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Edition 23

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Reportage

Notes from the feral edge

SUNDAY NIGHT ENDED with a feast of dumpstered strawberries, eaten at banquet tables piled high with bark and leaves; music that might have once been '80s pop lurched through the crowd of diners, jostling sweaty boys with handlebar moustaches and girls in low fedoras. An awkward waiter grated carrot into my lap while, metres from my head, a woman was doused in wine then showered with eiderdown – a contemporary tarring-and-feathering for some unspecified crime. Here at the ‘world's worst theatre restaurant', no one knew what was happening. Half the patrons had left in disgust, the other half were calling their mates and telling them to come down. Another waiter tramped along the tables, knocking meals out of the way, refilling people's glasses with wine delivered from inside the fly of his trousers. The whole thing was horrible; fragmented; about to disintegrate into chaos, and perfect.

Day four of the 2008 This is Not Art (TiNA) Festival, and the mix of bug-eyed rapture and utter confusion on the faces around me suggested we were doing okay. It was a strange feeling to be surrounded by such improvised chaos, yet in some sense being ‘in charge' of it all. To the external observer, this particular show looked like it could collapse in a second – or perhaps already had. But after two years working on the festival, I felt surprisingly unstressed.

I thought back over my day. I'd introduced two of Europe's leading radical publishers to a captivated audience, biked to Newcastle's old jail to check on a five-hour endurance performance that involved performance artist and novelist Fiona McGregor sewing her lips shut, and mediated some verbal fireworks between a young anarchist arts writer and some big-name journalists. One of our panels, entitled ‘Rupert Murdoch is Not a Cunt', had failed to get off the ground – I discovered later that a key speaker had taken too much acid the night before, hammered himself to a Japanese noisecore artist and injured his eardrums – but by then it didn't matter. The festival was already a success. Since landing the job as a key organiser two years earlier, I'd witnessed a few events crash and burn without anyone batting an eyelid. I'd even seen the whole organisation come close to disintegrating and had participated in a massive rebuilding effort as a result. Sitting there in the world's worst theatre restaurant, I knew that risk, experimentation and even the distinct possibility of failure were the festival's life-blood. Things might go wrong, but that was both understood and vital. I brushed the carrot out of my lap and settled in to watch the show.

 

AT THE TIME of writing this article, I'm in my final days working on TiNA, an annual creative bender held in Newcastle, New South Wales over the October long weekend. In a sense, TiNA doesn't exist: it's not an organisation or central bureaucracy, but rather a decentred cluster of independent events that combines a writers' festival (National Young Writers' Festival), an electronic arts festival (Electrofringe), an indy hiphop and electronica conference (Sound Summit) and a creative academic forum (Critical Animals). The component festivals share venues and artists and publish a single program that refuses to reveal who's organising what. Each component festival within TiNA is self-contained and run by young, emerging curators and directors. They don't have offices, full-time staff or equipment – or wages. The festivals are put together on the idea of the smell of an oily rag, without any of the top-heavy bureaucracies you might expect. Meanwhile, according to a Newcastle City Council-commissioned research project, TiNA brings well over a million dollars into the local economy every year.

TiNA has outlasted its initial creative impulse because it functions as a kind of artistic ecosystem. Self-contained festivals spring up to harness and amplify new creative, and social and political energy; they can also leave or die out completely, providing a kind of dynamic equilibrium. Over the years TiNA has blitzed Newcastle's walls with a stencil and graffiti program called Strike, brought community radio stations together for a conference, hosted student newspaper editors at the National Student and Emerging Media Conference, and for years housed the country's best collection of dreadlocks at the Earthling environmental activism conference. At present moves are afoot for a new experimental theatre festival to join TiNA in 2009. When the animating creativity moves on, a festival can vanish back into the ether without any significant impact on the overall structure. In 2006 the NSEMC left the building (thanks, VSU). The Earthling environmental activism conference erased itself completely after the organisers decided the premise of a national festival was unsustainable in its dependence on air travel. At some point in the future, I may even argue that the NYWF itself needs to be quietly taken out the back and shot.

