The inspiration for Cementa was a bumper sticker: Cement A Friendship – Visit Kandos. Kandos Projects had already been going for about a year as a low-key artist residency in a part of the world I had discovered by chance. Close to the rugged world heritage park of the Wollemi pine, Kandos was wrapped by a towering escarpment and had a wide main street like something out of a spaghetti western or the shoot out scene in Grace Kelly and Gary Cooper’s High Noon (a street full of people at 7am, but weirdly deserted by the afternoon).
Artists were already present in the region with a collectively owned contemporary gallery in the small town of Rylstone close by. At the Retro Cafe, the welcoming Rose Beaton was a performer from Art Unit days in the early Sydney ARI scene. Sustainability and receptivity to contemporary art were key purchase factors. Buying a property in such a central location (with good access to services) in the town’s main street was a drawcard, but it was the warm response to the idea of contemporary art moving into the four big windows of the former haberdashery emporium in Kandos that clinched the decision.
Sustainablity was not only economic – property was cheap and an even cheaper annex bordering a park was soon added – but affective. We had to feel good about the town and the town to feel good about us. Soon there was a steady stream of visiting artists inspired to fill the windows with installations that largely related to local issues and the experience of the town. Jenny Brown’s Wink, portraits of Indigenous artists winking at passers-by, was our introduction to the local Indigenous community. The Williams River Collective worked with local activists challenging the expansions of Big Coal in some of the finest stud country in Australia.
Sue Pedley and Virginia Hilyard hiked Baldy (the escarpment) with the scoutmaster and other locals and consolidated one of many friendships (their installation of eerily green nightlights was a deconstruction of local gardens). Fiona Davies set up a tea party in the street with a prominent local and was soon video-documenting local experiences of corporal punishment (the nuns were hitters and ear-pinchers). Sarah Goffman, Lisa Andrew, Josephine Starrs and Leon Cmielewski were in the exploratory stage of local projects. Liam Benson and The Motels were planning a trip up with performance artist George Tillianakis. Bronia Iwanczak’s installation, Real Estate for André Breton, partnered with a local collector of Oceanic Art. Elizabeth Day filled the windows with a mixture of weeds and flowers as a comment on colonial contamination of the bush.
Joyce Hinterding and David Haines took over the annex for a year-long project of sonic experimentation, inviting the artists Mark Brown, Ben Denham, Peter Blamey, Jon Hunter and others. Alex Wisser and Georgina Pollard arrived for a residency, bringing with them an American acquaintance who joked about buying a place in Venice, New York State, so he could run his own Biennale of Venice. The conversation soon turned to the idea of a contemporary art event for Kandos. Would it end in “a” like Documenta, or Perspecta? Cementa, already a pun in the town’s bumper sticker, was irresistible as a name.
Joking aside, a contemporary art festival was a very, very good idea. It would consolidate the already considerable arts activity into a party, a celebratory event of scale. The cement works had recently closed and was very much the town’s identity; the works had indeed founded the town. The name Cementa would not only honour the works and the history of the town, but we also hoped to exhibit in the magnificent industrial–rural setting of the former cement works.
Given that Alex and George were co-directors and founders of Index, an ARI in St Peters, they had an interesting set of artists on their books: Cigdem Aydemir with her burka projects, Diego Bonetto (whose tours of edible weeds would suit a town with a history of gleaning), Lena Obergfell with her yellow raincoat videos, Gilbert Grace and ArtCycle, Connie Anthes, Sarah Breen Lovett, and Madeleine Preston. Within five minutes we combined the artist lists of Kandos Projects and Index and had 40 artists across a broad mix of electronic, sound and installation art.
The cement works fell through as a venue but the town of Kandos was enthusiastic and we soon had more than twenty donated venues. Local councillors and cafe owners, the crafters, the poets, the town museum, even the local female preacher (herself a singer), were keen. We roped in locals like Ian Milliss, down the country road in nearby Wallerawang, who suggested Jacqueline Drinkall’s transparent flying saucer, in pieces in his train shed (during the festival it was filled with meditators or local kids). Fiona Kemp was scouting for an outdoor location to dig a spectacular 50-metre pool line (as a long skinny in-ground pool) and Kandos cafe owner of Down the Track was happy to install it on her prominent stretch of park-like lawn at the entrance to the town. (This related to the town’s magnificently sited Olympic pool, constructed with funds and labour donated by the town’s predominantly immigrant workers.)
We applied to Arts NSW for a grant, hardly expecting to get it, although we did have an impressive set of local logos, including those for Mudgee Tourism and Mudgee Council, the latter our first fiscal supporter. To our surprise we got the grant. The festival clearly made sense, given that the town was about the size of Cockatoo Island (the heritage precinct that has been such a boon to the Biennale of Sydney). Kandos is similarly ideal for walking and artist-guided tours, including the ArtCycle project of Gilbert Grace. There was already a dedicated cycling track with outstanding views, perfect for ArtCycle Sketch. We had an open salon that was quickly packed to the rafters with local interpretations of contemporary art.
We wanted to support all forms of local practice and were careful not to parachute in alien art forms. The festival was based on artist residencies (we had two buildings, one with two storeys, providing ample accommodation and studio space). Our mantra was that artists were to come here and make work that related to the town. Some of the art practices may have at first seemed odd but the locals quickly got on board by participating and very much appreciating that the work related to local issues and local identity.
