The Tyranny of Geography

Image of the Lake Burley Griffin undertaker by Jeanne Mclauchlan via the Canberra Times
Image of the Lake Burley Griffin undertaker by Jeanne Mclauchlan via the Canberra Times

I currently work for an internationally-renowned arts company, on concurrent projects scattered around the country. On any one day I might speak to someone in Adelaide, Karratha, Alice Springs, Hobart, or Sydney or Melbourne or the USA or UK, all from my laptop in the tiny study of my home. I feel that I am part of a global conversation. But I’m also a writer, and for administrative purposes this requires a geographic association. So, I am a Canberra-based writer.

In our daily lives and careers geographic limitations have begun to dissolve, and our world is expanding. Yet on the nightly news and government offices our borders are continually and increasingly reinforced. One such office is the arts funding body of the ACT government.

It‘s well documented that Canberra breeds good artists, boasting a luminous roll-call of those who began their lives here or honed a niche in which they made the first steps towards successful careers. But where once a creative young Canberran left early, never to return, there is a growing trend for these bonds to remain elastic, flexible and responsive. There are more options and opportunities than there were decades ago, a community to lift you up, the mysteries of the outside world are at the end of crumbling copper wires and home is where the wifi is.

Artists in Canberra have a view that extends beyond the ACT border. Some of our brightest may in fact spend but a few months a year, weeks even, physically within the territory – the rest of the time taking claim of opportunities to present work or conduct research interstate or overseas, undertaking residencies, mentorships, further study, short-term contracts to produce or teach, or fulfill a commission. A return to Canberra brings an equally welcome opportunity to take stock, recharge, give back, reconnect with longstanding collaborators and perhaps embark on a new project. Canberra is home base. A place where people know your name and believe in what you do.

Certainly not all artists enjoy this level of success, particularly in their early careers, but those who do ought not be punished by an onus on absence rather than achievement.

Capacity for artistic success can be buoyed by two intersecting channels: income and profile. Income gathered by employment, grants and prize money, and less often by sales/commissions/royalties. Profile is raised through networking, public events, awards and commendations. Eligibility for a great many of these are dictated by geography, and yet a wealth of these opportunities, particularly in regard to artistic profile, exist outside of the territory’s borders.

What is an artist to do? Arts ACT and prize-giving committees traditionally require hard line definitions around eligibility. Once upon a time this might have meant you had to have an ACT postal address, but these days that simplistic categorisation doesn’t fly, and artists are asked to prove their ‘status’ as an ACT artist through more involved means. (Where is your practice based? What Canberra-based events, programs or organisations are you involved with? Do you own a MyWay card? How many tits on a Skywhale? How much parking have you paid for lately?)

If you’ve been lucky enough in recent times, have worked hard enough, to be able to engage in activities farther afield and subsequently significant time away then you can consider your eligibility seriously in doubt. Even if you intend to premiere you new performance work here in the ACT, with an entirely local cast and crew. Even if your novel is set in Canberra and you wrote it here. Even if your album was recorded in a shed in the middle of Lyneham and your opening track is ‘Sweet IGA’, even if you’ve been burning up the highway, or bleeding money on plane fares, or sitting on a Murray’s bus that is somehow always simultaneously freezing and stuffy just to come back to this place time after time, you can forget about being supported if you haven’t been around much lately.

But at what point does your passport get completely revoked? Because Canberra’s claim on your roots lasts forever, as long as you do well, just as Australia clings to its artists who moved overseas at the first available chance. When the accolades come, everyone in your hometown played a part.

Canberra strives to be recognised as an international city, and with the emergence of the borderless artist, and the shrinking limitations on how and where we work, it has an opportunity to build upon. Roaming locals who return should be welcomed, encouraged to share what they’ve learnt, what they’ve made, and to bring with them the access to new networks and a world of possibilities. We need to recognise greatness within those who would call this place home, and be the first to call it. If we won’t have them, then someone else will, and they won’t wear the hometown name so proudly come that point.

It is clear that the ways in which we pick out excellence and give commendations and rewards are archaic in themselves, and it is clear that budgets are stretched. There is no light at the end of either of those tunnels. The ACT government hungers for positive exposure for the city and the funding bodies of the day espouse the merits of innovation, and but a creative, non-parochial approach to how one conducts one’s career across borders proves not to sit so well.

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