An interview with Anthony Gardner about biennales

Crowds outside a lecture presentation featuring Kazuyo Sejima, Venice Biennale 2010. Image: Luke Kakizaki

I’ve been away on holidays over the Christmass – New Years break, but with 2011 well and truly underway, it’s time to dust off the WordPress passsword and get blogging again.

Kicking off this year is something I’m very excited about: an interview with University of Melbourne researcher Anthony Gardner. Gardner came to my attention as a outstanding early career researcher who late last year was awarded a prestigious Australian Research Council grant to study the international visual arts biennale circuit.

It’s a subject I’ve covered peripherally here before, and one that has been dealt with by some important recent books I’ve mentioned here such as Thornton’s Seven Days in the Art World and Thompson’s The $12 Million Stuffed Shark.

I emailed Anthony before Christmas with some questions in bold; below are his responses:

 

Anthony Gardner in 2010. Image: Anthony Gardner.

Can you tell me briefly what you’ll be researching?

The main and overt subject matter is the development of so-called “mega-exhibitions” worldwide since the Second World War: the biennales, triennales, quadrennials, quinquennials and so on that have emerged in places as diverse as Dakar in Senegal, Tirana in Albania or Guangzhou in China. These perennial exhibitions – perhaps we should really call them perennales, no matter how uglythe word – have been one of the main driving forces in the display, production and thinking of art in the last 40 years or so, and what I want to track with this project (together with my co-investigator, Charles Green at the University of Melbourne) are three (maybe even four) waves of biennialisation that have emerged since the development of the Venice Biennale in 1895. This wouldcomprise a first wave in the late 19th century, a second in the 1950s to the mid 1980s, a third from the early 1990s on, and if there is indeed a fourth, then it is only in recent years as biennales have supposedly begun to decline and become discursive, have reflected on their own conditions, as they age.
The more meaty subject, however, is the shift and changes that histories of exhibition and curatorship have brought (and on occasions wrought) on art history, and how the ideologies driving these exhibitions signify important shifts from “world art” and its grounding in internationalism, to globalism and globalisation in art and culture, and the re-emergence of regional and very localfoci amid the global. What complications do histories of art’s display present to our usual understandings of the history of art works as discrete entities? And how can a broad yet thorough understanding of these waves of biennialisation provide us with a richer of art’s globalisation through the twentieth century?

Continue reading

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How “neoliberal” are the creative industries?

Above: "Creativity" proved an attractive label for the business press in the mid-2000s. Source: Fast Company

Today I’m having a look an important recent paper by Stuart Cunningham and Terry Flew, entitled “Creative Industries after the First Decade of Debate” (it’s a paper published this year in the journal The Information Society 26: 1–11, 2010).

There’s no doubt that the “creative industries” debate is one of the most prominent in the cultural policy sphere. You might remember that in September last year I had a look at Toby Miller’s paper, “From Cultural to Creative Industries” [Cultural Studies, 23(1): 88 — 99]. In that paper, Miller examines the academic claims and policy rhetoric  of the various proponents of the creative industries idea, like Richard Florida and the QUT school, and attacks them for their “neo-liberal” ethos:

[The creative industries discourse] has offered humanities intellectuals already interested in cultural policy - often for reasons of cultural nationalism - the opportunity to go still closer to the heart of power, shifting their discourse to a comprehensively copyright-inflected one that focuses on the language of comparative advantage and competition.

Flew and Cunningham’s paper can be read as a direct riposte to this attack. Continue reading

Why don’t Australians like Australian films?

It’s the debate that just won’t die. Australian films continue to draw just a few percent of total Australian box offices, and the local industry continues to scratch its head and wonder why.

On October 22nd, Metro Screen held a sold-out forum on the issue, chaired by Andrew Urban and featuring a panel of distinguished panelists including Margaret Pomeranz, Tony Ginnane, Troy Lum, Rachel Ward and the new boss of Screen Australia, Ruth Harley.

The debate swirled around many of the same-old, same-old standards of the “what’s wrong with Australian film” issue, which has been debated extensively in the press and the industry by critics and commentators like Jim Schembri, Luke Buckmaster and Lyndon Barber.

