Risk in the Regional Context

The exploration of emerging art forms is a practice innately embedded with risk. When working in a regional context, particularly with participatory and/or other unconventional art forms, the degree of risk and ability to embrace risk increases significantly. Much of this is due to the unique relationship(s) regionally located artists have with their immediate communities. With rural and regional communities forming the core of our participants and audiences, artists are not presenting work to or in collaboration with regular art-going audiences. The breadth of age, socio-economic and occupational demographics is more expansive than those observed at experimental or indeed most contemporary art events presented by metropolitan counterparts.

Geographic location isolates regional and rural artists and communities from the range of cultural institutions and frequent cultural experiences offered in the metropolis . Cultural experiences for regional and rural residents are predominantly their lived experiences, which are heavily influenced by the idiosyncrasies of place, and the activities that arise from their geographic locations and attendant landscapes. The relational nature of these communities is also a definite characteristic. Relationships are direct, networked, longstanding and often intergenerational.

For artists working in participatory art forms, which can include peer-to-peer collaborations with ‘non-arts’ participants/audiences, it is a region’s culture and its relational qualities that become the creative medium. This immediacy and its heightened social accountability places community at the nexus of experimental and emerging art forms. Such methodology compounds risk. It requires a huge amount of dialogue and nurturing of trust between artists and community collaborators. In addition, there are many balancing acts of ethics, accountability and creative rigor.

As an almost lifelong resident of the South-West Slopes of NSW, my lived experience of the regional has many parallels to those in my immediate community. Having ‘one of their own’ remain in the district and demonstrate a commitment to exploring our shared regional context, has proven to be an immensely important catalyst for community collaboration that embeds experimentation and risk.

This has been reflected through enthusiastic participation and generosity. Without this participation the projects would never eventuate. As an example, in 2006 and 2010 the proprietor of the Junee Railway Roundhouse, a fascinating industrial site combining a locomotive train repair business and railway museum, provided access to his site, staff and an 8-carriage heritage train. This train traversed the district, with installation and performative works specifically commissioned to engage with specific sites and rural communities.

These initiatives led to a commission to present Southern Encounter, another rail oriented project, for the artistic program of the 2012 Regional Arts Australia Conference presented in Goolwa, South Australia. Southern Encounter enabled other artists and myself to further test site and community specific methodologies. The project traversed distinctly different landscapes from the coastal tourist town of Goolwa to the historic inland wheat belt town of Strathalbyn and incorporated participation from the Indigenous Ngarrindjeri community choir, farmers, the SA Working Sheepdog Association, various historical societies and amateur radio enthusiasts.

For the recent ARTLANDS festival in Dubbo, a collective of artists collaborated with the Wagga Wagga and Orana Amatuer Radio Clubs to present Radio Roulette a ‘live’ participatory project exploring ‘Ham’ radio culture. Perhaps one of the first technology based social media communications networks, at 100 years old Ham radio is a technology that is far from obsolete, especially for regional communities and emergency services. Presented as either a durational work or a 45-minute show, ‘Radio Roulette’ paid homage to Ham radio culture with ‘real’ Ham enthusiasts in situ providing audiences with the opportunity to scan and make radio contact around the world. As much as it was an exploration of the act of communication and making contact, this work explored collaborative performance practice with community members (the Hams) appearing as themselves.

The Wired Lab is currently preparing for its biennial Wired Open Day Festival. 2017’s festival will include the ‘agri(culture)’ project incorporating collaborations with rural, farming and Indigenous communities to explore past and emergent agricultural technologies and the rural vernacular. Global population growth, environmental concerns, animal welfare and agricultural practices are contentious and complex issues increasingly discussed yet often misunderstood by the media and the general public. Rather than provide a heavy-handed curatorial narrative of agrarian ‘solutions’ to our worlds problems, the ‘agri(culture)’ project takes the position that ethical considerations are often contingent upon subjective belief systems and interpretation.

In 2017, with a number of partners, The Wired Lab is also planning to convene, Regional Risk Lab which is an opportunity for practitioners working in experimental and emerging art forms to discuss their work with industry peers and for there to be critical and intensive dialogue around artistic rigour in art form and community contexts. Content will explore participatory performative, ephemeral and ‘live’ art approaches through to technological advancements in fields incorporating interdisciplinary arts of sound such as game design, interactive digital media (apps etc), locative media, networked environments, and how these can be transformed to create new artistic experiences that can change the way we engage with art and communities both on and offline.

A distinguishing feature of experimental art forms, and across the above-mentioned projects, is the open ended and exploratory nature of experimentation. The parameters of ‘success’ are beyond traditional analysis frameworks, such as audience attendance figures, the number of individuals to uptake new skills or the amount of new works created. ‘Success’ is now a complex array of processes and outcomes that are multifaceted, experiential and mutually relational to both social/communal and art form contexts.

At best, the peer-to-peer dialogue and exchange between communities and artists establishes continuums for future engagement and creative exploration. From my observation these continuums build confidence, originality and increased cultural self-determination for artists and communities. In regional and rural communities, where their context can be both the subject and form of engagement, this is incredibly powerful.

Sarah Last is an artist and curator with interests in the interdisciplinary arts, the arts of sound, experimental 'live' arts and regionalism. Sarah is the founder and Artistic Director/CEO of ‘The Wired Lab’, an artist-led organisation that specialises in the exploration of emerging and experimental art forms from a rural/regional context, and endeavours to connect communities with the arts in new ways.

Image: Lara Thoms and Glen Walton in Radio Roulette at ARTLANDS, 2016. Courtesy Sarah Last. Photo: Connor Coman-Sargent.