COVID-19 and years of neglect have created a perfect storm for the arts in Australia

Photo: Sia Duff

Originally published in The Adelaide Review, May 2020

COVID-19 has left Australia’s theatres, galleries and rehearsal rooms shuttered and its arts community reeling. But the unfortunately timed announcement of the Australia Council’s four-year funding cycle in April has shown just how this already underfunded sector is being pushed to the brink. 

It’s up there with one of the worst days of my life, I think,” Restless Dance Theatre artistic director Michelle Ryan explains. “We’ve really built our reputation, especially over the last three years, and we’re seen as a leader in disability and arts.” 

On 3 April, Restless Dance Theatre was among 160 organisations awaiting the results of the Australia Council’s 2021–2024 four-year funding program. While 95 organisations were successful nationwide, Restless was among those that failed to secure a stake in the $31.7 million pool

For Ryan, the “heart-wrenching” news was made more bewildering by the Australia Council’s celebration of her work in March. “I was just a bit blindsided because three weeks earlier I had been given the Australia Council Award for Dance,” she says. “For me, it was sending quite mixed messages – I was shocked. We’ve won a bunch of awards, I seriously don’t know what more we could have done. 

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Restoration Australia: an easy watch about heritage glow-ups or another coat of whitewash?

Photo: ABC

Originally published in The Guardian Australia, October 2020

Like a kind of Grand Designs with more trips to the library, Restoration Australia has returned for another season of genteel Victorian houses, crumbling cottages and rambling pastoral homesteads, and the brave (or foolish) homeowners working to rescue them.

Hosted by architect Stuart Harrison, it’s easily watchable, occasionally delightful television. We root for the country husband-and-wife teams who roll up their sleeves to give old beauties some TLC. We cringe when hubris or inexperience leads to baffling misses, like last season’s “stainless steel mesh cocoon”. We revel in millennial renter schadenfreude when unexpected structural issues start to bleed money, and nod knowingly at a well-restored wrought iron veranda (having learnt about the intricacies of “Italianate” motifs moments earlier).

But the limitations of its historical inquiry can sometimes prove frustrating.

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Alia Shawkat is not an ingenue

Photo: Tamara Hardman

Originally published in The Adelaide Review, April 2019

In Animals, Alia Shawkat explores a different kind of arrested development as an elegantly wasted twentysomething who can’t quite let the party, or her closest friendship, end.

“I had never played a character like that before,” Shawkat explains. “In the past I’ve played characters who to some degree or another are a little more genuine or relatable. I was excited to play someone who was so fun, but so damaged.”

Shawkat’s Tyler is the sort of character you’ll find in any university town, still haunting the same bars and citing literary references from a second-year modernism course years after graduating or dropping out. There’s probably a Tyler at The Exeter right now.

“At first you’re like, ‘Is she a cartoon character? Does she think people are on board?’,” Shawkat says. “And they are sometimes, but she lives in her own world. When she was younger people were more charmed by her, but she never evolved. It almost rings a little false, comes off a little ‘ooh I don’t think she knows there’s something in her teeth’.

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Grizzly Bear: ‘I can’t imagine starting our band in this climate’

Photo: Tom Hines

Originally published in Broadsheet, January 2018 

A decade ago, Grizzly Bear’s blend of jazz-camp precision and ’60s pop harmonies made an unlikely candidate for crossover success. Back on the road with fifth album Painted Ruins, it seems no one’s more surprised by the band’s staying power than their founder Ed Droste.

“Honestly, what I sometimes think when I’m walking around onstage is, ‘I cannot believe I’m still doing this’,” he says, laughing. “And it’s a mixture of complete gratitude and ‘Oh my God, I’m here again for the 12th time’.”

But before Painted Ruins could be built, the band first needed to escape the endless string of studios and green rooms they had inhabited since Droste launched the project from his Brooklyn bedroom with 2005’s lo-fi debut Horn of Plenty. The band needed a circuit breaker: they had to let real life back in.

