Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Art at work – imagining a future Australia

In our strange new universe, where much of Australia burns while politicians make excuses for inaction, it’s time to take a hard look at what the arts can do. It’s an issue in the minds of many in the arts and culture sector. Part of the potential role of arts is around bushfire recovery – a much bigger part is around bushfire prevention. Artists have a role to play in designing a different future than what’s on offer and writing the story of a different future. Those social movements that are most powerful are the ones where arts and culture embodies and carries forward the essence of what they stand for. Think of the power of ceremony and ritual in the world – that is ultimately the power of art at work.

I’ve previously written about how artists and those in the arts and culture sector can help make a difference and contribute to building a better Australia for the contemporary world. In our strange new universe, where much of Australia burns while politicians make excuses for inaction, it’s time to take a hard look at what the arts can do. It always looked as though the low-lying Pacific islands would be the canary in the coalmine for climate change, but suddenly in one season, Australia has taken over that role. How to make even more of a contribution than they do already is an issue in the minds of many in the arts and culture sector. Part of the potential role of arts is around bushfire recovery – a much bigger part is around bushfire prevention. I’ve recently looked at some of the ways in which artists have contributed to bushfire recovery after previous bushfires. Now I want to revisit some of my earlier comments about the broader role of art and artists.

‘Part of their potential role is around bushfire recovery – a much bigger part is around bushfire prevention.’

I have been thinking about my earlier comments due to the example of a group of artists who have banded together to produce public artworks about climate change. These works have had a limited life due to urgent reaction by self-appointed conservative censors, but they have retained a much longer after life – like the half life of radioactive material, their energy and danger may linger for much longer.

Enough hot air - surrounding Parliament House Canberra, on the day Parliament re-opened, February 2020

The broader movement to change paradigms
Reluctantly I have come to the view that if we think that arts and culture matter and that they should be supported by government, then we have to join the broader movement to change the paradigm of government – in fact, all the paradigms of the relationship between government and communities, between government and citizens, between government and voters. The alternative is that arts and culture will remain a diminishing afterthought, slowly dying. It is already a marginal afterthought, unfortunately it can become even more so.

‘Reluctantly I have come to the view that if we think that arts and culture matter and that they should be supported by government, then we have to join the broader movement to change the paradigm of government – in fact, all the paradigms of the relationship between government and communities, between government and citizens, between government and voters.’

It's time to change the world. Artists and arts and cultural organisations have a crucial part to play in changing it for the better. This is what arts and culture have always been about anyway.

How the arts can make a difference
I’ve previously mentioned a couple of examples to illustrate what this can mean in practice. Alex Kelly, one of those who helped in getting Australia’s first (and only) National Indigenous Languages Policy, has mentioned a striking example in a talk in June 2015. Previously from Australian arts company Big hArt, she went on to work with Naomi Klein of ‘This Changes Everything’ fame and now part of the team that produced, the new film ‘In my blood it runs’. Ironically the day after I published this article she sent some more recent information, including useful suggestions on how people can respond practically to the assorted crises of democracy we are facing. In her earlier talk, she cited the People’s Climate March, which saw 400,000 people on the streets of New York City.

Under the slogan ‘To change everything we need everyone’, artists were not just ‘cake decorators’ on this march – they didn’t just make it look pretty. As she outlined, there were such things as design competitions and a puppet building warehouse, but artists were actually closely engaged in the design and makeup of the march itself. She pointed out that ‘the three minutes of silence ritual which I found so completely profound was devised by artists.’ She goes on to comment that increasingly the way in which events and marches are organised is being referred to as ‘movement choreography’ and notes that we can see an increase in arts thinking applied to movement organising.

'You're completely surrounded, come out with your hands up'.

Another example, similar in many respects to this, is the series of locally organised ‘create-a-thons’ around the theme of a Universal Basic Income in the United States. In these, in a weekend marathon, writers, artists, videographers, developers, musicians, and other creative people came together to create content and media around a social theme. In this case it’s a Universal Basic Income, a social solution increasingly being discussed as a way of addressing the rise of automation and the steady disappearance of unskilled and sem-skilled work.

