James Winter - Brand X
By Maria Maung - Photography by Toni Veziris
It's always refreshing to meet people who are not only creative and passionate about the Arts but also committed to supporting artists with a sense of social responsibility.
We recently had the pleasure of meeting James Winter, the man behind one of Sydney's most dynamic arts organisations Brand X. Brand X is a Sydney based organisation dedicated creating spaces and facilities for performance artists, visual artists and musicians. Having been a performance artist himself for several years, James understands many of the challenges and lack of resources practising artists commonly face.
His work with Brand X has lead to the establishment of several facilities for artists around Sydney, that have flourished into thriving creative communities. When you look at the bigger picture, it becomes clear to see their potential to culturally enrich and significantly shape the development of the society supporting them.
Tell us about how Brand X began?
It began 10 years ago at a time when myself and my best friend who was a choreographer had our space closed in Newtown. It was called the Flour Mill, it was yet another space to close in Sydney for redevelopment and so it was a decision we made to instead of whinge about, to do something about it.
I had just returned from 6 months in Cairo Egypt working on an Australian Council funded project creating micro- businesses for artists in exile, mainly from Sudan. We created many self determining projects for those people over in an arab speaking muslim country and I came back at the time of the studio closure and had the thought of "if you can do it in Egypt you can do it Sydney". So myself and Samantha Chester took on our first commercial lease.
Can you tell us about the key philosophy behind Brand X?
Essentially it all comes from the idea that we create space for artists to work. Primarily that was for performing artists because myself and my then business partner Samantha were both from the performing arts community. Because we used rehearsal spaces as part of our work, we knew how they functioned and how they should behave and their personality, so we felt in tune with what was required.
When we opened FraserStudios 3 years later after opening the first Queen St Studios, we started to engage the visual artist community and now with our Tempe and St Leonards activations we are bringing in the music community. Essentially it's for a large slate of creative people and now that also extends to creative businesses and start ups too. It's quite and exciting family we've brought together.
We are about creative practise, we aren't necessarily about public engagement as such, but a lot of our activations ( we currently have 7 across Sydney) do require engagement with the public. But what our core value is that an artist requires space to develop practise and that needs to be a sacred space to some degree.
How did you come up with the name Brand X, how did that evolve?
It's actually been moniker of mine for about 25 years. When I graduated as an actor I formed a theatre company so that all our fellow classmates could do shows back in Adelaide days.
I called it Brand X because it was a time where all of a sudden there was a coining of the X generation and it kind of stuck when marketing and branding became hot and advertising became part of pop culture, so this is all in the 90's. Now bringing it over into Sydney, for me the X is the unknown quantity, it's what you are creating but you don't know what that is just yet. It also is about the fact that X is also you and me and everybody so there's an accessibility to that idea.
It's unfortunate that the Brand sits next to that X but it reminds us as artists we are micro- businesses to some degree and we as creatives are forced to market ourselves in order to pay the rent, and that it's not necessarily such a bad word if we take control of it .
Tell us about the residency projects that you run?
The residencies are our key programmes and are funded through Arts NSW who have just invited us to multi year funding which is really exciting. This not only indicates that state government believe us to be a solid and integral arts organisation it also means we can look at longer term plans and trajectories of artists.
There are a lot of art organisations that run residencies and a lot of experienced artists hop from residency to residency and it's kind of like homelessness . But a lot of directors and leaders in the arts are thinking about ways to restructure the residency programmes and actually have a longer term relationship with the artists.
An artwork can take about 12 months to create. From when it is thought about and discussed, for collaborations to form, to the moment the curtain falls or the exhibition closes, it's around 12 months. In the best possible scenario it should actually be three years. So we are thinking of ways in which we can create long term commitments with artist that not only looks at one body of work but look at a whole body of work because that is actually the process, that is actually the journey of the artist not one product but a body of work.
The residencies afford performing artists, visual artists and musician free space in one of our studios and is selected through a peer assessment panel which is the only curatorial element that I have in this programme. I pull together people I find really interesting with an eye on what is representative of what's happening on the ground for artists.They have to trawl through approximately 90 applications, we then have a scoring system that then drills it down to the winning 6-8 but it's a really fair way in which lots of different voices can think about the overall investment in the arts, the artists, their practise and a way in which to steer where new thoughts are going as well as to look closely at where those thoughts and those outcomes end up being presented.