“We’ve been touring, recording, touring, recording, touring, recording pretty relentlessly ever since we started,” he explains. “People were moving, three of us now live in LA, a bunch of us got married, people got divorced, there were babies born. Regular life became a priority over music for a few years, and I think it was good. [We] were just too afraid and tired, and just kind of done. So when we started working together again, we came back really refreshed in a more mature way.”

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Alice Procter’s uncomfortable truths

Photo: Sia Duff

Originally published in The Adelaide Review, April 2019

With her Uncomfortable Art tours, Australian art historian Alice Procter is making Britain’s biggest institutions confront home truths one guerrilla tour at a time.

“I had this feeling that here was this whole conversation about colonial history that no one was willing to have,” Procter says during a brief visit to Adelaide.

Studying art history and frustrated by front-of-house roles in cultural institutions that discouraged straying from the official – and incomplete – script, Procter began leading pop-up tours of the National Gallery and Tate Britain. “When I started the tours, they were secret, nobody knew about them at all,” she says. “I was very much interested in painting collections, specifically looking at art and where the money comes from.”

Demand quickly saw Procter include four more sites, tapping into a growing appetite for the alternative and untold stories living between the lines of the typical interpretive label. “I originally thought you wouldn’t need me to show you around the British Museum – surely it’s so obvious that everything is stolen,” she says. “But I realised that most people knew that but didn’t know what to do with that information.

“To me there was a really obvious story to be told; in the UK a lot of people see colonialism as something that happened elsewhere, you don’t have the same situation as in Australia or other settler colonies where there is an Indigenous population who have survived this history of imperialism. There are obviously diasporic communities and people who have immigrated to the UK from post-imperial nations, but it’s treated in history curriculums and museums as something that happened over there, and isn’t our problem.”

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The golden hands of Olivia Kathigitis

Photo: Sia Duff

Originally published in The Adelaide Review, January 2019

From a backyard shed in Goodwood to a secluded arctic island, artist turned jeweller Olivia Kathigitis is making it big by making things small.

“Essentially it’s just miniature sculpture,” Kathigitis says as she saws the outline of a small hand from a sheet of recycled silver.

An accomplished visual artist whose work has been exhibited at Fontanelle, CACSA and FELTspace, Kathigitis’ turn as a jeweller was at first an unexpected extension of her art practice.

“I couldn’t find any jewellery that I liked, that wasn’t too heavy to wear,” she explains. “So I just started making it with the skills I learned from university. From word of mouth it just became a viable stream for me.”

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Studio Mignone’s backyard world of family, colour and concrete

Aldo Mignone and Isabella Wood of Studio Mignone. Photo: Sia Duff
Aldo Mignone and Isabella Wood of Studio Mignone. Photo: Sia Duff

Originally published in The Adelaide Review, August 2019

As their sculptural furniture start up celebrates its first birthday, Studio Mignone’s Isabella Wood and Aldo Mignone invite us into their lemon tree-lined world of family, collaboration and very colourful concrete.

“It’s all like a village,” Mignone explains as he emerges from a shed set a few houses back from The Parade. Norwood and Kensington were once peppered with market gardens, workshops and fruit tree-filled backyards tended to by generations of Italian and Greek families. Many have been gradually replaced by townhouses or units, but this cluster of workers’ cottages, sheds and abundant citrus fruit has been the heart of Mignone’s family since his grandfather, Aldo Sr., purchased the main house in the 1950s.

“I remember coming here with Nonno as a little kid, because they looked after us like second parents,” he recalls. “We spent a lot of time here, old Holdens everywhere, so it’s nice to come back here and start our own business in the same place.”

Mignone left the family village in his mid-20s to pursue acting in Sydney, having made his screen debut in locally-made, SBS-backed cult hit Danger 5. He found his way to a starring role in a Channel 7 period drama, but it was meeting Wood that proved most formative.

