performance space: then, now, next + sex

keith gallasch: interview, bec dean, jeff khan

Christian Thompson, Flowering Spear – Donkere jongen die speer rechtop houdt from the Lost Together series, 2009

Christian Thompson, Flowering Spear – Donkere jongen die speer rechtop houdt from the Lost Together series, 2009

WHEN I WAS TWELVE, IN THE LATE 1950S, I DISCOVERED A BOOK OF ESSAYS AND CARTOONS BY THE AMERICAN HUMOURIST JAMES THURBER. I WAS REALLY TAKEN BY A CARTOON IN WHICH A WOMAN LANGUIDLY DECLARES TO A MAN, “IF THERE WAS ANOTHER SEX YOU WOULDN’T HAVE A CHANCE.” IN A FIVE-WEEK SEASON TITLED SEXES, RUNNING FROM LATE OCTOBER TO EARLY DECEMBER, PERFORMANCE SPACE WILL PONDER THE COMPLEXITIES OF GENDER VARIETY IN THE 21ST CENTURY THAT GO FAR BEYOND THE OLD MALE/FEMALE DIVIDE.

Performance Space is now led by a vigorous male/female duo, co-artistic directors Jeff Khan and Bec Dean. Both come from Perth where they each worked for a time at PICA (and occasionally wrote for RealTime). Khan became director of Melbourne’s Next Wave Festivals 2008 and 2010 and Dean moved to Performance Space as a producer after a stint at the Australian Centre for Photography.

Khan’s Next Wave broke new ground with an impressive range of live art and less categorisable works and Dean has curated significant exhibitions including Night Works (2010). Their expansive vision of what constitutes art means that Khan and Dean are not strictly confined to the roles, respectively, of programming performance and visual arts. As Performance Space always has, they see themselves as responsive to artists’ changing visions and needs, embracing both continuity and change.

As a team they’re engaging, clearly excited about their immediate program and what they envision for the future, turn-taking democratically in their responses to my questions and occasionally completing each other’s sentences with an ease that suggests a comfortably shared vision. There’s a lot of laughter. And there’s no doubting that the Performance Space community is more than pleased with their joint appointment.

then & now

On the matter of continuity, Dean says, “New possibilities for performance practice are fundamental to Performance Space. We’re really conscious of being an artist-led organisation and Performance Space always has been. Not that we’re headed by artists but we’re looking at practice and where that takes us. So while we’re currently diversifying with venues and activities we’re also looking at what artists are doing and where they’re wanting to site work and bring audiences to them.” Khan reports that, “Our joint program with the MCA, Local Positioning System, our Walks program (RT108) ad the current Halls for Hire program have achieved good audiences and good feedback, which made us think about working more off-site [from Carriageworks] and hosting more site-specific works.”

Dean says of Halls for Hire that “half the works have to be in the places they’re sited in: the CWA bake-off, Mass Action, 137 Cakes in 90 Hours, had to be at the CWA [Country Womens Association] in Potts Point; and The Making of a Flag: Give us Back our Unions at Sydney Trades Hall. We want to get out there and take audiences there and respond to artists. We are based at Carriageworks, but we don’t have to be there all the time; we can look for other possibilities. We think of ourselves as an agency.” Kahn points to “a lack of infrastructure for artists working in socially engaged and live art ways. It is important that they get logistical support, a critical framework and dialogue. It’s an exciting development for us.”

sexes: hypercritical and super fun

Liam Benson, Glitterface, 2010

Liam Benson, Glitterface, 2010

Dean and Khan tell me the forthcoming program, SEXES, at Performance Space was instigated by visual artist and activist Deborah Kelly, who had been prompted by a dream in which she experienced “a wonderful show but asked why she wasn’t exhibited in it, only to realise she’d curated it.” Kelly’s invitation to Dean and Kahn to co-curate came well before the pair became co-artistic directors. Subsequently they took up the proposal for a Performance Space season. The long gestation has presumably enhanced a program rich in ideas, provocative artists, installations, performances and events.

While SEXES was originally conceived in terms of the visual arts, Dean explains that the curatorial vision was that it not be limited to an exhibition model: “It could include performance, more diverse experiences and artists we might not have been able to use in a museum context. So it grew from there.” Khan adds, “It was an opportunity to be more risky in our progamming choices and a bit more fluid about the boundaries between artforms.”

performing sexes

Khan describes SEXES as “essentially an exhibition with 17 contemporary artists and a sort of live art program layered over it so that periodically the exhibition spaces will be animated by live performances that audiences might encounter. And there are two full-length shows in the theatres: Whelping Box which is a collaboration between Branch Nebula’s Lee Wilson and Matthew Prest, and Something in the Way She Moves, the culmination of Julie-Anne Long’s long-term The Invisibility Project (see interview, p32). The performance episodes and vignettes from that project are rolled up into a full-length show.

Kahn says of the Whelping Box, a work commissioned by Performance Space, that “it’s an intense physical theatre work about masculine rituals of physical training and competitiveness performed in a pit-like space in which the audience sits with the performers moving through and behind. Its super off-beat humour doesn’t let you off the hook.” While Whelping Box explores gender in a hypertheatrical manner, Long’s The Invisibility Project deals with the invisibility of middle-aged women “with a subtle performative treatment of the mundane and the everyday.” Performance Space is particularly pleased to be presenting this work given its support for it at various stages of its development.

Khan is excited about “the super-expanded Club House program, which includes the Dirty Movies by Artists Night, curated by Lex Lindsay, former director of the Queer Film Festival,” to which Dean adds: ’academic’ sessions with Anne Marsh and Ed Scheer talking about gender currents in contemporary art practice and CoUNTesses (Elvis Richardson; Women count in the artworld, http://countesses.blogspot.com.au), speaking about statistical representation of genders in public art spaces—annotated statistics: things get very compelling when you put them in pie charts [Laughs].”

