2020 Festival Report: Case Study
AUSTRALIA / INDONESIA / MALAYSIA / TIMOR-LESTE / SINGAPORE
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HuRu-hARa activated the grounds of Melbourne’s Abbotsford Convent with site-specific experimental art, sculpture, video, live music, street art, graffiti, performance, dance and local food.
32 artists from across South East Asia collaborated with 64 local creatives to produce 57 performances ranging from the surprising to the wild, with no two nights the same.
Curated by Indonesian-based Australian artist Thomas Henning, and Malaysian-Australian artists Terrance Conrad and Govin Ruben from TerryandTheCuz, the Convent became space not only for creative experimentation and collaboration, but also an informal artist-run ‘dive bar’ that offered a genuinely alternative festival hub.
Over a 2-week period (Thursday – Sunday, 20 February - 1 March), artists could be seen ‘performing’ by continually working on large-scale installations – adding and changing layers with found materials, from antiques to literal rubbish. It was an experience where cultures and forms, ritual and anarchy, and D.I.Y. met archipelago street culture.
Initially, Henning, Conrad and Ruben discussed one of their on-going collaborations for presentation at Asia TOPA 2020, however Creative Director Stephen Armstrong proposed in a meeting with Thomas Henning that the team’s extensive artistic and cultural connections and the festival ambience provided a unique context for something more generative and bespoke.
The artistic team then defined a concept where artists from across South-East Asia could interact, experiment and develop through cross-cultural collaborations, organic site-specific art and contemporary performance.
To achieve this, Henning brought his experience of the ecology of arts practice in the region, and in particular, an interest in profiling work by artists from Timor Leste – for whom international recognition is frequently a necessary pre-cursor to receiving support at home.
Early in the creative development, the Abbotsford Convent, who had previously hosted work by TerryandTheCuz, was identified as a presentation partner in which to present the work, and Asia TOPA facilitated an introduction to the concept.
With the concept developed, the creative team tested the format in Kuala Lumpur as part of Urbanscapes – Malaysia’s longest-running creative arts festival. A purpose built 40-foot bamboo structure hosted installation art, live performance and refugees who cooked family recipes for audiences while sharing stories of their passage through the region.
With the work tested and refined, attention turned to Asia TOPA 2020, drawing on regional networks to invite artists who would not only reflect the regional artistic excellence and vibrancy, but also who would also fully-embrace the concept. Conrad explained, "We curated an artist because we knew what they would bring, artists who were easy to work with, who wanted to co-create every day, so that no two performances were the same."
Additional curators were engaged providing more local context, Aarti Jadu co-curated with Thomas Victorian sound and performance artists.
The project’s reach was also enhanced by strategic investment by Australia Council’s International Market Development program team, who were keen to see an opportunity for experimental sound practitioners from South East Asia to be profiled within the festival and for them to build stronger connections with their Australian peers.
This enabled the curatorial team to expand their artistic horizons and include additional artists in the program. In addition the Convent secured project funding from Creative Victoria and the Convent’s CEO formed additional partnerships with Cendana from Malaysia and Project 11 from Australia to support further artist involvement.
Connecting artists from Indonesia, Timor Leste, Singapore and Malaysia, HuRu-hARa also offered a platform to feature a broader range of contemporary Australian diaspora artists, a perceived gap by the local arts community in the 2017 festival line-up.
Each night the artist’s individual performances would overlap, and during the course of the season, began to merge and influence each other, creating unique experiences and unrepeatable performances for audiences.
The unexpected directions each performance would take amazed Conrad. One example he recalls featured Japanese, Australian based Butoh artist Yumi Umiumare, who was painted by Indonesian artists as she performed live "She has a practice here, she brought in people and audience members got involved, they became part of it."
The resident artists were also supported by the Convent in their desire to leverage their networks with other Asia TOPA festival artists, as well as connections into Melbourne’s diaspora communities to build momentum for what became a crucible of artistic chaos and celebration.
Risk-taking was central to HuRu-hARa. Convent Producer Natalie Smith said the artists could “revel and excel in the fast and loose nature of performance, improvisation and sporadic program structure.”
Many of the artists commented that they found the organic process an excellent example of the South East Asian approach to artistic practice and being, and that it facilitated genuine collaboration between artists. Rithaudin Abdul Kadir, an artist from Malaysia, describing “the visual art and music of my new friends from Timor Leste and Indonesia gave me colourful and crafty ideas which helped me by enhancing my own moving visual work.”
The experiential and unpredictable nature of the performance posed two significant challenges for the team at Abbotsford Convent:
- Working within the restrictions of a heritage listed space, and
- Communicating and marketing the work to audiences.
“Working within heritage guidelines is hard and tricky”, said Smith, “and this prompts rethinking attaching anything to or leaning up against the walls, the floors can also be delicate”. Henning said that adhering to heritage guidelines “chewed up a lot of energy.”
