David Malacari has worked on twenty five arts festivals. He has been Artistic Director of nine! David was at Adelaide Festival for twelve years, Auckland Festival for eight years and Ten Days on the Island for three years.
This is an edited transcript of David’s keynote address at the Australian Events Symposium
The topic of this presentation is inspiration.
How much inspiration is really to be found in what sometimes seems an endless grind of trying to work within budgets, deal with complex logistics and manage difficult people while both worrying about and looking for funding?
I have worked almost exclusively in arts festivals now for nearly thirty years. For the most part I feel incredibly privileged and lucky to have done so.
Inspiration is, for the most part, not something that I consciously think about.
In fact sometimes, when a festival program is finally signed off and seems but a shadow of what I had first imagined, as the reality of costs, magically shrinking budgets and artists unavailability tighten around its vulnerable neck, it’s easy to despair and think that the whole shebang is a failure and that the very notion of inspiration is an enormous conceit.
It’s at that point, where you are mourning the festival that you might have made, that inspiration is often most needed to reconnect with what you have brought together and to trust that, with your instincts and skills, you might still have created a program with something to offer your audiences, that provides some compelling reasons for audiences to engage with the creativity of others and to get something meaningful from that experience.
This presentation has made me pull the notion of inspiration apart a bit, to see what it’s made of.
I don’t believe that an arts festival is, itself, a work of art, though I have heard that argued by some of my colleagues. I believe that the works of art are the program elements that are chosen for the program.
If one hopes that those elements are inspirational, how exactly, is inspiration described in the putting together of the whole program? Is it inspiration that is required to find the right combination of dance, theatre, music and multi-arts, or is my inspiration something else, an excitement about what that program might do to an audience?
Is it the same thing, or something different, from what drives an artist?
Firstly it’s worth remembering that arts festivals don’t really belong to Artistic Directors. Arts Festivals are only entrusted to Festival Directors for safe-keeping, for the time of their tenure, and expected to be handed back, or handed on to the next director, with at least the same reputation as at their time of entrustment.
Arts Festivals actually belong to a very complex and frustrating melange of communities, governments, sponsors, audiences, artists and media. At various times, for various festivals, in various situations, one set of festival owners might be, or seem to be, more important than another.
And yet, the appointment of an Artistic Director to a festival is much more than just appointing a manager. An Artistic Director is expected to have the vision and ideas to create a compelling story for the event’s stakeholders and an Artistic Director has to navigate the sometimes conflicting aspirations of all of its various stakeholders, some of whom want quite different things out of their involvement in the program.
An Artistic Director has to be able to articulate the values and ideas that underpin the program selections they have made.
One way to think of a festival director is as a curator who has to bring a vision to the event, to create a narrative around its program that makes sense to its owners and audiences.
Another way to think is that the director is a representative audience member. I sometimes facetiously say that it’s my job to sit through a lot of crap so that other people don’t have to. Which is both true and not true.
I only started keeping detailed notes of all of the things I see in the theatre in 2009 after going to the Edinburgh Festival. As I sat in the auditorium and the lights went up I realised that I had already seen this show and that I hadn’t liked it the first time. Here I was in Edinburgh sitting through it again when there were many other performances that I could have been experiencing in my limited time there. It was time to stop trusting my memory.
I can now look back at those detailed notes and see that I have sat through over 560 live performances since September 2009, not counting the hundreds of exhibitions I’ve visited; the many live music experiences which I didn’t feel it necessary to diarise, and the countless DVDs, Vimeo and YouTube clips and CDs that have landed on my desk or which have been linked in emails which I have looked at.
Because of these notes I know how many of them were dance, or theatre, or music-theatre, or something I found impossible to categorise. I know how many of them were Chinese, or Argentinian, or French, or were a collaboration between artists in different countries. I know how many I saw in Sydney or Taipei, or Osaka or Bogota and I have given them a rating out of five and made little notes about them as aide-memoirs.
Looking back at those notes I have to say that, while there’s a lot of stuff I have seen that has obviously fallen short of the ambitions of its creators, or which I have really not liked or even, rarely, found objectionable for one reason or another, there been very few occasions when I have wished for that time in my life to be returned to me.
Because, coming back to inspiration, one of the things that inspires me is the adventure of the arts experience itself. It’s this that I want to give to audiences, that creativity is good, regardless of the outcome. I love creativity.
I love that act of an artist who is trying to make an idea make sense to other people.
