Bluebottle’s good genies

Keith Gallasch: Interview, Bluebottle – Andrew Livingston & Ben Cobham

Andrew Livingston, Ben Cobham, courtesy Bluebottle

Andrew Livingston, Ben Cobham, courtesy Bluebottle

Melbourne’s Bluebottle is a company that has wrought lighting wonders for artists and civic and commercial enterprises for whom it has transformed theatre and other spaces (museums, galleries, parks, a zoo, 2013 New Year’s Eve celebrations in Melbourne) as well as creating portable buildings for artistic purposes.

The latter include ANAM Quartetthaus, for string quartets in the 2011 Melbourne Festival, and the Hub for the 2013 festival (part of a three-year contract), a pop-up venue housing much of the live music program, DJs and bars, with room for 300-500 people. In Sydney recently, their work was seen in Byron Perry’s Double Think and Back to Back’s Super Discount.

There’s a characteristic luminescence to Bluebottle’s lighting—colours rendered curiously intense or oddly foreign, colour planes that float, boundaries that become indiscernable and darkness that evokes the abyss. Above all, Bluebottle’s lighting often creates much of the overall design for a work, generating spaces. In Helen Herbertson and Ben Cobham’s Sunstruck (2008) the audience is seated in a circle around which tracks a huge light enveloping the performance area.

I’ve seen a lot of Bluebottle’s work over the years, but first came Ben Cobham at Antistatic Dance Festival in 1999, squatting on the floor with a slide projector between the audience and dancer Helen Herbertson on the old Performance Space stage. As Cobham ‘simply’ manipulated objects in front of the projector the three-dimensionality of Herbertson’s world was flattened, her presence made ghostly and intermittently glimpsed. Out of this work, Strike 1, came Delirium, the beginning of a long collaboration with Herbertson, (see the realtimedance entry on the choreographer at realtimearts.net), with their works acknowledged as co-creations.

Just over a decade later I saw Jenny Kemp’s wonderful Madeleine (RT99); this time much of the power of Bluebottle’s design was felt on the horizontal plane, as if the characters were suspended in the mythical space of its mentally distressed heroine’s making. In talking about that design, Cobham reminds me that Herbertson has been a collaborator and performer in Kemp’s work prior to Madeleine: “from a design sense Jenny’s work has often been quite complex, with trains and gardens and a sort of surreal realism. To a degree with Madeleine, Herbertson and I worked with Jenny to simplify the form, to let the writing come out more.”

Bluebottle’s recent work has included Tim Darbyshire’s perceptually challenging More or Less Concrete at Dance Massive earlier this year (RT114), with hauntingly low lighting by Ben Shaw who, although having left the company to pursue his own career, is working on Paul Kelly’s Conversations with Ghosts for Bluebottle. Blackout magic was central to Tamara Saulwick’s Pin Drop (RT111; 2010) and extreme diffusion of light helped make Back to Back’s Food Court (RT92) one of the most disturbing shows I’ve seen in recent years. Livingston says, “You forget when you’ve seen it a few times but I was pretty unnerved by it at the first script read.”

Sharing the light

Bluebottle has also had a long association with dance, including one of my favourites, Lucy Guerin’s Structure and Sadness (2006; RT76). I wonder how important a sense of collaboration is for the pair as opposed to simply providing a service. Livingston recalls how much they liked working on Structure and Sadness: “We were discussing it the other day. We haven’t got to do as many of those long-form collaborations lately. Ultimately, collaboration is everything really.” Cobham adds, “It’s probably our best asset and our biggest problem. Over time our practice has become very specific, like all things this works for some and not others.” Livingston adds, “But it’s reflective of how we work here as well. Bluebottle is actually a big, collaborative group—not a collective as such but it is certainly a very collaboratively based process.”

