Essay

Once a professional token youth

IT'S OFFICIAL. AS of August 2006, my last youth-related engagement ends. For nearly a decade, I have worked on youth-related arts and media projects – often cynically describing myself as a "professional token youth". Having reached my early thirties that description has reached its use-by-date and I feel obliged to resign from the niche before the gap between my experience and what I am being asked to represent becomes too apparent.

Over this time, I have learnt through accident and experience that youth can be a very effective tool if you are young and confident enough to wield it. It is only slightly shameful to say that I have used it to level the playing field whenever the opportunity has presented itself. I learnt that combining youth with prefixes such as regional and disadvantaged can legitimise many purposes. The understanding of that power is rarely appreciated by young people themselves, but is readily exploited by those who seek to use it on their behalf.

My "career" as a token youth is a case study in evolving from ignorance, through accidents, into understanding and effectiveness. It is also an illustration of the benefits of being in the wrong place at the right time, and the value of persistence. It began when I was twenty-one with an act of faith. A group of friends and co-conspirators each put $500 towards toward renting a warehouse and establishing an under-resourced, over-ambitious and unfunded arts and media collective, Octapod. This was in Newcastle in the mid-1990s, and youth unemployment was running at about 40 per cent. We qualified for $500 loans from the Department of Social Security (DSS) as the result of long-term unemployment. To get the seed funding we needed, eight of us individually fronted the Newcastle office of the DSS with some variation of "I need $500 to buy a suit/camera/computer/printer/tool kit because it will greatly increase my chances of getting a job."

Within a year, we had initiated Newcastle's only serious local multi-arts festival, run a recycling program that had rehabilitated over three hundred bikes, held some cool parties, organised international speaking tours, and hosted workshops on everything from the internet to non-violent protesting. We made a lot of things happen in Newcastle. We didn't know how to speak of it. We didn't have any confidence in its significance. We were young and naive in matters of spin. Six years later, at the Social Entrepreneurs Network National Conference in Melbourne, Octapod would be described as a shining example of grassroots social entrepreneurship. At the time, it was a lot of activity, a little posing, and carefully constructed ruses designed to keep the DSS off our backs.

Although we had a dozen years of unemployment between us, it certainly never occurred to us that this was "a model youth initiated self-help project for the young long-term unemployed", as it would later be described at a national Issues of Regional Youth conference. We were so paranoid we used false names when we got our pictures in the paper: we were certain that all this "not looking for work" would lead to the dole being cut.

 

DESPITE HAVING LONG ceased to look for a job, all the activity eventually delivered one – as it did for most of us. While I was not remotely qualified, my combination of organisational experience, starting and running a festival (albeit with extremely mixed success), pioneering some internet projects, a willingness to work for peanuts and being young meant that I was uniquely qualified to become the Internet Manager of the Australia Council's LOUD (later to become NOISE) youth media arts festival in 1996.

There could not have been a sharper contrast. Where Octapod had legitimacy in spades and placed no value on it, LOUD lacked the cred with young artists it desperately needed. It is almost a universal truth that the more an organisation strives to present a young face, the less likely it is to be in touch with and genuinely represent the interests of young people. LOUD was a government-funded and initiated project, conceived as a nebulously defined "national youth arts festival involving media". It began in the dying days of the Keating Government, and after several years was reconceptualised as a way to give young people direct access to the mass media to present their media-based creative works. It was an indictment of the process that, by the time the executive producer who employed me was appointed, about $400,000 of its $2 million plus budget had already been spent – much of it on consulting with a youth arts sector that was ultimately bypassed.

While the Festival's executive producer and much of the management group were relatively young, I was the only one in the target under-twentysix age group. Soon I found myself thrust in front of the cameras and microphones as the festival's public face. I co-presented ABC TV's Recovery for a month, gave regular radio interviews, and was featured in countless newspaper profiles. By January 1998, I had become something of a minor media personality – a busload of school kids in Melbourne even shouted at me by name.

The cynicism of describing myself as a "professional token youth" is a deliberate shield. When others useyouth to describe a project, colleague or perspective, it makes me uncomfortable. I assume it an insult or a pigeonholing exercise until proven otherwise. Unless it is thrust upon you, describing yourself as youth is counter-intuitive when you are young. Youth is not what you want to be, and it is the last context in which you wish to see your work presented – you want the big platform, the main stage, not the sideshow or kids' sandbox.

