From Gangs to Shopping malls: sentimental aesthetics in Vietnamese Australian community arts



Introduction

This article discusses forms of continuity and change in Vietnamese Australian community arts in Melbourne’s inner western suburbs since the mid-1990s. My geographical focus is in fact more narrow, being the suburb of Footscray which due to the presence of Foostcray Community Arts Centre (FCAC) from 1974, and more recently the BigWest Festival (BWF) from 1997, has developed a national reputation in the area of culturally inclusive Community Cultural Development (CCD). Footscray has been a hub for Vietnamese Australian community arts workers and a symbolically privileged site for debate about the sector.


The period I am looking at is a time of dramatic change. It is a time when the waning of multiculturalism as federal policy would inspire Footscray-based Asian Australian organisations, such as Australian Vietnamese Youth Media (AVYM) (1996-2009), to steer community arts resources towards what we might describe as ‘cultural activism’ (Muecke 1998). It is a time when the default ‘welfarist’ settings of the community arts sector would be increasingly questioned, with CCD workers coming under pressure to articulate their projects to the professional arts sector, with the eventual dissolution of the CCD Board of the Australia Council (AC) (Australia’s peak arts funding body) in 2004. It is also a time when Melbourne’s migrant and working class urban locales that had been bypassed by the gentrification cycles of the 1970s and 1980s would suddenly find themselves the centre of significant demographic changes and fresh calls for urban renewal. By the late 1990s the traditional class divide of the Yarra River that had symbolically and socio-economically separated Melbourne’s bayside and Northern suburbs since the 19th Century, had been displaced by an even older and historically obdurate separation between the industrial western suburbs and the city itself. As had been the case for artists’ hubs in the inner northern suburbs of the 1970s and 1980s, such as Carlton and Fitzroy, these more recent changes have been accompanied by a plethora of new opportunities for artists, arts organisations and arts audiences in Melbourne’s inner west – opportunities that would render acute a set of well-established dilemmas for community arts organisations.


My discussion is organised around a more or less anecdotal reading of two case studies that are presented as markers for the changes underway. It commences with a review of early organisational self-presentations of AVYM and is concluded by a close reading of the aesthetics of a one-off CCD project ‘Footscray by Night’ staged in 2011. Such a comparison does not pretend to establish any objective basis for analysing these changes at anything other than a local level. Such micro-level comparisons are at best a form of ‘occasional’ criticism in that they provide an opportunity to rehearse allegories of broader transformations. In contrasting an organisation with enduring institutional support and a cumulative history (AVYM) with a festival project (Footscray by Night), my study does indeed intend to draw attention to the new ‘innovative’ and ‘enterprising’ arrangements the new policy terrain seeks to inculcate: this is a story about Vietnamese Australian CCD work shifting from the securities afforded by recurrent funding and a host organisation, to a more contingent and entrepreneurial arrangements in which CCD work with Vietnamese Australians is effectively outsourced. In an interview with the founding director Tony Le Nguyen on why the group disbanded in 2009, Le Nguyen stated ‘because we were no longer young’.i Now, this comment which is intended to be taken literally, tells us several things – the most important being the extent to which those involved in professionally managing the organisation identified with those who were its target community (i.e. young Vietnamese Australians). But for now let me use this comment to highlight the difficulties of persisting with any sort of formal arts association when funding becomes entirely project-based and administration a voluntary activity.


