Tuesday, June 14, 2011

CREATIVE CRUNCH TIME (or can Sydney afford to keep pricing out creativity?)

Panel beaters from last weekend’s panel at VIVID’S Creative Sydney provided a strangely upbeat mix of responses regarding the question “Is Sydney pricing creativity out of the picture?” Or in other words “Is the high cost of living in Sydney fucking over the very creative people who make Sydney a great place to be”.  

In this context it is important to note VIVID Sydney is produced and financed by EventsNSW, which is a wing of the Tourism portfolio of the State Government, soon to amalgamate into a new entity called Destination NSW and receive an additional $45 million dollars in public money to add to its $400 million dollar budget. Hence the question seems to be better phrased as: Now that ‘creativity’ is a key driver for the economy, in particular for selling the metropolis to consumers of tourism, how can growth be maintained when it’s obvious to everyone that overheads in the cost of production are so high, and that not all parts of the sector can compete evenly.

So rephrasing the question to “Can Sydney afford to keep pricing out certain types of creativity?” Well, the cynical answer is, errrr, yes.  If the vision for Sydney includes main stage musical theatre and $900 million dollar convention centres, then yes.  And particularly if your vision is shared by the same decision makers who were not overly concerned that large flat screened TVs in Sydney’s pubs were a valid alternative to live musicians. Or that real estate prices are allowed, nay encouraged to, continue rising by the business community and the government, pushing out anyone who can’t afford to keep paying them. Or that artists who play their part in gentrifying an area for 2 years in a “free” warehouse given over by developers, should be gracious in moving on and leaving their creation of surplus value behind for others to profit from. Yes, the answer is a definitive Yes! Sydney can afford to price creativity out.  As long as this is the kind of Sydney you want to live in.

The kind of Sydney that I heard on the panel was one where diversity and experimentation can be reasonably subject to and measured in terms of the market place, which understands creativity as a product that you place in your window for others to buy, and which regards public subsidy as a dangerous habit, much like heroin, that any self respecting successful creative is wise to avoid becoming addicted to, lest it spark a decrease in productivity. I’m not sure whether THAT’S the kind of Sydney, artists and small creatives are likely to succeed in conducting their business in. Let alone, live in.

But no one talked about the uneven playing field, and no one really talked about the crucial differences amongst art practices that require different mechanisms for sustainable growth, making the question either redundant or rhetorical. A bit like asking “Is Sydney pricing out Living”. Well, not if YOU can afford to live here.

Because the reality on the forest floor of our vast and amazing human scale ecosystem is that the “creativity” that is being priced out is not a singular and neatly clipped commodity. It is above all a diverse and multi faceted practice and process, particular to place, and highly contingent on access to affordable space. And not just ANY space, but the kind of space that is fast disappearing into overpriced studio warehouse conversions, overpopulating the area with cranky NIMBY insomniacs. Not only that, but in our not too distant future where knowledge based industries will gain greater and greater hegemony over the way we run our lives, artists or ‘creatives’ in Sydney appear dangerously unclear about their bargaining position as it concerns ‘wealth creation’ through the creation of new value and the distribution of it’s surplus value. Instead artists seem to be rather more concerned with appearing gracious in the face of apparent generosity from big developers, and even taking the time to argue down the importance of subsidy in the form of grants, as some kind of shameful welfare dependency. (Weirdly, I think we are the only industry that does this.)

So instead of there being suggestions about ways in which the property market could be reined in, or even any proper discussion about the ways in which space is absolutely crucial to creative practice in Sydney, there was mainly talk about how to get around it, how to deal with it, accept it, and how to just, well, be more ‘creative’.

Speaking on the panel, Tony Shannon, a business advisor for the Creative Innovation centre didn’t think that expensive rents were a real barrier. He suggested one way to deal with high rents was in making creative business more competitive and robust so they could afford to compete in this environment. (Better marketing strategies for your experimental dance practice, my friend!) James Winter, founder and co-director of Queen Street rehearsal space, pointed to the many hats and roles that he plays in order to make ends meet, lauding the necessity for multi skilling as a survival technique (with a touch of luck thrown in for good measure). James’ theatrical style and dynamic communication technique is what you would call a high earnings asset. A reclusive and dour faced sound artist may what to consider hiring James to increase their market exposure. Next, Kate Murray Cultural Manager for the City outlined the ways in which Council have responded to the cries for help from artists needing space, and the various initiatives aimed at nurturing creative enterprise in the city, notably through grants and provision to artists of council owned property. Merryn Spencer, talked positively about the Renew Newcastle model which has manifest itself in Parramatta city council as a series of pop up studios and shops in the CBD. Nicole Dennis spoke as both a town planner and as artist with the Academy of Emergency Art Sydney in collaboration with Saha Jones. She spoke urgently of the need for conversations between town planners and artists, particularly as neither NSW Metropolitan nor Local Environment Plans with councils are accommodating the specific needs of the cultural sectors and creative industries in their urban planning designs. Finally, Kerri Glassock spoke clearly about her experiences of running an underground jazz venue (re: illegal space) for five years before establishing their now legal venues on Elizabeth and Cleveland Street. Her experience demonstrated the need for lobbying by artists to make changes to legislation so that illegality was no longer the main barrier to a thriving performance culture, a step already making a difference with the removal of the POPE legislation last year. She highlighted the urgency of artists coming together to work with council as necessary to future sustainability.