I have worked on twenty five various arts festivals, of which I have been Artistic Director of nine! If twenty five seems a bit low for thirty years, it’s because I was at Adelaide Festival for twelve years, Auckland Festival for eight years and Ten Days on the Island for three years. Two of these festivals were, until recently, biennial festivals. Ten Days on the Island still is. It’s a long time between drinks for a biennial festival.
In that time I have been lucky enough to see the work of artists all over the world. I have been lucky enough to work with many, many Australian artists, to include their work in my programs, and to support their creative vocations.
I love artists. I love the work they produce. I love it that while some artists are driven by the need to communicate their ideas to audiences, other artists really don’t care if they have an audience or not. One artist may be compelled to communicate; another artist is compelled to produce. One artist works alone in a locked room, another artist is a collaborative creator, who needs other artists to give voice to her work – actors, dancers, singers, musicians.
I admire that many artists are prepared to devote their lives to their art. For many it’s a true vocation in the old sense of the word, like becoming a monk, or a nun, or one of the many occupations that might become a person’s life work for the reason that that is what that person feels compelled to do – regardless of what it might earn them or how it might affect their relationships. A vocation sometimes equals a tunnel vision.
And I don’t mean by this that I think artists are necessarily better people for treading such a path. There is a statistical proportion of arse-holes in any social grouping you care to name, and artists are no different.
And not all artists are vocationally driven. For some it’s just a job.
And not all artists are all that creative. Some artists are employed because of their skills. Which begs the question, are they actually artists, or are they artisans? But that’s a whole other debate which I’m not going to get into now. It’s a Pandora’s Box beyond the remit of this short presentation.
If, on the one side of a coin, what inspires me is the work that I come across and the excitement or emotion I take from a wonderful interaction with art, then the obverse to that coin is making that experience available to an audience.
And this is where it gets tricky. If it’s not my festival, but belongs to audiences, to sponsors, to funding bodies, then my experience or response has to be tempered by what I think that an audience might be able to take from the experience.
Taste is a matter of taste – and one person’s transformation is often another person’s blunt pencil in the eye.
Despite this, I love audiences. We all love audiences. That’s what it’s all about, no matter what type of event you are running.
That’s the goal, to share your event with other people.
For me it is an inspiration to provide audiences with a range of qualitative experiences in what is labelled an arts festival.
How do you tell if you have done it properly or not? Is it my own conceit that is the benchmark? Or is the response of the audience? How many of the audience have to respond? What if only twenty people go, but they all love it? What of the thousands who didn’t go? Why couldn’t we convince more than twenty? Was it the program that kept them away, or was it that we didn’t make a convincing enough case for them to be bothered slotting in this experience in their busy lives as a must-see?
How do you balance the compulsion to share outstanding experiences with as many people as possible against the success of introducing just one person to a performance that changes them; that without the festival, they would never have had the opportunity to experience?
These are questions that I ask myself all the time.
I want to talk about two quite different audience and arts experiences by way of example.
A Vietnamese artist, Ea Sola, has created some moving, pointed and often baffling work which has been presented in arts festivals all over the world. At Auckland Festival we were part of a commissioning cartel of festivals supporting a new work called The White Body. She described it to me when I first met her, as a reflection on colonialism. She asked me if I understood what she meant by the white body. I demonstrated my sometimes prosaic literalism by saying that I thought it was a reference to the skin colour of European colonists. But her artistic rationale was far more complex than that and referred to the way colonists saw colonizers as blank canvases on which they could project their own views of other cultures and how they might change those cultures for their own, the colonists, benefit. I felt like I was listening to someone from another planet, speaking about things which I could scarcely comprehend. I felt like a philistine.
When the work played in Auckland it is fair to say that the audience was in equal parts enthralled, puzzled and outraged, and that they left the theatre searching for clues in their heads, about what they had seen. It was hard to say whether we had just been witness to an astonishing moment of artistry or to an indulgent extrapolation of ideas which we had no way of properly navigating. I really didn’t know what to say to Ea when I went to see her in the dressing room after the performance.
Ea seemed almost grateful that I had come to talk to her at all. Naturally she was very aware of the audience’s confusion. She later told me about a party after the premiere of a new work in Europe at which no-one had talked to her. Not even the festival director who had commissioned the work. However, the next day, following a positive review of in the newspaper, the audience was all over her, the director effusive.
Her interpretation was that the audience and director were fickle – that they wanted to know what the critics thought before committing themselves.
However my interpretation was different. I believe that, when confronted with a performance which was difficult or required further contemplation to properly understand, the audience was at a loss for how to describe it, how even to put in words what they felt. My interpretation was that a critic – a good critic – gave them a vocabulary with which to talk about what they had seen and with which to discuss it.
