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COMMUNITY ARTS AND POLITICS

Community arts is an umbrella term under which a multitude of diverse people and activities are funded. The Community Arts Board of the Australia Council states that it is committed to 'the achievement of community self-determination and control of its arts practice'. That is an aim which I share. The society in which we live is hierarchical, bureaucratised, capitalistic and patriarchial. A commitment to the achievement of self-determination is subversive. As far as I am concerned self-determination necessitates the decentralisation of power in society. Presumably the Community Arts Board recognises that self-management means a shift of power imbalance towards a situation more in favour of the dispossessed and not a smoothing of the dying pillow. But the difference is not as simple as those two phrases imply. The contradictions in state funded social activism are rather overwhelming. An artsworker such as myself, funded by the State and (in my Ainslie Village Project) a hierarchical managerial host organisation, is limited by that framework. It is not necessarily in the interests of those in positions of power to encourage an undermining of their control. Consequently, it is far more likely that the gulf is maintained between art - that relaxing, audience-based activity that can be participated in during recreation time; and politics - where issues like social organisation and life in the public and private domain are fought over. Art is a political tool in that it deals with representations and as such can be used to analyse a situation and/or suggest strategies for changing that situation. Community arts workers are involved in a political struggle over and for power.

An artsworker who is not familiar with the specific context and struggles of the community in which she/he is attempting to function, is at an extreme disadvantage. All communities are involved, whether covertly or overtly, in a political struggle. In the Aislie.Village Project the struggle involved management, residents, Department of Community Services, the Community Development Fund, Commonwealth Employment Service and Social Security among others. It is not unusual for an artsworker to be more familiar with the individuals, power structure and exploitation within the arts community than in the community in which she/he goes to work. We are all part of a community. A community artsworker does not move into a community, but extends or shifts her/his own community. To be part of effective social activism it is essential that the community artsworker does not function or is seen as an entertaining visitor but is recognised and accepted as a member of the community. A community artsworker should not be a missionary bringing the good word, but a person within the community who is also attempting to achieve selfmanagement in herlhis life.

As anyone who has shifted neighbourhoods knows, it can be an extremely lengthy process before the legitimacy of your membership in the community is recognised. There's a lot to learn, particularly if the neighbourhood varies considerably from your previous home. When I moved into Ainslie Village I knew practically nothing about punk music, skinhead attire, who's winning at the football, the dogs or the horses. I have no experience in sexual or marital violence, have never worked on a building site, suffered long-term homelessness, unemployment or alcoholism. I've never been inside Pentridge, a remand centre, a psychiatric ward or a prison for the temporarily insane. I was employed as artsworker during the Project and I am a woman. Close to 80% of the people at the Village are officially unemployed and there are no more than a handful of women living in the Village at any one time. I was there through choice. As the residents expressed during the audio tapes that Huw (Photo Access), Tony (Resident) and I initiated, an overwhelming majority of people in the Village are there through necessity.

On reflection I was not an appropriate person to be involved in the Ainslie Village Project. It was unreasonable to assume that I would be accepted as a member of the Ainslie Village community given my background and the short time that my other commitments and the budget allowed. When I originally moved to Ainslie Village, I considered that the difference between myself and the Village community would extend the opportunities for exchange and cross-cultural understanding. Privatization of skills and information creates the centralization of specific knowledge. Decentralization as an aim was limited by the extent of our difference and a mutual lack of understanding of the specific use to which our knowledge could be put. The emphasis that funding bodies place on the presence of a credible community artsworker and a host organisation capable of accepting liability for the project, intensifies the unequal relationship between artsworkers and "the community". These difficulties could be alleviated if the community is seen as capable of providing its own artsworkers, its own decisions and its own administration. But at this time, is it likely that a body of people seeking self-determination in their community will recognise the importance of art in that struggle and the possibilities of funding through the Community Arts Board or committees?

Community arts, as I have been using the term, is not well understood by the fine art community nor society in general. Art is often seen as society's cultural icecream - when politics get too hot, it melts. A community artsworker placed in an organisation with little or no understanding of the potential political nature of art may feel the oppression of being relegated to the entertainment and recreation section of activities. Art deals with representations, communication and through words like creativity, discovery and invention; all of which are essential to the politics of social activism and self-determination. It may be more useful to point to dress, mass media and advertising than the fine art community if we are to demonstrate the essential role that art does and can play in creating and subverting the hierarchical, patriarchal and consumer-based nature of this society.

When I was working at Ainslie Village I kept clear of any direct political struggles in the Village, because of my divided responsiblities to the residents, the management, the Arts Development Board and community arts groups. In doing so, I inhibited the legitimacy of my membership in the community and also the relationship between the politics and the art of the project we were involved in. It is much easier to appear to be not involved in resident/management struggles if you don't want to be shot down in flames. In doing so I made myself into an "artist" and consequently introduced another division - art and politics, which in Ainslie Village can be translated into recreation and welfare or luxury and survival. If you are faced with emotional blackmail such as "What do the residents really need - food and blankets, or art T', you're going to have to do even more talking to demonstrate how the oppression of art and artsworkers is detrimental to the aims of community self-determination, and that it is welfare that is wasting the limited budget in effectively keeping the residents under control.