This comparison also enables a focus on the shifting normative role of ‘community’; from a targeted social group whose disadvantage can be redressed by cultural participation, to a resource for municipal celebrations of diversity. As such, it finds Ghassan Hage’s general account of Keating-era cosmo-multiculturalism productive for describing much more recent changes in the fields of arts policy (Hage 1997). Accompanying this development is a noted transformation in the images of ‘the popular’ invoked by Vietnamese Australian CCD workers; from the ambivalent recycling of the trope of ‘Vietnamese gang’ (in the case of an intentionally provocative description of AVYM made by Le Nguyen), to the more quotidian subversions afforded by commercial popular culture (the shopping mall and karaoke video, in the case of Footscray by Night). Interpreted in the context of broader changes to the arts sector, such compelling images index a change, I suggest, in the public relations strategies of Vietnamese Australian CCD work. The ‘youth gang’ invokes not only the classic formulation of the disciplinary logic of community arts, but is also a space of agonistic commitments and social solidarities that rest on a specific type of claim to public support. By contrast, the shopping mall and karaoke video invoke images of ambivalent participation and distracted consumption in much more porous public settings. While karaoke also functions as another marketable image of East Asian identity, the difference between these images I’d suggest reflects a shift in emphasis in the referent of ‘community’. It seems to me that during this period the notion of ‘Vietnamese community’ invoked in arts settings shifts from a sub-national category that can organise and redress the social as a problem space, to the less agonistic and essentially global space of the diaspora in which the trope of ‘community’ becomes more of an existential type of question. That is, the term ‘community’ appears to shift away from being an administered national space of government services towards a space of personal exploration and voluntary identification in a self-consciously global context.


At the same time, the register of sentimentalism – a key resource for community representations – changes. Recent and comparable changes to British arts policy under New Labour have prompted commentators to note an aesthetic shift towards the sentimental that is reminiscent of the essentially philanthropic vision of 19th century reformers who looked to the arts as a way of fostering sympathetic social relations (McKinnie 2004). McKinnie has argued that the development of a ‘social inclusion’ agenda as a complement to creative industries arts policies in the UK has in fact been counter-productive for any clear conception of how the arts might redress social disadvantage, as the insecure nature of project-based collaborations ‘mitigates against building the types of sustained creative relationships that might prove useful models for disadvantaged neighbourhoods’ (McKinnie 2004, p. 193). While the Australian federal government maintains high level ministerial commitment to social inclusion policies, in the cultural sector the phrase is mostly limited to cultural planning policies at state and municipal level, with the terms ‘participation’ and ‘wellbeing’ being preferred in the CCD policy development of the AC. Nevertheless, although McKinnie’s critique is highly plausible in the Australian context, any account of ‘sentimentalism’ in the field of Vietnamese Australian community arts work needs to be squared with an already established role for sentimental aesthetics in diasporic Vietnamese culture, one which sustains a critical function that I would argue is broadly consistent with Rey Chow’s account of the political economy of sentimentalism in recent Chinese cinema (Chow 2007). Drawing on the example of Fifth Generation Chinese cinema, Chow argues that the notion of sentimentality in Chinese aesthetics doesn’t so much signify emotional excess, as it can in a western aesthetic register, than a form of survival- orientated moderation that rejects extreme positions. Sentimentality embodies a ‘mood of endurance’; ‘an inclination or a disposition toward making compromises and toward making-do with even – and especially – that which is oppressive or unbearable’ (Chow 2007, p. 18). In the context of the popular culture of Vietnam, sentimentality has long harboured cultural attachments to the pre-Communist era (Taylor 2001, pp. 21-55). In the context of the post-1975 Vietnamese diaspora, such sentimentalism represents less ‘migrant nostalgia’ than a survivalist ethos engaged in what is equally poorly described as ‘homeland politics’. While it can be argued such an approach risks reductionism in relation to myriad uses to which sentimentalism can be put, such a general account enables a more nuanced attention to how nostalgia can be strongly future-oriented: sentimentalism in Vietnamese diasporic media culture is routinely inflected by a celebration of production values and audience reach that is strikingly enthusiastic about globalisation (Cunningham and Nguyen 2000). The subtitle of Chow’s book is ‘attachment in the age of global visibility’; and it is the emergence of a new configuration of attachment and visibility that reflects a change in the ‘sentimental aesthetics’ discussed here.


