Hi-Viz: Leading by Example

Image: Sarah Walker

HI-VIZ Chamber Made’s Practice Exchange

Sept 2-3 2019, The Substation Newport Melbourne

Sally Blackwood Writer/Thinker-in-Residence

Chamber Made Hi-Viz leads by example – with generosity, openness and inclusivity.

Perception matters. It is not simply that we have to show that what we perceive as sexism or racism is sexism or racism. It is not simply that we have to work on perception. Rather, sexism and racism works through perceptions: they are about how bodies are perceived in the first place; how words stick to bodies, a yes, a no; they are about whose way is cleared, who is cleared; whose way is impeded, who is impeded. And indeed: what is often not perceived teaches us how perception matters. Sara Ahmed, Evidence 

In April this year (2019) Alison Croggon reported on ‘Opera and the invisibility of women’ in which she began with the above quote. I repeat it here as an apt reminder of how far we have come and how far we have to travel in changing the deep seated (mis)perceptions of gender and gender bias. Perception matters. Gender matters. Diversity matters. Most importantly access matters. Whose way is impeded? Alternatively, who has been invited in, enabled, and by whom? Croggon continues with a list of glaring statistics of the (under)representation of women in music and makes note of the structural barriers facing women, adding a quote by Peggy Glanville-Hicks that “Everything I’ve ever wanted to do would’ve been easier had I been a boy.”

Cut to Hi-Viz Chamber Made September 2019 where women are Highly-Visible.

HI-VIZ Practice Exchange 2019 is Chamber Made’s second annual event for women and non-binary artists. It is quite simply a welcoming invitation to participate, listen, learn, share, and connect. And that’s the key – the invitation. The invitation to claim space and time, the invitation to be heard and respected. The invitation to be present and valued.

Tamara Saulwick, Artistic Director of Chamber Made, in her opening words on day one of Hi-Viz 2019 welcomed us all to The SUBSTATION and into a thoughtfully curated safe space to “share and exchange outside the pressures of making work” and gave all the participants the “opportunity to gather as a community of artists”. Saulwick talked of expansive conversations with time and space to share and listen with no overt agenda. This “seeding of conversations” through introductions and connections – through quite simply putting artists in each other’s paths, meeting at the intersection of artforms – the nexus of performance, sounds and music. Making space for connection. Creating an authentic space to start an artistic conversation and be an artist in a room full of cross-disciplinary artists.

Chamber Made is at the forefront of interrogation into of the intrinsic interdependency of art and society, and the possibility of art affecting social change. Established in 1988, Chamber Made is an icon of the performing arts in Australia – supporting and championing artists and artistic innovation across three decades. Chamber Made’s position in the performing arts has always stood at the nexus of what art can be, pushing the boundaries of hybrid performance sound and music, at times called opera, engaging artists and audiences across artforms in the current conversations and sparking new dialogues, new perspectives.

In Hi-Viz Chamber Made ensures the contemporary discourse of women and gender equity is at the forefront of practice through a generous invitation to participate; and in doing so allowing for new ways of framing, new ways of perceiving, new ways of being.

Hi-Viz began in 2018 with a highly successful one-day practice exchange; and taking on the feedback from participants at this inaugural event, 2019 was expanded into two days. Day One was a symposium of sorts, with a series of addresses by artists such as: Cat Hope, Madeleine Flynn, and Roslyn Oades, sharing their practice interspersed with active icebreakers and group sharing; and Day Two a workshop day focussed on smaller groups engaging in a variety of simultaneously run hands-on interactive activities.

As a first-time participator I was unsure what to expect, but as Cat Hope got up to speak and initiated the open and honest sharing between colleagues, I felt immediately welcomed into an equitable space of a genuinely sharing artistic cohort. In articulating the difficulty navigating the complex terrain in the intersection of academia and art, Hope opened up her music practice, which runs in parallel with her academic research and leadership. Hope talked about collaboration yet with a singular vision – a provocation later unpacked on Day Two during Carolyn Connors ‘Collaboration: Beginning and extending’ workshop. Hope did a deep dive into ‘Speechless’ her “operatic response to human rights in twenty-first century Australia”; walking us through the evolution of the work, the expectations and challenges, and the crucial support of project partners, collaborators, key creatives, and those crucial invitations. The first invitation from Emma Webb at Vitalistatistix for the creative development incubator in 2017, and later Wendy Martin at Perth Festival where Speechless premiered in February 2019. It is important to name and acknowledge these significant offers from leaders who are championing the diverse work of women artists. These invitations are critical, and it is through these acts of generosity and support – that diverse art happens. It is essential that we always consider who is invited and how we are inviting artists in. How art making and performance programming is accessible (or not); and how we ensure a rich performing arts landscape with a range of diverse voices being supported and heard. Too often these invitations are hidden, opaque, inaccessible. Artists and audiences alike thrive with access to varied, rich, complex, beautiful and challenging arts and culture. Hope expressed that “ultimately this work is about bringing people together…to articulate the big problems of our time.” This generous sharing set the tone for the speakers to follow, establishing a non-hierarchical space of honesty and trust.