Like any term, youth can be patronising or liberating, depending on who uses it and for what purpose. Unlike other terms, youth is not easily reinvented. While language is fluid and marginalised communities regularly reclaim terms of derision as badges of honour, an inherent part of being young is that it is a transitional state – once you have the skills and the desire to reinvent it, you have usually passed it and are looking back suspiciously at those who have inherited the mantle.

The role of the token youth is similar to that of a token anything – only it has a use-by date. The role is to represent the presence of the group of people that you nominally represent. Within reason, your role is to actually represent them, but more often than not the role is merely to cover the idea that they are represented. How you do it is up to you.

It was a fortuitous coincidence that, in the latter stages of my involvement with LOUD, Mark Davis'sGanglands: Cultural Elites and The New Generationalism (Allen & Unwin, 1997) was published. It was recommended to me by Helen Darville (aka Demidenko), who I had interviewed for LOUD's online magazine. She had an interest in how Davis presented her and other prominent demonised young people such as the Paxton family, whose members had been targeted by A Current Affair. He makes a compelling case that the media was regularly demonising and denying access to the generation that followed the Baby Boomers, and systemically denied young people the opportunity to present their cases on their own terms.

Ganglands was a revelation to me. While I revelled in the analysis and the case studies, the implication that came with it was more compelling: that the culture and experience of my peers was legitimate, but was not – and not likely to be – validated by the mass media, as it did not correlate with their Boomer reference points. This was the catalyst for the idea that culture was not something that we were going to do when we grew up.

Motivated by this realisation, I embarked on creating a youth-branded event. The key principle was that it should celebrate and validate the culture that young people occupied, not what was considered good for them or a waiting-room to welcome young people into the main game. The divergence of this from the status quo meant I was creating an event that would be perceived as having little legitimacy. Wrapping it in a paternalistic "doing it for the kids" approach seemed like the best cloak.

Hence the blandly named, bureaucratically friendly National Young Writers' Festival, a festival that celebrated poets, novelists, zine-makers, filmmakers, comic artists, bloggers, self-publishers, squatters, media activists, pirate radio enthusiasts and scores of others who were occupying spaces relevant to the debates of our twenty-something lives. It was the first Australian event to treat electronic publishing seriously, and to put self-published comic artists on panels with award-winning novelists. Over eight years, it has played a small but significant role in fostering the careers of people across the media from TV hosts and Palm D'Or winners to outspoken bloggers. It was a timely event that grew spectacularly on word of mouth. The 'This is Not Art' festival evolved from it, and now brings over one and a half million dollars' worth of benefit to the Newcastle economy each year.

While it was still the National Young Writers' Festival, the people who funded it at the Australia Council saw it as an "online forum" and a series of skill-building workshops. Young people aren't generally encouraged to start writers' festivals. The country already had all the writers' festivals it needed, I was told at the time. The modest funding was to set up an online network; buried in the small print was a reference to an event where writers would meet.

While the established writers' festivals were a closed shop, we found a federal agenda that wanted to focus on youth and the regions, and anxious about culture needing to engage with technology. Youth? Check.Regional? Check. Innovative technology? Check. Disadvantaged area? Check. Cheap? Check. The debate whipped up by Ganglands didn't hurt. The upside of the need to tick the boxes gave immense latitude to determine the way the goals would be reached – once the money was in the bank.

 

SINCE THEN, I have become much wiser about the ways of the cultural world. A decade of sitting on funding committees, chasing scant money and directing cultural events does that to you. While youth is an excellent way to get your foot in the door, the reality is that it is not easy for young people to open a new cultural space. The legacy of decades of institution-building means that most cultural space is effectively quarantined from new movements, initiatives or activities. Across Australia, the vast majority of resources go to major institutions – mainly to service infrastructure and overheads.

The New South Wales Ministry for the Arts, we soon learnt, sees itself as an organisation servicing its client institutions and not an administrator of competitive funding programs. Its key role is to continue to fund what it has always funded. Arts Victoria has spent the last decade digesting the costs of the massive, architecturally stunning but risk-averse institutions that are its flagships. Within all of these institutions, conservative cultures, corporate hierarchies and long queues mean that it is almost impossible for young people to make a cultural impact while they are young.

