‘36 hours,’ said Stephen Collins, director and creator of TEDxCANBERRA. Collins was wearing a heavy black parka, black leather gloves and a Kangol-style beret turned backwards; his broad, flat palms had callouses at the base of each finger – a weightlifter or gym junkie’s hallmark – and, gripping a white plastic fork, he began shoveling rice from one compartment into the other in the takeaway curry before him.
This year, its third year and at double the capacity of its 2011 venue, TEDxCanberra sold out in 36 hours.
Three years ago, Collins adopted the model of the world’s foremost lecturing conference – TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design), a conference conceived two decades ago in California – when the opportunity to create satellite conferences under the moniker TEDx[City] became possible. Having watched other TEDx conferences spring up – an extension of the TED format, wherein a series of presentations (each no more than 18 minutes in length) by specially invited speakers are held to promote a simple cause: that there are ‘ideas worth spreading’ – having watched them, Collins decided to create TEDxCanberra.
‘I’ve always been involved in stuff where new ideas are being born,’ he said, taking pauses between quickly spoken sentences to chew. ‘It turns me on intellectually... About, maybe, 2005, I heard about TED. Before it came online [at www.ted.com]. I thought that’d be something I’d be really keen to see if I ever got the chance. It came online in 2006 and I started watching the videos. They were the sort of brain food that I really thrive on, particularly the ones where they leave the questions hanging and say, “What are you going to do about it?” ’
Presenters at the central TED conference vary greatly in background – from journalists and scientists to self-help gurus and musicians – but they are all invited because they are perceived to have a tangible revelation or innovation to offer and, often, there is a practical or socio-cultural applicability therein.
‘In March 2009 they announced TEDx and I’d already done stuff like BarCamp so the model wasn’t something I was unfamiliar with: Open source, free to do, put in as much effort as you want version of a “big ideas” conference. We threw a website up and immediately started getting attention from the wider community, which is interesting because you’ve got a thing that doesn’t exist. For all intents and purposes, it’s an idea.’
On the strength of this idea, the National Library of Australia came forward and, citing their ‘innovation agenda,’ offered the use of their auditorium free of charge, providing the venue for the first two TEDxCanberra conferences in 2010 and 2011. Upon review, talks from both of the conferences were uploaded to the central TED database, a significant achievement as very few are selected. Though Collins cited a modus operandi akin to licking a finger, sticking it in the air and hoping things fall into place, strokes of luck like this have not been unearned.
‘I figured if I was going to put on a conference, I wanted to make it as TED-like an experience as I could, which imposes on you – as someone who’s been to TED – a significant level of intellectual stress. Quite seriously, it doesn’t matter what conference you’ve ever been to – TED’s a whole step up.’
The upshot this year is a number of innovations. First, the TEDxCanberra team – a group of 19 entirely unpaid volunteers – have brought in three speakers they have been ‘working on’ for over 18 months: Samah Hadid, social justice advocate, Karen Barlow, ABC reporter and global adventurer, and Leslie Cannold, humanist and ethicist. But, as anybody who peruses the TED website regularly will know, it is the talks you least expect to interest you that often have the greatest resonance.
‘There are talks that will upset people,’ said Collins. ‘And if I think about the talks we’ve had over the last two years and the feedback we get, every presenter has been somebody’s favourite and the same presenter has been somebody’s least favourite – which I guess is a reflection of the diversity of our audience... One thing that we haven’t had up until this year is somebody speaking from a faith perspective [Peter Kennedy, former Catholic priest]. We didn’t want someone to talk about faith but we wanted someone to speak from a perspective informed by faith. I’m a happy, card-carrying atheist... but there are a number of really interesting people of faith here in Australia who have really strong perspectives on a whole bunch of social justice issues and are addressing those issues in interesting ways.’
The second innovation is TEDxCanberra’s initiation of collaborations with various local organizations aiming to reorder the way certain processes are conducted. Collins, after having the term recommended to him, dubs them ‘poputchiks,’ a Russian term denoting those who aid a revolution through art. ‘We’re working with some guys called Sit and Split who are a little startup about sharing travel to events. We’re gonna work with The Yellow Van to make sure that any excess food is offloaded to them and they can do with it what they do every night of the week [redistribute the food to charities]... None of these things are very hard to do; they just require forethought.
