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Artist Spotlight: The Cad Factory

Regional and urban. Man and woman. Human and non-human. Over the past 15 years, Birrego-based art collective The Cad Factory has repeatedly earned strong acclaim for their intelligent and multifaceted approaches to exploring the hierarchies and binaries that underpin modern society.

This year is no different, as they launch their newest project, Becoming the Future. Addressing key issues of access in regional New South Wales – to new ideas, knowledge, experience and national and international thinking – Becoming the Future brings world-class leaders in sound, health and environmental humanities to Narrandera, in the NSW Riverina, to work with local artists and communities.

And the roll call of international talent, and the topics to be explored, are impressive.

Susan Rogers, a pioneering record producer, engineer, mixer and audio electronics technician who’s worked with likes of Prince, will present a music production workshop for women, and a seminar on music production and cognition.

Clive Parkinson, the Director of Arts for Health at Manchester Metropolitan University, will lead a seminar for artists wishing to work in the context of community, health and social change.

And Joni Adamson and Tony Birch, renowned experts in environmental humanities, and climate change and Indigenous knowledge systems, respectively, will run a seminar examining the complexity of environmental justice, Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultural knowledges, and what it means to be an artist in times of great ecological change.

Each seminar is limited to 25 people or under, and all are via EOI application only. It’s a deliberate quality over quantity. The small group sizes ensure the intimacy and intensity of the participants’ experiences, and allow them to properly engage and consider their practices within an international context.

From there, The Cad Factory will then use the new knowledge generated by these programs to develop and deliver a series of projects in 2020.

There’s no doubt that Becoming the Future is ambitious and boundary pushing, not least because it delivers world-class leaders and conversations exclusively to the heart of regional NSW. But if you were familiar with the work of The Cad Factory, and their ethos of dismantling hierarchies and binaries via an artistic practice that is tinged with activism, then it would come as no surprise.

Founded in 2004 by friends Vic McEwan and Kieran Carroll, The Cad Factory began life as a host for musical performances held in McEwan and Carroll’s warehouse in Marrickville, in Sydney Inner West. They were joined two years later by Sarah McEwan, who added curated art exhibitions to the Cad’s offerings, and Darrin Baker, who filmed all their activities.

Initially, there were no strategic plans to turn The Cad Factory into the multi-form arts organisation it is today. They group wanted to explore their artistic interests, spurred by an encouraging community of musicians and artists. The accessibility of their warehouse space as an arts organisation was also crucial – at the time, entering the art world via traditional organisations seemed nigh impossible.

It was only when The Cad Factory moved to a second warehouse space in 2008 (the first evicted them in a move that made the group “question the humanity of the big city”) that they saw the Cad was developing a life outside of its venues. The realisation came after following an organic process for artistic development, and the group’s deep connection to their surrounding creative community – two factors that still inform their artistic practice today.

“In that move from Cadogan Street to Harley Street, we started to understand The Cad Factory was more than a physical space – it was something else.” Sarah McEwan says via phone. “I feel like the growth of the Cad has just been us following these leads and weaving out this path.”

And as it turns out, the next path The Cad Factory would follow would be literally and figuratively miles away from their urban origins.

By then, it was approaching 2010 and the rising gentrification and rent prices in Sydney’s Inner West had planted the desire for change and something new. In 2009, The Cad Factory received its first grant from the Australia Council for the Arts – an exciting early high point that shifted the group’s thinking to be more strategic about what they were doing, and how they could run. 

A search for NSW properties priced under $50,000 revealed a dilapidated schoolhouse in Birrego, a central area of the Riverina known mostly for grain production and located approximately 30km south of Narrandera. The building was fallen down and would require extensive restoration work before it could be rendered fit for purpose – and it was work that Vic and Sarah McEwan knew they would be doing themselves.

On the face of it, it didn’t seem to make sense. But the idea of moving The Cad Factory regionally had already been born. Something gripped the McEwans about the schoolhouse and the Riverina in general, and in the starkly industrial country landscapes, they could see the glimmer of something new and exciting. 

They bought the schoolhouse.

Initially, the McEwans spent over a year commuting back and forth between Sydney and Birrego, a 550km single journey that can be completed via a nearly 6 hour car trip, or a short plane ride. Distance-wise, it was further than travelling from London to Paris. Transport aside though, the move made artistic sense; they took their time restoring the Old Birrego Schoolhouse to be their vision of an artistic space, all the while falling in love with the Riverina and the people they met.

