Interview by Roj Amedi, photo by Katie Harmsworth
The Next Wave arts festival is a platform for young and upcoming artists to develop their work alongside an intensive and introspective process. Artists are accompanied by a team of curators, developers and mentors– one being Artistic Director, Emily Sexton. 2012 saw Emily produce her first Next Wave festival after a successful tenure leading the Melbourne Fringe Festival. This brought into light many new challenges and exciting prospects about an artist’s relationship with their audience, representation of identity, and more often than not, questions leading to more questions. Roj spent an afternoon finding out more.
At the University of Sydney you were responsible for setting up the union arts festival. What made you do it? Was it your first opportunity to coordinate a project like that?
I did a media/commerce degree at The University of Sydney, but it was the people that I met doing theatre and performance and from running that festival that made my time at university special for me. I think most people would say that “My time at uni had a special generation”, but I actually think that I was really lucky and I did encounter a certain kind of energy that was very inspiring. Maybe because there was a discernible community it made sense to look at structures and contexts in which a diversity of artists or voices, not even artists but just people who have interesting ideas about the world, lead me to create a framework in which those things could sit within. To be honest, even when I was in school I started running festivals and kind of inventing stuff like that.
What about the institutional frameworks; matters such as student Union funding being slashed. The importance of student lead initiatives, are they far more difficult now then they were during your time? Do you see a difference in this generation in comparison to yours?
Look, it’s hard for me to say, although I did have a really amazing encounter. I had a meeting with two people who took over mud fest last year, and I was really struck by the evolution of students. These guys, and bless them because they are really awesome, last year did quite a radical thing where they said “We are students and we are going to run Mudfest as students for students” because for a number of years it had been run by outside art professionals. Power to them, that’s really fantastic. But how strange that it had gotten to a point where it wasn’t run by students.
We were doing something in a protected environment and so I sort of think there is an immense value in that context, you’re not spending a lot of money and you’re able to do, and take all these risks and it’s only your peers that are seeing it and providing that critical feedback. But you don’t have the stakes like The AGE coming to review it. I think that looking inwards time as an artist is really important.
So, we’ve heard about your role in The Fringe Festival and Next Wave. What about your own creative pursuits? Theatre? Dance? Has it helped with your growth and the way you engage with artists?
Absolutely. I did a lot of performing. At the time, I crept towards more experimental stuff than traditional things. What has been constant across an interest in dance and theatre and festivals, is an abiding curiosity about life experiences and things that bring people together.
Definitely mucking around and doing things yourself informs you and helps you with better communication. So I moved to Melbourne at the end of 2005. I was really impressed about how enthusiastic and welcoming the arts community in Melbourne was. I got involved in doing a lot of independent shows especially with a company called ‘Theatre at Risk’ which was great. Whilst I was doing that I was also running a bunch of different little arts projects in Frankston, two to three days a week. I wouldn’t have stayed as long as I did if I didn’t have an amazing boss, Ella McGregor. He was really inspiring. He wouldn’t ever let the context he was in determine the kinds of far reaching contemporary art ideas he had. He was sensitive but he wasn’t compromised by it. And I thought it was really cool.
Some people believe top down initiatives from the government and from the public sector are more of a hindrance than a benefit and it’s a clunky and not amiable as it needs to be. What do you think about that?
You can definitely say that about a lot of things. I mean there is a difference between a top-down at a federal level versus a local level– when you are talking about a very disparate and a relatively small community, which has quite a polarity of wealth in it as well. You’ve got to have some people who are paid to focus on that stuff, otherwise it might not exist at all. You have to acknowledge what’s there and facilitate the people who live in that area and that growth.
Let’s go the typical question: inspiration? Or perhaps someone who was doing so badly you thought to yourself ‘I can do better’?
I wouldn’t say badly. I think working in local government, you come to appreciate the diversity of things in that organisation. I think it’s good to be constantly surrounded by people who are not at all interested in what you are interested in. So our desks were right up against the children’s services desks, the kinds of conversations they were having with people on the phone were pretty far out. Domestic violence, how to breast feed, really hard core things. That is a really important and inspiring context to be in and be grounded about when you are trying to put together a festival or commissioning an artist to make a public sculpture. That is your context and don’t forget it.
Dealing with people. Was there a moment or a couple of moments where you really shifted the way you dealt with people and their artistic pursuits?
Firstly you work with young artists who are willing to put everything on the line for that one thing, which makes their ideas absolutely incredible because they have not yet determined what the boundaries of ‘possible’ is. Which is immensely inspiring but it also means that they are willing to forego a whole bunch of things in aid of achieving that. The other thing is that your job is not to get better and better at working in the way that you think is best but to actually add more and more tools onto your belt around how you help people. How you support them, how you guide them. It doesn’t just go in, it goes broad and wide. And it’s actually the collection and accruing of those tools that make you a better leader. It’s about understanding each person’s context and why they think it’s important to think of something in that way. You are finding more and more strategies in helping them out with that. Across my staff, we supported 40 artists and every single one of them needed something else. There was no consistent rule to make their work. You were constantly coming up with new ways of making it work.