‘I see it as our job to make people change their minds about how they do business as usual. Just because it has functioned up until now doesn’t mean it’s the right way to do things. No one can look at us and think we’re people who just watch a TED talk and sit back and think, “Well, I’ve done my job because I’m a white person and I’m informed.” We want to be people who actually walk the talk. That’s what makes us excited – and run off our feet.’
The third innovation is the extension of this idea to sponsors of the event – sponsors screened carefully for their support of TED principles. ‘We’re giving the senior partners what we call a “partner space.” We’ve said to them, “Think of all the events you’ve ever been to where you’ve stuck up a three metre by three metre booth and stuck a trestle table there and someone’s handing out brochures; all those things you would ever do at those events – don’t do them. Don’t do them. Throw all those things away and do other things.”’
An idea taken from the central TED conference, the extra-conference experience is something most online patrons of TED are not privy to, but about which Collins speaks with awe. ‘You get a Google there or a you get car-maker there with their latest hybrid cars or you get an airline there asking an engaged group of people, “What should the economy airline experience look like for the 21st century?” and all this takes place outside.’
But turning the foyer of the Canberra Theatre Centre into a creative showcase is only the first of a series of steps Collins hopes to take.
‘One thing that [TEDx]Amsterdam has done – that emulates something TED does annually, which is the TED Prize – is they’ve created a little prize that they call Ideas Worth Doing. So you go from Ideas Worth Spreading [the TED mantra] to Ideas Worth Doing. And they use some of the funding that they get, leftover money, to actually, on a small scale, fund something that’s come up in Amsertdam and help it happen, which is a really nice idea. It’s not a lot of money – not like the TED Prize, which is $1 million this year – but they’re giving a couple thousand euro.
‘The other thing we’d like to do is an idea we’re going to steal from TEDx in Boston. Two years ago they did a thing they called TEDxAdventures. The week before TEDxBoston, they put on ten different events. They went to a bunch of different people and said, “We want you, for free, to do the tour that you would never otherwise give to anyone.” And in Boston you’ve got MIT and Harvard... and you get the back office tour of those things that you would never otherwise see.
‘Let’s get a back office tour of Parliament House. Let’s go and see art curation happening at the National Gallery. Let’s go and look at the particle accelerator at the ANU. They’re all doable. It’s just a matter of getting someone to agree. Pick up the phone to Kate Lundy and say, “We want you to give the back office tour of Parliament House that you would only ever give to nobody else. We want you to do that for free and in exchange we’ll give you a seat in the room.” And we’re going to ask people to do that.’
Regardless of whether these latter ideas come to fruition – which they undoubtedly will if the notoriety and acclaim of TED and its manifestations continue to grow and Collins’ dedication remains unwavering, which also seems likely: ‘My wife accuses me of working to support my TEDx habit’ – perhaps one of the greatest intentions of TEDxCanberra is to remain fiercely local. ‘The only real ‘rock star’ [speaker of this conference] – and for a very small group of people – is Brian Schmidt as Nobel Prize winner... [but] it’s never going to be people who are not Canberra people. It’s a Canberra event.’
The bottom line for Collins, though, is that the conference has an effect. ‘As long as [attendees] say to themselves, “Well, if these people can get off their arses and do something that changes the world—” and “changes the world” can be, y’know, teensy... [but] I want you to walk out of there at six o’clock on the Saturday night and say, “I’ve been changed by today. I want to do something.” Doesn’t matter what you do; matters that you do something.’ All this may seem redundant to those unable to attend but the fundamental brilliance of TED (and therefore every strictly and rigorously monitored satellite) is its virtual accessibility – from a beginner’s first visit to www.ted.com to a devotee’s satellite conference in Canberra.
TEDxCanberra will take place at The Playhouse on Saturday September 8. Video of all presentations will be available on www.tedxcanberra.org, as is video from past conferences and further information on everything discussed above.
A film that took four years to make, on a budget of less than $200,000, has cleaned up on the 2012 film festival circuit. LOVE, directed by exceptionally capable writer, director and cinematographer William Eubank, explores the ultimate human construct – what it means to be human. ‘Much of LOVE is built on the idea of interpretation... [It’s] a spiritual science fiction element that will make audiences question setting and reality.’
A conversation with the lead actor Gunner Wright led to some behind the scene insights that justified the film’s excellence all the more. For example, with a narrative that necessitated a space ship set, Eubank, his brothers, friends and a few other helping hands spent six months crafting their own, better set on his parent’s farm. Wright adds fairly to the anecdote, ‘Getting the film finished was a feat of success.’ In terms of the abundance of accolades LOVE has received, Wright adds once more, ‘It’s really been the icing on the cake to this whole adventure.’
