before I can tear it open. The outside reads: One a day. And inside: ten envelopes, each with a note. Each note a memory, an expression of gratitude, an observation about me and my work, my practice, my art and the ways I have helped make his work possible, how I have steered him through. Snatches that seem to say: it doesn’t matter where to from here. The groundwork is done and we are each a prop for the other, a mirror and counterpoint. The rest is a dance between hard work and the dealings of fate, a future uncertain but ultimately shared.

 


From Griffith Review Edition 56: Millennials Strike Back © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review