Producing the next generation of design at the Prague Quadrennial

Every four years, the Prague Quadrennial celebrates the best of scenography and production design. For decades, the VCA has been part of that celebration – including student delegations encountering the transformative experience of the world’s most creative minds sparking together.

Australian installation, a tapestry of patterns and flowers
Detail from the Australian installation at the Student Exhibition at Prague Quadrennial 2019, produced by VCA students. (Image: Jo Briscoe.)

“It’s a chance for incredible creative dialogues to open, and to meet people from all over the world who you might make work with in the future – but it’s also benchmarking. It’s testing yourself against the world. It gives such an incredible creative injection to those people who attend.”

This is how Jo Briscoe, Senior Lecturer in Design at the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA), describes the Prague Quadrennial (PQ) – the world’s premier event in scenography and production design.

Every four years, the PQ offers a platform for performing arts professionals from around the world to converge and share their work, ideas and thoughts. It’s a two-week celebration of the preceding four years of global design, with a program including a conference for sharing knowledge and judged exhibitions of contemporary work. Competitive and collaborative, it’s an opportunity for creative minds to spark together.

That’s why for decades the VCA has taken delegations of Design and Production students to immerse themselves in this iconic event.

Whether they’re building the VCA installation at the Student Exhibition or visiting as part of the Design and Production Global Atelier subject within their degree, these participating students encounter the leading minds in production design and scenography.

“It’s a really important thing that we’re part of this conversation [at PQ], because we’re a significant training body in this country,” says Jo.

“It’s a great chance to show what we do to others, and inspire them to join us or partner with us – and for us to build connections with other institutions as well.”

Australian installation, collection of items cascading out of bag, including books, crayons and a pen
Detail from the Australian installation at the Student Exhibition at Prague Quadrennial 2019, produced by VCA students. (Image: Jo Briscoe.)

A new focus on Indigenous scenography

Jacob Nash has been invited to be the creative lead for Australia at PQ23. Jacob is one of Australia’s most sought-after designers, Head of Design at Bangarra Dance Theatre, and Creative Artist in Residence for Sydney Festival – in addition to his acclaimed and highly-awarded body of other work, including the current Sydney Theatre Company production of The Tempest.

While First Nations performers have participated at past PQs, the focus of Australia’s presence in the exhibitions has never been Indigenous scenography. After PQ19, Head of Design at the VCA Associate Professor Richard Roberts was inspired to correct this and has spearheaded the support to develop Australia’s 2023 installations at the Exhibition of Countries and Regions (ECR) and the Student Exhibition.

Richard’s professional practice includes a significant body of work with First Nations collaborators, including a long creative partnership with director Wesley Enoch.

As Richard says, “As a non-indigenous person, you are invited to participate in and support the telling of these stories. It’s an incredible privilege and you are there to help reveal the intent of the First Nations artists, to assist them to tell their stories the way they want to tell them.”

This is the approach VCA Design is taking in championing PQ23, with Jo Briscoe as the Curator of Australia’s exhibitions, as a support to ensure Jacob’s creative vision is realised – and with the Wilin Centre for Indigenous Arts and Cultural Development embedded at the Faculty of Fine Arts and Music, there’s additional synergy and support for this important project.

PQ really changed the way I thought about designing … I can’t imagine my career without that influence.

Jacob has conceptualised a space for the ECR to communicate his approach to scenography: “The concept for PQ23 is to curate several of my works from Bangarra to create an installation that talks to how I, as a First Nations designer, interpret country and create landscapes for live performance.

“While this space will not hold performance, it will hold the memory of performance, Country and culture. Audiences will be able to walk within this sacred space, not as observers but as participants, exploring contemporary spaces where ancient and contemporary culture collide.”

As Jo notes: “This year’s PQ provocation is ‘Rare’ – with PQ inviting a specific focus on the unique qualities of each participating country. While the plan to have an Indigenous-led project was already under way before the concept was announced, it is a delightful synergy to have the theme so perfectly suited to the goals of our project.”

Linking industry with education

The connection between the VCA and industry – and the opportunities it offers all parties – is exemplified by the development of the Student Exhibition for PQ.

VCA Design and Production staff are all industry practitioners and these strong links have enabled this project. In addition, the Student Exhibition will, for the first time, be a direct response to the ECR installation, where students will be guided by Jacob through an iterative development in response to his provocation in the ECR.

Jacob has invited his long-term Bangarra collaborators Jennifer Irwin and Steve Francis to join the creative development, giving a complete sense of how both Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists engage with this unique approach to storytelling, celebrating the Country and cultures indigenous to this continent. Students from other institutions have also been invited to participate.

As the industry continues its efforts to attract and recruit the First Nations designers of the future – a goal that has been stubbornly difficult to resolve to date – this international showcase for Indigenous design offers a valuable opportunity to create space for them to step into the field.

1 person standing and 5 people sitting on streetscape infront of a concrete block facade in Prague decorated with ornaments around a doorway
The delegation from WAAPA to Prague Quadrennial 1995 – including current VCA lecturers Leon Salom (standing) and Christina Smith (red shirt). (Image: Richard Roberts.)

Career-shaping experiences

But PQ is more than just an exploration of present innovation in scenography and a showcase of the best of contemporary production design. It’s the environment in which the future of the industry is formed.

This is epitomised by Leon Salom and Christina Smith, who now teach at the VCA alongside Richard Roberts – who took them on a formative trip to the PQ when they were students in Western Australia in 1995.

When we consider how small and constrained our lives became over the past few years, a tangible, visceral and global experience like PQ23 will be a nourishing and uplifting event.

Christina says of her experience: “Attending PQ as a student in 1995 was a formative and transformative experience for me. Before I went I was part of a very small cohort of students studying what I had believed to be a niche vocation in one of the world’s most remote cities, so the shift in this perspective was monumental from the moment we arrived.”

Leon’s experience was equally meaningful – and career-shaping.

“PQ really changed the way I thought about designing … I can’t imagine my career without that influence. It opened my eyes to a whole new array of ways to approach design through seeing the work of theatre designers and design students from around the world,” he says.

Leon is always excited to share the same opportunity with the next generation of Australian designers.

“I have taken students to PQ several times now and without fail the impact is significant,” he says.

“Part of being a design student is figuring out how you want to approach your work – you learn from your lecturers how they approach designing, but every designer is unique, and being exposed to myriad ways of being a designer at PQ inspires designers to consider their own design philosophy.”

And the upcoming PQ perhaps presents a more significant opportunity for celebration and convergence than global design has had for many years.

As Christina puts it: “When we consider how small and constrained our lives became over the past few years, a tangible, visceral and global experience like PQ23 will be a nourishing and uplifting event.”

It’s impossible to predict how the Prague Quadrennial 2023 will nourish VCA students’ careers – but whatever they do, the industry these delegates create in the coming decades will have its roots in the VCA.

Discover Design and Production at the Victorian College of the Arts. Learn more about the work of the designers at Bangarra Dance Theatre.