Welcome To Kumuwuki

by Jane

The Regional Arts Australia Conference started fourteen years ago in Mount Gambier. A biennial conference, it has travelled to each state and is now back in South Australia, now at Goolwa, under the duel names of Kumuwuki / Big Wave.

Goolwa is the traditional home of the people of the Ngarrindjeri nation, extending along the lower Murray River, the western Fleurieu Peninsula, and the Coorong.  It was settled by white Australians as a river port collecting goods from upstream of the Murray.  Originally, it was connected to the seaside Port Elliot for boat trade, but the area was prone to shipwrecks, and the primary port moved down the coast to Victor Harbor.

Goolwa is now home to 6000 people, and, along with the coastal towns Port Elliot, Victor Harbor, and Middleton, it is a popular summer holiday destination.

Country Arts SA is currently in its third year of running the Regional Centre for Culture. Each year since 2010, a different regional town has been dubbed the Centre for Culture, and has seen an investment in upgrading infrastructure, increased touring, and support for work with and by local artists and communities. The Regional Arts Conference is being presented as a part of Goolwa’s Just Add Water, and sits as just a weekend in the yearlong program.

The conference opening plenary brought together the several hundred delegates, welcomed with a Welcome To Country and a Smoking Ceremony, asking the ancestors of everyone in this space to come and sit with us.

Minister for the Arts and Minister for Regional Australia Simon Crean officially opened the conference, and spoke about the legacy of the world’s oldest living culture, and the great diversity of modern day Australia. Our Indigenous artists, he said, “are producing some of the most exciting new art forms in the world.”

Crean spoke of the recent success of regional centres Newcastle and Townsville, and how arts and culture are revitalising these areas, particularly through the Renew Newcastle, and then Renew Australia models. Next year, the Australia Council will be putting $80,000 towards a Renew Australia conference in Newcastle, for people who are interested in “reactivating and reenergising their communities.”

Speaking on investment in the arts, Crean said “I believe with you that investing in the arts it reaches to every community and culture in australia. there is a significant cultural return in governments making such an investment. […] The more you look at where our future prosperity lies it becomes in being a creative culture. […] A country that invests more in its creative skills will become a more innovative, competitive nation.”

With the new National Curriculum including a core component in teaching the arts, and the introduction of the National Broadband Network, he said, there are ever increasing opportunities and possibilities for the arts and culture sectors.

“The boundaries are not limited. The boundaries are only limited by the lack of determination and the lack of imagination to make the most of what is there.”

He also spoke of changes to the Australia Council, which will see several regional focused programs moving from outside to inside OzCo, in a way which “preserves the principle of arms length decision making and peer review.”

On the delayed release of the National Cultural Policy: “I bet you all want to know when it is released. I wish I knew.” “But I’m confident that we can do it. Most importantly, as a nation, I think we must do it.”

In closing, he said: “Your work plays a vitality important role. I am delighted to see so many of you here […] Be proud of what the arts does for us as a nation, a community, and a people.”

Crean then pasted over to Minister John Hill – Minister for Health and Ageing, Minister for Mental Health and Substance Abuse, and Minister for the Arts. After welcomes and thank you’s, he praised the duel naming of the event, and thanked the Ngarrindjeri elders for permission to use their language in the naming of the event.

“Kumuwuki / Big Wave is quintessentially Goolwa”

Talking about the history and position of Goolwa in South Australia, he addressed to Crean the fact that “we’re particularly happy the mouth of the river is full at the moment, or we might have to be having some other conversations”, before praising the local council for their investment in the Signal Point Gallery and Centennial Hall as lasting legacies of the Regional Centre for Culture.

The CEO of the Australia Council, Kathy Keele, was next to the stage. Amongst her thanks, she thanked Crean for his work on the National Cultural Policy: “it’s hard to imagine how much effort must go into a cultural policy in an economic climate like this.”

She spoke of conferences with their meeting of old and new friends, taking away thoughts old and emerging ideas, and seeing (and participating) in work.

Keele spoke of the “vast distances and remote landscapes are what really shape us as a nation.” These spaces, she said, “are critical to the regional experience, and are therefore also critical to the regional arts.”

These distances, she said, can also take their toll and artists “work relentlessly to overcome.” While these distances can be shrunk with the NBN, Keele also spoke of the importance of touring work from and to regional areas. “Touring is not easy work in Australia,” she said, and this is why OzCo has been researching into a new National Tourning Framework.

