“The simple experience of stepping back and looking at the horizon is a familiar ritual to any artist living in regional Australia. It’s partly why we choose to live outside cities, to work in an environment that offers the possibility of deep reflection in real silence or distance.” (p.16)
Platform Papers No.50 is Lindy Hume’s Restless Giant: Changing Cultural Values in Regional Australia. With thanks to Federation University and the West Gippsland Performing Arts Centre, I was part of two regional launches for Lindy’s paper – each one an important evening debating the contested identities of the regional as well as the regional artist.
Framing and colouring Restless Giant’s view of regional Australia is a strong sense of beautiful landscape against gritty city: quoting Don Watson on the “city grime” and “predictable opinion” that detract from a “sense of self”; recalling the “elemental sensuality and wildness” of Cornwall; delighting in the “wild weather, sunrises, sunsets and star-filled skies and daily rituals” of structured time away. Lindy offers many examples of what she calls a “regional state of mind” where that elusive and essential experience of flow can be harnessed and focused on the creation of work.
These images of regional Australia are, of course, romanticised notions of place whose counterparts are equally true. Struggling places with poorly maintained streets and buildings; predictable opinions and entrenched conflicts; poor community health and poor mental health; natural disasters and extreme weather events; each of these characterise aspects of regional Australia that are very familiar to its communities. Living on country, on land, in isolation from a ready accessibility to essential services is a common experience across Australia, compounding the distance between urban and regional artists and audiences, both physically and otherwise. Cities too offer diverse experiences of place, with diverse ways to retreat, to work in focused flow, or to experience elemental sensualities. Indeed, regional cities abound in Victoria and beyond, whose populations do not experience an elemental wildness as their day-to-day.
For Lindy, one of the nation’s most esteemed directors of opera and international arts festivals, the experience of productive and imaginative flow is inextricably linked with her experience of choosing to live in regional Australia, and the images she offers are extremely attractive to every busy practitioner constantly looking for the space and time to immerse in their practice. Regional Australia as a place of escape or retreat or is a delightful experience – one that is generated by any temporary relocation to immerse in a project. Thus the residency model of artistic development, where artists spend a period of time either in isolation or within a creative institution designed to accommodate residencies and offer precisely that experience, a model which Lindy addresses explicitly. The opportunity to take the time out for a creative retreat is a privileged one: a professional commitment that often requires funding to be secured in order to release the practitioner from the responsibilities and pressures of the day-to-day. And if you live regionally, your productive place of retreat might actually be in the city.
For those who have chosen to live regionally, the city perspective can be hard to shift. As a former festival director, Lindy has an eye for works that could feature in such festivals, and has a strong record of programming works made in regional Australia. To find “new made-in-regional-Australia theatre projects sought after by international festival directors” is important to Lindy in terms of making those important connections, but also, as a means of articulating excellence in regional arts practice. The international festival programming model, however, has stopped evolving some time ago, with the most exciting global work presented outside of the capital city festival. The Castlemaine State Festival, the Nati Frinj, Palimpsest Mildura, Supersense and Asia TOPA are just a few Victorian examples of innovative programming models that have presented not only regional Australian works in an international context, but regional works from other nations in our Australian context. As we rethink the boundaries of urban, outer-suburban and regional, we also rethink notions of excellence and markers of success.
Rethinking the language of regionality is a strong focus of Lindy’s paper, and in continuing the provocation she had offered at Artlands Dubbo, here Lindy sets out in detail what she means by “counter-urban” as a word to replace “regional” for a more assertive arts vocabulary. While she describes its reception at Artlands Dubbo as capturing the imagination and provoking lively discussions, it was in fact met with dismay – or, as Joe Toohey says, people were “counter-happy.” Why would we choose a word that defines regional culture in relation, in response or opposition to urban culture? It’s counter-factual, it’s counter-intuitive and it’s counter-productive.
Regional Australia is a complexity and a changeling. In Joe’s words: If you’ve seen one regional community, you’ve seen one regional community. Australia is a vast multiculture on a vast land, speaking many different languages even when those languages are English. Cultural values, as Lindy’s sub-title suggests, are indeed changing in regional Australia, and the romanticised, mythologised or poor cousin language is not common in Regional Arts Victoria’s experience. Far more common is the frustration that the language regional Australia does use is not being heard.
Lindy describes “counter-urban” as a concept for “how and why we live in regional Australia, rather than where.” In doing so, she has started an important discussion, one that is long overdue. Lindy’s passion and commitment to regional Australia has been proven time and again in her work – both in her programming choices as a festival director, and in her local creative and skills development model working across Queensland at Opera Queensland. However, it’s important to note that the “we” here are those creatives who have chosen to relocate from a capital city in order to live and work in regional Australia. The deliberate choice to retreat to a calmer or wilder landscape is indeed a counter-urban move – and should be celebrated as such. For regional Australia at large, constantly seeking ways for their complex multiculture to find representation in capital city programming and media, “counter-urban” is unhelpful.
Region isn’t pejorative. It’s a relational term that describes place and community, proximity and distance, diversity and complexity. The distinctions and the distances between capital cities and regions are not measured in kilometres but in ways of communicating and ways of working. Existing presentation and touring models. Marketing and publicity distribution networks. The collapse of the mainstream media and the loss of arts and regional writers. All of these grow the distance between capital cities and regions.
The key challenge here is not to identify regional creative developments for urban success, but rather, to articulate regional practices, creative developments and presentations in ways the entire nation can hear.
The only counter-urban movement I’m interested in is the one that actively exposes entrenched concentrations of power – political, commercial, cultural and artistic – and works to overcome those concentrations with empathy, with integrity, and with style.
Restless Giant: Changing Cultural Values in Regional Australia is Currency House’s Platform Papers No 50. Currency House is a not-for-profit advocacy association for the performing arts with a mission to raise the level of understanding and appreciation of their cultural and material value to our society. The Platform Papers are written by artists and arts researchers from their own experience and examine the sector at ground level, drawing attention to issues affecting its health – from arts practice to politics – seeking new directions and showing a way forward.
Buy your copy or subscribe at https://currencyhouse.org.au
IMAGE (L-R): Jill Orr, Lindy Hume, Bryce Ives, Esther Anatolitis, Rob Robson, Tanja Beer, Andrew Walsh, at Federation University, Monday 20 February 2016. Photo by Federation University.