Digital art

Community arts is in transition. It’s been seven years since the Australia Council abolished its Community Cultural Development Board, a bold stroke that many thought signalled the beginning of the end of mainstream arts funding for community cultural development (or “CCD” as it’s universally abbreviated to in the sector). Many state arts agencies followed suit, defunding service organisations such as CCD NSW.

But CCD is hard to kill. People who work in community arts and cultural development are a motivated bunch, and most are doing it for reasons that having nothing to do with the size of their pay cheque. Just as importantly, technology is playing to the sector’s advantage. Social media platforms like YouTube and Facebook have given new power to ordinary citizens, who no longer need to work with professional filmmakers or artists to tell their own stories.

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How community arts and cultural development deals with these evolving technologies was a big theme of Co-Creative Communities, a one-day conference held yesterday at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne. Deb Verhoeven, professor of media and communications at Deakin University and moderator of the event, says community arts and cultural development is changing fast. And always has been.

“I think it’s a dynamic sector anyway. It’s a sector that has confronted change full-time, it’s quite an experimental place,” she told Crikey. “My concerns are about what happens in experimental places is that you have successes and failures; for me one of the key takeaways is where’s the sustainability around the experiments, what are we doing in terms of ensuring that those voices that aren’t part of the mainstream cultural record continue into the future?”

Verhoeven says one of the most controversial aspects of the day was dialogue around the concept of digital storytelling. “Controversial for a number of reasons,” she said. “There are quite recent and quite profound policy changes going on in big organisations like the ABC to reduce produced content, and towards a looser notion of digital storytelling, and that’s based on several success stories coming out the US, some of which are inspired by the community-driven programs we saw yesterday.

“Why it’s controversial is: what happens when big institutions enter that space?”

One of the community-driven programs on show at the conference was Witness USA, an organisation dedicated to human rights issues that specialises in using “video advocacy”, often from the victims of human rights violations themselves. Founded in the wake of the Rodney King incident of 1992, Witness has built what program director Sam Gregory calls a “global community of social justice videomakers”.

Social justice videomaking has obviously shot to worldwide attention in recent times with the breakout success of the Kony 2012 video, made by American activist group Invisible Children. The viral explosion of awareness the video created has been something of a blessing and a curse for the entire sector, with Engage Media‘s Andrew Lowenthal describing Kony 2012 as “the best and the worst simultaneously” of what digital storytelling can represent: it raised awareness but suffered from authenticity issues.

Lowenthal gave a fascinating presentation on the work Engage Media is carrying out in Indonesia, particularly in training citizen journalists in the techniques and methods of online video production and security. Engage’s model, he suggests, “is different to a CCD model” because it’s linked to a campaign for particular social justice goals. “It’s not just another sad story about something that’s wrong,” he said.

“I think if you look at growth in core arts funding at a national level, the community arts sector is the only sector that’s got any …”

Scott Rankin is the creative director of Big hART, one of Australia’s most successful companies blending the creative arts and activism for social change community arts companies. He’s sceptical of the entire idea of digital storytelling.

“An organisation like Big hART was set up by a bunch of activists and artists and people who had certain skills … really it’s to do with invisibility, invisible stories that aren’t getting told,” he said. “It’s not really been in love with the numbers game. A small group of friends with a really vivid idea is far more powerful than screeds of participatory art.”

Norm Horton, director of respected Brisbane-based community cultural development organisation Feral Arts, underlines the diversity of digital practice in the community arts and culture sector. “There’s a lot of digitally engaged community practice,” he said, pointing to surprising health in the sector.

“I reckon it’s had a pretty amazing five or six years, given what happened in 2005,” he said, referring to the abolition of the CCD board by the Australia Council. “I think if you look at growth in core arts funding at a national level, the community arts sector is the only sector that’s got any, and through the Community Partnerships program it’s got a hell of a lot more engagement with other artform boards, so I think the next thing is how it can meaningfully connect with other sectors.”

But keeping community practice on the policy agenda is always a challenge. Horton points out Arts Minister Simon Crean’s discussion paper for the National Cultural Policy largely neglects community cultural development.

“We were really very disappointed when the discussion paper came out without any reference to the community arts and cultural development sector. It was really disappointing because the policy framework that was put forward spoke to the sector’s strengths, so clearly the sector is still invisible … in lots of ways, you’d hope that at least there’s an understanding at the policy level of the expertise of the sector,” he said.

“Let’s be honest, growth for core arts funding seems to be an impossible mission.” On the other hand, when businesses and philanthropists engage with culture, they often demand community outcomes. “The philanthropic sector investment has oriented itself much more to community-based outcomes than mainstream arts practice,” Horton said.

“Now, how that plays out with the community arts and cultural development sector is going to be critical. Is there some collaborative relationship between the sectors, is there a buy-in of expertise, or do they just want to set up their own versions of it?”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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