Big Ideas On A Small Scale

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In 2008 in the Chrissie Cotter Gallery, I ate an artwork.

The artwork, or part thereof, was baked by Sydney artist Lisa Kelly in the gallery’s kitchen for the closing event of an exhibition titled "2. Field Work by Lisa Kelly and Dennis Tan". Kelly said that she baked the cake in order to make use of the gallery’s kitchen, a feature left over from the venue’s former life as a community hall in the Sydney suburb of Camperdown.

The result was a tasty gallery-fresh mulberry cake. Kelly had sourced the mulberries from trees near her home in the lead-up to the event. One of the purposes of the cake was to show Kelly’s audience just how much food is literally ripe for the picking on Sydney’s streets. As well as giving new meaning to the phrase "consumer culture", the mulberry cake inspired conversation between strangers in the space and, as a result, encouraged a much slower and more considered engagement with the rest of the work in the gallery. On my way home from the show, I noticed for the first time the thriving basil and rosemary plants growing on the nature strip just up the street from me.

It’s one thing to know that local living is the best thing for the planet, but it is another thing to actually learn how to live locally. It is a broad and complex task, one that begins with asking whether or not you have the desire to call Australian produce "local" in the first place. When we’re talking about embracing local produce, it’s not just because locally grown broccoli tastes a whole lot better.

Those of us who grew up in the Great Australian Middle Class in the 1980s and 90s were instilled with a desire to travel. Global exploration is more or less a rite of passage for upwardly mobile Australians. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, on average 500,000 Australians leave the country per month for short-term stints abroad. For many Australians, work is both here and abroad, social networks are both here and abroad; arguably, success is being able to have it all, both in Australia and abroad.

This global outlook is not a new phenomenon for reasonably affluent Australian citizens. Post-colonial thinkers such as Bill Ashcroft have long argued that our desire to leave the local behind is symptomatic of Australia’s post-colonial condition, geographical isolation and troubled relationship with the idea of "home". For all Australians, with the exception of the Indigenous population, the Motherland we all must visit one day is always already overseas. Furthermore, with the cost of air travel remaining low and travel with an Australian passport relatively simple, our global outlook is more expansive than ever before.

This post-colonial condition, accompanied always by a chronic inferiority complex, is well rehearsed in the arts: the endemic tall poppy syndrome, the vast cultural cringe and endless tiresome discussions about the quality of Australian art versus work produced overseas. From Patrick White to "Our Cate/Nicole/Russell" — the crème de la crème have to make it overseas before bringing their enriched perspectives (and enriched riches) back to our shores.

It’s a tired old debate. What is more interesting is what locally focused Australian artists are achieving and how these local movements in the arts, either directly or accidentally, dovetail with broader issues about the environment.

The groundswell of local movements in the arts in Australia is huge and encompasses both form and content. The buildings that house culture itself provide an obvious starting point. The large institutions that provide the infrastructure for Australian cultural produce are now actively expanding the notion of sustainability to span the economic and the ecological. The Sydney Theatre Company is currently undertaking a large-scale infrastructure project called "Greening the Wharf". Sydney’s CarriageWorks is developing its own Kitchen Garden Project alongside the hugely successful new Farmers’ Market. In 2010 Melbourne’s Federation Square will be the centre of a Sustainable Living Festival. And, it’s important not to forget the real leaders: Melbourne’s CERES farm project, which has now been running for 25 years. This huge urban regeneration project does everything from worm farming to an annual cultural festival.

And, at the 2009 Australian Theatre Forum at Melbourne’s Meat Market the fare was, funnily enough, entirely vegetarian. The forum was entirely sustainable: delegates sat around small tables, eating local fruits and drinking from glasses rather than disposable cups. We were encouraged to take home the sprouts that were grown especially to decorate the venue.

I do not think it is a coincidence that Australian arts institutions are the champions of the ecocultural Zeitgeist. Wharf 4, CarriageWorks and the Meat Market — as well as places like Chrissie Cotter Gallery and Sydney’s Stables, Adelaide’s Bakehouse and Melbourne’s Courthouse theatres, are "up-cycled" buildings, which were colonised by artists, saved from demolition and given new life through creative practice.

In fact the reuse of space is old hat to artists in Australia. Across artforms, purpose-built art spaces constitute only a small portion of the cultural venues used by both emerging and established artists.

While on the one hand there is due cause for outcry — lack of infrastructure, lack of funding, lack of support — on the other hand, the result of this abundance of up-cycled venues is a diversity both aesthetic and architectural. Melbourne’s biannual Next Wave, Newcastle’s annual This is Not Art and Sydney’s emerging Imperial Panda and Quarterbred’s Tiny Stadiums festivals all colonise spaces across inner-city precincts from galleries to homes to sidewalks to parking lots. The name Tiny Stadiums itself in fact summarises this movement — big ideas on a smaller scale which harness local government infrastructure to create a new and exciting cultural movement.

And it is not just the houses of culture that embody this local movement; it is visible in creative practice as well. In 2006 Sydney artist Lucas Ihlein spent two months without leaving the inner Sydney suburb of Petersham. In his statement about the work, Ihlein does not suggest he was doing it specifically to reduce his carbon footprint, rather he approached the living local challenge as a test of endurance: can he do it? Or will he go mad?

Asking whether or not we can actually live locally has myriad ecological implications. Could you live without your fix of annual or biannual overseas travel? Would you go mad if you were stuck, not just in your suburb, but on this island continent? And not just for two months, but for the rest of your life?

The old adage "think global, act local" has not always had much purchase in The Arts. If anything, in Australia it has been altogether inverted — we go out and live globally while thinking about how we will enrich our local scene when we return culturally charged from "overseas".

But it seems that in unison with the growing scientific and political focus on resources shortage and climate crisis, there is a groundswell of local cultural action. And, it is these microcosmic pursuits, with an interest in local aesthetics and community objectives, that will shape the cultural landscape of Australia in 2010. So, get out and unearth this culture, the only fertiliser it needs is your interest and support.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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