At play with the one-on-one

Keith Gallasch: Proximity festival preview

Sarah Elson and audience member, Incendia Lascivio

Sarah Elson and audience member, Incendia Lascivio

Sarah Elson and audience member, Incendia Lascivio

One-on-one performances have become a key component of the Live Art phenomenon, greeted enthusiastically by audiences eager not to be performed to but to become part of the making of art. The inaugural Proximity Festival in 2012 at Perth’s Blue Room Theatre proved so successful that it is being mounted again this year, inhabiting the known and unknown spaces of PICA in a program curated by Sarah Rowbottam and James Berlyn with Kelli Mccluskey as provocateur.

The curators term the showings “micro-performances,” each running at about 15 minutes. There have been longer, more elaborate one-on-ones performed around the world—perhaps more demanding than short works. But remember, being alone with a stranger in a small space for even a few minutes can be daunting as the phenomenology of presence comes into sudden and sometimes extreme play.

In an email exchange with Rowbottam, RealTime wondered if the appeal of one-on-one was an antidote to the virtual nature of online encounters that so dominate our lives today? One-on-one performance offers surprise, risk and sometimes the engagement of the senses beyond seeing and hearing outside the safe parameters of conventional theatre spaces.

Rowbottam writes, “There is definitely a growing desire for performances that are experiential and activate a live exchange between an artist and audience in the moment. It could be seen as an antidote to our current obsession with negotiating our personal lives electronically…but I feel it can be stripped back to basic human nature—a desire for a sense of intrigue.” She thinks the appeal is to be found in “the play between fiction and reality, honesty and artifice—the risk of being alone in a space with another human being and the unpredictability of what might happen…If you are open and willing, the experience can be quite potent.”

Another virtue of one-on-ones is their sheer diversity, says Rowbottam: “One moment you could be experimenting with plants in a mobile field laboratory with Cat Jones and the next you could be in PICA’s administration office having a consultation with Loren Kronemyer about what you would like to do with your remains.”

A fascinating pre-production dimension to Proximity Festival is the seemingly labour-intensive approach to preparing the artists for their performances. Rowbottam explains that “a key focus is artist development as well as the development and presentation of new work. We curate a cross-section of emerging to established artists from a diverse range of disciplines so there is a great opportunity for artists to learn from each other and experiment with new modes of practice in the creation of intimate participatory exchanges. Performing 96 times to 96 audience members is an exciting, but challenging provocation. Artists need to remain open to a plethora of audience reactions and be prepared to shift and change within the performance parameters they have set. The element of spontaneity keeps things fresh and no performance is ever the same.”

A two-week laboratory prior to the performance season also gives artists the time “to critically explore their work in a supported environment as well as develop their own practice.” Rowbottam writes, “Artist labs are rare in WA, and are so important in creating a sense of collegiality within the artistic community.”

Mindful of tales of one-on-one performances going wrong, does Proximity have a set of protocols for both performers and audiences? Rowbottam responds, “I think there is an inherent fear that as an audience member you will be made to do something you don’t want to do. Although Proximity Festival works are participatory and experiential, they are always by invitation. We warn audience members about potential situations that could be confronting—complete darkness, physical touch, nudity, handling open flames, using fake weaponry etc. It’s a tricky balance between being up-front and not giving everything away.”

Audiences are certainly in for some unusual experiences and subjects rarely approached in the theatre: “In Janet Pettigrew’s work Prior Arrangement audiences can experience a living exploration of their body’s final hours, and in Janet Carter’s Meditation on breath, they are invited to sit face-to-face with the artist and undertake a guided meditation. There needs to be an element of mutual trust and willingness from both audience and performer to partake in the encounter, otherwise it can become muddy.”

Proximity artists are given a set of curatorial guidelines which require having protocols in place for possible audience. Rowbottam is emphatic: “If someone feels at risk or distressed they can stop the performance at any time—this goes for both artist and audience. One of our Symposium panel sessions is centred on what the boundaries of intimacy between audience and performer are, how intimacy is created and how we know when we’ve gone too far. It should make for an interesting discussion.” The Symposium also asks, “how do you program one-on-ones and where is their place in the touring circuit?”

There are also degrees of site-specificity to the 2013 Proximity Festival: “The entire PICA space is dedicated to the program of 12 works, enabling us to explore the entire building as one giant labyrinth. There are numerous hidden or unused spaces in the building which the public don’t usually have entry to or even know exist. Accessing these as performance sites is a real privilege. Holding the event in between PICA exhibitions has “enabled artists to work in-situ, which is a huge benefit for artists like Moya Thomas and Humphrey Bower who are making site-specific and site-responsive works.”

The variety in Proximity’s programming is evident in a brief sampling of the works. Cat Jones and Melissa Hunt’s bizzarely titled The Plantarum: Empathic Limb Clinic is described as “a conversation between the human mind and flora…A sensory experience for those not afraid to experiment with plants. Humphrey Bower’s Asterion is “a blindfolded experience in one of PICA’s most hidden spaces…For those who aren’t afraid of being in complete darkness.” Rachel Arianne Ogle’s Where You End & I Begin, “an intimate dance performance,” asks you to “join the artist in a game of perception, perspective and shifting dynamics. For those who don’t mind being watched or watching another.” In the “instructional performance” Incendia Lascivio by Sarah Elson, you’re invited to “harness the elemental power of fire to rework micro-sculptures of iconic West Australian flora” and in Leon Hendroff and performer Emma Craig’s String Duet, “sit face to face with a puppeteer and bring to life the marionette between you.”

Whether you select from the three programs on offer or bravely undertake a marathon of all 12 performances in the Proximity Festival, you are bound to have encounters that will doubtless tell you something about yourself as well as your relationship with art.

Proximity Festival, co-curator James Berlyn, co-curator, producer Sarah Rowbottam, artists Elise Reitze, Cat Jones, Humphrey Bower, Loren Kronemyer, Rachel Arianne Ogle, Ian Sinclair, Janet Pettigrew, Leon Hendroff, Emma Craig, Sarah Elson, Moya Thomas, Janet Carter, Daniel Nevin; PICA, Perth 23 Oct-2 Nov; http://proximityfestival.com

RealTime issue #117 Oct-Nov 2013 pg. 29

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

14 October 2013