Monday, August 24, 2015

Community diversity festival

St Margaret’s Uniting Church, in the North Canberra suburb of Hackett (just opposite Dickson College), has a storied history of creating and maintaining social outreach programs. Stepping Stones for Life is a program which seeks to provide services and activities to local residents living with intellectual disabilities. Amongst their activities, a Friday afternoon arts & crafts group. Meg’s Toybox is a lending-library which meets once a week for young families to gather, share and swap toys. Many, if not most of its members, are not churchgoers but are welcome nonetheless. Perhaps most impressive is Ross Walker Lodge – named after a late congregation member who devoted his time to assisting those living with a disability. The lodge is a large house on the property behind the church grounds, which provides a home for several largely independent individuals with intellectual disabilities.

Quite apart from St Margaret’s role as a leader of social outreach in the community of North Canberra, many of its members have been seeking ways to collectively and interactively cooperate with other community groups. Accordingly, on the afternoon of Saturday, August 29, St Margaret’s (along with Uniting Care Disability) will play host to the first Community Diversity Festival.

Festivities will commence at 11am. The Festival will be officially launched, at 1.30pm, by Dr Andrew Leigh, Labour member for the seat of Fraser. Dr Leigh has, on several occasions in recent years, addressed and joined in Sunday worship with the congregation of St Margaret’s, in celebration of its achievements. As a result, he is certainly a well-known figure to many of St Margaret’s more prominent members. Dr Leigh is primed to speak on the importance of community and diversity in fostering a healthy Canberra.

Community groups who have already committed to participate include: Uniting Care Community Support; Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform; Tuckerbox (a weekly food co-op administered by St Margaret’s ‘sister’ church, Holy Cross Anglican); SEE-Change (Society, Environment and Economy); ACT Disability; Aged and Carer Advocacy Service; Stepping Stones for Life; and Meg’s Toybox. ‘Storytelling Sessions’ will involve the groups sharing tales of their development and ongoing evolution: past, present and future. Apart from the Storytelling Sessions, many of these groups will also put on information stalls.

Lest this all sound too dry and stuffy a way to spend a late-Winter/early-Spring afternoon, there will also be many fun activities in which to participate. Activities for children will allow for interpersonal connections to be made, for friendships to be renewed amongst both young and old(er). These activities will include face-mask decorating; helium balloons; and fun finger-food catered by Uniting Care Disability.

While on the subject of food: a rich, international variety will be on sale. Sausages, Dutch pancakes, pides, and that old standby of church gatherings – good strong coffee. As a long-time member myself, I can say with confidence that St Margaret’s never fails to put on an exceptional spread.

Given suitably warm and auspicious weather, the first Community Diversity Festival holds the potential to usher in a new era of proactive and integrated community within the suburbs of North Canberra. So, whatever your role in the community, no matter your age or religious/political orientation, come along between 11am-3pm on Saturday August 29.

Attend…Participate…Contribute to the building of our community. Make new friendships and renew existing ones. St Margaret’s Uniting: the large white Church opposite Dickson College. Marking the crossroads of four of North Canberra’s major suburbs: Hackett, Dickson, Watson and Downer. At the apex of community.

Community diversity festival: 
Date: Saturday, August 29
Time: 11am-3pmtill
Venue: Corner of Antill St & Phillip Ave, Hackett

Joel Swadling

People and Places Writer for Aleseva Consulting

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Pornberra: An Uncensored Journey into Canberra’s Erotic Era

At the entrance way to the stairs and elevator of the Canberra Museum and Gallery, signposts inform the public that “the upstairs gallery is restricted to 18+”: “Visitors are advised that the exhibition upstairs contains restricted material. Material in the exhibition may cause offence. Persons under the age of 18 may not enter the upstairs gallery space. Visitors may be refused entry if valid proof of age cannot be supplied.” 

The reason for this finger-waving on the part of CMAG’s normally all-inclusive management is the current exhibition, ‘X-Rated: The Sex Industry in the ACT’. The exhibition takes a serious yet laconic and penetrating view of Canberra’s history and national reputation as the capital of pornographic film production. An added measure of attention is also given to the societal position of sex workers in Canberra.

Within the gallery, the exhibition space is dominated by two large visual features. Approaching from gallery-entrance, the left field is centred about a sprawling, metal-and-rubber, interrogation-chamber-type chair, reminiscent of both old-fashioned dentist’s offices and dominatrix-type scenarios. This chair was used as a prop in many porn films, an actress portraying the character of the ‘Naughty Nun’, surrounded by religious icons all given new and unexpected context.  

At the opposite end of the room stands an old coin-operated viewing booth. Adorned both with video-slicks for the range of porn films which it screened, and with a display notifying exhibition patrons that the machine is no longer operative (after an enthusiast tried to use it). Placed attractively about the gallery, posters, video covers (or ‘slicks’) and framed photographs exhibit the subtle, somewhat dated and I would argue, erotic rather than exploitative, nature of the work being produced in Canberra in the 1980s.     

Of Canberra’s porn-history narrative, the main protagonists seem to have been Australian film producer John Lark and American John T. Bone. The criminalisation of porn in all of Australia, save for its capital, was the catalyst to the action of the duo’s company, Down Under Productions. Video covers strewn throughout the exhibition space give evidence of the company’s high productivity (and fertility). Other companies provided the competition, and in fact one facet of ‘X Rated’ is a sample of old Yellow Pages advertisements for porn companies, performers and technicians.

