The artist as disruptor

Early in my practice I saw the arts as an effective vehicle to have impact beyond the gallery, theatre and performance space so I started to negotiate a very fine balance between making art that exists for my own pleasure and making art that engages with people and place in an ethical way.

Image: Documentation from SunRice - A Night of Wonder. Photo: Mayu Kanamori

Early in my practice I saw the arts as an effective vehicle to have impact beyond the gallery, theatre and performance space so I started to negotiate a very fine balance between making art that exists for my own pleasure and making art that engages with people and place in an ethical way.

The success of this led to deeper thinking about how we can manoeuvre our practice to infiltrate day to day thinking. How we can share this ability to generate honest and clear communication through the process of our arts generation just as much as through its final outcome.

If we break down society into different sectors such as business, health, education and immigration, then consider the immense impact that these sectors have on people's lives, then it becomes a fascinating proposition to base our arts practice within them.

One way we structured our practice was through The Cad Factory. Our organisation's vision statement reads “The Cad Factory is an artist led organisation with an international program of new, immersive and experimental work guided by authentic exchange, ethical principles, people and place”.

Every word within this vision statement has been thoughtfully considered but the words that stick out for me are authentic, ethical, people and place. These words are intrinsic to all of our thinking, programming, creation and relationships. Our vision statement has been defined by our arts practice, not the other way around.

In 2013 we created the Cad Factory and SunRice Contemporary Arts Partnership. In order to develop this relationship, I looked through SunRice’s business plan and vision statement and could see that so much of it relied on communication and on relationships between people and communities. So it was very easy to provide an evidence based argument to create a contemporary arts project that satisfied areas of the organisation's business plan whilst at the same time remaining 100% loyal to experimental, contemporary arts practice and to the various people involved.

We invited Japan based artist Iwai Shigeaki and Sydney-based artists Mayu Kanamori and myself to work with the staff in the rice mill and the surrounding community to undertaking a long term exploration of their place. Our negotiation with SunRice in developing the program relied on one important factor, that staff would be allowed to participate in workshops during work time. The Rice Mill runs 24 hours a day, so we were spending time during the day and overnight working with staff during their long shifts while they were being paid.

It was a slow journey, the staff never having been exposed to our type of art making before and us wanting to have meaningful impact that grew from something relevant to those people.

Eventually, our impact was profound. From Management we received stories of workers being more engaged in the work place, accompanied by an increase in workplace morale. From the workers who were hesitant at first, slowly they become intrigued by our process, participating and directing the course of things as well as participating in long conversations about themselves.

We made a series of experimental contemporary performances and installations, winning the town’s Event of the Year award and we even managed to make practical changes such as the date that staff could change from winter to summer uniform in their hot rice mill. Following the project we were contacted by Murrumbidgee health to say that they had been trying to persuade SunRice to allow them to come in and give free health checks to staff. SunRice had always declined but after our project they agreed. The staff at Murrumbidgee Health believed our project opened up SunRice’s thinking.

View SunRice documentationmade by RealTime Magazine here.

After SunRice, we worked on a project called Yenda Rain, that worked with the community of Yenda following a major flood disaster from which the town was still recovering. This involved a year of working on and off with the local community, businesses, school groups, sports groups and individual families. After the initial emergency response, and after all the aid agencies had left, the community was left on its own, both to process what had just happened and work on the recovery process. So the role of the artist became about how to bridge this gap and how to aid this recovery.

This project empowered local community members with the opportunity to have a voice again and provided a chance for them to come together around something positive, moving forward. This project shows the role that the arts can play in trauma recovery, how artistic process can uncover and highlight practical needs within a community as well as allowing understanding and re-imaging.

View the Yenda Rain exhibition catalogue here.

During 2015 I made several trips to the UK to work with Clive Parkinson and Vicky Charnock at the Alder Hey Children’s Hospital, Liverpool. This was part of my Arts NSW Fellowship to work with Arts and Health. Arts and health programs are very established there so I was able to infiltrate the deepest recesses of the hospital, from visiting with families during their MRI scans, spending night shifts in Intensive Care wards, recording sound and vision and talking to staff and families. I conducted workshops with patients and visited nearly every department of the hospital during my time there.

We are creating an ongoing project that considers noise levels in hospitals, looking at the research that shows that no hospital has met the Word Health Organisation's guidelines for noise levels in clinical environments. The research outlines the adverse effects that noise has on healing for patients as well as its impact on staff and I am being allowed to turn the artist's mind to the problem, in collaboration with health professionals.

View Vic's blog from his two week residency at Alder Hay Children’s Hospital, Liverpool UK.

This type of thinking about the value of the arts and role of the artist plays out across many different sectors:

By partnering with museums, we enable new ways for our past to be understood with the hope that this leads to new innovative thinking for the future.

By partnering with business, our motivation does not lie in increasing profit margins; our motivation is for the worker, the associated communities and the value they place within themselves.

By partnering with health we help to navigate a complex relationship between the need for direct medical science to guide and a need to satisfy emotional healing.

By partnering with education we show the arts as a tool that is effective in learning across all subject areas, not just the arts. We use the arts to help students engage with the education system, increasing 'on task' time and becoming a great tool for working with students who are at risk.

And on top of all that, we are creating new arts audiences.

We understand the arts sector as a multi-faceted ecology within itself, but it doesn’t stand alone, separate from the real world. The journey in partnering with non-arts organisations and embedding practising artists within functioning, operational locations is fascinating. You are met with diverse reactions when you enter a foundry, a hospital, a factory, a museum, a community. These range from enthusiastic listening, eager questioning and praise, to glossed over eyes, distant stares, grunts and even the occasional “fuck you”.

In order to navigate these reactions, we have to accept them as being real and legitimate reactions. Our challenge is to then turn them around through the course of our project. This has been the success of The Cad Factory to date, in accepting these reactions as legitimate then working slowly with those people to change it.

If I want my arts practice to comment on something that I don’t agree with, or something that I want changed, I don’t want to make that comment within a gallery of like minded contemporaries. I want to make it within the very structure that I want to change.

Vic McEwan

Vic was the 2014-15 Arts NSW Regional Arts Fellow, the 2015 Artist in Residence at the National Museum of Australia and he sits on the State Leadership Group for Arts and Health which advises on the development of Arts and Health in Australia. He is the co-founder and Artistic Director of The Cad Factory, a regionally based multidisciplinary arts organisation.