She sees “unprecedented opportunities” in the transfer of regional touring into the Australia Council, and spoke about the new models which will be released in the future. Presently, all guidelines will be as stands, and will be changed with consultations.

In conclusion, she said, “I hope we all have a productive, exciting, invigorating conference and I really look forward to having chats with you around the booth or around the venues.”

Lew Owens, the chair of Country Arts SA, spoke of “the underlying or overarching theme of this conference” – the artist in resilience – and gave an introduction to the first key note speaker of the conference, Bill Shannon. Shannon is an artist most well known for his dance and performance art work, which integrates his ambulatory use of crutches and a skateboard as a result of bilateral hip deformities.

Starting with “medically validating” his disability, Shannon spoke about how people watch him using his legs along with his crutches, and think “He’s supposed to be disabled but I’m looking at him and he doesn’t look disabled …”

When this occurs in say, a club, he says, he has a “Faker Squared Situation.” He knows they’re watching him, but they don’t know he’s watching them, and so he will make it look like he is faking the disability – he is faking faking his disability, or lying to show the truth.

On not having a hip replacement, he said “why should I pay a doctor all this money to replace my hip when 1) I don’t know if it’s going to work, and 2) I look fresh on crutches.” In addition, his dance style is a “four legged style, about taking weight off my hips at critical junctures […] the Shannon Technique.”

The Shannon Technique was developed with names when Shannon was asked to teach the style to performers in Cirque du Soleil, and he was told he couldn’t call every step “one of these.”

He gave a demonstration of the Shannon Technique: with swerves and transference of weight, the movement through and around the crutches becomes smoother, the crutches becoming an essential extension of movement, rather than an awkward inhibitor of movement. Through using different parts of the crutches, Shannon creates differences in height and centre of gravity with the crutches creating a balance of form and continuity, resulting in a wide ranging physical movement vocabulary.

Of the Shannon Technique, though, he says: “if you don’t have one critical element, and that element is style. That’s what makes technique work. If you have great technique but not style, then you have nothing.”

Taking this movement into the public, Shannon has an interesting street based performance art practice which looks at the ways the public reacts to someone in crutches not acting with the “expected” way, such as spinning down the stairs, or picking up a bottle. In witnessing random short “disability based utilitarianism” (such as the need to carry a bottle in his mouth rather than hands), people create projected narratives surrounding Shannon and become so involved in his action that they forget where they are. In hosting this relationship by taking tasks which are a part of his every day reality into a performance, Shannon is able to “investigate and further explore these relationships.”

He then spoke of “peripheral fluctuation: never quite catching the gaze of people even though you know they are looking at you” where people are looking at you and turn their head as soon as you turn to look at them. Shannon explores these interactions through observing reactions to “perfect fails” which differ from “actual fails”. Shannon ends a “perfect fail” in a freeze, with very precise stylisation of his movements.

You can see this in the above imbedded video, a one shot take, without choreographed extras, in the reaction of the pedestrians at 2:14. While Shannon had video recorded evidence of this, he said “video is not proof”. Because of this he created a performance work Traffic where he moved through the streets of Chicago followed by a bus filled with his audience, observing the pedestrians’ interactions with him: “real time performance art and sociological anthropology.”

He gave an anecdote of busking with his hat out, and people were asking Shannon if he had dropped his hat. “No matter how far I took the technical virtuosity on modified rocker bottom crutches […] there is still this feeling of ‘I’m still going to see you as messed up.'”

A similar version of Shannon’s speech can be viewed here.

The opening closed with a performance of a work in progress performance from Erth Visual and Physical Theatre (NSW) and Kurruru Youth Performing Arts (SA): This Country is Part of Them, and They Are Part of It. The work is currently a dance performance by two young women, taking from local dreamtime stories. Speaking about the work, Scott Wright. from Erth said “The Coorong has been here long long before Storm Boy, and people forget about that.”

“I think it’s really important that work we’re doing now changes the way people talk about the Coorong, so we’re talking about it now, and not about Storm Boy.”

As a parting note, he also said the only person smiling on Australian currency is a Ngarrindjeri person: David Unaipon on the $50 bill.

And that’s it for the opening. Thanks to Country Arts SA I’ll be blogging all weekend. I hope you’ll join me. And please let me know of any glaring errors – I’m doing this on the go with no time for proper edits or proofs, so my apologies for that.