Every story needs an antagonist. In the case of Canberra’s porn industry, it came in the person of the high priest of the religious right: the venomously venerable, piously reverent, Reverend Fred Nile. In 1985, Nile’s organisation, the Brigade of Light, put out a full-page newspaper advertisement calling Australians to “Keep Video Filth Out of Our Homes!” Film producers responded with an ad of their own: “Keep Fred Nile Out of Our Bedrooms!” Legal arguments proceeded but didn’t seem to affect much genuine change.  In the context of the current exhibition, commentary on the evolution of porn-related legislation is provided by the work of Canberra Times cartoonist, Geoff Pryor.    
At a Museum seminar which I attended on April 15, ‘X Rated’ curator Rowan Henderson spoke to the progression, climax and eventual deflation of the porn scene in Canberra. The thrust of her comments involved the changing roles of women in Australian society and the proliferation of porn on the Internet. Of particular interest were her comments regarding the rules governing acceptable behaviour in the prostitution profession – for example, the ‘compulsory condom’ rule which came into effect in these times. One screen in the exhibition features a slideshow of quotations (from sex workers, legislators and public documents) concerning the evolution of attitudes towards ‘the oldest profession’.
If I have one criticism of ‘X Rated’, it is that it tries to cover too much: video porn and prostitution. The former is covered with admirable thoroughness, the latter given short shrift. If at first it may seem natural to lump the two subjects together, upon closer inspection they are very distinct, if inter-related, topics of study and debate. However, that CMAG has tried at all to cover this important aspect of our city’s history is highly commendable.   

Also at the seminar, CMAG director Shane Breynard spoke to the Museum’s hopes for the exhibition. He noted that, although there had been some fear of recrimination or controversy, none had been forthcoming. (These days, an exhibition on the legacy of Fred Nile and the religious right may well draw more public scorn and derision than one on the sex industry, perhaps…perhaps this is a good sign, a mark of Canberra’s maturity.)

When I moved to Canberra at the tender age of 14, I was made aware – both by friends I left behind in Sydney and by new ones at Campbell High School – of Canberra as the capital of porn and fireworks. This was in 1988, at the height of both Canberra’s porn industry and its avant-garde arts scene. Although never particularly adventurous in either avenue personally, I would hear stories and catch the underlying flavour of a city with a taste for the decadent.

Indeed, ‘Splinters Theatre of Spectacle’, whose work I have been researching for some years, made great use of fireworks in their outdoor spectaculars. At one point in the early 1990s, team leader Patrick Troy had to attend a course and obtain a pyrotechnic license for these works to continue. In interviewing former Splinters members, many have told me that by today’s OH&S standards, much of Splinters work would be illegal and impossible to perform in a current setting.

There exists in Canberra today an ongoing argument over the status of illicit drugs. As with the sex industry in the 1980s, Canberra is again leading the way in terms of forward thinking on controversial subjects.

CMAG’s exhibition once more affirms Canberra’s status as a city of sophistication and enlightenment. That it has met with close-to-no controversy confirms the open-mindedness of Canberra’s citizenry. Watch out, in a decade or so, for an exhibition on the history of the gradual changes in the status of illicit drugs!

Joel Swadling

People and Places Writer for Aleseva Consulting

Thursday, March 26, 2015


“After midnight, all things are possible” – Hunter S. Thompson

It’s 2am.I‘m writing from the floor of CMAG, seated on one of the large red cushions which managers of the Canberra Museum & Gallery have provided to patrons of You Are Here’s Ill-Advised Night Out. The art school crowd have mostly departed.  Apart from the group in the Karaoke torture room, the all-nighters lounge to groove on the ambient beats of HHAARRPP (Luke Jaaniste).The music created earlier tonight by the ANU Experimental Musical Studio (Student and Teacher ensembles both), had been stark and stirring, causing me to ponder that perhaps ambient music is the classical form of today. The mood now, with just over twenty listeners remaining and night pushing on, is becoming increasingly misty and dreamlike. As I spread out, half-awake, staring at the ceiling, singers dance around me in the dim light, adding their microphoned voices to the intense and complex mix. Staring at the ceiling, I try to picture CMAG during business hours, when I come here to write, drink tea and interact with the smart set. From this angle, the DJ looks like a baker, kneading his dough. The dancer like a lost angel.

For such a young city, Canberra possesses an artistic history of great richness and diversity. One of my aims in researching and writing a biography of Splinters co-founder, the late David Branson, has been to introduce the work of David and his collaborative artists of Canberra’s 1980s/1990s scene into the framework of an evolving ‘Canberra Scene’. Unsure of whether such a beast does indeed currently exist. I began the research in 2008. Well, here it is 2015, and the book is still at least six months away from completion.  But the You Are Here festival, now in its fifth year, is again proving Canberra to be as vital a site for fringe arts events as it was fifteen to twenty-five years ago. Both You Are Here and Noted (the associated fringe writer’s festival) provide proof that Canberra is in the midst of transcending any other period in its history, while adapting to and internalising that history.    
My evening had begun in Civic’s Bible Lane. At the theatrical installation of ‘Krewd Presents a Krewd Chorale’.  A site-specific work, the chorale utilised the entire length of Bible Lane, which leads from Bunda street through to City Walk. The all-female cast performed a series of solo pieces, each interacting differently with the scattered audience members.

At one end of the site, an authoritarian figure stood on a table, admonishing the audience to ‘Work Harder!’ (Choking periodically on the word ‘work’). At the opposite end of the lane, a body-taped woman screamed over the abuses of authority and misogyny, punctuating her protestations with cries of ‘Fuck You!’ to each of her gender’s perceived oppressors. In between these two extremes, individual women took on the audience with different types of provocation. One woman, in full body paint, writhed and pled mercy from the audience. Another played clarinet in rhythm with the passers-by. Yet another mused loudly on the mysteries of her body and her mother...Gradually, the lane became littered by seemingly random scraps of paper handed out by a woman chained to a wall. (My friend, the aerial dancer and choreographer Janine Ayres Heath, commented to me how amusing she found it that audience members would read these scraps as though seeking out a grand linear meaning from the non-verbal, conceptual body of the work.)
With the exceptions of performers Anna Voronoff and Barb Barnett, and co-producer Jo Woodward – each of whom had known and worked with David Branson - these were younger performers, unversed in the work of David Branson and his kin. Nevertheless, ‘A Krewd Chorale’ as an entirety was reminiscent of Splinters’ methods of provocation and crowd interaction. The site-specific utilisation of such a natural outdoor resource as Bible Lane was very Splinters, as was the thematically interconnected nature of the individual performances. Providing a central, textual space for audiences to create their own meaning and reach their own conclusions was likewise reminiscent of Splinters’ key methods. Whether or not they were aware of it, Katie Woodward and her co-directors and performers had created a piece of theatre which expanded upon Canberra’s theatrical history.  

