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Dancing with ‘The New Normal’

9 Dec 2020 /

This article was written by Kate R. Allman for Runway Journal.

 

Days before artists, arts administrators, council workers and community members gathered in Wagga Wagga for Artstate 2020, the NSW government announced its plans to defund Regional Arts NSW. This announcement came just shy of the 75th birthday for the peak body and support agency for arts and cultural development in regional NSW. It has been a tough year recovering from the devastation of last summer’s bushfires, not to mention the shifts in routine brought about by pandemic. This announcement is now another thing to consider for artists and cultural workers in the Riverina region and many more around the state. Funding, fires and pandemic all considered, Artstate was determined to excite with a program full of talks, exhibitions, workshops and performances built in connection to the themes of ‘walking together,’ ‘shaping tomorrow’ and celebrating excellence in regional arts.

 

After sanitising, signing in and filing in through one door, we gathered in Wagga Wagga’s Civic Theatre for opening night. Wiradjuri Elders welcomed us with a video ceremony conceived by Jonathan Jones, featuring Uncle Stan Grant Sr. explaining the true meaning of the name Wagga Wagga (place of dancing and celebrations) which the city officially adopted in August 2019. It was formerly interpreted as the place of many crows. The ceremony concluded with dancer Joel Bray, bringing this history to life in a piece performed under moonlight. Joel twisted and curled their body around the stage, wringing out any collective anxieties built up over the last months spent leaning into ‘the new normal.’ The preceding formalities and funding announcements from visiting arts ministers were rendered a distant memory after experiencing the ceremony and remembering what it is like to feel things together again. This was a foreword to what would be a weekend full of that renewed feeling, and questions about what it means to be a regional artist.

 

Conversations were guided by stories that often focused on returning home to a country town, the importance of ‘having a yarn,’ slowing down and simplifying things by letting go of unnecessary details, or ‘de-cluttering the path’ as Director of Indigenous Engagement at the National Library and Regional Arts NSW Director, Marcus Hughes, put it during the opening panel discussion, Creative Journeys. This year has likely turned many people’s energy more acutely towards the precarities of contemporary life – how it might be lived differently and more deliberately. The same can be said of the proceedings at Artstate. Although forced, a more stripped back and simplified Artstate provided a platform to examine important issues with more clarity. The livestream program enabled access for those that could not travel to the Riverina, the smaller crowds enabled an intimacy that would not have been there otherwise, and the defunding announcement, while its effects are not yet known, will charge the arts networks within NSW to rally and forage new paths. This was the last of four Artstate events and in some ways, barriers, filters and labels were softer than in previous iterations.

 

Among artists across the regional and metropolitan spectrum, there were shared feelings of exhaustion towards the cycle of applying for funds, waiting for approvals and competing with peers for opportunities. There were calls to powerful people and institutions to un-complicate these processes. Those with less proximity to major city centres often have to fight harder to present themselves on the same levels as those working in metropolitan-based studios and spaces. In identifying a shared experience of convoluted application procedures, both camps recognised that there is more in common across creative practices regardless of location, spurring strengthened discussion about the need for a shift away from the bureaucracy of it all. While the celebration of creative excellence across NSW was fabulous and fun, the growing feeling of resistance to the way things have always been done was the most exciting aspect of Artstate for me. One of the weekend’s closing conversations, between four artists from the Riverina and four from Sydney, encouraged local creators to shake out the rigidity of institutions and open space for each other in whatever way feels good. Of course, this is a shift that will take time and energy to sustain. Such a movement will dip and lift, but new and revived connections across the regions will foster a resilient and supportive network built for new and different times. Maybe, in the future, the ‘regional artist’ label will become something different too. Maybe in this next act, everyone is a regional artist.

View the article on Runway Journal here.