a new generation performs

douglas leonard: exist-ence festival, brisbane

a study in red weight,  Rebecca Cunningham, Exist-ence 2010

a study in red weight, Rebecca Cunningham, Exist-ence 2010

EXIST-ENCE IS AN ANNUAL TWO-DAY FESTIVAL OF PERFORMANCE ART, LIVE ART AND ACTION ART CURATED, PRODUCED AND PRESENTED BY BRITTANY GUY, LAUREN CLELLAND AND REBECCA CUNNINGHAM IN BRISBANE. LAST YEAR THE THIRD FESTIVAL TOOK PLACE IN THE SHOP-FRONT AT THE JUDITH WRIGHT CENTRE OF PERFORMING ARTS, BUT WENT LARGELY UNHERALDED.

The event receives no funding and, although the space was generously donated, the creators of this event expend their time and labour gratis. Likewise artists pay for their own materials and perform for free. The modest admission fee covered front of house and technical assistance, but equipment was loaned by the big-hearted Kim Machan—the same Kim Machan who created the Multimedia Art Asia Pacific festival (MAAP) that went off-shore to China through lack of funding here.

Let’s hope history doesn’t repeat itself, because Exist-ence is professionally presented, from the appealingly bound program that includes a useful guide to global performance websites to the continuous live streaming of international artists on the walls of the space, and represents an independent, accessible and welcome renewal of exploration and exposure to this artform in Queensland for another generation.

The Exist-ence initiative is reminiscent of the ferment of ideas and investigation of new forms explored in the 1990s in Brisbane by artist driven venues such as The Crab Room and Cherry Herring. Nick Tsoutas at the Institute of Modern Art, Joseph O’Connor at Metro Arts and Jude Abernathy at Van Gogh’s Earlobe all provided support and space for independent performance artists. Luminary Queensland performers who cut their teeth in such spaces during this period are now well known: Christine Johnston, Lisa O’Neill, Brian Lucas… What surprised me was that while performance art continues to thrive as a discrete practice, especially overseas, I had wrongly attributed its demise in Brisbane to its having been subsumed under the rubric of contemporary performance. New circus, for instance, seems to have completely amalgamated performance art into its praxis.

At Exist-ence there was the expected atmosphere of a jamboree and some quietly subversive touches. You could avoid the rather pricey front bar and earn free drinks by screaming into the interior of a suitcase that was placed on a table with finger food that you were invited to eat “at your own risk.” An inter-generational contribution that nicely sutured the seeming hiatus in the handing down of a ‘tradition’ came from Jan Baker-Finch who believes “in the two-faced truth, in the Either, the Or and the Holy Both.” She improvised dance with enviable suppleness and, dressed in a series of fantastical costumes fashioned from ever recurring green garbage bags, made personal interventions with the audience. Dan Koop from Melbourne in his performance Wish you Were Here, sat at a table offering to personally hand deliver post card messages within five kilometres of the Judith Wright Centre. Throughout the hand delivery process DJK International mapped the route by sending live delivery update reports, ironically, via Twitter. Part corporate spoof, part re-humanising latter day communications, it was a sweet idea and in great demand—I sent my first Humanogram to a couple expecting their first child who were both bemused and delighted by Koop’s deadpan ‘delivery.’

Velvet Pesu

Velvet Pesu

Describing her art and life as inseparable, the striking figure of Velvet Pesu was a living sound sculpture who phenomenally endured during most of a long night. Concentric Circles on Red was an experimental piece combining audio made from inventively recycled materials secreted as part of her costume with her own superbly improvised vocals. She stood like a tall tree in a forest with the hauteur of an Elizabethan aristocrat or Aztec princess, wearing a shark’s jawbone and a ruff made from recycled venetian blinds. A visual artist and experimental filmmaker, Pesu looked up towards what looked like handmade film thrown on the ceiling by an antique projector. The artist possesses the only remaining bulb for the machine, and I was moved by this detail, significant of her wholly committed, unique way of life. I was less convinced by Nicola Morton’s claims to be “a writer-artist-future-time woman” declaring “the end of capitalism.” If only. But this might be a grumpy response to what appeared suspiciously like one of those getting to know you drama exercises I temperamentally abhor. We were asked to perform yogic breathing while twirling like Sufis and sticking bright dots all over our neighbours. Ugh.