The effect of separating art and politics should not be underestimated. At present the survival of the community artsworker is dependent on such things as networking those involved in the area, introducing legal contracts and building up the profile and authority of community arts and funding bodies. It is extremely important that these initiatives are not attempts to patch over conflicts that have arisen, but are made in direct reference to the aims of community arts. Community arts must take on the responsiblilities of its political nature. Questions like whether to fund this left wing union project or that right wing union project need to be answered within a critique of the decentralisation of power in society. The initiative and discovery within creativity needs to be applied in how we achieve self-determination, not in mindlessly educating "the community" about art practice and materials. We are involved in a political struggle and we can learn a lot from groups already involved in social activism.

I opened this article by defining community arts as an umbrella term. It may be well to remember that if an umbrella leaks, it is irrelevant how brightly it has been painted because we will get wet. The solution is not of course to get rid of community arts but simply to analyse the way it has been constructed and ... fix the leaks! To summarise the directions I have briefly mentioned in this article.

Dwayne Campbell, 1985,
from a paper delivered at the Community Arts Practice Seminar,
published in Muse Magazine.


About the Author:

OBITUARY - Dwayne (Campbell) BIGELOW (1960-2002)

I first meet Dwayne in 1985 at a meeting of the Australian Anarchist Centenary Celebration Collective, a group which was created in Melbourne on the 1st May 1984. The group was formed to organise the Australian Anarchist Centenary Celebrations which were to be held in Melbourne from the 1st 4th May 1986. The collective meet regularly, giving form to ideas that flooded in from across the country and overseas. Within a few months Dwayne was making on important contribution to the group. She was adamant that the celebrations shouldn't be just a historic gathering of activists but a living, breathing event that reflected the personal, political aspects of the anarchist movement.

As the project gained momentum, she placed her mark on the celebrations, wanting to breakdown the male dominated set piece event that the celebrations could have easily become. With the help of Bob James the Australian Anarchist historian, she found a space in Footscray to build gigantic puppets to be used in the celebrations. Over a number of months with very little assistance, she built mega puppets that formed a focal point for the celebrations. Each puppet dealt with a particular subject, patriarchy, capitalism, feminism, the dogs of war and the media, were a few of the subjects she broached. One giant puppet that stood at least 4 metres high a woman with her breasts on a platter denoted the way our culture objectifies women.

The puppets were a great success. They were carried through the streets of Melbourne on a celebratory march on the 1st of May 1986. The celebrations attracted anarchists from every Australian State as well as Japan, China, Korea, Spain, France, Italy, Switzerland, New Zealand, Belgium and the United States. Over the next 4 days, Dwayne's puppets formed an important backdrop and talking point for a celebration that attracted over 5000 activists. Dwayne was elated with the success of the celebrations and her contribution to their success. She participated in the historic radio broadcast with the Chicago anarchists on the 1st of May, many workshops as well as taking numerous photographs of the event. I last saw her in mid May 1987 as the collective was putting the finishing touches to the Australian Anarchist Centenary Celebration Book, a book which included many of the photographs she took between the 1st to the 4th of May 1986.

I received a fax from John Englart from Anarres Books last week asking me to think about doing a short obituary on Dwayne "especially her contributions to the Anarchist Centenary Celebrations". To be honest I hadn't thought about Dwayne for many years. The fax was accompanied by an article from The Age 8/8/2002 about the funeral of a three year old boy called Finley. As I read the article I felt sick, Dwayne and her son Finley were dead.

I remember thinking about why a mother would kill her child and herself when I heard the news about the murder suicide of a woman living at Fairfield in Melbourne two weeks ago. I never dreamed the women was someone I knew. Dwayne had been involved in a bitter legal battle to restrict the boy's father access to him. Dwayne was in a lesbian relationship and had entered into a private agreement with the boy's biological father, to use his sperm to have a child. The father claimed he always wanted to have access to his son in a parental sense, not just a biological sense. Unfortunately, he had to drag an unwilling Dwayne through the courts to achieve this.

In a highly publicised event, the media reduced a complex situation "lesbian mother fights gay man sperm donor for access to child" caricature. Dwayne, sensitive at the best of times, would have internalised the pain and hurt that this coverage caused her. It's important we ask ourselves how a highly intelligent, sensitive, forthright and brave woman, who believed she could change the world, turned in a space of 15 years into someone who could kill herself and her young son.

It's easy to say she was mentally ill and in a fit of passion when she "snapped" and killed her son and herself. It gives the community and us an acceptable way out, the fault was with her, not the community she lived in or the society she was part of. I think Dwayne was devastated by the intervention of the State in her dispute with the father of her child. All her life she believed she could resolve problems by acting morally and ethically. Every time she saw her son taken away on an access visit, she felt violated. Dwayne knew if she didn't accept the court's intervention, her son would eventually be taken away from her. She believed she was a hostage of the State and the wishes of the father of her child.

She saw no way out of the situation she was in and decided to assert herself in the only way she thought was available to her. In her desperation she ignored the fact that her son was not part of her but an independent entity who had the right to make his own mistakes and live his own life. Acting in what she believed was a loving manner, she killed her three year old son Finley, to spare him the pain she felt the future would bring him. Dwayne then killed herself, turning her back on a world that she had rejected long ago. A world that was now destroying her life and devouring her soul.

(The details of Dwayne Campbell Bigelow and her son Finley will be dealt with by the Victorian Coroners Court in the near future.)

Joe Toscano, Anarchist Age Weekly Review
Number 512, 19th August 25th August, 2002


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Last modified: October 2, 2002

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