At a more general level, design, that most practical of arts, is being applied to social challenges, including designing the actual process being used to address social challenges or solve identified problems. Artists are also finding ingenious way to confound the algorithms that increasingly rule our world.

Most recently the Peoples Climate Assembly event in Canberra centred on completely surrounding Parliament House on the day it re-opened in 2020, after the intense bushfires across much of Australia. At the time I couldn't resist thinking of a line from some ancient film, 'you're completely surrounded, come out with your hands up'. I didn't quite get the significance of the people dressed in red at the front of the procession, but I suppose like all worthwhile things, it's trial and error.

Seeking a better future
People talk about socially engaged art. But, as I’ve said before, to my mind all art is socially engaged – it’s just that some is more explicit about it and some is more or less positive in its engagement. Some art seeks a better future and some wants to hold it back. It’s all about reimagining the world and teasing out how it could look and how we could get there. It’s not a matter of research or data or analysis. That is already there. It’s easy to just ignore it or distort it, as has happened with climate change. Originally there was a debate about whether human actions had caused global warming. Then the whole discussion became debased – not without considerable help from those with a deep self-interest in the matter – into one about whether global warming actually existed. The story had changed completely.

‘It’s all about reimagining the world and teasing out how it could look and how we could get there. It’s not a matter of research or data or analysis. That is already there….Beyond the facts of the matter, there is the way people respond to it. If there seems no alternative way of living that can actually be imagined then people will fall back into trying to made the best of what is already there – as unsatisfactory as that is.’

Beyond the facts of the matter, there is the way people respond to it. If there seems no alternative way of living that can actually be imagined then people will fall back into trying to made the best of what is already there – as unsatisfactory as that is.

Arts and culture are part of the powerful impetus heading into the future. This is no less than a fight for the soul of Australia –and who better to embody such a fight over values and symbols than the arts and culture sector and those beyond it who believe in its importance. Sometimes, in a period of radical unravelling, a form of conservatism might not be entirely undesirable. Our long-held and hard-won popular traditions – democracy, cultural diversity and industrial and human rights – while still incomplete in far too many ways, are worth defending. As the Americans say in a much misused expression, ‘the price of liberty is eternal vigilance’.

The power of symbolism
Those in the arts and culture sector are adept at communication. We deal in the expression of fundamental values for our society. Our tools of trade are language and images, stories, symbolism and emotion. One of the reasons the British monarchy has survived and thrived so long is that it understands the full power of symbolism and art and culture. When I hear someone say with disappointment ‘it’s only a symbolic gesture’, my first thought is ‘nothing is only a symbolic gesture’.

‘Over the last half century, we have neglected the maintenance of our physical infrastructure and frittered away the legacy of community action and government response from the 19th and 20th centuries. We are still drawing on the ‘national capital’ of the great nation-building era after World War 2 when Australia needed engineering, learning, science – not to mention migration.’

Over the last half century, we have neglected the maintenance of our physical infrastructure and frittered away the legacy of community action and government response from the 19th and 20th centuries. We are still drawing on the ‘national capital’ of the great nation-building era after World War 2 when Australia needed engineering, learning, science – not to mention migration. The same has happened with our social infrastructure, with assets like the public service, and community assets, like women’s shelters and co-operatives and mutual societies, being run down, sold off or handed over to the best-positioned bidder. Australia’s arts and culture is not immune from this destructive drive.

Two countries going in opposite directions
We might look like a go-ahead, interesting kind of country, heading calmly into our future, but are we actually two different countries going in opposite directions? I suppose the only consolation might be that in one of those rare bonuses of ageing, those heading in one direction will die much earlier than those heading in the other – but I’m not sure even that is true. Having reached the refuge of Australia at different points over the last 220 years, we are still only part way through making our home here. We haven’t yet figured out how to belong to this land – and how to accept those who were here long before us and others who have come after us to try to do the same.

‘We might look like a go-ahead, interesting kind of country, heading calmly into our future, but are we actually two different countries going in opposite directions? Having reached the refuge of Australia at different points over the last 220 years, we are still only part way through making our home here. We haven’t yet figured out how to belong to this land – and how to accept those who were here long before us and others who have come after us to try to do the same.’