If Morton attempts in an admittedly light-hearted fashion to hypnotise the audience, Rebecca Cunningham is attracted to the meditative, trance-like state she enters during a performance. In a study in red weight, she wore a red dress and wove a garland of red roses round her neck. To the roses were added successively layered necklaces of red wool and washers, bondage tape, stones and what appeared to be razor wire and ribbon that left scarlet indentations on the artist’s bare shoulders. As she kneeled and rhythmically rocked in a penitential posture, weighty stones clashing and grinding the bouquet to bits, I was inclined to read these signs in terms of the kind of psychological-political analysis of sexuality in a patriarchal world familiar from feminist discourse. However, Cunningham disavowed any such intentions, referring me back to the text accompanying her action: “what has come before, what is ahead, no matter. Living in the here, living in the now is where I want to be. With you living in the here, living in the now… There is no them, there is no then. Only we, only now.”

Cunningham’s brave action appeared to recapitulate aspects of an earlier Mike Parr-like body art where the focus on the abject appeared self-obsessive, but it also seemed positively to reiterate the axiom that innocence, consciously or not, longs for experience, longs to be different from itself. Taken along with her text, Cunningham’s display of overt masochism seemed a vivid reminder of the Zen notion translated by 1960s writer Alan Watts into the proposition that we are in fact a sort of resistance in the middle of the flow of life. As life impinges on you, you hurt, and so you know that you are here. Perhaps it was the shock of alterity that induced us to share the moment. Cunningham’s piece at any rate seemed to bear out Parr’s original observation that “the eye of the audience is submerged in the body as in a wound.”

Melody Woodnutt is a descendent of pirates and claims to have stolen her arts education while flirting with arts institutions internationally. Bravo! Recently returned from a residency in Iceland, her work Lines and Flux reflected her stay there. Part visual installation, part live art, her piece centred on a nomadic, ecological way of thinking that was reminiscent of 70s preoccupations overlaid with Woodnutt’s “meditation on lines, borders, boundaries and the path of (least) resistance.” The work enacted the temporal installation of an environment on the border of land and sea. There was a pile of heavy stones, one of which a member of the audience was tasked to interminably weigh. Earth was poured from sandbags in the ‘interior,’ eventually to be mixed by Woodnutt dragging a fishing net between her toes, eliding borderline distinctions. More metaphorical were the string and tape that excluded the audience beyond another border between themselves and the performer, but also highlighting the glut of the eye which easily penetrated all barriers. In Woodnutt’s moveable dialectic, it is the crossing of borders and boundaries, or the place where they intersect which is important. The ‘I’ consciously situates itself between the two. As Derrida puts it, “we have to cross the border but not to destroy the border.”

Derrida’s prohibition, of course, is blithely ignored by the forces of global capitalism. They are the ones who literally mix up the world. Although I didn’t have the opportunity to speak with Woodnutt, her work could not have been ignorant of the economic basket case Iceland became as one of the first victims of the capitalist meltdown. As we saw on television, Iceland (tied in with a Scottish investment bank that likewise foundered) fell hook, line and sinker for the shibboleths of economic rationalism and invested its national savings in global hedge funds. Viewed from this perspective, Woodnutt’s performance proved all the more politically astute.

The future for Exist-ence includes plans to bring out international powerhouse La Pocha Nostra in September for the fourth international Exist-ence festival and, with a little luck, Black Market International in 2012. Boringly, such big dreams depend on funding. However, they will persist in any event. At the moment the curators are looking for a space to promote performance art, live art and action art in Brisbane on a regular, perhaps bi-monthly basis. Any offers out there?

Exist-ence, a festival of performance art, live art and action art curated, produced and presented by Brittany Guy, Lauren Clelland, Rebecca Cunningham; live performances created and performed by Jan Baker-Finch, Dan Koop, Nicola Morton, Velvet Pesu, Melody Woodnutt; Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Art, Brisbane, Nov 26-27, 2010; http://existenceperformanceart.wordpress.com

RealTime issue #101 Feb-March 2011 pg. 42

© Douglas Leonard; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2011
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