Finally, and perhaps least significantly so far as this paper is concerned, my focus on the sentimental is also motivated by my own relation to these case studies. That is, from 2000 until 2010 I lived in Footscray and worked in the milieu in which these case studies are located. I state this by way of a disclaimer rather than any attempt at theoretical reflexivity: I can boast that I have worked, collaborated, socialised, and in one instance lived with, some of the individuals discussed here. While these perhaps comically literal embodiments of relations of social proximity aren’t my topic, my own nostalgia for this time alerts me to both the dangers and critical opportunities of sentimentalism in relation to recent policy shifts. For however tempting for cultural studies researchers, nostalgia for an earlier model of community arts may not be the best or most useful response. In framing my discussion with this major category of aesthetic theory, I want to encourage those of us still writing about community arts to respond to recent changes by supplementing the critical apparatus of cultural policy studies (which has proven so powerful in the Australian context) with greater attention to the formal expression of aesthetic value embodied in community arts practice. At the very least, learning to appreciate the aesthetics of community arts projects is one way of describing how the local interprets and adapts the new policy terrain in ways that we might regard as exemplary for the field.



Case study 1: the ethos of commitment (Australian Vietnamese Youth Media)


Australian Vietnamese Youth Media was a community media organisation based in Melbourne’s western suburbs from 1996 until 2009, being housed at the Footscray Community Arts Centre (FCAC) for the first eight years. During this period the group was prolific. AVYM developed numerous community theatre and film productions in collaboration with a range of community organisations. Well known theatre shows include Chay Vong Vong, or Running in Circles (1995, 1996, 1998), written by the group’s founding director, Tony Le Nguyen which was an important catalyst in the formation of AVYM; Aussie Bia Om (2001) and Viet Boyz Downunder (2002), directed by the groups’ subsequent director, Huu Tran; Children of the Dragon (2005), and Silence (2008), written by Hoa Pham, who was AVYM’s president after it became an incorporated company in 2006.


There are two reasons for this focus on AVYM in relation to the dissolution of the Community Cultural Development board (CCDB) of the AC which occurred in 2004. Firstly, the defunding of the CCDB had a direct effect on AVYM’s finances. AVYM had been very successful over the years in gaining funding from the CCDB for a number of shows, and in 2000 a CCD fellowship was awarded to its founding director. More significantly, however, was the loss of recurrent funding. In the lead up to the dissolution of the CCDB, the host organisation for AVYM lost its triennial funding and was required to make drastic reductions to its operating budget, including scrapping support for AVYM. Since 1998 FCAC had funded a part time position for an AVYM director, as well as provided access to resources, such as office, rehearsal, workshop and performance space. While AVYM produced several highly successful theatre shows with support from other community and professional arts organisations subsequent to defunding, such as the Vietnamese Community Association, this loss was arguably the major blow to the group’s viability.


So, the temporary defunding of FCAC, and hence AVYM, was centrally related to a sea change in the way in which the Australia Council sought to steer funding for art ‘in and with communities’. Rimi Khan has undertaken extensive research on the ways in which FCAC has reformed itself in line with the AC’s policy directives; it has reduced the number of local community groups it works with, and increased the number of high profile and professional arts associations it pursues (Khan 2010).


After dissolving the CCDB the AC established a new Community Partnerships office to handle CCD as well as other arts projects with what it called a ‘community focus’. The AC’s agenda here has been to shift community arts funding away from a welfarist logic of community development which had underpinned the sector since the mid-1970s, and towards a funding model that would encourage arts projects to become more enterprising in sourcing funding from partner organisations, as well as more focused on quality arts outcomes, meaning arts events perceived to have artistic integrity beyond the community arts sector. In policy documents generated by these transformations the very notion of ‘community’ was steered away from being a key term for locating and redressing socially disadvantaged groups, such as migrant or non- English speaking communities, and remodelled on a new neoliberal vocabulary where community equates with enterprising networks of largely voluntary activity.


Henceforth, working with disadvantaged groups was no longer a default setting for CCD work; of equal significance are enterprising partnerships that can leverage resources from the community sector, and projects that have some traction across the broader arts sector and involve a significant amount publicity. (Indeed, ‘community’ can here mobilise as a term for audience development, no less than channelling support to ‘artists’ communities’).


