Last week brought the news that RealTime, Australia’s preeminent, nationally focussed critical guide to hybrid and experimental art, would cease regular publication. Like many, I was stunned. This year, after having shifted in 2016 to an entirely digital presence following 21 years of a bi-monthly print magazine, the website underwent a significant and welcome (and handsome) regeneration. I knew about the strain from social media’s devastating impact on advertising sales, the same strain that is being felt across the breadth of the global media landscape. But, in many other respects, the magazine – I think I never really stopped thinking of RealTime in those terms – appeared in robust health. The recent appointment of Lauren Carroll Harris as Acting Assistant Editor/Online Content Development gave a sense of youthful reinvigoration. A livelier social media presence and a renewed focus on screen arts (Conor Bateman’s terrific video essays being just one example of this) seemed to follow. From my perspective, there was little hint that the ship was about to go down.
I spent much of this year trying to remain hopeful about the future of arts criticism in Australia, even writing an essay on the subject titled (by my editor, natch, not me) The Golden Age. (For the record, I don’t think it is anything like a good time to be an arts critic in this country, but I do feel a problem can be compounded by its incessant reiteration. I also think it’s important to note that Australia, unlike the US or the UK, has never had a stout critical culture, that it has always been dominated by overstretched and underpaid freelancers and part-timers, and that the space for it has always had to be carved out with blood, sweat, and tears.) But the news of RealTime’s demise has left me feeling, as I texted a friend last week, quietly devastated, for myself, and the arts and critical cultures more broadly. I am not alone. Speaking, I suspect, for many, Performance Space’s Jeff Khan tweeted that ‘this is the saddest arts news of the year’.
I first wrote for RealTime in 2011. It was, I’m fairly certain, my first professional credit as a reviewer, and had come about by means of a cold email to co-Managing Editor Keith Gallasch. Fresh out of my honours year, and with a track record comprising nothing much at all, I thought I wouldn’t be given the time of day. Instead, I was commissioned to write about Adelaide’s inaugural Festival of Unpopular Culture. I have written for RealTime consistently ever since, chalking up, by my count, 58 pieces (amounting to something like, at a very rough guess, 43,500 words), mainly reviews and interview-based features. Keith, and Virginia Baxter, co-Managing Editor, were my first real editors, but they were more than that – mentors too. Having suffered through the routine butchering of my first (unpaid) reviews for a street press magazine, I was astonished by, and grateful for, Keith and Virginias’ sharp eyes, their rigour, and their depth of experience and knowledge, firmly but judiciously applied where my thinking and writing fell short.
There was some tough love too, an occasionally painful but nevertheless necessary corrective for an emerging writer. I’ve never quite been able to forget being reproached for writing ‘newspaperish hyperbole’, something I had always tried, and continue to try, to rise above as a critic. In retrospect, it’s the kind of editorial intervention that says a lot about what Keith and Virginia (and, it must be said, Gail Priest, their long-time Associate Editor and Online Producer) valued as editors: the avoidance of rushes to judgment; considered, carefully weighed exposition and insight over unreasoned opinion; and the ability of writers to be not uncritical but generous towards artists, open to what they are saying (or trying to say), and attentive to the tools they are using to say it – all principles I hope I have by now successfully internalised as a critic. What remains is not definitive – the irreproachable voice of authority – but space for the reader to come to her own conclusions.
This somewhat phenomenological approach, combined with a certain amount of faith on the part of Keith and Virginia, enabled me to write as well as I could (and as well as my research allowed) about forms and artists I knew little about to begin with. In this way, curiosity was rewarded as much as expertise, the attempt to transmute raw experience through space and time into artful description – a lasting record of the otherwise ephemeral – valued as much as, if not more than, the writer’s capacity to wield history and theory. I ended up writing quite a bit about contemporary dance for RealTime, from works by local artists and companies like Australian Dance Theatre and Gabrielle Nankivell, to international offerings at major arts festivals – Pina Bausch, Akram Khan. I could never write about such work in the way that, say, a dance specialist like Anne Thompson can, but sometimes what counts the most is not how much knowledge a critic can bring to bear on a piece of art, but how true they can be to their experience of it. ‘Our gift,’ wrote the late theatre critic James Waites, ‘is to describe in words what was carved through direct experience onto our souls while seeing the show.’ Perhaps more than any other publication I’ve written for, RealTime provided a platform to attempt this, however intermittently I may have succeeded.
In that first review, I described The Festival of Unpopular Culture as ‘shambolic, oppositional, and coyly idealistic’. It strikes me now that this is exactly the kind of outlying work RealTime has shone a light on since its inception, and that stands to lose the most from its demise. I worry about all the art and artists that will go un- and under-covered now that it will no longer be published regularly (the magazine is not entirely wrapping up, with archival work, special editions, historical overviews, and public forums promised for 2018). There is simply nowhere else I could have written so expansively about the artists, companies, and festivals that have stimulated me the most over the past half-decade or so: Vitalstatistix, Restless Dance Theatre, No Strings Attached, Version 1.0, Cat Jones, Paulo Castro, OzAsia, and the Adelaide Festival of the Arts, to name a few off the top of my head (and which is to say nothing of sound and experimental music, skilfully and tirelessly covered by my colleague Chris Reid for many years). It has been a joy to trace their evolving experimentations with form and genre; in the case of the latter two, to bear witness to their revitalisation under new artistic directorships in 2015 and 2017, respectively. But big festivals will probably always be written about somewhere. I’m not so sure about the rest.
It’s somewhat ironic that the news of RealTime’s ceasing regular publication came in part via social media, prefaced with the ubiquitous refrain ‘BREAKING NEWS’. Ironic because, especially when the magazine had been in print, one of the pleasures of writing for RealTime had been its long lead times, its almost defiant eschewal of timeliness that meant reviews could be laboured over, researched and rewritten and, above all, deeply thought through. Ironic also because it appears that it is precisely social media’s stranglehold on advertising revenue that has made RealTime untenable in the age of fake news, clickbait, and churnalism. It is, quite simply, a different age, even if RealTime never seemed, despite its name, quite of its time. A European-born, Adelaide-based director once told me he found it extraordinary that a magazine like RealTime could be picked up on the street for free, as it could when it was still being printed (#notallstreetpress). In Europe, he said, it would be unthinkable for writing of such quality to be given away for nothing. It is, unfortunately, now unthinkable here too, the advertising dollars that in part made it possible (alongside Australia Council funding) now flowing almost exclusively into the coffers of Google and Facebook.
There is a silver lining, and that is the expected completion of RealTime’s online archive next year. Including digitised print editions from 1994 to 2000, the archive, chronicling a transformative period in Australian performance, will no doubt form an invaluable resource for artists, researchers, and curious audience members. But it is also these groups – in addition to the writers who will no longer, in the words of the editors, be ‘[commissioned] to review new work by emerging and established innovators that warrants serious attention at a time when arts journalism is seriously threatened’ – that will have the most reason to lament the end of the magazine’s regular publication. The British theatre critic Irving Wardle wrote that, ‘There is something incomplete about a work, written, rehearsed and opened to the theatre-going public until its existence also extends to the reading public.’ As much as anything else, criticism worthy of the name offers another way for artists to know themselves, and for audiences to see their work. The loss of RealTime is a loss to the culture. That it is so is a testament to Keith and Virginia’s industriousness, their care, and their sustained and impassioned commitment to artists, writers, and readers. It’s a legacy to be proud of.