Polyglot Spot – edition #6

Curious creative community during COVID-19

A Paper Planet production photo from Minami Sanriku. An artist holding a small keyboard and an artist with her arms in the air kneel in front of a seated group of dark-haired children, some of whom are wearing surgical face masks. The artists wear handmade blue tissue paper costumes, with tall cardboard trees behind them.

Wednesday 15 July 2020

This week, we’re featuring two Brain Food pieces. One written in 2020 by Polyglot artist Dan Koop called ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat or How I Got Schooled by a 10 year-old’ and one written in 2015 by Sue Giles called ‘All children are artists – do you agree?’ Child as artist, child as audience; these are explored in each Polyglot show and project. We empower children through artistic participation and play, which in turn equips them to respond to art in new ways. We hope that you enjoy these two pieces of writing – please let us know what you think!


Brain Food

Considered commentary – Polyglot and beyond

Row, Row, Row Your Boat or How I Got Schooled by a 10 year-old 

By Dan Koop, 2020

Three small dark-haired children, one wearing pink, one wearing yellow and one wearing white and red, crouch in a semi-circle. Two are wearing handmade paper hats that could also be boats. The third child holds theirs. They are on grey concrete outside, and a large paper boat and a group of people are visible behind them.

I never intended to get involved in making shows with kids, but it changed my practice as soon as I did. For me it was a series of happy accidents – produce this show here, have a mutual artist friend there – but I did have one significant chance encounter when I was making a work along a river.

I had been working all day with my team to create a series of site-specific performances along and across a river, when a kid noticed what we were up to and walked straight up and introduced himself. He must’ve been about 10 years old and he’d noticed I was taking a single audience member at a time out on my little inflatable boat and he wanted to come with me! At first I wasn’t sure, “Where’s your carer?”, but when we got the thumbs up and got a life jacket on him I faced an existential moment: Would this 10 year old understand the work I was making?

I wasn’t quick enough to come up with a Plan B so I just did the exact same performance that I would have done for his adult carer. As we rowed across the river in the boat I had no expectations but this kid blew me away – he was keeping up with EVERYTHING, I had to be on my game. So, I did the work with no changes, no exceptions and all the tricky questions included as is and he was right there with me.

For one thing, he ended up being the most eloquent test audiences I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting on a boat. But more importantly, he taught me the lesson that there’s never an excuse to talk down to kids. I now take that lesson into each project with children. It helped me realise an interesting thing about participatory art too: any form of social interaction or commonly understood social structure is ripe for participation – no explanation necessary, just get in the boat and row! Personally, I love projects that give the tools to the kids and a structure that helps them figure out what they want to do with them. Now, as an artist, as a teacher and as an Uncle, I’m always interested to hear what young people have to say about the world.

I’ve also learned that kids are always, always, always taking on and interpreting more information than I’d ever expect. Whether it’s an opinion on the political state of things, the difference between what’s right and wrong (umm, isn’t that politics too?) or a creative solution on what to do next, kids are an endless boatload of surprises. Polyglot puts a huge focus on the act of play, but it’s not a practice that I think should be solely understood as for kids only, or unproductive and/or unprofessional. In a world where we make ideas, interpret streams of data and provide services as much as products, the act of play is one of the best modes to explore, discover and interact with the world. I sure don’t want to have to pretend to be an adult who works on a computer all day!


All children are artists – do you agree?

By Sue Giles AM, 2015

A Paper Planet production photo from our Minami Sanriku tour. A child with long dark hair, wearing a green spotted jumper, stands laughing with their right arm raised. They wear a handmade blue tissue-paper headdress, and stand behind a string with dangling pieces of blue tissue paper hanging from it. There is a large window behind them with bright sunlight pouring in.

All children are artists. This title was given to me by Drama Victoria as a subject for a keynote address. I was free to change it in any way and it was certainly given in a spirit of understanding my own work and process, and trajectory as an artist. I found the title to be provocative and so I was interested to see where it took me.

I asked my next-door neighbour, Ari, who is 6: Do you think all children are artists?

Without hesitation Ari said No. Then after a moment said: What does that mean? Artists?

What is an artist? What is art? Considering this question, in this way, suddenly emphasised how Other art is in Australia.

Art as the Other.

Everything in the way we talk about Art is pointing out the Other. Art is considered separate to life. We are used to defending The Arts and the fact that we enjoy it or practice it. If we are an artist, we find ourselves talking about getting a proper job, not giving up your day job, getting your teaching degree – just in case. Being an artist isn’t valued as a career.

The Arts are considered to be outside of the important bits of life. The attitude to The Arts is pretty consistent: arts are an add-on, the first to go in the cuts. It doesn’t belong to all. It is elite, special, costly. It has special buildings. It is a waste of time, not a real subject, a bludge. It’s recently been under attack from our federal Minister for the Arts, the Hon. George Brandis, because it’s not considered to be excellent enough.

