Ushering in some more canards ~ theatre notes

Friday, November 30, 2007

Ushering in some more canards

I don't believe it. Robin Usher is at it again - there he is today in the Age's opinion pages (interestingly, not the arts pages), urging the government to set guidelines for the Melbourne Festival to stop dangerous art from erupting here at festival time.

"Is (the festival)," thunders Usher, "supposed to be an exploration of cutting-edge contemporary works or a more rounded presentation of the best acts available from around the world and locally?" I'm not sure why these two things are mutually incompatible, but there we are. Anyway, which is enough to send a shiver down any aesthete's spine, Usher predictably regards new artistic director Brett Sheehy as a "safe and sure pair of hands". Though I ought to add that it's not fair to judge Sheehy through Usher's glasses.

In a startlingly mean-minded attack on the present artistic director Kristy Edmunds, Usher goes on to work the familiar canards - that the 2005 and 2006 festivals were no good (TN and many others thought 2005 was the most exciting for years), that Edmunds is underqualified and knows nothing about classical music, that the festival "ignores an affluent segment of Melbourne's culture lovers". He even - scandalously - hints that Edmunds is only interested in contemporary dance because her partner is dancer Ros Warby. And he carefully doesn't mention that MIAF 2007 was both a critical and sell-out success.

The problem with Usher's criticisms is that they have never borne much connection to things like actual programming, or even facts. Where he claims that Edmunds changed course in her tenure, I see a singular evolving vision. Where he claims that the festival was "elitist", I saw enthusiastic audiences across a very various demographic. During Edmunds' first festival, which nobody was said to attend, I was astounded by how many queues I hand to stand in to get into theatres.

As for those "fringey" acts; well, the fact that Usher hasn't heard of an artist doesn't mean that he or she isn't internationally famous. This is the senior arts reporter who didn't know that the Avignon Festival is the biggest theatre festival in Europe, and had to ask how to spell "Avignon".

He brings up John Truscott again as part of the festival's "tradition". The thing is, I agree with Usher that Truscott was a great festival director. It's just that I think Edmunds is in the same tradition. Like Edmunds, he strongly supported local artists and brought in the most exciting "cutting edge" work (I see Usher is at least avoiding the word "fringe") from around the world.

And Truscott - for all the holiness of his memory, now he's safely in the past - was beaten around the ears for it by the grinches, just as Edmunds is being beaten now.

Usher's solution to the dangerous art problem is that the State Government introduce "guidelines" to stop the festival being at the "whim" of every blow-in director. Aside from the absurdity of the suggestion - what does he mean? Thou Shalt Program Carmen Every Festival Or Else? - it's unbelievable that any arts commentator should be seriously calling for state-sanctioned art. Yes, there's a tradition here too - ever heard of Stalin?

UPDATE: Ming-Zhu swings in with the observation that it's all so old and stinky and that her peers complain that MIAF is too full of Grand Masters. "What do you hope to achieve?" asks the redoutable Ming. "Melbourne as a silent pocket of doddering biddies dwelling eternally somewhere in the late nineteenth-century? One of the biggest problems with that idea, Mister Usher, is that I reckon that there are whole, affluent packs of doddering old biddies out there already who quite frankly can't get enough of Jan Fabre, Romeo Castellucci, Jerôme Bel, Forced Entertainment, The Sound Art Limo, or Sankai Juku..."


Anonymous said...

Two things:
First thing: When Robin interviews he doesn't use a recording device, simply jotting down what he hears, this means that interviews he conducts and which get printed often completely mis-quote the subject of the interview...I wonder if I am alone in being shocked by what I said appearing in the paper as something else entirely...I mean, when the words does and doesn't get substituted for each other, there is surely a problem.

Second thing, in two parts.
The best things about having Kristy Edmunds as festival director are:
1. The programming of work that doesn't just make all refugees poor sorry innocent victims (le Dernier Caravansereil) (did I spell that right?). Unlike in Melbourne, where us lefty wankers make shows about refugees and they are all so damn holier than thou - now apart from the fact of whether they are or not, the fact remains that there are reasons our masters do what they do in regard to so called illegal immigrants, but the fact is, most people agree(d) (c'ya johnny) with the prevailing wisdom - my point being that nothing changes and art that just makes a case for victimhood and 'how could we' ignores the facts of the world, ie; yes, immigrants, especially those going through all levels of shite to find a better life, are in need, but to paint them ALL as poor souls lost at sea ignores the fact that this doesn't change anything. So, in pracie, Kristy has brought us work from around the world that explores issues that we also deal with here, and which give us not just pat leftie whingings, but some food for thought and art that offers solutions, or at the very least explores the material in enough depth that we have no option but to think. The best thing about this of course is in the case of that particula show, it was an amazing show, it was an amazing production, it was sold out, and it will be impossible to forget that final night curtain call (times a million). This is what Robin is railing against?

