Helen Simondson, photo: Mark Gambino

Q&A: Alumna Helen Simondson, ACMI

In our Q&A series, we catch up with alumni, staff and current students. This week we talk to alumna Helen Simodson from the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI).

About Helen Simondson

Alumna Helen Simondson (GDipFT, 1994) currently holds the position as the Manager of Screen Events at ACMI. As part of this position Helen has been responsible for initiating and developing the award winning digital storytelling program at ACMI which has seen Helen and her team work with many individuals and communities, empowering them to tell their own stories in their own voice, whilst learning invaluable technology skills.

Helen has also worked as an arts practitioner for many years with undergraduate qualifications in Drama and Dance from Deakin University, Rusden, and postgraduate qualifications in Film and TV from the Victorian College of the Arts.

Her creative work in the performing arts has seen her in the role of choreographer and movement director for a range of Australian companies. She has worked on various dance film and documentary projects since graduating from VCA and was the project manager of Microdance, a dance on screen initiative with the Australia Council, Australian Film Commission and the ABC. Helen was also the project manager of the Performing Arts Multimedia Library (PAML) Pilot Project for Multimedia Victoria and DCITA.

The Kitchen in New York engaged Helen as a consultant to assist the company in developing its technology management policy. Helen holds the position as chair of the Dancehouse board and had, until recently, served for seven years on Lucy Guerin Inc’s board.

A Q&A with Helen:

Please tell us what you do for a living. 

I work at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) in Federation Square as the Screen Events Manager. The Screen Events team is responsible for developing public programs at ACMI. It is a really varied and creative position and the team I lead devise a range of engaging programs for all the moving image forms and for all audiences. The slate of programs cover talks and forums, creative workshops live performances and events as well as audio visual content making.

Kids In The Studio – creative workshops
Kids In The Studio – creative workshops

How did you arrive in your current position? 

Prior to my VCA postgraduate studies my undergraduate discipline and work experience was in contemporary dance and theatre and I had worked as a contemporary choreographer, director and arts educator. I was really interested in film and particularly in dance on screen so I decided to pursue studies in the postgraduate film course and extend my skill base. Once I completed the studies it opened up a lot of opportunities specifically some more hybrid projects that combined the screen and performing arts.

Directly after graduating I was the project manager for the first stage of Microdance for the Australia Council for the Arts, what was then and the AFC and ABC and following on from this I delivered the Performing Arts Multimedia Library Pilot Project (PAML) for Cinemedia and the Department of Communications Information and the Arts (DoCITA).

It was the breadth of skills across a number of art forms that was such a sound basis for the screen culture position I now hold giving me the capacity to work in live events and in screen based content development.

In Conversation with William Kentridge
In Conversation with William Kentridge

Are you involved in any other arts projects?

I am the chair of Dancehouse which is the centre for independent contemporary dance in Melbourne and until very recently I was on Lucy Guerin Inc’s board. It was a delight to have served on Lucy’s board for seven years and working with the Dancehouse board and team is really exciting. While I certainly don’t dance anymore my commitment to the boards allows me to stay connected to contemporary dance.

Beyond my board commitments I also continue to make small media projects I write a bit and in the last few years I have been making large mosaic sculptures for my garden. I am surprised at how much I enjoy the ‘hands on’ art making I can’t say they are great but I’m having a hell of a good time working on them.

What are you currently working on (at work and outside of work)?

I oversee an extraordinarily diverse slate of programs that are in various stages of pre-production and delivery. The Game Masters exhibition is ACMI’s current major exhibition and the team is delivering late night music events to support the exhibition, we are also developing a number of events with visiting Japanese games designer Tetsuya Mizuguchi and have also programmed a game collectors road show which is a bit like the Antique Roadshow but much more nerdy. A very hip young game’s collective The Voxel Agents is making ACMI its studio for a weekend and will produce a game for a mobile device over the weekend working with visitors to produce the game and I suspect this is one of the first co-creative game making projects and I am interested to see if the process works.

Game Masters: The Forum – industry symposium (June 2012)
Game Masters: The Forum – industry symposium (June 2012)

We are also in preproduction for the Co-Creative Communities: forum and lab which brings together storytellers, broadcasters, filmmakers, artists, activists, cultural workers and researchers to discuss the challenges and opportunities that digital convergence and participatory media present for communities. The forum is part of a larger Australian Research Council (ARC) project led by Queensland University of Technology that involves ACMI the Australia Council and other university and Industry partners.

In terms of production programs we are currently producing the resource material for a collection of community documentaries and digital stories that were produced in collaboration with the Woorabinda community which is an Indigenous community situated west of Rock Hampton QLD. The stories capture what life is like when seasonal floods hit and isolate the community for months and these stories are part of a larger project that we have produced with the Attorney General’s Department that involve young people sharing their experiences of surviving natural disasters.

We have musician Dan Sultan about to share his top five films in our Desert Island Flicks program in October and we are shaping the program for the next major exhibition Candice Breitz: The Character. Breitz is a South African artist based in Berlin and her work is primarily video installation that is an anthropological study of popular culture which has provided a very rich stimulus for the team to produce corresponding public program.

Desert Island Flicks – Margaret Pomeranz (August 2011)
Desert Island Flicks – Margaret Pomeranz (August 2011)

Outside of work I have my board duties and I am working on a 3D garden sculpture inspired by some of Len Lye’s large scale sculptures. I have a writing project on the boil and that is about it at the moment.

