The relationship is the project

By Eleanor Jackson.

This speech was delivered on 3 February to launch  The Relationship is the Project, a new resource that aims to help practitioners, artists and cultural workers better engage with community-based projects.

Depending on how you get your news, you probably woke today to devastating natural disaster, political trauma, and the spectre of a global contagion. Fear and xenophobia that is, not Novel Coronavirus.

Against this planet-wide context of complex systems failure it can feel, as Allison Croggon recently described: “Fatuous to talk about Australian art and culture amid such overwhelming global crises – and yet it also feels impossible not to note this context.”

She goes on: “The same ideologies that accelerate ecocide and political extremism are also destroying our cultural memory, starving our institutions and disenfranchising artists.”

In all the contexts I work, as a poet, arts producer, editor, project manager, strategy consultant and partnerships broker, I try talk culture. Like John Hawke, in his seminal work about cultural sustainability, I believe:

A sustainable society is dependent on a sustainable culture, and

Cultural action, more than anything else, is required to lay the groundwork for that sustainable future.

I also talk a great deal about collaboration, the subject of my contribution to this book, and often my art practice. Now, collaboration is not the only way to effect change or make art. But still, I believe collaboration is necessary for many of the kinds of transformative change our cultures and societies currently need.

In order to quiet the noise of a complex world, we have deliberately shut out other voices. We have compartmentalised our experiences into imaginary boxes. We have sought to continually separate us from them. And Facebook’s algorithms know it.

We need to learn to listen to others. To take risk and be vulnerable in the process of change and to acknowledge the power that drives and limits our mutual capacities for change. We need to challenge our thinking and assumptions to relish interdependence. It’s easy to say you want to think outside of your box, but considering that process to be one that is relational, discursive and generative is to accept that all change is really about collaboration. It’s about people, about how we talk to each other and what we create together.

We do not have to look very far to see members of our “community” (and indeed ourselves) who feel disengaged from what might have once been thought of as “their society”. Family, gender, relationships, the state, our institutions, the media, education – the foundations of our society are in flux. But this is not necessarily a bad thing. There are many things about dominant Australian society, its institutions and its norms, that really need to change.

In that context, these 20 essays offer an incomplete, imperfect, temporary and entirely urgent input into the Australian national conversation. I’m honoured to be one of those voices.

When I say incomplete, imperfect and temporary – it is only to acknowledge how many other voices (in accord and dissenting, past present and future) could meaningfully have been added to this collection.

When I say urgent though – I mean urgent – critical, necessary and difficult.

According to Prince, sorry, that’s the Department formerly known as Communications and the Arts, the Australian arts and cultural industry is a $100b per annum industry with some 400,000 workers.

But the “core business” of that “industry” (excuse me while I vomit in my mouth) is not merely driving economic growth by distracting individuals with entertainment products, it is equipping society with the thinking and feeling and living skills to extrapolate meaning from the complex systems they are required to navigate every day.

Culture is the mechanism by which we generate collective lives of meaning. Collaboration is how we get there.

These essays demonstrate – at least for my mind – how disregard for culture and community more broadly (and the absence of a meaningful cultural policy more specifically) contribute to the paralysis of many of our national conversations around place, belonging, connection, diversity, citizenship, genocide, ecocide, value, well-being, progress and sustainability.

We are simply failing to involve each other in collectively shaping, expressing and manifesting our values.

In this book is an overview of almost everything that remains in the “too hard” basket for arts policy makers, institutions, festivals, programmers, organisations and artists.

As such, it is an invitation to act.

With clear language and dogged persistence, they highlight how strongly people’s sense of community is not based on where they live or the administrative tick box to which they are assigned, but on the complex relationships they have that give meaning to their lives, and on their sense of belonging.

In generations to come, our children’s children’s children will judge us on the meaning we have made through our arts, just as we have done (rightly or wrongly) to the cultures that came before ours. Let’s give them something magnificent to work with.

This speech was originally published by Peril.