As Next Wave opens its callout for artist submissions to the 2020 festival, Alison Croggon speaks to festival director Roslyn Helper about power, art and hope
AC: Back in 1821, Shelley said that poets are “the unacknowledged legislators of the world”. Last year the Wheeler Centre had a Parliament of Writers. And now Next Wave is proposing a Government of Artists for the 2020 Festival. What’s going on? Do artists want to take over?
RH: Throughout history and across cultures, art has created reflection and commentary, resistance and protest. For the Ancient Greeks, art manifested their social, political and philosophical ideals. Australia’s First Nations cultures use art to chronicle and convey knowledge of the land, events and beliefs. The Dadaist and Fluxus artists of the early-mid 20th Century protested the horrors of war through their ideas and artworks. The Constructivists in Russia tried to re-imagine how a society might function. The Situationist International heavily influenced the 1968 Paris Commune political protests. Composers have incited riots (Stravinsky, 1913), been jailed for their political views (Wu Yuren, 2010), and brought communities together through art as dialogue (Suzanne Lacy, 1991-2001). It’s not about taking over, it’s about participating in public discussions. Artists have contributed in important and varied ways throughout history. We are excited to build on this rich history as we invite artists to form a government at Next Wave Festival 2020.
How will this Government of Artists work in practical terms? Who will be the artists’ constituents?
Next Wave Festival 2020 will be a giant experiment in togetherness, with an agenda set by artists, underpinned by a philosophy of hospitality. What could a government achieve if we centered ourselves on this principle value?
Maybe there will be ministries, general assemblies, communes and sit-ins. Maybe we will reject these structures and replace them with public choir performances, costume parties, cross-city walks and shared meals. We don’t yet know in a practical sense what the government will look like. This will be decided collectively over 12 months.
Our constituents are each other and our audiences – whoever wants to participate is welcome. My hope is that through the framework of the Festival ‘government’ we can radically rethink how public discourse operates: what can be said, by who, to who, and how these conversations might intersect and unfold.
Lord Acton’s famous dictum says that “all power corrupts”. Should artists have anything to do with power? Or are you hoping that artists will redefine power through this “experiment in togetherness”?
Does all power corrupt? I’m not so sure! Power means that we got marriage equality, power means that we have an equal right to vote, power is an important part of the path towards protecting our environment, achieving Indigenous land rights and changing the discourse around refugees and asylum seekers. I don’t think there’s an intrinsic moral attachment to power, it’s a tool that can be used for positive expression and change. We are planning the Festival as a nation-wide convergence that advocates for empathy, urgency and criticality. There is power in togetherness and it will be exciting to see how this manifests through artists’ works and audience responses.
What do you believe are the most important questions of our time? Is it possible that art can address these in meaningful ways?
I think the most critical issue of our time is the question of co-existence. We need to reclaim identity politics conversations from the increasingly vacuous and damaging rhetoric of call out culture, and from the individualistic rhetoric of capitalist-political thinking.
We are inviting our generation’s deepest thinkers and biggest empaths to challenge how we co-exist and organise, to create work that shares ideas, engages with diverse audiences and sets an example through doing.
Can art really make a difference or are we all just kidding ourselves?
Of course it can! I think this question speaks to a broader lack of cultural literacy in Australia. Would you ask the same about science? Would you ask the same about politics? Art is no different, in that it contributes to advancing our thinking and understanding of the world. Art is society’s way of remaining coherent. Whether it’s through music, theatre, painting, dance, poetry or more experimental artforms, these mediums provide a rare space for us to listen and understand other peoples’ perspectives and experiences through the emotional lens of empathy.
Art is a mirror, sometimes a funny one and sometimes a beautiful one and sometimes a critical one. It has the capacity to show us who we are on an intrinsically human level, and it is vital that we have space to do this, to have the space for connection, critique and reflection in such a rapidly changing world.
How has Next Wave changed since 1984?
The beautiful thing about Next Wave is that it is an organisation built to change, and we have always been responsive to artists’ needs. We are 35-years-old this year and have gone from being a platform for youth arts in 1985 to artistic program producers for the Commonwealth Games to an organisation supporting emerging experimental artists. Whilst the biennial Festival is still our flagship event, we have expanded our activities over the last two years to increase the support available to artists year-round.
We have recently acquired custodianship of the Brunswick Mechanics Institute, a centre for experimental performance and learning, which provides residency and artistic development support and opportunities to the community. Our learning programs Kickstart and Next Wave X also play a huge role in supporting artists to develop and tour new work. All our efforts are geared towards listening to artists and creating the conditions for them to make their best work.
What are the major changes that you’ve brought to the festival?
“Our job as directors is to be hosts”. This is what my friend and colleague Eva Neklayeva, Director of Italy’s Santarcangelo Festival, taught me. Essentially, my role as director is to take up the baton as a listener. What we need most in our community at the moment (and perhaps always) is generosity and hospitality. This idea sits at the core of my approach to organising and influences the way we make decisions as an organisation across all levels.
Next Wave is inviting early career artists, curators, producers, writers, musicians, choreographers and thinkers to propose their most critical and ambitious artistic projects for presentation at Next Wave Festival 2020: A Government of Artists. Further details about Next Wave Festival 2020 applications and artist development programs are available at nextwave.org.au. Applications are due at 11.59pm on Sunday February 24.