Much later that night, after the performance, at the festival bar, I overheard some of the Ea Sola audience arguing with each other over what they had seen. They were still talking about it. They were disagreeing with each other. It was fantastic.
I don’t expect or ever hope that everyone is going to like everything that I program. But what I do want is for people to think and to take something away from that experience. I like nothing better than to hear people debating the merits of a show or the meaning of the experience they have just had.
I ask you, how many live performances have you come out of that twenty minutes later have already become a pleasant blip or diversion in your life that you will never think of again? Most of them.
How many performances do you still remember clearly days, or weeks, or even years later? Not very many.
I consider that performance of Ea Sola’s to have been a great artistic success – despite that hardly anyone went to see it. It was a success because, for the people who did see it, it affected the way they thought. And I think, if you asked them today, they would still remember it.
I believe that there is a continuum, an unbroken line, between arts that are very much entertainment at one end of a spectrum and arts that are complex, layered at its other end. Everything sits somewhere on that spectrum.
What inspires me is to try and seduce my audience, through a coherent program, to extend themselves along that continuum, even just a tiny bit further, from the entertainment that might be found in a cabaret night at a Spiegeltent to something that inspires a more complex response. If I can seduce even one person one more step along that path from where they might feel comfortable starting, then I can take some satisfaction, as a Festival Director, from it.
So – at one end of the program there’s Ea Sola and a handful of people arguing in a bar afterwards about what they have seen. I want to talk now briefly about the other end of the program – the end which I hope funnels audiences from entertainment into a more complex relationship with creativity.
In 2007 I presented Groupe F in Auckland. Groupe F is are a renowned French pyrotechnics company – it has put fireworks on the Eiffel Tower, opened lots of major sporting events and buildings, lit up Roman ruins throughout France, had a show in the Palace of Versailles gardens which was an homage to Loui XIV, the Sun King. The company was first brought to Australia by the late David Blenkinsop, long time artistic director of Perth Festival, and I think it fair to say, one of the architects of the modern Australian multi-Arts Festival as we now know it.
More recently Groupe F has been part of Adelaide Festival, this year doing a ticketed fireworks show at Adelaide Oval.
Its Auckland display in 2007 was its first in Australasia since the Perth Festival appearances ten years earlier.
Calling Groupe F a fireworks company does them a terrible disservice. Chrstophe Bertthonneau, the company’s Artistic Director, is a fireworks artist. Does that mean anything to audiences? We all know that audiences love fireworks. Is the bulk of the audience attracted to fire artistry or to see great explosions in the sky?
Whatever it is that brings them, at a Groupe F show they are certainly seeing more than explosions in the sky and spectacular showers of sparks.
The first time I saw the company in Perth, accompanying a free opera recital in the Supreme Court Gardens, I was immediately seduced by the limited colour palette they used. White and blue, as I recall, and I knew I wasn’t watching fireworks, I was watching fire art. It was simpler than any fireworks I had ever seen but it was intensely beautiful in its simplicity.
As anyone knows, outdoor work is risky. There’s always the weather. The difference between an okay show and a fantastic event might come down to two or three degrees temperature, a few kilometres an hour of wind, and the likelihood or not of serious rain. In Auckland, in the land of the long, dirty grey cloud, it rains a lot. So the risk was high.
Though we had a team collectively very experienced in events, nothing like this had ever been done in Auckland before. Our planning was based on advice and predictions that around 60,000 people might come, and the media would call it 100,000 and everyone would say it was a great night, if the weather held.
It was held on the same day as Pasifika, itself a huge Auckland daytime event which attracts enormous crowds and celebrates the many nations of the South Pacific. That day there was also a rugby match, and the Auckland Boat Show. The Domain, the largest public space in the city, started filling up from around mid-day. By late afternoon it appeared to be already full.
Late in the day, as Pasifika closed, a helicopter traffic reporter exclaimed excitedly that everyone from Pasifika was heading to the Domain to see Groupe F. But the crowd already disappeared as far as one could see, under the tress, up side streets. We had no idea how any more people could possibly fit. The police had refused our request to close the adjacent roads, but their refusal had become academic as the pressure of the crowds backing up into the surrounding areas closed the roads anyway. This was bigger than anything that we could have imagined.
Later we estimated a crowd of around 130,000. The police estimated a crowd of over 200,000 and our sponsors estimated the crowd at over 300,000! I’ll take any figure! What is clear from those figures was that no-one could remember seeing anything like it in Auckland before.
