VCA Performance Accused of “Reverse Racism”16 June 2018
The University of Melbourne has defended the showing of a Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) student’s performance piece and rejected calls to cancel subsequent performances after it generated heavy criticism from the mainstream media and other public figures for “reverse racism”. The performance, titled Where We Stand, was held as part of the Faculty of Fine Arts and Music’s weekend Dance On, celebrating 40 years of VCA Dance.
“The student performance included the delivery of factual information about the history of colonisation in Australia in the foyer and went on to consider how Indigenous people and people of colour have been excluded from society and history,” read the University’s statement.
“Exciting, contemporary and, on occasion, challenging student work is something we encourage across all of the art forms taught and developed at the Faculty.”
The performance art piece was choreographed by a third-year dance student for a VCA elective subject. The performance itself took place over both the theatre and the foyer, where white audience members were initially separated from people of colour. In order to enter the theatre, white audience members were asked to sign a big piece of paper on the wall that states: “I acknowledge where I stand”.
Themes of race, colonialism and accessibility to the arts continued to be explored throughout the piece with the performance shutting down when more white people were present in the audience than people of colour.
Where We Stand has received significant attention from mainstream media and public figures. The Multicultural Affairs Minister Alan Tudge argued the University had “adopted identity politics”. The Institute of Public Affairs Director Bella D’Abrera called for the performance to be cancelled, labelling it “reverse segregation.”
Ben Fordham of 2GB asked how he, and others, would explain the issues this performance raises to their children and questioned whether his children should feel guilty for being white.
Isabella Whāwhai Mason, the creator of Where We Stand, said their intention in creating the performance was to make the audience aware of their position in a colonial and eurocentric nation.
“I wanted to unpack how I can decolonise my own arts practice and the way I make and present work, prioritising those who are usually not considered in eurocentric spaces.”
“All I could hope for was for the audience in the foyer to listen, to absorb and to reflect upon how they can move forward as a more active participant in the solution to our nation’s [sic] legacy of oppression … Many people have approached me with that response and so I feel like I have done my job.”
In response to the criticism, Mason said, “I think it’s ironic given the fact that my work is about being informed so you can correctly address your positionality, and most of the people responding to it haven’t made themselves informed.”
Where We Stand is unapologetic in its desire to elicit important conversations about race relations in Australia. This has certainly been met with heavy criticism from conservative commentators, and it reveals the stark differences in how Australians perceive racism. At its opening on Saturday night, some members of the audience were reported to have left the performance after refusing to sign the paper with the declaration, or after becoming upset at being denied initial entry to the theatre.
When asked about how audience members have responded to the performance, Mason said that many people find the experience quite overwhelming.
“Many people have found it confronting—in good and bad ways. Some have disengaged or even walked out. My response to those people is that I think they need to ask themselves why they couldn’t listen to the reality of this nation’s present and historical burdens.”
An audience member and fellow VCA student who spoke to Farrago praised the performance for its handling of contemporary issues of race and racial politics.
“I witness[ed] and was appalled at the number of people who walked out of the performance … It actually reminded me that outside the bubble of awareness that is VCA, there is a world of everlasting intolerance.”
“A piece of art can say so much more than any monotonous political speech … Art is political and personal and passionate.”
Another audience member described their experience to Farrago as “somewhat unpleasant.”
“As a history student, I guess I know more than average about the history of Australian colonisation—some stuff was new and shocking to me, though.”
Despite the discomfort, the student said that creative work that address race and racism like Where We Stand is “very important.”
“The reaction to the dance is completely unjustified … The piece encouraged the white members of the audience to reflect on their privilege—if that’s something you can’t handle, you have a problem. It did so in a way that was interesting, confronting, creative and effective. The reaction is just the Murdoch press finding the next thing to be outraged about to sell newspapers and get clicks.”
The University of Melbourne Student Union’s (UMSU) creative arts officers, Freya McGrath and Ashleigh Morris, suggested that much of negativity surrounding the performance could be put down to a misunderstanding of the performance itself.
“The negative responses seem to be focused on the fact that certain audience members feel they ‘missed out’ on seeing the performance. We take issue with this idea, because it highlights the assumption that the actual dance was the only performative aspect of the piece … The conspicuous shutdown of the viewing experience is a clever manipulation of performance conventions which aptly and powerfully conveys the intention of the work.”
McGrath and Morris praised the University for its handling of the situation.
“We support and are encouraged by the University’s stance. It is so important for these institutions to support students in presenting their perspectives and taking risks.”
UMSU’s People of Colour department was unable to provide Farrago with comment by deadline.