Digging into the Roots of Big hART in Tasmania

Between 6 and 10 July, I attended the 22nd Performance Studies International Conference at the university of Melbourne. It was weird to land in the middle of a southern Australian winter after the sauna that was Singapore. It was also good in many ways, because I caught up with some old friends and was able to meet up with our ICAF guest curator Tania Cañas, who took me around her city to visit the legendary Footscray Community Arts Center. Footscray is one of the undisputable pioneers of Australian community arts and in the basement of the building I spent a lovely couple of hours with South-Sudanese filmmaker Ez who works for Co-Health.

On July 10, I boarded a small propeller plane to fly south to a diminutive airport in northern Tasmania. It was here, in the town of Burnie, that in 1992 Scott Rankin and a friend founded Big hART, the multi-disciplinary arts organization that has caused furor in Australia ever since. With offices in Tasmania, Melblurne, and Sydney and several long-term projects in various stages of development at one time, Big hART is impressive in its ambitions to really make a difference through high quality participatory art. And it is unrivalled in its ability to attract funding for its work from beyond the arts circuit.

Footscray 3

During three days I had the privilege of digging into the roots of Big hART by studying a recent research report on three of its projects written by scholars from Murdoch University, Queensland Institute of Technology and Durham University in the UK. I was pleased to see that it employed a mix of research methodologies, including ethnography, which I have long believed to be a key to a balanced perspective on community arts. After reading in the mornings in a cozy beach cabin with a heavy storm raging outside I would spend the afternoon discussing it in depth with Scott Rankin. He drove me around to places where Big hART had worked in its early years and where the company continues to operate in what is arguably the poorest and most under-resourced region in Australia.

Saap prop plane

During our drives, we spoke about possible ways Big hART could be involved in our next ICAF. With six projects currently on the stove, we agreed to postpone a decision until September when access to resources would have become clearer. At the very least, ICAF will have the honour to present the European premiere of the Namatjira documentary and at best a complete live production. So stay tuned to find out what Big hART and ICAF are able to cook up between now and March 2017, the year of both Big hART’s and Rotterdams Wijktheater’s 25th anniversary.

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