A presentation of a model of industry based community cultural development which considers ways in which the community cultural development and corporate sectors can comfortably collaborate.
Arts Officer - Tasmanian Trades and Labor Council
From London bus driver to Arts Officer, Tasmanian Trades and Labour Council. Jock McQueenie was born in Glasgow, and in his earlier years worked as a bus driver, lumberjack and driving instructor. He worked as a photographer in London in the early 1980's snapping acts like the Cure, Iggy Pop and Frank Zappa. After moving to Australia he received the University Medal and first class honours in Fine Arts from the University of Tasmania. Jock has exhibited in the Adelaide Biennial, Scotland and the Ukraine.
Principal - Creative Design Company G3
Creative Director of graphic design company G3, Steve Thomas has written, directed and produced a string of films and plays. He worked on the feature film The Sound of One Hand Clapping and was the producer of Pulp - An Industrial Opera. He has been commissioned by the Australia Film Commission, ABC Television Drama, Arts Tasmania and Film Victoria, amongst others. Working for some of Australia's top advertising agencies, Steve has won a number of awards for television commercials, art direction and advertising.
Once upon a time, back in the heady days of the 1970s, there was bright-eyed young thing called Social Policy. Social Policy was new and idealistic and it was out to make things better for everyone. Then there was Art, not your doddery old institutional, monolithist art but an art that was politically engaged, an art that was radical, passionate and virile. Social Policy and Art looked at each other and said, "My place or yours?"
The love child of that romance, and it was nothing if not romantic, was Community Arts. That bastard is now in its 20s. Its parents have long since lost interest in each other and gone their separate ways and, as often happens when neither parent accepts proper responsibility for an unwanted offspring, that offspring has grown up a wee bit dysfunctional, low in self-esteem, lacking in ambition and unable to relate well to its contemporaries.
It's all to easy to say, "I blame the parents," because, as we all know nowadays, there comes a time when you have to take responsibility for yourself. At least, that was how it looked to me when I took on the job of arts officer at the Trades and Labor Council in Tasmania in 1993.
Arriving as a differently-skilled arts professional, the community and the trades union art sector seemed somewhat stunted, it seemed to be stuck emotionally and intellectually in the 1970s and it was clear that there were a great many issues that had to be addressed. These issues included the marginal status of the sector, both in terms of the arts and in terms of funding and the perception that union-based arts practice had failed to keep pace with developments in contemporary culture. It was not attracting trained arts professionals in any great numbers. It offered little in the way of professional development or innovation to artists and had tended to be strict artists, to traditional, conservative and conscriptive forms of expression.
Clearly, this conference is here to showcase and celebrate some of the excellent work that has been done, such as the projects referred to in the video by my colleagues, but I think that ,if we are halfway serious about this thing called "political debate", we"re going to have to acknowledge that some of the most restrictive practices and aesthetic abominations of late 20th century Australian art have been perpetrated in the name of community. As we know, it's often the naff stuff which remains longest in the public memory.
Community practice also appeared to consider itself exempt from critique, on the grounds that tradition, process and worthiness was sufficient criteria to warrant immunity from critical rigour. I discovered very early in the piece that one of the quickest ways to empty an ACTU arts committee meeting was to actually talk about art. The sector is under-theorised and prone to anti-intellectualism and, in an age where the vast majority of our young artists, writers and performers are university-trained professionals, I would suggest that the belligerent Philistinism which characterises a lot of trades union arts practice is a serious mistake and one of the major turn-offs for young practitioners.
I expressed these sentiments at a forum in Hobart once and a community artist came up to me very indignant afterwards and said, "I've never heard the likes of that." I said, "Well, that's precisely my point."
Also in these terms, the young hearts and minds who would be the next generation of community or trade union artists are watching Rage at 24 frames a second, they're communicating on the Internet, go and see Lily Fisher downstairs. They're already highly sophisticated consumers of ideas, belief systems and lifestyles before they have even left school. It's highly unlikely that they're going to be convinced by forms of expression which they perceive as being 10 to 20 years out of date.
Despite some of the outstanding successes of things like the Art in Working Life Project and despite the excellent - and I use the word "excellent" deliberately - it's clear that the field lacked credibility with the arts professionals who would be its life blood. While those traditional models of community arts and union activity have certainly earned their rightful place of honour in the annals of history, they are clearly not the most appropriate means by which to advance the general cause of social justice or the unions or the arts in a contemporary setting. We took the view that, if trade union arts was real estate, you would call it a renovator's delight. We went out to demolish it, we're just about to refurbish it.