Now just after 3am at CMAG. Time moves strangely in the pre-dawn hours. As I float along, following and diverging from HHAARRPP’s soundwaves, I think back on experiences here tonight which now seem very far, then again quite clear.
In CMAG’s theatrette, the Karaoke of Cruelty coaxed the musical stamina of its audience and participants. By speeding up the songs and repeating certain lines in random, surprise sequence, DJ Paul Heslin challenged the singers’ speed and co-ordinated response. The stand-out performances of the event were a Taylor Swift song which lasted for 21:30minutes, and Jeff Buckley’s ‘Hallelujah’, which seemed likewise to last for close to half-an-hour.

Most daring event of the evening at CMAG: the Wah-Wah Room. An intimate cabaret. Audience capacity of four persons only. Accessed by a strictly chaperoned elevator to CMAG’s first floor. Performance theme chosen at random, from a set list of five, by an audience member hitting a red buzzer, which set off a timer-response mechanism of lights and bells. The performance to which I was privy involved the female cast member, in fright wig and tasselled bikini, indulging herself uncomfortably with a banana, to the accompaniment of the Divinyl’s ‘I Touch Myself’. Comedic snippets and raucous howling wafting down from upstairs the whole night through. Wah-Wah producer and conjurer Struthers Murray is a rare theatrical talent, to be treasured and watched out for.
Stretched out on the plush red cushion, I think back…        

…Certainly, things have changed since David’s time. Indeed, the entire literary landscape has been transformed by the digital media revolution. Earlier that day, I had visited The Record Store, activity hub of the festival, downstairs from East Row and City Walk at the old Impact Records site. There I had heard an Ask Me Anything interview with writer/editor Patrick Lenton, given as part of the Noted fringe writers’ festival (sharing festival billing with You Are Here). Lenton had spoken on many subjects pertinent to writers today, including the importance of maintaining an on-line presence, and the challenges presented by digital publishing across several literary forms and genres.  Noted confronted digital forms of expression head-on. There was A Day in the Life of Ted No, a twitter-based fiction in which the titular character’s exploits were dictated by individual tweets open to public input. Buzzwords was a blog-based advice column written by and for local writers, while the Digital ‘Zine was an on-line collage of writing ‘inspired by the idea of possession of the self’.  Extending Noted’s reach further abroad was the Skype-based project, In Sydney Today, In London Today, in which poets Rosa Campbell and Christopher Brew wrote and performed each other’s poetry live from their homes in the two cities. All of these activities gave demonstration of the expanding range of projects open to writers in a fringe arts setting in this, our digital age. 
One very recent, still-raw change in Canberra’s creative landscape was the announcement this week of the closing of Smith’s Alternative. In brief conversation with Joe Woodward – racing as I was to get from Bible Lane up to the Street Theatre - Joe expressed his confidence that Canberra performers would find ways to carry on, that new venues would emerge. As I passed Smith’s that night, I noted the overflowing crowd and heard the gushing thanks being showered upon Domenic Mico (and Smith’s management in general) by one of the evening’s performers. Certainly Smith’s, which has provided space for a great diversity of performers and audiences over the past few years, will be sorely missed. 

Among the most venerable of Canberra’s performance institutes, the Street Theatre remains vigilant in its dedication to both Canberra’s history and its ongoing creative development. On one wall a photo of David Branson is accompanied by his trademark violin bridge and a dedicatory poem by local playwright (and David’s dear friend) Kate Macnamara. On this night in particular, the evolution of Canberra’s musical history was being celebrated. 10 Years of Hellosquare was a 10th Anniversary concert given by the band, which had begun a decade earlier in a group home in Belconnen.
Perhaps it was the venue. Certain aural strains of other bands from Canberra’s past seemed present in the music of Hellosquare. The acoustic foreboding of The Gadflys. The psychedelic guitar harmonics of Sidewinder. The darkly fiddled, menacing humour of Mikelangelo and the Black Sea Gentlemen. Whether or not there is a Canberra sound, there certainly seems, across the years, to have been a Canberra consistency. A combination of folksiness and space-exploration. Reminding me of Bob Dylan’s eulogy for Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia, Dylan noting that Garcia’s style was “whatever is muddy river country at its core and screams up into the spheres”.

In my misspent younger days, I was obsessed with the American counter-culture of the 1960s. Andy Warhol’s Factory on the East Coast. The Merry Pranksters and the Acid Tests on the West. I spent some time backpacking across America, following the Pranksters. Even met Ken Kesey and got ‘On the Bus’. While I had been pining over a hollow nostalgia, Splinters and other such seminal performing groups as Aktion Surreal and P-Harness were creating a local Canberra scene as potent as any other of its time.  Although I was well-acquainted with David, and worked with his later group CIA (Canberra Independent/Culturally Innovative Artists), I missed out on Splinters.  Perhaps this fact has given impetus to me telling their stories and sharing the folklore of an earlier Canberra scene. Regardless, You Are Here proves once more that Canberra has in its grasp a fringe arts scene of increasingly exciting potential. I was only present for a tiny fraction of the festival’s events, but even my limited view spoke of the richness and diversity of creative expression currently at work in our city. As the population of art school students and other contemporary Canberra artists increase and mature, I suspect (and sincerely hope) that this scene will remain. That the artists will stay in Canberra (as they didn’t the last time Canberra was home to such an exciting scene). That new venues will emerge. That festivals such as You Are Here, and events like its Ill-Advised Night Out, will become more regular occurrences. In full, that the Canberra artistic community will become proudly aware of its history and the city’s diverse creative legacies in rising to new heights.
Twenty minutes to midnight. Time for CMAG to open its doors for You Are Here’s Ill-Advised Night Out. Time to finish my cigarette, to finish my conversation with the security guard. To wander in and join the gathering crowd. To wonder what the future may bring…for the evening and for Fringe Arts in the ACT.