How can the broad arts and cultural sector become a better organised, effective voice for arts and culture and its wider importance for Australia? Changes that turn back the clock on democratic rights or community assets or benefits happen because they are able to happen – because decision-makers think it’s not important enough and they can get away with it. Artists have a role to play in designing a different future than what’s on offer and writing the story of a different future. Those social movements that are most powerful are the ones where arts and culture embodies and carries forward the essence of what they stand for. Think of the power of ceremony and ritual in the world – that is ultimately the power of art at work.

See also

‘indefinite article’ on Facebook – short arts updates and commentary
‘Short arts updates and irreverent cultural commentary about contemporary Australian society, popular culture, the creative economy and the digital and online world – life in the trenches and on the beaches of the information age’, 'indefinite article' on Facebook


Creative and cultural futures – understanding the creative and cultural economy
‘Survival in the creative sector in a post-COVID world will require enhanced literacy in the opportunities of the new industries of the future, the clean and clever knowledge economy which is altering our world on a daily basis. Now a new short course delivered completely online in the new digital universe we are all increasingly inhabiting will look closely at the creative and cultural economy and the broader impacts of creativity and culture, both economic and social. It will outline the role of the creative sector in managing meaning and explain how telling Australian stories puts us on the international stage in an increasingly globalised world’, Creative and cultural futures – understanding the creative and cultural economy.

Shutting down Australian creativity and culture – timeline of a trainwreck
‘In its response to the pandemic the current Government came a long way in terms of its narrow economic views about minimising the role of Government. However the longer history of neglect of the creative sector shows how severe the Government's economic limitations are and how its grasp of the economy (without even mentioning the social sphere) is too narrow and out of date. It has missed a whole sector of the economy that was large, fast growing and included many of the jobs of the future. It's most recent actions have merely compounded a seven year history of neglect and damage,’ Shutting down Australian creativity and culture – timeline of a trainwreck.
 
Caught in the past – economic blindness overlooks the creative sector
‘The last few months have been a wild ride. First the national bushfires and now global pandemic. In February people were being encouraged to visit fire-ravaged regional centres to help boost local economies. By March they were being urged to stay home to help reduce the spread of pestilence. I’m quietly seething at governments which knew this was coming, but just didn’t have a fixed date, and thought they could make savings by pretending it wasn’t coming. Now the Australian creative sector has largely been infected as well, but without the ventilators required to keep it alive,’ Caught in the past – economic blindness overlooks the creative sector.

Art and sport and an essential service under threat
‘In this dangerous age of pandemic that has succeeded our months of fire and smoke, all sorts of things we have taken for granted have become apparent. One of these is how similar in many respects the arts and sport are. The other is how community organisations are kept alive by an essential service that is often overlooked’, Art and sport and an essential service under threat.

Out of the ashes – art and bushfires
‘While the current bushfires raging across much of Australia are unprecedented in their scale and severity, they are a reminder of how people have responded after previous fires, rebuilding communities and lives in the affected areas. They have also focused attention on the impact of the fires on creative practices and business and on how those in the arts and culture sector can use their skills to contribute to bushfire recovery into the future’, Out of the ashes – art and bushfires.

Better than sport? The tricky business of valuing Australia’s arts and culture 
‘Understanding, assessing and communicating the broad value of arts and culture is a major and ongoing task. There has been an immense amount of work already carried out. The challenge is to understand some of the pitfalls of research and the mechanisms and motivations that underpin it. Research and evaluation is invaluable for all organisations but it is particularly important for Government. The experience of researching arts and culture in Government is of much broader relevance, as the arts and culture sector navigates the tricky task of building a comprehensive understanding in each locality of the broader benefits of arts and culture. The latest Arts restructure makes this even more urgent.’, Better than sport? The tricky business of valuing Australia’s arts and culture.

