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This is Not Art

Fiona Mackrell

THIS IS NOT ART: From its early Newcastle fringey beginnings in the late 90s to its development as a niche national arts festival that happens to be in Newcastle TINA’s inspired passion and enthusiasm, internal debate about direction and growth.
This is Not Art
For some time now, about 13 years actually, emerging and independent arty types have been following something of an inversion of the salmon up a stream instinct to an event called This Is Not Art, or TINA. They’ve been creating, experimenting and discovering their art all around the country much like the Bunyip of Barkley’s Creek and asking themselves ‘what am I?’ Then perhaps surprisingly, they sense that the answer to the question is in Newcastle. With the magic of synchrony they congregate there over a Labour Day long-weekend in October to share what they can do and what they’re experimenting with others of like minds before retreating back to where they’ve come from. Some even do it the next year too, and the next... The festival brings together five strains of creative community and mixes them together under the umbrella of This Is Not Art. There’s the Crack Theatre Festival for the fringe-theatre fringers; Critical Animals, which turns loose post-grads and honours student to talk critical contexts; Sound Summit which is a festival that supports innovative independent music; Electrofringe for experimental electronic arts and culture and the National Young Writers Festival. From its early Newcastle fringey beginnings in the late 90s to its development as a niche national arts festival that happens to be in Newcastle TINA’s inspired passion and enthusiasm, internal debate about direction and growth. But why Newcastle? The answer to why is both simple and complex. Simple because that’s where it started thanks to an active creative community and the influence of enlightened artrepreneur and cultural commentator Marcus Westbury. And complex, well, for lots of reasons. It’s a small coastal town, it’s flat, the locals are arty and those who aren’t don’t seem to mind an influx of creative types each year. Most of the events are free, you’ve just got to get there. Then Newcastle is close to Sydney, its airport, and the transport is good. It has nice weather. Those are a few of the other reasons. When Sarah Howell, Co-director of National Young Writers Festival first started coming to TINA from Tasmania, Newcastle’s relative size was a lot less threatening that coming to either Sydney or Melbourne. ‘It’s sort of a leveller coming to a small place.’ The venues are all close together too, which makes the festival easy to navigate. The destruction of heavy industry and parts of the town’s economy thanks to globalisation has left lots of largely empty spaces that can serve as spaces to hold experimental and eclectic art events. They have been the inspiration for Westbury new passion, facilitating artists accessing empty and under-utilised spaces. Yet, another reason it seems to have such a great vibe is that so many people have to travel there – then they stay for five days. ‘Everyone converges and everyone travels to it, if they’re not already there,’ says Daniel Green, co-director of Electrofringe. ‘You have a captive audience… but the artists as well, just wandering around.’ There’s the opportunity for instant feedback and dialogue. Conversations don’t finish at the end of the session or when you leave a gallery space or a gig. You’ll bump into people all over town, at different events and venues. ‘I couldn’t even begin to tell you how important I think that component of TINA is,’ says Green. People who are inspired by the conversations they have with artists, by what they see, and who appreciate what TINA has given them.’ Those are the people he says, who go on to volunteer to take on roles in the organisation of the festival, and try to replicate that experience and passion for others. People who go all seem to talk about the strong sense of community that TINA has. It builds networks, friendships and passion. For Sarah Howell, TINA not only connected her with other artists in Tasmania, and provided a support group of great friends when she moved to Melbourne, she met her husband through the festival. But ultimate it’s who participates in This Is Not Art and what they do there that makes it so inspiring for those who go. ‘I’ve always said it’s a festival that’s got all participants and no spectators. The prerequisite for going to TINA is that you participate and that you make stuff,’ says Marcus Westbury. It’s not a festival of headliners, Westbury says, there’s a few people who’s names you’d be familiar with but there’s not a lot of celebrities. Instead there are 300 or more events each appealing to 20 to 100 people. ‘It’s this collection of small scale DIY initiative-based kinds of people coming together over the course of a few days and bouncing off each others energy.’ ‘It’s a great place to come through, try lots of things, get really good at them then go somewhere that pays you,’ says Westbury of Newcastle. And a place to fail for a while, he laughs. It’s far enough off the map that… if you’re capable of learning from your own mistakes you get enough goes at it to get good. It’s much harder to feel that you can do that in the middle of a big city. Frankly the first half dozen projects I did in Newcastle if I’d done them in the middle of Fitzroy or Newtown, it would have been a very public series of mistakes that a lot of people would have seen and people would have struggled to take me seriously afterwards.’ In other words, it’s a place to take risks, to explore and to learn. In Newcastle there’s always been the sense that you are entitled and able to make your own fun, whatever that is: from gallery shows to theatre performances to festivals and events, or whatever else and I think that’s always been part of the ethos there, says Westbury of his hometown. ‘It’s got a very participatory sense of what its culture is.’ And that seems to have flowed through into the participatory nature of the festival itself. Almost all positions are voluntary based on two-year terms. The panels are kept fresh, and topical not just thanks to the rolling turn-over of people at the top but because the program is drawn from the annual call out of submission and what the artist’s suggest. Each of the five festivals consult at monthly meetings as they plan their programmes avoiding doubling up, finding opportunities for collaboration and discussing where certain kinds of events are best placed. Sarah Howell explains that the National Young Writers has a strategy of recruiting mostly new artists and of providing a broad spectrum of voices in events. ‘Personally, when I first attended the festival, I knew very few people who were part of that scene,’ she says. We are quite conscientious in making the programme open to anyone to engage with, they don’t have to be part of the insider scene.’ They also try to limit artists who have attended before to around 30% of those invited. You also don’t have to stick with any one crowd, one stream or one area of interest. In Newcastle, says Sound Summit Co-Director, Andrew Tuttle, you’ll see some music things but you’ll also just happen to wander into a fantastic theatre performance or lecture. People aren’t siloed into one form of art practice and they’re encouraged to move our of their own cultural bubbles. That of course, is in part because the program and the venues don’t signpost which of the festival streams they’re part of, they only go by time. It’s can be a bit of lucky dip. ‘You’d be astounded the amount of time we spend trying to work out whether or not that’s a good idea,’ says Daniel Green. ‘Every year, the same conversation happens.’ But the interaction of festival goes with new and unexpected influences is integral to the This Is Not Art experience. Generally, all these reasons mean Newcastle is compared favourably as a home for a national festival like TINA over bigger cities like Melbourne or Sydney. But after thirteen years it’s not surprising that questions of whether the festival should be growing, touring, moving or stretching are raised from time to time. Nor perhaps is it unforeseeable that debate arises about the identity of the festival between Newcastle natives and out-of-town TINAers. It’s a natural tension that arises from having a national festival in one relatively small place. Back around 2000, says Tuttle, pretty much everyone who was a director of the various festivals lived in Newcastle. But gradually that’s flipped to the point where most of the directors come from outside Newcastle. An increased focus on Newcastle content has been a big plus this year for Sound Summit, thanks largely to the in depth local music scene knowledge of Newcastle based Co-Director Chris Hearne. ‘There are really great things coming out of Newcastle that are really under appreciated by the rest of the country,’ says Tuttle. But the same may be said for artists and musicians in other regional areas. Although the numbers aren’t solid a few thousand people turn up each year to the festival, and as Marcus Westbury says, that just about books out the available accommodation. It puts something of a physical capacity cap on numbers and they haven’t grown that significantly for several years. The current organization structure is a limitation too. If it got much bigger it would need more money, more infrastructure, volunteers just wouldn’t be able to do it and that would inevitably change the culture. There’s always been some discussions of how to grow the festival while staying true to the aims of staying in Newcastle and being an independent festival, says Andrew Tuttle. ‘Personally I think the festival could get bigger,..I think the idea of having the festival plateauing is one that is a little dangerous as… there can be a certain complacency.’ It’s a fringe festival the whole point of such a thing is that it pops up,’ says, Daniel Green. ‘How big does it need to be?’ But more people are likely to want to come despite its niche handle. ‘It’s a low pressure, low cost, high reward weekend where you can meet a lot of amazing people, really stimulate your mind and dance a lot,’ says Andrew Tuttle. Most of the year Newcastle is like a lot of other regional towns but at Festival time, says Sarah Howell, you do see the ‘creative’ types in the streets. ‘And the locals like to yahoo at us from the cars… There is an excitement. ‘You’re walking around and you’re seeing other people and you’re going ‘they’re my people’ I don’t know them yet but I might over the next five days.’ This Is Not Art Festival Independent, Emerging & Experimental Arts Festival Newcastle, Australia 30th September – 4th October 2010-10-07 For more information visit

About the author

Fiona Mackrell is a Melbourne based freelancer. You can follow her at @McFifi or check out