The YOU ARE HERE website
The full YOU ARE HERE program

Joel Swadling
People and Places Writer for Aleseva Consulting

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The ACT Heritage Library - A treasure trove of Canberra's history

The ACT Heritage Library is a gem of Canberra’s institutional culture. One which I happened upon in a round-about way.

During the early stages of my research for a biography of Canberra theatre producer, the late David Branson, the Branson family donated his papers to the ACT Heritage Library. I then spent the following year working at the library, cataloguing and creating a ‘finding-aid’ for the Branson/Splinters archive (collection HMSS0233). And so I was made aware of the important work being done by a dedicated staff committed to documenting and preserving Canberra’s history. 
The ACT Heritage Library, located just above Woden Public Library, is a key Canberra institution, central to the collection and documentation of ACT community materials. Its history is intricately connected to the history of Canberra’s self-government. Antoinette Buchanan, recently promoted from Senior Librarian to Library Manager, explains the evolution of Canberra’s library system: “In the 1980s, prior to self-government, the public libraries (were) run by the national and it’s at that point that they start to consider the formation of what they call the Canberra Collection.

And that was essentially identifying materials within the public library collection that would normally have been discarded because of age. Public libraries are all about recent and relevant material. No one wanted to weed out the particularly relevant local history material. So that was preserved and then identified as the Canberra Collection. The collection itself (now) goes back to the early 1800s. The publication collection dates from just beyond the turn of the 19th into the 20th Century. Because, of course, Canberra as a district that existed prior to the Commonwealth coming to Canberra.”

Antoinette outlines the library’s key uses and primary clients. As she does so, a clear vision of Canberra’s diverse yet convergent histories comes into focus. “There’s increasingly family history research, as the community settles into a number of generations of Canberrans. We’ve had a stilted history in settlement. We have our indigenous past, which is fragmented by a colonial settlement. But that continues, and that relationship with this district continues by the indigenous owners of this land. We’ve got our rural past, and a lot of those families are still here, like the Camerons and the Kilbeys and the Southwells. The Cameron family deposited material with us, for example. A lot of family history material. Because their family is so associated with this district - this is where they settled when they immigrated - it’s local history as well as family history. So you’ve got that colonial and then rural past. (There are) still lots of rural lease-holders. Their experience of the Australian Capital Territory is different to an urban experience. Then come 1908 with the declaration of this area as being appropriate for the new Federal Capital. And then 1913, the declaration of the name, you start to get that Federal, urban settlement and the definition of the outline of the ACT. So you’ve got three parallel lines running.”

Over the course of Canberra’s official, hundred-year history as national capital, its development has also reflected the major events of the past century. In particular, as Antoinette says, Canberra’s history is “absolutely linked to the first half of the 20th century”. “Since the institution of the capital, we’ve had a number of gaps in settlement, or breaks in settlement. Public servants and workers start to be transferred into the capital in the late [1900s], and into the ‘20s, post-world-war. WWI happened just after the naming of the capital, so development stops, or comes slowly to a standstill. A lot of men join up so there’s not a workforce to do construction on infrastructure on the new capital because we’re on a war footing. Post-WW1, we start again to do more construction on the capital and infrastructure building. More people get transferred into the ACT or come here looking for work. It was the FCT then, the Federal Capital Territory. Then the Depression hits in the late 20s, (when) men’s wages are halved. So it’s really hard in a new city where you don’t necessarily have a large extended family or you rarely do, to make ends meet. And it’s also a stressful time. A lot of people leave during the Depression because they can make it better once they go back to their homes. Their original homes. You do have some continuing. Just as you’re starting to recover from the Depression, World War II hits.

There is a much bigger population by then, but we’re back on a war footing, again slowing the infrastructure building in Canberra. Not all of the departments had moved to the ACT yet. A number of the departments were still being operated out of Victoria. Not all of the worker Government is here after 1927 even though Parliament is here.

Post-World War II, rebuilding starts, but not until the fifties, when Menzies finally makes the decision that we’ll actually do some work on Canberra. You’ve got waves of migration in, internal migration, but it’s all fractured and fragmented by the march international which affects the local (development). And it’s not until the late 1960’s that the last departments were transferred into the ACT. So in terms of having families here, large numbers of people settling and staying here, you don’t see that until the ‘50s and ‘60s. So it’s nearly my generation. I was born in the ‘60s.So you’re getting into the third and fourth generation of that post-World War II settlement and that’s when you start to get a feeling of place. Now that’s actually coincided with the Centenary.”

This mention of Canberra’s Centenary prompts me to ask Antoinette about the Heritage Library’s role in 2013’s year-long festivities. “We were very busy. The community became very aware of itself, and wanted to celebrate itself and its own history and we were the major place that they could go for information on themselves. There was the beginning of the year when all the school children had to write an assignment on their suburbs. But that was one flush of interest, particularly around March and the actual Centenary. But it was a whole year of increased interest, and as predicted, that interest has been largely maintained, because there was an increased pride to being (from Canberra)”

Interestingly, last year’s Centennial celebrations seem to have marked a dynamic change, a shift in status related to being a citizen of the ACT. “There’s been a change in perception and I think that’s largely to do with a change in perception that Canberrans have about themselves. It used to be that if you were out of town, and someone asked you where you were from, you’d get a mouthful about the Government. People are now proud to say they’re from Canberra and don’t get quite the same mouthful as they used to.” This has also led to an increased interest in community documentation and preservation. Antoinette has been at a position to recognize this from her role as the head of one of Canberra’s chief community records-holders. “It has also meant that we’ve been, not flooded, but there’s been a steady flow of deposits of records. There were lots of enquiries during the centenary from people who had finally decided that their records may need (preservation).”