Khan eagerly appends to the growing list of events “a night of queer core punk called Punk is Fuck with local band Glory Hole curating.” Dean admits knowing nothing about queer core punk, to which Khan retorts, “You’re learning.” A lot of us will.

bodies in question

Paul Knight, from the series Chamber Music 2009-2012

Paul Knight, from the series Chamber Music 2009-2012

Talk turns to some of the artists in the exhibition. Trevor Fry, formerly of the Wild Boys (Dean recalls his drag work in the early 2000s), has “shifted to making ceramics, quite grotesque works—deity figures small and large, multi-phallused and surrounded by filth. It’s such extraordinary work you just want to bring it immediately from the kiln into public space.”

Eric Bridgman, famed for his performative portraits in which he appears in a range of roles, is, says Khan, presenting “a new body of work extending his drawing practice which has not been much seen. He recently did a residency in London focusing on it. The work is a series of large, free-standing drawn figures based on male porn stars and sporting heroes, starting with Rugby League players—Eric’s a Queensland boy. It addresses his long-standing interest in the sexual politics of sport and looking at the similarities in body culture and the exploitation of the masculine body as an object of desire in the physical performance of masculinity. Porn and sport are very similar! Bridgman’s work will be at the more provocative end of the SEXES spectrum.”

The Kingpins “will remount a recent video work not yet seen in Sydney called Spiritus Mundi (Spirit of the World), working with a lot of images of Dubai as an icon of contemporary capitalism. They perform as spirits of the world, as capitalist archetypes fucking the world.”

sexes in the foyer

Cigdem Aydemir, Extremist Activity (ride), 2011, performance in Sydney

Cigdem Aydemir, Extremist Activity (ride), 2011, performance in Sydney

Dean reports that “Marley Dawson who works with mechanical constructs and machines will be reactivating the massive drive shaft in the Carriageworks foyer that used to run all the engines in the space. We’re in negotiation with the Heritage Commission to do it. Dawson is looking at gendered objects and spaces. Cigdem Aydemir is working on a similar scale running the length of the drive shaft. She’s working on extending the idea of the burqah as a cover. She covers objects and vast spaces with black cloth, here the long shaft with just a small visor cut out through which to see. One shaft, Dawson’s, will be visible, the other, Cigdem’s, covered, peeking out of the tunnel, the narrow space between Tracks 19 and 20.”

Khan is excited at the prospect of audiences being “welcomed to SEXES with a giant rotating shaft and a burqah-clad passageway—two large, highly performative sculptural interventions.”

Given the subject matter of SEXES it was important for the curators, says Khan, “not to take the easy path and have just a photomedia show, but to take on a more interdisciplinary approach, one departing from predominantly binarised versions of gender that dominate discussion in Australian art. Exhibitions of this kind have focused on either feminism or on masculinity or being queer. We wanted to do more, make a show about multiple positions jostling with each other as indicated in the title, SEXES.”

queering up

Dean reports, “We also had a fantastic response to the reactivated Stephen Cummins Queer Residency Bequest this year. Some of the artists will be part of SEXES. The bequest was set up to provide a prize for queer practice, but one of things we want to develop among Performance Space’s key areas of artistic focus is queer programming. The response showed us just how much work is out there and so much desire for the work to be transferred from the club scene into different contexts which we can facilitate and provide, otherwise the work will not be seen by a wide range of people.” Khan concurs, “Sydney has an incredible queer scene with work for parties and cabaret running parallel to the art scene. We want to connect with that scene and give artists tools to really refine their practice in a rigorous way, for which we’ve provided mentors like Julie-Anne Long, Chris Ryan and Deborah Pollard working on the inaugural round of residencies, mentoring individuals. Through it we got to meet Karli Munn who will curate Dirty Movies by Artists Night and Sarah Coconis, our first Cummins Bequest resident is shaping some of her material for the live art program of SEXES.”

various othernesses

Among the commissioned works, including those of Trevor Fry, is Parachutes for Ladies’ Like a Prayer which Dean describes as a sung work “built from notions, from a range of people, of what love will be like in the future. It will be presented operatically on opening night and then as sound interventions in the course of the exhibition.” The series of speakers, scattered across the exhibition space, will be sculptural.

While the ever incisively witty and subversive Christian Thompson will be showing his new work made in London around Sydney, the SEXES curators “are looking back to work made a few years ago which repositions gendered Indigenous persons in a European context using tableaux.” Tracey Moffatt and Gary Hillberg’s widely shown Other is a richly sardonic assemblage of film clips, familiar and rare, “addressing sexual desire in terms of otherness,” says Dean; “a tour de force: hypercritical and super fun,” quips Khan. Much laughter as we agree it would be a good publicity hook for SEXES.

Dean and Khan suddenly recall a key event in SEXES they’d forgotten to mention, a rare appearance by Pauline Pantsdown who will host Incite, a variation on the SBS Insight program, in which the audience—drag artists, special guests, the audience—all in drag (no admission otherwise), will discuss the performance of gender.

SEXES will doubtless remind us how far we’ve progressed from a time in which biology had the last word and doubtless how far into the future gender varieties and complexities will continue to yield angst, pleasure and art.

Performance Space, SEXES, curators Bec Dean, Deborah Kelly, Jeff Khan; Carriageworks, Oct 25-Dec 2; for program details, www.performancespace.com.au

RealTime issue #111 Oct-Nov 2012 pg. 54-55

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

9 October 2012
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