Mary Lou Pavolvich, Execution Bed (2001)

Mary Lou Pavolvich, Execution Bed (2001)

In Post, RealTime 45, Tina Kaufman wrote alerting us to the implications of the Office of Film and Literature Classification discussion paper aimed at producing a single classificatory system covering computer games and film and television. The paper introduces some odd criteria for censorship including: sexual acts where one or other of the participants look like they’re under 18 years of age (whatever happened to the age of consent?); imitability (no more heist movies, thank god); and restrictions on the depiction of the use of legal drugs in these media (as Arts Today’s Julie Rigg argued, art is not a health education tool, Radio National, Nov 28). Australia’s censorship laws have tightened up considerably in recent years with new media arts being most palpably impacted by legislation pertaining to web transmission (see Linda Carroli, “[R] is for Regulation: cleaning up the net universe”, RT35, p20). But there is nervousness everywhere: the producers of a new performance work in Sydney in recent weeks self-censored projections with sexual material when the extremity of a possible prosecution was brought to their attention. As censorship laws thicken fast and furiously, and as punishments grow more draconion and the laws more inflexible, which artists or companies or arts organisations will be the test cases? It’s a tough choice. Eds.

Dear Editors

On Thursday 18 October the Experimenta 2001: Waste exhibition opened in Melbourne as part of the Melbourne Festival. According to the catalogue, visitors could expect to encounter Sexy Flowers, an installation by Boston-based artist and academic Katrien Jacobs that invites viewers to recycle internet porn images by printing them out and folding them into flowers.

Just before the exhibition opened, Experimenta’s Board of Management intervened and decided that Sexy Flowers had to immediately be taken out of the show. Jacobs was advised of this in a most unfortunate and very unprofessional manner: she was sent an internal memo from Experimenta in which Artistic Director Lisa Logan asks Robyn Lucas (President) and Geoffrey Shiff (Chair and lawyer) if they might contact the artist to let her know why the piece has been censored. Geoffrey Shiff later explained that Sexy Flowers was removed from the exhibition for the following reason: “The work was not ‘censored’ at all. It was removed because it breached the law to publicly exhibit explicit pornography of this nature.”

Do censorship laws differentiate between the media in which content is encountered? Pornographic imagery sourced from the Net is different in terms of what might be encountered and how it is encountered from pornographic content regulated by the architecture of a CD-ROM enframed by the curatorial logic of an exhibition. That is, one pornographic image is not the same as the next. Any sensible law needs to register this mediation of difference.

Experimenta’s Board of Directors has assumed that it is endowed with the capacity to determine what constitutes ‘legitimate’ artwork for the public. Once artworks have been approved through a curatorial selection process, surely it is up to the public to decide what constitutes ‘offensive’ material, and not the cultural disposition of the Board?

To say that the artwork breached laws on the public exhibition of explicit pornography is not at all equivalent to saying that Sexy Flowers was not censored. The formulation of categories operates precisely to determine that which belongs in a category and that which does not. This, in itself, is a form of censorship.

The issue of whether or not the content of the work fell into the category of explicit pornography is open to debate, or at least it should be. Instead, Experimenta’s Board of Directors has closed down the possibility for debate that might arise out of encounters with Sexy Flowers.

Perhaps more than anything, this instance of censorship—for that is what has occurred—is representative, in my view, of the inability, the horror even, of cultural institutions of the establishment to negotiate what is, after all, a popular cultural form. Pornography is mainstream, and has been at least since it was made mechanically reproducible with the invention of the printing press, followed by photography.

Sexually explicit content can be viewed pretty much any night of the week on free to air commercial and public TV. Programs are preceded by a warning to viewers about content. Similarly, ‘pornographic’ content has featured fairly regularly in State art galleries across Australia. State galleries also advise viewers of what they are about to witness, should they choose to inquire further into a particular exhibit. Prior to its removal, the Sexy Flowers installation displayed a warning about content. Experimenta, in this instance of censorship, has deviated from what until now has been a mainstream, institutional norm.

If there’s one thing you might safely assume is part of Experimenta’s cultural mission statement, it would be to provide the public with artworks that experiment with the possibilities of various media and to provide the public with contexts to experiment with the work of artists. Indeed, Experimenta’s mission statement reads as follows:

“Experimenta reflects, celebrates and stimulates the dynamic convergence of multiple media across technologies and in various spaces of engagement, challenging and extending the aesthetic, formal and conceptual potential of art.”

By having a Board of Directors intervene in an exhibition just before it opened, censoring an artwork that had already been approved and legitimated though a process of curatorial selection, Waste and Experimenta have failed in that mission.

Finally, on a more speculative note, I would suggest that this instance of censorship articulates with the new control society that is in the process of consolidation following 11 September. This is a society in which conservative actors assume to be beyond challenge, critique and questioning. It is a society that assumes its own legitimacy in universal terms. It is a society of terrorism enacted by conservatives.

