Where do you think your interest comes from? Was it from growing up in Newcastle which wasn’t quite a small town but wasn’t quite Sydney either?
Probably. The thing about Newcastle, and suburban Newcastle where I grew up, is that the high arts aren’t really there. It’s that classic thing where the way out of the frustration of your suburban upbringing is through things like indie music or making a trip to Sydney to go to a bookstore to load up on books of the type you just couldn’t find in Angus & Robertson in Newcastle. Part of it was also when I started to find a community of friends. We were media students who were interested in media but were not trying to be journalists. We were interested in the potential for popular, accessible forms outside the way that they were ordinarily used and somewhere that’s just ingrained in me.
Once you start down a path, it’s a snowball effect; you start to accumulate other people who are interested in certain things and similar experiences. I’d edited the student paper with a friend of mine, Sean Healy, and when we left uni in the early ‘90s we had nothing much to do so we rented a warehouse, got some old computers and started to organise things like festivals. It was an extension of what we’d been doing on campus except we didn’t have any money anymore. We no longer had the students association’s budget or the politics of the students association, but we had the desire to create some of those things. That lead to us starting an arts and media organisation that’s still going in Newcastle called Octopod. Then we also started this, the This is Not Art (TINA) festival in Newcastle, with the same group of people.
So it was in the ‘90s that you started TINA, 15 or so years ago?
There was the failed Newcastle fringe festival that we started in 1996 and then TINA started as a writer’s festival, the spin-off of that, in 1998. I ran it from ‘98 till 2002.
And it’s still going strong?
It is, yeah, and it’s good. It’s pretty impressive to see something that is a genuine legacy, something that you worked on that’s got a life of its own. I helped out a couple of years ago when there was a crisis, but mostly I haven’t had that much to do with it for quite a few years. I do still go every year and it’s still my favourite weekend of the year.
Had you seen fringe festivals in other parts of the world and thought, why can’t we do one?
Yeah. That was the 1996 attempt, which was flawed because, well there’s a whole series of learning experiences in that … I’d been to the Adelaide Fringe and the Melbourne Fringe and had some friends who were doing things at both of those. I came back to Newcastle and was like, let’s have a fringe festival and do the same thing here. It sort of worked for what it was at the time, but then I left and went off and did some other stuff and it slowly died. The thing about TINA that made it interesting is that the model we ended up with wasn’t trying to copy anything else that anyone was doing anywhere else. It was really just a bunch of people getting together and saying, “This is the stuff that we find interesting.” The National Young Writer’s Festival, which was the flagship event of TINA, had a very highfalutin name, but the idea was just to get all the zine-makers, small publishers and people who were culturally relevant to us who wrote stuff, all in the one place at the one time. Anything beyond that was just a fortuitous coincidence. Usually, particularly in regional centres, but also more generally, when people start festivals, they try to do a smaller version of something else. Ultimately what works about TINA is that it’s very authentic to the culture it’s trying to represent. It’s not trying to fit it into some other framework or model.
You obviously don’t mind starting things from scratch?
Mm, I love starting things. I’ve got a very short attention-span and I get bored very quickly so I’m much better at starting things than hanging around and administering them. I tend to have multiple things on the go at any time and I’m always interested in what’s possible. The only way you can find out what’s possible is to run an experiment and actually do it. It doesn’t always work, but when it does it’s very satisfying.
Do you tend to bring in the same resources to make projects happen each time? Do you have great relationships with some of the arts councils or do you…?
Not really. You’ll find, in a lot of my writings, there’s a sense of perpetual frustration with arts councils and funding agencies. That’s because they’re structurally the exact opposite of the way I work. Their DNA is about perpetuating what’s already there and when you’re banging on the door it’s really, really hard to get in. Most of the projects I’ve done have started off unfunded, or barely funded, or with my own money, or ‘in kind’ time. Actually this is a true story. The first fringe festival we started, we did the whole thing in about three months. It was a simple idea really; we got just about every artist we knew in Newcastle to do something at the same time and called it a festival. It wasn’t that complicated or ambitious, but someone came up to us at the end and said, “Where’d you get the funding from?” I went, “Funding? What do you mean?” and they went, “You know, the grants and stuff the government give out,” and I went, “Really? The government gives out grants for this stuff? God, this would have been so much easier if someone had told me that they did that!” By the time TINA came around I had a bit more knowledge. You know, when you try to do anything new, the only way to get money for it is to pretend you’re doing something similar to something that’s already happening. We almost outright lied to get the grant that got the writer’s festival up and started. We didn’t lie, we just emphasised a very small aspect of it and then went off and did the much larger thing. With the Renew Newcastle project I’ve been involved in more recently, I decided not to wait for funding. I just went and knocked on every single door and got turned away. Then I made a calculated assumption, I’ve sort of done this in the past, that once something’s up and running and successful, then people will want to be involved in it, and it’s true.
Absolutely. So let’s just go back to how that all started.
Well, Newcastle has, I counted them at the beginning of the project, about a 150 empty buildings in the two main streets. It’s depressing and I see it very acutely because I’ve lived away and gone back there a lot. I’ve also brought a lot of people to Newcastle. Through TINA and whatever, every year a couple of thousand people come to Newcastle and they all tend to stand on the streets and go, “What the hell happened here?” … just looking at street after street of boarded up buildings and smashed up facades. I also always knew people who wanted to do things in empty buildings. There’s always a small but strong DIY arts crew in Newcastle who are trying to get things up and happening and I was one of them from old times. I’d knocked on a lot of doors and seen a lot of real-estate agents trying to find people who had buildings saying,