Do you think that adversarial idea between the artists against ‘the man’ is a construct people feel more comfortable with?
Most times, yes. I don’t think people stay in that zone because every person thinks that’s the way to get their point across. Even when people talk about funding bodies, local government. I’ve had my share of frustrations with the city of Melbourne, but the idea that they are one united entity out to destroy my ability to park on the street is just incredibly flawed because it’s actually just a bunch of people trying to do their best within a system.
And what about gender? You’ve said that it hasn’t become a hindrance to the positions you’ve undertaken.
I am pretty early in my career. And I haven’t had children. It’s easy to say that before children come into the game.
What about the role of the artistic community, I remember reading your speech for the Next Wave opening this year. You said ‘this projection of ideas and constructs and norms are yet to come to fruition in society’. Do you think ‘the artistic community’ can provide frameworks for the improvements of gender relations?
In the best version of itself, then yes absolutely.
Have you seen that come to play?
In very intimate and probably micro ways. How do you effect change? One person at a time. People have revelatory experiences and then their own experiences come into play. So, I don’t know. I think of art as social change. However it’s not a linear progression in any sense. The arts are just as sexist as any other industry, and there are just as few female board directors in our major companies. I think it would be incredibly foolish to presume that the art community are any different. I am sure that if you measured the arts against education, health and corporate I think the arts wouldn’t be any better. It remains to be seen how my gender plays out.
‘First female’ Artistic Director for Next Wave. Any pressure to represent 50% of the population?
Only amongst the other 1000’s of pressures that you feel. It just folds into your other anxieties.
What is the difference between The Fringe and Next Wave festival in terms of how you get participants?
Fringe is annual. Next Wave has a two year cycle. Anyone can participate in The Fringe, and you just register your show. That creates its own energy because it’s that splice of what is happening in the independent art scene in Melbourne. Next Wave is more of a national platform. We select from national and international artists who we think could expand their platform or capacity. There has to be a reason that working with us will stretch and change or open up what they are doing. That desire for more has to come from them, in a clear and honest way. We both look for ideas in the Next Wave festival but also for people who are thinking in a really dynamic way, that we can actually help. So in terms of how that works, I am about to start 6 months worth of travel that is both national and international. We’ll go to every state in Australia, speak to unis and people who are in our network. Who are the most exciting emerging artists that should be part of Next Wave’s repertoire and who are ready for that?
When someone thinks of an ‘artist’, people often think of someone who is formally trained or put their entire resources into art and expressing themselves. Do you have participants who haven’t come from that background? And do you see a difference?
A lot of them have been through training. Some of them have put together their own university of life kind of learning. By travelling and combining bits and piece. But it is so competitive that a lot of them have formal training.
[Some] come through a dance school, arts school, undergraduate humanities degree and then a year’s worth of more focused stuff. That is not to say that the university has any effect of the quality of their work. The most exciting artists are those that have somehow created lots of opportunities for themselves and have made stuff happened. And they have learned from the doing and also being rampantly curious about reading.
What about the funding models? Do you see a progression towards crowd sourcing etc? Or is that just a short-term goal? How did the previous seasons work before hand and has it become easier to fund the different projects?
I think this generation are massively savvy with the funding opportunities that are available to them. They are very resourceful. Some of them have done well with crowd funding however they have been quite realistic about the reasons as to why they should rely on their friends for funding who are usually also artists too. I think there is a next stage to crowd funding that I am interested to see. I have heard that crowd funding tends to work the first time but then after that people tend to respond with the thinking that they assisted with the first project so why should they continue financial support for ongoing projects. I think people have gotten quite excited about crowd funding and although I’ve seen it work quite brilliantly, the sustainability of it has yet to be seen.
We have certainly haven’t gone down that road as an organisation. We made a very conscious decision that we would support our artists. And in that model, people are much more willing to give money to artists than to a publicly funded local/state/federal level government. People often think what difference would my $10 make? And sometimes $10 would make a difference to a Next Wave project but we have the capacity to pursue a much larger funding pool. We felt that we would stay out of that space to give other people room. But not everyone has that opportunity.
I am really interested to know about your ideas about making audiences participants of the art. Did you base this on any particular model?
It’s partly a response to what artists are doing already. I am both interested in it and also at the same time, see it and want to push it further. There has been a growing area of work loosely known as ‘live art’ in Australia.
The artists that have been pursuing that, I have always been interested in. Because I think it does cut across a bunch of different areas that I enjoy. You can employ anything from dance to video work; it’s all about interactions between one person and another.
What about the impetus for the day passes, day-long experience, being lead through the city. Has this been done before? Did you take it from another model?
It is very important that people dive into a whole context of people taking risks. I don’t want a situation where people see just one show at Next Wave. I don’t think that is the point. There is a certain kind of energy going on. It was to create a culture of new ideas. The day pass was one way of doing that. What is really exciting is that it has encouraged people to see lots of shows!