With this heightened awareness of Canberra’s history and evolving cultural life, the Heritage Library plays a key role in sustaining Canberra’s view of itself. Antoinette holds a holistic, yet necessarily discriminating, attitude towards the responsibility of her position as librarian and community archivist: “I’m always trying to be a bit strategic about what we collect…When it comes to original material, the records of organizations and individuals, we’re not going to be comprehensive, we’re going to be representative. Representative of the community’s interests, concerns and passion. We can aim to be comprehensive in our publications collection, and comprehensively collect the published output of Canberra, where it relates to us, but with our manuscript collection we have to be more strategic about that. We also go with some of our strengths. Performing arts is one, I think. We’re very strong in the environment as well. Both the natural environment and our creative environment, we’ve got really strong building collections, landscaping collections as well as environmental interest group collections. And that was what our community’s interest was, and a very late 20th century interest.”

Nor is the ACT Heritage Library alone in its responsibility towards the documentation and preservation of Canberra’s evolving view of its history. Antoinette highly values collaboration with other institutions, taking a pragmatic view of the Heritage Library’s role. “One of the important things about what we do is that we do is that we actually collaborate. Not just locally. We collaborate with local community institutions like Canberra Museum and Gallery and Historic Places in the ACT. We collaborate on collection and dispersal of record to the appropriate place. We don’t collect objects, for example, that’s the role of [CMAG], but we do collect papers, so we may actually work together to collect papers of an individual or organization and we’ll keep the paper component or the research collection component and then [CMAG] will collect objects. One example is the Cameron family collection - a pioneering family in the ACT. CMAG collected some of the objects, like a horse-riding habit and a few of the other objects from the family. We collected the family papers. And we’ve then provided a finding-aid to that collection on-line which includes the items that are in [the CMAG collection]. We did the same with the 2CA radio material, where we’ve each kept some material but which we’ve each provided a full finding-aid for it. So it doesn’t matter where the item is, it’s held jointly in some respects. We also collaborate particularly with the National, Territory and State libraries, formally and informally. There’s an organization called NASLA (National and State Libraries Association). It’s a formal organization. We have working-groups, we work together to try and ensure that the experience in each of our libraries is as seamless as possible. So working together on things like the digitized newspapers was one thing that we did as National, State and Territory libraries. We’ve been working on Australian newspaper preservation for many years in that respect. But we also work on other things, so we have an agreement where if we’re about to discard anything from our collections – it doesn’t happen very often but it does happen – we offer it to each other first. Often it’s material that’s deposited with us as part of another (collection). We don’t want to collect material from Victoria or Tasmania or the Northern Territory, but we offer it to those states and territories to fill the gaps in their collection and they do the same with us. So it’s a very collaborative way of working. Similarly, we work very closely with other National Institutions. National Archives is different because it collects government records and we don’t – or rather it receives government records. We’re a collecting institution, they’re an institutional archive. There is a difference. We collect only community material. Territory Records deals with ACT government records. And National Archives deals with Commonwealth Records. The ACT Heritage Library deals with community records.”

As Canberra prepares for its role in 2015’s Centenary of ANZAC, Antoinette proudly reflects on one of the Heritage Library’s most successful projects to date. “One of our biggest achievements was the ACT Memorial Data Base. We worked with the Chief Minister’s Department in the creation of the ACT Memorial. The ACT has never had its’ own - we’ll call it a ‘War Memorial’ – but a Memorial to the servicemen and women. And with the Chief Minister’s Department, we created a memorial exhibition. So there’s this beautiful Matthew Harding art work, on London Circuit and Ainslie Avenue, opposite Civic Square. There was originally a glass globe surrounded by metal and lit. Could be flames, could be wind, interpret it for yourself. If you’re going down from City Hill, on that axis that goes to Mount Ainslie, it hits that axis, which is the municipal axis of the ACT. So that’s the physical memorial and it’s very beautiful. Instead of having a column or a wall with names engraved on it, we created a data base. So that, A – there’s names collected. But B- we are able to collect much more information on those individuals and their service, but also on their lives. And it’s a very, very popular product that we have. We’re improving it at the moment and it will be improved again ahead of the 2015 centenary of ANZAC. But given that we have about 3 million hits a year to it now, goodness only knows what’s it’s going to be in the ANZAC period. But we’re now able to search it comprehensively, produce reports on individuals and there will be other improvements happening. That’s probably one of our biggest achievements is actually getting that done because it really does reflect our community, at particular times, but it represents a range of our community as well and their experiences. It also recognizes peace-keeping activities, not just war activities, which is an unusual memorial in that respect. But again, a 21st century response to commemoration to that service and sacrifice.”

The Heritage Library’s methods of preservation and documentation point emphatically to the future. “We have a concern, particularly, for the capture of digitally produced material. Providing digitized material, which we’ve been doing for years, around our images for example. To the community. To anyone who wants to use the material. A lot of the material is now born digital. Our concern is to capture that and continue to make it available. In the same way that we capture the analogue, we need to be able to capture the digital. So we are working towards that at this point.”

Antoinette reflects upon her vision and dedication to the ongoing development of Canberra’s library services and their corresponding role in the community: “We respond to changes within the community, both (by) Government and individuals, and other concerns within the community. We aim to document both processes in that way. We are also trying to strategically place ourselves so that we are able to continue to respond, for example, with the digital-born material. (To) be able to collect it, make it available and ultimately preserve it.”