What is art good for? Understanding the value of our arts and culture
‘With arts and cultural support increasingly under pressure, arts and cultural organisations and artists are trying to find ways in their own localities to respond and to help build a popular understanding of the broader social and economic benefits of arts and culture. Much work has been done in Australia and internationally to understand, assess and communicate the broad value of arts and culture. The challenge is to share and to apply what already exists – and to take it further’, What is art good for? Understanding the value of our arts and culture.

Creativity and culture in change: Change in creativity and culture
‘A vast transformation of contemporary culture not seen since the breakdown of traditional arts and crafts in the industrial revolution is under way due to the impact of the digital and online environment. Artists, culture managers and cultural specialists today are confronted with radically different challenges and opportunities to those they faced in the 20th Century. There are a number of strategic forces which we need to take account of in career planning and in working in or running cultural organisations’, Presentation at ‘Creative and Cultural Futures: Leadership and Change’ – a symposium exploring the critical issues driving change in the creative and cultural sector, University of Canberra, October 2018, Creativity and culture in change: Change in creativity and culture.

See also – indefinite articles in a definite world
‘If you are losing track of the articles I have published to my 'indefinite article' blog over the last few years, this is a summary of all 133 articles up until mid July 2017, broken down into categories for easy access. They range from the national cultural landscape to popular culture, from artists and arts organisations to cultural institutions, cultural policy and arts funding, creative industries, First Nations culture, cultural diversity, cities and regions, Australia society, government, Canberra and international issues – the whole range of contemporary Australian arts and culture’, See also – indefinite articles in a definite world.

Crossing boundaries – the unlimited landscape of creativity
‘When I was visiting Paris last year, there was one thing I wanted to do before I returned home – visit the renowned French bakery that had trained a Melbourne woman who had abandoned the high stakes of Formula One racing to become a top croissant maker. She had decided that being an engineer in the world of elite car racing was not for her, but rather that her future lay in the malleable universe of pastry. Crossing boundaries of many kinds and traversing the borders of differing countries and cultures, she built a radically different future to the one she first envisaged’, Crossing boundaries – the unlimited landscape of creativity.

Taking part – Arts involvement in a divided Australia
‘The arts and culture sector has long suffered from a shortage of high quality, useable research and statistics. This makes what is available doubly important as we argue the case for the central relevance of arts and culture and the broader social and economic impact of involvement. New research demonstrates the positive scale of involvement, views on importance and trends in participation in Australia’s arts and cultural life, especially hands on involvement. It also shows a worrying decline in engagement and recognition in recent years and points to the need for a more strategic view by government’, Taking part – Arts involvement in a divided Australia.

Making ends meet – the brittle new world of arts funding
‘Everyone is still recovering from the shock of the announcement by the Australia Council back in May this year of which organisations had been successful in obtaining four year operating funding – and which had not. It’s not so much directly due to the transfer of funds from the Australia Council but more a matter of new applicants applying in a competitive funding round, with an expanding sector, yet limited funds and a shrinking arts budget. Planning how to operate in the arts landscape of the future is something everyone needs to do. Having a Plan B and Plan C will be critical’, Making ends meet – the brittle new world of arts funding.

Quadruple whammy – the long-running factors that together threaten our cultural future
‘The real danger for Australia’s arts and culture is not funding cuts but steady, unending neglect. The decline of Government arts and culture support can be attributed to four long-running factors. This I call a quadruple whammy, caused by lack of indexation, the cumulative effect of ‘efficiency dividends’, the trend towards project funding rather than operational funding and falling behind as the population and economy expands’, Quadruple whammy – the long-running factors that together threaten our cultural future.

Creating the future for Australia's arts and culture

‘Australia’s arts and culture is at a critical stage. One of the issues confronting it is lack of any kind of shared sense of what the role of government is in encouraging our arts and culture. The whole set of interlinked problems with the relationship between government and Australia’s arts and culture can be reduced to a lack of strategic vision and a long-term plan for the future. This deficiency is most apparent in the lack of any guiding policy, like trying to navigate a dark and dangerous tunnel without a torch or flying at night without lights or a map’, Creating the future for Australia's arts and culture.