All this is a far cry from the multitude of Jurassic arts bureaucracies that have staked out their patch, paid their rent, paid their staff and spend their time desperately searching for the action. Organisations can't create creativity. They can support and amplify pre-existing creativity, but they will rarely conjure the genuinely new out of thin air. There are exceptions – Chunky Move's ‘Two Faced Bastard' is an excellent recent example – but many arts companies and organisations are bound by their formal structures. The risk-aversion that size and stature entail leaves them in a frighteningly expensive holding pattern.

TiNA has the ability and the willingness to create and shed entire festivals as they are needed and, as long as no one component or person becomes too dominant, individual failures can be absorbed and even feed into the overall health of the organism. As I found out at first hand, this presents its own set of problems and stresses. But it does mean artists can try out new ideas and young organisers can take a punt on a new direction or philosophy of curation. Taken together, these elements produce a creative environment that enables risks to be taken at every level. As Anna Funder wrote in The Monthly in October 2007, the resulting atmosphere is ‘engaged, hopeful, electric'.

 

IN SEPTEMBER 2004, in a cavernous railway shed with a tin roof, I lost my mind. The Bedroom Philosopher, a guy with a reputation for clever lyrics, climbed on stage holding a wooden fish and a copy of the Sydney Morning Herald. He looked stressed; drowned by noise from the bar and the relentless drumming of southerly rain, he took one look at the assembled crowd then, without warning or premeditation, proceeded to destroy the stage. I won't attempt a blow-by-blow account of what happened (largely because I can't remember much) but I will say that the racing section of the SMH somehow attached itself to his glasses to form fish-like gills; he lost a violent wrestling match with a microphone stand; and at one point he stopped and deadpanned an interview with himself about the nature of comedy. It was one of the most inexplicable and hysterically funny things I'd ever seen and was born entirely out of the fact that the festival club acoustics were unworkable. The whole thing was a total, glorious fuckup.

This was my first experience of TiNA. As a twenty-four-year-old fresh-off-the-boat Kiwi, it was a revelation. The festival had a radically down to earth nature, bringing me into conversation with hundreds of the most creative people I'd ever met. I'd previously worked as a graphic designer, but buoyed by the TiNA community's enthusiasm, writing, organising and art-making seemed not only possible, they seemed like the most natural acts in the world. From my first taste as a punter in 2004, I got involved in a huge range of projects and by the end of 2006, found myself flying up to Newcastle with fellow punters Tom Doig and Kelly-lee Hickey to be interviewed for the job of running the NYWF. We lay on Nobby's Beach and talked through hundreds of different scenarios in preparation. We thought we were ready for anything.

I'm looking now at a photo taken when we found out we'd got the job. We're out of focus, my eyes are closed, all three of us are wearing a look of sunburned ecstasy. We'd just inherited a festival with a long, proud history. I couldn't wait to find out how it all worked.

Over the next twelve months, it became apparent that it didn't work at all.

The 2006 NYWF directors had all quit a couple of months out from the event, leaving us – the 2007 directors and a collection of hastily assembled volunteers – with roughly six weeks to scramble together something for that year. The first agenda item from a meeting held nine days out from the 2006 festival reads: ‘Damage control – what we can do to make it happen and stay sane.' The festival did happen, though there wasn't much sanity. We somehow pulled it together using a more extreme version of decentred organising – the terror-cell model, where nobody had a clue what anyone else was doing.

When the dust settled from 2006, we discovered the festival we'd inherited owed over $10,000 to creditors, the previous operating body the Octapod had temporarily ceased trading, and was being investigated to work out what had gone wrong. The lack of support for previous young NYWF directors meant that many had collapsed in a heap the minute the festival was over. As a result there was barely any documentation or process relating to the NYWF, and little to show that the festival had been done eight times before. We found some old funding applications which bore only passing resemblance to the actual event, and a large box marked ‘NYWF'. Inside were staplers, scissors, butcher's paper and felt-tip pens. All the tools needed to run a lunchtime play session at a kindergarten. Perfect. We'd inherited a great big black hole. The chaos that was so enticing when I first encountered the festival was now my own personal nightmare.

 

THE OCTAPOD IS now back on its feet and doing an amazing job for the arts in Newcastle, but at the time it had imploded. Conventional wisdom says that there's a period in any arts project's lifespan where you have to get serious or die. A few years after its inception, the Octapod Association got serious, successfully landed triennial funding, took on full-time professional staff and began to die. The move had split the original Pod members between those who insisted on the need to hire professional arts workers and those who saw this as a sure-fire way to kill everything good about it in the first place. In the end, the second group was proven right. By 2006 administrator salaries and costs had monopolised all the money, power was centralised around one dysfunctional individual, and creative activity had been buried in a shallow grave.

