Over in Lake Tyers Beach, you never know who’s watching. A quiet community of observers have taken up the challenge from project leader Andrea Lane to keep their very own ALMANAC, observing the lake over a whole year.
Free to choose what, how, and who they observe, the ALMANAC is a key part of FLOAT’s community engagement strategy, and a simple but effective way to motivate a community of lake-lovers to think creatively about their place.
Small Town Transformations Administrator Will McRostie chatted to Andrea about ALMANAC, and how it’s rolling out.
Will McRostie: In ALMANAC there’s an idea that people can create their own sense of time – their own seasons. I was wondering where you got inspiration on reconsidering the landmarks in time?
Andrea Lane: In our initial application, I made reference to the idea of an almanac because we wanted to gather local knowledge without really knowing how we would do that. Engaging the broader community in coming to Lake Tyers Beach to make art about the whole annual cycle was a really appealing idea.
The details of the concept really happened over one “Tuesday at the Tavern” conversation, and it compelled us to hurry up a little bit, because we had a whole year to get people excited about the FLOATing studio, and how could we get the community engaged in a process that isn’t that engaging yet. Not everyone can be involved in the design of the boat – there’s just too many technical requirements.
We talked about the ALMANAC, and how a year was a good period to ask for a commitment from people to make art – which did put some people off, because they thought they were going to have to “sign up” to deliver something for a whole year.
So I’ve tried to make it clear to people that you might document continually, or you might just do something once every season.
We’ve got 62 registered people, but I know there’s a lot who haven’t bothered to fill in the form. It’s not highly dependent on filling in a form.
WM: And you’ve got your extremely hyperactive Facebook group. How many have joined up to that?
AL: There’s about 210 members in there in the moment. They’re not all local – we’re not putting strict limitations on who can get involved with the ALMANAC. I actually think it’ll be a far richer project by becoming a bit of a mecca for artists to coordinate among themselves in their particular art-forms. Some are very nature-focused, so there’s some who will want to walk, observe, do the bird walks, attend all those things where they learn exactly what they’re looking at.
Others are more about the beautiful things than studying the nature behind it. I’m hoping there’s lots of collaborations between those people because I guess we don’t want to just produce a whole bunch of pretty pictures. We want the artists to look a little bit deeper than what they might normally be able to.
WM: When developing these kinds of community engagement projects that do have that simultaneous appeal to capital-A-Artists – is there anything you actively do to try and ensure that locals and “non-artists” don’t feel too intimidated to become a part of it?
AL: I don’t know what the science behind it is, but I think I’m pretty good at it, whatever it is.
I talk a lot. And I say to people “I’m still pedaling really hard”. That Facebook nonsense that goes on is a very conscious effort to appeal to a spectrum of people. High-end, sophisticated concepts about what an almanac could be, to the really scientific, data-driven idea of what an almanac can be to people who just like recording temperature – there’s a place for that.
The shame is that a Facebook audience is still limited. I know there’s still a long way to go. Once you get those key people in, the word of mouth kicks in-
WM: While keeping the barrier to entry quite low.
AL: Yeah. There’s actually one girl – our book-keeper, Natalie – she’d always said “Oh, I’m not creative, I won’t be doing any of that”. But after she’d come to the basket weaving session and sat around with a bunch of really nice people, who all had different ideas about the project, she said “I do crochet! And I’m doing an Afghan rug. And what I realised is that all the colours in my medallions are the colours of the lake when I look out my window. I can see that’s the winter colours.” So now she’s going to go off and form a little crochet group to work on that idea of using the colours and palette of the lake to create a crochet thing.
I get so excited about that! Because that to me is when you’re breaking through that immediate “I’m not arty!” response.
WM: It humanises art. And it makes it something you can connect because it’s people that you know and it’s right in front of you. They’re doing it, so you can do it.
AL: For me, it’s always about the conversation. As that conversation keeps growing at the tavern on the verandah, I know it’s starting to work. There’ll be less and less obstacles to what we ultimately want to do. That’s been a really conscious strategy.
WM: How did the project kick off?
AL: We had to rush a little bit because someone said “It’s the Summer Solstice coming up on the 21st of December!” So we then gave ourselves a pretty short timeline to put out a brief and give enough information without forcing anyone to do anything that was too onerous, because there’s no money involved in any of this. What we’re saying is we’re gonna have a great exhibition at the end and a great publication, but it's all for love at this stage, to demonstrate support for the idea that art builds connections in small towns - to support bigger ideas.
We had a launch on the 21st of December on the beach, which was really nice. I’m not sure how many were there – maybe 40 or so people came and we toasted with port – people raided their old port cupboards.
I went round to all the op shops and bought all their port glasses and my husband took the tea-trolley over to the beach and it was really nice. A bit wild, a bit informal and had a good turnout. But we knew full well people wouldn’t be ready to start work on that date just because we said. Knowing that they’d take summer off to go and think about their ideas.
I went to Officeworks and bought a whole bunch of those B6 notepads that cost $1.50, and I have a FLOAT rubber stamp that fits really nicely on the cover.