A good example of a CCD project developed along these lines was Khoa Do’s docu-drama The Finished People. This film was the result a series of outreach video making workshops with homeless and drug-addicted youth that also got a release through Dendy cinemas (one of two independent cinema chains in Australia), DVD distribution with Madman Entertainment (the preeminent distributor of independent and East Asian cinema on DVD in Australia) and a screening on SBS (Australia’s multicultural public TV broadcaster) (Brook 2008). While this project was a spectacular example of how an established welfarist notion of community can be fused with the new requirements for enterprising use of community resources, as noted the meaning of the term community is no longer limited to this sort of model. While this established use of the term ‘community’ will still be operational in the broader CCD sector supported by social services organisations, so far as the AC is concerned community is no longer a byword for disadvantage.


Now it seems to me that this is an ambivalent development so far as multicultural community arts projects are concerned. On the one hand, there is the possibility of articulating new policy rationales for the support of culturally diverse community arts, rationales that are not restricted by a default association of community with groups requiring governmental intervention. On the other hand, with the new incentives to promote partnerships within the professional arts sector there is the danger of community arts with culturally diverse communities being annexed to what Ghassan Hage has diagnosed as ‘cosmopolitan multiculturalism’; that is, the promotion of a generalised consumer relation to cultural diversity at the expense of a focus on the social needs of migrant communities specifically (ie. education, housing, social security, accessible media, and so on). And such a model would of course dovetail with the sort of ‘sentimental economy’ that McKinnie has in mind; indeed, the small screen sentimentalism of Do’s The Finished People was a textbook example of what the state-mediated nexus between creative industries and social inclusion agendas might look like. Here, social disadvantage is not addressed as an effect of structural issues, such as youth unemployment, but rather reduced to the sphere of private melodrama, where personal deficiencies can be redressed via a course of supervised correction and development (Brook 2008).


What is interesting about AVYM is that in the years it was auspiced by Footscray Community Arts Centre it was already trying to move beyond any straightforward welfarist model of CCD work, and indeed, sought to rhetorically establish some distance between itself and its host organisation. Firstly, all three of AVYM’s directors, Tony Le Nguyen, Huu Tran and Hoa Pham, had sought to lift AVYM’s theatre shows out of the community spaces of the western suburbs and stage them in established theatre venues (such as La Mama and Trades Hall in Carlton) where they might find audiences beyond their target groups. However, one of the stated rationales for this concerned less the making of professional arts careers than a politics of access for Vietnamese audiences to established theatre precincts. When Tony Le Nguyen was asked in an interview in 2000 about why it was important for AVYM to produce theatre shows outside the western suburbs and in established professional arts venues, Le Nguyen stated:

    First I want to make a political statement about the right to be in a particular place. Even though Vietnamese have been here over 25 years, there are a lot of spaces where they have never set foot. A lot of Vietnamese tell me they don’t feel comfortable in these spaces [established theatres], that they don’t feel they belong or have a right to be there. (See Goldbard and Le Nguyen 2002, p. 308).


So, the argument for establishing links with the established arts sector concerns the distribution of arts sector resources. The second reason concerns how AVYM’s directors understood the relation between the organisation and its participants as a target group of CCD work. Le Nguyen’s comment ‘we were no longer young’ was of course meant as a joke on the inappropriateness of the group’s name. As such, it tells us about the ways in which AVYM’s directors identified with its members. The name ‘Australian Vietnamese Youth Media’ hence wouldn’t refer to a target demographic that moves through the organisation, but rather everyone involved: a process of ‘organic’ community formation renewed around each project, with the result that the number of people associated with AVYM would in fact grow each year. While the cultivation of a group ethos is a key feature of CCD work generally, where the role of group facilitator is artfully blurred with that of a social peer, in the case of AVYM this mode was highly developed and was a key part of AVYM’s publicity. Le Nguyen has described AVYM as ‘a Vietnamese gang’ that was ‘the adopted child’ of Foostcray Community Arts Centre because ‘they kind of liked us’ (See Goldbard and Le Nguyen 2002, pp. 313-14). These metaphors effectively denegate the historical role of FCAC as the key catalyst and sponsor of the group’s earliest productions in favour of a charismatic narrative that can support the kind of critical autonomy Le Nguyen had actively sought to develop.