As Canberra continues to evolve, preservation of its history becomes increasingly central to its vision as a city. In looking ahead, while taking a comprehensive yet focused view of Canberra’s history, the ACT Heritage Library provides a key service, documenting and preserving the future history of our exciting city.

Joel Swadling

People and Places Writer for Aleseva Consulting

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Impact Comics! Canberra Super Team!

In which our intrepid sextet celebrates its first decade inside the international world of corporate comicdom! Special tenth anniversary edition!!

In days of old, in a long-disused corner of Civic’s bus interchange, Impact Records ruled the roost. Bought out by JB Hi-Fi in the early years of the new millennium, Impact Comics rose from the ashes and has now been operating successfully for a full and lively decade. Initially sharing store space with the generally excellent (and still-extant) Flipside Record Exchange, store managers Mal Briggs and Kam Noack have been operating Impact Comics in its current Garema Place location since the beginning of 2008.  Impact’s demographic is roughly fifty-fifty male-to-female, with an age-range to their customer-base from toddlers to folks in their mid-80s. A friendly and conversational arena, Mal Briggs describes the store’s mojo: “It’s definitely not a traditional supermarket style retail. It’s a place where we make an effort to pay attention to people’s individual tastes, and we are a place where people come to discuss their pop-cultural influences.”

On Saturday, November 15, Impact will be commemorating its 10th Anniversary with a large, day-long celebration in Garema Place, providing this writer with an opportunity to discuss with Mal Impact’s history and culture, as well its role within the broader Canberra-based and international comics community.

Assisting Mal and Kam in the daily activities of Impact are a fantastic foursome of lively, energetic and ever so knowledgeable staff: Jai Sun, Jayne, Helen and Happy. Between them, the six have all corners covered, quick at the trigger with names of authors, titles and publishers, as well as upcoming release dates.  Says Mal: “Amongst the staff there’s a similar thing as between the staff and the customers. There’s an exchange of ideas and an exchange of tastes. Staff usually come in with one area of specialty and after a while their area shifts to a different thing that they’ve discovered over time from being here.”

Impact have a growing customer-base of regular shoppers, as evidenced by their firm reliance on those customers with regular reservations on monthly comics releases, or ‘standing-orders’. “We have a lot of standing-orders. Close to 75% of new single-issue sales are to standing-order customers.”

In the ten years since Impact’s inception, major changes have occurred within the world of comic-book retailers, influencing buying trends. The increasingly powerful popularity of movies based on comics characters and series have impacted in large and subtle ways, not necessarily in the way which might seem most obvious. As Mal explains: “The big trend with comic-book movies and their effect on comic-book sales are that a movie with a known character, say for instance Spider Man, doesn’t tend to increase Spider Man comic sales a great deal because the character is already known. But a successful movie with a character that’s unknown, say for instance ‘Sin City’, ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’, even going back as far as ‘The Crow’. Those sort of things where people outside of the comics shop have never heard of a character...They see a film and they’re like, ‘Oh! Well this looks like an interesting character I’ve never heard of’. Those can definitely help.”   

Given the recent fluctuations in our increasingly digitised culture, buying trends in the world of print media have naturally impacted on comics sales, although again in subtly nuanced ways. As Mal describes it: “We’ve had some of our regular customers tell us they’re moving across to digital comics. Things like digital comics for iPads, the statistics in the industry show that they’re essentially not stealing market from print. They’re growing, but they’re growing at the same time print is growing. There’s possibly an argument that print would be growing faster if not for digital, but then the argument can go the other way, that digital is introducing people that then are migrating into print. So there’s not enough data to know where the ebb and flow of these customers are going. Digital’s definitely growing, but print’s definitely growing as well.” 

For the past several decades, long predating Impact’s origins, the world of comic books has been dominated by the race between two major companies: DC and Marvel. In the past few years, both companies have initiated major overhauls of their entire lines of comics series: DC with the radical “New 52” initiative, and Marvel with its more insidious and slowly-evolving “Marvel Now!”  As Mal describes the companies’ different approaches, one can imagine both the excitement and the apprehension of long-time comics fans: “The companies right now are quite in flux. We’re three years into the New 52, which is the most dramatic thing DC have ever done. It was the most dramatic thing on the surface, but in hindsight the changes they made were quite conservative. They picked a very successful time in the history of superheroes and they artificially forced all of their titles to match that time. Which worked for some characters and didn’t work for other characters. Which they’re now finding and now tweaking along the way. Marvel, since the inception of their Marvel Now! concept a couple of years ago, have been doing those sort of soft reboots with their characters [on an] ongoing [basis], and it gives them an opportunity to be very dynamic in what they’re doing.”

Of course, with the widely-spreading popularity of comics-based characters and concepts into other media, both companies are also hedging their bets in terms of how radical they can allow their print content to become. “Both of those companies are very conservative in what they do, when you compare them to the other companies. Because essentially Marvel and DC right now are about protecting intellectual property for use in videogames and movies and television and so forth.”

In recent years, a proliferation of independent companies has met with huge success and been greeted with giant popularity amongst comics readers. Mal compares the storytelling focus of these companies to the multi-media approach of the majors: “You go over to [independent publishers] Image or Dark Horse or IDW or Boom! or Valiant, a big part of what they’re doing is putting out the best story they can organise. And Image have set the world on fire right now. With ‘Saga’ and ‘East to West’, you can just keep going, ‘Manhattan Projects’, ‘Sex Criminals’...”

Queried on his hopes for Impact Comics’ ongoing longevity, Mal is quick to emphasise the central ingredient of quality publishing. “We’re very solidly at the whim of the companies. The comics companies have to keep producing good quality product for us to have room to grow. As long as there’s good comics out there we’ll find ways to get them into people’s hands. Whether that’s digital, or whether it’s printed onto Lebanese bread, we’ll do what we have to do.”  