The Artfacts webpage on the Australia Council site says:

Fact 1: 9 out of 10 Australians think that the arts are an important part of education.

Seven small children wearing turquoise polo shirts sit around a piece of brown paper on the floor, drawing with pastels. A grey-haired man with fair skin wearing black-rimmed glasses on his head and a colourful spotted collared shirt is speaking to them.

An article in The Age on 9 March this year (2015) is about The Arts being squeezed out of school curricula in the United Kingdom – a familiar tale here in Australia.

Vikki Heywood of the Warwick commission says that failing to reassert arts in education will ultimately result in “reduced cultural ambition, achievement and influence in the world” for Britain and would be generally “bad for business and bad for society”.

We know what happened to The Arts focus as we were considering the shape of the national curriculum in this country – it simply wasn’t there until we fought for its inclusion. The Arts must fight for its right to exist and sometimes I cannot believe we still have to have the argument.

When cultures experience the normalisation of art across all parts of that culture, the whole society engages in it without having to be defined as either an artist or not.  It happens in other cultures than our own, Indonesia being a particular example.

But it also happens in our own streets. The importance of people being hobby-ists should not be underestimated. Amateur theatre, hobby painters, musicians who will never do a gig, people who write diaries, the arrangement of garden gnomes in the front yard up the street. These things say that people express themselves in ways other than economic bottom lines all the time.

The ancient Greeks believed that the genius or talent shown by any individual came from outside in the form of a gift from the gods. It was not centred in the person, in the ego, it was something that landed on you. This took away the specialness of the person and focused on the art itself.

The Arts in primary schools should be compulsory and unassessed.

When we specialise, we make a value statement. We create something to defend. We make something that is possible to ignore or attack. What if it was ordinary to make art of all kinds? What if the arts were an essential part of life, like food and water?

Another Other is children. 

The statement All children are artists intimates that if this is the case, this is something they can grow out of and that adulthood means change is inevitable. Or does this mean that because they’re a child they are instinctively artistic?

A naive artist who is an adult will be considered an artist, while a child working in the same style will not. The division between children and adults becomes more apparent when we talk in this way. Children are not considered with the same degree of seriousness as adults. A child visual artist has the same effect on popular opinion as an elephant artist. Is it really art?

One of my favourite overheard comments at the Canberra gallery came from a family looking at a Miro painting. A father lets out his breath in a disgusted puff: One of you kids could’ve done that.

A comment that ignored the fact that they didn’t, that Miro’s vision is unique and execution exquisite but mostly a comment that derided the child as inept. Looks like a kid did it – that’s a negative statement.

In western culture the idea of play is seated firmly in the province of childhood. When one is an adult one is expected to leave the things of childhood and become serious and work. The line is strongly drawn. Stop mucking around – be serious. In India, play is serious. The line between real-life and life-in-play is very blurry and the enactment of ritual, theatre, religion and story is upheld by entire populations, old and young.

To many, children embody mayhem, rebellion, pandemonium. Plato was concerned that child’s play, if uncontrolled and unstructured, would incite people to think about changing the system when they grew up. If you can change the rules of play, then one day you might want to change institutions and laws. Young people are regarded as threatening social order today more than ever before. Adult authority seems never to have been a child.

What if the title Children was not used? What if the involvement of children was framed as the involvement of eager thinkers, of energetic collaborators, or experts in new form?

A Cerita Anak production photo from our 2018 Indonesia tour. Seven small children, grinning joyfully, play on billowing blue silk. A group of women wearing head scarves are visible in the background. Stage lights cast an orange glow.

A better title is All people are creative.

The potential of every human being is open-ended as we enter the world and yet from that moment we are colonised by everything around us.

The creative person starts from birth and ends when we are dead. The division between children and adults is not necessary because the definition of creativity is so much broader than that of artistry.

As adults we are receptacles for years and years of influence and accepted knowledge. From the moment we were born our lives have been in the hands of others. Whatever we were born with, stays with us, but is tempered and shaped by the world outside; by our nearest and dearest, by circumstance, by environment. All human beings are born creative, so when does the instinctually creative being start to become a receptacle for the world and its opinion? And how soon do our habits enforce and reinforce what we believe?

One of the ways our work at Polyglot keeps those ruts from staying ruts, is to open our practice to children through process and through participation. We invite kids into the way things are developed and the way the theatre or event unfolds. This means properly involving them in every facet of the work.

And this is exciting because it means that we are giving credit and value to the people engaging with the work. It’s an acknowledgment of complicity and collaboration. It’s a recognition that the audience is essential to the creation of the work and that the creative being doesn’t stop at the artist.

It’s terrifying because our intention for the work could be changed beyond recognition.  And this can be intensely challenging.

Ari finished our conversation over the fence that started with ‘Are all children artists?’ by asking what I had under my arm.

I said: It’s a bundle of drawings and ideas from kids I worked with today at a primary school.

He looked at them and said: Ok, then it’s yes.


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