During the course of The Migrant Project, Shakthi Sivanathan went from being an artist conducting his first project out of University to being the Founder/Director of CuriousWorks. It was a heady time – enjoy his reflection below.
The Migrant Project was a snowball that at its peak, spun out of control.
Five years have passed since it started in 2005, around casual conversations in alleyways and beer gardens. I am now writing this in an office – running a company I founded, initially, as a way of coping with the project’s erratic and sometimes tremendous growth.
The idea of working between cultures and disciplines has always been a natural impulse for me. It was not out of any desire to be ‘innovative’ or ‘original’. I had grown up familiar with the classical Indian art form of Bharatha Natyam, where movement and music were played out as one – the art form itself born out of temple sculptures and a pamphlet of text and images. In the last years of school, I had started playing music and then expanded my creative interests during University to theatre, film and online media. Multiculturalism was the social norm throughout – and with that came the multiplicity of artistic and philosophical traditions behind those cultures. Picking away at one idea with a number of creative tools – different media, different cultural influences – is an ancient approach – and it felt much like a natural reflection of the contemporary world, as well.
My mother, Anandavalli – Artistic Director Lingalayam Dance Company
Photo by Filigree Films
At that point, however, the opportunities to see or participate in this kind of work in Sydney seemed to be minimal. Mainstream and independent arts companies alike were offering what I saw as segments of the city – a play about refugees here, a concert by Sudanese-Australians there. It was not that these events weren’t provoking or enjoyable – but they did leave a gap. What I felt was missing was a refraction of the city itself – a creative project that used as its foundation the acknowledgement that different groups both collided in and shared the space that was our city – and that was what we had to deal with, alongside the more neatly packaged art.
So I chatted to ten different colleagues – from very different backgrounds, culturally and artistically – and asked them to embark on a project with me. My only ‘rules’ were that I wanted to explore Sydney as a city where each member shared a common identity as a migrant. I wanted to draw attention to an exchange enacting itself on the streets, between the first guardians of this place and those who had travelled to it since; a city built on a history of migration. Thus the title of the project. I asked the collaborators to present something of themselves and where they came from in this context. I felt this to be an inclusive framework that side-stepped notions like ‘black and white Australia’. A shared city and a migrant past were the only qualities everyone in our group had in common. I hoped it would be a framework that dug up some of our city’s untold stories. I had this naïve notion that we could expand people’s idea of the word ‘migrant’.
Paul and Latai in rehearsals in Ultimo in 2006
Photo by Steven Papadakis
It was my first foray into the professional arts industry and ironically, we got the first grant we applied for. It was the Australia Council Dance Board’s ‘Take Your Partner Initiative’, to develop the first stage of the work in collaboration with former Bangarra dancer Albert David. At the time, I was ecstatic, grateful and entirely taken aback.
I left the development of the project completely open to the group – what issues we’d explore, what stories we’d tell, what medium or media we would use to share that content. This proved to be the resounding strength and weakness of the project over the next two years. A strength because of the diversity of excellent ideas that built up the project; a weakness because of the friction and confusion that came along with that diversity, in an already under-resourced context.
The irony of the grant stemmed from its support at the relatively small and peaceful initiation to the project, in early 2005. By the time Standing opened in September 2005, we’d already had our fair share of arguments and creative clashes. Over the next 18 months, dare I say, we descended into a controlled chaos. In 2006, we received a small grant from the Music Committee at Arts NSW, but no further support to develop the work, so we travelled to the Canberra Multicultural Arts Festival with Drifting, and then presented our biggest work, Grounded, at the Seymour centre with very little support at all. Interest had grown wildly in the project since the early days in 2005 – 23 people performed in Grounded in March 2006. (By the end of 2007, over 50 people had contributed to The Migrant Project). I had trouble keeping a lid on it.
On top of all that the project was picking up a lot of media interest, with some genuinely interesting previews that opened up ideas of how we might view Sydney and Australia, and reviews that ranged from extravagant praise to extravagant criticism. Thankfully we sold a good amount of tickets in Sydney either way. I started losing my hair, not to mention plenty of sleep, over these years. Even as I maintained good financial control of the project, even as we delivered rich and provocative creative works, the explosion of ideas and personalities was always what resounded the most. It left many of us reeling. In hindsight, this might have been anticipated from setting up a microcosm of a diverse city and inviting everyone to creatively share their personal stories and opinions. But caught up in the whirl of the project, it simply felt tiring, fascinating, wearying and inspiring, turn by turn.