The planned event for November 15 is hardly the first time Impact has celebrated publicly with its fanbase, growing out of previous years’ annual events. Says Mal: “We have an annual event called Otakufest, which is essentially a Manga sale with a Cosplay [Costume Play] element. This year we’re going to turn it into a miniature open-air comics convention. So we’re going to have Cosplay with prizes provided by Madman Entertainment. We’re going to have comic creators coming from Sydney and Melbourne and local Canberra crowd. There’s going to be tables with paper and pencils for kids so they can draw their own comics if they get inspired on the day. Some [creators] will be signing, some wil be doing free sketches, some will be doing commissioned sketches. Each will be doing their own thing. Some will have prints to sell. Some will have comics to sell. Dean Rankin’s sort of the headline guy. He designed the poster. He works regularly with ‘Simpsons Comics’. You’re also going to have Ryan Lindsay, local Canberra guy; Nick Lawson locally; Louis Joyce; a good bunch...It’s not quite a comics convention. It’s almost a Farmer’s Market for comic creators. So you just kind of come along and you get to buy the product from the source., And [to] finish the whole day off...Madman and Dendy have come together and are putting on one last screening of [Anime film]“The Wind Rises” in Japanese at 4.30 as our Miyazaki farewell screening. Only $7 tickets. And that caps the day off.”   

Mal is quite emphatic on the subject of Canberra’s proliferation of a growing community of comics fans and creators. “There seems to be a comics class at the library once a month just about. The National Library did a couple of things. The trouble is they don’t get advertised broadly. They’re not high-profile, expensive sort of things. They do a ‘zine fair at Gorman House from time to time.” [Note: ‘Zines are shoestring mini-magazines, usually locally-produced by a handful of contributors, on a single subject or theme.] “You’ve got the ‘zine lounge at Old Parliament House. They’re going to send the Canberra ‘Zine Machine down to Otakufest. So you can put a coin in a slot and get a ‘zine from a machine.”

One successful outgrowth of the Impact community has been the monthly gathering of the ACT Comics Meet, which has produced two successful local-press comics anthologies. Mal was one contributor to the first anthology, ‘Beginnings’,  and describes the organic process which birthed it: “The ‘Beginnings’ anthology was essentially the Comic Meet getting together regularly, sitting around drinking beer...Eventually somebody brought an anthology from a Canadian comic meet and said, ‘if these guys can get themselves together, why can’t we get ourselves together?’’ The anthology was sold at Impact (as well as other local Canberra booksellers) and quickly exhausted its print run, selling out in short order. As Mal says, "It’s a good sign of [having] an understanding of the size of your market to adjust your print run to match.”

On the subject of Canberra’s potential for a full-scale comics convention, Mal speaks with a learned sense of international distinction: “A full-scale convention in an Australian sense is a very different thing to a full-scale convention in an American sense. There’s a convention every weekend in America. They go from everything from a swap meet in a school hall, through to San Diego and New York ComiCons with hundreds of thousands of people. Whereas Australia has really been locked into the idea where a comic convention is this great big massive thing where you fly people in from overseas. I think there’s a lot more room for smaller events in Canberra. Canberra hasn’t got a really dense population, so having those really big conventions isn’t what we want to be looking at here. Canberra’s benefit is that you get a really intimate setting. There’s some interesting models around. Hobart recently introduced a smaller convention on the Queen’s Birthday weekend. If a city like Hobart can run something like that, then Canberra’s definitely got an opportunity to run something interesting. It just takes a few interested people here, and a little organisation. The key is not to be too overambitious.”

The upcoming events in Garema Place on Saturday November 15, running from 10am-4pm, promise to be a bold step in this exciting direction!   

So let us raise quill to ink-pot, then, for the first successful decade of our merry band of comics purveyors! And wish to them, and to our Canberra comics community, many more fulfilling years to follow!! 

The Impact Comics website is here.

Joel Swadling
People and Places Writer for Aleseva Consulting

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Faith in Our Community

Over the past few decades, there has been a cultural shift, a growing aversion to organised religion within secular society. This is no less true of Canberra than of any other major city. However, the social outreach programs being run by various Canberra churches are a study in the bridging of spiritual faith within the framework of the broader community of Canberra. Ecumenical Christianity can be loosely defined as an open-hearted embrace of all Christian faiths, their various methods of worship and belief. Nor is ecumenism solely a Christian concept. Other religions, as well as atheist communities, struggle to find common ground and an inclusive language in assisting the less well-off in our society.

If true Christianity is to be found in community action, rather than simple lip-service to an individual series of beliefs, ecumenism is to be found thriving within various Canberra churches. St Margaret’s Uniting Church in Hackett is an excellent case in point. In recent years, St Margaret’s has involved itself in several successful Community service programs. “Stepping Stones for Life” is an innovative support program which particularly assists families in which ageing parents are caring for an adult family member with a disability. Stepping Stones for Life helps parents plan for the time when they will not be around to care for their adult children, and support s people with a disability through a weekly activity group for people living with a disability.

Arts and crafts produced at the activity group supplying members with a creative outlet, with their goods sold at local fetes and church fundraisers. Ross Walker Lodge - named for its patron, local mental health crusader, the late Ross Walker – is a large house, situated on a block of land directly behind St Margaret’s. It provides a home for people with intellectual disability. There are currently five residents and a live-in group facilitator. Strong connections exist between members of the church and residents of the lodge. Additionally, St Margaret’s has, since 1988, run “Meg’s Toybox”, a toy library for young families which has 200 members. Meg’s Toybox helps build support and connections among young familie and has developed a distinct community of its own.

