The NI Interview
issue 315 - August 1999
Paul Rees catches up with one of
Australia's cultural whirlwinds.
When Robyn Archer was appointed Director of the Adelaide Arts Festival one commentator remarked sarcastically that Australia was about to be dealt a mess of ‘Marxist Agit-Prop’. Not quite. Oh, the political themes were there all right, but the 1998 Adelaide Festival was much more than that. In fact, it was generally heralded as a sublime artistic achievement. Archer’s programme tapped into what she perceived as the ‘big questions’ at the close of the twentieth century. The search for meaning was everywhere – from a radical interpretation of the Old Testament by an Israeli theatre company to a Southeast Asian dance company inspired by Herman Hesse’s novel Siddhartha.
Dressed in a black turtleneck with spiky red hair, Robyn Archer is a multi-talented renaissance figure: a feminist singer-songwriter, an actor, a theatre director, a cultural activist and a political animal – though with a proudly non-party line.
‘I’m more of a dangerous individualist,’ she quips. ‘I never believed that a political position was death to an artist’s career, although there has always been advice around to that effect. I decided early on never to hide my politics or my sexuality.’
Today she is deeply disturbed by the steamroller effect of a market-driven global culture. This globalization process, she warns, is wearing down the rough edges of art and creating a kind of bland uniformity. In a blatant call to arms Archer stresses that ‘artists have a duty to open up the cracks and to live and create from within them’.
‘The arts still remain a place where you can indulge in ethical debates and finer feelings. Even if you feel there is no longer any scope in the world for being an ethical person, the arts can be truly cathartic. That’s because the best art will put you in a deeply questioning space where you just have to dismiss the rubbish that surrounds you and get down to the basics, the bottom line of humanity.’
This belief draws from her conviction that important artists are also philosophers. And there are not many spaces left in a baldly commercial world where you can take a philosophical approach. ‘Most education is just a training ground for a career,’ she sighs remorsefully. Archer supported her early artistic career as a teacher. ‘There’s not a lot of space to put yourself on the “other side” and test out what you really feel. In that sense arts is a realm of philosophy. People who don’t use the arts like this are probably not artists. They’re commercial entertainers, but they are not philosophers.’
Archer is a strong believer in public funding of the arts. And she supports her views with an authority you imagine would leave many bureaucrats quaking. Because ‘if you let the arts go you let philosophy go and we abandon ourselves to a world where there are no challenging, risky questions being asked’. Without this kind of ‘rigorous’ art Archer predicts an ‘atrophy of creative muscle and of intellectual muscle in an economically rationalized world’.
photo by PAUL REES
In order to remain relevant and vibrant Archer says the arts must reflect the flux of social change. She believes that young people are ignored by what she calls ‘outmoded forms of cultural exchange’.
‘Theatre, opera and symphony orchestras are having hard economic times everywhere,’ she says. ‘They’re wondering where their traditional audience has gone. Well, they are basically getting old and dying. A new public has already developed new ways in which it wants to experience the arts. I’m not suggesting that all traditional arts will die, but you’d be foolish to think you could carry on in the same way forever.’
For arts enthusiasts she has this advice: ‘Try to step outside the notion of going to shows that you are dead certain will be terrific. It’s probably a revival of something you’ve already seen or it’s a playwright who’s been around for 20 years. Or it’s music you’re completely familiar with so you’re sticking to what you know. A more enlightened response would be always to try to move out of your comfort zone. I think it’s problematic if you only ever treat the arts as a source of entertainment.’
Though Robyn has thrived in cultural centres like London and Berlin she got her start in Australia’s Working Men’s Clubs, small-town venues scattered across the vast country which even today remain the bread-and-butter for comics and singers just starting out. She assures me that the rapport between the audience at those clubs and the lesbian anarchist up on stage was something special. ‘There was a mutual respect,’ she recalls. ‘My working-class roots in the west of Adelaide no doubt helped. That plus the common love of a good old knees-up.’
But what of her artistic vision today? ‘As you get older and quieter you see more. You see certain performers going on being what they always were and a public demanding that you be what you always were. It happens with actors and rock singers and at some point that becomes very sad, sort of an unnatural elongation of adolescence. I think in some ways political anger can be characterized in the same way. You can find some people who do maintain the rage but quite often it’s just a question of image rather than conviction.’
For Robyn Archer the conviction still comes first.
Paul Rees is a Welsh-born writer living and working in Adelaide, South Australia.