Does “Australian film” have a branding issue? Are Australian scripts and movies too depressing, mundane and dull? Are the marketing budgets unrealistic? Does cultural imperialism mean Hollywood is a natural advantage? Should we abandon “telling stories” and instead concentrate on “creating myths”? Do Austraolian film-makers and funding bodies even understand their audiences and why they go to see movies? And is it all about to change with the coming of digital delivery anyway?

One issue that came to my mind immediately was the uphill struggle most Australian cinema faces. Not only is it competing with the Hollywood juggernaut, but the small size of the Australian market means limited sources of capital investment, development funding and ultimately cinematic audiences.

There’s also no doubt that, structurally speaking, the market for film production in Australia is skewed towards blockbusters and against independent productions. That’s just an unsurprising fact of life; even though film has certain unique facets it is still hostage to the sorts of competitive advantages and economies of scale that make it easier to market and screen Transformers than an indie Australian drama.

Having said that, as a cultural economist I am constantly amazed at the lack of price differentiation in cinema. If audiences aren’t going to see Australian films, why not drop the price? It seems insane to me that we expect audiences to pay the same to see a Michael Bay special effects monster as for a $1 million Australian indie. Maybe it would not be more profitable in the long run to do this, but in the name of market share alone it seems to me a no-brainer. Maybe Australian dramas would sell at $9 or $7 or even $5. Of course, there are structural issues to do with distributors and exhibitors that would make this unlikely.

An “island of culture” for the Gold Coast?

islandofculture

A mock-up of Super Colossal's Island of Culture in the Nerang River

This year, the Gold Coast City Council held a “Master Plan Ideas Competition” to decide what to do with a 16 hectare site in the middle of the growing city. The site is planned to house a new Gold Coast Cultural and Civic Precinct, eventually containing the Council chambers and a swanky new art gallery. The competition aimed to “generate creative new visions”, “stimulate community discussion” and “identify specific design features” for the site.

As the Gold Coast  competition website says, “the 16.5 hectare site is located at 135 Bundall Road and is bordered on three sides by rivers and canals. Formerly a simple rural cane farm, the site is now at the heart of a growing city with views across the skyline of Surfers Paradise, Main Beach and Broadbeach.”

Last week, the Gold Coast Council announced the winner of the competition and its $90,000 prize: Sydney firm Super Colossal, who proposed an entirely new island in the Nerang river for the precinct’s various civic and cultural buildings.

Competition judges praised the winning entry for its creation of open space, its many pedestrian bridges and its defensibility in the face of rising sea-levels. One judge even compared it to “the ancient islands in the Laguna Veneta such as the Isola Murano and Isola San Michele.”

“We think the Gold Coast is one of Australia’’s most interesting cities,” Super Colossal’s Marcus Trimble told me in an email. “Nowhere else do you have close proximity of the ocean, high rise towers, waterfront suburbia, natural and man-made lagoons and industrial buildings.” Continue reading

Does Brisbane have culture?

Matt Condon, writing in The Courier-Mail, says “yes”, but I’m not so sure.

Brisbane City's "Creative City" strategy was a leading piece of Landry/Florida worship - but has since failed to deliver any meaningful policy outcomes

The Brisbane City Council's "Creative City" strategy was heavy on the Landry/Florida rhetoric - but has since failed to deliver any meaningful policy outcomes

Condon’s article points out that the city has a historic legacy of under-appreciation of culture and the arts:

In an anguished letter published in The Courier-Mail on March 27, 1934, one T. L. Smithson Jones asked: “Sir, May I ask if there is any culture in Brisbane? For many years I have spent some months of the year here, and I frankly am appalled by what I see.”

In August this year (75 years after poor T. L. Smithson Jones’ lament) the same question was being batted about on that new-fangled thing called the internet. Acclaimed young Australian festival director and cultural commentator Marcus Westbury incited an interstate debate when he asked similar questions about culture and its comparative robustness in Australian capital cities. “This week, I’ve been discussing the respective state of cultural life in Melbourne, Brisbane, Sydney and Adelaide and been amazed at the passionate vitriol that comparisons evoke,” Westbury wrote. “It seems we love taking potshots across state lines.”

Former Queensland historian Ross Fitzgerald has described the state as a “cultural wasteland”.

And in an article in Artlink magazine several years ago titled “The New Brisbane”, local writers Stuart Glover and Stuart Cunningham pointed out our city’s “coming of age” had been announced several times in the past three decades, from the 1982 Commonwealth Games through to the Smart State manifesto.

