Currency House is perhaps best well known for its quarterly publication the Platform Papers, essays about all facets of the performing arts written by practitioners. Said Currency House’s Martin Portus, the organisation wants to “create a online, ongoing dialogue” with these writers as the subjects they have written about and “how they have changed, or haven’t changed.”
The next Platform Paper is called Re-valuing the Artist in the New World Order by David Pledger of Melbourne’s Not Yet, It’s Difficult, and he joined Portus in conversation at the Australian Theatre Forum.
Pledger wrote the paper “to try and tease out the conditions under which Australian artists, in particular, work. I wanted to go past the cafe chit-chat that artists can engage in – usually very productively – but take it beyond the arts and look at issues that effect not just artists, but workers everywhere.”
He began to think about the mechanics of global capital, and how this filters down to how artists make their work, talk about their work, and get paid for their work. In mapping that out, he said, he comes to a point of describing a rather powerless point where artists in Australia work from.
For Cultural Policy in Australia we have typically looked at England and America – this means, he said, we are missing what is happening in Europe and Asia and the stake those cultures directly put into the artist. The 21st Century, he proposed, is one of the artist, so we need to look at how we can put them in the centre.
“The artists have been complicit in this process. The only way I think this can change is if we advocate much more singularly within the larger sector than what is being done on our behalf: because what has been done on our behalf has given us nothing,” said Pledger.
Language is very important: the idea of language has changed significantly over the past twenty years – both in the words we use, and the way we talk about the arts. Theatre, he said, has been the most resistant to change, and part of this is because we only talk about it in English. “We haven’t been able to understand in any deep way how we are connected to the world,” in relation to geography and politics.
Portus asked what has excited Pledger in an enrichment of our theatre practice. After a pause “that’s a very difficult question.”
Pledger has worked a lot in Europe and East Asia, and noted Gob Squad as a company he finds really exciting, particularly because of the participation that they involve in their work. In visual arts and performing arts, it’s the participation that excites him.
“It has to do with the fact that what we have come to understand of democracy has changed, and the modus operandi of democracy is participation” and people are participating less in participation. To sit in the audience and just passively watch work, he said “we don’t really want this and we don’t really need this.”
“People want to be involved in art making.”
This has changed greatly in reaction to the way technology is changing: audiences are more actively creators and participators.
One of the major issues that affects artists living and working in Australia, he said, is the administrative constructs of the industry.
“Managerialism is an ideology developed by managers for managers,” he said: managerialism asks for and develops ideas around the building of organisations. It’s not an aggregation of individuals, but it is an aggregation of organisations.
“The arts are ephemeral. As soon as you grab onto it it disappears it’s more like a gas than a concrete.”
Managerialism, he’s said, has tried to turn the arts in to something more concreted. It wants to turn artists into something that can be easily handled, but says Pledger “artists don’t behave in rational ways.”
Perhaps drawing the ire of some in the room, Pledger said “a producer can never be an artist.”
The way in which the artist industry currently looks, he said, is a series on concentric circles, with bureaucrats in the centre and with artist on the outside – with those on the centre with the most money and the most power.
In relation to this country having no major arts festivals lead by a artist he said “it’s a disgrace.”
Pledger then spoke about how the only essential element in the arts is the artist, and they are the people who are being the most exploited. He outlined some themes we could learn from Europe and Asia, and the different ways we need to have these conversations.
The living wage is critical and at the core of his arguments, he said, so that artists can continue to work while they’re not directly employed by an organisation as they do in Belgium and France. In Belgium you need to clock up a certain number of hours over a year, and when you can prove that you have done that you get a €1000 a month strippend. There would be nothing that would make such a huge different to the arts in this country as supplying a living wage, he said, and every organisation should have that as a goal.
“The problem with the living wage is it has not been taken up cross-arts sector,” he said. It’s not about government, but about the sector coming together and arguing for its importance.
“We need artists to be sitting aside producers and managers,” he said, “not underneath them.” Artists need to educate themselves, analyse the situation, and do the work that other people said they were going to do. Artists, Pledger said, need to say they won’t work unless they are getting paid, and noted that since 1990 the direct funding to artists has decreased by a third.
From the audience, someone said, it’s not that people working for big companies aren’t getting paid, but people aren’t working in these companies enough, and it is a struggle to find work for artist-lead projects.
In Europe the structures are about creating space for artists to engage in artistic creation, said Pledger: they have much more room to move laterally, make mistakes and then go on to learn from those processes and make more work. In Australia mistakes can be derailing. “We need to defend the space that we have because it’s getting smaller and smaller,” and through doing this “you just get exhausted.”
He asked how can one effort shift and change things? The living wage can change this.
But it’s not just about artists as a unit to themselves. Pledger wants is an environment in which he can work with people from other fields: with scientists, with historians, with people who have a different background, from a different discipline, because that makes him work in a different way.
“Interconnectedness is the fundamental mechanism of our times” he said. “The glue that sticks things together is us [artists]” – artists can explain, and show things in a new light. So artists need to work with people from different disciplines, to not be afraid to not know what people are talking about and be prepared, then, to try and learn.
One of the things Pledger would like to pass on in terms of the Paper, he said, is if artists are feeling uncomfortable or questioning in something we need to ask how it is related to the wider world, and perhaps in that we can start to find answers.
An audience member asked how do artists balance the need to say ‘no’ to working for no money, and the need to say ‘yes’ so their work can be seen? “It’s difficult,” said Pledger, because “for so long the impulse for artists to make and create has been used as an excuse to pay us nothing.” Artists need to look at who is getting paid in these situations, work with other artists in the same capacity, and strategically take action when it is needed he said. “If we just do things in isolation we’ll just fail.”
The more artists that have time to invest in the creation of art, the stronger that art will be. You’ll get stuff you will never get under current situations where time is limited: where a new work needs to be presented after four weeks in the rehearsal room. What if artists could just be in a room and talk for four or five weeks, he asked. Imagine the art that could be created then.