The adventure of Artlands Dubbo 2016 commenced when five of us piled into two cars to make the trek to what we were hoping would be an inspiring conference and festival. The occupants of our car (two of us) decided that a country playlist would be suitable and the first leg of the journey was full of loud singalongs to ‘On the Road Again’ and ‘Mama Don’t Let Your Babies Grow up to be Cowboys’. Videos of our excellent renditions were relayed via text to our General Manager who was having a birthday that day, potentially validating his choice not to join us!
A long drive, a few wrong turns and many tea stops later, we arrived at the Big 4 in Dubbo, tired but ready for the next few days. Pre-Artlands events included a group of us from across the nation gathering to play some getting-to-know-each-other games that asked, “Why we were here, what did we expect, what would we be striving for in our work in the next decade?”
Airport pickups of the other three Regional Arts Victoria staff, a Regional Arts Australia family gathering, and a trip to the Dubbo Zoo all preceded the main event. On Thursday afternoon Artlands began with the standard official speakers, a performance by the brilliant Radical Son, and then an inspiring keynote address from Mark McMillan, Associate Professor at the Melbourne Law School. A Wiradjuri Man from Triangie NSW, Mark introduced the concept of sovereignty in relation to Indigenous Australians. Days later we were discussing Mark’s theories of sovereignty and I am still struggling to understand the concept. But Mark led what would be three full days of outstanding national and international speakers who confronted, challenged and got us all talking and thinking. Each morning we would listen intently to the keynote speakers which were followed up with panels of experts tackling themes that varied each day. The afternoons gave delegates a choice of activities, workshops and presentations – the choices were vast and varied.
Running alongside the conference part of Artlands was a festival curated by Greg Pritchard. The festival opened on Thursday night with the brilliant, innovative outdoor performance that involved a giant spider, the local brass band, circus performers and an irrigator – seen often in the paddocks of regional Victoria but this time stunningly lit and emitting eerie electric sounds as it was played with a bow by the wonderfully talented Vic McEwan. It was sheer genius and an absolute highlight of the Artlands festival.
I want to write about each and every thing I heard and saw, but would certainly not do any of them justice. I’m yet to go through the copious amount of notes taken and some of the messages given at sessions are blurred in my brain. But I was particularly taken by the keynote given by Clive Parkinson, the panel presentation by Vic McEwan, the inspiring words of Lee-Ann Buckskin and Wesley Enoch’s firm and concise panel opinions.
Clive Parkinson, Director of Arts for Health at Manchester Metropolitan University commenced his keynote, Weapons of Mass Happiness, by using confronting imagery of hundreds people packed together, pushing and shoving as they competed to buy household items in a crazed manner. The slideshow played and as we watched Clive quoting the opening monologue from Trainspotting: “Choose life, choose a job, choose a career, choose a fucking big television…”
It was impactful and I was hooked, if not a little in awe as Clive spoke of mental illness as a commodity, of the loneliness of dementia, and the role of art in questioning, probing and breaking down barriers. His voice hypnotised me against the beautifully edited slideshow on the big screen that punctuated his words – or did his word punctuate the images? He left us saying that “art gives us joy and pain and terror and delight. But it also gives us a voice to question systems of control and perhaps a means to disturb the status quo.” A follow up opt-in session saw about 30 of us listen and engage with him as he talked about his work with dementia patients. Clive Parkinson. Google him.
Vic McEwan, Artist Director at the Cad Factory, was quietly spoken as he talked about his work. I already admired him since the irrigator gig, but I was even more taken by his art as he spoke of travelling to Scotland to record the heartbeat of a terminally ill young woman. He played the three minute long sound to a silent and tearful audience. Weeks later and I am still in awe, reading everything I can about him. One evening in Dubbo our group relaxed on rugs on the riverbank to watch Vic’s work Specimen projected onto gum trees. Beautiful images of Australian creatures seemed veined and textured as they rose from the water and slowly up the trees into the night sky. Stunning.
I also have to mention Lee-Ann Buckskin. Lee-Ann is a Narungga, Kaurna, Wirangu, Wotjobaluk woman and Deputy Chair of the Australia Council. She gave a very emotional address in which she revealed personal aspects of her life and outlined her career trajectory. I was so impressed with Lee-Ann; her courage and strength in life and work make her an inspiring leader and mentor.
Wesley Enoch, Director of the Sydney Festival (and legend in my eyes), was part of the final panel of Artlands, themed Emergence. In a session about National Thought Leadership, Wesley was firm in his opinions and made me re-think the ways in which I connect and share. He imparted the following: “Talk to five strangers, see more shows per year and practice your elevator pitch.”
As part of the festival I attended a session presented by Orana Arts called Staging Stories. Staging Stories enables people to develop their stories and tell them in the way they feel they should be told. Verbatim dialogue was read from transcripts of interviews with Dick Carney from the Ngarru Mayon Elders Aboriginal Corporation, while Dick and Ruth Carney both had opportunity to share their thoughts on the stories and on the project. It was quite beautiful and moving.
And I was pleased that I attended a performance by Mojo JuJu that was simply divine! Mojo’s website describes her music as ‘smooth, shiny and loaded with sin.’ I agree, and her melting voice, direct lyrics and personality on stage was just wonderful. Thanks to Graham Coffey, our Small Town Transformations Manager for suggesting we go!
Overall the majority of speakers were impressive and displayed an authenticity and genuine passion for their work. I think this is what affected me so much with Clive, Vic and Lee-Ann’s presentations. The honesty of their work was beautifully articulated and gave us a true sense of the work they create, inspire and lead, and left me wanting to know more.
Many of us attending were artists. We have families and lives. Some of us are able to make a living from our art. Others of us struggle every day to be true to our craft. But together we are strong. We can share, talk, teach and learn. For me, Artlands reminded me of how important our work is in connecting, collaborating and networking, and the ways that this enables a safe space for people to feel valued, supported and confident to create.
On Monday, we piled back into the cars stocked with road trip snacks, tired from so much talking (and a little partying!) and we began the long trip home. There was less talking as we all were a exhausted, reflecting on our week in regional NSW. We only made one major stop to play tourists at The Dish in Parkes, where a huge amount of memorabilia was purchased. On the last leg, our tiredness led us to more singing and hilarity as we belted out playlist of 80s power ballads.
Weeks later, we still talk about Artlands. All the things that worked. Things we wanted more of. The inspiration. The country we were on. Recently we all gathered in the office to talk about our experiences. It was lovely to share. Artlands certainly gave us so much to think about and there is more thinking to be done that will lead Victoria into our own Artlands in 2018. I for one can’t wait.