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FLOAT OR SINK
by Kevin Wilson, Director of Noosa Regional Gallery, Australia
Forget art galleries, concert halls and public art, the future of art is not only in the computer, but also in the landscape and living spaces.
How little we talk about non-media art having a major social impact in our world these days. Have we given up, in today's fragmented and specialized society, expecting such art to have any impact? The access that film has to the public through television is direct but the traditional art forms appear to happen in a kind of sealed vacuum. Or are we asking for change to happen too quickly in the context of a world that seems to go at a hundred kilometers an hour?
It's hard when you are standing in any one place at any one time to see a slowly evolving world-view. It's even harder to see it in something so seemingly permanent as place itself. When it comes to the interpretation of place, whether it be through the language of art, economy or social relations, we are always doing so through a culturally constructed lens and at a culturally constructed moment in time. Any amount of analysis, interpretation or representation will only contribute to a newly constructed cultural moment. For instance how we represent the land reveals as much about our culture as about the land itself. The way we represent the land also affects how we use the land and our land use in turn affects the way we represent it.
We attempt to break out of the 'system' but only succeed in creating new systems and categories. The emerging public art industry is a case in point. It has grown from a need to value creativity more publicly and has the potential to affect many people's daily lives, but unfortunately a lot of this kind of art becomes window dressing to corporate and institutional architecture. The very term 'public art' already conceptualizes the kind of work produced as sanctioned art. It has become another industry with a thriving number of support industries.
We then turn to the marketing solution. Marketing is currently being touted as the saviour of the arts industry. Certainly more artists have identified markets and are starting to develop a living, and many galleries are bringing more people through their doors simply by identifying the right products for different markets. Such marketing may really only be selling more 'product' and neglecting the power of artistic thinking to create real social and intellectual development.
Is it being merely fanciful to believe that many more people can be touched by contemporary fine art and touched in a way, which is less about a physical product and more about a way of thinking? And is it possible to create a climate of collaboration in understanding rather one of the master and slave? According to one of the founders of the Artists Working in Nature movement 'culture could be more than what is brought by "those who know" to "those who do not know", in order to do them good. Culture can be a shared pleasure, a staircase from survival to life'.
These thoughts form a kind of backdrop to what could be best described as an art experiment in nature that took place in Noosa last December. The poetically titled The Floating Land or the more literally sub-titled international site-specific Art Laboratory was an event that displayed a possible future for contemporary art practice and presentation.
The Floating Land brought together 19 artists (2 local, 10 Australian, and 7 international artists) who created artworks in, on or over a diverse range of Noosa waterways, over a two week period. Like all experiments it tested various models in new contexts whilst dealing with the clash of older language and interpretative systems overlaid on the desire for new systems.
The event was not simply about artists going about making a product in a somewhat unusual medium. It was also about those artists living more visibly in the community - living in people's houses, eating with different community members each night, and talking with a multitude of visitors as they were making and finally presenting their work. It was a laboratory not simply for making art but also for developing social relations.
Essentially the event was conducted with an infectious passion that was at times blind to some key organizational and stake holder needs but which nevertheless emerged with the passion intact. That passion was as much about revelling in the natural landscape as it was about allowing art to have a greater impact on people's daily lives. All those who participated in the event whether as artists, providers of billets or providers of labour as well as the many visitors to sites and community dinners saw its potential for the future.
There were many many more issues and problems that were a result of the geographical immensity of the project. However to some the challenge of finding locations and works was an immense delight. Quite a few long-term Noosa residents commented that they didn't know that many of the sites existed and were pleased that they had made the effort to find them. A lot of the issues and organizational problems can and will be rectified in future events but the aim of increasing social development, cultural sophistication and cohesion in the broader community is still one that is elusive.
When developing The Floating Land, inspiration came from Europe in the form of a couple of recent manifestations of the outdoor art symposium. The sculpture symposium is an event that has taken place in summer on a regular basis in Europe since well before the recent fall of communism. A wide range of events now take place that have evolved from a bunch of sculptors making works out of stone, into multi-media events.
