What a Splendid Idea: 10 think-tank thoughts

Art Life , Stuff Aug 19, 2011 No Comments

Art at outdoor festivals – a good idea? Can it work? Sharne Wolff reports on a one-day get together Splendid Think-tank where veterans of the festival scene offered sage advice for both artists and organisers…

Born in Byron Bay but for the last two years seen frolicking at its temporary home in Woodford, Queensland the Splendour in the Grass music festival was held on the last weekend in July this year. International acts including Coldplay and Kanye West perfromed alongside Australian music veterans and newcomers to audiences of 30,000 over the three-day weekend.

Accompanying the music – and taking its lead from the renowned ‘Burning Man’ and ‘Coachella’ festivals in the United States – was the Splendour Arts Program which featured a selection of artists from Australia and abroad. Jordana Maisie’s Close Encounters’ a large scale UFO interactive sculpture, and an interactive digital media projection performance by Jimmy McGilchrist entitled Curious Creatures were among those fortunate enough to have their projects chosen (and supported by Splendid) for the event.

The enormous global growth of these and other music festivals has been evident for several decades now but not all Australian music festivals have embraced the inclusion of contemporary visual art as part of their mix. This seems to be changing with newer festivals like Tasmania’s MONA FOMA curated by Brian Ritchie (ex Violent Femmes) which included a range of visual, performance and interactive art throughout it’s 2011 program.

One of the benefits of including visual art in festivals is that it provides a better opportunity for organisers (and the artists) to seduce the festival crowd – ultimately providing the audience with a more authentic experience. Visual artists can assist in the transformation of the crowd from mere spectators to participants, by creating ways for the audience to absorb the festival experience via their art. Splendour Arts curator, Craig Walsh, says ‘Presenting work in a the context of a large music festival like Splendour in the Grass is very different to any other environment that an artist would ever be likely to work in. There’s a captive audience of many thousands on site for three days and but there is a lot of competition for their attention”. Music might be the ‘comfort food’ of the festival but a well-curated visual art program can arguably provide a greater level of personal engagement and a collective experience.

The Splendid Arts LAB provides a means for making this engagement more meaningful by bringing together a number of young artists (15 in 2011) for an intensive residency over a period of 3 weeks. The LAB gives emerging artists a chance to explore ideas, team up with other artists and ‘work collaboratively in a dynamic environment that encourages critical thinking, play and risk-taking’. Experienced artists act as mentors (or ‘Provocateurs’) and encourage and assist in the process. According to the artists involved, this close-knit group provided them with a sense of freedom to explore areas they hadn’t previously encountered and to experiment with risk taking.

In early August, as a follow up to Splendour, the city of Lismore (and birthplace of Splendid) in Northern NSW hosted a ‘Splendid thinktank’. The idea was to debrief, to promote the work of the arts LAB in the artistic community and to bring together art practitioners and festival representatives from all over Australia in a cross platform discussion to ‘find new ways of embracing art and ideas in a festival context’.

The list of invitees not only included the Splendour artists and Provocateurs (such as Mexican video artist Fernando Llanos and Techa Noble from the Kingpins) but a veritable ‘Who’s Who’ of Australian festival directors, representatives from Splendour itself, and producer and chief organiser, Carli Leimbech. Speakers included Brian Ritchie (MONA FOMA, Tasmania), Marcus Canning (Artrage, Perth), Lisa Havilah (Carriageworks, Sydney), Imogen Semmler (Underbelly, Sydney), Rhoda Roberts (Festival of the Dreaming and others) and Jyllie Jackson (Lismore Lantern Parade) with the panel chaired by Sandra Bender from SBS Television. Splendid partner organisations Lismore Regional Gallery and NORPA, (Northern Rivers Peforming Arts) were represented by respective Directors, Brett Adlington and Julian Louis.

In other words…there was a lot of creative thought in the room.

What follows are ten ‘thinktank thoughts’ (try saying that a few times fast) from the day in no particular order – for consideration by visual artists, directors, organisers or anyone else involved with festivals. In most cases, individuals haven’t been credited directly with their respective ideas because they weren’t sufficiently distinct. Some thoughts are obvious – some may require a bit of pondering…

1. Ritual is important in the festival context.

Ritual creates a strong sense of community in festival participants. The religious sense of the word is not out of place in this context if it suggests ideas of ceremony, celebration and worship. Festivals provide a modern platform for the expression of ideas across various art forms and a potential forum for peaceful discussion of ideas, the breaking down of barriers and increasing tolerance.

2. Think big – in all ways.

Festival art should be about possibilities. It’s important to take risks. Experiment. Use the freedom of the space and the opportunity provided by huge numbers of people. Multisensory pieces are totally appropriate. Use unconventional venues, ‘jar the senses’ of the audience and be sure to make unpredictable work. Aim to inspire, delight, amaze, shock and confuse.

3. Tell a story with your art– art is an ‘expression of the soul’

Thelma Kapeen, a local aboriginal elder invited to address the audience and give the ‘Welcome to Country’, supplied this gem. Although she wasn’t talking specifically about festival art, Thelma did make a good point in highlighting the importance of the narrative. ‘What’s the art without the story?’ she asked.

4. A festival provides fertile ground for collaboration.

Talk to people. Collaborations of all kinds are possible and desirable – between arts organisations, visual artists, across funding platforms, between artists and musicians, between festivals. Collaboration can lead to results you never dreamed possible.

5. Bureaucrats require outcomes. Artists don’t.

The development process for an idea can be as much or more important than the result.

6. Use your mentors.

This comment was made specifically about the Splendid Provocateurs on the day – but it’s important to remember that all visual artists can use mentors – especially those who have shown their work at festivals past. Find someone whose work you admire and contact them.

7. Giving people what they don’t think they want can sometimes be better than giving them something they expect.

This one is from Brian Ritchie. He related some of his experiences at MONA FOMA where he tried doing things in exactly the opposite way that people expected (including organising a protest against his own festival). He also suggested we should all try not ticking the boxes. Leave some things to chance. A surprise result can be more entertaining and valuable for all participants.

8. Trust the curator. Implicitly.

Of course this thought came from a curator …but the artists in the audience who had shown their work at Splendour seemed to agree. The curator knows the festival and knows the audience – so take their advice and use it in your practice.

9. Balance is the essence of a good festival.

A festival has to be relevant for the audience and have a life beyond the current director and curators. Like anything else, festivals need to have a reason to exist or they will die.

10. If you’re an artist, don’t just sit there twirling your pencil.

Don’t wait for the money to develop your ideas. Go out and find it. Use your friends and mentors. Collaborate. Think. Turn your problems into opportunities.

More information about the artists from this year’s Splendour Arts Program can be found at on this PDF.

Splendid is a partnership between Splendour in the Grass and leading art agencies including Lismore Regional Gallery and NORPA. Further information about the Splendour Arts Program and Splendid can be found at www.splendid.org.au. Splendour in the Grass will next be held in 2012. Details at ‘www.splendourinthegrass.com.

Sharne Wolff

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