‘With film reviewers gravitating towards the tour,’ Wright says, ‘the reception has been humbling.’ He was almost lost for words as he spoke to me from his phone in Sydney, the city he’s so glad to be in for the first time, having never been to Australia.
While Eubank was building the space station, ‘there were vast periods of space and time between shooting.’ Wright said he managed to squeeze in some commercial work but had difficulty adapting back into character. However, he admits, ‘playing Lee Miller was amazing. He’s just a regular guy and it resonates so much with all of us… I mean what would any of us do in that situation?’ Wright refers to the situation his character Lieutenant Miller finds himself in, in space, learning he has lost all communication with Earth and won’t be returning home.
The cultivation of the film, too, is what makes it this interesting. Starting with the band Angels and Airwaves, Eubank was asked to direct a video accompaniment to the band’s release of their album, LOVE Part II, where, long story short, the video evolved into something far greater. ‘We just had a macro idea… and so we had to start detailing it.’ The group of friends and like-minded musicians who make up AVA includes frontman/guitarist Tom DeLonge (from Blink-182); guitarist David Kennedy (from Hazen Street and Box Car Racer); and bassist/keyboardist Matt Wachter (from 30 Seconds To Mars), who joined in 2007. In their words, the idea from the get-go was to ‘create an artistic spirit that departed significantly in style and scope from many of the musicians’ previous efforts.’ Ultimately what results is an unparalleled multi-sensory experience of aesthetics and sound.
Despite the mediations on screen regarding human connectivity LOVE’s point is as much poignant as it is ephemeral. You grasp the moral just as soon as it disappears deeper within the enigma of its final destination.
LOVE is showing from Thursday August 30 exclusively at Greater Union Manuka.
What does BILL BAILEY put in his hair to give it that characteristic shine? ‘All kinds of herbs, y'know. Stuff I gather from the forest. A poultice. The tears of tusken voles.’
I couldn't quite believe it. I was sitting in an armchair next to Bill Bailey in the Southbank ABC studio, quizzing him about hair products. It was just a tad overwhelming.
‘I actually have been very lax recently in the product department,’ continued Bill, ‘because I’ve been in the jungle. After a while, you just go a bit feral. I don't know what it is. I start to get a bit earthbound, start casting off the trappings of western civilization. I think I'll probably end up as a wild man or hermit.’
Bill had flown in from Bali that morning, where he'd been tramping through the jungle for a BBC documentary inspired by Alfred Russell Wallace – ‘an extraordinary adventurer, naturalist, a brilliant scientist and an independent originator of the theory of evolution, along with Darwin,’ in Bill's words. ‘He was probably the greatest field naturalist of the 19th century, if not ever. He has 200 species named after him; Darwin has 120. He leaves this extraordinary legacy of 22 books, 200 or so scientific papers and yet hardly anyone knows who he is.
‘I first encountered him 15 years ago when I was trekking in Seram, in Eastern Indonesia, because the area where that is is called Wallacea. And I hate not knowing things. I'm a bit OCD about that. It bothered me that I didn't know why this place was called Wallacea. As soon as I got home, I realised that this was the Alfred Russell Wallace of the Malay Archipeligo who I knew about. And so I started to join the dots in my head – how come, then, his name was given to this huge area? So one thing led to another and eventually I pitched the idea to the BBC: to try and walk in Wallace's footsteps.
‘The more I've got into this, the more I've realised that very few people in Britain know who Wallace is, and maybe around the world [too]. This struck me as a sort of injustice. And because I've travelled to Indonesia many times, I know the kind of places he's been and how fantastic they are. So I thought, “I can combine my knowledge of Indonesia for my passion for Wallace and his legacy.”’
At about this point in the interview, a small moth began flapping about Bill's head. I wondered if it had followed him back from the wilds of Indonesia, attracted by the lush environs of his flaxen locks. He was also wearing a t-shirt depicting a terrifying double-jawed wooden goat-creature – perhaps some sort of Wallacean jungle yak?