We are very aware that with tax payers money that calculated decisions are made so that the results ends up being of most benefit to the general public.
We find the residency programme to be the most important anchor for Brand X.
Can you tell me about the spaces for hire?
Each of our spaces have a different personality and behave in a different way so we can offer a variety of spaces in which people can slot into and feel comfortable.
Currently we have 3 visual arts spaces. One is a creative retail space which is a residency programme that allows the artists to experiment with selling to public.
Then we have a fine arts studio which is again a residency programme which exists in the new TWT Creative Precinct in St Leonards. That's a 6 month free residency programme for fine arts, for people of a certain calibre who have a body of work, who are recognised, not necessarily represented, but definitely have a schedule of projects in their diaries that they are working toward.
Then we have an open access studio at Camperdown Bowling Club which is pretty much what we call our rent- a- desk, if we've got a space and you need a place to work, it's available for hire for $40 per week.
For performing arts we've got a studio in Marrikville and in Darlinghurst. Both studios are for hire on an hourly rate, the Marrickville studio is more of a dance studio, the Darlinghurst studio will be more suitable for theatre performance practise.
There is also the studio in St Leonards as part of the TWT Creative Precinct and that would be what I call the Production House which is based upon the idea that when companies and collectives are ready to go into show mode, they're probably halfway into rehearsals, they need mark up, they need costumes and access to business and production facilities as well as a rehearsal room to work in, the Production House does that all under on roof.
The music studios are the Tempe Jets which is a music hub with a rehearsal studio and again at St Leonards another rehearsal facility.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself as a performing artist?
Funny story actually, I decided to leave Adelaide after a friend of mine had a dream that I was going to die. After having a very successful career in Adelaide I decided to sell everything and come to Sydney in a rent a car with my ex boyfriend who had to drive because I had my license suspended for that week. I packed suitcases and a mirror ball.
My best friend was Samantha, she'd come over and do shows for Adelaide for Adelaide Fringe, I'd come over to Sydney and work with her occasionally and we'd go to Darwin and do Darwin Fringe Festival. I was a big advocate of Adelaide, it's a brilliant place to cut your teeth and has lots of resources but I needed the change.
My practise is in community cultural development. That was a really hot thing in the 90's, as a professional artist working with communities that want to tell a story and exchanging that story for skills development. Giving them the tools to be able to tell that story eloquently and in a compelling structure that the audience can respond to, but in exchange you get these rich incredibly full on stories because it's real life stuff, not dressed up for TV drama or main stage theatre. I've being doing that for 25 years and I love it. It's not sexy at all, it's quite hard work but I find it really important work and great for me as a storyteller/ theatre director.
With the activations we are essentially walking into communities facing profound changes in their urban landscape and facilitating a space that they can re engage and have access to private space.They can put their creative fingerprint on it and also change the destiny and shape of these properties or developments.
Our relationship with Fraser Properties Australia who are the key property developers for the Central Park site has now extended 6 years and through our Fraser Studios activation we got a chance to inform what happens in Kensington St just by how popular it was and how the community responded to it. So it's really interesting to now look at the artist who are now holding the keys to resolving quite serious issue about disengagement with neighbours, communities, society and we are bringing these people together at a time when they are concerned about what's happening to in their neighbourhoods,because it's profoundly changing and never going to be the same again and maybe they're not going to be able to afford to live in these areas anymore. We are the product of gentrification unfortunately.
More and more Brand X are being called upon for more high street curatorials in development, which is about the concept of mixed use again. You need residential because you need the population yet you need all the amenities that service those people in those areas and then you need what I call the butcher, baker and candlestick maker, so you need the really provincial things, hand made things next to a brand, next to a place where you can buy bandaids, it's that mix use thing where you can look at everything and see that services are used and people have pride.
Essentially what makes places unique are the people and the people being able to claim the space and represent their community their services and delivery.
My hope is that spaces and space acquisition can become more accessible so that people can have the opportunity to take the risks for people are encourage to give their ideas a shot and customers are encouraged to appreciate those services.