For the NYWF, there was no longer any organisational structure to speak of, and over the years the program had become increasingly repetitive – a photocopy of a photocopy of a good idea. A name, a reputation and the festival's DIY ethos were essentially all that remained. Yet, as daunting as this prospect seemed, it also presented us with a unique opportunity: to rebuild the festival from scratch. Perversely, a failure of this scale actually suited our personalities and the festival's culture. We wanted to minimise the chaos at an organisational level but not by going the Octapod route. More than that, we wanted to bring back NYWF's contemporary and political edge, to recapture the raw energy that had guaranteed the festival's existence and success in the first place. It was time to grow up – but not too much.

We swallowed our terror, completely extracted ourselves and our funding from the Octapod and threw ourselves into the task of rebuilding. From several hundred litres of black coffee and cheap beer consumed at kitchen tables across the country, the festival began to take shape. We took on fourteen staff, wrote nerve-wracking emails asking our heroes to appear at the festival for free, and developed an unhealthy obsession with the arts funding system. Although it was all uncharted territory, at every turn, we pretended we knew exactly what we were doing. As the flights and nights on couches from one end of Australia to the other mounted up, the stress started to take its toll. There was no money for fees or salaries. On top of full-time festival work, our paid jobs and the post-grad study we were scamming for the scholarship money meant we were doing ninety-plus hour weeks for an entire year. Infighting was inevitable under this kind of pressure, and some of my strongest friendships were almost shredded.

In Sydney for meetings on the day of the huge storm that wrecked Newcastle and sent the Pasha Bulkaaground, we drank until four in the morning then staggered out into the horizontal rain. The CBD was deserted except for dozens of smashed umbrellas, littering the concrete like so many fallen birdmen. We collected as many as we could, walking back to Redfern clutching the skeletal remains, laughing and delirious and on the verge of collapse. In retrospect, I'm not sure whether we were the people collecting up all those smashed things in order to put them back together or whether we were the smashed things ourselves.

 

OVER THAT YEAR we joked, with increasingly less humour, that we led the sex, drugs and rock‘n'roll lifestyle, only without the sex, drugs or rock ‘n'roll. In retrospect, that's not strictly true. There was some great sex, some killer hip hop in lieu of the rock, and although we couldn't afford drugs on our literally non-existent wages, we were often still awake at dawn, in conversation with some of the most luminous minds I've ever encountered. And from it all, I learned a few things the hard way about the role the ‘feral edge' plays in Australian creativity.

At the heart of the NYWF is the idea of creative risk – taking chances on people and ideas that are not necessarily tried, tested or sane. There are no guaranteed or easily quantifiable outcomes, there is very little money, and there have even been some unmitigated disasters. But the festival's flexibility and experimentation, and the allowance for the failure it entails, give people enough rope to produce some brilliant work. Put simply, this contentious space is where new ideas come from.

The decade-long NYWF saga illustrates the enormous value of playful, high-risk approaches to making art and highlights the need for individuals, organisations, funding bodies and our culture as a whole to accept and embrace possible failure as a necessary part of our creative process. In the brave and tedious new world of outcome-driven and risk-averse funding, established arts organisations, funding bodies and government departments that value innovation so highly on paper are the ones most likely to play it safe. The burden of risk falls instead to the young artists, curators and organisations who can least afford it to take it.

As a society, we're told that we are becoming increasingly risk-averse. In arts terms, book publishers tend to stick to the ‘more of the same please' model; arts festivals take on artists who have long professional careers and can guarantee audiences and bottom lines; Kafkaesque insurance and funding requirements can be crippling for young artists and cash flows inevitably to the organisations with heavyweight boards and centuries-old business models. But the other side of the story is that we are obsessed with risk and, even if it's only vicariously, we seek it out at every turn. We are fixated with innovation. We gravitate towards the people who are making difficult or edgy work and applaud the mavericks. We know, at least in principle, that it's where we'll find our ‘next big things'. When artists are successful they will be claimed as a result of good policy; everyone will back a winner after the fact. In short, we love risk, but only as long as someone else is taking it. We need to extend our support to alternative, flexible arts bodies like the NYWF that give their artists and organisers permission to try, and at times, to fail.

