Re-structure 2014

The budget is a sore topic everywhere. The current Abbott government, driven by ideological imperatives to remake Australia into a total “free market” economy, is in the process of destroying our long-standing tradition of public institutions, in particular our public educational institutions. This is bad news for both students and staff. Most people working in universities today are already stretched to the limit, with huge workloads and more and more of their time wasted on meaningless filling-out-of-forms, and other crazy Kafkaesque requirements of our audit culture. Of course this is not new. The Gillard Labor govt also made severe cuts to uni funding. No-one, it seems, wants to fund universities. But the most severe attacks have come from the recent Abbott govt who unsuccessfully put forward a bill to deregulate university fees and cut university funding by 20 percent. Going so far as to make the education debt not limited by death. That means your children could inherit it. Lovely. The bill was stopped in the Senate. However, the fight goes on. (See the National Alliance for Public Universities)

With this ominous and threatening situation as its context, the recent Re-Structure Conference– held at La Trobe University’s city campus, November 20, and organised by Jan Hendrik Brueggemeier and Hugh Davies – addressed vital questions about the arts, culture and the creative sector. The conference underlined the strong links and interdependencies that occur across the creative arts sector and universities, noting that the proposed budget cuts by the Abbott government “will have far reaching impacts on culture and education.”

The strength and significance of the Conference was its critical and incisive approach to the situation. Rather than outlining yet again all that is problematic with neo-liberal policies the conference organisers sought to open up the discussion for participants to “seek alternatives” and in so doing they brought together a wide range of participants from artists, researchers and academics to gaming, media and community intervention to discuss alternative ways of thinking and doing, exploring “both broader sustainable strategies as well as “clever partial solutions” to cultural and knowledge production in a post-public sector environment.”

The keynote speaker, Dr. Stephen Healy, is a founding member of the Community Economies Collective, and co-author of Take Back the Economy: An Ethical Guide for Transforming Our Communities (2013). He gave a fascinating and dazzling presentation on the Community Economies project, which framed the key ideas and themes for the day’s events. His talk, titled Arts and Community in Uncertain Times: Co-operation and Commoning to Secure Other Futures outlined 3 key ideas that could take us beyond Capitalism as we know it – “co-operation, collective finance and commoning”. One of the very many useful ideas Healy outlined is the notion of a “thin definition of capitalism”. A thin definition enables a shift in our perception and vantage point to a “post-capitalist” position, allowing one to let go and re-imagine the world without the gigantic and all-encompassing idea of  “Capitalism” which looms large for theorists of both the Left and Right. For these theorists, Capitalism is most often conceived as all that there is, as if there is no way out. You know the drill – everything is co-opted, corrupted and enfolded back into Capitalism. However, for Healy and the Community Economies Collective, there is a way out, and they have already begun. The Community Economies Collective is an inspiring project that has developed out of the work of two feminist economic geographers, Julie Graham and Katherine Gibson. One of the key ideas of the project is to rethink and re-imagine “the economy”.

“We believe that other, more just and ecologically sustainable, economies are possible. Everyday people in everyday places can be part of re-thinking and re-enacting economies.”

Some highlights and inspiring speakers of the day:
Dr Grace McQuilten from RMIT is founder of Social Studio. This very successful social enterprise project, based in Melbourne, brings together recent migrants and refugees who make and sell their fashion creations, while learning new skills. McQuilten’s talk engaged with the current discussions around the Creative Industries, often seen as the great hope by govt and funding bodies who promote the idea that art too is a business and can generate loads of money. However, McQuilten noted that the creative economy model has a significant downside with pressure on artists to produce art that is easy to consume, and which can impact the “jouissance” or pleasures for artists and makers. In this scenario ‘art’ becomes just another day at the office. She presented several examples of artists’ enterprises where artists have created new models of financial support and ways to become self-sustaining. e.g. Andrea Zittel’s Smock Shop. Significantly, one of these enterprises, the Pacific Women’s Weaving Circle, made a deliberate decision to scale back their successful enterprise as they felt they needed more time to make artwork and to return to the raison d’être of their project. And contra to neo-liberal cant, monetary success was not the central reason for their project. Rather, values of making and being together, time and space for sociality and creativity were valued more than scaling up and making more money.

Vic McEwan from The Cad Factory, an artist-run space based in regional NSW, spoke eloquently of his many projects and in particular A Night of Wonder, (2013) where he worked with visiting Japanese artists Iwai Shigeaki and Mayu Kanamori as well as SunRice, the company that mills and sells the rice, and the rice community in Colleambally. The result was an evening event and site specific performance and installation that led the audience (most of the town of Colleambally) through 10 different sites in the mill and storage facilities. The highlight for me was seeing the faces of the workers getting a facial – the relaxed faces of the men covered in a ‘soothing’ rice face-mask, blown up on the gigantic mill bins, with a woman’s voice describing how soft her husband’s face was after the ‘facial’, as the audience murmured contentedly in the darkness.

Katharine McKinnon, a geographer, based at La Trobe University, and a member of the Community Economies Collective, gave a wonderful and very poetic presentation, titled The Barking of Wild Dogs and Community Economies and the Arts, where she outlined the very real shift in thinking that the community economies allows. Rather than feeling hopeless in the face of  the neo-liberal “monster” with its “hegemony of calculation”, she suggested that “the community economies approach invites us to begin our search for a better future in the here and now, in the everyday, with a search for difference.” This very inspiring talk brought together artists’ thoughts on their role in society – “the barking of wild dogs” and a doctor’s lament that the importance of ‘love’ and ‘caring’ for a woman in labour, is not allowed in the clinical world of the hospital. Through a community economy  perspective, McKinnon suggests, these are examples of a ‘different’ world that “needs to be seen, valued and amplified.”

Jon Hawkes: co-founder of Circus Ozpolicy analyst & author of the seminal book Fourth Pillar of Sustainability – Culture’s essential role in public planning, gave a wonderful rambling and fascinating talk about his own extended experience across the arts and his own singular philosophy on arts and culture. For Hawkes, art is not about visiting galleries or buying art, rather “art is in the making and the doing.”

Other speakers included the artist Siying Zhou; Trent Kusters, independent game designer and co-director of League of Geeks; Rick Chen: co-founder of pozible.com; Fee Plumely, artist (reallybigroadtrip.com) and digital nomad; Dr. Joan Staples: academic, public commentator & vice-president of Environment Victoria; Angharad Wynne-Jones: creative producer at Arts House.  I also presented my own research on ARIs with a paper titled, Artist-run Initiatives in a diminished public sector.

At the end of the day there was a link up with Dr. Geert Lovink (via Skype): director of the Institute of Network Cultures, Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences & co-organsier of My.Creativity Sweatshop: A Reality Check on the Creative Industries. In their presentation Lovink, redefined the the ‘creative question’ for the 21st century by announcing a Manifesto with nine theses. Number 1. Goodbye to Creative Industry; Number 2. Welcome to the Creative Question; Number 3. Creativity without Abundance. And so it went… darkly provocative, sometimes startling, sometimes cynical with a sharp edged view of recent happenings in Europe, in particular The Netherlands. It was quite a contrast to the day’s more optimistic presentations. Nevertheless it was a great way to end a very productive and useful day of talks and presentations.

See reports on the Conference at Artshub and a follow-up, again at Artshub, on my own presentation about ARIs, in particular Garage ARIs here.