It is, in fact, an album cover from the prog-metal band Mastodon, who played at a UK metal festival in July called Sonisphere. Bill also performed at Sonisphere; indeed, he was one of the headiners. ‘It was just stupendous,’ said Bill. ‘And very scary, at the same time – because this was a metal festival, and specifically metal. It wasn't like a multi-genre festival, like Glastonbury or something like that; this was purely metal. There was the big four: Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax, Slayer. Slipknot were playing too, Mastodon, various other bands. And I was headlining one of the stages, doing a comedy act! I thought, “This is a bit daunting.” Perhaps they wouldn't even take to comedy. I might be thrown into the mosh pit and consumed by the moshers. But luckily, and I suppose not unsurprisingly, a lot of metal fans cross over with comedy.’
He related, in song form, how he performed a Rammstein-inspired version of Scarborough Fair to win over the metalheads. ‘It seemed to work very well. If you translate that to German, you know, “Sind sie gehen auf Scarborough Fair...” See, there's a sort of Germanic lilt to it.’
Some of the material in Bill's latest show, Qualmpeddler, relates to a recent visit to China. While many might describe such a trip as ‘eye-opening’ or ‘culturally challenging,’ Bill cut straight to the chase. ‘It's insane. It's an insane place. There are cities of millions of people, just in the middle of nowhere. People in factories. Making things. All day long, for the West to buy. And Beijing is a vast place. And unlovely, I have to say. A grey, drab unlovely place. Enlivened by bits of old Chinese culture and bits of youth culture and monumental architecture projects, but by and large a very drab and dull and grey place. And there's the dead hand of Soviet Communism, which you see in a lot of places. And then suddenly, between the cracks, you get flashes of old Chinese culture. It's a shame because they've almost forgotten what their culture is. Gradually now they're trying to reconnect with it. But it was an insane place where we were offered a live owl at a restaurant. We went to an empire which was entirely staffed by dwarves.’
At this point, one of Bill's PR guys came in, gesturing that we only had a couple of minutes before the next interview. I have time for one more question. I know what I must do. Clearing my throat, I ask Bill if he's ever done a nang.
‘A nang? No. What is that?’
The next two minutes are a bit blurry. I remember reaching into my bag for the whipped cream dispenser I'd brought along for Bill to sign. As I loaded a fresh bulb into the chamber, I explained to him how to operate a nanginator. His intrigue turned to slight alarm as I turned the twisted the bulb-holder and the chamber filled with a loud hissing noise. The PR guy came over shaking his head, saying, ‘That's not one of those “legal high” things, is it?’
It was all over. What had I been thinking? Of course Bill Bailey wasn't going to do a nang with me, in the ABC studio, moments before a live-on-air interview. But there was no reason I couldn't do one. Muttering under my breath, ‘YONO!’ [You Only Nang Once], I inhaled the compressed gas deep into my lungs.
Minutes later, standing outside the ABC building, I thought to myself: had it all been a dream? But in my hand was the proof: a photo of me, clutching a freshly-signed nanginator, standing next to my hero of comedy, the great Bill Bailey.
Bill Bailey’s Qualmpeddler tour arrives in Canberra for one night only on Saturday September 1. Tickets are available through Ticketek.
You could be forgiven for thinking that the concept of a retrospective of Canberra-made feature films is more than a little over-ambitious. Yet Canberra's feature film history, like so many facets of Canberra's character, exists modestly below the surface of Canberra's collective popular memory; known and appreciated by those who seek it out but never large enough to break into mainstream consciousness. Yet that is something which LOCAL FEATS: A RETROSPECTIVE OF LOCAL FEATURE FILMS intends to change. Curated by Canberra Short Film Festival Director Christian Doran, the retrospective will present ten Canberra-made feature films created between 1971 and 2000 over the coming months at Kendall Lane Theatre, NewActon.
‘The idea started from a single question on Facebook: “Have any feature films been made in Canberra?”’ says Doran of the retrospective's inspiration. ‘Within hours there were 108 replies. Not 108 films, but people asked the right questions and we all slowly worked out who, what when, where and why. There ended up being 18 official feature films made in Canberra.’
Finding that the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) had only one of these films in their vaults, Doran proceeded to hunt down the 18 films - ‘like being on a noir trail of intrigue’ - and submit them to the NFSA. NewActon offered the intimate Kendall Lane Theatre as a venue to screen the films, the Canberra Short Film Festival offered its partnership and Local Feats was born.