Hi-Viz is an invitation. The invitation became a collective thread throughout the two days as participants were valued, respected, and sharing was equal. The invitation was genuine. Hi-Viz is an enabler of diverse voices, artistic meetings, deep conversations, possible future collaborations. It is a platform and a pathway for artists to meet and share space and time. In meeting the cohort, somehow the introductory question changed – from the customary “what do you do (meaning what position do you hold)” to “how do you work”, or perhaps “how are you in the world” a seemingly small shift yet a seismic difference creating a non-hierarchical meeting space  – it was nuanced, thoughtful and inclusive.

Following Cat Hope was a line-up of exceptional arts practitioners sharing moments in time, specific creative practice, personal dark times and instances of success, networks, sector information, and a listening sensitivity.

Thembi Soddell’s recount of time spent in The Orange House by the Sea Artist Residency with Onyx B Carmine was a deeply personal and reflective video work of poetic blurred reality with sticking dreams and the reassurance of lapping water.

Roslyn Oades articulated the three strands of her practice: voice artist, signature projects, and collaborations; a candid account of the intricate balance of a working artist. Oades introduced us to her signature work and its integral relationship between sound and theatre. We spanned Oades’s career through making ‘headphone verbatim’ work such as I’m Your Man playing with unique vocal imprints and mismatching recordings onto cross generational (and at times cross-gendered) performers, through a creative metamorphosis into her more recent work reclaiming spaces for “temporary communities” in works such as Nightline for Urban Theatre Projects.

Pippa Dickson of Asialink Arts talked about global collaborators and the need for further “cultural capability” and understanding, inviting Alexandra Spence to share a video reportage of her recent Asialink residency in Hong Kong.

Madeleine Flynn shared her passion for the “arts international ecology with an urgent task whose time is now”. Flynn took us on a journey through three of her audio-led collaborations with partner Tim Humphrey – works which unpack “democracy and public discourse” through the audience experience of interactive sound-art; and temporal scores situated in place which explore “uncertainty, mystery and ambiguity”.

Day Two workshops featured facilitators: Emah Fox and Lauren Squire from Melbourne Electronic Sound Studio MESS, Madeleine Flynn, Carolyn Connors, Roslyn Oades, Gian Slater and Kate Sulan, and Liza Lim.

Comments throughout the two days were of generosity, openness and trust. The most powerful moments witnessed were those fragile instances of self-discovery, aha self-awakening, a deepening of artistic understanding, and genuine connection, and although as Soddell articulated on screen “there is no way of forcing access to these moments” the time and space created by Chamber Made allowed for these unfolding instances.

Chamber Made’s Hi-Viz is an invitation, an opening up of otherwise privileged spaces, an honest sharing of ideas, a meeting of diverse minds, bodies and souls in a safe nurturing space; it is a genuine investment in women and non-binary artists, an inspiring place to be.

Departing the Substation at the end of day two – I am filled with inspiration, connection to a new cohort of artists, and a deeper knowledge of wide-ranging artistic practice. And I carry with me Madeleine Flynn’s parting words on diversity as “diversity of thought, diversity of form, diversity of body, diversity of sense, and diversity of culture” and I am the richer for it.

Thank you Chamber Made for inviting me to be a part of this open sharing of artistic practice and generous exchange of creative ideas. Leadership in the arts requires decision makers to open doors, provide support, advocate for a multitude of voices to be heard, artists to be recognised, respected and seen. This is a time of tectonic societal change and the arts plays a crucial role in questioning and shaping cultural norms and changing perceptions and attitudes around gender and diversity. Chamber Made champions the representation of women and non-binary artists in all facets of the arts. It’s in the invitation – ensuring equity and diversity in who is invited in, creating opportunities and making space.