Samag – Community Engagement: Philosophies and Practices

Community Engagement begins with an invitation, and Samag (Seminars for Arts Professionals) has invited members and guests to the Australian Council for the Arts to discuss how the arts is engaging community.  Technology officer Nisa Mackie manipulated Poor Lizzy Galloway’s laptop, executing her role with grace and poise as each presenter took to the podium.  It was a packed crowd, like the last Samag event I attended, minus a few inevitable empty seats in the front row.  The front seats were empty, that is, except for a possibly homeless man that arrived, surprising us all at the end!

Fraser Corfield – started his community engagement career in youth arts programs in South Australia, where the population is the oldest per capita countrywide.  Work on an opera project in another language with his youth broadened their horizons and changed their scope of what is reasonable and possible.  Perhaps the most successful story of community engagement for Fraser is his mystery bus tour where kids covered themselves with fake wounds like Zombies and bonded with those in the neighbouring communities by scaring them half to death.  What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!

Lisa Havilah – “Being relevant to a community is being reflective of the community.”  Lisa engaged in long-term 5 year strategies, resourced with non-arts partners and public housing communities.  It takes sustained efforts to conduct a program that is not too comfortable, near Campbelltown.  Projects and artworks developed reflect cultural protocols of the communities, ranging from Indian to Tongan.  Carriageworks, where Lisa serves as Director, is committed to long term relationships with artists and the local aboriginal communites in which the space resides in Redfern, the Black Capital of Australia.  The film “I am Eora” is one of the products of this cultural community engagement.

Khaled Sabsabi – Grew up in Auburn, with a background in hip-hop music.  Transitioned into work with youth prisons and NGOs, later through visual arts.  Development vs Engagement:  An artist or practitioner should understand the distinction between the two.  Artists don’t choose communities; communities choose artists.  The situation in the community attracts and invites these people into their situation.  An outcome then forms from this process.  Like a legendary hero standing for what his represents, Khaled cut his presentation short to allow more time for questions at the end.

John Kirkman – “Community engagement is about risk.  People live and die about how they engage with community (and engage with technology)” he said, as the projector struggled to keep up with his presentation.  Working with communities is a transaction, as John put it, basically following a standard PESTEL analysis with Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Environmental and Legal impacts.  John got my attention when he started talking about aspects of cultural community engagement in the Disco era, including a myriad combinations of sex and drugs.  “War & Peace: Memorial to Disco, Rock and Parramatta” is an archival memento named after a Parramatta dance club that he references regarding an Australian past and history through personal stories and archives as opposed to expert historical analysis.  When John’s father drove past a Lebanese area of Granville, he was quoted as saying with disinterest, “Oh look, that’s where the Lesbians live.”

Shakthi Sivanathan – Served as MC in a very gentle treatment of the speakers, keeping time and curating good conversation in the following Q&A.  One resounding question Shakthi asks is what can we learn about the engagement of institutions with the community based on the perspective of the panel?  Lisa at Carriageworks states that the organisation’s ideas should reflect the ideas of others.  She went on to state that community issues can be content within the construction of community engaged work.  Unabashedly your author broke the ice with the first question from the audience, giving the example of Brett Dizney-Cook and his Face-Up Project with Duke University Center of Documentary Studies in the City of Durham, North Carolina.  This community arts initiative could be managed with bold vigour as past community leaders’ portraits as the subject made it easy to align local labour and executed.

Before the formal closing of the event, the last question came from our friend in the front row making a statement that was so profound the panel responded with enthusiasm.  The man’s name is Peter, and his question was regarding the proliferation of popular culture drowning out local community artists.  He asked “Is the impact of popular culture on community art a good thing or a bad thing?”  Fraser answered that it is a useful conduit through which youth can be engaged and mobilised.  As an Elance Mobilizer, I have community engagement resources to share, and am interested in how peer-to-peer marketing programs can interface with the arts community.  This is one example.

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