It’s worth taking up on that final paragraph. In that Artlink article, Glover and Cunningham mentioned two festivals in particular as unique and exciting models showing Brisbane was creating new ways of presenting culture: the River Festival and Straight Out of Brisbane.

Today, neither festival exists. River Fest was gobbled up by the influential but charmless  Lyndon Terracini in his crusade to dominate Brisbane’s festivals sector, while Straight out of Brisbane (which I founded and helped to organise) died an agonising death waiting for Arts Queensland funding that never arrived. Add the previously successful Livid Festival to that list and Brisbane now has three fewer nationally-recognised  festivals than it had in the early 2000’s.

Other aspects of Brisbane’s cultural health are also open to question. While ABS data for Brisbane is not disaggregated from the total Queensland figures, across the state employment in cultural industries barely grew at all – flatlining at 48,000 jobs from 2001 to 2006. This was during boom years for other parts of the state’s employment market.

When you add in the substantial growth in state cultural employment at big institutions like the State Library and Queensland Art Gallery in that time, it appears as though private sector cultural employment in Queensland actually fell between 2001 and 2006.

This is in stark contrast to the rosy forecasts predicted by the glossy cultural policies developed by both the Queensland Government and Brisbane City Council in the early 2000’s – policy documents with ambitious titles like “Creative City” and “Creativity is Big Business.”

In fact, if you talk to cultural practitioners in Queensland, you find that the micro-economic conditions for cultural growth are stagnating. Music venues are struggling with high costs imposed by tougher licensing and bouncer regulations, while small galleries and incubators are finding it hard to pay the rent in Brisbane’s appreciating property market. While music festivals such as Parklife and the Big Day Out continue to draw strong crowds, government-run cultural centres like the Judith Wright Centre for Contemporary Arts and the Brisbane Powerhouse have not lived up to expectations, neither commissioning as much local work as first claimed or creating significant new audiences for their venues. During one recent week of the Brisbane Festival, the Brisbane Powerhouse was nearly completely empty, running only one 60-minute show, Elbow Room’s There.  One show in an entire week of the Brisbane Festival!

Ironically, Elbow Room is basically an expatriate Brisbane company, composed of Brisbane actors, playwrights and directors who left the state for greener pastures in Victoria, where there is a far stronger independent theatre scene.And there are plenty more stories like this.

Film production in the state is another good example. It remains essentially a chase for Hollywood production dollars rather trying to develop local stories and film-makers. The result is that local production is  highly vulnerable to currency fluctuations like the current strong Aussie dollar. Meanwhile, the state film funding body, the Pacific Film and Television Commission, has gone through a series of internal convulsions that have seen a clean-out of top management whom had comprehensively lost the confidence of the local film industry.

In fact, despite the publicity lavished on Brisbane and Queensland’s  so-called “creative indsutries” policies, the evidence suggests that they have failed – even in terms of the economic and employment goals they set themselves.

It’s not all bad. Brisbane’s fertile music scene continues to spawn new bands with significant national and international appeal, while many of the state’s writers are also gaining wide appeal. And Fortitude Valley’s game design sector has grown into a significant employer. But in sectors like the performing arts, dance, visual arts, artist-run initiatives and commercial visual arts galleries, design, festivals, media and advertising and even food and dining,  Brisbane and Queensland trails badly behind its southern cousins – and the gap is if anything widening.

Can Darwin really be a “creative city”?

One of the best papers I’ve yet read in the often controversial academic debate about “creative cities” was published this year in the Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography. Written by Australian authors Susan Luckman, Chris Gibson and Tess Lea, it’s entitled “Mosquitoes in the mix: How transferable is creative city thinking?” [30(1): 70-85].

Darwin harbour, 2009

Darwin harbour, 2009

The paper takes a close look at the municipal cultural policy pursued by the northern Australian city of Darwin, and asks some hard questions about the validity of so-called “creative city” strategies of the type championed by Richard Florida, Charles Landry and Brisbane’s QUT school of academics.

The project is a kind of mid-way report of a government funded research project (funds are coming from Darwin City Council, the Northern Territory Tourism Commission and the Northern Territory Government’s Department of Arts and Museums, “each of whom are interested in pursuing new policies to enhance Darwin’s creative industries, and its liveability and attractiveness to new migrants.”)

