Hi-Viz Practice Exchange – Alison Croggon
Even now, in 2019, the face of Australian arts is male. And it’s white.
It’s a commonplace that the arts imagine possibilities, hold power to account, and create utopian communities that model what a better world might be. The arts, many of us like to think, are the very model of “progressive”. We like to think this. But reality doesn’t bear this out.
According to a 2017 survey of professional Australian artists, 51 per cent of all Australian artists are women (this compares with 46 per cent in 1988). Even though there are more women working as artists, they will on average will earn 69 per cent of what men will earn for working the same hours: $15,400pa, compared to $22,100pa.
This gap particularly affects visual artists, musicians and writers. For example, although 74 per cent of visual arts graduate of women, a worldwide survey that analysed 1.5 million art auction sales across the last 40 years, collecting data on paintings from more than 60,000 distinct artists from 45 countries, demonstrated a staggering male/female price gap in auction sales of 47.6 per cent.
The average gender pay gap across all industries is 15.3 per cent, about half of what it is in the arts.
When we get to the representation of cultural minorities, the figures – what figures there are – are worse. The 2009 survey Arts Nation, for example, revealed that only 8 per cent of professional artists in Australia come from non-English speaking backgrounds, compared to 16 per cent in the general population.
After all these years, after all this noise, the parameters of the spaces we inhabit in the arts remain defined by patriarchal racialised assumptions: they are white, heterosexual, cis and abled.
Maybe it’s time to stop asking “why”? There are so many reasons why, and we end up explaining them again and again. Decades of explaining have made no difference.
Maybe artists need to make other communal spaces, spaces where “visibility” can be redefined, spaces where those designated “other” (and there are so many “others”) can create our own meanings. Chamber Made’s Hi-Viz Practice Exchange felt like a beginning of that kind of space.
As I walked into The SUBSTATION on December 4 last year, I heard the same phrase over and over again. “How amazing to see so many women!” “It’s nice seeing so many women!” It felt novel, unusual: a crowded artistic space that wasn’t predominantly male. That in itself was shocking.
Hi-Viz, organised by Chamber Made, collected women and non-binary artists together for a “a day of discussions, exchanges, and interactions aimed at deepening dialogue around cross-artform practice, placing a particular emphasis on work residing at the intersection of performance, sound, and music”. As Chamber Made artistic director Tamara Saulwick said, introducing the day, its aim was to create a context for a set of conversations around cross artform practice.
Hi-Viz permitted a fascinating series of glimpses into the practice of artists who are searching for ways to re-perceive the art they make and the world in which they live.
The program featured two panel discussions, the first on collaborations and the second on dramaturgy and composition, and two keynote addresses. Carolyn Connors reported on her Chamber Made residency, during which she asked whether she could evolve her solo practice as a sound artist by examining collaboration. “I am a body,’ she resolved, “and I’m prepared to use it.”
Gail Priest’s address took the audience through an introduction to sound theory, the idea of the “field”, which is everything that can be perceived, and the differences between visual and auditory fields. She explored the “aesthetics of absence”, how fragmented, delocated works open spaces for audiences to enter the work and to discover meanings that are more usually written over by the burdens of semantic significance. She talked of the “empty centre”, where the perception of absence itself creates presence.
The idea of “meaning” – what it is, how it’s made, what directs it, what inhibits it – informed both panel discussions. Tamara Saulwick spoke about bringing meaning to practice, to sound, theatre, opera. Adena Jacobs discussed finding new mythologies, forms and languages. Ria Soemardjo spoke of how formal training inculcates a fear of failure, how it inhibits finding one’s own meaning.
Dramaturgy and composition were, for the four artists speaking about it, a dynamic process, multiple, generative and fluidly changing with each context. Music, Madeleine Flynn said, doesn’t possess meaning. “Meaning is created through the act: making and putting into the world has meaning.” Emma Valente questioned the primary value the “new” is given capitalism: repetitions of the old, she said, can open up a crack, a different space. “In heartspace, all I hope for is something I haven’t thought before, that turns the world upside down. I want a tool to do that.”
The panels and keynotes were punctuated by some get-to-know-you exercises and word games, which allowed us to think about how we identify ourselves as practitioners, and to place ourselves through shifting identities in the larger context of the room. Identity is a complicated process: categories are crude, and undoing the categories in which we’re embedded is a long and sometimes painful process. As Ria Soemardjo said, “there are so many things that need to be healed”.
We were collectively asked to imagine what we want from our own practice, what we think we are doing, what we admire, what troubles us, what we want. What emerged was a sense of complexity, an embodied feeling of a wide variety of practice that is bent on a collective project of thinking and re-thinking. That itself was exciting.
I wanted another day for all of us to start tugging on the threads that began to be unravelled, a day in which we could make our own patterns, that would allow more space for meeting our colleagues, for loose conversations. More space for play. Like all of us, I wanted more.