Twenty-one years ago I sat in the garden on a hot balmy night with a friend and we discussed how bored we were with the conferences of ‘signifieds’ and ‘signifiers’ of literary works used to explain theories that few understood rather than theory re-interpreting old and new works, of paper after paper on how nothing was real, that everything was a construction, etc., etc. Art practitioners, writers of stories, dancers and painters, were hemmed in and in danger of becoming extinct. We joked that we needed to return to a primary school perspective and incorporate the principles of ‘show and tell’.
Double Dialogues was conceived
It was twenty years ago that Double Dialogues was born. The first conference was held at Theatre Works in St Kilda in order to accommodate what was now new to the conference scene: theatre, film, dance, creative writing and music, alongside philosophical discourse about the Arts and the practice of the Arts.
Double Dialogues, therefore, was a response, at the time, to what was a new phenomenon at universities. Prior to these times, the study of film, fine arts, music and dance occurred outside the academy at Arts colleges and at Teachers’ colleges. When the Arts were incorporated into universities in their practice forms they became subject to criteria and expectations more suited to the traditional humanities. This caused havoc for the teaching practitioners as the allocation of research points was practically non-existent for creative work and applying for funding from universities and wider bodies was mostly unsuccessful.
Our first conference appropriately called ‘Conference with a difference’ interrogated this situation and was the first of its kind worldwide. It opened up the following questions:
1. Must a work of art be accompanied by discourse about that art in order to be considered worthy of the academy? Was it possible that the construction of theatre, the creation of a dance, the writing of a story held within it, a different kind of research deemed successful or not in terms of the product?
2. If indeed the practice of Arts in the academy required a ‘telling’ as well as the ‘doing,’ what kind of discourse might this be: via aesthetics, or historical; linguistic; philosophical discourse and/or seen through the lens of relevant contemporary theory usually associated with race, class and gender?
The resultant conference was spectacular and highly argumentative. What was common to each presentation was the ‘showing’ of the art: Moby Dick was transformed into an opera; the dance called ‘Melancholy’ brought us all to tears, and the four-metre, elephantine puppets having sex on stage brought us to hysterical laughter. There were theoretical papers about how it was possible to get funding if one applied a scientific model to the Arts; political papers warning us of corporate takeover and there were also presentations that somehow held together both the integrity of the art shown alongside the discursive telling. I think if you went to the Double Dialogues site and looked at the first issue originally published as hard-copy but now available online you will be shocked at how little the debate has developed since then and how prophetic it was in relation to ‘corporate’ takeovers. The debate, re-writing funding proposals, remains the same — very little since then has been resolved.
Double Dialogues has two journals: Double Dialogues which entails a discursive element and In/Stead which incorporates primarily creative work or discourse about the processes of constructing art. Apart from our 22 journal issues, there have been three books and a fourth one is in the making. Each associated conference included an Art exhibition
The conferences have been international ones from the beginning. Apart from attracting scores of people from outside Australia when occurring on our shores, we have been hosted in New Zealand, twice in Fiji (once during a cyclone and the other during a coup), Denmark, Canada, Wales, and our most recent conference was held in New York in April 2017. The New York experience, held at the The National Opera Center in Manhattan, continued the theme of ‘Why Do things Break?’ Many of the Adelaide delegates attended this event at which they further developed work presented in at the ‘Why Do things Break?’ symposium at the University of Adelaide.
Although the question of the Double Dialogue — that is a dialogue between the Art product and discourse about that product — remains a concern of our conferences, the subsequent journal issues, conferences and symposiums, after the first conference, were designated a theme that encouraged thinkers and artists from all disciplines to be involved. The success of each designated theme tended to lead to a Part II. And so, there was Art & Pain, 1 & II; Culture Wars; Art & Industry; On Space; The Anatomy of Science and Poetics; Hidden Stories I & II; Art & Lies, 1&11; The Hunger Artist; The Poets, I & II, The Event, the subject & the Art, and Precursors, and published alongside this essay, Why do things Break?, I & II.
The Double Dialogues team Ron Goodrich, Paul Monaghan, Tony Hood, Adrian Bruch and in recent years Dominique Hecq and I have held together throughout this time by sheer will and the love of ideas and the Arts. It is a well-oiled machine because we have a great deal of trust in each other’s knowledge, expertise and integrity. This extends to all those selected to host our conferences globally.
The event in Adelaide has come about because Professor Jennifer Rutherford, director of the auspicious J.M. Coetzee Centre, and I have long discussed such an enterprise. We have presented papers at each other’s conferences over the years and have discovered synergies in our work. Before we met we had each written our first published books on Patrick White via psychological and philosophical perspectives; we had produced documentaries; our visions were equally immersed in inter-disciplinary concerns; neither of us saw definable barriers between creative and intellectual perspectives; our works were permeated with the interest in image and text which in turn involved curating exhibition. Double Dialogues continues to pursue those seemingly ineffable conditions of life whether melancholy, trauma and tragedy and irresolvable political conflict by trusting the power of creativity. The intensities, the flows and the folds that activate projects from The J.M. Coetzee Centre and from Double Dialogues recognize the fact of theory and the enduring perspectivism of philosophical thought.
The focus in Adelaide on the creative product is not an anti-theoretical stance. It is rather a reminder of the origins of thought and creativity and the lived interrogation of life negotiating with Art seeking it as a necessity in its power to represent aspects of life that are perhaps otherwise un-representable. Theory might even lead to art in some guise and art certainly manipulates it as well as submitting, however unwillingly, to its interrogations — one must know theory, know the point in which one breaks and is replaced by another. There are of course reasons why theories emerge at different points. Writers, painters, dancers and musicians from within and outside the academy will always be curious why they came and went like exhausted ghosts but it is imperative not to be hemmed in by them. All knowledge, after all, is provisional and requires constant ruptures in order for art to capture moments of becoming, sublimity and the eyes of the storms.
In surveying themes that Double Dialogues has dealt with over the last twenty years, I came to see that the question being addressed by the conference in Adelaide (October 2016) and in New York (April 2017) ‘Why do things Break?’ has always haunted these conferences. They have always asked about ruptures, paradigm shifts and the battle between form and content in interdisciplinary contexts. They have always sought answers in Art and in the dialogues it brings forth.
For our readers’ interest we have included here the two programs from the 2016 and 2017 conferences as it gives a feeling for the variety of ways in which thinkers, artists and performers have responded to the question ‘Why do things break’.
Furthermore, it may be of interest to our readers to see the call for papers document that will provide a context for the resultant papers:
New York: April 2017
The New York Conference commenced with, it might be argued, a well-placed paranoia about going to New York with Donald Trump at the helm. We were arriving there just a few weeks after Mem Fox (award-winning writer of children’s literature and leading academic) was detained and interrogated by immigration officials before being admitted into New York where she was attending a conference as a keynote speaker. In a period where Trump was showing the world that all people from the outside were potential terrorists, we were aware that we, as conference delegates, performers and academics, were subject to his travel ban. The conference was endangered and more and more people, particularly from Canada and some from Australia, withdrew at the last minute.
Conference numbers shrank and the program readjusted. The New York coordinator, Kari Lyons, and the Australian coordinators’,’ myself and R.A. Goodrich, went into crisis mode re-constituting a conference into a workshop so that we fell within the travel ban rules. And so, the conference was reconfigured and renamed a workshop, therefore not open to a large audience as had previously been planned.
In Part II of this ‘Interluding Monograph’ there are two pieces of writing that serve to represent the dialogue between art and the discourse about it and are endemic to both the concerns of the journals’ Double Dialogues and In/Stead.