A Beautiful Laboratory

Eleanor Zeichner

The last few decades have given rise to the kind of art it’s hard to fit into an institutional mould. When we try to define it: open-ended, research-driven, ephemeral, time-based, interdisciplinary – it can feel prescriptive and crude, like wearing someone else’s contact lenses.

In response, a wave of non-institutional festivals have themselves emerged in the Australian cultural landscape to provide a space for those artists to present that work beyond a place of definition, to undergo creative collaborations, to experiment with prototypes and take risks. Festivals such as Underbelly Arts, Next Wave, SafARI and This is Not Art not only facilitate creative exchange and support the work of emerging artists, but also produce experimental forms of development and presentation, often in a precarious funding environment. They share a dedication to the open call for submissions, a devotion to the incubation of emerging artistic talent and opportunity for emerging curators and producers, and a commitment to exposing that work in public space and to new audiences. They are themselves a hybrid form, a reaction or provocation to institutional definition, and a prototype to be tested not only for its capacity to support experimentation, but also for its ability to self-sustain and uphold viability.

The recently concluded This is Not Art is an early example. Founded in Newcastle in 1998 to provide space and time for young writers and new media artists to show their work, it has morphed and shifted over its sixteen year history. Taking in a changing cast of sub-festivals, its very name speaks to its hybridity and lack of allegiance to traditional definitions. The sub-festival I work on, Critical Animals, presents experimental research and provides a critical counterpoint to National Young Writers Festival, Crack Theatre and Electrofringe. A changing rotation of artistic directors and producers across the sub-festivals ensures a continual renewal and shifting of focus, allowing for new strands to emerge and develop.  Electrofringe, having taken a year-long hiatus in 2012, returned this year with a renewed commitment to raising the profile of electronic art in Australia. As a one-day interactive showcase at Hunter St TAFE, artists were present in the space to activate their work, engage with audiences, undertake performances and workshops, and allow for spontaneous collaborations to arise.  Artistic co-producer Roslyn Helper explains, “Taking creative risks and maintaining a viable festival are by no means mutually exclusive aims…. The benefit of being a small organisation is that we are flexible and able to respond to the artworks and artforms we represent.”1

Underbelly Arts was founded in Sydney in 2007 as a direct response to the kind of experimental work being made that otherwise might not find public exposure, and to give those artists opportunity to respond to new environments and situations. “We try really hard to make sure that we establish a framework where artists can take risks, and are constantly looking for ways to facilitate that experimentation,” explains artistic director Eliza Sarlos, “and I think were that to change then we would lose what’s interesting to both artists and audiences about what we do”2.

Its Lab program offers an intensive site-specific residency which allows the participating artists to develop works in situ with the support of a production manager and a technical crew. The Lab is open to the public, and as unintentional but welcome side-effect, many Lab projects this year were predicated on audience participation for development. This year’s presentation, held in August, saw the festival return to Cockatoo Island and expanded to two days, and many artist projects focused on the island’s unique history – Eve Klein’s Seeds: An Opera in Minature, Ghosts of Biloela presented by Creative Non-Fiction, and Stations of the Southern Cross by Applespiel among them.  Cockatoo Island, a former convict prison and industrial shipyard in Sydney’s harbour, has been repositioned in the last decade as a site for cultural events and is a key venue for the Biennale of Sydney.

These works were all developed under the Lab model, and all three received direct support via a strategic crowd-funding campaign. The campaign directly supported the development of eight projects by matching contributions via Pozible with dollar-for-dollar funding via the Kier Foundation, a private philanthropy organisation with a particular focus in supporting emerging practitioners. This turbo-charged support allowed artists to work at a greater scale than would otherwise be possible, and Underbelly Arts received the Creative Partnerships Philanthropy Program Award in recognition of the innovation of the initiative.

