Edgewalking, jazz and shadow puppets: Negotiating artistic practice and transnational research

By Dr Dan Bendrups

Just this week, I was invited to participate in a seminar on Pacific art and activism, in which I had the honour of standing alongside some truly magnificent Pacific Islander artists who are engaged in the academy, but who also produce creative works that question and confront the epistemological assumptions that underpin institutions like universities in colonial and post-colonial settings. While this stance may appear contradictory, it can also be understood in terms of what Samoan-New Zealander scholar Anne-Marie Tupuola (2004) describes as ‘edgewalking’ – the ability to operate across and between two cultural worlds or ‘ways of being’. Tupuola asserts that, for Pasifika diaspora youth, edgewalking is a talent to be nurtured. Significantly, some of the most evocative examples of edgewalking that Tupuola identifies in her 2004 paper are creative works.

This concept of edgewalking as a means of negotiating distinct cultural worlds likely resonates with artists working in the academy in general, who are tasked with negotiating and reconciling the sometimes disparate gap between institutional and personal/creative priorities. As a career academic with an earlier start in life as a musician, I recognise this process in my own practice

This concept of edgewalking as a means of negotiating distinct cultural worlds likely resonates with artists working in the academy in general, who are tasked with negotiating and reconciling the sometimes disparate gap between institutional and personal/creative priorities. As a career academic with an earlier start in life as a musician, I recognise this process in my own practice. Teaching the craft of music in a university setting is fairly straightforward, but the idea that my musical work can, under the right conditions, also constitute research, has required an occasional rethink about my role as a creative artist in the academy. To what extent are my artistic goals influenced by institutional priorities for research, and what creative opportunities might be available in a university setting that would otherwise not eventuate?  

My approach to these questions has been to pursue transnational and transcultural performance opportunities that have emerged in the slipstream of my broader university research activities. On the one hand, the ‘blue skies’ imperative of basic academic research - to make new contributions to knowledge - has enabled me to maintain certain niche creative interests, which may or may not have survived in a commercial environment, as specialised domains of knowledge production (see, for example, Garrido and Bendrups 2013). On the other hand, the imperative for Australian universities to pursue community engagement objectives has provided me with the impetus to consider how, as an artist, I might be able to effect positive social change in applied settings.

My most recent attempt at this, the 2017 shadow puppet film Rama and the Worm, reflects transnational and international concerns, and I foreground it here with the hope of stimulating some reflection about the ways in which institutional priorities can nurture creative practice. Rama and the Worm came about in response to an academic colleague’s musings about a health promotion project he had recently completed in rural Java, building latrines in remote communities. The project had been completed successfully, but work remained to be done in communicating with the communities involved about good hygiene practices. Mutually aware of the popularity of wayang kulit (shadow puppet theatre) as a vehicle for such messaging in Indonesia, we proposed to develop a short wayang kulit film that would serve to carry the intended messages (see www.tinyurl.com/rama-and-the-worm).

Rama and the Worm came about in response to an academic colleague’s musings about a health promotion project he had recently completed in rural Java, building latrines in remote communities. The project had been completed successfully, but work remained to be done in communicating with the communities involved about good hygiene practices.

In developing Rama and the Worm, I was fortunate to count on the expertise of a long-term friend and collaborator, and wayang kulit expert, Joko Susilo, who co-wrote the play with me, and who was prepared to support a novel creative idea: replacing the usual gamelan accompaniment for the play with music created and performed by an experimental jazz-fusion ensemble - the main locus of my own creative practice in recent years (see, for example, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V6lttus391I). We posited that this music would be sufficiently unusual to attract attention to the play, and that public curiosity would outweigh any concerns about our deviation from traditional musical practice.

The attraction of being able to alter the musical accompaniment in this way was of benefit to both the applied aims of the project and to my own creative impulses. It meant that I was able to engage in new work with long-term collaborators, as well as extending my own creative process through performance and production. In this sense, Rama and the Worm presents an example of how one can capitalise artistically on the access to transnational and transcultural research endeavours that the university environment provides, and thereby find opportunities to work artistically within a broader research context.


References:

Garrido, W and Bendrups, D (2013), Transcultural Latino: Negotiating music industry expectations of Latin American migrant musicians in Australasia, Musicology Australia 35(1): 1-15.
Tupuola, A (2004), 'Pasifika edgewalkers: Complicating the achieved identity status in youth research', Journal of Intercultural Studies 25(1): 87-100.


Dr Dan Bendrups is a trombonist, ethnomusicologist, recording artist, and producer based in Castlemaine, Victoria. His research considers the role of music in sustaining expressions of cultural heritage and identity in a range of trans-Pacific contexts, reflected in academic papers, performances, exhibitions, and archival projects. Prior to his current role in research education and development at La Trobe University, he was Deputy Director (Research) at Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University, Brisbane, where he was an active contributor to institutional developments in artistic research. His contributions to artistic research include the book Dunedin Sounds: Place and Performance (co-edited with Graeme Downes) – the first book to specifically examine artistic research in music in the New Zealand context.