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PIAF Connect

Ruth Little: Perth's common wealth

Tuesday 1 March 2016

  • Feature

I've been reading Looking West – a brilliant collection of essays in Griffith Review 47 – and it's coursing through my experience of the Festival and its encounters between place, people and ideas. Though I haven't been beyond Perth–Fremantle in the last three weeks, conversation, art works, meetings and writings have brought many other landscapes and lives beyond the city to mind. I'm living in Perth – with its brightly backlit sprawling built environment, its wayward gums spattered with crimson blossom and stranded in impossibly green suburban lawns and verges – and I'm dreaming of 'not-Perth', the hinterland or hinted-at land touched on in parts of King's Park and Bold Park, and to which the Griffith Review writers have given such vivid and thought-provoking voice.


Rebecca Giggs writes there of the early industrialisation of the Pilbara mining landscape as having been undertaken by masterless men with picks and adamant dreams: 'hope was the main resource they mined.' She counsels against nostalgia for lives and conditions that were undoubtedly arduous, dangerous and difficult, but argues that the scale and management of modern resource extraction – the 'corporate superintendence' of landscapes and industries – decouples people from place to the detriment of both. Then she points out that the world's oldest continuing mine is in Western Australia, at Wilgie Mia, and that the resource removed from this place for over 30,000 years by Wajarri Yamatji people is not ore but ochre, and that it is used not for profit but in exchange, as part of the human gesture of art-making.

And that brings me back, via the unearthed Pilbara, to the Festival, where exchange through art-making has been taking place day and night for the last three weeks beneath the bright fluorescent lights and logos of those superintendent corporate towers, and where mineral wealth has, through air-conditioned conversation and various gestures of accommodation, translated itself temporarily into other forms of value and hope than the merely material. It's a funny old world, but the nature of our entanglements with matter and money are so apparent here that it's almost a relief not to have to pretend that the realms of art and commerce are, or can be, discrete. Human beings will go on mining, no doubt – looking to transform matter or to be transformed by it – but what we mine and what we exchange in the creation and sharing of 'wealth' is, right now, up for discussion in parks and theatres, galleries and gardens across the city and beyond. The Perth International Arts Festival hasn't generated these endemic questions, but it has, under the thoughtful and curious curatorship of artistic director Wendy Martin, made possible a convergence of conversations about art and the ethics of exchange.


Bradford director Evie Manning (Common Wealth) was here last week with No Guts, No Heart, No Glory, created with Rhiannon White and a company of young Muslim women. You could view the event as a kind of FIFO – festival in, festival out, like the fly-in fly-out placeless workforce of the mines – vividly but briefly occupying the Queen Street Gym with its thoughts on faith, identity, gender and boxing. But that's not what No Guts is, or does. It was in fact a deliberate act of place-making, which animated a community space with new questions and new forms of exchange, and in which the proximity, mobility and engagement of the audience produced a visceral sense of connection with the performers. Boxing as sport, as a means of strengthening community, and as a metaphor for the fight for self-expression in the face of social and cultural opposition – don't we all want, in the end, to be capable – of living within identities of our own choosing, of using our bodies skilfully, of supporting those we love in overcoming obstacles to self-determination? No Guts, No Heart, No Glory reached down into the guts and hearts of young Muslim women boxers in the north of England, and, through Evie's and Rhiannon's parallel workshops with refugee and asylum-seeker women in Perth, has made possible an exchange of stories and insights into human vulnerability, capability and resilience. Ochre instead of ore; transmission instead of commerce: this is the stuff of our cultural common wealth, our most precious, and renewable, human resource.