Of course the term ‘gang’ also resonates with popular representations of young Vietnamese men it the tabloid media during the 1980s which resurfaced in the late ‘90s (See Teo 2000). AVYM had only just been formed when Howard came to power in 1996: the winding back of multiculturalism as federal policy and increased public attacks on Asian Australians in the late 1990s were formative moments. Arguably a cultural activist ethos has been central to the self- image of many community theatre workers since the 1960s (on the history of community theatre in Australia, see Ervan 2001, pp. 206-42).

So the reference to AVYM as a Vietnamese gang is a familiar type of provocation; it subtly parodies the disciplinary logic implicit to the field of CCD and in so doing finds a viable rhetorical figure for group identity that might hold this logic at arm’s length. Crucial to the irony of this comment is the public persona of Le Nguyen. Popularly regarded as the first Vietnamese Australian actor to have broken into Australian film and television, Le Nguyen is most famous for his appearance in Geoffrey Wright’s 1992 film Romper Stomper, in which he played the so called ‘gang leader’ for a group of young Vietnamese men who take revenge on the local neo- Nazi skinheads. Le Nguyen often referenced this role in bio notes, and as if to underscore this role routinely wore a classic 1950s leather motorcycle jacket in public appearances (cf. Marlon Brando, The Wild One, 1953). However, the affectionately ironic (as opposed to sarcastic) use of this trope shouldn’t distract us from the established ‘disciplinary’ policy arguments regularly mobilised for CCD work: Le Nguyen also states in the same interview that AVYM was ‘using the arts as a way to help people, to give them an outlet to express themselves; their anger, frustration and sadness, whatever is inside of them. If they don’t express themselves artistically, they will do it physically. They’ll hurt someone else, or themselves.’ (See Goldbard and Le Nguyen 2002, p. 310)


The notion of an organic process of group formation is also reflected in AVYM’s name, which changed several times over the years. Beginning as a series of theatre workshops for young Vietnamese called Vietnamese Youth Theatre in 1995, then later Vietnamese Youth Media (from 1998), the group became Australian Vietnamese Youth Media in 2003 to acknowledge the increasingly diverse membership, which included ethnically Chinese Vietnamese-Australians, Vietnamese-Australians who had little involvement with the Vietnamese Australian community (such as Vietnamese-Australians from regional Australia and adoptees), as well as non- Vietnamese Australians. When I asked Le Nguyen about this last development it was described as an incremental and unanticipated development that the group had adapted to. Non-Vietnamese employees at Footscray Community Arts Centre had always assisted with technical aspects of production, and increasingly participants in AVYM productions were drawn from both peer groups as well as another youth theatre program at the centre.


Such incremental changes are another example of the purposeful cultivation of socially organic mode of group formation – AVYM was as much a product of the social space around its host organisation as any agenda in relation to a specific ethnic community. This development can be read as a post-ethnic strategy designed to head-off the sorts of patronising discourses that can frame the reception of migrant Australian cultural production (Yue 2000). AVYM would no longer exist solely for Vietnamese Australians; rather, this Vietnamese Australian organisation would form the social milieu in which ‘culturally inclusive’ work might occur.



