The Cost of Cultural Ambition

Currency House: Investing in Cultural Leadership

This essay was commissioned and published by Currency House as part of the Investing in Cultural Leadership Mentorship Scheme supported by the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund. This scheme is designed to encourage three aspiring cultural leaders to gain confidence in their public expression of writing and speaking by working with a mentor. My mentor was Professor Judith McLean.

You can download and read all of the essays here.

심청 <Shimchong>: Daughter Overboard! (Motherboard Productions) at Brisbane Powerhouse for WTF16. Pictured (L-R): Tak Hoyoung, Park Younghee, Giema Contini, Chu Dahye, Ben Warren, Tony Mayor. Photo: FenLan Chuang.
Art matters.

In 2004, Julian Burnside uttered these two words in answer to the provocative question, ‘Why bother?’¹ A decade later, the Australia Council’s Arts in Daily Life report assured us that ‘the arts play a vital role in a culturally ambitious nation’.² Is Australia a culturally ambitious nation? It seems a strange turn of phrase in a landscape still humming with colonial overtones, in the shadow of a seemingly unshakeable cultural cringe. The report goes on to table figures suggesting that public regard for the arts is steadily increasing across every metric — except when it comes to whether we should be dipping into the public purse to pay for it. This thought has artists and arts workers across the country terrified — the money is going to run out and it feels like nobody is going to notice.

This year, the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council announced the outcomes of their three-year Cultural Value Project.³ One of their key findings is that the experience of the individual is at the heart of the public’s valuation of the arts — personal reflectiveness and empathy are vital tools for artists who wish to meaningfully engage with the world around them. Meaningful engagement seems like a more wholesome endeavour than cultural ambition, but what does that look like? Where do we start?

There are some choices to make: either get actively involved in imagining a future for our country or get out of the way.⁴

Wesley Enoch’s appeal to artists of all disciplines to ‘wrestle the future’, and ‘participate in the society we live in’,⁵ is one I energetically add my voice to here. One concern I have, however, is that in craning our necks to look for leaders, we run the risk of sidestepping what Katharine Brisbane has called the personal responsibility of the artist: to ‘[face] the past and recognis[e] that working harder on the same treadmill will not change the outcome’.⁶ Justin O’Connor recently wrote that ‘we need a new articulation of the social cohesion and individual fulfilment for which culture once so obviously stood’.⁷ We need not only to get off the 44,000 treadmills⁸ cluttering up studios, rehearsal rooms, bowls clubs, and inner city cafes across the country — we need to blow them up and drag them away.

These aren’t new ideas — performance studies’ reading lists are full of poor theatres and empty spaces. Artists know the system is broken, it’s just that most of us have neither political nor economic capital to do anything about it. An overwhelming sense of dread accompanies the prospect of effecting institutional change when you are hard pressed even to get your foot in the door.

In this essay, I am not going to try replicating the kinds of institutionally driven commentary and analysis that are saturating news feeds across the country. It’s no longer enough for artists and their patrons to insist that what they do matters. I’m also not going to continue in an overly academic tone — five years of postgraduate research has almost cured me of that. What I want to do is attempt to anchor conversations about necessary change in the arts within my own experience.

The experience I write from is obviously personal — replete with the cynicism of a recently-emerged artist, the poorly thought-through politics of an armchair activist, and the naive optimism of a country boy who still believes heaven may one day be a place on earth. As a performance maker, I am aware that what I have to say may not be interdisciplinary in its application. As a white, cisgender man, I am aware that what I have to say does not reflect the diverse perspectives of contemporary Australian life. I am writing to you either from the coffee shop my friends own, or the comfort of my home office in a nice suburb on a hill. All of it built on stolen land. Nevertheless, I do want to offer some alternative responses to Julian Burnside’s question, because although it is an elegantly simple solution to suggest that art holds intrinsic value, it doesn’t seem as if our public agrees.

