The creative residency was a new concept created in response to the Alice Springs Transmission workshop. What a number of artists expressed in a powerful workshop discussion was that to allow for intense vulnerability among artists, it was necessary to first establish a connection with them. The notion of ‘safety’ was key here; you did not need to be best friends with every artist in the room to feel a sense of safety and comfort, which is ultimately necessary for sharing deeply personal experiences and emotions and perform. As a workshop participant (prior to my joining The Last Avant Garde team), I suggested that a residency would be better suited for workshops seeking a similar outcome. That perhaps by allowing for a connection to be created organically over a few days, the result would be a safer creative environment that felt more supportive and secure, thus allowing more participants to open up and share with one another.
Initially, we had these big ideas about the scope of the residency, but it appears the creative universe had other plans for us. We had some difficulty finding the perfect venue and dealt with some missing email dilemmas, meaning that we could not confirm all participants ‘til right before the residency was due to begin. Our number of participants was reduced as a result, but we were keen to get stuck in.
The reduction in numbers, however, meant that we were able to connect with and get to know the other artists in the space better than we would have had more people been present. I believe this helped us reach a clearer understanding regarding the aim of the residency and prospective outcomes.
The group included artists across a number of artforms with overlapping skills and creative practices. We had writers, performers, musicians, visual artists, and aerialists.
At the beginning of the residency, I asked all participants to consider 2 or 3 words to describe what they would like to get out of the workshops. Among others, the most frequent offerings from the group were:
Day One allowed for the initial connections to be made, the foundation from which we would create work from later. Kath felt it was important to ask everyone in the group to contribute a warm up or exercise that everyone could participate in (with the caveats, anyone can adapt or modify each exercise to suit them, and there is no need for seeking permission for such modifications in the space).
Provocation: how often do we as d/Deaf and disabled artists truly have permission to be as we are and to create as we are in any space? There’s a fair amount of conforming required of us to make art in abled spaces.
The residency also started with some important conversations about why were in the room and what we wanted to get out of it. I noted that as a Brisbane-based disabled artist, there seemed to be a lack of a real network or community for disability arts, particularly performing arts. There are organisations that exist, of course, but mostly in their own little corners of the market, with artists rarely collaborating across organisations and networks. That’s something I wanted to help shift; establishing a network of like-minded artists in Brisbane to allow for future collaborations and further creative activities such as this residency.
While we played around with a few activities, I want to make note of one in particular. Kath made the point that as disabled artists, there is often this pressure to excel at whatever it is that we do. We know we have to work ten times as hard to be seen and heard.
With that in mind, she suggested an exercise where we share something we are genuinely bad at, and perform it with confidence. It was an exercise in fearlessness and letting go of this need to be good.
So if you felt you could not sing well, for this task, you sang loudly and proudly.
I cannot dance well at all, and I felt that Irish dancing would be the best way to go. It was awful. Truly truly awful. But we all laughed really hard and left that session feeling invigorated and connected to one another for having shared that experience.
The rest of the residency...
Having four days proved to be advantageous for several reasons, and one being the ability to float in and out as needed. A few participants had competing arts commitments but were still able to participate. Over the next few days we welcomed familiar faces into the space, said goodbye to some, and continued sharing our artforms with one another.
One activity I would like to mention is one designed to challenge our impulses and our urges when performing. While we had spent time establishing a ‘safe’ space for sharing with and trusting one another, it became clear that there is such a thing as being too safe. Artists are at risk of becoming complacent or (dare I say it) boring if we do not challenge ourselves.
With that in mind, my instructions were simple: we’re going to have a race from point A to point B, but the goal is to come second. That’s right – we weren’t allowed to win!
We modified this task a few times – now we’re racing, but as slowly as possible. Who can be the first to cross the finish line while moving extremely slowly?
Now, what if we moved as fast as possible but the goal was to finish the race last?