2. The introduction of the artist card has been a wonder. How long did it take for the festival to appreciate that us artists by and large can't really afford that expensive stuff. This is the legacy of Kristy Edmunds and it is a winning thing.

Alison Croggon said...

I have to say that I too don't use recording devices when I interview. I drag out my rusty shorthand and a notebook. (I was, I'll have you know, a star at shorthand in my youth, I bet that surprises you all). I've never trusted recorders. But I hope I don't misquote people.

And quite right on points 1 & 2. One thing about the best work that Edmunds has championed - it has never been about scoring simplistic ideological points.

Anonymous said...

I use an old fashioned casstte tape recorder for interviews. But, getting back to the main issue. Usher is sounding more and more like an angry old opera queen. All this ballyhoo about 'classical art forms', 'opera', 'symphony concerts' without specifying any aspect of the broad scope of practice is giving even conservative purists a bad name.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for pointing to this, Alison. I got so disturbed and confused that I had to repsond to it over at mine.

You know - it's so OLD! I mean, who actually believes this shit anymore!?

Alison Croggon said...

Hi LMC - It is ballyhoo (and balderdash and all those other lovely words). And, you know, argumentative as I am, I much prefer to respect my adversaries, and to have something to argue with. It's much more fun. If Usher showed a genuine passion for the artforms he claims to be defending (and a knowledge concomitant with his experience), he mightn't get so badly up my nose...

Anonymous said...

This is a funny country. On the one hand, such a vast potential for careless artistic and intellectual curiosity while on the other, such an immense reservoir of insistent mediocrity. The most curious thing is how everyone gets along, instead of the country, you know, exploding into two warring fronts.

I understand that everyone in Australia is a bit starved when it comes to international art guests because, due to our advantageous geography, it costs an arm and a leg to get here. So those symphony orchestra guys may feel as sad about the international tours missed as we do about not being able to follow the entire Tragedia Endogonidia as it unfolds around the place. Perhaps having two festivals would even things out a little bit: an exciting festival of new theatre for those in the know, and a Festival For The Little People. (Which might just set off that civil war.)

But, let's seriously proclaim Usher the Bolt of the arts scene. I mean, Romeo Castellucci was first featured at an arts festival in Croatia in 1989! That's nineteen eighty-nine! Certainly they've established a name by now...

I'm always hoping that a MIAF will bring some of the wonderful Belgian dance/performance stuff, but it's not a serious wish. And it would be way too happenin' for an audience member like Usher. Our pop music may be contemporary, but we want our art dead! Or sumfink.

Chris Boyd said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

If you're going to invite anybody from Belgium to MIAF, I highly recommend Jan Fabre's group Troublyn -- their I Am Blood here in the US last year was a fine piece of work. And might get Usher's blood boiling, too.

George Hunka

Anonymous said...

George, we actually had I Am Blood in Melbourne about three (was it?) festivals ago... caused much division in the ranks (I personally thought it was astounding, for what it's worth)... I believe that the programming of I Am Blood was one of the major pointy things used to attack Robyn Archer for her curatorial decisions that year. The phrase, "I Am Bloody Awful" I can remember being bandied for quite some time. And sadly, there you have it.

Alison Croggon said...

The terrible thing is that Usher uses the same arguments against Kristy Edmunds. They bang on about her being from Portland, Oregon, in a way that almost makes you want to declare class war, and both make snide comments about her personal life to discredit her. And of course both claim that the festival makes no money and share a longing for unspecified artistic tradition... I just keep hoping the Usherbolt monster has had its day, but it's time that its bluff was called.

