marcus westbury

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Perth Talk: Flotillas v. Flagships

August 1st, 2008 by marcus

I was asked recently by the folks at the Department Of Culture and the Arts in WA to take part in a forum about “Creative People” as part of their process to develop an “Umbrella Policy Framework” for the state. I thought it might be useful to post the notes here that i made for that talk…

One of my obsessions at the moment and the focus of the next series of Not Quite Art is our changing cultural geography. By that I mean how the cultures that we are exposed to, that influence and obsess us are circulating in the world.

I grew up in Newcastle, in NSW. When I was a kid, the cultures that I had access to and to which I could contribute were defined by a handful of physical limitations. If music wasn’t played on the radio, available at the local record store or touring through a handful of local venues I couldn’t hear it.
If visual arts weren’t shown in a book or a magazine or a gallery I could physically get to, I couldn’t know about it. If it wasn’t broadcast to me, or I couldn’t physically get to it or records of it, other cultures effectively did not exist.

Through the internet, the proliferation of niche media and the now almost negligible cost of communication, the cultural geography of the world today is incredibly more diverse.

The changing nature of this is particularly significant for a place like Western Australia where so much of the culture is defined by the geography. Not only can you receive culture from all around the world in an isolated place like Newcastle or Perth or Broome or Esperance but – and this is most important to this debate – you can contribute to that culture as well.

For the TV series I’m currently filming, I’ve spent the last little while searching after and filming people who are working in their bedrooms to audiences all around the world. My major realisation is that the world is now full of Creative People with almost no local who have audiences of thousands, hundreds of thousands or millions around the world.

Let me give you some examples.

Last week i interviewed Ben Croshaw, Yahtzee. By most measures Yahtzee is Australia’s most successful cultural critic of his generation. This is despite the fact that he is an English import, lives in Brisbane and his work consists of mainly animated video game critiques.

His work is roughly equal parts a scathing critique, illminating insight into the lazy, formulaic, marketing driven nature of the global video games industry and a rapid fire sequence of smutty dick jokes.

Yahtzee lives in Brisbane. The remarkable thing about his work is that a lot of people watch it and almost no one in Brisbane would ever have heard of him. How many people? At last count about four million people are downloading each episode of his series Zero Punctuation.

To put that in context, last year’s AFL and NRL grand finals rated about 3 and half million people. In comparison this kind of success is almost invisible. I don’t think Brisbane knows that he lives there.

When the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne made the mistake of putting him on in a room with a capacity of about a 150 people last month, they were forced to turn over 300 people away. As one of the staff pointed out to me, “We’ve had real famous people here – movie stars and directors and no one has ever had a reaction like that.”

Alternately, take the example of Paul Robertson an animator in Melbourne. He makes extraordinary animations often in the style of side scrolling computer games. He was in an artist run gallery show in the Next Wave Festival I directed in 2006 and maybe a few thousand people would have seen his work. That’s actually pretty good for an artist run gallery show. That same work has been downloaded by over 700,000 people in the one site (out of about 12) where Paul is keeping track. Given that the work is on Bittorrent and lots of other web sites, you could conservatively estimate that the total audience is at least 3 or 4 times that.

It makes my skills as a festival director pale into insignificance.

Nowhere has this shift in cultural geography been more obvious than in music.  Within a few kilometres of where i live in Melbourne there live at least a dozen bands that I’m aware of that could comfortable fill a 200 seat room in most major European cities. Most of them are rarely if ever played on the radio and you’ve almost certainly have never heard of them.

I make an effort to follow these things. But even I get surprised sometimes.

My brother and i went to Thailand last year. He was walking down a street in Bangkok when he suddenly stopped dead in his tracks. His flatmate’s band was playing out of some kids stereo. Now i am not  massively familiar with the grindcore scene and I was barely aware his flatmate was in a band. I certainly wasn’t aware that Captain Cleanoff might be on high rotation among the youth of Bangkok.

Now chances are if you tend to invest a lot in any specific definition of Art you may not hear much about these kinds of people or care much for some of these people’s works. It probably doesn’t matter.