And it was fantastic. Everything I had hoped it would be. But how lucky were we? As the fireworks performance went on, with rockets fired from the roof of the Auckland Museum, and costumed gladiators appearing out of the trees with fire erupting from spinning Catherine wheels on their backs and rows of gas cannons exploding in sequence, and dense eruptions of white sparks creating a curtain of fire behind the live musicians who accompanied the spectacle, unbeknownst to the crowd, the wind slowly got stronger and changed direction. We learned later that the Company held back on their two biggest shells, concerned that there would be burning fall-out over the crowd, but even so, burning embers drifted down, mostly on the VIP area at the front, where there was much excitement as they were brushed off clothes and swatted out.
At the very end, after it was all over, I was relieved and alarmed to see a woman with bright red hair leaving the VIP area with a piece of half burnt cardboard stuck in her voluminous frizzy curls which clearly had the word ‘pyrotechnic’ written on it. I hope that she had collected it and put it in her hair for decoration, and that it didn’t land there.
Because of the unexpected attendance we were completely under-resourced for rubbish, for toilets, for security, for First Aid – and yet we had a fantastically well behaved crowd, with no bad incidents, on a beautiful balmy night all involved in the communal enjoyment of a work of unparalleled artistry.
One of my Board members, an Auckland City Councillor, later said, in relation to the conjunction of so many events happening on the same day in Auckland – that we must never let that happen again. But the point was, the excitement was, that there were so many events on that day and that the city felt like it was just going off. It was a great day for Auckland.
At midnight that night a weather front came through. If we had scheduled the next day we would have had to cancel. It rained for the next week. It was so windy that it rained horizontally. Our Spiegeltent area became a windswept plaza of overturned plastic tables and chairs and posters flapping on cyclone wire fences. We were very lucky with the weather.
How do you follow up something like that? The Board wanted me to find something similar the following festival. Why not repeat such an astonishing success?
I was very reluctant. For one I suddenly became very risk averse in relation to the weather, I was concerned about the amount of programming money that was invested in that one event that could have been a complete fizzer. And, on artistic grounds, I had done that. I had given people that experience. Surely my job was to give them a different experience the following year.
From an artistic point of view the next festival should be looking at other, unexpected, creative engagements for its audience.
But was this even possible? Or affordable? 130,000 people? These events don’t grow on trees. The artistry behind spectacles such as those provided by Groupe F, or Royal Deluxe’s puppets, which were so huge in Perth a couple of years ago is rare and precious and, at an arts festival, where one of the motivating principles, is to introduce audiences to new experiences, bringing back artists time and time again to repeat the successes and experiences of their previous visit, seems like avoiding the challenge of using art to extend thinking, to extend experience, to dig further into the rich soil of creativity.
Well, as a coda, at the next festival I decided to create a South Pacific Sing Sing. The mixing of the Nesias, I called it. The bringing together of Melanesian and Polynesian artists in joyous free-concert that spoke to the South Pacific part of Auckland’s amazing diversity. It would be a more intimate affair than a fireworks shows for hundreds of thousands, but still a large, free and public event.
We resolved to block Queen St with a stage and run a program of music all afternoon with the Sing Sing concert scheduled for the evening.
How many people were going to come? This time we hoped for around 10,000 but rather than worrying that not enough people would come, we were now petrified that we would get the figures wrong and that tens of thousands might turn up. As a result both the Festival and Auckland City Council took a very modest approach to marketing and publicising the concert. It was such a modest approach that we hardly marketed it, or publicised it at all.
You can guess the outcome. It was a blustery cold day. Had we repeated the Groupe F event of two years earlier we would have had to cancel. It would have been a total and expensive disaster. As it was a few thousand people braved the cold wind and early rain to enjoy the Sing Sing which, though wonderful enough, was on a completely different scale to what we had last done.
Because that’s another thing with arts festivals, that is a bit different from other events. Arts festivals are about the art, and art isn’t always successful, or what you think it’s going to be. Art doesn’t always deliver on its ambitions, no matter how hard it tries.
Artists have to be allowed to fail. That’s how creativity goes forward. The path to great ideas is paved with ambitions that fell short.
My inspiration, my love of artists, my love of audiences, is finally wrapped up into a compulsion that I want to normalise, for as many people as possible, the notion of engaging with creativity in the arts. It’s the challenge of audience development. To see every show, every exhibition, every concert, every production, as an artistic adventure for its audience and to encourage an appreciation of that adventure, whatever its critical outcome might be.
I love this job. It’s frustrating, it’s challenging and it sometimes doesn’t work out, but when it does, when someone has an experience that they had never imagined, because they had never imagined that art, or heard of that artist, then the elation and satisfaction in that is more than enough reason to get out of bed in the morning and start stressing about the next program.