Case Study 2: anxious involvements (Footscray by Night)


Footscray by Night refers to a suite of community-based karaoke music videos created by new media artist Hoang Tran Nguyen and CCD worker David Cuong Nguyen for the occasion of the BigWest Festival, a biennial arts festival run by Maribyrnong City Council. Most of the seven videos were filmed in and around a shopping mall of predominantly Vietnamese grocery shops known as Little Saigon. The title refers to the hugely popular Vietnamese American musical productions ‘Paris by Night’ which have been produced in California since the mid-1980s and have circulated in the diaspora since that time. The Footscray by Night videos were screened at a karaoke performance night that took place in the Little Saigon carpark during the festival, and were subsequently made available online (Nguyen and Nguyen 2011). The karaoke videos feature workers from the shopping mall, their customers, a Vietnamese community leader who is also one of the mall’s co-owners, as well as members of local Vietnamese community groups. The videos work with the possibilities for poignant and often humorous juxtapositions between image, music and lyric through the use of Vietnamese popular songs, songs by popular western artists (such as Britney Spears and David Bowie), as well as a Vietnamese language rewrite of the lyrics of a well-known anthem of Australian 1980 popular nationalism ‘Down Under’ by Men at Work. The project was funded by a Community Cultural Partnerships grant from the AC and commissioned by the BigWest festival.


By ‘anxious involvements’ I refer to both a common experience in relation to karaoke and community theatre, as well as the perennial question that confronts Asian Australian artists in relation to the agendas of supporting bodies. As noted, the Community Cultural Partnerships scheme was developed as a replacement for the CCDB and has sought to steer the sector towards a much broader and less prescriptive model of what it loosely describes as ‘art in and with communities’ (Community Partnerships Scoping Study Reference Group 2006, p. 34). It is clear that the commissioning body regarded the project as a means of involving a community that had historically had little involvement with the festival, as well as promoting this involvement to a much larger audience. The creators of Footscray by Night were keenly aware of the public relations aspect of the project. When asked about the rationales for the commission, Dave Nguyen stated ‘We’ve got these guys, they’re Vietnamese and they’re making a project with Vietnamese people in a shopping centre that’s Vietnamese, so that ticks a whole bunch of criteria’ (Low 2012). Nevertheless, the project was not limited to Vietnamese Australian participants, but also involved a group of South Asian men who work for the market unloading and carrying stock. The video ‘Forklift Island’ features these workers taking a break in the loading bay and watching a classical Indian dancer perform on top of a forklift. Dave Nguyen has noted that these workers were the most reluctant to be involved in the project, and this is suggested in the video; their bemused and generally passive engagement with the spectacle of an Indian dance performance is highlighted by the quixotic stage-lighting and smoke effects. Their inclusion gestures toward a continuity with AVYM projects in so far cultural diversity emerges within a Vietnamese Australian context.


While the videos are thematised around Vietnamese diasporic culture and social memory, in several videos these appear as actively learnt activities replete with relations of instruction and performance. The bilingual Vietnamese/English karaoke video ‘Vovinam Shops’ shows a suited martial arts instructor drilling bemused Vietnamese shop keepers and customers in Vovinam, a form of martial arts indigenous to Vietnam that was reputedly developed in the late colonial era by Grand Master Nguyen Loc. According to a somewhat gloomy analysis by Ashley Carruthers, Vovinam functions in community settings as a practical resource for cultural maintenance, one that is appropriate for inculcating traditional values (such as filial piety and deference to gerontocratic social structures) in young people who are regarded as especially vulnerable to ‘loosing’ their cultural roots (Carruthers 1998). The portrait here is of a migrant community more or less in thrall to the ideological indoctrination of first wave Vietnamese refugees seeking to preserve the memory of the Republic of Vietnam. While it would be unwise to overemphasise this interpretation of Vovinam’s social significance in the context of a public display – where it arguably attests more to established cinematic protocols for the display of East Asian pride – this thesis does find support in the fact that the accompanying song is Paul Anka’s ‘Papa’; a US nostalgia era song (and karaoke standard) centrally concerned with recalling the sacrifices and sorrow of one’s parents. The track is notable for being recorded by Tom Jones and has been translated into Vietnamese (‘Cha Toi’) and recorded by western Vietnamese singers such as Trung Hanh and Le Toan. As such, it has been assimilated to that deeply ideological genre of southern Vietnamese music known as ‘nhac vang’, or ‘yellow music’. Nhac vang refers to a style of southern popular music conspicuous for its sentimentalism and openness to western musical forms which was censured by the post-1975 Vietnamese government as an index of western pollution and cultural degeneration (with yellow being equated with a sick body; see Taylor 2001). The genre embodies a passive and tragic aesthetic that is celebrated both inside Vietnam and the diaspora. Nevertheless, the nostalgic mode is ultimately dutiful and future-orientated; memory is a form of vigilance.