Solutions were found, for example the artists scoured the local area for hard rubbish to erect as temporary surfaces, and canvases and carpets installed to protect the venue from paint. Henning found himself wishing for the aesthetic of arts practice in Australia from 10 years ago, when “everything was a little bit more lo-fi and in a warehouse.”
The ad hoc nature of programming meant that while traditional marketing campaigns were employed, word-of-mouth built momentum over the season. “We made as much noise as we could through our Instagram account” said Henning, with hype generated from artists and audiences tagging and reposting. In fact, in audience surveys, 60% of respondents said they heard about the event through word-of-mouth.
Many of the featured artists also leveraged their personal networks in Melbourne to promote the event. With such a diverse line-up, promotions also targeted Melbourne’s Asian diaspora communities, with features in multiple languages on radio and in print, as well as employing highly targeted social media profiles to reach local communities who may have already been familiar with the visiting artists.
The experimental nature of the program appealed to a younger audience demographic with over half of all surveyed audience members aged between 26-34 years old. Convent staff noticed that many audience members returned multiple times to see how the space evolved over the season.
“The audience engagement was a delight to watch” said Smith, “as word-of-mouth got out, new people began arriving and audiences grew. New audiences were acquired through their familiarity with the local or international independent artists in the program. Audiences were engaged by listening, dancing and interacting at a social level.”
The level of audience engagement was also felt by the performers.
“The amazing audience who came to HuRu-HARa inspired me to keep doing my art. Positive and encouraging feedback and responses from them really amazed me… Although this is my first ever journey to Australia, I definitely would love to come again.” (visiting artist).
Above all else, HuRu-HARa at the Convent created space within Asia TOPA for local and regional independent experimental artists, who could not otherwise be presented in one of Melbourne’s more traditional theatre spaces.
Many of the artists commented that they made great connections, with some already forming new collaborations beyond Asia TOPA.
- YesNoKlub have invited Rama Parwata (Balinese heritage, Melbourne based) experimental, improvisation sound artist to collaborate with them and have offered to host him in Indonesia. Rama has noted that being involved has culturally impacted his practice and experience of the project.
- Aarti Jadu notes her engagement with the experimental sound artists was very inspiring. She valued her flourishing working relationship with Curator Thomas Henning, as he introduced her to many international artists. She commented that HuRU-hARa was “…daring and unique, and totally different to anything else in the AsiaTOPA program. It voiced a broad denomination and social backgrounds of people attending and involved in the space.”
- Maggie Z experienced many hands on improvisational collaborations with other dance artists and multidisciplinary artists both locally and internationally. She noted that she made many connections (around 10) of which inspired her practice and connected her with more Melbourne artists. She took part in the project as she had the space and time to commit and was open to connecting and working with new artists. She benefitted greatly from collaborating and improvising, and subsequently expanded her artist network.
- Adam Halliwell His experimental music practice has been inspired by being involved, and he is currently scoping out support in Indonesia and collaboration for the future.
- Bridget Chappell/HexTape as an Electronic sound musician feels the experience has developed her practice, she noted that she has travelled to Indonesia only once, but through the experience, she now has plans to spend more time there experimenting with her music.
- Aarti Jadu, curator of Victoria sound and performance artists noted that she has gained feedback from artists she curated in the space. Many had commented that the project was “inspiring, eye-opening”, there was a sense of gratitude for this experience. HuRU-hARa was a facilitated raw radical space. Multiculturalism from the dichotomy of old, heritage and experimental and contemporary.
- Karina Sokowati an emerging sound and performance artist from Indonesia she has increased her online presence and artist profile through being involved in the project, as the project was documented throughout, she has gained video and photography of her work.
- Yumi Umiumare and Takashi Takiguchi commented that “HuRU-hARa project was a unique way of working in Australia, it was not a tokenistic collaboration, and it was genuine. It opened up new avenues for working, living and collaborating. It was a time to really be free and generate material.”
The experimental nature of the project was embraced and supported by the Convent’s programming team.
Surveyed artists found participating in HuRu-HARa to be a very positive experience, in particular noting that:
- performing as part of HuRu-hARa and Asia TOPA a highly positive experience;.
- the event represented the region very well;
- the organic nature of the project was an excellent example of South East Asian artistic practice;
- for local artists, it provided a unique and rare way of working in a genuine collaboration with visiting artists.
HuRU-hARa became an artist’s hub, where other Convent and Asia TOPA artists frequently joined in post-performances. The success of this eclectic artist-led and created space presents an opportunity to explore and curate more artist-to-artist meeting points around events like HuRU-hARa in future Asia TOPA programming.
Henning also believes that the format has potential to tour “I think there is an archipelago-wide audience…it should get out to the Philippines, or Timor or Sumatra, or Hong Kong, basically places where there is that historical knowledge and reinterpreting the way that past is viewed.”
Mathew Lynn – Main image, Gallery images