I ask how Livingston and Cobham came to work together and why their work moved beyond theatre. Cobham recalls, “Andy and I met at St Martin’s Youth Arts Centre. I’d finished university; Andy had finished high school. The day I started he was the first person to walk in the door. We did Jack and the Beanstalk together. That was our first gig. Andy was the beanstalk operator and I did follow-spot. So over time we started doing lighting designs together, which people thought was a bit weird but we felt we were getting better results as a pair so we just carried on, doing shows at Anthill, Danceworks and St Martins Youth Arts Centre.”

The pair’s entry into commercial work came when Cobham’s brother Geoff (the renowned Adelaide-based lighting designer) “started getting some museum work and we supported him with the installation. Architectural firms would come to see our shows and they’d say, we’d love you to come and work on a project with us. So five or six years after we met, we started to get offers: Melbourne Museum was one in 1999 followed by the South Australian Museum. It was all very organic.”

I note that Bluebottle lays claim to “innovation in light and form” on its website. I wonder how much research and risk is involved in their work. Cobham responds, “I think we’ve sort of weirdly learned organically. When we were younger we were around a lot of people who were big risk takers—people like Helen Herbertson and Simon Barley, people who really worked very much outside the box and we really loved that. We were always there for them going: ‘Yeah, come on, let’s do that!’ I think that probably helped set the tone for us.” Livingston agrees, “It didn’t seem unusual to take a risk. Where we were working, it was expected that some things would work and others wouldn’t. You’d have a go.”

The distinctiveness of Bluebottle’s lighting suggests great technical proficiency, leaving me wondering how they achieve their peculiar brand of magic. Surprisingly, Livingston declares, “neither of us is very super-technical. There are certainly a lot of people around who are much more au fait with high-end computer technologies. The idea is always the place to start and then work backwards on how to realise that rather than finding the technology and then forcing it into an idea. The research is driven by wanting to get the idea out into the world or onto the stage. We keep asking questions until we work out how to make an idea real.”

Cobham makes a significant point about communication in their work: “One of the big things we’ve discovered is you think you’re doing lighting, set design or working in theatre, but at the end of the day, a lot of it is actually about communication. To some degree just trying to make a lot of different people understand a common thing. It’s funny—we all think we know what the colour red is but we don’t really know that we see it the same way. A lot of what we do is about testing and demonstrating, which invites everybody to look and understand as they see it.”

Lab Bluebottle

I’ve always assumed that Bluebottle must have had a laboratory space in which to trial their innovative lighting ideas before moving into the theatre. “We do now,” says Andy, “Just in the past 12 months. Our building here in North Melbourne is a kind of warehouse/office. We just realised we didn’t really have a space, so we made one. For the first time we have a proper dark space we can black out, where we can do technical development. This was made possible with assistance from a Sidney Myer Creative Fellowship that Ben was awarded.”

Significantly, Bluebottle is making this space available to artists when it’s not in use. Ben explains, “We want to encourage other people to experiment technically. We lease it for not very much if they’ve got a good, honest cause. We don’t let people use it for rehearsals unless they’ve got something technical they’re trying to sort out. We allow them to use any equipment we have here—they’re odds and sods but they’re unusual odds and sods. The idea is that hopefully they inspire us and we give them a little bit of our time if they want it and, if they don’t, we just stay out of their way. Secretly we hope that the concept of the lab is something that perhaps some of the bigger companies will take on and set up their own labs in their own buildings.”

I’m curious that given their art is realised by and large in collaboration, whether Livingston and Cobham have ambitions to create their own stand-alone works? Cobham says, “There are a few little things that Andrew and I are cooking up. When we do get to talk it’s usually in the driveway late at night. We are talking about it which means it is going to happen eventually.” Whatever the venture, Cobham and Livingston will doubtless continue to exercise their wizardry collaboratively with adventurous artists and amaze us all.

See www.bb3.net.au for numerous images of Bluebottle’s work.

RealTime issue #117 Oct-Nov 2013 pg. 39

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

14 October 2013