The buzz words of the time were, and still are, I guess, "audience development, corporate sector partnerships, interdisciplinary and multi-media projects". You just need to look at the Keating government's Creative Nation document in 1994 to see the influence of economic rationalism on arts practice. It mentions community only in terms of being fodder for audience development and, in a hundred pages, it makes no reference at all to trade union arts. The point that I'm making here is that, even before the current regime came to power, we were being pulled along by the nose down the road of economic rationalism.
It became clear to me that the question most pressing for the community cultural development sector was how to maintain a practice whose guiding principles of access and participation are based in the discourse of social justice, in an environment where social justice is clearly not on the agenda. It's no longer an option to invoke worthiness or to change the process, process, process mantra as a means of justifying projects and activities which are clearly marked as marginal. The ironic thing, I guess, is precisely this rationalist scrutiny which may have brought about the opportunity for community cultural development to emerge to play a pivotal role in the arts industry's response to the prevailing climate.
As with the community sector, the arts generally have been under the rationalist's microscope and, in the rationalist light, we're all equally marginal. Contemporary arts bases, theatre companies, literary magazines, all appear equally marginal in the light of economic rationalism and all face the same imperatives as the community arts sector, and that is to increase their audience, their relevance and their viability.
In order to support the forms of cultural expression which are experimental and/or marginal, artists and arts companies are having to redefine their practice. To nurture the art forms which are not easily digestible in the mainstream, arts organisations are being compelled to produce work for a wider audience; in other words, to leave their comfort zones and engage with activities involving communities or demographics outside of their normal market. In these terms, the community cultural development sector is ideally situated at this particular historical moment to not only benefit from but to contribute to contemporary arts practice and perhaps, in the process, redefine both.
As well as continuing to provide communities with avenues for creative expression, smart CCD can play an important role in assisting the arts with new audiences in innovative ways. Such strategies will also stimulate the much needed and much wanted thing called critical debate between contemporary community work and its relationship to cultural discourse generally.
In regional Australia, serious corporate sponsorship for the arts is not a good option. It's not a real good proposition. There simply aren't the audiences. But many companies are acutely conscious of their role in the local community. Conventional models of sponsorship have consistently failed to grasp the potential of community-based practice as a means of delivering increased efficiencies to the sponsor in terms of community profile and marketing.
So when Australian Paper approached me to develop their 60th anniversary activities we already had a house style. We already had an attitude to CCD and a track record. The Pulp didn't materialise out of thin air. It was the result of about three years and a dozen or so projects which had teased out these attitudes and these concerns. We had placed computer artists in hospitals to work with digital diagnostic image-making technology. We have deployed multimedia professionals in the public service. We have designed murals using Photoshop as well as the more traditional art in working life style projects. We're very conscious of not throwing out the baby with the bath water or being too revisionist and we continue to do that.
So the Pulp project was in three components. There was the opera which was commissioned to trace the history of the community. There was the documentary which Steve and his company directed and there was - the part that's quite often forgotten about the Pulp project was a very highly successful visual art exhibition as well which featured the work of young contemporary visual artists who spent their formative years in that community but had gone off to make it in the bigger arena. That was designed to showcase their work and to contribute to audience development and also in terms of the younger people to show them that their aspirations were achievable.
I will be happy later on to answer specific questions too but in the meantime for those of you who missed the documentary last night here's the 5-minute version. (videotape played)
I guess the first and most important lesson that we took from the Pulp was that it was an aberration. It was an honest, unique set of circumstances which allowed it to come into existence. It was a historical, industrial, social, artistic and political coincidence. If I did anything smart at all it was just to recognise that fact and join up the dots. The second thing was that it vindicated our belief that the highest artistic outcomes are quite possible with experimental artists in communities; also that corporates will come to the party if the idea is good enough and if the sponsorship dollar is efficiently utilised in terms of the community and/or their workforce, in other words if other budget lines can be tickled such as staff development or whatever; and that unions and corporates - one of the trademarks of our program, I guess, and one of the things that the Trades and Labor Council supports most strongly is that we have a very positive focus to our project.
There's a couple of projects that I would like to describe later on, maybe in question time, one of which was actually initiated by the state secretary, just in conversation, about a positive industrial situation. In the past 24 months Tasmania has actually bucked the national trend and actually increased corporate sponsorship for the arts. This has occurred as a result of several projects, only one of which was the Pulp. I'm not taking credit for all of them but I have done most of them and the significant thing about the projects is that they were custom-designed for industries and communities. That also shows you just how small Tassie actually is when a few projects can influence a trend.