‘Vovinam shops’ is a good example of the project’s attempt to connect the embedded blank irony and distracted aesthetics of postmodern visual culture with affective content that might testify to enduring attachments and, indeed, historical memory. While in watching Vovinam Shops the spectre of muzak is never far away, this is partly an effect of not participating in the text at the level of sung performance. Indeed, it is this alternation between performance anxiety and affective effort that is staged across the suite of videos as a whole. ‘Cultural participation’ and ‘community development’ are thematised in the staged actions we see on screen, evident in the display of performative enthusiasm and formality of some participants, no less than the hesitation and awkwardness of others. Just what such actions are meant to achieve represents a genuinely agonistic question that is invoked in a language that is popular, and for which the videos provide a range of tentative and unapologetically local replies.


As public relations exercises for CCD work, the karaoke video thematises the ambivalence of belonging and participation via the onscreen narratives and the essentially privatised nature of this dispersed text, as well as its ambivalent role as cultural broker between audiences. The formal awkwardness of the community theatre show, in which audiences admire the labour of participants and partly suspend aesthetic judgment before a (routinely conflictual) display of the social, is sublimated in the karaoke videos into an altogether cooler and more intimate mode where claims to authenticity are somewhat more circumscribed.



Conclusion

In this paper I have discussed two case studies in support of an account of the ways in which the field of Vietnamese Australian community arts may be registering the effects of the new policy rethinking around CCD. As a question of aesthetics, the changes would appear amenable to more reflexive works that thematise anxieties about the meaning of policy terms like ‘community’, ‘participation’ and ‘development’. In the context of AVYM’s theatre shows, it was at least rhetorically clear that productions were addressed from the margins and to established arts networks in the names of (in the first instance) both access and the development opportunities such access affords. That the primary audience for this act of communication was those associated with the project itself was a key component of the project’s claim to represent a community; an AVYM production not only delivered a group of participants at the end of a long series of workshops and rehearsals, but it also produced an audience with a stake in this kind of production.

In the case of Footscray by Night, relations between makers, participants and audiences are far less certain. While they gesture towards the possibility of more reflective engagements with questions of method, they simultaneously relinquish the security of established routines of community development and the formal promise of accountability these suggest. For within the casual modes of engagement encouraged here, audiences are no longer (it seems to me) recruited to bear witness to the project’s success in terms of established CCD criteria, such as building social capacity in participants or disseminating arts resources. And it is this shifting role of the audience for the CCD project that promises to spur aesthetic ambitions and renew policy anxieties about the community impact of community arts.

In the British context McKinnie has argued that the social objectives of new arts funding arrangements are undermined by the strategic looseness of policy terms themselves: taking a key term of the new social inclusion agenda, ‘participation’, he writes that ‘the definition of participation is so broad as to be virtually meaningless [...] artistic participation becomes a black box where civic aspiration can masquerade as civic outcome’ (McKinnie 2004, p. 192). While the term ‘community’ in community arts policy has been the subject of similar criticism in Australia since the 1980s (Hawkins 1993, p. 159), there is a very real question here of accountability under conditions of policy convergence. While empirical ‘impact of the arts’ studies are a privileged method for addressing these issues, we might also learn to consider the ways in which CCD projects function as rhetorical performances equally addressed to professional debates in the field.



Scott Brook - Journal of Intercultural Studies Vol 35.3 2014



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