A Vital Artistic Hothouse

With arts funding under attack, Vitalstatistix’s director Emma Webb explains why the arts organisation has fought to keep its national artistic hothouse Adhocracy alive.

This weekend Vitalstatistix presents Adhocracy, our national arts hothouse, an annual event in its eighth year. We call it a ‘festival of ideas meets intense art camp meets magic house party’. Here’s why it, and the artists it includes, are important.

Adhocracy does two things. Firstly, it supports and showcases new live artworks in their early stages of creation. In particular, Adhocracy is a laboratory for artists seeking to experiment in some way. This could be with provocative ideas, new collaborations with other artists, their own art form practices, research within science or technology, or with modes of participation and social engagement.

Secondly, Adhocracy seeks to demystify; to engage people in understanding how contemporary artworks are made and how artists, and art, contribute to investigating real world issues and our possible global and local futures.

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Future Present, 2015 (photo: Heath Britton and Jennifer Greer Holmes)

For audiences who come along each year, Adhocracy is an introduction to a new crop of artists, and to shows that will go on to be seen in theatres, galleries, festivals, site-specific locations and other contexts around Australia. Adhocracy has supported nearly 60 new projects by around 300 artists over its life.

Adhocracy is one of few annual arts events in Adelaide that takes place in the suburbs – in fact, the working class and distinct city of Port Adelaide, at Vitalstatistix’s home, the heritage-listed Waterside Workers Hall.

Waterside was built by the Waterside Workers Federation in 1927 and was home to them and then the Maritime Union of Australia for many decades before Vitalstatistix became custodians. The WWF and MUA valued the importance of art, in everyday life and for imagining a new world. Waterside was a place for concerts, dances, plays, live music, and other cultural organising. When Vitalstatistix presents participatory, experimental performance at Waterside, we view it in the spirit of this hall’s tradition, one of enquiry and change-making, a place of cultural democracy.

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(photo: Jonathan van der Knaap)

Artists suffer from perceptions of elitism (usually propagated by actual elites, of course, such as Murdoch’s The Daily Telegraph, whose regular attacks on individual artists in 2015 coincided with George Brandis’ gutting of the Australia Council for the Arts). Yet there is very little about ‘experimental’ or ‘participatory’ or ‘socially engaged’ art that is elitist when truly put under the microscope.

In fact, it is artists working in these fields who are often at the forefront of engaging audiences outside of expensive, city-centric institutions and arts centres. They and their works contribute to wide-ranging citizen inclusion and involvement in the arts, and challenge the separation of art from other endeavours.

When artist Paul Gazzola, Adhocracy co-curator, and I, put together our program each year, one of our considerations is how contemporary concerns, outside of art itself, are being explored. Selected projects are always connected in some way to questions. Working in a short period of time, with constant feedback, artists often respond to the immediacy of the time and place they are in across the weekend.

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Emma Webb (photo: Jonathan van der Knaap)

This can include the profoundly distressing: the drowning of at least 13 people after a boat carrying asylum seekers capsized near Christmas Island, the weekend of Adhocracy 2013, when Karen Therese was developing her project Love and Boats, the beginnings of her acclaimed work Tribunal; through to exploring a participatory performance about climate change by loading a kayak with two artists and a boatload of hot chips in the Port River (key words: seagulls, hilarious), only to make an extraordinary video work about the seaworthiness of our current political institutions (Raft of the Medusa, Pony Express, 2016).

A passion to champion this kind of work by artists is why Vitalstatistix has fought to keep Adhocracy alive. Federally supported by the Australia Council for the Arts for six of its eight years between 2011 and 2016, the disruption to Commonwealth arts funding under the current Government has resulted in Adhocracy having no ongoing support.

We are very grateful that this year the State Government, through the Department of Premier and Cabinet, were able to come to our rescue and support its presentation in 2017. We continue to seek a way to secure this national program’s continuation, through ever reducing project grants, in 2018 and beyond.

The difficulty of maintaining this successful and necessary incubator for new cultural production, one year at a time, is illustrative of something larger and more important than Adhocracy’s continuation as a relatively small arts program in and of itself. A program that, mind you, could be funded by one junior public servant salary or the coins in the pocket of many a corporate Australian boss.

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Raft of the Medusa, 2016 (photo: Heath Britton and Jennifer Greer Holmes)

In a broad sense, public funding of the arts is under attack, like education, health, science, social services and other sectors that challenge market ideology. Funding and opportunities for artists are rapidly declining. Last year, The Guardian reported that the number of Australia Council grants to individual artists and projects had decreased by a staggering 70 per cent since the election of the Coalition government in 2013.

More specifically, however, public funding of the arts in Australia – as for many things, schools being another example – is inequitable. There are sections of the arts that are provided with stability and opportunity. This is because it is recognised that for those large arts organisations to be visionary and adventurous, or simply to plan ahead, they need multi-year, reliable funding that is not subject to the political cycle.

The independent arts sector, as it is called, small-sized arts organisations, individual artists and especially artists working in contemporary and experimental arenas are not afforded this stability or opportunity to think ambitiously into the longer term; or often to simply earn a liveable income.

And this is a problem; for the same reason it is for scientists and educators. Because supporting artists, and enabling them to work at their best, improves our society.

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Dirty Pieces, 2016 (photo: Heath Britton and Jennifer Greer Holmes)

We need governments that understand and support the role of artists. We need more equitable, dare I say radical, distribution of public arts funding to support healthier, more diverse systems of developing art and presenting it. And we need public arts funding to find its way more directly to makers of new art.

If we allow the funding of artists who are at the expanding edges of artistic practice and audience engagement to whittle away then we will be a poorer society, and arts sector, in the coming decades.

Today we welcome 40 or so artists to Vitalstatistix for an intense and invigorating weekend ahead! Join us: rug up and turn up, bring a friend, grab a drink and immerse yourselves in three nights of new Australian art.

Adhocracy’s public program runs Friday, September 1 to Sunday, September 3, 4pm onwards each night.

vitalstatistix.com.au/adhocracy-2017

Header image: The Tension of Opposites, 2016 (photo: Heath Britton and Jennifer Greer Holmes)