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RT PROFILER 3, 21 MAY 2014

Nostalgia for the Drive-In and ‘Community Arts’

Rebecca Conroy: Willoh S Weiland, Aphids artistic director

The Drive-In Project, Aphids The Drive-In Project, Aphids
photo Amelia Ducker
A line of cars stretches over a kilometre as they inch their way slowly into the Dromana Drive-In. Tonight, Aphids the Melbourne-based hybrid artists company is premiering The Drive-In Project—the culmination of 18 months working with a quirky alliance of communities from the Mornington Peninsula including the Dromana Senior Citizen’s Marching Ladies, Ulysses Motorcycle Club (Mornington Wanderers and Two Bays branches), Rosebud’s Astral Theatre Society, Frankston Symphony Orchestra, Mornington Peninsula Chorale, the Kunyung Primary School and the Peninsula Youth Music Society.

While working in the nearby National Park for another development, Aphid’s artistic director Willoh S Weiland had been driving past the Dromana Drive-In site each day. Fuelled by the heady mix of nostalgia that only a drive-in can elicit, Weiland jumped at the chance to use the site when she heard the owner was replacing all the 35mm projectors with digital. Her dream to combine a staged live event with the making of a short experimental film thus evolved. Her dream also incorporated that of one of the locals, Evan Noble, whose story of how he communicated through musicals as a child forms the key conceptual narrative. Directed by Weiland and co-written with Elizabeth Dunn, Lara Thoms, Tristan Meecham, Finale is described as “a short film of serious magnitude.” The production, performed entirely by a cast of locals, is slow moving and strange, with a David Lynch quality. The premiere evening also included a selection of live radio interviews with participants and artists, broadcast prior to Finale, followed by a curated program of video art (by Jared Davis) and finishing with a screening of the Gillian Armstrong classic feature film, Starstruck (1982).

Aphids offers an interesting lens through which to examine the situation of artists currently working with communities. As a company that is artist-led and whose small collaborative team also produce each other’s work, Aphids’ preferred approach to working with community is to offer an open invitation for them to participate in the making of contemporary art. It’s a different approach to that of CCD practitioners and large community arts organisations whose programs are generally designed around intentions to address and remediate complex social problems. While Aphids acknowledge the significant work done by community artists in this area, Weiland is circumspect about the kind of instrumentalising of art for these purposes. The Aphids team are clear in their desire for the company to remain artists working explicitly in the creation of hybrid, experimental and contemporary work, alongside and with community. For example, in The Drive-In Project, participants were selected based on their desire to perform and take part in the experience of making a film and are represented by groups organised around the performative and visual. Significantly these groups were also from an area in the Mornington Peninsula area where Aphids had already been working for a number of years.

Finale, film still Finale, film still
courtesy Aphids
The debate about art and community has shifted in recent years as the market driven imperatives of use-value within the context of advanced neoliberalism have pushed funding paradigms to validate and measure the efficacy of arts in the community. It has also pushed an agenda for the arts to remediate the excess of social dysfunction when other parts of the government funded housing, healthcare and education systems have failed, leaving many artists working in complex social situations requiring long term solutions. Reflecting on this, veteran community arts leader Scott Rankin wrote in Arts Hub recently (“The Emperors New Social Work,” Wednesday 23 April) about how young Aboriginal boys engaged in high-level international arts events nonetheless return home to reoffend. His argument speaks to the complexity of intergenerational poverty, violence, substance abuse and entrenched dysfunction within these communities—for which art is no singular solution and certainly not in the short term. But his concern is not just with the inability of the arts to deal with these problems, he is also equally concerned with the quality of the artists engaged, their competencies and the honesty with which these programs are evaluated and assessed and how learnings as failures are chalked up, rather than reintegrated into improved programming.

Somewhat exacerbating this, or perhaps interestingly coincidental, has been the rise of participatory/exchange based live arts or socially engaged artists whose work places them in community settings which become the material with which to create work. This has been written about much by academics—referred to as the “social turn” in the arts, by academics such as Claire Bishop, Shannon Jackson, Grant Kester et al. In Melbourne last year the conference Spectres of Evaluation attempted to address questions about the efficacy of community arts, the evaluation tools used to gauge the effect of art and the protocols of artists working in community. Presented by The Centre for Cultural Partnerships, VCA & MCM, University of Melbourne & Footscray Community Arts Centre, it was also an attempt to historicise community arts practices in Australia, to develop a more robust discourse appropriate to the changing landscape of Community Arts practice within an emerging contemporary context of “socially engaged arts.” The conference brought together a broad cross section of academics, community arts practitioners, policy makers, non-government agents and contemporary artists. This proved to be a double-edged sword as the sheer diversity of participants revealed sharp differences in genealogies and languages and prevented a maturation of discussion of the many points of difference into a full fledged debate that could evolve into a new set of languages with which to arrive at some new place. This seemed to be a missed opportunity to articulate and acknowledge a kind of in-betweenness or straddling as a radical position which could be adopted strategically by the ‘sector.’

The Drive-In Project, Aphids The Drive-In Project, Aphids
photo Bryony Jackson
As Weiland remarks, “As collaborating artists we are always trying to work out our strategy around that particular problematic—none of us comes to this from a Community Cultural Development background at all; it’s very much from the art.” Aphids are very careful to be clear about their role as makers of contemporary art—which implies the experimental, or as Weiland puts it, “Weird art.” For the Drive In project, the process and the product were treated as two separate (but related) entities. This allowed for the film process to evolve with all the care and attention required for working with several large and different community groups. As Weiland notes, in this way the making of the film was informed by a more traditional community theatre practice model, while the post-production of the film and the drive-in event were directed by Aphids. The project was also based on long-term relationships they had built up through other projects. For example Evan Noble, the key protagonist in the film, was involved in an earlier project with the company.

The audience rolled on in and tuned their car stereos to pick up the film sound track. As familiar faces appeared and members of the community recognised themselves on the extremely large screen, the sound of cheers and rowdy car horns interrupted the film—the perfect complement to the sound track, and a great night out.

Aphids, The Drive-In Project, artists Willoh S Weiland, Liz Dunn, Lara Thoms, Tristan Meecham, cinematography Andy Lane, composer Kelly Ryall, Dromana, Mornington Peninsula, 1 Feburary, 2014;

RealTime issue #120 April-May 2014 pg. web

© Rebecca Conroy; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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