art as acupuncture for the city

judith abell: junction arts festival, launceston

WeTube LIVE, Stompin’ Youth, Junction Arts Festival 2010

WeTube LIVE, Stompin’ Youth, Junction Arts Festival 2010

WeTube LIVE, Stompin’ Youth, Junction Arts Festival 2010

I’M STANDING IN THE MIDDLE OF AN ANALOGUE VERSION OF A DIGITAL EXPERIENCE. TO MY LEFT, RIGHT, FRONT AND BEHIND PERFORMERS DANCE, YELL, SCREAM, PLAY GUITAR, TALK AND GESTICULATE WILDLY. EACH IS WORKING WITHIN ONE OF A HUNDRED NOTIONAL STAGES MARKED OUT BY WHITE SQUARES ON THE FLOOR. A GIANT ‘DIGITAL’ CLOCK CLICKS OVER AT THE REAR OF THE HALL. I AM FREE TO WALK THROUGH THIS THREE-DIMENSIONAL RECREATION OF YOUTUBE AND IT IS DELICIOUSLY CHAOTIC.

WeTubeLIVE is part of the Junction Festival held as an adjunct to the Regional Arts conference of the same name, drawing over 500 delegates from all around Australia to meet and discuss a wide range of issues relating to arts practice. Launceston is a small centre in the North of Tasmania and rarely hosts events that register themselves all over the city with installations, performances, temporary live venues, projects and roving interactive performers, plus an injection of enthusiastic, creative strangers. I regularly heard locals ask with amazement, “Am I really in Launceston?”

WeTubeLIVE is a festival highlight. Devised and directed by Ben Speth with Stompin Youth, the work is simple but powerful. Each of the performers was asked to select a favourite YouTube clip and reenact or reinterpret it in any way they wished within their ‘screen,’ their square. All of the performers are teenagers, making the subject material incredibly pertinent. While a core of the group simply dance energetically on the spot in a range of styles from classical to street, the remainder do anything from play guitar in a bear suit to climbing inside a quilt cover and performing a soliloquy. And there is a lot of screaming, angst-ridden noise and strong gesticulation peppering the grid.

When the audience is set free, WeTube is already ‘playing’ and we walk among the players. Within a minute, the audience fills the grid and it becomes difficult to tell the difference between the two groups. Refresh points happen every 10 minutes, with all of the players stopping with eyes closed, leaving their squares to chat or curl on the floor. It’s really interesting to see how the audience behaves, chatting casually within the chaos, then falling silent as the players stop. As time wanders on, the audience also loses and refreshes its attention span, the players start to exhaust themselves and a strong aroma of teenage sweat builds within the grid. At the end of an hour, as we leave, WeTube continues.

This is a work of its time. All of the detail is perfect. The selection of YouTube clips by the players, their personal sound systems and the distinct performance spaces become a reflection of the cult of the individual and the seam of vanity now epitomised by Facebook. And yet, underneath it all, WeTube reveals a desire to build communities in whatever way possible, through numbers of friends, conversations within comment threads or just through laughing at the same clip. As in YouTube, the interface and the outcome are democratic. Not only are there no lead players, WeTube is open to anyone and there is little difference between audience and performers—making the ‘we’ appended to ‘Tube’ in the title more meaningful.

Carcophany is another show that connects with our moment in time while linking to an aspect of local Launceston culture. It has three variations over two days, but the performance I catch is in the ground level of a multi-storey carpark after dark. The show is built around sound emerging from 12 cars parked around the edges of the concrete space like a monstrous stereo. Each car forms one channel in the composition and is parked with its rear to the audience with doors, boots and hatches open so that the sound washes out across hard surfaces. The guitar-based soundscape that emerges and builds is an immersive experience that I would liken to sitting front and centre at a Dirty Three concert (which is a pretty lovely thing to do).

Composed by Mathew Timmis, Carcophony is intended to explore a global obsession with cars, but also keys into the Launceston blockie culture. Cars, with stereos booming, matching each other around the one-way circuit of the CBD, or doing blockies, is a well-known Launceston phenomenon. So it was quite fabulous that an artist grabbed that culture and transformed it into a symphony.

Connecting with these works ‘of their time’, Hobart-based IHOS Opera’s Borders picks up on contemporary fears and political concerns. In a deliberately tight, claustrophobic space, in traverse arrangement, the audience is introduced to a short, but visceral work about being on a journey involving considerable uncertainty, the pain of waiting and the anxiety of limbo. The players are a young man caught on this purgatorial journey, an operatic and decidedly bureaucratic angel and a seemingly benevolent panda. The young man is a hostage to his situation, which might be the razor wire enclosure of a refugee processing centre or the concrete walls of a hostage cell. The angel, depicted on large screens behind each half of the audience, sings the rules to him as he begins to lose the plot, while the panda cautions patience, speaking in English and Mandarin. Having been ordered into randomly numbered seats, facing each other within a smoke filled room, we are trapped with this man, waiting our turn to lose faith. At one point a wind machine blows loose plastic bags through the space; at another we are all ‘de-contaminated,’ recalling pre-landing aeroplane cabin spray. It is an intense and slightly esoteric experience, but if the aim is to communicate the texture of fear known to refugees and hostages, then it is successful. I leave feeling windblown, stomach churning.

Inclining much more to delight than fear, Toronto-based Mammalian Diving Reflex (MDR) present a work that has been staged across the world. Haircuts by Children is exactly that, a performance within a local salon—in this case Studio Hair and Beauty—where local children become hairdressers. The work is part of Social Acupuncture, explained at the conference by producer Natalie de Vito as performance that makes small incisions into the urban fabric that are a little uncomfortable, but inevitably lead to people feeling better. While initially dubious about the participation rate in Launceston, I discover a delightful chaos of mini hairdressers in the salon. Each child has been trained over a number of weeks by local hairdressers in order to prepare them for their part. There is a lot of excitement and giggly chatter, but I see that some precision work is happening as a young boy carefully sprays colour onto a woman’s hair, his young assistant holding a shield protecting her eyes. Tricky shaved patterns, spray dots and many tiny pigtails emerge in the city as a result.

Also dishing out delight was PANE staged in Retrovision’s shop window. In this show by MADE, devised by Glen Murray and Nicole Robson, seven women pitched as 50s housewives, dance in white gloves in front of an overscaled photographic backdrop of a 1950s kitchen and loungeroom. MADE is a group of ‘veteran’ dancers who were probably all born a few years shy of this decade, so the staging has an amusing underlying irony. Their slow mime-style dance with expressive, cheeky faces and touches of irreverent humour is a hit with the gathered audience, particularly a vibrant three year-old who dances throughout the performance, bows as we applaud and then joins the dancers in the window space. As we all stand around on the street, rugged up in winter clothes in the growing dark, gazing into the windows of an electrical store, there is a wistful connection with the days when this was the only way most could watch television and those kitchen canisters in your kitchen weren’t yet retro.

I’ve only explored five of Junction’s shows here, but I hope I’ve communicated the rich experience there for the taking in Launceston over five days in August. Works that really hit the mark for me were those that tended to break or stretch the rules and to reach out a hand, figuratively or otherwise, to the audience. I’d forgotten how much fun and how energizing it is to be in a city awash with events, the scale of Launceston making it possible to dash between conference and festival without driving or running a marathon.

Junction Arts Festival, part of the Regional Arts National Australia Conference, Launceston, Aug 26-29, www.junction2010.com.au

RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg. 8

© Judith Abell; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

12 October 2010