Margaret Roberts’s highly popular festival installation consisted of slightly damaged large-scale silhouettes of local houses (suggesting the ravages of climate change or other) laid out like body bags in the Scout Hall. Locals who recognised their own house were invited to take them home. The surreal curation of the mission-style Kandos Museum was a festival highlight, with Bronia Iwanczak’s suite of photographs documenting the playful madness of the collection. Her artist’s book of photographs expanded the project to the delight of the wickedly socialist museum founders, now in their late 80s (not an image of the queen in sight). Joyce Hinterding and David Haines dazzled with a cinematic interactive in which audience body movement navigated a sumptuous series of worlds through their immersive synthesised soundtrack.
The video installation by Starrs and Cmielewski in the Presbytery Chapel of the former convent was another local favourite, translating the town’s annual burn-out festival into a tightly focused rendition of slow motion car tyres vaporising into clouds of coloured smoke. Displayed on an adjacent lightbox, a richly textured drawing in melted rubber focused on the burn-out track itself. Sarah Goffman entertained with tea and iced vo-vos in her wabi sabi teahouse. And, when not dressed in extravagant gear as The Motels, Liam Benson wandered the streets and serenaded the town with songs of love and loss at dawn and dusk.
One of the festival aims was its integration into the local community and engagement in regional history. That relationship is deepening in the creation of works for the forthcoming Cementa15. Originally auspiced by Orana Arts, Cementa is now incorporated as Cementa Inc., and in receipt of our first annual agreement for funding under this name. The inaugural event for Cementa13 also tapped into the considerable local film history, with John A. Douglas’s deconstruction of 1970s nuclear-disaster flick The Chain Reaction (shot in Glen Davis, in the neighbouring Capertee Valley) a feature of our film night. (Other iconic locally filmed movies include The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith and The Cars That Ate Paris.)
In order to encourage people to stay overnight or longer, the four festival days of artist-led tours of the artworks were complemented by four evening events of opening night dance party, Sound Night, Cabaret Night (including local performers and poets) and the aforementioned Film Night. Afternoon events included an Art Life forum hosted by Andrew Frost and Carrie Miller, and another by Orana Arts with local and visiting artists mixing it up. These events packed out local venues. It was odd to see the main street full of cars on a weekend afternoon. The Craft Shop sold out. Local accommodation was fully booked, with many artists taking an overnight sojourn swimming underneath the stone pagodas at Dunns Swamp, or a morning dip at Honeysett Dam.
The post-festival feedback session generated an overwhelmingly positive response to do another festival – with requests for more performance artists like The Motels and David Capra (his giant hand of friendship was one of the festival’s successes). Tina Havelock Stevens, recently drumming underwater at MONA FOMA, and Renny Kodgers and the Twilight Girls, performing Fifty Ways to Kill Renny Kodgers, are among performers engaged for the next one.
Cementa15, now in preparation, with most of the 50-plus artists having already participated in residencies, is already well underway. The people of the town are getting used to us, and us to them, with more venues in the offing. We will work towards a similar mix of day and evening events, with a similar mix of electronic, sound, and installation art. Robotics will be well-represented with Wade Marynowski’s Acconci Robot (imagine the Adam’s Family’s Cousin It as a tall skinny wardrobe following you around) and Mark Brown’s formation of drones delivering a sound work by fly-over (recall the scene in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalpse Now in which the helicopters fly in formation to deliver Wagner’s “March of the Valkyries” from speakers strapped underneath). Video performance will include Dani Marti as messed up whitey, and Daniel Mudie Cunningham mashing the Pixies’ “Monkey Go to Heaven” on local monkey bars that could have been designed by Sol LeWitt.
A section of the festival has evolved into Futureland, a series of works based on issues of sustainability, land, economics, rehabilitating Country and local contestations over the predations of Big Mining on water, Country and prime farmlands. Featured artists will include Ian Milliss, Christine McMillan, the Williams River Group, Josephine Starrs and Leon Cmielewski with Nell Schofield, Kim Goldsmith, Alana Hunt and Lucas Ihlein. Jenny Brown’s repurposed train carriage will be the site of a twilight political performance and feast, historically based on potatoes, famine, and the Irish diaspora, but culminating with contemporary counter-hegemonic issues, including a ritual burning of Yule logs for Tony Abbott. (She will be providing potato cheese and potato beer.) In reference to the erasure of political memory by the burning of books in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, performers will interact as talking books.
In a work investigating the remarkable powers of mushrooms as environmental detoxifiers and rhizomatic networkers, Elizabeth Day is working with the local community to produce a large display of handcrafted mushrooms to be viewed over two levels of the community hall: from above, as variegated colour and form; and from below in the massive underground transmission system of their roots.
Indigenous representation is strong in Cementa15 with Djon Mundine’s proposed mural of a photograph of “Queen” Peggy honouring a much loved local that will also recall the colonialist predilection for bestowing titles on Aboriginal Australians. To be painted on the walls of the Kandos Museum by her descendants, this will be an important first public representation of local Indigenous history, complemented with works by Karla Dickens, Adam Hill and Jason Wing.
Cementa15 Contemporary Art Festival will take place in Kandos, NSW, Thursday 9 April – Sunday 12 April, 2015. Follow the festival blog for artists, updates, events, transport and accommodation at cementa.com.au (new website launching December, 2014).
Ann Finegan is a writer and educator. With Christine McMillan, Georgina Pollard and Alex Wisser she is co-creative director of Cementa Contemporary Arts Festival, also curator of Kandos Projects.