Arts and culture part of everyday life and on the main agenda
‘There’s an election in the air and I was thinking about what would be a good list of positive improvements that would benefit Australia’s arts and culture, so I jotted down some ideas. They are about recognising arts and culture as a central part of everyday life and an essential component of the big agenda for Australia. They are about where the knowledge economy, creative industries and arts and culture fit, how arts and culture explain what it means to be Australian and how they are a valuable means of addressing pressing social challenges’, Arts and culture part of everyday life and on the main agenda.

Designs on the future – how Australia’s designed city has global plans
‘In many ways design is a central part of the vocabulary of our time and integrally related to so many powerful social and economic forces – creative industries, popular culture, the digital transformation of society. Design is often misunderstood or overlooked and it's universal vocabulary and pervasive nature is not widely understood, especially by government. In a rapidly changing world, there is a constant tussle between the local and the national (not to mention the international). This all comes together in the vision for the future that is Design Canberra, a celebration of all things design, with preparations well underway for a month long festival this year. The ultimate vision of Craft ACT for Canberra is to add another major annual event to Floriade, Enlighten and the Multicultural Festival, filling a gap between them and complementing them all’, Designs on the future – how Australia’s designed city has global plans.

Creativity at work – economic engine for our cities

‘It is becoming abundantly clear that in our contemporary world two critical things will help shape the way we make a living – and our economy overall. The first is the central role of cities in generating wealth. The second is the knowledge economy of the future and, more particularly, the creative industries that sit at its heart. In Sydney, Australia’s largest city, both of these come together in a scattering of evolving creative clusters – concentrations of creative individuals and small businesses, clumped together in geographic proximity. This development is part of a national and world-wide trend which has profound implications’, Creativity at work – economic engine for our cities.

The immense potential of creative industries for regional revival
‘Across Australia, local communities facing major economic and social challenges have become interested in the joint potential of regional arts and local creative industries to contribute to or often lead regional revival. This has paralleled the increasing importance of our major cities as economic hubs and centres of innovation’, The immense potential of creative industries for regional revival.

The clever business of creativity: the experience of supporting Australia's industries of the future
‘The swan song of the Creative Industries Innovation Centre, ‘Creative Business in Australia’, outlines the experience of five years supporting Australia’s creative industries. Case studies and wide-ranging analysis explain the critical importance of these industries to Australia’s future. The knowledge economy of the future, with its core of creative industries and its links to our cultural landscape, is both clever and clean. Where the creative industries differ completely from other knowledge economy sectors is that, because they are based on content, they draw on, intersect with and contribute to Australia’s national and local culture’, The clever business of creativity: the experience of supporting Australia's industries of the future.

Creative industries critical to vitality of Australian culture
‘The developing creative industries are a critical part of Australia’s future – clean, innovative, at their core based on small business and closely linked to the profile of Australia as a clever country, both domestically and internationally.’ Creative industries critical to vitality of Australian culture.

Applied creativity
‘I have been dealing with the issue of creativity for as long as I can remember. Recently, I have had to deal with a new concept—innovation. All too often, creativity is confused with innovation. A number of writers about innovation have made the point that innovation and creativity are different. In their view, innovation involves taking a creative idea and commercialising it. If we look more broadly, we see that innovation may not necessarily involve only commercialising ideas. Instead the core feature is application—innovation is applied creativity. Even ideas that may seem very radical can slip into the wider culture in unexpected ways’, Applied creativity.

Creative industries – applied arts and sciences
‘The nineteenth century fascination with applied arts and sciences — the economic application of nature, arts and sciences — and the intersection of these diverse areas and their role in technological innovation are as relevant today for our creative industries. From the Garden Palace, home of Australia’s first international exhibition in 1879, to the Economic Gardens in Adelaide’s Botanic Gardens these collections and exhibitions lay the basis for modern Australian industry. The vast Garden Palace building in the Sydney Botanic Gardens was the Australian version of the great Victorian-era industrial expositions, where, in huge palaces of glass, steel and timber, industry, invention, science, the arts and nature all intersected and overlapped. Despite burning to the ground, it went on to become the inspiration for what eventually became the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences — the Powerhouse Museum’, Creative Industries.

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