Rehearsals in Glebe Town Hall for “Grounded” 2006 Showing at Seymour Centre
Photo by Steven Papadakis
Behind all this was a colourful political backdrop. If you cast your mind back to the period from 2005-2007, political public relations, under John Howard’s Prime Ministership, were often unnecessarily racial – or at least that was how many of us received the government’s messages at the time. From the strident way the issue of Tampa and detention centres was managed in an election year, to Howard’s personal response to the ‘Cronulla Riots’, the divisive nature of the Citizenship tests, Kevin Andrew’s manner in reducing the African immigrant intake, right up to the debacle of the fake pamphlets in Western Sydney just before the 2007 election, the issue of multiculturalism and race never seemed to fade. This was remarkable, coming from a man who at the time oversaw Australia’s highest ever levels of immigration. There seemed to be little point in debating the virtues of multiculturalism – it was not only here, it was diversifying and settling in its own, ultimately uncontrollable way – whether or not you approved. The debate should have been about the different methods we might use to embrace it – indeed, take advantage of the wealth of diverse experience people were bringing into the country – for its social as well as economic benefit.
John Howard SMH Front Page upon 10 years in power
Of course, this kind of ‘post-multiculturalist’ approach cannot yet be the stance for our government institutions. Currently, the diversity of participation in our arts industry does not come close to matching the level of cultural diversity in the country. So the Australia Council for the Arts must, for very good reason, specifically encourage cultural diversity in the work it chooses to support. Of course this puts those of us involved in initiatives like The Migrant Project, looking to extend the meaning of migrant or multicultural to being a descriptor of all people, not just those who aren’t Anglo-Celtic, in a strange position. It also confuses those of non-English speaking backgrounds who use ‘migrant’ as a term of empowerment, of solidarity with other migrants. Where do we stand with them? To top it off, most of the other people working in interdisciplinary and site-specific work were focused on a particular culture or issue – they had not matched a diversity of creative influences to a diversity of cultural influences. So we were isolated in a trifecta of ways. To be honest, I only use words like intercultural or interdisciplinary because I feel I have to, to give people an idea of how a particular work of ours might differ from the norm. It is amazing how many long and technical words you have to use simply to describe a creative project that mirrors the make up of the city that spawned it.
At no point until mid-2007 did a group of Migrant Project artists have the opportunity to rehearse regularly and consistently in the lead up to an event. This made a big difference to the atmosphere of the overall project. The fourth performance, This City is a Body, was a relatively peaceful stage, supported by the Theatre Board of the Australia Council. It was a phase that involved the distillation of ideas rather than the explosion of ideas and the project sorely needed it. We had a lovely, sold out season within the rooms of the beautiful Hyde Park Barracks, with little media interest or extravagant reactions when compared to the heady days of 2005-2006. Draw from that what you will.
The openness of the project remains its defining characteristic; simultaneously its most positive and negative quality. It is, ultimately, what I love about it. The Migrant Project reminds me how thrilling, ruthless and satisfying exercises in true democracy can be. But it will be quite a while before I return this type of creative exercise again.
I’ve learnt countless lessons from the project, personally and professionally. You can’t rely on subsidies to sustain your independent, creative work, especially if your focus is on innovating between the lines. There isn’t enough to go around, after the already-established companies receive their portion. Moreover, diversifying your income as a creative person or creative organisation, is a healthy and usually necessary practice. This project has also shown me that the management of an idea is just as important as the idea itself – not only in terms of making it a success, but also in ensuring it has an ultimately positive impact for all of those who are a part of it. When it came to writing my Twitter profile, I was proud to list ‘Manager’ as one of my responsibilities, which is unusual for an ‘artist’.
Even though the performances made up the bulk of the first years of The Migrant Project, much of the material in the film is not from those performances. I have tried to describe the intensity with which the performances drove the project, in the hope of going someway to providing a context for the raw, earnest, unusual work that is in the film. It has gathered on the side lines, in rehearsals, in between rehearsals, filmed or recorded in little snippets of available time. It is all part of the same journey.
To my fellow Sydneysiders: the performances are over now, but what you will encounter in the film are the opinions, stories and thoughts of over 50 people who work, live and belong to the same city as you do. I haven’t said too much about their amazing contributions because the films speaks for itself – and I don’t want to be facetious about it. Suffice to say that I stuck with this project and was always proud to lead it because of the incredible array of contributions that people made to it. I would not have maintained it if not for the dedication of many people to the idea of the initiative itself.
Four of the people who started The Migrant Project with me – Aimee Falzon, Elias Bakhos, Robin Dixon and Mahesh Radhakrishnan – were still part of the project three years on. We continue to be friends and work with each other today, in different ways. Mahesh is soon getting married to someone he met through the project! Paul Cordeiro and Iqbal Barkat have been subtle mentors for me, of very different sorts, for some important periods in the past four years. Rebecca Sng has stuck through the project as a sound voice and is now the sound chair of our board at CuriousWorks. Stuart Gibson and Gary Lo were inspirations at the start of the project, dedicating great swathes of their time. Latai Taumoepeau also dedicated a great deal of her time to the project in 2006. A big love to you all, and all those who dipped into the beast that was this amazing project, that managed to surprise us all!