To give audiences some insight into each film and its history, each screening will be accompanied with a talk from the director (as well as a short film); the only exception being the retrospective's launch of Thursday August 16 – 1971's The Demonstrator, directed by Warwick Freeman. Freeman, now in his late 70s, lives in Brisbane but passed on some notes for Doran to read out to the audience. The film follows a young left-leaning activist who organises a number of protests in order to disrupt a south-east Asian security conference being held in Canberra and hosted by his father, the Minister for Defence. ‘It is definitely my favourite because it surprised me with a decent storyline, high production value and social message,’ Doran says. ‘One thing we [Canberrans] don't do enough of is politics! Ridiculous, I know, but Canberra has a niche there that not many of us have used. That makes The Demonstrator a great look at something we know a lot about. Contrary to that sentiment, think about how many films are made in New York City. Those stories could be told anywhere in the world; they don't need to be about the city itself, just interesting characters doing interesting things. Why can't those films be told in Canberra?’
Local Feats will screen a Canberra-made feature film every second Thursday until Thursday December 20 at Kendall Lane Theatre, NewActon. Sessions at 6pm and 9pm. Tickets are $15 ($5 of which goes to the film's maker) and available at www.newacton.com.au/localfeats
As someone who’s had the good fortune to live in his native country of Israel, as well as India, England and now here in sunburnt Oz, photographer LIOR JURNOU works with the wisdom of the well-travelled. ‘I like to focus on the eyes,’ he says. ‘You can see deep into people that way. The eyes are like a window that lets you see what it is to be human.’
With that nugget of artistic truth as a guide, Jurnou has spent the last five years photographing people and landscapes across the length and breadth of Israel to form the mosaic that is his Observation exhibition, showing at The Front Gallery and Caféduring September. As the title suggests, the works are generally passive and set out to show that the primal basics of human beings are more enduring than the political and religious constructs that divide modern societies.
It’s a powerful message, coming from the political and religious Ground Zero of the 20th century. And we are lucky to have it. Jurnou is in Canberra by chance, having come with his wife and daughter while the former undergoes a post-doctoral stint at ANU. With a deep love of portraiture Jurnou hopes to nurture that love in Canberra, splitting his time as a freelance photographer and stay-at-home dad. ‘Canberra is a beautiful place. I love it and I am exploring so many different parts of this city.’
Jurnou studied photography and media art at Kiryat Ono Photography College in Israel and has shown his work on several occasions in his homeland. This is his first solo exhibition outside of Israel and he is excited he stumbled across The Front Gallery and Café. Inspired by music, art and the people who make a place what it is, Jurnou says, ‘Music and photography have created the sound and scenery of my life; the look on people’s faces, the colours of the sky, the shapes of life. And I am here to document it; between the black and white, between the truth and the lie.’
Observation is a mostly black and white exhibition but Jurnou hopes viewers will be encouraged to engage and imagine the different subjects and their respective environs. ‘Imagine the music, imagine the colours, feel the people,’ he urges. The exhibition gives a candid insight into everyday life – the minutia – in a place largely unknown to most Australians: an old man playing music; a veiled women, face obscured, walking down the street; a lone tree in a quiet landscape. His works will have your eyes transfixed to those of his object.
Lior Jurnou’s Observation shows at The Front Gallery and Café, Mon-Sun September 3-23. On Thursday September 6 at 6:30pm, all will be welcome to take in the collection and meet the photographer. Free.
Flamingos are not something that spring to mind when one thinks of the Australian landscape. Similarly, Sydney Long (1871-1955) is not the most well-known of Australia’s landscape artists. The National Gallery of Australia’s new exhibition of the eclectic artist’s paintings, etchings and watercolours, SYDNEY LONG: THE SPIRIT OF THE LAND, reveals Long’s significance as an early 20th century painter/etcher through over 500 works on display. These include, of course, a selection of his much-loved flamingo paintings.
Combining Symbolist, Art Nouveau and Aesthetic influences, Long has used art to explore the poetry of the Australian landscape. The Spirit of the Land showcases the breadth of Long’s practice. In this first major exhibition of Long’s work for the past three decades, Curator Anna Gray has thoughtfully assembled a group of artworks that canvas the artist’s working career. When asked why she put together such a comprehensive exhibition and catalogue, Gray simply stated: ‘Because he deserves it.’ It is clear that Gray doesn’t merely admire Long’s work but also feels a duty to promote the somewhat mysterious artist. She added that Long explored the Australian landscape ‘in a very unique way’ which contributes to his importance within Australian art.
