PuSh Blog

PuSh and Sydney Festivals announce multi-year exchange

March 23, 2017

While the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival brings live performing art from around the world to Vancouver audiences each year, it also links our city with an international network of presenters through performing arts industry events at the PuSh Assembly. Looking to deepen the relationship between these two complementary streams of activity has lead the PuSh Festival to a multi-year exchange with Australia’s renowned Sydney Festival.

The ambitious three-year exchange launched this year with both festivals hosting artist residencies in January and February 2017. Four Canadian performing artists participated in the exchange in Sydney, while their Australian counterparts did the same up here. At the same time, the Sydney Festival presented an exciting program of Canadian work in their program, and the PuSh Festival featured dirtsong and will follow up with a full program of Australian work in 2018. Select projects from the artists who participated in the residencies will be co-commissioned for development in 2018, with presentations in both festivals in January and February 2019.

Both organizations are headed by artists—festival directors Norman Armour and Wesley Enoch—interested in exploring ways that festivals can better serve artists, their practice and their aspirations.

We caught up with two Canadian artists who were hosted by the Sydney Festival this year, Vanessa Kwan and Marcus Youssef, about their respective residencies. Both artists have previously been presented by the PuSh Festival: Vanessa for Swan Song for Cats (PuSh 2014), and Marcus for Leftovers (PuSh 2016).

PuSh: What was a highlight or an experience you took away from your residency?

Vanessa Kwan: The chance to have open-ended time to explore the city, meet other artists and experience the Sydney Festival. It’s such a rare thing, to be given an opportunity like that; my life is most often spent hustling for deadlines. This felt like an incredible gift.

Marcus Youssef: How noticeable it was to be at a major festival being programmed by an artist with an understanding of minority voice, not as a charity or duty or favour, but because it matters. This was done with real attention, and knowledge, from the biggest shows, to the very smallest.

It’s a rare experience to see the questions of power and belonging that obsess me reflected directly in the programming of a global festival. The artistic director, Wesley [Enoch], is the first Aboriginal artistic director of a major Australian cultural festival. And as I write that I feel an impulse to write, “Of course that shouldn’t matter.” But it does matter. It matters because the many experiences we all bring to our work influences what we do and how we do it. I experienced the intelligence, the deep knowledge and the ethic with which he is treating work that attempts to negotiate difference, contested space and experience—with informed respect, rigor and care. What a relief.

PuSh: The underlying rationale for this international exchange is based in what we share as organizations, as artistic leaders, as cities and as countries. We have much in common—historically, culturally and artistically. How did these similarities figure into your time in Sydney?

VK: True that there is so much in common with Sydney—it’s a well-known fact that we are “sister cities” in a way, with incredible similarities in geography (as waterfront cities), culture and history. Marcus and I couldn’t stop talking about it—the ways that our cultural DNA seems linked. And of course it is, through a common colonial influence. More and more I am interested in digging into the complexities of that; we share a similar history as colonial outposts, and as such we also share a similar sense of occlusion—an awareness that what is on the surface, what is commonly known or accepted, is not the whole picture.

MY: It first hit me on day two. We basked in the pacific breeze and thrill of a Western downtown nestled on stolen Aboriginal land overlooking subtropical waters, so much like Vancouver except for the sub-tropical part, and it tumbled out of me: “It feels utterly bizarre and dislocating to fly around the world, on one of the world’s longest non-stop airplane routes, and find myself in a culture that feels fundamentally like where I live.”

Vanessa looked at me wryly and said, “Yeah. The sun was never meant to set on the British Empire, right?”

I was like, of course, duh. Colonialism. I am a post-colonial writer and artist, the product of an early wave of Middle-Eastern migration to North America and my father’s messianic commitment to assimilation. But until this residency, I’d never felt the consequence of colonization viscerally. Everywhere around us were the prosaic, daily-life consequences of empire. I don’t feel them in my own life because it’s my life. Australia’s far-flung. Canada isn’t. How could it be? It’s my home. But it is far-flung from the former imperial centre.

PuSh: What performing arts are you excited about right now? Anything you saw at the PuSh or Sydney Festivals?

VK: I loved Wallflower and Dynasty Handbag at PuSh this year—and in Sydney, Moses Sumney and the Vernon Ah Kee show were fantastic. And Complicite’s The Encounter pretty much blew my mind.