My Fantastic Life

One of my best friends is a quietly spoken Korean man named Tak Hoyoung. The way that social and working relationships operate in Korea means that Hoyoung is my hyŏng, or older brother and his wife Lee Chunnam is my nuna, or older sister — relationships they have adopted in practice as well as name. Our frequent collaborator Park Younghee often goes so far as to introduce herself as my ‘naughty big sister’ — the slightly Australian twang of her perfect English has led to double-takes on more than one occasion. Hoyoung is probably best known in Brisbane as the grinning, moustachioed, guitar-wielding proprietor of 지하 Underground,⁹ where he has since 2011 led a rag tag team of misfits in the performance of the bar’s bilingual floorshow. Crammed full of sofas, walls lined with posters of Korean pop stars, ceilings hung with nets ensnaring thousands of wooden fish and cats — the place looks like 1996’s Twister was re-enacted inside your gay grandmother’s attic. Patrons who have had the time of their lives after being dragged along by friends, or have stumbled on the bar’s back-alley entrance, are sometimes surprised, when a few weeks later they look for it, that nothing remains but a vacant parking lot or stale-aired rehearsal studio.

지하 Underground (Motherboard Productions) for Brisbane Festival 2012. Pictured: Tak Hoyoung. Photo: FenLan Chuang.

Nathan Stoneham and I wrote 지하 Underground as a vaguely autobiographical ode to the queerness of relationships undertaken over long distances, and our experience of growing into our sexualities while being caught in-between cultures. Every time we present the work, every square inch of the venue is painstakingly curated by a team of volunteers and artists led by M’ck McKeague and a series of complicated spreadsheets. The work is messy and raw, with one of the central conceits being that roles are randomly assigned to whoever is working the bar that night. To describe it as a bilingual chamber musical obscures its real function as a space inhabited by people who openly love and care for each other — a temporarily utopian refuge for those who are either unwelcome, or actively locked out of, social spaces. When the show ends, DJ McFly dials up some sweet tunes and the cast stay to drink and party with the audience for as long as the venue manager can tolerate.

The team behind 지하 Underground are part of a family of artists who were mentored by Roger Rynd — a theatre director who until his sudden passing in 2010 had worked in Korea alongside his wife Catherine Pease for almost two decades. Along with the artists I have already mentioned, the current generation of this family include Fiona MacDonald and Thom Browning (Imaginary Theatre), Dave Sleswick (Motherboard Productions), and Abe Mitchell… there are far too many others to name them all.

Hoyoung keeps insisting that we need a better word than ‘family’ to describe ourselves, but I am not sure that I agree. Our habit of using Korean familial terms for each other has crept into the way we communicate in English — even if in doing so, the titles only retain the afterimage of their Neo-Confucian roots. We do our fair share of intermarrying and cohabitation, and we are constantly expanding through the dual processes of biology and recruitment. Like any family, ours exists in a state of flux. We have no unifying aesthetic, working processes, or financial arrangements. Our collective is built on a foundation provided by the lives we share together — the responsibility of carrying the DNA of our collaborations falling to whoever happens to be working together at the time.

As I make art with this family, I am continually reminded that the relative ease of my domestic and international mobility is a product of my privilege as a white child of invasion. My biological family struggled as I grew up, but I have always had a roof over my head and my first language is the default for intellectual, creative, and financial transactions across the globe. That being said, it is futile denying that life is difficult for artists in Australia; David Pledger is one voice among many intelligently making the point:

How can there be an arts industry when the primary producer, the artist, has no guaranteed income, and in the majority lives below the poverty line?¹⁰

However, even as a queer white man who has suffered his share of egging and rude comments on public transport, the barriers to my participation in civic life and artistic endeavour are nowhere near as dire as those faced by my Korean, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, and trans* siblings. I don’t have constantly to ask for conversation summaries in and out of the rehearsal room because my best friends keep forgetting to slow down, to use simple English, and get to the point. I have never had to struggle through two shows on a Saturday with a black eye and a cracked rib because I wanted a midnight snack from 7-Eleven and nobody bothered to intervene in a scuffle over the contents of my wallet. I don’t have to cringe every time I hold a conversation with someone because I don’t know if they are going to misgender me on purpose, or because they have forgotten about our previous conversations.

There is no plausible way to deny that the institutions I struggle with every single day are set up by and for people that look and sound like me. I have had an incredible success rate in terms of public funding — at least $410,000 in the last five years for work that I have written, directed, and performed in. This is money that it would be cynical to insist is equally available to my collaborators. The fact that my work hinges on the diversity of my creative family opens doors for me that stand resolutely closed to those with whom I work. Hoyoung and Chunnam lived in Brisbane for two years before anyone else in town could be convinced to employ them as actors — no matter how impressive their CVs.