Surprisingly, Long was one of the first major Australian artists born in this country. In fact, as National Gallery of Australia director Ron Radford points out, he was the first to be born in NSW, in Goulburn in 1871. This area had an enduring influence on the artist. Gray sought to emphasise the significance of his connection to the land and appreciation of its understanding and knowledge possessed by the Indigenous Australians. For the Curator, the title, The Spirit of the Land,‘could well be the title of an Indigenous work.’ His painting, The Music Lesson (1904), goes some way to revealing this interest, through its depiction of an Aboriginal flutist in a composition bearing the hallmarks of European portraiture, yet located in a distinctly Australian setting.
Walking through The Spirit of the Land one is struck by the poignant vision of Australia expressed in this and other works. The most compelling aspect of Long’s art is the way in which he combined the Western mythological and artistic traditions with Australian folklore and imagery. This is best expressed in his celebrated painting, The Spirit of the Plains (1897), which depicts a mythical figure leading a flock of brolgas across an Australian outback setting. As Gray observes, through exaggerating the sinuous anatomy of the birds and also that of the trees in the background, he incorporated artistic styles characteristic of the European Art Nouveau into a compelling Australian image. The visual impact of these influences evokes the mystery and lyricism of the country. It is refreshing to see a major exhibition that offers a new perspective on the Australian landscape tradition.
Sydney Long: The Spirit of the Land is showing now until Sunday November 11 at the National Gallery of Australia. Tickets are $12/$15. The NGA is open daily 10am-5pm.
THE WEIGHT OF SHADOWS offers a view from the top end. I spoke to Alexander Boynes before his solo-show opened at the ANU Photospace Gallery. The multimedia works echo Boynes’ experience of the contemporary and bygone mystique he felt on a recent trip to the Tanami desert. Which is fitting when you consider that his practice is set in motion in a similar way. Boynes explained, ‘I don’t have a set formula as such. Every work is unique and requires a different approach; it’s mostly the work that tells me what it needs.’
Formerly a student of gold and silversmithing, the artist encourages alchemy between representing life as it is, as it is felt and ways that we can reproduce it. However there is a constant in his work: the importance of the figure.
Boynes’ pieces aim to pull the audience in to reflect on how we see ourselves and our perception of this country’s shared past. This intent became clear after he visited Paruku, an Indigenous Protected Area (also known as Lake Gregory), and Mulan, a small community. ‘While I was there I wanted to contribute something to the community, so I participated in a culture session at the school and some afterschool activities with the local kids, who happily joined me in the making of my new works.’
In Mulan he also helped to put together a shadow dancing night. This was the perfect setting to be inspired by the shapes a figure can cut – especially at a party with R&B on blast and a smoke machine. The faceless figures that move with a very individual spirit in Mulan Shadows are inspired by the ‘present-day human condition and imagination, and attempt to address contemporary youth culture and its fears and challenges. I hope that people come out of it feeling optimistic about the positive future ahead of Australia,’ Boynes said.
The technique used in these works has developed over many years and continues to adjust. Boynes starts by taking photographs and digitally manipulating them, then, depending on the type of work he is making, etches and scratches into sheets of acrylic – an approach used in earlier light-based projects. Boynes then paints and pours pigments onto sheets of aluminium, which are then printed onto. Without doubt it is a complex and thoughtful process, and yet, he said, ‘the challenge of trying to make a better work than the previous one is enticing; it pushes me to experiment with new techniques and materials.’
Add The Weight of Shadows to your list of things to do before it closes. As Boynes said, ‘artists don’t have to be European and dead to warrant a trip out of the house, do they?’
The Weight of Shadows is on at ANU Photospace Gallery until Sunday September 16. Open Mon-Sat, 10:30am-5pm. Free.
A Canberra playwright. An American director. A Swedish hit.Currently being performed as part of the 2012 Women’s Playwright International Conference in Sweden, Emma Gibson’s latest work, WIDOWBIRD, is set to fly from the stages of Stockholm into The Street Theatre (sorry – some metaphors hit you in the face like a kamikaze pigeon). Considering the global nature of Gibson’s project, it seemed only fitting that I would interview the border-crossing Canberran via email, sitting on computers at opposite ends of the world.
Set in an imagined kingdom plagued by war, class and disease, Widowbird is inspired by such epic narratives and mystic fables as Joan of Arc and A Thousand and One Nights. Interestingly for a play influenced by the violence and beauty of antiquity, Widowbird explores how the creation of a mythic past can be used to critique modernity. ‘By taking the story out of the contemporary world, I think you're better able to really get at the ideas without contextual distraction or bias. For me, the first big question I wanted to explore was about suffering and sacrifice. In Widowbird, the lead character, Atajarah, first fights to be allowed to work as a healer and is then exploited. It's not written in reference to a particular current event, but I like to think that it could be applied metaphorically.’
