Interview with Cementa_13 art festival director, Alex Wisser

January 30th, 2013

Hosted in “The Town That Built Sydney” the inaugral Cementa_13 festival kicks off this Friday, February 1st until Monday, February 4th.

It’s a celebration of contemporary art set within the rural industrial history of Kandos NSW, a town over the hills of the Blue Mountains that was founded 99 years ago to house the work force of the Kandos Cement Works. Cement from Kandos built the Harbour Bridge and much of the glittering emerald city.  Until the cement works was closed down a year ago, leaving the town without a defining industry and an opportunity for transformation.

Festival Director, Alex Wisser, shared his thoughts with us on the upcoming festival.

What kind of festival is Cementa_13?

Cementa_13 celebrates the state of contemporary art in Australia today.  We believe that there very exciting things occurring in the Australian contemporary art scene.   While Australia hosts a number of important festivals and biennales that celebrate the achievements of international art, this is for us an attempt to assess and celebrate what is happening here, on the ground, coming out of the art schools  and doing the rounds at the ari spaces and commercial galleries.  All three of the festival’s directors Georgina Pollard, Ann Finegan, and myself come out of various scenes in Sydney and we have pulled the majority of our urban artists from these scenes.  Experiencing these localised art scenes is a very different thing than walking into the MCA or The Art Gallery of NSW and seeing the latest blockbuster because you get more than just the art, you get the context in which it is made and in which it circulates.  This is also related to our decision to make the art about the town that will host it.  While this decision was predominantly about wanting the festival to engage with the town, it was also about having work that related to the context of both its making and its exhibition.


What kinds of artworks will be exhibited?

There are several oral history projects like Fiona Davies’ work collecting stories from people who received the ‘cuts’ or corporal punishment as it was called when they were children.  Georgina Pollard will be collecting stories from the cement works and spinning them into a memorial via a spinning circle of local wool spinners.  On the other hand Danial Kojta is making a work that takes the piss out of the festival’s attempt to use the town as material for its artworks, comparing it to the exploitative practices of mineral extraction in coal mining.  Many artists came up and fell in love with the country or the town and made work that celebrates this encounter.  Liam Benson will be making a number of spontaneous performances around the town that celebrates the song of the glossy black cockatoo.  Mark Brown will be performing his Metahorn, using a range of sound materials he has collected from disused or abandoned industrial sites in the area, and Zio Ledeux will be displaying photographs of Kandos residents dressed up as Andy Warhol.  There are also a number of amazing works that will come up and create encounters of their own, Joyce Hinterding and David Haines’ haunting 3d environment, Monocline should provide a rare source of fascination in Kandos and The Spectral Committee will be adapting an existing work to provide an augmented reality experience using the clock and GPS on smartphones to summon audio pieces “from the other side”.

Billy Gruner, Sarah Keighery and Ian Andrews (Cementa_13, 2013)

You have said, that along with contemporary art, Cementa_13 ‘is also a festival about the town that is hosting it: Kandos.’How have Kandos locals received the project, and how have you worked to involve them in the process?

The vast majority of locals though have offered us a reserved but warm welcome.  This is a very generous attitude, giving us a go like this, an opportunity to present ourselves before coming to any conclusion about what we are doing.  But it is just that, an opportunity.  If we blow it, I can’t see we’ll find a welcome back.  This will not be a matter of bringing work and ideas that the locals will necessarily understand or even like, but it will be a matter of how much we respect the fact that this is their town and that there are definite differences between us. As far as our involving the townspeople in the process, there are a number of works that rely directly on the contribution of locals, and a we have works from a number of artists living in the area. The local bush poets will be a dominant force at our poetry night and we’ve got an entire salon style exhibition of local painters.  The support we have gotten from the town in terms of the contribution of venues, ideas, connection and guidance in understanding the community has been huge.  This involvement was hard won and is not yet developed to a sufficient degree.  We would love to see better involvement of local youth and more depth of engagement in terms of longer term projects, but all that requires a certain kind of trust that can only develop over time.

$60,000 in funding is a fabulous achievement. How is this going to be used?

The majority of the money (over two thirds) is going to pay the artists.  This is an unheard of outcome, because artists usually have to pay to make and exhibit their work in startup endeavors like this one.  The funding of the project is a strong statement by ArtsNSW that the work that artists do is valued and that they should be paid accordingly.  We have also gone to great lengths to spend the money in the region.

What role did Orana Arts have in assisting you?

Orana Arts was very helpful in preparing the grant and Alicia Leggett was especially encouraging.  Just getting her on board and positive about our chances was a confirmation for us that what we were doing was possible.  She was also very helpful in guiding the grant writing process, especially regarding the budget which none of us had much experience with.  Orana was helpful in getting us connected to people in the area like Mudgee Tourism and our wine sponsor Robert Stein as well as local arts organisers like Virginia Handmer.  Orana’s contribution to the festival itself will be through the staging of Creative X-change and a children’s workshop as well as handling all of our budget.  To think of what it might have been like to mount a project of this scale, without this level of support from Orana, assisting us in mapping our needs to our resources and making connections in terms of community, financial support, and structure – I can only say that it would have been difficult to see it all coming together.

What kind of turnout do you hope to attract?

We are hoping for 3-400 people at least, but we can’t really tell.  We have had ‘what if’ conversations about getting a thousand or two thousand people.

If you dared to dream over another bottle of shiraz now that you have the wheels in motion, what could Cementa_13 become in the future?

The thing that I’m most excited about for 2015 is that we will have two years to develop the festival.  We have a number of artists who could not participate on the short notice of this first festival and we have offered them a place in the 2nd festival with support toward developing a long term project or major works.  This means that we will be able to take some of the threads and ideas we have sketched out in this first festival, like engagement and sustainability and really develop them in the longer term.  Like everything that is at its beginning, we are working with a lot of hypotheses and the first festival has been a mad dash to get them out into the world and see what they might look like.  The main frustration to date has been that we haven’t had the time to develop ideas and create the sustained engagement that is implied by so much of the work being made.  What 2015 will look like is completely unknown.  We will have to make some serious decisions after February.  I might not know what it will look like, but I am excited by the prospect of it.

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Interviewed by Estelle Pigot for Regional Arts NSW

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