Soul Drain


Arriving back in Sydney, I shared a cab from Mascot Airport with a financier from Dover Heights. He was curious about what I’d been doing in Poland. ‘Performing,’ I told him.

‘Oh, acting.’ he replied. ‘No. Performance. A festival.’ He fell silent. After a 24 hour flight, explaining a festival of action art to a financier was beyond me.

Performance art, live art, action art whatever its permutations or labels struggles for equal footing alongside the other arts. The average financier doesn’t even know it exists. It is often caricatured the naked woman in a gallery holding a dead chicken over her head for ten hours.

European artists also complain about this, but their scene appeared healthy to us, with many festivals, theatres and galleries catering to performance. Of course nobody expects to make a living from it. But they had opportunities, they had contexts.

In May, in Piotrków Trybunalski, a town whose unemployment rate hovers around 20 per cent my colleague Aña Wojak and I participated in Interakcje International Action Art Festival. The main venue was a derelict building. Chairs for the audience were arranged around holes in the floor. Functioning powerpoints were a rarity. But Interakcje brought the building to life, its dilapidation allowing performers to completely let loose. The priorities were clear who cares about holes in the floor? Let’s get the art happening.

In June, in Lublin, the streets came alive with troupes from various Eastern European countries. There were bands and DJs in one of the town squares. In others, people were entertained from afternoon till midnight. Poland was entering a heatwave summer the feeling was Dionysian. More festivals were pending, including one dedicated to Isaac Bashevis Singer, the city’s most famous artist. These events aren’t designed around the tourist dollar the few foreigners who go to Poland rarely get beyond Warsaw, Kraków, and a concentration camp or two these events are for locals.

Lublin province is the poorest region in the European Union. The population of Lublin city is just over 360,000. The Right-wing Kaczynski Government has drastically reduced arts funding. But money was found to employ scores of artists. And most of the events were free.

Even the poorest European lives in a world as televised and capitalist as ours and opera and repertory theatre still top the arts hierarchy but a European assumes that culture is part of everyday life, and that an artistic vocation is valid. He takes it for granted that in summer the streets become stages.

In Australia we have to wait for a big sporting event. The handful of public events during the Sydney Festival don’t compare with what I saw in Lublin. And Sydney is more than 10 times larger and 20 times richer.

Returning to Australia never felt grimmer. We have re-entered a time when artists must leave in order to fulfil their potential. There has been very little commentary about this cultural exodus. Call it the soul drain. Beyond luminaries such as Simone Young and Meryl Tankard, there are many others who are lesser known. Who can blame them for leaving? If you can find moral and financial support, diverse contexts in which to present your work, why would you refuse?

My advice to any young performance artist is simple: leave now.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

The scant coverage given here to our cultural crisis usually focuses on the lack of funding for major performing arts companies and institutions. The corporate model prevails. At the top, six figure salaries; at the bottom, many are unemployed. The focus on the top perpetuates the view that the arts are elitist. But we don’t just need more money, we need fairer distribution and more constructive support systems.

If artists are in dire straits, so are the workers who help realise their visions. My neighbour, an art department co-ordinator in film, is unemployed half the year. When working, she is paid at a five-year-old rate. Her boyfriend, once a film carpenter, has switched to house painting our property obsessed culture keeps him in work.

As arts programs on the electronic media and review pages in newspapers grow scarcer every day, journalists are also feeling the pinch. The slaughter of education has also hit the arts a blow behind the knees.

There is more than a whiff of old macho Australia in the air. We have regressed to a mistrust of the work of the mind, the free imagination, the creative experiment. We cling to the belief that we are still the clichéd characters of our popular myths salt-of-the-earth workers whose toil bestows automatic integrity. Is this a sort of perverted nostalgia? We have never been more affluent, nor have we treated our workers so badly in a long time.

The entire nation is choking in a pall of middle-class respectability. Art works with intimacy, it undresses, and we are a prudish bunch. Best to deprecate it.

This vicious circle has carved a deep rut culture will always be considered the province of the elite as long as it occurs only in elite contexts, and it will only occur in elite contexts if we don’t have the imagination, will, and financial generosity to spread it further. Poor, plebeian societies like Poland would laugh at our notion that culture is for the bourgeois.

Surely in a democratic, prosperous society, culture is a birthright alongside education, independent media and fair wages. Wouldn’t it be to everyone’s advantage if the arts were considered a necessary cog in the everyday machine?

Our Federal Government is largely responsible for this famine. If mainstream theatre is struggling, what hope is there for street theatre or performance art? But the problem goes beyond Howard. It’s in all of us.

We have followed our leader back to narrow-minded mean-spirited White Australia. The building is renovated but the priority isn’t to animate it, so much as to obsess about the mortgage and paint the white picket fence, over and over. And keep the gates locked. God forbid we do anything unsafe. That derelict building in Piotrków Trybunalski, packed with townsfolk watching idiosyncratic performance art, seems like another planet.

This is not a pro-Europe polemic. With its dense population and wealthy west, Europe isn’t a fair comparison in terms of arts funding and activity. And I didn’t see anything phenomenal over the entire three months I was there. But I saw energy, faith, commitment. And possibility.

(It was back in Sydney that did I see something phenomenal by the Douglas Wright Dance Theatre, from New Zealand Black Milk, a long work about death and dying, dazzled with its demonic darkness. Wright lives in Auckland in a housing commission flat. Black Milk may be his last work he is sick with AIDS. It was a brave inclusion in the Sydney Opera House program, but attendance was low. Would a stint in Parramatta for half the price bring in more punters?)

If we considered culture ubiquitous an intrinsic part of all of us that needs nurturing, and engagement we could all contribute. We could build a philanthropic balance to our enormous corporate wealth. The Dover Heights financier might consider arts sponsorship himself.

We could demand it be brought out of the opera houses through derelict buildings, streets and schools, into our homes. We could also engage fully in its corollary healthy criticism and exchange.

One thing that attracts me to performance art is its anarchic quality. It lends itself to immediate subversion. With pretension sometimes, but mostly good humour, it claims
as part of its manifestation.

It begs the question is this cultural nadir we’re in at the moment one long endurance performance? A Herculian feat of masochistic sensory deprivation?

When will we have held the dead chicken overhead long enough?

And who will perform the next intervention?

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.