Our cultural patterns are changing. Less and less is the pattern of success one of building a reputation locally, then touring nationally, and then internationally in the hope that you will eventually find an audience in London or New York or some or other authoritative centre in the rest of the world. Increasingly it is about connecting directly to audiences or potential audiences wherever you or they are. Most of these people are being watched, or listened to, or commented by small committed communities in London and New York RIGHT NOW.

Patterns of success are changing. What is big here is no longer mcuh a key maker about what is significant elsewhere.

SO, given that this forum is ultimately about policy, the question is how to make policy for this? I’ll take the liberty of throwing up some relatively radical quesitons and suggestions about some issues and strategies that we may need to come to terms with.

Firstly, it is less and less the scale or breadth of local interest that determines success but the intensity of it that interest best determines whether work will travel. Arts communities talk about peer assesment – it is useful and vital but who are the right peers for this kind of work?

We need to reconsider our cultural infrastructure. Processes that assume or extrapolate from what is big, well connected, or significant in the local cultural scene often provide a poor estimation of what will succeed elsewhere.

As audiences are fragmenting, one of the most vital settings that point to cultural initiative succeeding is the viability of small scale activity. In a city like Perth, with a high cost of living and real estate that becomes particularly difficult.This creates a serious problem.

We must learn to validate certain things: Work that is distinctive and not loved by everyone but will be very much loved by someone, Work that can find an audience and knows who its audience is, Work of an appropriate scale – I think we invest far too much in the grand scale and too little in the small scale,  We must learn to harness momentum – it’s efficient and necessary in the context a culture that evolves reapidly, and we must Find ways to invest at levels that is appropriate to the work and we must find ways to make policy that embraces Risk.

We need to turn at least some of our attention from the grand scale to the small scale. We should invest at least as much in flotillas as we do currently in flagships. At the very least we should find ways to make an investment on at least the scale of any single flagship company with a remit to invest in and nurture the full diversity of cultural communities within the larger community.

Finally we need to truly start to think globally. We need to look to local creative communities not as oddities and anomalies within the supposed larger communities but as outposts and envoys to the global communities to which they are connected. Most importantly we need to train and support those artists with the skill sets to become significant in those communities.

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9 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Allen Taylor Aug 1, 2008 at 5:34 pm

    Nice writing. You are on my RSS reader now so I can read more from you down the road.

    Allen Taylor

  • 2 Nicholas Faiz Aug 1, 2008 at 10:53 pm

    Nice post.

  • 3 marcus Aug 1, 2008 at 11:12 pm

    Nick, was that comment positive or am i just imagining that?

    Thanks! But now I need to work out exactly what i’ve done wrong :)

  • 4 Nicholas Faiz Aug 2, 2008 at 12:17 am

    Keep thinking about it. I’m sure it will come to you sooner or later.

    We’ll have to have that argument soon.


  • 5 Katharine Neil Aug 2, 2008 at 8:16 pm

    Right on target, as always!

    (Wish I got to meet Yahtzee Croshaw…)

  • 6 Luke Aug 3, 2008 at 7:01 pm

    I’m kicking myself, and have been ever since you walked past me in Perth the other week (you were walking towards the city library).

    I loved NQA series 1 and have watched it quite a few times. I can’t believe that I recognised you but didn’t go up to you and say hi. I guess it’s just not in my range of natural reflexes to stop what I’m doing and dive at people I think I’ve seen on TV. It’s a shame though, that would’ve been an interesting conversation.

  • 7 Tim Webster Aug 5, 2008 at 11:13 am

    It’s probably worth mentioning that even Yahtzee didn’t realise how popular he was. We put him on again at ACMI with Jason Hill in an evening slot in a slightly bigger venue (one of the cinemas) and he was concerned that ACMI would struggle to fill it a second time. It sold out within 45 minutes.

  • […] host Marcus Westbury gave a talk at the Department Of Culture and the Arts in Western Australia and he’s posted his notes for that talk, in which he talks about the show and Yahtzee’s interview in […]

  • 9 Medence Nov 5, 2011 at 6:10 am

    This article make me think about these thing. It is sure that the sitution nowadays are different than in eg. 10 years ago.