Not only did this challenge our awareness of ourselves, our bodies, and the bodies of those around us, but it also challenged our purpose in a performance space. How can we invent new ways of moving and interacting with a creative space that allows to complete the task?
On day three, we were blessed to have David Truong perform a few songs for us, and Tim Brown from Access Arts came in to say hello. We enjoyed David’s music (check out Ambition Road!) and had a conversation about the NDIS as a self-managed artist. This was a wonderful opportunity to share and learn, but to also slow things down for a moment. The residency allowed us to meet our needs and as we started to feel weary, taking things slowly helped us recentre. We also invited participants to share their practice by either presenting a short performance or sharing images of their work and talking about them. This was a fantastic opportunity to share at our own pace and connect with one another on a deeper level.
The final moments...
I mentioned earlier that the purpose of this longer residency was to forge relationships and establish an environment of safety and trust among the group. This allows for deeper connections and greater creativity.
With that in mind, on day four, I asked participants to share something they really want to say in that exact moment. I encouraged one or two lines only, to be written on cards that would be placed in the centre of the circle. Some of these cards read:
“The tiredness looms + overwhelms
like a storm that never ends.
My eyes are heavy, my body aches,
volatility taking root in my head.”
“Community – common unity – this my place
Love to be with my friends/family in this creative space.
So happy! Please let me know if I get in your face.
Just tell me (with love)
to get off your case.”
“FREAK PRIDE – reclaim freak.”
“I worry about ‘bite size chunks’.
One bite is all it takes to make you feel like eating every piece in the bag.”
“In our own ways I want us all to move + dance more + make more.”
“A half baked smile and controlled laughter
-sarcasm and cynicism hiding behind
I must pretend for your comfort
the cost- slowly loosing my mind.”
After we read some of these cards aloud, we encouraged everyone to pick a card that wasn’t their own and find a space in the room to embody it somehow. Rather than performing for each other, we all performed separately but in the same space, in and around one another’s performances.
The magic of this moment came when we could no longer ignore the others. We could keep our own movement and performance in mind, but the urge to interact was far too strong. This became a beautiful hybrid of improvisation and connection that led to some beautiful moments, such as showing kindness to a hard character and watching them soften up through interaction or miming the sharing of chocolates among strangers who eventually gathered together.
In the end, we were sitting in a circle again. We didn’t have much time left in the day but we briefly discussed the power of what we had just taken the time to do. I felt a weight in the room. Normally this would indicate something sinister, but on this occasion, I think the cumulative shared experience felt impossible to describe but incredibly meaningful.
What did we learn?
Ultimately, I think this residency confirmed what we already knew. Trust and vulnerability takes time. But an unexpected learning was that to establish trust with one another, we also need to trust ourselves and our contribution to the space. Kath’s activity on day one (do something you’re bad at) helped challenge the expectations we have of ourselves. We loosened up. As the days progressed, we contributed earnestly and honestly because we had diligently taken the time to let others speak, and to speak ourselves. We heard each other. We heard ourselves.
There is so much more I would like to do with this residency format in future. I see great potential in the cultural exchange of experiences and ideas, and how this intersects with trust and vulnerability in artmaking processes. I think it also has great impact on collaborative artmaking processes, in that perhaps the mainstream arts organisations can learn from the way in which d/Deaf and disabled artists make work together. It is not necessarily harder, but it does require a level of commitment and open-mindedness from everyone in the room.
This experience is an excellent added component to the research workshops held across Australia. Similar residencies would work well in communities where d/Deaf and disabled artists are seeking to build a network or community of artists with which to collaborate. It would also work well in a modified format for professional arts organisations seeking to diversify their own creative practices, welcoming d/Deaf and disabled artists into a residency space and collaborate directly with them. I look forward to implementing the learnings from this experience into my own creative practice, and hope that artists feel empowered to challenge themselves (and others) by adopting a similar format in their practice, too.
With thanks and gratitude to Queensland Theatre for hosting us during this residency!