Not discussed in any detail, were the ways in which different kinds of spaces are necessary to the pursuit and development of certain kinds of practices. Whilst shop windows in a Renew Newcastle scheme might be wonderful for an object-based practice, ephemeral practices don’t need street front exposure. Most often they need large sprung or at least wooden floors to cushion knees for movement. Marcus Westbury has elsewhere explained in detail why the scheme does not pursue these kinds of spaces. But artists still need to take up the debate and start strategizing for ways these kinds of spaces can be retained in our ecosystems. Integral to this process is recognizing that the self-management of spaces by artists for artists is an important part of developing autonomy and leadership in the sector.

However, most notably absent from the debate on the weekend was any discussion about what the causes are for Sydney’s stupidly expensive real estate.

So, why is real estate so expensive in Sydney?

Well I’m certainly no expert in the field, but it doesn’t seem beyond the capacity of the ordinary Aussie battler on struggle street to understand. Perhaps it’s the trickiness in pinpointing a singular cause and effect, when like most things, it’s a range of factors that need consideration. And it’s not because too many refugees and migrants buying up our houses and reducing availability, thus pushing up prices. Price increases have more to do with a number of policy and tax incentives that were introduced during the Howard era such as changes to negative gearing & capital gains tax, changes to superannuation laws and the first-home buyer’s grants which have benefitted property investors. With this sort of encouragement spurned on by low interest rates, and with superannuation money also being tipped into property portfolios and touted as a sure bet, the real estate bubble has been pumped solid, leading to an overvaluation of the market, some analysts suggest by as much as 62%. As Ben Eltham points out, this means that the "middle-ranked house price is nearly 13 times the middle-ranked annual disposable income", turning the Aussie dream home into a reoccurring nightmare.

Whilst this suits the top 2 per cent of the population, the rest of us can go to hell on a small rental hand-cart. Or join the ranks of artists scrambling to take up disused and under-utilised industrial and commercial space, gentrifying the area, enlarging the real estate bubble, all so we can graciously get moved on to the next depressed area. Leaving behind our communities and the arduously accumulated resources and networks that sustain us.

So can Sydney afford to lose its ‘Creatives’?

Well once again if the vision of Sydney is a creative industry defined by graphic design advertising and innovative object design marketed to and consumed by an elite demographic of inner city latte sipping weekend cyclists. Then sure!

But if your vision of Sydney is one where mixed income areas rub up against one another, where difference is really a diverse and healthy difference of opinions, of histories, of dress sense, and of politics, and income brackets, then we can not afford to price creativity out of the equation. Not just because artists working at all ends of the spectrum are questioning and contemplative risk taking and innovative and all those other buzz words embraced by the corporate sector, but because, like the frogs and the bees, when we get priced out, you can guarantee that all other vulnerable layers get priced out too. And then our shared ecosystems and our creative practices start to behave like bland homogenous cookie cutting spreadsheets.

A creative hub needs diversity and accessibility for ALL layers, in order for its ecosystem to function the best. But it seems that in our rush to adopt the rhetoric of markets, and accept the inevitability of real estate speculation to drive up housing affordability, the biodiversity of the creative habitat is being redesigned to suit the accessibility to certain types of consumers, and certain types of creative creatures. And the PRACTICE of creativity is being locked out of our ecosystem, and reassigned further and further out, depleting our biodiversity at the expense of a better and more creative kind of Sydney.  

It is not very smart for art workers in our sector to accept the inevitable demise of our habitat in the face of market forces. We need to recognize our resources are explicitly bound up in place and space. Supplementary places provided by councils or by fantastic initiatives such as RenewNewcastle, whilst genuine attempts to recover space, are unable to replace this organic woven fabric. In many cases, and as was noted on the panel, the kinds of spaces available are not appropriate for all art forms, and over time results in an uneven distribution of artform practice across place.

Phrased in a different way, the question could have been read as “Can I afford to be creative in Sydney?” And the answer could have been summarised by “Yes, if I choose a certain creative practice, or yes, if I break the law and don’t get caught”

My preferred answer is “Yes, if artists start coming together across art forms and practices and communities to form a critical mass that can work collectively to remove the barriers to surviving in their city in their chosen practice” This requires artist led initiatives coming together in all their diversity and mapping out what these specific barriers are. And then working to actually change them!

We need to retain community, and not just for artists. We need to fight for our right to the city, as a place that is significant to our practices in ALL their diversity. Our resources are actually out there, on our streets, in our conversations, in our walking to the café and bumping into that person we saw at the gig last night, in our necessity for walking distance to studios and rehearsal spaces, in our close proximity to materials that can be lugged from one place to the other, in our close connections to the places we dwell in, and create and activate. When we get shifted around we lose this. And our resources, often built up invisibly and meticulously over the years, hemorrhage into the ether, usually onto someone’s renovated terrace house, or else they are appropriated by the incoming businesses who profit reasonably well from the surplus value created from our presence. 

But when we fight for place, we actually get a better sense of who we are, and expand the sense of what is actually possible. And we can get down to the business of imagineering a better looking Sydney future, not just for the creative ones, but for strange ones, the bent ones, the queer ones, the shy ones, and all those who for what ever crazy reason, choose to remain clinging to its shores.

(this post was written by billandgeorge co-director Rebecca Conroy)