Ned Rossiter, Melbourne
See also: “Enculturating Net-Porn: Interview with Libidot”
Dear Editors

Thank you for the opportunity to respond to Ned Rossiter’s letter regarding Experimenta’s decision not to proceed with the exhibition of Sexy Flowers.

Importantly, the work received from the artist Katrien Jacobs prior to exhibition as part of the Waste program was not the work originally submitted and selected during Experimenta’s earlier Call for Entries.

The work received for exhibition comprised CD-ROM generated images of sexual activity generally regarded in the wider community as of ‘hard-core’ pornographic nature. This was not apparent until the work was installed immediately before the exhibition opened.

The Board of Experimenta sought advice that indicated it would be an offence for the organisation and the venue, the Victorian Arts Centre, to proceed with the exhibition of these images under State and Commonwealth laws. On this advice it was decided to withdraw the work from the exhibition. The capacity of a general audience in a free venue without age restriction to print and remove these images further compounded potential legal ramifications.

This decision was not made lightly, and no disrespect was intended toward the artist or her work. I appreciate the artist’s intention was to transform pornographic images by creating paper flowers, but Experimenta’s Board and staff must operate within the law. I trust there is room for artists to consider these issues for exhibiting organisations when situations like this arise.

Fabienne Nicholas on behalf of Experimenta

Dear Editors

In early September the ABC TV Arts Show asked me if they could make a segment for their Closeup section of the program. This was scheduled to be aired at 9.30 pm September 13.

The segment discussed several of my works and featured the work Execution Bed. I recreated Timothy McVeigh’s execution bed (life-size) and then encased the structure in tiny hand painted balls that resemble hundreds and thousands.

After the bombings in New York on September 11, a decision was made by ABC management not to air my segment as people were feeling pretty shell-shocked. I agreed with the initial decision but expected that the segment would be aired at some point in the following weeks.

My work raises several issues regarding the American cultural hegemony operating in the media here and the sanitisation of real violence and political issues on television. It also confronts issues of ‘good taste’ and the predominance of ‘tasteful’ art over art that has any difficult content that permeates the Australian art scene. I am talking now about the commercial gallery system and mainstream newspaper and television arts coverage that is so conservative here.

At other levels, the work functions as a memorial; it arises from grief. It’s anti-violence, anti-death penalty, it questions our desire to watch these images on television. At a psychological level we’re horrified by them, but the fascination with them seems to be about being glad it’s not us in that position.

I was told recently by the producer of the program that they would not run the segment at all as people might see my work to be ‘tasteless’ and feel ‘indignant’, given current world events. She felt that some ‘weird’ sort of zeitgeist was operating.

I’m concerned about the censorship of this program discussing my work. Not only because of the impact on my artistic practice but more importantly the precedent it sets for other artists and anyone currently attempting to express alternative opinions.

Artists have appeared on the Arts Show recently talking about the current war. The problem is that the artist’s work is always legitimised by the rhetoric of the ‘genius’—of the brushstroke or drawing mark. This is a centuries old aesthetic tradition. It’s easy and it’s safe. I’m talking now about realistic charcoal drawings or painterly paintings of war scenes. My work seeks to take this rhetoric away and present something more objective and subversive. Contemporary art is supposed to be difficult and subversive.

When a journalist from the Age made an enquiry to the ABC about the non-airing of the segment, she was told the reason the segment was not screened was because the ‘production values’ were too low.

The producer told the journalist she would write to me to explain. I was told all this by the journalist, not a word from the producer. A letter never arrived.

The production values for the segment are not low. I have shown the tape to several colleagues (all celebrated contemporary artists) and we think that the standard is the same as anything else appearing on that program and feel unanimously that this is plain censorship.

Mary Lou Pavlovic, Melbourne
Execution Bed will be on display in Fall Out at the VCA Gallery in Melbourne in December & at Conny Dietzschold Gallery,
Sydney, in January. Eds.

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 6

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

Ballett Frankfurt, Eidos:Telos

Ballett Frankfurt, Eidos:Telos

Ballett Frankfurt, Eidos:Telos

After Ballett Frankfurt’s production Eidos:Telos, the radio and popular press ran hysterical with moral outrage. They claimed it was ‘not classical ballet, too difficult, too noisy, its disturbing images not suitable for children, a cultural decline, too intellectual, wilful obscurantism’ etc. The Governor’s wife registered a protest of obscenity and many audience members walked out either because of the sound or use of ‘foul language’. In Paris in 1913, a similar reception was given to the first performance by The Ballets Russes of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Nearly 100 years later in Melbourne, even the mainstream critics have failed to communicate the extraordinary achievement of Ballett Frankfurt and choreographer William Forsythe. Eidos:Telos reconstructs ballet as a serious contemporary artform, registering the pulse of the present through the technologies of its craft.

