A university with collaboration at its core

A first year course that brings together performing and visual arts students is the ideal start to an arts education and it is just one of the ways Arts Academy does things a little bit differently.

When artists work together they create something greater than themselves, works that truly resonate with the communities they represent. Those ideas are the foundation of Dr Jill Orr’s teaching style at the Federation University’s Arts Academy.

Orr is a celebrated artist known for collaborative works fusing installation and performance, and is now a senior lecturer at the Arts Academy which stretches across two campuses in Ballarat and Gippsland. In the very first year of study, she brings together students from the Bachelor of Performing Arts and Bachelor of Visual Arts in that same spirit, cross-pollinating artforms.

But how do you draw together separate artists and different artforms?

Orr starts with the basics they can all interpret personally. ‘We give them the proposition to work with flour, water and paper,’ she smiled, knowing that within these deceptively simple materials lies the chance to translate their own ideas and identities.

While some educators might force artforms into silos, Orr has experienced the way creativity can work together with her own performance installations, which have featured in spaces from Beijing to New York. Her work is also collected in many galleries including the National Gallery of Australia, and others.

Orr never loses sight of the student experience, however, and how freeing up her own practice as an emerging artist created greater opportunities for experimentation.

‘I think even as a student myself, I chose sculpture because you could make a painting in sculpture and still call it a sculpture. And I found that really interesting. You could really do anything in the name of art,’ Orr laughed.

Keeping with community

Located in Ballarat, Federation University is rooted in its community with a charter to not only link with the city but also enhance it through art.

Orr’s collaboration subject bridges the gap between arrival in Ballarat and student’s origins. ‘The basic question we’re asking students is: Where have I come from? And why am I here – including their ideas of actually arriving in specifically Ballarat? So we’re hoping that we can help them create a link between the idea of where they’ve come from, and where they are now,’ Orr told ArtsHub.

‘You could really do anything in the name of art.’

This question sees students addressing what Orr calls ‘Australia’s psychic wound’, as art addresses colonialism, identity and global challenges. For a first-year student, these issues can be dizzying, so Orr sees the back-to-basics approach as key to success.

‘We’ve run this program for about three years now. And what it’s done is help the whole school get to know each other. So rather than everybody in their silos, what this collaborative subject really does is help build a community.’

Collaboration has been a characteristic of Arts Academy alumni including comedy group Aunty Donna and visual artist David Noonan.

That breaking-up of silos also looks beyond academia to deeply connect with Ballarat as a place and its people. The collaboration subject, for example, culminates with a very public expression at an exhibition at the Ballarat Heritage Festival and Where do I come from? I ask myself!, a public performance in Ballarat’s historic courthouse building on 29 May.

Orr confided: ‘I have actually just secured a place for the project’s exhibition – it’s pretty exciting because we have access to empty shop windows and we can put all our photographs [there]. So they’ll be relatively large scale and visible from across the street but still within the Arts Academy. So it will be a stunning public face for our project.’

And for Ballarat the shopfronts represent a daily moment of art that calls them to connect and reflect.

Find out more about the lecturers and teaching philosophy that makes Federation University’s Arts Academy unique.

George Dunford is Director of Content at ArtsHub and Screenhub. He has written for Meanjin, The Big Issue, Lonely Planet, The Good Food Guide and others. He has worked in digital leadership roles in the cultural sector for more than 10 years including at the National Library of Australia, National Museum of Australia and the Wheeler Centre. You can follow him on Twitter: @Hack_packer