As Michael Brenson says “the conflict between a commitment to art and a commitment to using art to serve other agendas is not just a biennial issue”. Art and cultural events promise regeneration and renewal, often called to the service of political, social, environmental and economic priorities. Do they – can they – really deliver on those promises and demands in that instrumentalised way? Disasters strike at many speeds – some are slow and steady, barely perceptible until a moment’s realisation of what has passed, while others are rapid cataclysms erasing so much of what once stood its ground.
I live in Brisbane, a city that aspires to ‘World City’ status, which was devastated by widespread flooding earlier this year. The artistic response to recovery, however, seems to be low key – fundraisers, culturally based support for survivors, and artists occupying empty spaces. So many of our cultural spaces, hugging the banks of the river, closed down for months. There’s no bold ideas emerging about cultural regeneration or recovery – for example, how will our major festival, the Brisbane Festival, galvanise the community eight/nine months after the flood. What hope for cultural rebirth and regeneration for a city that needs to re-create its present as well as its future? We’re desperate for tourists in my city and a recent newspaper report says that international tourists have bypassed Queensland in droves with a 5 per cent drop in visitors, while more Australians, enjoying the strong Australia dollar, are travelling overseas. The desperation shows when the events promoters decide to stage a Winter Festival in our city square. Reeking of cloying mimicry, it replicates a white northern winter – when the snowfalls in our ski regions are peaking early, casting a chill over much of the continent’ east – rather than celebrates our mild sub-tropical green winter, where we can still bask in the sun and enjoy the generosity of our region.
As our flooding subsided, I considered attending the SCAPE Biennial of art in public space in Christchurch, NZ. As I started to make plans, the city crumbled as a disastrous earthquake struck. In the face of this, I started to look at cities rising from ruins. I was intrigued by the stories of Prospect Biennial in New Orleans and the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial in Japan about as well as SCAPE’s shifting attention to rebuilding both itself and its city.
Prospect was established to aid the rebuilding efforts after the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina as well as to galvanise the arts community. The organisers of Prospect.1 raised $4.5 million, 75% outside the state of Louisiana, to produce the biennial, and invested more than half on local hotels and restaurants, renovation of exhibition spaces, and contracting New Orleans artists, musicians, designers, artisans, publicists, art installers, security and transportation. Fundraising shortfalls (due to the financial crisis and ongoing economic hardship in the US) will mean the next biennale will be presented later this year. Sue Bell Yank has written about this post-disaster arts movement observing an “urgent need to connect artistic activity to a greater social rebuilding process, along with the compacted changes to the redefined and renegotiated arts sector in New Orleans”. Yank also noted that the artistic community in New Orleans aimed to link with a global rather than regional dialogue. It seemed like an experiment in articulating a resurgent identity that would do more than express a post-disaster condition; the kind of identity that attracts community, visitors and tourists.
Recently, GOMA hosted a lecture by Fram Kitagawa, General Director of Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial. Kitagawa discussed how the event sought to create an opportunity for regional independence, in the form of an art festival with artists’ involvement. In an aging rural community, steeped in tradition, rice growing and history, the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial created a very different set of dialogues and engagements with people and place. The region was clearly experiencing a steady decline and beset by economic and social problems, particularly social isolation of the elderly who could no longer work the fields. As Kitagawa writes on the Triennial website: “The artworks created in rice paddies, abandoned houses, and closed schools by collaboration and exchanges between local residents and urban supporters, artists and the Satoyama nature, elderly people and young people have told us the endeavours of our ancestors who have been engaged in the earth through agriculture and brought many people sympathy with Echigo-Tsumari full of local elderly people’s smiles.” The relational dimensions of artmaking and exhibition have primacy: “in Echigo-Tsumari, in the creation of a work an artist is obliged to communicate with others”. For the Kitagawa this means a new iteration of the concept ‘Civil’ where art mediates between ‘place and people’, ‘people and people’.
I’m not sure what is happening with SCAPE. I am aware that the event organisers – and hopefully the Christchurch community – are celebrating the survival of several of their commissioned works: “Despite the difficult road ahead towards recovering the inner city let us look to these works of art as beacons of hope shining through the rubble.” The March incarnation of SCAPE was originally intended to open in September 2010 when an earthquake struck. So the loss is doubled, just as the effort to rebuild is redoubled. Bob Blyth, Art & Industry Biennial Trust, Chairman said on the website “While the challenges facing Christchurch in the rebuild are enormous, the Art & Industry Biennial Trust (producers of SCAPE) remains committed to helping deliver significant public works of art for the new central city. At an appropriate time the Trust will work with other organisations to ensure that public works of art continue to have a key place in public buildings and open spaces, following on a tradition of more than 100 years of public art in the city.” Note that SCAPE is selling a t-shirt to raise funds for earthquake recovery. The event continues to communicate sporadically via its facebook page and several artists, including Australian Ash Keating, are continuing to engage with the recovery efforts and cultural programming. Keating’s project, Gardensity, proposes an approach to urban development and dialogue about renewal. In her moving blog post, Director Deborah McCormick talks of rebuilding the organisation and its program, signing off with ‘Kia kaha’ (forever strong).
Clearly, these events are ‘doing something’ for art and for recovery beyond the repartee of creative cities and the culture industry; beyond normative ideas about biennial models. They express a belief in the future and fill the space of the bereft with a poetics or poiesis (making). Mathieu Helie says “A creative city is not goal oriented. Not only does it make little plans, it makes millions of little plans. It is adrift looking for its next opportunity. It is not made by an architect, but cultivated by its people”. Yank refers to the coalescence of a ‘post-disaster art movement’ while Ferguson, Greenberg & Nairne argue for a “more specific and sustained engagement with communities and audiences, creating meaning beyond the spectacular and mere festivalising of such occasions, may produce a new genre of exhibition”. Cultural capital is mobilised at a number of levels – across industry, city and community – catalysing rebonding where bonds had been broken. These examples evoke some ideas about responsibility, the sort of responsibility that Scott McQuire and Nikos Papastergiadis describe as a necessity to “take an active role in constituting new social relationships, providing a matrix of new modes of inclusion and forms of collaboration that might counterpoint the extension of commodity production into the interstices of everyday life”. These examples, along with those events attentive to regional agendas, evince the biennial as multiple and multiplying, produced and producing, not just a replicated meme – it is in situ, a platform for gathering and exchanging – and, as such, warrants ongoing interrogation and contestation.