Unless they happen to be the son of a media baron, prodigiously talented or obscenely lucky, young people will rarely be handed an opportunity to take over any aspect of the status quo. When you are young, there are always those with greater expertise than you, but by the time you reach the front of the queue you realise that what awaits wasn't what you were queuing for.

The spaces of cultural influence that younger people are permitted to occupy are limited, as are the resources that are available to them – but this is more than compensated for by the latitude that is available within those spaces when compared with the room to move in major institutions. Cultural resonance and relevance can only come from young people who want to make an impact, and not merely wait for their seat at the table. The key challenge is to grab the opportunities and avoid the bureaucratic curses that dog success. This afflicts projects aimed at young people particularly severely. It is easy, when youth agendas are circulating, to create an event that lives up to someone's predefined idea of what young people should be doing. The challenge is to tick the bureaucratic boxes and carve out an authentic cultural space that is owned by and meets the expectations of young people. In my opinion, it is not the role of these events to anoint talent to enter pre-existing and predetermined structures. The role of youth is not to fill those structures, but to challenge them and force them to defend their legitimacy – not necessarily by confrontation, but through the exploration and advocacy of other ways of doing things.

 

STRANGELY, IF YOU are young, successful and confident, chances are that you can get away with it. Youth gives latitude that is rarely apparent at the time. Within reason, it is expected that mistakes, followed by a little contrition, will equal redemption. In the creative and media space, youth does not reward conservatism – informed risk-taking, challenging of the status quo is the expectation – and, given that almost every major arts organisation in the country is struggling to attract young people, those managing the funds will not argue with a winning formula if it meets an unfulfilled agenda.

Successful young people are great fodder for the media. In my case, achievements, hype, personal narratives (including the untimely deaths of my parents) and the need to service a quota of next big things has propelled me. There is an unspoken need to refill the constantly leaking pool of "tomorrow's superstars".

As a result, I have accumulated a Young Australian of the Year Award nomination, a major community service award, participation in the Australia-Japan Foundation's Emerging Leaders delegation, a place in The Age/Sydney Morning Herald's "30 Rising Stars under 30" and – my personal favourite – a nomination as one of Vogue's "Eight Stars of the New Millennium". I have given dozens of speeches and made scores of media appearances when a youth perspective was required. At the age of thirty-two, I have featured in the Sunday Herald Sun/Sunday Telegraph Magazine's "On the Verge" feature, marking my ninth successive year of being young, hip and on the verge of something big.

The danger is that you start to believe that success is linear, or even exponential – that the windy path of opportunity and achievement leads to a freeway to the top. It takes a healthy amount of self-questioning to realise that those paths often tend to narrow out, disappear and turn back. A handful of years after being desperately incapable of finding a job, to Vogue pronouncing me as a name for the next thousand years could be a recipe for an out-of-control ego or a life of failed expectations, depression, alcoholism and bitterness. Fortunately, no one I know in Newcastle reads Vogue.

Hype is the enemy of credibility. All too often, young people are hyped too much and too early. It is not a recipe for sustained achievement to start your career with unrealistic expectations set for you. Young people are rarely in control of the hype generated around their work. Agents, record companies, marketing people, managers, presenting organisations – all of these have more control over a young person's credibility than they do themselves. They also tend to have a much shorter term interest.

Popstars, Big Brother, Australian Idol and their derivates have created an industry that invests young people with massive short-term fame that will rarely be equalled by long-term possibilities. It is not surprising that life for many former child stars is a litany of suicide, crime, rehab, depression and scandal – not least because falling short of your own expectations is one of the most emotionally confronting experiences.

But being hyped does push doors ajar. Oscar-winner Adam Elliot explained, as far as the real big things are concerned, his achievement is just enough to get him in the door before being shown to it from the inside. Part of the survival package is to realise that doors are only slightly ajar and need to be prised – or sweet-talked – open.

The trick is it to put it into context. Rarely does hype deliver its potential. The "professional token youth" rarely represents young people anywhere in a way that matters. But young people need to be prepared to put up their hands and speak for youth, rather than let others do it for them. So before I cross the threshold of managing a youth event in which I am not eligible to participate, I am moving on. 

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