Imogen semmler

This July over 100 artists from aerialists to orchestras will sail their way across to Cockatoo Island for Underbelly Arts 2011 lab, July 3rd – 12th and festival, July 16th. Artists and the public will meet and collaborate creating a unique platform demonstrating the creative process of emerging arts practitioners. The mother of the Underbelly baby, Artistic Director Imogen Semmler talks to arts interview about this year’s festival, the many facets of artistic personality, the importance of creative producers and the navigation of the corporate and arts collaboration.

Interview by Alex Bellemore

Underbelly Arts is a social experiment as well as a space for creation and collaboration. When choosing artists to participate, on a conscious or sub conscious level, do you think artists are chosen for their personalities to add a sense of theater to the lab?

Artists bring their projects to us so you know what they will be working on, but then it is about who else will be there and how they are going to connect.  We want to support the trajectory of new work but I think there is something there as well. It is about having an interesting balance – that is probably a subconscious thing. The lab itself is not clashy and it is not like people do not get on. I think it is more about people being really surprised and their eyes are opened up a lot about what people are doing. It can get stressful especially towards the end of the lab when the festival is looming as people have to start making decisions and locking in performances. There is that pressure cooker situation and it does sometimes explode.

One of the biggest personas of this year’s festival will be the venue itself. Do you think that the rich history of the Island and the general public’s association of the venue to Sydney Biennale and other large festivals will be a help or hindrance?

We have enjoyed the process of moving to different sites and it gives artists the chance to move to new spaces that they have not been able to access before. The Island is a blank canvas again because all those rooms are bare now and the artists are responding to this. All the stuff coming through to us is very hybrid. I do not think we are going to reinvent the wheel but I think we are going to give something new to the Island. It will be a different experience to being at a rock festival or an arts festival where you walk around the whole site. It will be very fresh and we are bringing different qualities. Being on the Island will get new audiences and that is great. It will give more access to people, people will come to our events who have never heard of it and that is great for them to see young artists.

You have dealt with corporate and government organisations who are not involved specifically in the arts, like last year’s Frasers Property Group and this year navigating the heritage and government waters with Cockatoo Island. How has the relationship been between these groups and Underbelly?

You do have to make sure that the outside organisations know that you understand what you are talking about. That is really important. You have got to let them know that everything that you are doing is totally professional. With Frasers, we just said this is what we are, this is what we are proposing and imagine what it will be like walking down the street with all these spaces activated.  It was about projecting them a vision of what it would look like because they had not done it before, so you could not just expect them to say yes. If you can use emotive language and images and try to get them to visualise how it is going to feel, that is a really good way of explaining to people what you want to do. We are a small arts organisation, but we do approach this professionally because that is all you have got – if you are not professional you are not going to get those relationships established.

Do you think that arts organisations and artists, particularly emerging artists’, think too much with the heart and not enough with the head?

Different people bring different things to the arts. When you have an ARI, you usually have a group of very switched on artists, who are also curators or producers who are smart and savvy enough to be able to run as a potential business. Whereas other artists, their skills are just to be creative and to respond to ideas. They might not have those production or business skills to go with it. It is all about getting the right team together to deliver what you want to do. If some artists do not have those skills, I would never force them to learn how to produce and how to write grants. All that stuff if they had tried and tried and still were not good at it – what is the point? It is better for them to get an awesome creative producer who can work with them on delivering those ideas and figuring out how their work can fit into an environment. A lot of creative producers are really under-appreciated because they can often bring a lot of value, they are the head thinkers working with the heart thinkers and they deliver something really good.

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