You Are You Are You Are You Are You Are Festival

image by adam thomas

Being back in Canberra and immersed in the You Are Here festival, while for the first time in four years having nothing whatsoever to do with the You Are Here festival, has provided a weird opportunity for reflection. In particular, Anthony Hayes printed up and distributed the third in his series of pamphlets critiquing the festival’s corporate affiliations. Or maybe not – the 2014 pamphlet is titled You Are Nowhere, but other than the provocative title, it only references the festival pretty obliquely.

I’ve had trouble with these missives in the past, but not particularly because of the critique. In fact, we always did our best to provide a platform for Hayes and anyone else who we felt had a worthwhile criticism of the festival philosophically, because these are conversations we were having pretty constantly within the festival team, and it was great to see them being had more broadly in the community. My problem has rather been that Hayes’ messages were somewhat laden with Marxist language and therefore a little difficult for me to decipher. This one is no different – I haven’t spoken with Hayes directly, and I’m wary of trying to debate him because I fear I may be misconstruing his argument.

With that in mind, the following is not a rebuttal of Hayes’ pamphlet, nor is it even really a response – just that he has prompted me to scribble down these loose thoughts, for which I’m grateful.

This year maybe more than ever before, coming along to the Money Bin and seeing the festival cracking along in full swing, it’s hit home to me how much You Are Here – how much maybe every festival – is about relationships. At its core, creating a festival is about building and maintaining relationships with artists, with organisations, and with audiences. Every one of those is a real and serious relationship that needs to be thoughtfully honoured and maintained.

‘Maintaining relationships’ sounds like corporate speak, but what I’m talking about is love.

People think that YAH has a sponsorship relationship with Canberra CBD Limited whereby we provide them a service in exchange for dollars – and yes that’s part of it, it must be – but from my perspective what we really had was a relationship with one or two people in that organisation. We hung out, we talked about what we wanted, what they wanted, we shared ideas, we introduced each other to different people in our networks, we collaborated to make things happen.

What do you think that the property manager CBRE got out of letting the festival use the old Fletcher Jones shopfront last year? From a corporate standpoint their gift probably ticked a few boxes, but really, the reason that it happened was that one of their agents met with us, chatted with us, we were on the same wavelength, and they wrote a bunch of emails and did a bunch of lobbying at their end to make it happen.

This is at least partly true: YAH is people, and those people form relationships with people in organisations, not with organisations.

Money is obviously crucial for a few things – equipment, insurance – without which the festival cannot exist, but the main thing money buys you is time, and what you do with that time is build relationships.

There is a sense in which everything is commodified within the world of the festival – because everything takes time, and time costs money.

For example, it’s not an organisational guarantee that YAH offers its partners, whether they’re artists, property owners or audiences, it’s a personal guarantee from the festival team: ‘We promise that we have the capacity to deliver on our promises
•    To take care of your venue
•    To provide you with logistical support and take some personal care with your work
•    To provide you with a program of activity that adheres to a certain quality standard.’

All those promises require that the people behind the festival have time to follow through on all their commitments, and a certain set of skills and capabilities (that took a serious investment of time to develop).

Of course the festival operates within the system. Putting on gigs in public spaces (legally) requires a huge amount of engagement with a lot of people who have suits and desks. Being the interface between a few hundred artists, a few thousand audience members and maybe 50 different service providers involves a huge amount of negotiation, and on occasion, thoughtful compromise. I don’t believe that compromise is inherently bad – I come from a devised theatre background, where compromise is the lifeblood of creative collaboration, and often results in the most exciting creative decisions – but it is an extremely delicate enterprise, and a responsibility that no festival producer I’ve ever met takes lightly.

I think one question it’s worth asking any producer – or any artist, for that matter – is: When have you compromised? When has it worked, when has it gone wrong?

Personally I’d never assume that compromise happens unwittingly or accidentally. Every decision has a story behind it, and there’s always something to be learned from those stories. There’s the general philosophical statement that we’re all implicated in a capitalist system (which I think is definitely true) but I think it gets interesting when you go beyond that and ask, how are we co-opted? Where is there space to make beautiful shit happen within a corrupt structure? Where do you draw the line and where do you bend? The general principles are obvious and maybe even trivial – it’s the specific examples which really prove where you stand. Is You Are Here closer to Skyfire or the old Canberra Festival of Contemporary Art? Art Not Apart or Enlighten or the Multicultural Fringe? And how?

Working within the system doesn’t require huge resources or big corporate partners, but people’s energy, effort and love. Putting on a gig in a public space in Canberra isn’t necessarily expensive, but it requires a huge amount of negotiating red tape. Risk management plans, public liability insurance applications, TAMS, Roads ACT, liquor licensing if you go that route… The main factor is knowing what information all those people require, and being able to give it to them in the form that they’re familiar with. Other people – the Centenary of Canberra team for example – shared that knowledge with us. They give us their templates from other, similar events that they’d run in the past. We shared our templates with other groups wanting to do similar things. Producing is a skill that isn’t taught in schools, it’s learned on the ground and shared between groups, between communities, generously and with love. This is how it happens.

Important to note, though, that this type of dealing with bureaucracy favours a certain demographic – white, middle-class, university educated artists, people who have the time to sink into learning these skills. Every additional 10-page form that producers are required to submit eight weeks before the event disadvantages community groups, people from cultural and linguistically diverse backgrounds…

If there’s one criticism I’d level at the You Are Here festival, it’s that there’s still a long way to go in terms of engaging with people from diverse backgrounds, artists with disabilities, artists from CALD communities, though it’s certainly better than it was when I was involved. Worth noting that 2011, the year in which I curated like 80% of the program, was by far the most narrow in terms of representation. This is a serious point that I wish was getting more traction at all levels of debate.

What I wish – speaking as far as I know, only for myself – is that there were more groups doing what YAH does, occupying vacant spaces in the city. We never intended YA to be the only one of its kind. Art Not Apart started in 2012, and it has its own weird flavour, informed by but totally unlike YAH. The Multicultural Fringe is doing its own weird dance, circling around its own strange attractors. I wish there were 50 rival arts festivals in this town, collaborating, competing and laughing at each other.

In the meantime: bless Mr Hayes for taking the festival to task, even though I feel if he asked more questions of the festival crew he might have more tangible stuff to critique. And bless the festival team, the hundreds of artists, all the enablers, and the thousands of people I’ve seen at the festival this last week or so. Doing it with love. Sharing their time, their energy, their feelings, all that ridiculous jive, with love. lovelovelovelovelovelovelove

But David, that wasn’t an argument, nor was it a coherent case, it was more like a dream journal of disconnected vague thoughts.


Aight, no more faffing around: some gorgeous Adam Thomas photos from the festival fer yer enjoyment.

the first three months of 2014

What’ve you been doing, Finig?

I have not been making, I have not been writing, I have been learning. I have been traveling on a research fellowship funded by the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, looking at arts-science practice in Honolulu, Santa Barbara, Santa Fe, New York, Toronto, London, Paris, Stockholm, Warsaw, Wroclaw, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Singapore.

What have you learned, Finig?

It’s too early to say, I don’t know, hard to tell, not sure, maybe nothing, it’s complicated, difficult to answer right now, too soon.

But I did learn a new way to say Yes

and that’s surely not nothing