Why we need greater support for cross-disciplinary artists – especially women

Tamara Saulwick

Artistic Director of Chamber Made, Tamara Saulwick, reflects on the lack of time and opportunity for artists to gather and talk about the work they want to see, and offers a practical solution.
Why we need greater support for cross-disciplinary artists – especially women

The Rabble’s Emma Valente at Chamber Made’s Little Operations development stream, 2014. Photo credit: Daisy Noyes.

Quite some years ago now I undertook an undergraduate degree majoring in drama, dance and design.  I loved it. We made our own works, undertook design and production roles for one another’s shows, learned how to collaborate, and in the process formed enduring creative relationships. This multidisciplinary education was, and continues to be, rare in the performing arts.

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Perhaps because of this training it always seemed natural to me to work across art forms and certainly a cross-art form sensibility found its way into how I conceive and construct work. I subsequently became increasingly interested in sound and music and how they might intersect with my live performance practice. These combined interests eventually led me to my current role as Artistic Director of Chamber Made.

At Chamber Made, our remit is to support, develop and present work located at the intersection of performance, sound and music. It is a space rich with potential that sees artists from discrete disciplines come together in collaboration to stretch and extend the boundaries of their practice. So we are often working with artists from quite different scenes.

Stepping into a leadership role here has made me reflect more deeply on this question: how do artists from disparate disciplines meet and come to understand one another’s creative process?

One thing that keeps striking me is what I would describe as the lack of time and opportunity to gather.

As an artistic community we seldom meet and talk collectively about how we make work, or the work we want to make and see. There’s certainly precious little time in any given rehearsal period, where invariably the focus is on forward momentum and outcomes.

The few opportunities that do exist to gather with larger groups of peers are likely to see other conversations prioritised. Industry forums often focus on the social and political context of making work, academic conferences tend to emphasise the theory around the practice, and arts markets largely see meaningful discussion replaced with elevator-pitches and economics.

Yet, when it comes to the work itself, there is so much to talk about! And the desire to do so with one’s peers is compelling. However for those of us who work in cross-art form spaces, our collaborators are not necessarily hanging out in the same post-show foyers as we are. In Melbourne for example, you might find theatre makers and directors are at Malthouse or Theatre Works. Composers and musicians at Melbourne Recital Centre or any number of smaller venues dotted throughout the city. How do we even find each other to have these conversations?

There are artists making work that challenges art form borders but the endeavour seems limited to projects and the rehearsal room, not part of a broader cultural conversation. Our training institutions, funding sources and presentation contexts continue to subscribe to more traditional delineations. There are some notable exceptions in venues such as Arts House or The SUBSTATION, where the curatorial frame opens out beyond the typical art form silos.

Perhaps this is why we’ve had such an enthusiastic response from peers to the upcoming Chamber Made event Hi-Viz: Practice Exchange — a day for women and non-binary artists who are working at the intersection of performance, sound and music.

Hi-Viz, presented with The SUBSTATION, is a day of discussions, exchanges and interactions aimed at deepening dialogue around cross-art form practice, building relationships, and nurturing new understandings between artists from discrete art form disciplines.  Since announcing the event we have had a steady stream of composers, sound artists, and performance-makers booking to come along.

We had a similarly enthusiastic response to our recent Orange House by the Sea Artist Residency for mid-career women and non-binary artists. It seems there is a real hunger among women artists in this space to connect: with a company like Chamber Made and with each other.

You may well ask why these initiatives are for non-male artists. The statistics around the paucity of women in key sound and composition roles in Australia’s arts landscape are heartbreaking – in major theatre companies, women held just 6% of sound designer and composer roles in 2017. Australia Council research tells us that women have the lowest professional representation as composers than any other arts discipline at just 27% despite being 50% of those studying music.

I find these numbers dispiriting and yet admit they reflect some of my own ingrained habits as an artist. Certainly in recent years the majority of my artistic collaborators have been men. For the most part I began working with particular male artists because I had seen and/or heard their work (often in multiple contexts) and liked it.  Their work was visible. Women artists simply don’t have the same level of visibility to their male counterparts.

There’s been some instructive research in communication theory around collaboration and proximity. It is kind of obvious really – the more we find ourselves in the proximity of others, the more likely we are to have substantive conversations and form collaborative relationships with them.

The other factor that plays into the likelihood of future collaborations is past collaborative ties. We all know that work breeds work, right? This is why we return time and time again to the collaborators with whom we have established strong relationships. Why wouldn’t we?

The catch is that often these go-to relationships stay insular and enclosed. In this particular instance we have identified an issue around gender. Most of the people in the room are men. Women find it hard to get a look in. Other biases and entrenched habits also come into play and can shut people out for reasons of class, background, age or other circumstances.

With Hi-Viz, Chamber Made is aiming to address some of these extenuating factors: proximity, visibility, and – even though it’s just one day – a little bit of that precious resource, time.  

We want to make a place and a space for women and non-binary performance-makers, sound artists and composers to be with each other. We hope this will start a new set of conversations, help people find each other outside of those siloed rehearsal room and foyer spaces, and plant the seeds for new creative relationships.

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NOTE: Hi-Viz is now sold out. Chamber Made will be audio recording the event and this will be available on our website. We also hope to hold another Hi-Viz in 2019. To keep up to date please visit our website and sign up to our eNews: chambermade.org

About the author

Tamara Saulwick is the Artistic Director of Chamber Made.