Enduringly queer: Day for Night, Performance Space

Fiona McGregor

Hissy Fit, Day for Night

Hissy Fit, Day for Night, photo Lucy Parakhina

Durational work rewards best the viewer who can contribute its essential ingredient: time. I thought of the artists in Performance Space’s Day for Night as they kicked off midday Thursday, but like most was unable to leave my desk. I arrived the next day halfway through their eight-hour stint. These were the richest hours. Cavernous Bay 17 was another world. Spectators were few, the artists not immediately visible, the onus on us to discover them.

Sound designs by Stereogamous (Jonny Seymour and Paul Mac) washed through the air with beautiful clarity. The Bay gradually filled until something resembling a finale in the last hour, when a series of spotlit solos jolted the performances from ritual to theatre.

I was struck by the intrinsically cinematic term Day for Night, chosen by curators Jeff Khan (Performance Space director) and artist Emma Price. Denoting techniques that simulate night in scenes shot during the day, I took it as a reference to artifice, to the social twilight or liminal space that queer culture has traditionally occupied, the transformative, evinced by the act of making art itself—especially durational. The final event, a five-hour dance party on Saturday night, was the real drawcard. Inevitably, some rode the change better than others.

Alexandra Clapham and Penelope Benton, Great Expectations

Alexandra Clapham and Penelope Benton, Great Expectations, photo Lucy Parakhina

Great Expectations by Alexandra Clapham and Penelope Benton thrived day and night. Static, pared down, it featured a long mirrored table with the couple seated at either end staring at one another in 90-minute blocks. Benton was baroquely made up, Clapham plain. Discreetly installed confetti guns exploded at the end of each time block, littering the table with pink. Clytie Smith’s superb lighting ensured the tableau’s lucid yet approachable framing.

Dean Walsh’s installation of ocean detritus was befittingly busy, part cave, part stage, knocked up from cocos fronds, plastic bottles et al. Walsh prowled around it, sometimes in rope bondage by Garth Knight, a high heel or two, a wig. He drew on all his skills—dance, yoga, campy queer—with compelling dedication. The installation was hard to access at the party, crowded by a speaker. It reminded me a little of UK performance artist Alistair MacLennan: cluttered with props, yet subtle and gentle, but I didn’t see Walsh take full command when I was there. Having heard raves about his Thursday performance, I sensed I had missed the best. He remained in situ for almost the entire 27 hours the whole event spanned, and that is not to be sniffed at.

At the back of the Bay was Hissy Fit’s huge video showing gridded headshots of Jade Muratore, Emily O’Connor and Nat Randall head-banging. The headphone soundtrack was jarringly out of sync, intentionally or not. Both video and live performance were 6’40” long, the average duration of an hysterical attack. It was a brilliant conceit to transpose this most feminine of afflictions into the masculine arena of heavy rock, complete with matching black leather onesies. The live performance was nevertheless cool, but warmed with the cheering party crowd.

Frances Barrett’s Flagging was similarly cool and clever. A time code that marked the beginning and end of each day, Flagging drew on hanky code and semaphore to signal a manifesto of desire. Samuel Bruce’s sound, triggered by Barrett’s moves, boomed powerfully as a bassline.

High heels, hair, pink, leather, flagging. Queer motifs, fleeting and dextrous. Hair also featured for Lilian Starr, in a long gold ponytail, regarding herself in her phone through a snout-like camera that beamed selfies to a small screen at the back of the room. Sealed in a closet-sized space in the wall high above, she was eerily alienated, later reflecting dancers on their phones, interacting with her, or not. A highlight occurred at the end of Friday when the seal came away and the metallic swish of the ponytail shot across the bay. An instant of direct connection, highlighting Starr’s capture, and narcissism.

Martin del Amo, one of the most skilled and idiosyncratic performers, was riveting on Friday. In signature underpants, T-shirt and boots, on a large circular plinth for about 10 minutes he was at turns primal, robotic, arrested, fluid. Del Amo is a master of doing everything while appearing to do nothing. At the party, his poise was disturbed.

“A dance party audience wants blood,” one performer told me. Personally I find it as generous an audience as it is ruthless. But the highly charged atmosphere can be crushing. If the risk failed some, it was still worth taking. All performers put in tremendous effort: their talents are irrefutable. The training Justin Shoulder has done over the years is more evident as his costumes reduce in size, revealing great gestural precision. Yet he seemed paradoxically more removed, as though that same process has honed away the rawness crucial to the animism of his ‘Fantastic Creature’ avatars. The Sissy Cyclo mask, a beaded wig that covered the face, was a triumph.

Justin Shoulder, Day for Night

Justin Shoulder, Day for Night, photo Lucy Parakhina

The artistic intent, political statement, and finely crafted production of the best dance parties can be dismissed even by veterans. One told me how thrilling it was to see artists presented to a party audience “for the first time.” Yet the participatory, hybrid and multidisciplinary forms so buzzy in the artworld have been mainstays of queer parties for decades. It was both brave and logical for Performance Space to curate this event.

The 6pm start time didn’t perturb. By 8pm the joint was jumping. The energy began to dissipate with Shaun J Wright’s long set, his songs much lighter than Stereogamous’ funky first set. I wondered if the speakers could have been arranged differently—the narrow confine of good acoustics limited the Bay on Saturday night.

Apart from this, Day for Night was impressively slick. Everything had been thought through. Refinement has its costs. The performances were almost entirely shorter works on repeat, diminishing the magical ingredient of chance. The ecstatic and abject were absent, sexual expression discreet. Billing the event as the first collaboration in 13 years between Mardi Gras and Performance Space invoked a history that began with underground culture. Yet the famous dissoluteness of some cLUB bENT and Taboo Parlour nights at the old Performance Space in the 1990s was never going to happen, and the audience was never going to relinquish comparisons. The artists here were almost all formally trained. Thus queer is more theory than act; we are reading the secondary text.

These events are very difficult to produce, partly because of the number of artists, and partly because they are queer. Yes, funding from government bodies is not forthcoming, and Mardi Gras only contributes free advertising. Herein lies perhaps the most relevant liminal space of all. Several generations into Sydney queer performance, with substantial rights gained, we have assimilated enough for a distinct identity to be contestable, or disregarded. How does queer performance remain dynamic and challenging in this context? Day for Night has great potential. Politics aside, the boundaries of durational performance itself could be pushed further.

Performance Space, Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras and Carriageworks: Day for Night, curators Jeff Khan, Emma Price, Carriageworks, Sydney, 13-15 Feb

RealTime issue #120 April-May 2014 pg. 26

© Fiona McGregor; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

22 April 2014
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