“It all just seemed to work … We were surrounded by industrialised agriculture – moving from the factories of Marrickville to the factory floor of food production. In the last warehouse we lived in, it was a concrete floor and cement blocks and no grass, and then when you went out it was concrete on the streets,” Sarah McEwan explains.

“And then [in Birrego] it’s like, ‘Oh wow, we’re here, in this completely different industrial environment’. And it just sparked something within us, where it was like, ‘Wow – we can do so many interesting things’.”

In August 2010, the McEwans eventually took the leap to move to Birrego full-time. They were embraced by the local arts community, which at the time was functioning before the establishment of Western Riverina Arts (WRA would be founded the next year, celebrated with a party at the Cad Factory schoolhouse). It was the community’s generous help and advice that McEwan credits as being fundamental in easing their psychological transition from Australia’s largest city to remote NSW.

The Cad Factory has been based at the Old Birrego Schoolhouse ever since, which via the McEwans’ renovations, has grown to include a 210m² studio for music, dance and performances, and an on-site residency program. Artistically, the move to regional NSW also seemed to light a fire under the pair – not only in further developing their practice, but also the core themes underscored their works.

Already known for hosting musical performances and their curated art exhibitions, by this point The Cad Factory was producing their own events and works that variously wove together sound, light and video projections, and performance. The move to Birrego saw these starting to be staged in, and interacting with, unconventional and regional spaces. Remote Spaces (2011 – 2012) was held in disused service stations and scrap yards, while A Night of Wonder (2013) was held at a re-opened rice mill.

Such interactions with regional spaces felt particularly important – and not only because the McEwans had been struck by their new agrarian surroundings, or their desire to provide lived art with a presence in the real world (“not just text on a page,” as McEwan describes it). It was also because the of the contrast they had noticed between urban and non-urban environments – geographically and physically, for sure, but also the differences in how people understood and related to those environments, and the accessibility of ideas, knowledge and talent. Exploring and redressing such contrasts and structured ways of thinking in their art-making seemed to be a natural fit.

“I think there’s a strand running through The Cad of maybe activism in the way of creating the world that you want,” McEwan posits. “I think when we moved regionally, you see those hierarchies and binaries in a really different light … There is a kind of thinking of how do you really break down those barriers, those really entrenched binaries and hierarchies that exist in our world?

“For [Vic and I], there’s a really strong sense of how you live in the world ethically … I guess we see our arts practice as a way of enacting a different way than what has been done in the past, and then you need a wide philosophy of how you do that as an organisation, how does that manifest in structures, how you do things, how you approach things.”

For The Cad Factory, this wider philosophy saw them often considering the art world itself, and its perceived independence from other sectors and industries. After the move to Birrego, their projects have become known for identifying unconventional but well-considered ways artists and art can be embedded within everyday life, and add meaningful value to other sectors and disciplines.

The Harmonic Oscillator (2015 – 2017) is a prime example of this. Working with Dr Clive Parkinson, who runs the UK’s longest-established arts and health unit and is a seminar leader for Becoming the Future, Vic McEwan held a two-year residency at the Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool in the UK. McEwan used an artistic approach to explore the effects of sound and noise levels on patient recovery, in a project which delivered outcomes including artworks, an EP, a radio documentary, a mobile phone app and book written by Parkinson, to further inform best practice treatment methods.

It was a significant exercise in how the arts and health could productively intersect and generate outcomes beneficial to both sectors. It also proved fruitful for developing Vic McEwan’s own artistic practice – he is now the first artist to be accepted for a PhD at the University of Sydney’s medical department. Currently, his studies see him working with patients from the Sydney Facial Nerve Clinic, to explore what it means to have facial paralysis day-to-day, and to collaborate on new art.

Meanwhile, Specimen (2016 – 2019) allowed The Cad Factory to take a deep dive into issues as varied as environmentalism, colonisation, species loss and senses of places, particularly amongst local communities and artists. A work that is able to travel, in its latest iteration this year in Narrandera, large-scale video projections of jarred specimens from the National Museum of Australia’s Institute of Anatomy Collection were projected at night onto the banks of the Murrumbidgee River. Viewing them were intimately sized audiences that were then led in conversation by the curator Kirsten Wehner. Specimen has also travelled through NSW and Victoria, as well as London and Liverpool in the UK – each location stimulating conversations with local communities inspired by their areas’ unique histories.

