I’ll soon be going away again. I’ve been awarded an Asialink Artist Residency for 2010, which is a program that places Australian artists in residence in different Asian countries. I nominated East Timor (Timor-Leste is its official name) as my preferred destination and I’ll be spending the months of October through to January there. The countdown to my departure has begun.
Asialink residencies focus on the opportunities for cultural exchange and lasting links that the residencies create, and the professional development of the artists. It’s a time to be present, and respond to the new environment and people around you, for uninterrupted, unlimited creativity. You are matched up with – or you nominate , which was my approach – a local host organisation whose work and aims hold some affinity with your own. Together you consider the possibilities that the residency might offer both parties, and make your plans that way. My host organisation is a young NGO, Many Hands International, focused on community development through cultural activity who are based in the of Lospalos in the east of East Timor. Their current focus is on building a centre for traditional and contemporary arts and culture in Lospalos and my residency will form part of their work.
Timor is an incredibly disadvantaged country – “the poorest country in Asia”, “living standards on a par with sub-Saharan Africa” are two descriptions I’ve read many times – and one that has had its identity mediated (a better word might be subjugated, and indeed, oppressed) through first colonisation by Portugal, and then over thirty years of occupation by Indonesia. People who have experience in East Timor have told me lots of things: roads are pretty dodgy, public transport patchy (and apparently somewhat scary), internet is on and off, electricity is mostly only on during the day, it is very hot and humid, with dengue and malaria mosquitos to watch out for, the water is poo-coloured (leave your white clothes at home!), education is valued but there are many barriers to access, literacy among the adult population is very low, the presence of the UN has meant that some things (like accommodation) are ridiculously expensive (“I was paying more in Dili for a very simple, minimal house than I was for my modern apartment in Sydney!” one person told me in exasperation). The people are warm and friendly, however, and it is a place where you can certainly make contribution, as there is such a need for outside skills and knowledge. It is also an incredibly beautiful country, with stunning beaches, awe-inspiring mountains, and lush vegetation. (And crocodiles, but according to Wikipedia, these are “not as big as Australian crocodiles”).
What happens to a musician when you strip away all their resources, apart from perhaps the instruments they can carry with them, and their musicianship and skills? What happens to a collaborative artist when you can no longer rely on a common language of collaboration? What kind of music will emerge?
So much of my artistic practice is focused on the musical contributions of others – the compositions I make are group-devised works, many of the groups I work with are new to the artform and so the focus is often on their experience, bringing their musical voice to the fore. What happens to the music I make when the focus is back on to me, when it is my musicianship that is at the core?
These are some of the large, overarching questions that I take with me to the residency. So often, ‘professional development’ is imagined as learning new things from a more learned other, or having new experiences in an environment that is designed to support and nurture your efforts in those early moments. I am seeing this residency as a chance to deepen my understanding of my arts practice, which is collaborative at its core no matter whether the fellow collaborators are children or fellow professionals, by examining how I respond in this stripped-back setting. No resources, no familiar collaborative environments, no established language… but also no expectations of specific outcomes! Lots of people curious and interested to work with me and an environment that is completely new. It’s quite an extraordinary opportunity. Somewhat scary, but definitely exciting, and definitely an adventure I can’t wait to begin.