Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Interview: Travis Tiddy, director of The Unconformity

Ahead of Queenstown’s third arts festival, I spoke to founding director and 5th generation Queenstowner, Travis Tiddy, about the festival’s development, his own involvement, and the name change from The Queenstown Heritage and Arts Festival to the more ambiguous The Unconformity.

Queenstown and Mt Owen at sundown. © Lucy Hawthorne

LH: How did the festival start?

TT: It started initially in 2009. [I was part of an] organisation called ‘Project Queenstown’ – a local tourism organisation that’s existed for 25 years.  We put out a municipal survey to ask local people where thought the direction of the town was going, or where it should be going.  The survey told us people wanted a festival.  So we took on the challenge of developing a cultural festival for Queenstown with a mandate from local research.  There was a gap and a need.

LH: The first two iterations were called The Queenstown Heritage and Arts Festival. Tell me about this original name.

TT: When we started there was a bit of momentum and energy around Raymond Arnold and what he was creating in Queenstown with many visiting international and national well-known artists. He had a rigorous artistic program, and so we wanted to capture that and build upon it.

We had no experience in event management when we started.  We built these skills from the ground up.  So The Queenstown Heritage and Arts Festival was a very literal title.  In a way it was incongruous at the time. It was self-referential in the absurdity of having an arts festival in Queenstown - a regional backwater on the fringes of cultural activity in the state.

LH: At the first festival, I noticed that there was a really broad spectrum of activities, from more traditional and conservative celebrations of cultural heritage to cutting-edge contemporary art.

TT: Previous programs have represented our diverse audience.  The festival has been a very strong home coming event [for] people who have had a very strong connection with the region.  The festival is an opportunity to reconnect.  We have historically had an older audience - a heritage-loving audience - who use it as an opportunity to connect to the place.  So we have a broad program [that appeals to this older audience] and also captures the interest of the contemporary art community.

There’s an incredible amount of goodwill and interest in the West Coast and Queenstown.  We have to remember that the region was really booming only decades ago. There was a point in time where Zeehan was supposed to be the capital of the state.  Earlier than that in The Depression, the West Coast was firing all cylinders while the rest of the state was really hurting.  In 1902, Mt Lyall company’s gross turnover was greater than the state government’s so we’re talking about a region that’s pivotal in the formation of the state, and illustrious on a national and international scale from a mining perspective. It means that as the mining industry has become more subdued, as people have moved away, there are still these fundamental connections that people still have to the region.  There’s still a memory or emotional response.  So our audience is made up of all those people.

View of the famous gravel footy oval from the Spion Kopf Lookout, Queenstown. © Lucy Hawthorne

LH: Where does the name The Unconformity come from?

TT: Personally, I think that at the 7-year mark it’s almost at a renewal phase for any organisation. It’s the fatigue point from a staffing point of view and from a brand point of view, but maybe also artistically. So we thought it was time to refresh the organisation.  When we looked at where we wanted to head with the festival, where artistically where we think it should be based, it came back to the geological story because it sort of unifies. It’s the reason why we’re still there. It unifies the mining story. It brings the natural landscape - the surrounding heritage wilderness - into the story.  It also lets us talk about the hydroelectric industry, which is really important to us as well.  So on a number of levels, the geological story gives us a lot to work with.  When doing research into the local geology, we came across this local rock form: the Haulage Unconformity.

LH: So it’s actually a rock form?

TT: Yes, you’ve probably seen it on our posters  - a detail of the rock face.  It’s an exposed wall of rock at the Mt Lyall mining field. It represents the touching point of three geological agents.

It’s a really dynamic representation of local geology. It tells the story of why there are so many minerals on the West Coast. It has a sense of immeasurable force - forces that are in opposition but coexist. So artistically, when we were thinking of this feature as a thematic basis for the event we realised that the Unconformity speaks about the people… people with a very keen sense of identity…  an isolated community that essentially does things its own way and in its way doesn’t conform.  We had a lightbulb moment.  Not only does it speak about industry, it also speaks about the people and is something of a statement about where we live and how we live.

LH: Queenstown is such a unique place visually, particularly the contrast between the world heritage area and the landscape immediately surrounding Queenstown. Its social history is so interesting too – it’s a tale of changing fortunes.

TT: There’s quite a tragic narrative to the place. When we held the last festival [in 2014], only 10 months earlier we had devastating news that there had been multiple fatalities underground in the local mine. It rippled through the entire community. It really impacted everybody. Six months later, the mine temporarily closed.  In that context, we decided to make the entire festival free. We also changed our opening ceremony to feature a sculpture called The Angel of the West, a symbolic feature of ‘let’s get through this’. However, during the opening ceremony it caught on fire…

LH: That wasn’t deliberate?

TT: It wasn’t deliberate.  We were disappointed by the outcome but afterwards as we were reviewing it, we thought the idea of a community creating a symbolic five-meter tall angel and yet her face burns off… it sort of fits with the tragic narrative. I was doing the speech at the time so I quickly changed the speech to make it seem like it was intentional with a few references to the phoenix coming from the ashes and that sort of thing.

At the moment there’s a lot of interest in the fringes. There’s a lot of interest in authenticity, in stories and connections within regional settings and I think artistically we can see a bit of a move in that direction.  We recognise the world is coming to Queenstown. 

Queenstown's famous Empire Hotel and a very handsome vehicle. © Lucy Hawthorne

The Unconformity, Queenstown, Tasmania. 14-16 October, 2016.

Visit for program information and ticketing.

This interview was originally published in Warp Magazine, October 2016.

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