But despite such an impressive and well-considered portfolio, Sarah McEwan says it was only in 2016 with their work Shadow Places (2016) that The Cad Factory began to hit its artistic stride. Commissioned by MAAS for the Sydney Design Festival, its original small scale was expanded to become a 2km roaming installation in its 2017 re-staging in Narrandera.

Shadow Places’ rich program spanned fifteen different sites and encompassed residencies, involvement from school students, artist collaborations, the writings of Australian environmental philosopher Val Plumwood, and a seminal collaboration with solar specialist Michael Petchkovsky (Petchkovsky is now The  Cad Factory’s solar power adviser). Together, Shadow Places invited audiences to examine and necessarily challenge their perceptions about design that originates from regional areas, and the interconnectedness of rural and urban places and people.

Sarah McEwan explains, “I feel like [Shadow Places] was a real catalyst for us – all these new ways of thinking and wanting to work sort of came about from that … It’s delivered something that was really artistically satisfying and also really ethically satisfying. And from that, it was like a really big shift for us.”

It took most of 2018 to reflect on how Shadow Places changed The Cad Factory’s practice and organisation as a whole, before they were able to fully articulate these considerations via their work.

The result was Becoming the Future, and its mission to not only bring interesting creative thinking into regional Australia, but also to address the notion that living in regional locations doesn’t – shouldn’t – deny people access to a wealth of knowledge and experience. By their own admission, the program is the culmination of the eight or so years that have passed since the McEwans and The Cad Factory made their move from Sydney to Birrego permanent.

Indeed, when asked about their artistic process now, community, collaboration and authenticity are three strong elements. McEwan explains that the methodology underpinning The Cad Factory is a deep listening practice that follows what is happening within their community. They focus intently on hearing what is being said by the people around them, until they arrive at something – a point, an idea – they can begin realising into a work.

“Both of us are really led by what is happening around us.” McEwan says. “Going back to this philosophy of not creating these binaries or hierarchies, we’re led by the people around us, and what comes up in conversation we have with people. We don’t try to force our way into doing this.”

It’s an organic process that requires a lot of trust that things will work out – a way of working that some artists would understandably baulk at – but for The Cad Factory, it’s an enjoyable ride that feels authentic and honours the people and the content.

“We really like people – and there’s a lot of people in the world too! I think we find it really fascinating and interesting,” McEwan says. “If art is about the human experience, then people need to be involved, because within our Cad practice, it’s not just about our voices. It’s about others’ voices and how they make this complex and nuanced story.”

It is also this people-led approach that allows The Cad Factory to operate while following an organic artistic practice. The organisation’s board members, and the intelligence, leadership and governance they have provided over the years, have been credited by McEwan as being instrumental in helping maintain the nuts and bolts of the Cad’s everyday operations over the years. Some of their board members are or have also been artists in their own right, and are able to infuse understanding and empathy in The Cad Factory’s everyday operations.

“All of these board members throughout the years have really offered so much and we wouldn’t be where we are today without them,” McEwan says.

 

The other thing I should have mentioned is that partnerships are really important to us. Often in our projects, we partner with multiple organisations. Since we are a small organsiation, working with other people and organisations is really important to us, as we can pool our resources and have a bigger impact with our projects. For example, I recently worked out that since being incorporated we have had 49 active, meaningful and vital partnerships with other arts orgs, universities, museums, schools, peak bodies, galleries, councils, media outlets, hospitals, businesses, farmers and a prison.

So after nearly 15 years, with a catalogue of highly intelligent art and well-deserved grants, prizes and acclaim under their belt, has The Cad Factory finally arrived?

The clue seems to be in Becoming the Future‘s title, which embodies the group’s continued commitment to enquiring, learning and making excellent and introspective art.

“’Becoming’ [is] a really interesting word in terms of how you’re always in an ongoing process of becoming; you never really arrive at Point A. You’re always in that perpetual motion of ‘becoming’,” McEwan muses. “But it’s thinking about the future. The program has been really devised for artists, an opportunity for them to increase their skills, and artists becoming their future selves.”

Becoming the Future begins 26 May with a Music Production workshop with Susan Rogers, followed by a seminar on Music Cognition on 28 May.

Dr Clive Parkinson will present a seminar on Contemporary Arts Practice, Health and Social Change on 15-16 June.

The next round of call-outs for participants will open on 2 September, for Joni Adamson and Tony Birch’s 16 – 17 November seminar on Environmental Activism.

 For more info visit The Cad Factory website.