This isn't just another tedious ‘give us more money, you bastards' argument. The NYWF and TiNA happily ran without funding when they started and would still blow the roof off Newcastle if the money dried up tomorrow. But if we are going to talk about innovation and value new ideas, we have to provide support to the young and hungry so they can make mistakes, take the risks and bring forth the future that the rest of the country is so keen to see. In financial terms, it does mean increasing funding to incubators, shenanigans and play-fights like the NYWF. Give them enough so that the edge is taken off the stress, but not so much as to attract the careerists and bureaucrats. Most of all, support the release of resources, mentoring and trust to those striking out into uncharted territory.

 

IN THE LEAD-UP to that make-or-break 2007 NYWF festival, dozens and dozens of supporters, both organisations and individuals, came forward to help out. The decentred organising model meant the other TiNA festivals were mostly unaffected by the tumult, and were able to provide valuable assistance. We ended up tripling our budget and the size of the program, conned someone into lending us an office, and even got Shaun Tan to hang out with us for the weekend. But there were two moments which really told me that we were going to make it.

The first was when I realised our obsessive drive to professionalise the NYWF was going too far, and that it was time to disorganise the festival once more. We put a two-year limit on how long one person could direct the festival, ensured that only a small percentage of the budget could ever be spent on administration and re-evaluated our artistic program. We'd curated the festival to within an inch of its life and needed to open the process back out. We invited a heap of younger, wild-card artists. I also commissioned four highly unpredictable theatre groups to crash the festival just to push the point. They were given the festival program, a budget and a blank slate to disrupt, subvert or simply mess with the festival we'd worked so hard to create. When Thomas Henning from Melbourne's Black Lung Theatre fixed me with a maniacal look and asked, ‘So, which items in the program are your darlings?' I knew he wasn't asking in order to treat them with kid gloves. The decision to sabotage our own festival was a nerve-wracking kind of homage to the NYWF's anarchic roots and a nod to the psychosis of the previous twelve months. It suggests I may have become addicted to adrenalin too, but it was a hell of a lot of fun seeing uniformed council workers sectioning off areas of the festival and designating them ‘Art' as part of the hoax This is Art festival; watching open-mouthed as Radio National got three minutes of dead air when an event being broadcast live was hijacked by a mime troupe; or laughing as a demented parade float swept through the festival precinct looking for its (fictional) parade.

The second indicator of success was my list of disasters. Far beyond traditional risk management, I went into the festival with a compendium of possible fuckups and the misguided idea that I would personally run around and fix every single one. I was so tired and stressed I barely enjoyed or saw any events but it soon became clear that the whole thing was running itself. The DIY attitude that is the NYWF mantra meant audience and artists didn't wait around to be told. If something needed fixing, it got fixed, or no one noticed and the whole thing went off. A festival like NYWF lives or dies by the people it exists to support, and people were out in force. The NYWF alone had 230 artists there putting on ninety events and several thousand hyperactive audience members. I was redundant to the whole damn thing. As hard as that is to admit, that's the best compliment an organiser can get.

A year on, seated in the world's worst theatre restaurant in a state of relative calm, I felt like we'd got the balance right. The 2008 festival built on the success of the tumultuous previous year and the organising process had been infinitely more sane as a result. Beneath the surface, there were good people and systems in place. The chaos was still present and a new generation of artists, seated around me, were having their first wide-eyed TiNA experience. For us, though, there was a lot more sleep and a lot less adrenalin.

When things start going smoothly and funding starts creeping up, some structure inevitably comes with it. NYWF now has a fledgling board, a general manager (not an easy task to find a volunteer one) and a small amount of ongoing funding. To balance this, there are strong principles in place to ensure the festival keeps taking risks on its artists and organisers, adheres to its anti-bureaucratic origins, and that no one element becomes too central. Which brings me to the end of my time with the festival – it has been a strange process of pouring myself into the NYWF in order to make sure it no longer needs me. But that was the idea, and that's what has happened.


From Griffith Review Edition 23: Essentially Creative © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

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