St Margaret’s also shares grounds, church and facilities with Holy Cross Anglican Church. Holy Cross run their own social program, the weekend “Tuckerbox” for which groceries are donated by businesses and sold at not-for-profit prices. The two churches of St Margaret’s and Holy Cross often engage in joint services, keeping the spirit of ecumenism alive in the northern Canberra community. 
There are, naturally, other churches in Canberra which engage with the community through the use of community service programs. For example, St Columba’s Uniting Church in Braddon runs a safe shelter program for people “living rough” in the Canberra winter. Each person is given sleeping space in the church hall and has a warm swag donated to them. This program is not the exclusive domain of the Uniting Church. Indeed, many of the volunteers running this program are of a secular orientation. , but in this case, the church is facilitating community service by people of many different beliefs by providing property and a facilitating framework.
St Margaret’s is, demographically, an ageing congregation. However, it has in recent years taken steps in reaching out to younger Canberrans, particularly the young families moving into the area. Aspects of this commitment to newer forms include creating a website and strong Twitter presence. A weekly Friday night celebration – the term “service” is being assiduously avoided – for the under-60s is also in the works.

Too often, “urban development” is a term applied in the sole interests of the wealthy and well-to-do. A key ingredient of a thriving city is compassion and service for the less well-off.
Church leaders recognise that Christian involvement is not simply a matter of Sunday attendance. In reaching out to the broader community, churches struggle to find a common language which appeals to a wide range of people, regardless of spiritual orientation. The ecumenical bridging of churches, of whatever denomination, is fundamental to the development of a less hierarchical and more egalitarian society.

Active facilitation and pursuit of social justice programs are equally essential in allowing religion to play its role in creating a crucially egalitarian Canberra.  Pressure should be brought to bear, both on government bodies and non-profit organisations, to develop and further these kinds of programs. On an individual basis, volunteering to work as part of such programs is an essential method for Canberra residents to increase the equality of our society.

Whether this occurs in the context of a church community is hardly necessary; many other opportunities exist for Canberrans to strive practically for equality in our city. However, a more open-minded approach to religion and religious-minded community programs, on the part of the secular community, should be actively pursued from both sides. In this way, one of the key divides of our society and local culture will be bridged, endowing Canberrans with a more holistic culture.  

Joel Swadling
People and Places Writer for Aleseva Consulting

Monday, September 8, 2014

Kingston conundrum

A quarter century into self-government debate continues as to who should oversee urban planning in Canberra – the feds or the locals.  Is Canberra a city with its own identity or is it simply the seat of national government?

In a recent Canberra Times article, Liberal senator Zed Seselja argues that the National Capital Authority controls an excess of power over local urban development.  That the Parliamentary Triangle and areas which reflect national government should perhaps be its chief domain. With new families and residents moving to Canberra all the time, the abundance of red-tape controlling Canberra’s development hampers the speed of the city’s evolution.

There are, however, areas of Canberra – New Acton was essayed in a recent article on this blog – which give hope to the efficacy with which the city’s identity is being developed. As development continues, issues relating to demographic stratification and potential urban isolation remain. Resolving them is a work in progress. Even a cursory look at the development of Kingston, particularly the foreshore area, puts these issues into sharp focus.

Unlike the area of Braddon essayed here last month, there is not a lot more to recommend the development of the Kingston foreshores than a conglomeration of high-rise apartment buildings and a variety of upscale restaurants. It seems a pity indeed that this location, providing a key to the physical beauty of Canberra in looking out upon Lake Burley Griffin, seems to have been squandered solely on the rich. Real estate here is ‘limb-hungry’…it’ll cost you an arm and a leg. Boom boom!

To be fair, the area does feature a well-constructed public walkway along the pier – a sign perhaps of what might have been? One would have hoped for the building and nurturing of an environment more all-encompassing, welcoming to a broad range of Canberra’s citizenry.

Fortunately, other aspects of the area do attract a variety of Canberrans. Notably Megalo Print Design studios and gallery; and, of a weekend, the Old Kingston Bus Depot Markets. With a rich history, offering resources, space and opportunity to visual artists in Canberra for over twenty years, Megalo also serves as a meeting-place for Canberra arts patrons and remains in the vanguard of the Canberra arts scene. The weekend markets at the Old Bus Depot fulfil a multiplicity of purposes. They offer traders and artisans a place to do business. The markets serve also as one of Canberra’s key weekend spots for a diverse range of Canberrans to catch up with one another while enjoying rich coffee and strong teas, international cuisine and the opportunity to engage in a spot of bargain-hunting.  

The bus depot has also a rich history as a performance venue, stemming back to 1994, when it was utilised by the theatre troupe Splinters as the site of their production, “Flowers of Gold”. Splinters used the depot to create a carnival-like atmosphere, one in which audiences were encouraged to invest and rediscover themselves. Audience involvement was always a strong element of Splinters’ work, just as community action has been a trailblazing aspect of Canberra’s urban development. With these aspects still present in Kingston, it would truly be a shame for urban development in the area to focus exclusively on the needs of the financially well-heeled, at the expense of encouraging the evolution of Canberra’s diverse population. 

While urban planning and development are obviously essential and desirable for the evolution of Canberra as both city and large-scale community, paving over its history – either literally or figuratively – is a sorry mistake and must be avoided in order for Canberra to remain true to itself. Lack of immediate financial profitability does not excuse wiping Canberra’s history off its landscape.

The obvious answer to the question of in whose hands aspects of our city’s development  should be placed, is Canberra’s residents and consumers themselves.  In his article, Seselja makes the call for Canberrans to contact their local government representatives on these matters. To take greater control over which bodies decide upon planning and development. In the wake of the 2013 Anniversary celebrations, Canberra need no longer possess a dual-identity of national capital on the one hand and home to hundreds of thousands on the other.

Located so close to the Parliamentary triangle, as well as Canberra’s sole train station (with the VFT still in the cards, this may yet prove a vital point), Kingston seems a vital place to renew attempts at integrating these two identities. Kingston’s artistic and commercial potential should be heeded by developers, not just for the sake of the wealthy, but in a manner conducive to furthering an identity of diversity for all of Canberra.

Joel Swadling
People and Places Writer for Aleseva Consulting