At least Usher has come clean. Last year he was attacking the festival for being too "elite", but now it's bad because it's not elite enough (those affluent arts consumers he refers to). His argument has always been about protecting a certain kind of privilege. Maybe he didn't like seeing all those quivering-with-excitement Sigur Ros fans at Merce Cunningham, all around 20 and with interesting hairstyles. Not the kind of person we want to see at the State Theatre?

Alison Croggon said...

PS George, Jan Fabre was the last time there were calls for "guidelines" to stop people being exposed to shocking art.

It's the old convict/police divide, I'm afraid. You have to remember that Australia is the only nation that was founded as a bureaucracy.

Anonymous said...

Well, here in America we don't do that. Instead, we make them stage their shows in New Jersey, at Montclair State College, as Fabre did when he was here. Just as effective in keeping people away, really.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps Robin Usher and the arts editor at The Age would prefer to take up once again their cause for Joanna Murray Smith. Since her latest effort has been abruptly cancelled in the States while still out of town before even making it to NY, no doubt that can be blamed on the Robyn Nevin conspiracy as well...

Chris Boyd said...

All these pesky Belgians! I've got a feeling that Wim worked for Jan Fabre for a coupla years before founding Ultima Vez.

George you'll understand this (as one all-too-familar with the workings of that most politicised of funding bodies, the NEA) it's better to fight winnable fights. You can win a fight over Robert Mapplethorpe, but you're up against it if you start the brawl over, say, Andres Serrano.

Nobody wanted to step up to the plate over Je Suis Sang in 2003. And I don't blame them.

Billy Forsythe seemed to escape the shitstorm when he restaged his 1995 work Eidos: Telos in Melbourne a few weeks after 9/11. (It was always pretty full on, but they cranked up the anger and abuse to 11.)

I'm not sure why the 'establishment' didn't spit it, then. (Except for the dismay that there were no warnings that the show was absolutely unsuitable for bunhead babies, there was hardly a peep.) Praps cos the company was Ballett Frankfurt, the most distinguished ballet company of the last few decades.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes you don't know what fights are winnable until you fight them, Chris. In the case of Je Suis Sang and works like it, if one finds it beautiful (and therefore necessary), as I did, isn't it worth fighting for, regardless of the stature of the creator?

There's nothing in Je Suis Sang (at least in the version I saw) that reaches the cruelty of sexuality and violence in most Quentin Tarantino films. Of course, Tarantino isn't the direct recipient of public subsidy; the capitalist argument goes that if Warner Bros. or whoever produces his work can sell it at the marketplace, well, censorship be damned. But the public does support Tarantino through ticket sales, DVD rentals, etc. And some of that money, too, is funnelled through the producer to fund other work that Tarantino fans might not care for.

This all comes down to the role of an arts ministry that seeks to subsidise this less mainstream work. The ministry can either act as a helpmeet to artists who are expanding the borders of what is possible and acceptable in art or act as a protector of public morality. I would say that the latter is a far more questionable role for an arts minister than the former.

The public funding/private funding dichotomy is far from simple. But it's not the job of arts ministers to defend public morality or protect public eyes and ears from disturbing work. And again, I'll insist that a fight for beauty, admittedly a subjective quality, is worth fighting. Otherwise ugliness -- and Quentin Tarantino -- wins.

jana p said...

Boyd, (I'm pleased to inspire swearing in public spaces at any time,) you've just made me realise that the Melbourne Arts Festival website doesn't have a program archive! This is not merely unforgivable. It's significant because it means MIAF is simply a 2007 thing; understood merely as an event, something that matters only this year, rather than an institution, a program, something with a beginning, progress, evolution.

Is there anywhere one can find out what the past MIAF programs were (apart from your famous archive, Chris)?

Chris Boyd said...

Shame, MIAF, shame!

The only one I can think of, Jana, is an appendix to Paul Clarkson's book 1986-2005: the first 20 years.

Oh, and George, I didn't mean to suggest that Jan Fabre wasn't worth defending, just that work. And, FWIW, I watch Tarantino films in the same way I watch Itchy and Scratchy.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps Mr Usher could ironically interpret the title of Jan Fabre's latest "I am a Mistake"

Its even conviently in the 'eclectic' section

Anonymous said...

When was the last time anyone actually saw Usher out at a work of contemporary theatre that wasn't at the Arts Centre or (no disrespect intended to Kantor et al) The Malthouse? Or at an Artist Run Initiative?