Despite this clear agenda from those funding the study, the authors here produce a fascinating paper that calls into question the rhetoric and spin of creative industries/cities policies: Continue reading

Special post 1: a round-up of the academic festivals literature

Today I present a poston the academic literature of arts festivals, focussing on a number of key papers in the field.

This Report has been prompted by my commission to write an essay for Meanjin Quarterly on arts festivals in Australia, but can be expected to have broader relevance to arts policy and management professionals working in the field. Continue reading

When cultural policy = boosterism: Vivid Sydney

In The Sunday Age, Steve Dow has taken a long hard look at the dubious policy logic behind Events NSW’s Vivid Sydney program, suggesting that he boosterism only too common in this kind of policy initiative is alive and well in NSW:

In a sure sign NSW wants to unsettle Victoria’s claim to the high ground of ideas, on May 27 Events NSW will also launch an annual Creative Sydney festival to become “an annual hub for the creative industries throughout Australia and the Asia Pacific”, with three weeks of conferences and talks on music, design, architecture, writing, performance and film.

Says Events NSW boss Geoff Parmenter, the former head of marketing at Football Federation Australia: “I’d like to think that people throughout the region would come to Sydney every June to get their ideas.”

He’s also done me the favour of quoting my views on the topic:

Ben Eltham, a Melbourne-based writer, musician and theatre producer, agrees. Eltham, originally from Brisbane, moved south in 2007 to take up an internship with the Melbourne Fringe Festival, which receives funding from Arts Victoria. He says that while he has noticed that some artists are being forced by high rents to move from traditional creative suburbs such as St Kilda and Fitzroy out to the likes of Brunswick and Preston, he has been able to find reasonably cheap digs in Collingwood.
Eltham, who is researching a PhD in cultural policy at the University of Western Sydney, and is a fellow at the Sydney-based Centre for Policy Development, says Melbourne’s virtue is its “ecosystem of cultural enterprise”, which Sydney fails to emulate because of a lack of proper funding at the lower end.
“In Melbourne, there are big companies and there are big performing arts venues, but there are also small companies and small venues. So, if you’re an artist trying to work your way through the system, or a director or a person who’s a stage manager or works in a crew, or simply a cultural entrepreneur, there’s a ladder there, a stepping stone.”
Eltham is highly critical of Luminous. He sees it as a form of “cultural cringe”, importing the likes of Eno and ignoring local artists, although Events NSW insists local artists are important players in all its festivals being launched this month. Eltham says the NSW Ministry of Arts largely ignores much of the “really awesome underground stuff” going on in Sydney. “The classic example is a fringe festival … Melbourne’s had a fringe festival for 26 years, Adelaide’s had one for 49 years. Sydney doesn’t have one at all.”

Ben Eltham, a Melbourne-based writer, musician and theatre producer, agrees. Eltham, originally from Brisbane, moved south in 2007 to take up an internship with the Melbourne Fringe Festival, which receives funding from Arts Victoria. He says that while he has noticed that some artists are being forced by high rents to move from traditional creative suburbs such as St Kilda and Fitzroy out to the likes of Brunswick and Preston, he has been able to find reasonably cheap digs in Collingwood.

Eltham, who is researching a PhD in cultural policy at the University of Western Sydney, and is a fellow at the Sydney-based Centre for Policy Development, says Melbourne’s virtue is its “ecosystem of cultural enterprise”, which Sydney fails to emulate because of a lack of proper funding at the lower end.

“In Melbourne, there are big companies and there are big performing arts venues, but there are also small companies and small venues. So, if you’re an artist trying to work your way through the system, or a director or a person who’s a stage manager or works in a crew, or simply a cultural entrepreneur, there’s a ladder there, a stepping stone.”

Eltham is highly critical of Luminous. He sees it as a form of “cultural cringe”, importing the likes of Eno and ignoring local artists, although Events NSW insists local artists are important players in all its festivals being launched this month. Eltham says the NSW Ministry of Arts largely ignores much of the “really awesome underground stuff” going on in Sydney. “The classic example is a fringe festival … Melbourne’s had a fringe festival for 26 years, Adelaide’s had one for 49 years. Sydney doesn’t have one at all.”