There was a time when exclaiming ‘FML’ was a particularly potent meme, and it gained a certain amount of currency in our family. One day, unable to contain his frustration at once again being left in the dark, Hoyoung asked us to explain to him what we were talking about. Insisting as he so often does that we look at things ‘upside down’, Hoyoung suggested we substitute ‘Fuck My Life’, with ‘My Fantastic Life’. Hoyoung’s charmingly inaccurate backronym reminds me every time he says it to check my privilege; and makes me consider the abundance of opportunities that are thrown at me in Korea at even the most offhand mention that I am an artist. As so often happens between us, the unpacking of cultural differences or quirks of language use add a richness to our vocabulary, and helps us to more meaningfully understand and engage with the world in which we operate.

Reimagining The World

Australia is a country that is constantly touted — especially by politicians — as one of the greatest examples of an advanced multicultural society on earth. Although the ethnic and cultural patchworks of regions like Western Sydney are certainly impressive, the news is full of stories of tense confrontations that all too often escalate toward violence. In recent years, the excellent work of the Queensland Music Festival in communities such as Gladstone and Logan has affirmed that artists are almost uniquely equipped to ‘democratically engage community members’ in acts of meaningful co-creation.¹¹ As David Pledger has put it, whether or not an artist defines themselves as working in a community does not absolve them of their responsibility to use their practice, ‘as a dramaturgical tool for civil society’.¹² Community and cultural development is not the exclusive purview of the CCD arts worker.

One of my primary goals as a director is to provide spaces for members of an ensemble to identify their physical and behavioural habits, challenge their assumptions, practice active listening, and above all develop empathy for one another. This relational approach to performance-making has grown out of living and working for the last decade between Australia and Korea. Over this time, my collaborators and I have discovered the importance of taking responsibility for maintaining three kinds of relationships:

  • I: The relationship the artist has with the self
  • You: The relationship between selves — the ensemble
  • We: The relationship between the ensemble and their community — the audience

Many years ago I began to use the term ‘transcultural’ to describe my creative practice, not as an attempt to disrupt or displace popular and more widely used labels like ‘intercultural’ or ‘cross-cultural’, but as a declaration of aspiration. For Erika Fischer-Lichte, the aesthetic innovation of transcultural theatre is a direct result of the interweaving of cultures in performance that — if undertaken in ways that don’t erase difference — can constitute new and alternative social realities.¹³ Using the structural metaphor of interweaving, I have attempted through my praxis to trace the individual threads of artists through transcultural environments.¹⁴ Rather than finding clarity however, all I did was reveal what might to others have seemed self-evident: transcultural collaboration is complicated and at constant risk of becoming tangled, messy, and incoherent. Just as the master weaver can manipulate the appearance of a piece of fabric by adjusting the warp and weft of their loom, transcultural collaborators work together to resolve which parts of their journey — which parts of their identity — will be hidden and which will be revealed. It is a radically democratic form of co-creation that — rather than relying on the violence of a consensus obtained through reinforcing the status quo — is built on a framework of actively negotiated relationships. Our art is the result of these negotiations, with the apparatus that enabled its creation often almost entirely obscured from view.

Art is Expensive

One of the critiques of those who loudly and frequently acknowledge their privilege is that such gestures run the risk of becoming a ‘performance of self-indictment’ that doesn’t contribute to the creation of positive and material change in the world.¹⁵ The same thing might be said of those who point out that there is not enough money to go around for us all to make our art. At the risk of the analogy disintegrating, I’ll go ahead and propose that this climaxes with the phenomenon of artists complaining that they are misunderstood, that nobody appreciates what they are trying to achieve.

This February, Hoyoung assisted me in the direction of a new work of musical theatre at the Brisbane Powerhouse as part of WTF 2016. 심청 <Shimchong>: Daughter Overboard! is a politically charged retelling of a Korean folk tale. Her mother having died in childbirth, Shimchong sacrifices herself to the Dragon King in order to restore her father’s sight. Destined to become a queen, Shimchong is reborn in a lotus flower, and eventually reunited with her father. Taking as a starting point Oh Tae Suk’s controversial 1990 play Why Did Shimchong Plunge into The Sea Twice?,¹⁶ Kathleen McLeod and I recast Shimchong as an Indigenous Australian woman attempting to fight the rising tide of bigotry and radicalisation around her. Though full of cheap jokes and folk songs, the work is ultimately a tragedy: Shimchong joins an ensemble of single-issue refugee activists on a sinking ship, while the rest of the nation watches them drown live on TV.