What’s an average day like for you?

An average day is usually super busy juggling a number of projects and it does include a fair few meetings.

I certainly enjoy the creative aspects of my job including the discussions around programming with the teams at ACMI, the research in preparing for programs and the problem solving. I also love the ability to work in all the moving image art forms, cinema, television, art, video games and digital culture and to submerge myself in the subject matter or artist of a particular exhibition and to then translate this into engaging and interesting programs for the public. This diversity day to day translates to super skills in multitasking and some seriously fast thinking!!

What is the most challenging aspect of working in the arts today?

I’m not sure I can answer this one easily without overly generalising as it is so different for everyone working in the arts depending on the context they work in. Of course all the normal challenges exist around money particularly when the global picture is gloomy and I think advocating and promoting for the arts will always be a challenge for anyone working in the field. Perhaps at this point in time one of the challenges I perceive for many in the arts is managing the constantly changing technological environment and how this impacts on how people are now consuming and engaging with content and ultimately how this impacts on the making, curating and programming of art. My view is that there are a lot of exciting challenges in the ways arts practitioners might maximise the opportunities available and rethink ways of producing and delivering content.

Live in the Studio – “Queering the small screen” panel (April 2012)
Live in the Studio – “Queering the small screen” panel (April 2012)

And the most rewarding?

I always count the creative workplace and bouncing off the many talented and creative colleagues as one of the major rewards of this job. I also find it fulfilling to work in a field where your contribution really does matter to the cultural lives of people and it is very cool developing programs that people respond and engage with and some of the content development programs like the ACMI digital storytelling program have been a real privilege to deliver in the way we collaborate and facilitate first person audio visual stories with individuals and communities.

Digital Storytelling – In Our Words program which paired veterans with students to create 200+ digital stories
Digital Storytelling – In Our Words program which paired veterans with students to create 200+ digital stories

Can you provide us with a career highlight/achievement?

One of my real career highlights, beyond being able to create public programs with such interesting accomplished artists and Industry folk such as Tim Burton, William Kentridge, Tim Schafer, David Stratton and Margaret Pomeranz, has been developing the Digital Storytelling program at ACMI.

Intermix – budding film reviewers session with David Stratton (October 2011)
Intermix – budding film reviewers session with David Stratton (October 2011)

Over the years we have literally assisted hundreds of people to tell important personal stories as audio visual stories and the value of this co-creative model is that we really strive to facilitate agency for the storytellers. The interaction of the high quality professional production support, the educative focus of the workshops and the participant centered program structure has been critical to the success of this participatory media program.

It was established when the centre opened and it certainly helped position ACMI as a leader amongst cultural institutions in facilitating co-creative content and it assisted ACMI in forging a new collaborative relationship with the public. I have also had the opportunity to publish some articles about the importance of the program in the broader media ecology.

What do you like to do when you’re not working?

I love watching films and seeing  interesting performances and exhibitions and I am also really happy just to noodle about at home with family and friends — walk my hyperactive dog, do a bit of reading, cook, drink wine, work on my mosaics and listen to music.

Why did you choose to study at the VCA?

I was really interested in pursuing film and VCA was definitely the postgraduate course of choice because it was much more of an auteur approach to filmmaking than the other film courses on offer. The quality of graduates and the range of very interesting films they were producing was also a real testimony to this approach.

As a mature age student with a fairly long history of my own arts practice, I also wanted to be assured that I could completely submerge myself in the creative and technical process of making a film with a cohort of equally passionate students.  I also wanted to have access to high quality teaching staff that would act as real ‘provocateurs’ that would extend me creatively and technically. This is what the VCA course offered.

Can you tell us about your favourite VCA memory?

It was such an intense year and I have so many memories of the ‘extreme’ film shots, the post production timeline chaos and, I know I am truly aging myself when I say this, but I really loved handling film stock. One of my claims is that I was the first VCA film student to create a Dance on Screen work which made for very interesting script editing sessions as I tried to communicate my choreographic ideas to people who did not know or understand the art form it certainly pushed me to articulate my work through mis en scene which was a real learning curve.

Why did you decide to pursue a career in this field?

Post film school I thought I was probably going to be more focused on content making through more traditional media pathways and I had not really considered screen culture as a potential career field. It was a number of projects that led me to ACMI and ultimately my current position. It has been really rewarding working as a creative programmer in an institution like ACMI which has over the years really positioned itself as a leading international screen culture agency.

What advice would you give to students who want to pursue a career in your field?

It is always hard to talk about career paths in the arts they are not necessarily always very prescriptive. I do feel my very diverse skill set has been really advantageous rather than a specialist approach. Not sure if this is useful advice.

What are your goals for the next few years?

I am always interested in developing my skills as an arts professional from everything to improving my strategic management skills and I am also contemplating some further part-time study. I have contributed to a number of publications so a more academic direction of study interests  me.


A version of this article originally appeared on Channel, the Faculty’s previous publishing platform.

One Response to “Q&A: Alumna Helen Simondson, ACMI”

  1. James Harrison says:

    Thank you for sharing this post on Helen.

    its great to see people passionate about what they do, and I always love heading to ACMI to find inspiration and ideas.
    I believe its a great think tank for people like myself out of uni, look a new creative way to go about things.

    even though it has been hard work, it seems this has been a very rewarding career, and also influenced many people along the way, myself being one 🙂

    Thanks for sharing,