Ruthless Jabiru at Union Chapel – an “evocative” programme

When we reflect upon damaged landscapes, areas of environmental disaster, our focus often tends towards the political and the social. For example, the visceral nature of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has been gradually displaced by arguments about compensation, accountability and pension funds in the media. The aesthetic dimension of the Gulf of Mexico spill or the Maralinga stretch of Australian desert, an area long contaminated by nuclear testing, is what shapes our initial emotional response and subsequently, how we reflect upon our relationship to the environment.

Ruthless Jabiru – London’s all-Australian chamber orchestra – are next week performing a concert at Union Chapel as a form of tribute to the latter landscape, Maralinga land in remote South Australia. The ensemble’s conductor, Kelly Lovelady, explains that she has ‘chosen a programme to evoke the loss and the chemical strangeness which has become a part of that landscape.’ Three new works are bookended by Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings and Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten. We could attach commonplace adjectives to those pieces, such as ‘haunting’ or ‘meditative’, but to do so would limit the scope of those works and the richness of the references they carry with them into this setting.

In artworks, exhibitions and concerts that engage with strong subject matter, the term ‘evocation’ is sometimes used in an apologetic way. There is often a sense that because an artwork cannot fully encapsulate a powerful landscape or event, that all that can be offered is a partial semblance. In the press release for Ruthless Jabiru’s concert, the events at Maralinga are described as ‘a complex tragedy of secrets, spies and international relations’. Maralinga, as an altered landscape and the setting for a scene in a larger political narrative, is too complex a web to be fully captured in a single concert. However, it is a programme that has the potential to be genuinely ‘evocative’.

Evocation implies a process of creating anew through the power of the imagination. The potency of the programme’s bookends are already semantically rich and create a frame of mourning, memory and meditation. Both pieces invite a particular way of listening, a space for contemplation and opening the imagination. The three new works then are perhaps, on some level, the evocation proper. Their contrasts can then suggest, provoke and colour that space. More importantly, new pieces, particularly Matthew Hindon’s work which directly engages with the Maralinga landscape, can forge a new web around questions of politics, rights and environmental damage.

In considering the work of the German artist, Gerhard Richter, the art critic Gertrud Koch suggested that Richter is conscious of art’s inability to capture traumatic events accurately. Koch argues that he instead registers this unresolved state in a set of ‘diverse and innovative ways’. The shape of Ruthless Jabiru’s programme, and its engagement with Maralinga, could be read in a similar way. While the concert’s press release has the title ‘tribute to Maralinga’ and the concert is titled ‘Maralinga lament’, I think the word evoke is the crucial one: an imaginative re-creation anew of the aesthetics of a damaged landscape. It is in that evocative place, in that state, where we can reflect meaningfully on our relationship to the environment.

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The hidden cost of further arts cuts

On Wednesday, The Guardian’s Charlotte Higgin’s reported that Arts Council England (ACE) have been asked by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, headed up by Maria Miller MP, to model cuts for 5%, 10% and 15%:

‘If 15% cuts were made, the cumulative cut to the arts budget from 2010-11 would be 45%, they warn.’

Depending where the cuts were made in the Arts Council’s budget, this could mean the loss of funding entirely of a number of small groups, projects and institutions. However, it could also force ACE into the position of having to renegotiate its large-scale support for big institutions such as the Royal Opera House and the Southbank Centre. In the past, contractual arrangements have meant that changes in these large chunks of funding would be extremely difficult to make. The reality is that the arts sector is a sound investment ‘UK Plc.’ and London and other cities are recognised globally as a hub for high quality theatre and music. Further points about the inherent value of the arts, the vast contrast between arts spending and other government departments and the gulf between arts spending in the UK and countries such as Germany could be easily made here.

But there would be a hidden cost to a further round of cuts. Already, there are a large number of philanthropy and private investment arrangements that help sustain many groups and institutions. However, they are not, as is often reported, integral to the UK arts scene. Corporate sponsorship often makes up only small percentages of overall budgets – at the Southbank Centre, this has varied between 3%-5% in recent years and this is made up from a large number of sponsors. In return, logos and brand names adorn our institutions as a form of cheap advertising. You might accuse me of cynicism here but large corporations are constantly carrying out research into how these arrangements affect their public perception, their ‘social licence’ to operate.

Not all private funding arrangements are controversial but with additional cuts of up to 15% they will become increasingly more likely. The real problems though are that this pressure may force groups to lower the ethical standards of who they accept money from. For example, BP, who accepted criminal charges in the US over the Deepwater Horizon disaster, have woven their way into Tate Galleries and the Royal Opera House to such an extent that ending those partnerships on sound, ethical grounds is likely to be a logistical headache. It is also these large corporations who have in place intricate systems for avoiding tax by shifting profits around different countries. If the government took the initiative to close tax loopholes, we could appropriately fund our arts institutions without making them an accessory for corporate brand management.

Again, you might argue that I am pushing a particular environmental or anti-capitalist agenda. However, there is funding (i.e. tax payers’ money) set aside for actively promoting corporate funding relationships. We are effectively paying to assist companies eager to purchase a form of brand management through associating themselves with the arts. BP are are believed to have lobbyists at the Department of Culture, Media & Support. So, as the axe falls again, BP and others like them are likely to be eyeing up the potential benefits for them.

The Arts Council does perhaps need to change and more effective ways of funding the arts need to be sought. But massacring the already reduced budget is not the fair or responsible way of doing so. What troubles me most though, was a facebook post by a fellow music student who felt that, unlike teachers, we don’t as people working in the arts, have representation. Those in the arts need to remember that they do have a voice and demand their view is heard. After all, the stage is theirs…