I know it is not best practice to rely on data gathered as anecdotal feedback gleaned from a dozen conversations with audience members, or comments overheard over cheap bubbly and cabanossi in a foyer on opening night. Often, however, this is the only resource available to performance makers when trying to gauge the impact of their work. My unscientific assessment of the public reception of 심청 <Shimchong>: Daughter Overboard! was nevertheless an overwhelmingly positive one. Koreans were fascinated by the fact that we were radically adapting one of their nation’s most-loved morality tales and setting it in their country of residence. They expressed surprise and delight that they could follow the work in their first language. Responses of audience members from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities were similarly encouraging. The project felt like a small but important step in the exchange of culture, art, and friendship between Australia’s First Nations people and our Asian neighbours. The symbolism of casting an Indigenous woman as such an important figure in Korean mythology was valued, especially as the work so vehemently criticises the Australian Government’s treatment of asylum seekers and the perpetuation abroad of the types of grave crimes against humanity usually reserved for our own citizens.

Not atypically, the biting criticism came from the mouths of our colleagues. After three years of development and tens of thousands of dollars, was this is all we had to show? We should have tried harder and looked locally for talent. The work’s didactic tone was abrasive and Kathleen’s stridently political poetry was too direct. Was it appropriate for relatively inexperienced actors to be receiving professional rates? Politically savvy audiences didn’t want to be told that life was hard, the Government was fucked and that we should really be nicer to those fleeing persecution. They knew it. We all know it. Make us feel something. Give us a show with exotic singing and dancing so beautiful that we cry. Give us something of which Brisbane can be proud…

One evening, in the basement of Seoul City Hall, Nathan strode into sound check wearing a new baseball cap warning; ‘Art is Expensive’. The sight of it was enough to bring tears to the eyes. We had finally brought 지하 Underground to Seoul on the smell of a very oily rag, running on a false economy propped up by no less than six temporarily delayed burn outs. That hat haunts me. I imagine wearing it every time I am asked at an opening night ‘when is Underground coming back?’ I like to drink my way through a life-affirming cabaret as much as the next person, but I find it very difficult to swallow criticism over where our money goes.

Our funders all have their acquittals, but trust me — flying from Brisbane to Seoul takes only two hours longer than to Thursday Island, and costs only a fraction more. Even with a script marked up in English and Korean, a table read will take at least three days to complete. Rehearsing a two-hander scene so that the dialogue appears effortless takes just as long, and not just because neither actor speaks English at home. When people of colour are screaming for justice, should nice white people listen, or correct their grammar and pronunciation? Are we really going to insist that the result of interweaving diverse lives and cultures in performance be put behind glass with the rough edges hidden from view? If we are going to agree that society needs radical change, are we prepared for what that looks like? It sounds like I am asking for a free pass to make bad art because I am one of the ‘good white people’, awake to all the issues and attempting to stand in solidarity with my posse of diverse friends. I’ll wear that criticism if it comes, but I think that I’m just annoyed that I chained myself and those I love to a treadmill going nowhere.

While at the helm of LATT Children’s Theatre in Seoul, Roger Rynd would speak with great passion about one of the most fundamental and frustrating challenges he faced. Parents want bright lights, shiny costumes, and skinny actors — the company manager always had a folder full of blog posts printed out and at the ready to prove it. But Roger’s practice was built on the idea that children want to be in the same room as someone taking them seriously — even if that looked like Abe Mitchell wearing dog ears and pretending to shit honey while singing a song about eating ‘Sweet Poo’. Roger always seemed to be able to deftly manage such contrary sets of expectations — maybe I’m just not quite there yet.

