Copyrighted to Australian Stage.
Jonathan Mills, Artistic Director of the Edinburgh International festival was in Melbourne recently to give a lecture on the State of the Arts and Australian Stage’s Dione Joseph had a chance to ask him some key questions. These included not only the agenda for the Festival, but Mill’s own personal opinions on some of Australia’s most pressing issues.
Dione Joseph: Jonathan, welcome back to Melbourne. It’s wonderful to have you in town, even if it is a flying visit, but with the Edinburgh International Festival just over a week away we appreciate you taking the time to chat to us.
This is your third year as Artistic Director of one the world’s most renowned Festivals – how is this year different to the past few we’ve seen under your directorship?
Jonathan Mills: Well, each year its a different festival, its a different program but they radiate further and further away from Europe – they go from Europe to Central and Eastern Europe to what’s international about Scotland to the Americas to finally New Worlds, which is in fact the theme of 2010’s festival.
DJ: What are some of the landmark projects to keep an eye out for those of us lucky enough to be heading over this year?
JM: We’ve commissioned a lot of the work in the program this year and some of the stand outs include a beautifully lyrical work by Samoan choreographer and activist Lemi Ponifasio called Birds with Skymirrors. There are a number of brilliant choreographers but Lemi has a particular gentleness and anger that distinguishes his work, it has a lyrical beauty that transcends polemics. We also have a production of a very beautiful but not very well known opera Montezuma by Carl Heinrich Graun which is certainly one of the highlights. Caledonia, a new play by the National theatre of Scotland of how in 1698, Scotland, one of the poorest nations in Europe, had the opportunity to become a prosperous colonial power in Central America – and how it all went dreadfully wrong is definitely worth watching out for. In addition there are a number of workshops and Masterclasses with individuals such as Steve Osbourne, Rodrigo Pederneiras (founder of Grupo Corpo from Brazil) and Elizabeth LeCompte from the Wooster group.
DJ: On a more personal note how do you find yourself being instrumental in creating such an international festival, especially as an Australian in Edinburgh?
JM: There are several things to say on the subject. Firstly without a doubt Australian and New Zealanders know more about the rest of the world than the rest of the world knows about us. And that gives us a very special international perspective – we travel a lot and we engage with the world, and particularly engage with Asia as it is on our doorstep. So I think an Australian perspective with internationalism will always look far beyond the borders of Europe.
This is because you can be very international but not leave Europe – you can speak dozens of languages but not leave Europe and in the world we live in today, the mark of a festival does in fact apply to a time and space beyond Europe itself. The world we live in is increasingly dominated by cultures and economies like China and India – and I don’t think that’s going to diminish – in fact I do think its going to increase and its important that we do recognize those changes.
But beyond those I also have the responsibility of an international festival and I have to constantly ask myself what is it that makes a festival international and relevant in today’s world. The Europe after the Second World War wanted to create cultural opportunities to ensure that something as catastrophic as that didn’t happen again. And so today the challenges, the power relationships, the areas of the world that are engaged have all shifted – not necessarily from Europe – Europe is still engaged but so are countries like China and India.
DJ: And that’s redefining Internationalism without being Euro-centric, all the more powerful and oxymoronic because of Festival’s physical location in Europe. What would you say has been the general feeling regarding your new approach to the Festival and how have the people of Edinburgh responded?
JM: I think people embrace what you’re doing if you’re clear with them, if there’s a purpose to it and there’s actually a story to tell. When I started I didn’t think about being self consciously different from my predecessors but I did think about doing what I thought was relevant to the world today – I asked myself: What interests me and what do I want to know about?
Our narrative is the journey we take every year and that will change and people are excited at the thought of those changes. There will always be people who think it’s better than it is and there will always be people who think it’s worse than it is but the general consensus is that the festival has again transformed its flavour and essence in a good and meaningful way.
DJ: Jonathan, I have three areas that I’m keen to get your opinion on in relation to the arts: Multiculturalism, Indigenous Artists and and Female Artistic Directors – where shall we start?
JM: Let’s start with multiculturalism. I don’t like the word. It’s not that I’m against the concept but the word doesn’t explain the world I live in – it’s too elusive, too vague and too passive. And I don’t want Melbourne to be described as a multicultural city. I want it to be acknowledged as a cosmopolitan city where we are creating moments of deep engagements beyond the boundaries of our cultures.
For example, without getting into a blame-game of who was right or wrong, the issue with the attacks on the Indian students is worth examining. The debate highlighted that the real difficulty was one which the government had in coming to terms with speaking humanely about the core problem. That in itself is a reflection of our priorities and the government’s desire to measure and quantify experiences and feelings in a very narrow reductive way.
We want to engineer our future, we don’t want to create our future – and I think that’s part of what I really want to say: there are so many positive ways Australia could have responded to the challenges of that issue but choosing to be accusatory or in denial is an indication that the language, and the approach to language as well, was in itself half the problem.
For me, Multiculturalism is a slack word.
DJ: And too often it undermines the very purpose which it was created to serve and like you said can potentially cause more gaps than fill them.
Shifting from multiculturalism Jonathan what are your thoughts on the current state of Indigenous artistic practices?
JM: I don’t think the subject is one that solely pertains to art but relates to the values of the broader society. In fact I think the artistic community may well be ahead of the rest of society in that regard. The person who makes most sense to me in this debate (even though I’m confronted by him sometimes) is a figure like Noel Pearson who campaigns for self empowerment. He says ‘We want to be able to be self reliant, we’re asking for cultural independence from a nanny state where welfare offers us crumbs’. What Noel is also saying is Australia is better than that – we’re better than that – and nobody should have to be put into that position.
DJ: And position is often very important because too often we have people speaking on behalf of the Indigenous people often without any substantial knowledge or even experience and that is an important issue as well.
JM: Exactly. I think it’s extremely important that people who have no direct experience with Indigenous community shut up – that’s not to say that people shouldn’t be inactive but they don’t necessarily earn the right to talk about Indigenous experience and too many people are found acting more of a sense of their own ego instead of for the welfare of the community.
I think a deep breath is needed, a re-alignment of forces and in a sense its about finding a reciprocity for respect. I think it was very good that former PM Rudd apologized, I think it was very good that an election referendum was passed not granting rights but exercising rights that Indigenous Peoples already had constitutionally. And finally I think the progress has been incremental – and I share the frustration with certain elders who are striving to hasten this process but its going to take a long time to enable Indigenous people and also for us to relinquish our control because only then we will empower those people but it will be them, not us, who empower themselves.
My last area of interest for today: Female Artistic Directors – where is our place in the world of art and festivals today?
JM: We need more Female Artistic Directors. It’s as simple as that. What I want however in those situations is to get to equilibrium where we don’t even notice, like colour-blind casting. But sadly it has been predominantly male middle class white and I’m happy to say that I don’t think it will continue to work because the country is no longer showing a majority of male middle class white in the workforce. The demographics have changed so much and they’re about to change again. There are several worlds that women are not allowed into and one of them is as Artistic Directors and the other is as Conductors – but the world is changing we just can’t be in a hurry.
DJ: Jonathan, thank you so much for your insights. It’s been a pleasure to hear your thoughts on these subjects very relevant to you personally but also to your vision of a changing Australia. All the best for a wonderful festival back in Edinburgh.
Jonathan Mill’s was in Melbourne to deliver the State of the Arts Lecture. Click here for details»