Although Widowbird explores Atajarah’s exploitation, Gibson insists that her play is not just a tale about women, for women. ‘I think there are global challenges for women in taking their place as equal citizens. Certainly that's an idea I explore in Widowbird. Even so, I was also interested in exploring oppositions; between an individual and society, genders, classes.’
Gibson’s struggle to create theatre grounded in a sense of universality has been validated by the response Widowbird received in Stockholm. ‘I wondered how the Swedish actors would go with the dialogue. It was really impressive to hear it read with a different accent and realise that it did translate. I set out to write something universal and I think I've achieved that.’
Throughout the development and production stages of Widowbird, Gibson worked closely with New York director Joanne Schultz. ‘It's been great to have an advocate for the script, especially someone with Joanne's robust, intellectual approach. She'd Skype from NYC and give me feedback as I worked on the script. Not only did I trust her with my baby, I basically shoved it at her and left the country knowing it was in good hands.’
Fortunately, international acclaim has not diminished Gibson’s appreciation of her hometown; Widowbird was developed through The Street’s HIVE writer’s program, and is being performed this month as part of the theatre’s Made In Canberra series. ‘I think Canberra is really brimming with creativity and possibility. I'm hoping this points to a creative renaissance.’
Embrace Canberran creativity with Widowbird at The Street Theatre, Saturday September 8 at 7:30pm. Tickets are $22-$30 and are available through The Street Theatre.
The concept of MISS INK came about in early 2009 because of a fraught and passionate woman by the name of Fallon Nicole. Her aim was to prove to the world that tattooed women were not thugs or criminals, but simply everyday human beings with great careers, families, and personalities.
‘Having tattoos, I received quite a bit of discrimination. I was turned down from job interviews and constantly received judging looks from passers-by in public places. In the years I have been doing these events I have come across midwives, doctors, mothers and lawyers who have all been mistreated due to tattoos.’ It was with this concept that Miss Ink was born; a tattoo pageant in which entrants compete for the ultimate crown and title, as well as thousands of dollars worth of prizes, ranging from tattoo vouchers to photo shoots. The two highest placing winners from each state pageant go through to compete at the Grand Final at the end of each year.
With a fresh idea and the help of close friends, Fallon hosted her first Miss Ink event at The Basement in Canberra in 2009. The event was an absolute victory with like-minded women and men of the capital and within 18 months the Miss Ink mission stretched both nationally and internationally, with the debut New Zealand event selling out in a record 20 minutes. Although 2012 saw the Miss Ink venture at its most fruitful, Fallon admits she loves to return home to The Basement for the Canberra heat each year. ‘The venue may be small but it's where I started; it's the roots of Miss Ink.’
With over 11,000 followers, the popularity of these events has not gone unnoticed, with Fallon and Miss Ink being poached by networks and producers all wanting a piece of this pie. By 2013 Fallon will be armed and ready to turn Miss Ink into its own television series and magazine. ‘Both projects will kick off just in time for our 2013 tours in January and we could not be more excited.’
The Grand Final for the 2012 Miss Ink will be held in Melbourne on Saturday December 1 at The Espy. With the success of 2012 behind her, 2013 will see Fallon and her missus of ink embark on their most ambitious tour yet through Australia and New Zealand, after which they will launch the event in Canada throughout the summer. 2013 will also include an addition to the Miss Ink pageants with a Battle of the Band competition, the winner of which will perform at the 2013 Grand Final.
Miss Ink: making Australia beautiful, one tattooed individual at a time.
If you’re keen to show support for our ACT State Finalist (or are simply a tattoo aficionado), make your way to The Espy in Melbourne for the 2012 Miss Ink Grand Final on Saturday December 1. Show starts at 10pm, tickets are $25.80 through Oztix. For information head to http://www.missinkaustralia.com
THE LOADED GROUND is an exhibition of individual and collaborative paintings by two leading contemporary artists. Michael Nelson Jagamara’s works are expressive and transfer time-honoured symbols that connect with ancient values and a contemporary audience. Imants Tillers puts down luminous colour on a large scale that is incised with text to cut through a categorical understanding of culture.