Remaking The World

It is really difficult to justify blowing up a treadmill whose blinking display promises that every metre run will result in another few dollars of grant money. But what does it mean if our success relies on the person two machines down collapsing from exhaustion and dropping out of the race? And what do we do about our siblings who either can’t afford, or are not allowed to apply to enter the gym? Noam Chomsky’s 1967 essay The Responsibility of the Intellectuals could easily be repurposed as a rallying cry for artists to ‘expose the lies of governments, to analyze actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions’.¹⁷ Artists are not unacquainted with the idea of challenging injustice and inequality through the content of their work. Chomsky’s articulation of the anarchist cause in effecting institutional change, however, is one that I find even more compelling:

[M]any commentators dismiss anarchism as utopian, formless, primitive, or otherwise incompatible with the realities of a complex society. One might, however, argue rather differently: that at every stage of history our concern must be to dismantle those forms of authority and oppression that survive from an era when they might have been justified in terms of the need for security or survival or economic development, but that now contribute to — rather than alleviate — material and cultural deficit.¹⁸

Not content with simply reimagining the world, artists need to take personal responsibility for reinventing our cultural institutions as ones that serve the communities that pay for their upkeep. What systems do we need to grow that will support the hundreds of intermarried art-making families that litter the globe?

Recently, Hoyoung and I drank half a bottle of Mount Gay Rum and attempted to fix the system — it’s a form of transcultural collaboration we inherited from Roger. I’ve taken to recording these conversations in case we strike gold — an exercise in digital hoarding which means that I can insert Hoyoung’s voice into the part of this essay that should be heading toward making a point:

It makes me think about the theatre. What is it for? Why does it exist? Artists are the ones making art. But a venue? It has to be run. It needs to employ people. It needs staff. But for what? For who?
We need to think the opposite way. Which one is more important? Just to keep the building safe? For what? If any artist wants to go there to make a show, they fail! They can’t do anything.
So what do we actually need? What is necessary? You already said it… The body. We need to change the idea of what we need for art. Do we need facilities? Sometimes, yes. If we need something very specific. But not always.
The system is unfair. Because who made it? Who wants to see it? Do people come to see the building? Do they want to get into the theatre and think: ‘this is a good sound system?’ or ‘can I just look at the lights?’ It is not a movie theatre.
At Metro Arts [where we first staged 지하 Underground in 2011], the basement […] looked like a dead place. But we made that place alive. The atmosphere was changed. Life! Woah! Why we were successful was that we made that place reborn. It is not just a place to sell art. If we were successful, the reason why was because the audience wants to be there. Wants to go there. Wants to see something. Wants to get a feeling like: ‘Wow, it’s amazing, so good’. They want to get a feeling. It’s not just a problem of cost or ticket price.
In my head somewhere, there is an answer.

The Tivoli is an old biscuit factory next to Brisbane’s RNA Showgrounds.¹⁹ Reborn in the late 1980s as an art deco dinner theatre, it is now one of the largest remaining live music venues in the metropolis. Rumours have periodically circulated that it is in imminent peril of being sold to developers hoping to convert it into apartments or a carpark. Whenever this happens, petitions are signed and breathless news articles published, posted, and shared online urging Queenslanders to remember a time when no heritage site was safe from Sir Joh and the Deen Brothers.²⁰ You won’t get the same reaction from people on the street when your theatre company loses its organisational funding. The tireless work of #freethearts activism seems to have had negligible impact on the recent federal election, and has fallen on deaf ears in Canberra.²¹ Voters don’t care. They will sign your petition in protest of new lockout laws in Queensland²², but bring up the decimation of the state’s youth arts sector?

Theatre is boring. The proscenium arch is impersonal and isolating. It’s only relatively recently that we have so efficiently separated performers from the community that once couldn’t imagine living without them. There was once a time when the picture in the West was similar to that in Korea. Madanggŭk — satirical mimes, folk songs, and passion plays — were performed in courtyards, marketplaces, and crossroads across the countryside. But that’s a tough life for artists, so we capitalised on social changes and advances in technology to make life a little easier. We took shelter in specialised structures that provided us with heat and light, and set to treading the boards in exchange for the loose change and adoration of an audience that we invented. I am definitely not the first to suggest that we may have lost something in the process, but a sense of nostalgia and a yearning for an idealised past will only get us so far.

We need to radically rethink our priorities. If the art that we are making does not serve a purpose that our community has the stomach to fight for, then maybe we should back off. If our audiences don’t care for our cultural institutions, then should we be so worried about making work that appeals to the establishment? What then? In answer I defer to David Pledger:

The way forward requires a blank canvas on which the artist’s work is predicated by a view that intertwines the philosophical, the social and the civic with the artistic.²³

We need to find ways to approach our methods of production with a sense of anarchy — and although after half a bottle of whisky I am ready to burn it all down, we probably don’t need to. For me, focussing on relationships has been key in beginning to remake the world around me. The I-You-We approach to collaboration has ended up having consequences that reach far beyond the rehearsal studio. The creation and maintenance of meaningful, long-term partnerships between artists and their audiences has gone on to influence interactions with presenters, venues, stakeholder, and funding bodies.