This has not gone unnoticed by the arts industry. Contemporary Arts Services Tasmania, Salamanca Theatre Company, Ihos Opera and Raw Film are all knocking on our doors and they're all developing projects that are community focused, so we're actually beginning to drag community practice back to the arts. The corporates in Tasmania are looking favourably at projects which combine high quality arts with real involvement from their workforce or community, in other words projects which are contemporary, innovative and relevant.
So in the Tasmanian context at least we can actually demonstrate that community cultural development is indeed becoming a highly significant player in audience development and corporate sponsorship. That in turn influences the art form which in turn influences discourse which in turn influences policy and the dominoes go. I would like to expand further on that a bit later on but in the meantime I would like to introduce my partner in this particular crime, Steve Thomas. Steve directed the documentary which was screened last night and SBS are going to do it again in January. He's also the principal of G3 creative design agency with whom we have done many projects.
Thanks, John. Unlike a lot of people in this room I'm not a community artist. I'm the anti-Christ. I'm a commercial artist. four years ago I helped found a design and advertising consultancy called G3. A year later I started a production company called Raw Film. I started the advertising business because I believed it was possible to produce excellent work and make some money. I started the film business because I wanted to make serious films. We managed to produce a reasonable amount of fairly good work. We have won a few awards. Although we're still waiting for the serious money we have made some friends, amongst them corporations, arts organisations and the union movement.
It's the connection with the union movement that was responsible for us spending a large chunk of 1996 making a documentary film in Burnie, the town about which Peter Garrett once coined the phrase, "place without a postcard." So why do it? At first glance the town appears dull and unfriendly. The money is not all that good, about half of what SBS or the AFC would pay for an equivalent documentary. Let's face it with Howard and his mates in Canberra, making a film for the union movement is starting to look dangerously unfashionable at this time.
The reason was simple. As a serious film company we wanted to make serious films and that's just how this project was presented to us. Post-strike Burnie had all the elements of a really great film: conflict, drama, comedy, a cast of fantastic characters. The question was, would the various stake-holders in this project allow us to do something substantial, something with an appeal outside the limits of Burnie? From the beginning we made it clear that we weren't interested in producing a 15-minute keepsake video for members of the organising committee and their friends. It would be 1-hour broadcast quality or nothing.
This didn't mean that we wouldn't tell a story about the history of the community and the mill, just that we weren't interested in producing a souvenir. When Jock confirmed that Ihos were doing the opera we were heartened. Ihos do cutting edge opera. Why couldn't we make a cutting edge documentary? Our first meeting with the Pulp committee made several facts painfully clear to us. Even at this very early stage there were a large number of stake-holders and all had quite different ideas on the film. Australian Paper, the new owners of the mill, saw the project as a public relations opportunity. After all, they were doing things better in terms of industrial relations. On the face of it the workforce seemed more content than they had been at any time since 1992. Just one thing, "Don't mention the strike."
The unions took a slightly different stance. "Sure, mention the strike but be careful not to upset anyone. Tread carefully, the rifts are still there. Don't inflame the situation - and don't talk to any of the right-to-workers." The two local historians couldn't agree. One of them kept telling us that the film should be about the history of the mill and the strike was just a small part of that history. The other one thought that the strike was the most important thing to happen in Burnie for a hundred years and as far as she was concerned, the whole film should be about the strike.
The Burnie Council had a different view again. The most consideration for them seemed to be that Burnie be portrayed as a modern progressive city, not a dirty industrial town. Since the focus of the film was a 60-year-old pulp and paper mill that was always going to be a very tall order. We were a little perplexed. I mean, we thought the strike was the catalyst for the project itself. We thought that was the reason we were celebrating this new regime of industrial relations. Call it lateral thinking, call it opportunism, call it cowardice, we decided the best way for us to go was to link the film to the opera. In other words let Con tell the story of the history of the mill and we would document the opera. Let Ihos talk about the strike and we would document it. Let the story of the community be told through and around the opera itself.
It seems slightly ironic but although the committee were happy to let Ihos develop the opera on their terms without too many creative constraints, it was clear they wanted far greater input to our side of the project. It's understandable. To most people opera is a mystery while film is part of their day-to-day existence. Opera and theatre are art forms but film is a mass media tool. The fact that we made clear that our goal was a national broadcast really served to heighten the committee's desire to get creatively involved. It made them quite scared from quite an early time.