Living in a “gorgeous” 1920s apartment building in Potts Point, the pair discovered a shared love of terrazzo and design that laid the foundation for their current collaboration. “Then we went to Italy which sparked our love for terrazzo and Italy and Al’s family heritage,” Wood explains.  “When Bels was pregnant with Valentina we started thinking about design, and drawing things inspired by our building – not really hip to the idea of how much [terrazzo] was taking over in the design scene,” Mignone says.

The subsequent birth of the pair’s daughter saw them relocate to Adelaide to reconnect to Mignone’s family traditions – and start their own. “That’s when we decided to just give this a shot making some shit, and just started doing it. We both decided we were at points where we wanted to do our own thing, to see what happens while we have the space, and the family village really provided the right kind of space.”

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Revisiting ‘An Oasis In A Desert Of Noise’

Greasy Pop, An Oasis in a Desert of Noise. Photo: Courtesy of Tim Kelton
Photo: Tim Kelton

Originally published in The Adelaide Review, September 2016

For many music fans and former players, Adelaide in the ‘80s can be summarised by two words: Greasy Pop.

It’s a term that evokes a time when vinyl wasn’t the domain of de rigueur revivalism but a thing of necessity, the State Bank collapse had yet to quash the nauseating corporate optimism of the ‘80s and the band rooms of the Tivoli and Austral had yet to be extinguished by residential developments.

In other words, perfect conditions for a fertile, unapologetic wave of South Australian bands creating their own industry from scratch.

At the centre of it all was music store clerk and guitarist Doug Thomas, whose decision to fund the pressing of his own band’s first single led to a decade running one of Adelaide’s best-known record labels.

Thirty years ago Greasy Pop Records issued what has become its most seminal release, and an intriguing time capsule of Adelaide’s 80s underground: An Oasis In A Desert Of Noise.

“It still seemed like any artists serious about success had to move to the music industry centres of Sydney or Melbourne – most local independent releases seemed to be one-offs by the band themselves,” Thomas recalls from his current home in Perth. Despite a healthy independent scene in the 1970s, by the next decade the absence of labels left Thomas fielding requests from other local bands to release their records too.

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Tkay Maidza is calling the shots

Photo: Sia Duff

Originally published in Broadsheet, August 2018

On her new EP, Tkay Maidza professes to love growing up. That’s lucky, because the 21-year-old singer and rapper has had to do a lot of it lately.

“Weird” can mean a lot of things. For Tkay Maidza, it isn’t just unusual or odd, but a dry, distinctly Australian definition that can brush off all kinds of bewildering trauma and misadventure with one satisfying syllable. President Trump? Weird. Terrorism? Weird. Playing international festivals, fronting Nike campaigns and collaborating with Run the Jewels rapper Killer Mike and influential French producer Martin Solveig at a time when most of your peers are still hanging at the local food court? Definitely weird.

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Inside Thebarton’s historic garbage incinerator turned studio

Photo: Sia Duff

Originally published in The Adelaide Review, June 2019

Having famously laid out the nation’s capital, American architect Walter Burley Griffin spent his final years bringing a bold aesthetic vision to a most unedifying subject: burning waste. Now, the former Thebarton Reverberatory Incinerator is cooking up fire tracks in its new life as a recording studio.

Driving down West Thebarton Road a keen eye might notice the angular red smoke stack poking up from the industrial lots and car parks, its sharp lines and polychromatic brickwork resembling something out of Minecraft. It’s one of several architecturally significant ‘reverberatory incinerators’ around Australia that Griffin and colleague Eric Milton Nicholls designed during the Great Depression. When it opened in March 1936, less than a year before Griffin’s death, newspaper reports welcomed the influence of “modern architecture” on Thebarton’s “imposing” new addition.

Today it’s home to Lewis Wundenberg, an Adelaide engineer and producer who has spent years training his ears to avoid ‘rubbish’. But when the city studio he worked at went under, leaving him at a loose end with more recording gear than he could fit at home, this “really weird” online listing caught his eye.

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