One concrete example of this is the long, hard, and repetitive fight to have the titles of our work rendered as they are imagined — in Hangul and English — and to be granted enough space in program guides to be able to communicate with our audience in their first language. Sometimes you need to go as far as point out that the reply, ‘it is too hard for our graphic designer’ is inherently racist. Especially when this is the least amount of effort that could be committed to the task of audience engagement, and it barely makes a dent in the mountain of barriers that prevent entire sections of our community from accessing creative programming.

Another example starts with uncomfortable conversations. In 2014, we made it a condition of our programming in that year’s WTF festival that staff across all departments at the Brisbane Powerhouse front up first thing on a Monday morning to meet the 지하 Underground team. For 45 minutes, we workshopped methods of effective communication between people of diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds; we heard about the personal impact that gendered spaces have on members of the trans* community; and we made it clear that we would not back down from calling out language and actions that were misogynist, slut shamed, stigmatised neurodiversity, or otherwise jeopardised the health of our family. The delightful result of this intervention is that Younghee is now on first-name basis with one of the Brisbane Powerhouse’s long-term venue managers. The highlight of every project since has been their bilingual performance of the venue’s standard safety briefing. We now attempt similar conversations with anyone that enters the spaces our family occupies.

It would be arrogant to assert that we are leading the way in terms of institutional intervention, but it is my sincere wish that other groups like ours never feel as if they have to do it alone.

심청 <Shimchong>: Daughter Overboard! (Motherboard Productions) at Brisbane Powerhouse for WTF16. Pictured (L-R): Jeremy Neideck, Alinta McGrady, Tak Hoyoung, Park Younghee, Giema Contini, Ben Warren. Photo: FenLan Chuang.

We Tricked You

When you walk into a smoky bar to cries of ‘Oseosayo Ji Ha Underground-imnida!’… When you see Alinta McGrady setting the props she needs to play Shimchong while chatting to her teachers from the Aboriginal Centre for Performing Arts… When you burn your mouth digging into the overflowing plate of spicy rice cakes cooked by Younghee in character as her own mother in The 떡볶이 Box (The Dokboki Box)²⁴… When Tony Mayor — cracked rib and all — dances a Torres Strait Island funeral rite to the sound of Chu Dahye sobbing her way through a stereotypical folk song that has half the Korean audience rolling their eyes, and the other half welling up with national pride… You are not at the theatre. We tricked you. You are witnessing an imperfect vision of global democracy in action. We are workshopping fun new ways to alleviate material and cultural deficit. It is an expensive work-in-progress funded by your taxes, whatever cut of box office we can squeeze out of the presenter, and a series of ethically questionable salary sacrifices. Sometimes there are two or three credit cards thrown into the mix for good measure.

I make art with and for those who are used to squinting hard and trying to pick out some small thread of culture, language, or identity to hold on to. Growing up queer, snatching up moments of innuendo and building an entire reality out of it, is second nature. To those who are used to navigating a world that is neatly woven and tailored for them: if all you see is a tangled and expensive mess, you’re welcome. This is the world that we live in.

If we artists are charged with the task of weaving the disparate threads of our society into a warm, welcoming, and functional fabric, then we have to be prepared for what that might look like. The rich beauty of our tapestry is not derived from neat and regular patterns but from complex pictures of repression and expression built up over time that, when complete, obscure its underlying structure. It’s the difference between a David Jones houndstooth and the riotous construction of an authentic Coogi. But maybe this is where the metaphor begins to break down. Although we need to regularly check for mould and rot and incorporate loose threads back into the warp and weft, the great work of weaving our ‘culturally ambitious nation’ will never be complete.

Money on its own cannot and will not generate positive change — there are no shortcuts to meaningful and sustained engagement in the arts. Change requires time, and effort, and groups of people willing to share a lifetime full of experiences. Naive and fanciful as it may seem, spoken aloud or written down, I think that what we need is a renewed focus on generating personal connections and maintaining human relationships. As artists, we need to take personal responsibility for reimagining and remaking the world around us.