Everything went smoothly until about a month before we began shooting. Suddenly we were rung up and told that the committee was having second thoughts about the film. Both the management and unions were concerned that the process of making the film could open up old wounds. At that point management even issued an edict to some of their employees not to discuss the strike with us. Questions were being asked about creative control. There was talk of the committee vetting all of the material shot. There was talk of a presence in the edit suite. The whole thing was plainly on the verge of falling apart.
The resurrection of the film was piece of art in itself. After giving us a couple of days to cool down Jock organised a conference call. We stressed to the committee that as film makers we deserved the same level of trust afforded to the opera company. We were willing to take their views into account but we wouldn't compromise the film. Somewhat reluctantly they agreed to let the show go on. Jock then set about preparing a contract which enshrined our right to creative independence. It set out very clear parameters for us. Most importantly from that time on Jock placed himself between us and the committee. We reported our progress to Jock on a regular basis and he reported to the committee. In the end I think they were fairly comfortable with the process.
Although we weren't party to a lot of the negotiations, I know they took place both in boardrooms and on the factory floor and in the offices of various bureaucracies. It was an impressive balancing act. I guess the point of all this for me - and perhaps because I don't work in this area generally this might be self-evident - the point of this to me was to highlight the role of the project coordinator in this new era of community cultural development. For me the comparison that comes closest to that role is the role of an executive producer on a modern feature film. The project coordinator just like an executive producer has to recognise a great project and put together a team, constantly balancing talent and effectiveness.
Most feature films are funded through a complex brokerage of deals with both private and government organisations. Once a deal has been put together the executive producer has to run the gauntlet of funding bodies, legal teams, creative teams, distributors, exhibitors. The EP has to be equally comfortable in dealing with contracts and in schmoozing with the media. The EP is responsible for marketing the film.
I think the Pulp project is living proof that that's a good model. Even if it had been a less successful project artistically it was still a remarkable achievement in diplomacy. Think about it: 10 corporate sponsors, four government funding bodies, a bruised and battered workforce, a defensive company, a suspicious and divided town, an administrative committee of about 20 people. We were really pleased with Pulp the film. We think itıs a good film, perhaps not a great film but a good film. It confirmed one thing for us that we really like working with the TLC.
It's a partnership where we bring an unashamed focus on results. We bring the ability to work across a number of art forms and we bring marketing acumen. We also bring a list of arts-friendly corporate contacts. In return we get to work on creatively challenging, socially responsible projects which are managed with sensitivity and imagination. For a bunch of commercial anti-Christs it's a partnership thatıs made in heaven. (Videotape played)
That was a chopped-together version that Steve did of some of his work and some of ours which I suppose is obvious. We have been working closely on projects on and off for 2 or 3 years. The agendas have been converging so you would have seen the logo, the black and white graphic up there, entitled Real World Art Projects for the 21st Century. I guess, folks, you're hearing it here first but that is the name of the strategic partnership which has been formed between the Trades and Labor Council and G3.
It's at a very early stage and we have got to do all the hard work early next year but essentially what the strategic partnership is a project brokerage with a focus on community and industrially-based projects through which communities, cultural producers and industries can develop collaborations in which all the stake-holders benefit. So as well as providing communities with avenues for creative expression it will assist artists and arts companies to develop projects with those communities and it will specialise in custom designing arts projects for industry. In other words it's multidirectional, proactive in all directions.
There's plenty of models of corporate brokers, sponsorship brokers who take a pre-existing product and then try to get it sponsored. What we're actually doing is we're actually injecting concept and saying, "We'll design it for you." In regional Australia, well, in Tasmania at least, it seems to be working. We believe that the model is unique, combining as it does the sometimes disparate agendas of community, industry and the arts. It recognises that design and multimedia and mass communication technologies are valid forms of culture and in doing so it challenges conventional notions of what art is and where and how it happens.
So both partners in the enterprise, we both get very, very close working relationships across the arts, visual arts, literature, performing arts and of course now multimedia as well. We're finding all the time that the artists are actually serious artists who maybe 12 months or two years ago would never have gone near a community arts project are actually knocking on our doors because they can see the benefit in it.
We don't reckon it's a definitive model and it certainly wouldn't work in every context but bits of it might be of interest to other people. The challenge that we perceived at the start was to redesign or renovate community-based practice in a manner which brings it in from the margins of cultural activity making it contemporary, innovative and relevant and in doing so to proceed into the 21st century, if I can finish by paraphrasing Robert Hughes, "neither cringing nor strutting but with a relaxed uprightness of gait." Thank you.