I had tracing paper that I printed out the year’s plan on, which is basically to say we’re starting today, we’re finishing at the end of the year, we meet Tuesdays at the Tavern, we’ll meet Monday evenings once per month because a lot of people can’t get there during daytime, quarterly the ALMANAC participants will meet a little more formally - because they all have said they need to be kept on track so they’re not letting it slip. We’ll finish in December this year, and then have an exhibition over summer 2018.
One of the nice things that’s in development is that our exhibition will be at Lake Tyers House over summer 2018. It has been confirmed now and it’s a very big deal.
WM: I don’t know what that is – what is Lake Tyers House?
AL: It’s on the other side of the lake, and it was a Cobb & Co guest house. Out our way it’s really rare that anything from that era has survived. The Cobb & Co horse and cart used to travel along Lake Tyers Beach, and then go up the other side of the lake. It’s a collective of old uni friends who bought out Lake Tyers House and have been slowly restoring it for the last 30 years or so.
They have kept it alive – they’ll holiday there over summer. They’re doctors and philanthropists and filmmakers – really interesting people.
So that will be rather a coup for the exhibition because it was built in the 1800s, it’s unadorned, it’s pretty raw, old beauty, and it does have a grand hall that needs to have an exhibition. It’s a little bit hard to get to, but that's part of the experience.
WM: How will people’s work on their ALMANAC connect in to other aspects of the FLOAT project?
AL: What I said at the launch – which I think resonated with people – was that we want to have a community that welcomes the FLOAT, that they see it as a really positive thing, that they welcome the boat, that they welcome the Artists-in-Residence who won’t always be locals.
The degree to which they totally connect with what happens on the FLOAT studio I can’t really predict yet. To me it’s just all about having a conversation that allows you to tput out some ideas, and get that feedback on how it should be operating and what we should aspire to. (I can be disturbingly organic!)
I suppose most people fear that it won’t have a sustainable life beyond the project. The only way of us achieving that is to have a community that wants to own it, and love it. Be ambassadors for it. Be the people who the artists come to visit, meet and engage with.
I suspect there’ll be lots of crossover once we start having Artists-in-Residence on it, because their particular art form might be of interest to people who’ve identified according to what subject matter they’ve focused on in their ALMANAC.
But to me, it’s all a kind of fishing expedition. Finding out who’s out there and making connections.
WM: Do you have your own? You’re keeping an ALMANAC, aren’t you?
AL: I think my ALMANAC is the blog that I will do of the ALMANACers.
WM: A meta-ALMANAC. An ALMANAC of the ALMANACs.
AL: I want you to be my ALAMANAC secretariat.
WM: I just like making things up.
AL: I know! And that’s the key! You start out putting out this idea and if no-one bites it’s just like [sighs] really demoralising. But it only takes one or two really loyal allies to lift you up to where it becomes the thing.
There’s a particular girl – Hillary – who’s into bird language. She’s been waiting for this opportunity to share what she knows, mentor others. She’s a kayaker, she’s a great potluck cook, so she’s gonna do the monthly Sunday paddles and bird-call observation. She affirms everything that gets posted on Facebook whether it’s from embroidery to photography or whatever, because she really wants it to happen. She wants everyone to get on board; we all want the same thing.
You only need a few people like that to get a bit of traction, I reckon. I never underestimate the value of early adopters.
WM: How can people get involved if they want to follow along?
AL: I direct everyone to the website, because it does give a good description of the ALMANAC project and they can join the mailing list so that I can constantly harass them with dates about when we’re going to be walking or doing anything a bit more special.
We meet at the [Water Wheel] Tavern every Tuesday at 11 – and sometimes that can be two of us, sometimes it can be a dozen or more.
WM: And you don’t mind if people who aren’t anywhere near Lake Tyers Beach sign up for that mailing list?
AL: I really welcome it!
WM: Anything else you think we haven’t covered?
AL: In terms of the big picture, I like that all the ALMANAC stuff ultimately feeds in to the Forum – so, when you consider the people worrying about the long-term sustainability of the project. To me, that all gets teased out at the Forum, which is like a conference.
WM: When is that planned for?
AL: July/August 2018. Post all of this, in the wash-up – what have we learned? How do we make this all work forever? Is it an AirBNB boat, is it a studio, can we find ways of raising money to bring Artists-in-Residence, or do people have to pay to be there? And we’ll know all the costs of maintaining it – and how we need to service it and support it. All those kinds of details will be much more measurable as we get more and more real.
Personally I hope that’s a global conference. I think lots of people are talking about environmental stewardship as the way for small communities. I say creative environmental stewardship, because for me it takes the man-made view of the world to capture my attention, so I think that’s the role of the artists and the boat. It’ll be the sexy thing that people will want to come and inhabit.
So the ALMANAC obviously becomes the underpinning catalogue and document that program sits on; that demonstrates we have community buy-in. That demonstrates we have beautiful stuff that the casual observer may miss. Here’s the depth of it.
Header image: The ALMANAC banner by artist Josephine Jakobi.