In moving toward an alternative answer to Julian Burnside’s question, I am going to offer Todd London’s recent exhortation that ‘we don’t just serve a field; we serve a world’.²⁵ Just as expectant parents lie awake at night wondering how they can make this world a better place into which to bring new life; artists need to take responsibility for the environment in which those new generations will find themselves. If the structures that we as artists feel most comfortable living and working inside are not ones that our audiences want to meet us in — maybe it is we who must venture out into the cold and play in their backyards.


  1. Julian Burnside, ‘Why Bother?’, Peggy Glanville-Hicks Annual Lecture (12 December 2004), (accessed 21 April 2016).
  2. The Australia Council for the Arts, Arts in Daily Life: Australian Participation in the Arts, (Sydney, 2014), (accessed 21 April 2016), p.1
  3. Geoffrey Crossick, Patrycja Kaszynska, Understanding the Value of Arts & Culture | the AHRC Cultural Value Project, (London: Arts and Humanities Research Council, 2016), (accessed 28 April 2016).
  4. Wesley Enoch, Take Me to Your Leader: The Dilemma of Cultural Leadership, Platform Paper 40, 2014, p.67.
  5. Wesley Enoch, p.66.
  6. Katharine Brisbane, The Arts and the Common Good, Platform Paper 43, 2015, p.58.
  7. Justin O’Connor, After the Creative Industries: Why We Need a Cultural Economy, Platform Paper 47, 2016, p.52.
  8. The number of working artists in Australia identified in: The Australia Council for the Arts, Arts Nation (2015 Edition), (Sydney, 2015), p.4.
  9. 지하 (ji-ha) is Korean for underground.
  10. David Pledger, ‘Year Zero’ Dancehouse Diary, 23 May 2016, (accessed 23 May 2016).
  11. Danielle Carter and Caroline Heim, ‘Community Engagement or Community Conversation?: Boomtown, a Large-Scale Regional, Outdoor Community Theatrical Event’, Australasian Drama Studies 66 (2015), pp.202–244 (p.203).
  12. David Pledger, ‘Year Zero’ Dancehouse Diary, 23 May 2016, (accessed 23 May 2016).
  13. Erika Fischer-Lichte, ‘Interweaving Cultures in Performance: Different States of Being in-Between’, New Theatre Quarterly, 25.4 (2009), pp.391–401 (p.401).
  14. Jeremy Neideck, The Fabric of Transcultural Collaboration, (Brisbane: Queensland University of Technology, 2016),
  15. Frederik deBoer, ‘Admitting That Which Privilege Helps You Is Really Just Congratulating Yourself’, The Washington Post, 28 January 2016, (accessed 20 April 2016).
  16. Oh Tae Suk, 심청이는 왜 두 번 인당수에 몸을 던졌는가, (Seoul: Mokhwa Repertory Company, 1990).
  17. Noam Chomsky, ‘The Responsibility of the Intellectuals’, The Essential Chomsky, ed. Anthony Arnove (New York and London: The New Press, 2008), pp.39–62 (p.39).
  18. Noam Chomsky, ‘Notes on Anarchism’, The Essential Chomsky, ed. Anthony Arnove (New York and London: The New Press, 2008), pp.92–104 (p.93).
  19. The Tivoli was recently bought by Steve and Dave Sleswick, brothers who are passionate about retaining it as a commercial music venue with a renewed focus on its place in the community, a responsibility for local artist development and providing more diverse experiences for Brisbane audiences. Dave is a long-term collaborator of mine, has produced most of my creative output under the auspices of Motherboard Productions, and is a core member of our creative family. For more on this see
  20. Anne-Louise Hill, ‘30th Anniversary of Iconic Music Venue’s Destruction Reminds Us Why Heritage Is Important’, Tonedeaf, 7 November 2012, (accessed 5 July 2016).
  21. Matthew Westwood, ‘Arts Sector Lobbying Fails to Move Government or Voters’, Australian, 12 July 2016.
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  24. Created by Younghee Park, M’ck McKeague, and Nathan Stoneham with the support of Metro Arts and the Korean Arts Council and first presented by Next Wave Festival and Metro Arts in 2014. See:
  25. Todd London, ‘Jedi Art Warriors Could Save Our Society’, ArtsHub, 20 April 2016, (accessed 5 June 2016).