Float or Sink: A New Direction for Art in Regional Australia

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. The way we represent the land affects how we use the land and our land use in terms affects the way we represent it. Wilson looks at art that is made outside the context of the art gallery or computer screen and the ongoing categorisation and separation of institutionalised art from public art. The Artists Working in Nature movement and The Floating Land project are here used in reference.

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 fine art having a major social impact in our world these days. Have we given up, in today's fragmented and specialised 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 kilometres 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 such a 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.

Whilst this evolving cycle takes place, we ironically continue to create a wider and wider gap between a private and a public world. As the privatisation of our lives increases so does the categorisation of things outside our lives. Calling something art already confines it to one of those categories where art is an activity that takes place in an art gallery. Likewise the same categorisation applies to the idea of 'Nature' where nature is a place more and more separate from our lives.

We then create a massive industry that produces products to help us find some true inner nature or 'self' that connects to the natural world. Whilst we clutch at this search to find a space 'within' ourselves prior to language as well as some kind of natural wilderness outside, we nevertheless continue to preserve and revere the kind of institutions that are at odds with this kind of search. Art for instance has ossified into a rigid system of relevance to only a small percentage of the population and our educational institutions have failed utterly to make art relevant to the wider population.

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 conceptualises 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 than one of the master and the 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 organisational and stakeholder 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.

In looking at the event from an organisational viewpoint there were three quite distinct groups involved in the project - the artists, the audience and the organisers. The artists needed assistance, space to work, transport, the right to select their own site and in some cases the time to inform and engage local residents in what they were doing, and the need to relate to each other. The audience needed to know when and where they could see artists' works, hear them speak or converse with them, and the organisers needed to develop clear systems of communication with both groups as well as maximising the degree to which artists and audiences could help themselves. The event faced many problems by not being able to meet all these needs satisfactorily, primarily because the artists' sites were spread widely across the shire of Noosa. To see all works could take almost the whole day especially as many were hard to find or in out of the way locations. This created daily transport problems as not all artists had cars, and it isolated artists from people and each other. The audiences hoped to see works in progress from almost three or four days into the project and were disappointed and annoyed at times that some artists or works were not to be seen, especially the ones who headed for a studio or workspace to make specific work, or who had made work that couldn't be left on site.

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 organisational 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 one that is still elusive.

When developing The Floating Land, inspiration came from Europe in the form of a couple of recent manifestations of outdoor art symposiums. 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 takes place. They 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 Forêts that takes place annually in an area of north-east France that comprises a handful of small villages that are surrounded by large tracts of forest interwoven with fields of various grains. Over fifteen 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 organisers 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 même plus!) created by Teatr'e Prouvete (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 artist's 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 proceeded to have a large community wake. Throughout the region little projects were germinated and continue to be germinated even three years later as artists continue to return to their spouses (the towns they married).

One of the most interesting aspects of both projects discussed above is the philosophy that people in small villages and towns in the countryside deserve to have the best art and the best art education resources available. Le Vent des Forêts provides a small series of high quality concerts by internationally recognised performers who are happy to perform in old barns and outdoors on hastily constructed stages. 32+32=2000 (et même plus!) bring well respected cultural commentators and media people to give talks in people's houses rather than in halls in the main town centres.

The Floating Land event adopted as its main model the Le Vent des Forêts project but in the future planning of the next The Floating Land event in 2003 more of the direction of 32+32=2000 (et même 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 privatised society. One European artist spent hours knocking on people's doors near the river where 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 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 The 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 recognises that success comes from within rather than from without.

The major 2003 The Floating Land event will take place over three weeks, with the creation of works in, on or near waterways. Again up to eighteen artists will be invited to Noosa, including some who may have already been involved in the lead-up residencies. Up to five of these 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 three 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 and so on. 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 week. 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.