While crowd-funding isn’t exactly a sustainable model for the ongoing viability of a festival (or an independent government body for that matter), it at least plugs a gap between reliance on in-kind venue support, private philanthropy or support from funding bodies, all of which can be precarious or simply fall short of the target. If nothing else, it engenders a sense of loyalty to the success of the project on the part of the supporter. This kind of direct-impact support also indicates a commitment to the nurturing of specific artist talent that is an increasing strategic priority for these festivals, which give significant energy toward development outside the festival format.

Next Wave is just that success story, an example of best practice on how to use the system to your advantage while allowing for responsiveness and change. Founded in Melbourne in 1984, it has always been dedicated to nurturing emerging practice, before there were even official channels through which to do so. Next Wave were recently granted triennial funding as an emerging key organisation via the Australia Council for the Arts, and works with the funding body as the industry partner for the JUMP Mentoring Initiative, which supports emerging artists to work with mentors from their disciplines.

Since 1998 Next Wave has run the Kickstart program, a unique development initiative that supports selected artists for up to a year before their presentation at festival-level. They’re offered mentorship opportunities and workshops on marketing, promotion, financial management and how to make their practice sustainable. Beyond that professional development support is the less tangible but completely crucial guidance of a dedicated Associate Producer. This is the “the most extraordinary and important part of the program,”4 according to artistic director Emily Sexton. As she explains, “tailored, dedicated support for emerging artists to realise big ideas is extremely rare. And it’s particularly accommodating of difference; whether that’s cultural, or based in artform history and training. This happens over an 18 month period, which is a long development time for many emerging artists.”5 Given the longevity and high profile of the festival, Sexton also cautions that a balance must be struck to allow artists to make discoveries on their own without the pressure of producing work for the spotlight.  Next Wave tempers this by emphasising the innovation of the emerging cohort rather than individual artists, in order to enable them to ‘explore radical ideas to their fullest potential’.6

SafARI was founded in 2004 as a fringe event to the Biennale of Sydney, to give international visitors insight into the emerging practice also present in the Australian arts landscape, and presents work in the artist-run spaces of Sydney. Their next iteration in March 2014, which was shifted to fit with the Biennale date change, sees the development of a new emphasis in the festival’s focus.  In response to an increased local engagement with performative practice, SafARI LIVE will showcase the work of seven Sydney-based artists and collectives. While it’s not as though live art or performance has been absent from previous iterations of the festival, this titling places a framework around this focus, and allows the festival to tap into valuable local networks. Their responsiveness to the work produced by the sector, via the open submission process and initiatives like SafARI LIVE alike, allows for threads and themes to emerge, emphasising diversity and accessibility to audiences.7

This direct engagement with artists follows through to their organisational structure. 2014 co-curator Christiane Statham-Keys credits the stability of SafARI as a model with the consistency of its board and the involvement of past participants. Founder Lisa Corsi remains the president of the board, and the rest is of made up of artists and curators who’ve previously been involved, forming a brains trust of institutional memory. “The presence of emerging (and, increasingly, established) artists at Board level also helps us to keep their thoughts and needs at the forefront of our minds – they know the difficulties and challenges faced by emerging artists in Australia”.

This empathy with the challenges of producing emerging and experimental art and a commitment to a culture of creative risk-taking is at the heart of the mission of festivals such as these. Spaces for the presentation of experimental art are made via innovation and experimentation, via creative partnerships and collaboration, and via sheer determination – by the same strategies employed by the artists to produce that work. Ultimately, the quality and diversity of presentation opportunities is due directly to the quality and diversity of current art practice itself, and as long as that practice continues to develop and expand, so too will the spaces reach up to meet it.


1.  Email correspondence with the author, 10 October 2013.
2.  Email correspondence with the author, 11 October 2013.
3.  Arts Hub, “Creative partnerships awarded across Australia”, http://www.artshub.com.au/news-article/news/all-arts/creative-partnerships-awarded-across-australia-196611.  Accessed 3 October 2013.
4.  Email correspondence with the author, 11 October 2013.
5.  Ibid.
Email correspondence with the author, 9 October 2013. 

Eleanor Zeichner is a writer interested in the intersections of performance, fiction and visual arts practice. She is currently Assistant Curator of UTS Gallery. From 2013-14...


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