MY: 1. Imagined Touch. A Sydney Fest show featuring two deaf-blind artists and about a dozen interpreters/audience shepherds. The first 20 minutes were hard for me as an audience member. I felt awkward, self-conscious. The artists introduced themselves through their interpreters, and it felt unconvincing, a bit like badly performed theatre. Just looking at the artists as they communicated with us was so hugely affecting, that hearing them tell bad jokes about hot male audience members felt less so. And then it turned. They said, we’re now going to take you into an approximation of our world. We were given frosted goggles and headphones (which played music, so it wasn’t silent, thankfully) and then let loose on stage—every single one of us. About 60 or so of us, who entered the theatre with our, “Oh, I’m at the Sydney Festival in this beautiful converted warehouse that’s like a mini-Tate Modern” hats on. Suddenly we were alone, deprived of our assumed sensory inputs, groping around the space (protected by the many assistants who ensured that we didn’t hurt each other or ourselves). We began to touch each other. Some of it became dance. I felt free. I became self-conscious. I wondered if I was touching too much. And the awkward theatre of the first 20 minutes suddenly made a whole lot more sense. In this facsimile of their world, I was the awkward one. I think we were onstage for close to 20 minutes or longer. It ended by each of us being led on an all-out run across the entirety of the space, a run defined by total and complete dependence on—and trust of—an unknown person who was leading me. No asking. No consent. Just trust.

It was hands down the most affecting participatory experience I’ve ever had in the theatre. My only real criticism: at the end I was emotional, moved, discombobulated and felt my relationship with the other audience members had been fundamentally changed. I wanted this acknowledged, somehow. That the impact on me (and I assume others) was different than any other show I’ve been to. Instead, we all put our Sydney Festival audience hats back on, and walked out. This didn’t feel like it acknowledged the profundity of what I had just experienced.

2. Concord Floral. I saw it in Whitehorse [before it was then presented at the 2017 PuSh Festival]. It’s one of my favourite shows of the last five years and is deeply influencing and inspiring a commission I am currently writing for teen audiences about the cultures of terrorism. Both in its content, and its style, which for me re-appropriates choral storytelling in a way that feels super contemporary and useful in relationship to audiences whose personas and attentions move and adapt far more quickly than mine.

3. Sovereignty exhibit at the Australia Centre for Contemporary Art. In particular, a display of Australian Aboriginal protest signs: they are almost facsimiles of signs used in Canadian Indigenous protests. You could grab them and take them to a Kinder Morgan protest. The number of years (of genocide) would be wrong—otherwise, identical.

Sovereignty. Installation view, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art Melbourne, 2016-17. Photo: Andrew Curtis
Sovereignty. Installation view, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art Melbourne, 2016-17. Photo: Andrew Curtis

PuSh: What creative and cultural perspectives did you gain through your residency?

VK: We met some incredible artists, curators and producers, and had some enlightening conversations about what is happening in the arts scene in Sydney. Honestly, I came back with more questions and ideas for stoking rather than composed thoughts so it’s tough to synthesize things at this point. Lately I’ve been chewing on how much the Sydney Festival is identified with the social life of the city in summertime—and how the artists and organizers address such diverse publics and situations. There’s works in traditional venues, but we also saw pieces in fields and restaurants, in churches and car parks, in faraway suburbs and right downtown. The reach of the festival—and the collaboration and planning it takes to achieve such a thing—is inspiring.

MY: What comes to mind is a show we saw called Home Country. It took place in a car park in a Western Sydney suburb. It was logistically amazing. I loved aspects of it (the live Arabic fusion music, the transformation of the fourth story of the car park into a beautiful space, somehow). To me it also sometimes felt somewhat naïve or literal. People telling prosaic, personal stories that weren’t fundamentally surprising or new to me. This could have been different for the majority of the (white) audience who, to be fair, seemed to love it. It also led me to a familiar, Canadian-feeling of race-based self-congratulation (we love multiculturalism, we do!). This is not to question the content’s vitality, urgency or its huge value as process for the artists making it. Or the support it received. I get that. And as we did in follow-up conversations with numerous folks. I also want talk about how as a “diverse” identified artist, I feel like it’s critical that as those of us identified with this kind of work fight for its centrality, its essential necessity, that we also critique it honestly and subjectively. This feels very important to me, and maybe a shared question in both Sydney and Vancouver.

PuSh: Though our festivals both take place in January, one is in the winter while the other is in the summer. You both seem to have been affected by the environment in Sydney. So, the ever-relevant question: how was the weather?

VK: I had to invest in SPF 85 sunscreen for the first time, and no regrets.

MY: [Laughs] Fantastic. A 25-minute bus ride from my hotel I was at Tamarama Beach (the cool, smaller one, near Bondi). I’d grab the bus at 6:30AM and be bodysurfing in six-foot waves by 7:15 as my morning exercise.

Vanessa Kwan is a Vancouver-based artist, writer and curator. Her work often involves the production of work in public space, and is often collaborative, site-specific and interdisciplinary. She currently works as Curator of Community Engagement with grunt gallery, where she produces socially-engaged work and special projects.

Marcus Youssef is the artistic director of Neworld Theatre, and his dozen or so plays, some of which were co-written with friends and colleagues, include Winners and Losers, Leftovers and Jabber.