16 August 2019
In summary: Gender Diversity in Music and Art Conference, Perth
© Phoebe Green
The Gender Diversity in Music and Art Conference was hosted on 16-19 July 2019 by the University of Western Australia. It was the third iteration of a conference that began in 2017 as 'Women in the Creative Arts', born out of the need to formally highlight the work of women in the academic and performance spheres. (Liza Lim's keynote from WiCA in 2017, to my mind, still articulates the need for a conference such as this).
Early on, there was a united call to extend the focus to be gender inclusive. This year's conference in Perth built on previous discussions and feedback of what a 'gender diversity' conference could look like, in wonderful and creatively diverse ways. Despite four days of rigorous research being shared, this 'conference' felt much more like a gathering of minds - artists that are interested in sharing and hearing what is currently being explored, poked, considered, and questioned.
Convenor Louise Devenish (Chair of Percussion, UWA) cleverly gathered a brilliant committee including Gender Diversity Chair Shoshana Rosenberg, Sarah Collins and Cecilia Sun from the Conservatorium of Music and Ionat Zurr and Tarsh Bates from the School of Design and Symbiotica.
This conference, or gathering, achieved a unique and welcome blend of discourse across music and art. The conference opened with a Welcome to Country by Whadjuk Noongar woman Ingrid Cumming that set the tone for an inclusive, open, and respectful four days of discussion that was keenly aware of its place and time.
The opening concert featured artists in residence Robyn Schulkowsky (her first time in Australia) and Vanessa Tomlinson, and Louise Devenish. The electric performance of Schulkowsky's Armadillio (1990-2007) featuring percussionists across three generations electrified the conference. Schulknowsky may not be known to Australian audiences as prominently as she deserves. She has built relationships with many of the most significant composers of the latter 20th century, including Karlheinz Stockhausen, Iannis Xenakis, Morton Feldman, John Cage, Christian Wolff, and György Kurtág, having premiered and recorded some of the most important solo percussion works of the 20th and 21st centuries. She has an ability to conjure sounds from whatever she is playing that is simply mesmerising. She had a generous and inquisitive spirit throughout the conference and connected with many people. You can read a review of the performance here.
There were three enthralling keynotes from a diverse range of practitioners across music and art. Irish-born composer and performer Jennifer Walshe's body of work is vast, as demonstrated by her keynote. Walshe spoke about three recent examples of her work to display her current thinking and practice: working with the Arditti Quartet at the Darmstadt Summer course for new music; with a girls' choir in Germany where communication exchanged between the girls and Walshe allowed the teenage experience to be built into the work; and working with AI technology. Walshe spoke about specificity of place through the concept of terroir. The term originated with French winemakers, describes 'how a wine is the product of a specific point in space and time, linked to climate, soil, geography, as well as the organisms that live in, on and around the vineyards'. This kind of specificity resonated with me as I thought of the lineage of the long tradition of cultural practices in Australia.
Dr Sandy O'Sullivan is an Aboriginal (Wiradjuri) Associate Professor and Deputy Head of the School of Creative Industries at the University of the Sunshine Coast. O'Sullivan spoke of the almost decade-long internationally focused ARC research project that examined the representation and engagement of First Nations' Peoples across 470 museums and keeping places. In a thoroughly fascinating and engaging keynote, O'Sullivan challenged us as listeners, whilst also challenging the 'museum' gate-keepers, on what representation means, and what it could look like for us.
Trans-disciplinary artist Nicole Monks spoke about how her work are living examples of her connection to community, collaboration, country and culture. Monks is of Yamatji Wajarri, Dutch and English origin, sharing stories of her practice through the lens of her culture, family, and community - it is all entwined in beautiful and moving ways. Monks gave examples across her work that spanned art, interior design, collaboration and installation. Her work can be seen here.
Panel: Industry Approaches to Diversity
Early on in the proceedings was a panel 'Industry Approaches to Diversity', featuring representatives from Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts (PiCA), Tura New Music, West Australian Opera (WAO), WASO, WAM and the UWA School of Design. The panel was fascinating in many respects. Representatives from PiCA, Tura, and WAM proved themselves to be not only aware but pro-active in changing the gender diversity presence in their activities. Meanwhile it is clear that large music bodies such as WASO and WAO do struggle in this area.
Members of the conference offered many suggestions and resources to the major arts bodies in approaching diversity. The responses were, at times, defensive, to the point of being almost resigned to the shackles of heritage (and the presumptions regarding audience). Music Director of WAO Chris van Tuinen may be one to watch - he acknowledged, for instance, that he wouldn't program Rigoletto due to themes in its content - to the mild horror of the board member of WAO sitting next to him. It would have been very interesting for this panel to have taken place towards the end of the conference, after many conversations had taken place.
It would have also been quite useful for some of these panel members to hear other presentations: practitioners speaking about how they have diversified their practice, how strategies have developed and experiments have paid off. Some great stats from ABC Classic FM's Naomi Johnson and Matthew Dewey showed a steady increase of women composers on the air, and the fact that audiences love great music regardless of gender.
Composers Samantha Wolf and Annie Hui-Hsin Hsieh spoke about recent work that has benefited from close collaborations with performers. Current research that was presented ranged from gender representation in popular music (see work on the punk scene by Janelle Johnston, WOMMP), to great presentations on examples of effecting change featuring Cat Hope, Gabriella Smart and Tristan Parr on the Summers Night Project (to again be running in 2020).
The conference blended practice and discourse in a balanced program over the four days. Paper presentations covered topics from representation of women in music and education, case studies in Australian music and performance, gender studies in performance, and the physical, musical and digital realms in creating space.
The talking was balanced with music, with performance by Shoeb Ahmad (with guests), and Decibel's program '10 at 10: West Australian Women of New Music (2009-2019)'. Decibel's approach to commissioning is unique in the landscape of Australian new music ensembles. Their motive to commission is equal to opportunity - through their wonderful ability to connect to artists that often lie on the fringe, composers who don't work in notation communicating their music through the medium of graphic, animation, and audio scores. This allows for new voices to be heard in ways they haven't been before.
Concurrent to the conference was a timely exhibition at UWA's Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, the Cruthers Collection of Women's Art. Lady Sheila Cruthers began collecting art in the mid-1970s and had a particular interest in women's self-portraiture. Cruthers's collection consists of over 100 self-portraits and is now housed at UWA. The exhibition showed an incredible diversity in women's art practice that spans over 100 years. The Gallery was a perfect short walk from the Conservatorium to mull over and absorb all the contributions by the participants.
A final session concluded the conference that allowed thoughts, musings, changes of thinking, and possibilities to be shared. One student participant at the conference announced her decision to completely change her end-of-year recital program so that it was more gender-diverse. This is just one example of what these conversations have the power to do: to make us look further afield, to explore the unknown.
© Australian Music Centre (2019) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
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