One of the key models for The Floating Land is a project called Le Vent des Forets that takes place annually in an area of northeast France that comprises a handful of small villages that are surrounded by large tracts of forest interwoven with fields of various grains. Over 15 artists are selected from France and around the world to live in the area with local families and make a work in a specific site in the forests. The artists spend two weeks, living with and being assisted by local families, eating with the villagers in the local town halls and sharing music and other performance events. It is an intensive artistic and social program. Works are constructed of natural materials along many of the tracts through the forest and over the years have created a kind of walking sculpture trail that is constantly in flux as the organizers and the community allow works to disintegrate. There is a kind of performative element in the project where an artist is seen as an actor on a stage made of tradition that has been shaped over many centuries. He or she is welcomed into the community as a special person and one who is valued for their different vision.
Perhaps another more radical project that involved bringing artists into communities has taken this idea of performance and the notion of the artist as a special person to a more extreme level. The project called 32+32=2000 (et meme plus!) created by the Teatr'eProuvete group (translated as test tube theatre) was an innovative hybrid project that brought visual and performing artists together in the test tube of a regional French province. Thirty-two artists were married to thirty-two towns (and married literally in a town ceremony as the first performance of the project). Artists were paid a full two weeks artists fee and provided with billeted accommodation, but were not required to make work but were simply asked to exist as artists in the company of the townspeople. Many did eventually make work but generally in response to the needs of the people. As part of the project there were many ceremonies - a huge cavalcade led by 32 motor bikes (symbol of low-income) ridden by the artists followed by townspeople and mayors from various villages through all 32 villages, the creation of a cemetery for dead art where the artists buried an example of their past art and then preceded to have a large community wake. Throughout the region little projects were germinated and continue to be germinated 3 years on as artists continue to return to their spouses (the towns they married).
The Floating Land event adopted as its main model the Le Vent des Forets project but in the future planning of the next Floating Land event in 2003 more of the direction of 32+32=2000 (et meme plus!) will be added to the project. It became more and more obvious during The Floating Land 2001 project that such things as involving the local ferry driver, the local community jobs plan person and other non arts people, in the selection of the artists and also billeting artists in people's houses did not work in the same ways as it does in Europe, mainly because we no longer retain a traditional rural lifestyle as in many places in Europe and the European culture of providing for guests is lacking in our young privatized society. One European artist spent hours knocking on people's doors near the river he installed his work, only to be met in many cases by a sorry, I'm not interested.
Perhaps the lesson to be learnt is not to place the greatest emphasis on the one big event over a short period that incorporates a lot of whiz-bang ideas for community participation. The event will take place and be successful as a display of works in specific sites but for it to have some impact on people's lives in a rural community, the process of inserting 'artistic' thinking into a place has to start many months earlier with regular small scale projects in communities and the development of small groups who have ownership of the development of the main project in their communities.
In the lead-up to the 2003 Floating Land event a series of projects are now being devised that range from artists based in the rural village communities of Noosa for short periods to work on projects about the land, artists working in collaboration with scientists to explore specific environmental issues, art and nature workshop programs, celebratory events such as community dinners and activities linked to the natural seasons, regular input into small community newspapers and the active development of art and nature cells in towns. The strategy is not dissimilar to a political campaign and recognizes that success comes from within rather than from without.
The major 2003 Floating Land event will take place over 3 weeks, with the creation of works in, on or nearby waterways. Again up to 18 artists will again be invited to Noosa, including some who may have already been involved in the lead-up residencies. Up to 5 of those artists will create time based works - sound, light, projections, performance etc in coastal waterways and the rest will develop installations in a focused area that spans 3 small towns. Artists will generally not be required to send proposals (except artists without a track record in working in the environment) but will be selected on the basis of past work. They will be housed in an artists' camp for the first two weeks and then billeted with local people. They will spend their first week, exploring sites, developing their projects, liaising with technical staff, sourcing materials etc. They will also present their past work and project proposals to the community. In the following two weeks works will be built and then presented to the public from Wednesday to Sunday in the last. A small series of community dinners and performances will take place in community halls and a major concert and symposium will take place on the theme of art and land on the final weekend.
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