THE Edge of Us. Where the sea meets the land and the environment interacts with mankind; where the foreground merges with the horizon, where the present and the future dance with possibility.
The Edge of Us. Where artists have been working with five waterline communities – Pioneer Bay, Grantville, Tenby Point, Corinella and Coronet Bay – to explore their place and to creatively and temporarily transform the towns using light.
The first event in this four-stage project, Luminous Streets, on April 8, will link the five towns on the same night with luminous galleries of community-made artwork.
Jessica Wilson, the project’s artistic director, says it was the ambition of the project that impressed the Small Towns Transformations panel to fund it. “They found it enchanting - that different towns could be connected on one night through their own creative light-works.”
Local reactions to the project have ranged from grins and happy dances, to curiosity and shoulder-shrugging ambivalence, right through to anger about “all that money being wasted on art when we could be doing other more important things”.
So let’s start at the beginning. Why has the Victorian State government invested funds into this and five other small communities across Victoria to encourage them to work with artists and art forms?
The place to start is really with early mankind – dancing around community fires, probably singing and creating rhythms with percussive instruments. How do we know this? Because their artists spent days, weeks, years creating rock art that depicted the dancing and recorded the stories of their existence.
Why? Because it made them feel good. It answered an instinctive urge. Because they were expressing their joy and awe and fear of the world around them; because, like us today, they wished to communicate and share with others the wonders of existence and their connection to their place.
There has always been a need for some people to reflect what they observe and to express themselves through the arts. With the unpredictable nature of politics and global problems, the need seems greater than ever.
In the contemporary world, art has exploded into a mega-million-dollar industry but the fundamentals haven’t changed – involvement in the arts makes us feel good and satisfies an instinctive craving. Through the arts we explore and re-imagine our identity, our place; we tell our own compelling stories. Thousands of years after the first cave dwellers, we still communicate and share with others the wonders of our existence and our connection to place.
Consider the arts-driven recovery of many small towns. Sometimes small galleries sit side by side with cafes and shops. Sometimes there is public art in the streets. Often these little towns are the saving grace of a long journey, and the little town itself is thriving by raking in tourist dollars that would otherwise have driven past.
In 2010 then Victorian premier Ted Baillieu invested government funds into The Small Towns Transformation program, to be managed by Regional Arts Victoria.
Art invites us “… to understand, to stay fresh, to remain uplifting and perpetually adventurous”.
In 2015, in the Bass Coast Waterline area, resourceful community members welcomed the opportunity for funding for professional artists to work with community to “transform” some elements of their tiny towns. A passionate group met for many months to identify the needs of the town. A supermarket? A walking trail that would connect the closer towns? A sculpture park or walk? Was it best to recognise unique aspects of the magnificent environment? The history? The people?
Further investigation and discussion revealed some of the social problems – isolation, loneliness, and mental health issues – within the area, as within all Australian communities. The physical and mental disconnection between the towns was also a significant factor. “Everyone drives past us on their way somewhere else.” “We have to drive out to the highway to get to each other.” “We are cut off.”
Of course the real inspiration for the artists was on their own doorstep, their most fundamental link, the sea. The tidal, moody, often millpond-still Western Port.
Ideas were floated and crossed out. Was it for retired people? Was it for young people? Was it for businesses? Or holiday makers? And no, we couldn’t build a supermarket or toilet blocks. After discussions with the council, we crossed the walking sculpture trail off the list – that couldn’t happen for many years, even with this sort of grant. A gateway to Grantville? A mangrove walk? Hmmm. How to connect the towns in other ways? Sound? Light? Art? Performance? Technology?
An idea began to emerge of ways to “connect” the people and the towns, to bring residents out of their houses to talk to each other, to work side by side and have fun creating something quite remarkable in their own town. Perhaps this project could even lead to other opportunities and events in later years.
The Edge of Us application included partnerships or alliances with community organisations such as Landcare and the council. It’s history now. The project was recognised for its community-strengthening aims and its artistic merits, and the five Waterline townships were awarded a grant of $350,000 to put it into practice.
It sounds a lot of money but, considering the mammoth parameters of the project, is not. The Edge of Us plays out across five towns through four stages:
- a series of temporary light galleries in April 2017;
- one permanent sculpture;
- a telephone app that delivers local information, history, and stories in a creative and inviting way;
- and the coming together with a final light and performance-based event in April 2018.
The legacies of such a project are often overlooked, certainly undervalued, as they can be difficult to measure. There are the immediate benefits of bringing funding into the area; there are the parts that will have a lasting physical presence, such as the phone app and the sculptural element. The workshops and various activities bring lots of groups and individuals together, and there is so much fun to be had as we move towards the main events. There is also the magic of seeing a familiar place transformed.
A definite bonus is the payment of wages for professional and some community artists, and the injection of funds into the local area as production people and managers are paid.
The hidden gems of any arts project, however, are the less tangible outcomes – the changes in the way people feel about themselves, others, and their community. Stepping out of the mundane, creating original things, taking risks, working side by side to become part of something extraordinary lifts the spirits and can be transforming in terms of personal growth and health.
Author Hugh Mackay beautifully captures the value of the arts in our lives: ‘The more you look at the ills of contemporary society – alienation, fragmentation, isolation, depression – the more compelling the need for community participation in the arts … What better way of fostering a sense of community, promoting mental health and wellbeing and reducing the pressures of a competitive, materialistic society than by encouraging widespread participation in the arts?’
The artists are moving into new territory, taking creative risks, learning about light sources and materials that are waterproof, inexpensive, luminous, durable, and easy to cut and work with. There is also an emphasis on recycled materials and solar power where possible. They are finding forms that are simple to make, that allow for creative individuality and will look impressive on the final night.
And the workshops have been a great success. One group, working in Coronet Bay with artist Mary Sullivan kept working through a ravaging rain storm that drenched them all to the bone. Lots of laughter, lots of storytelling and oodles of fun.
To judge whether the project has merit and is worth the money spent, jump in, join in the spirit of adventure, and do something out of the ordinary.
For more information, visit the Edge of Us website and Facebook pages, email TheEdgeOfUs@basscoastlandcare.org.au or contact Mary Sullivan on 0405 339 960.
Jeannie Haughton is the assistant artistic director of The Edge of Us.