Jagamara’s Five Stories (1984) was appropriated without permission by Tillers for his work The Nine Shots (1985). By chance, the works were reproduced side by side in a catalogue for the Sydney Biennale in 1986, stirring a debate that took root in all directions outside the art world and was the catalyst for this exhibition 26 years later. One stream led straight to ideas of dispossession; another wound up in the Western Desert, where only under the auspice of Warlpiri Law may artists appropriate the iconography of ancestral beings. However, at the time, Tillers argued that borrowing symbols (from Jagamara and Georg Baselitz) was a way to swim upstream against an ethnographic appreciation of Indigenous art. He has since said that the appropriation was naïve, but that he sees the creation of all art as an experiment.
I had a chance to preview the gallery space before the opening night and spoke to Tillers about the works on show. One of the first pieces in front of which we stood has three jagged lines; one black, white and brown. They radiate across the painting, From Afar, by Jagamara and Tillers and could come to represent the different ideologies people adopt when thinking about their artistic relationship.
In From Afar, Tillers has painted a big T-shaped signpost in the centre of the canvas, but this is overlaid with the markings of the ‘possum dreaming,’ a layered effect which is carried through the show. The repeated symbol for this dreaming looks like a capital ‘E’ and is a signature of Jagamara’s work. The personal and political collide here, with the artists literally leaving their mark over one another. You get the sense this is a contested map with words like ‘Empathy’ and ‘I take but I surrender’ marked out on the canvas. Instead of using formal elements such as colour, line or form, the text spells out the emotional topography of this imagined Australian landscape.
This collaboration sparked about ten years ago. The pair reconnected and decided to collaborate with the help of Michael Eather. They worked with Tillers’ format of multi-panel canvasses where background, text and imagery are juggled across the boards like a very sophisticated jigsaw puzzle. Each artist takes and concedes ground on the work in different ways.
This is especially powerful in two of the mega structures of the show, Hymn to the Night and Fatherland. Fatherland depicts the five dreamings and the scene of the redemption as one. Tillers explained that the process of collaboration is at its core an exchange of empathy, and that the irreparable damage to Indigenous people and culture is not forgotten or neglected in this show. The huge final works are hung to look over The Loaded Ground, a painting made up of Tillers’ tiles that are covered by Jagamara in desert sand. The piece sits on a plinth at ankle height and evokes the landscape from which Jagamara’s iconography emerged.
The dreaming can be understood as Indigenous people’s signposts in their own land. Some signposts are above ground and fixed, whereas others are embedded in the land. Jagamara’s Big Rain and Lightning is a work of seven panels in black and white. The painting from 2002 shows how Jagamara’s experimentation has led him to focus on his symbols, elevating their presence from indicative powerful marks within a canvas to monumental characters of their own. It appears he has mixed sand into the paint. You could imagine this as earth combusted by a lightning bolt, disintegrated by rain, or perhaps demonstrates the Papunya Tula way of working, with a board on the ground.
Lightning Men At Mirawarri is powerful in a way you have to see to understand. Opaque paint is trowelled rhythmically across the canvas, and the combination of two large crescent shapes, which represent men meeting, with the alien colour in the background makes the painting hum with a special energy.
Tillers’ room contains four paintings. Each contains appropriation that is revealed and concealed by carefully composed text. The canvasses come to feel like a flickering newsreel with what may seem like disjointed grabs of time. No wonder Tillers’ work has been described as creating and inhabiting a third space. After Civilization (for Geoff Bardon) (1986) is an early work using a composition inspired by Giorgio de Chirico as well as the design of the Forecourt mosaic, Parliament House, inspired by Jagamara’s Possum and Wallaby Dreaming painting. The two works take the sinewy line of Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s yam dreaming paintings. One of these, Surrender, uses text from Australian playwright Janis Balodis, who, like Tillers, has a post-WWII Latvian heritage. Black lines creep across this painting and are tangled with the text ‘wave after wave after wave.’ This juxtaposition clearly communicates universal feelings of transience, dispossession and oppression.
This exhibition is bookended by two rooms; one with Jagamara’s lyrical paintings of possum and lightning dreamings from his early years to now, where his iconography has become bolder and his experimentation with paint has a quiet confidence. Tillers’ room has an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ appeal, as you walk into the space and are suddenly dwarfed by the scale of the paintings and ideas with their complex references to art history and the heavy footprint of colonisation. The collaboration strives for a middle ground and it is a pleasure to view, whether or not you know the loadedhistory.
The Loaded Ground is currently showing at The Drill Hall Gallery until Sunday September 23. The gallery is open Wed-Sun, 12pm-5pm. Free.