To begin with, Eidos:Telos alerted our tired senses to feeling. My hair stood on end for the sheer tension of watching line upon line of dancers walk towards a taut wire stretched the width of the open stage, only to fall away, be repelled or finally pluck the chord into deep vibration. And I held my breath to see a woman, actress Dana Casperson, whose whispered concourse with the underworld of the spider leads her to unwind a length of golden cellophane—that was glorious gown, violent crackling sound, ball of sun wrapped against the light. From the back of the throat she growls “I’m lucky, I’m lucky, I’m lucky”, only to abandon the paper and herself to a chaotic unravelling. In fury, she enacts the feminine myths of rape, madness and recovery.

What kind of vision are we present at here? In Frankfurt for a day in March, I found myself in the studio of the Frankfurt Opera watching Forsythe in rehearsal with his dancers. He was realigning sections of a larger work that I discovered later was Eidos:Telos, with different pairs, trios or larger groups. Each group worked on the vocabulary of the phrase before shaping it on the floor. There was a mood of dispersed concentration, with him watching, shifting, making contact, touching, repeating, adding, refining the details of their movement. Even those not dancing were calm and focused, exchanging notes, joining in with quiet laughter. Like all dancers there was a functional aspect to their preparation. Certain choreographic principles emerged—asymmetry, independent articulation of body parts, incomplete rotations, fall and catch—and always the twists through the torso, folds guided by a hand gesture leading to a hip rotation and back out through an awkward bend in the leg. This quality of torque, what Hillel Schwartz calls the “new kinaesthetic of the twentieth century” (J Cracy and S Kwinter eds, Zone 6: Incorporations) operates as both an ideal for new kinaesthetic experiences and a critique of those ideals. Extended torque, in a Forsythe ballet, can flow on any plane and in 2 or more directions simultaneously like the double helix. I see his dancers in Melbourne as exceptional performers of the dynamic shape of DNA. In rehearsal, he asks them to find a way that is not ‘overprepared’—hands like wings, fingers curling and stretching like a baby’s grasping at air—the primary extensions of the body emerge into the icosahedron of the kinesphere. The floor patterns are off-centre, diagonal, forward movement always being drawn back, one dancer always out of step, off to one side. I write in my diary that the quality of his dancers and the rehearsal is patient attention, in the dance I see an eccentricity kept in check by precision.

Eidos:Telos is a work in 3 parts; the first section, Self Meant to Govern, is dominated by time—clocks all over the stage and the formality of well-tempered gesture. The rigours of ballet training exemplify the impossible will of the human being to master the self against the forces of destruction, the future. A violinist, Maxim Franke, goads the dancers with intense vibrato and lots of scratching. In one trio, the male dancer tries to keep up with the spinning of the 2 women, his arms flicker above his head like an arrow aquiver. The strings are nearly breaking, the woman stops him from playing. The relief is painful. Part II with the actress and a chorus of long skirts is concerto form: multi-focal, deeply layered, climactic and never-ending. Part III reprises Part I but enters with 3 trombones. Throughout, the sound score of Tom Willems has been relentless, its saturation of space suspends the apprehension of sensibility. Christian Metz writes of the autonomous realm of “aural objects” (Yale French Studies, 1980) and I have this experience with this music; it is not before or after or illustration of the dancing, it is, at first listening, a phenomenology. So, as the trombones repeat their muted blasts, I hear guns exploding, planes crashing from the sky, bodies thundering to the ground, the wind crying. It is the end of time and it is now. The dancers fold around each other, seemingly smaller here than before but still more of them.

Why is it that reviewers tried to contain this event within the defensive parameters of known territory? Is territory what we struggle over? Forsythe is not making art from within the confines of 19th century ballet, nor of modern dance, nor dance theatre nor postmodern dance. As a contemporary artist he can appropriate all these traditions if he so wishes—deconstruct and reconstruct them in new and different combinations. He is allowed to do this, this is what composition involves. I knew Ballett Frankfurt, first and second-hand, having seen in Paris in 1998 his comic tribute to musical theatre, and observed the Leigh Warren and Australian Ballet translations of his choreography. These earlier works gave me only a partial sense of his oeuvre, emphasising either the radical displacement of stage focus or the realignment of the technical body. But his art goes further—Forsythe’s choreography is not directly or literally about the human as subject of dance. We do not have to reproduce archetypes on the stage any more, we do not have to make pretty pictures, we do not have to tell individual stories. Theatre and film gave that up mid last century and so did dance, although Australia may be slow to realise. When pressed in interview, Forsythe talks of starting points for Eidos:Telos arising from Beckett, the death of his wife, the films of Russian director Tarkovsky, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony and the myth of Persephone. But these intertextual narratives do not and have not made this ballet. Choreographers, since Merce Cunningham, have often composed with structures that use unpredictable elements of movement, series, reversal and iteration. Indeed, a contemporary ballet can examine abstract principles, such as how quantum physics is organised or the ways in which clouds travel through the sky.

Postmodern formations of bodies, even where ballet is the disciplinary structure, can hover between stillness and the micro-visibility of flow. And so we see in Eidos:Telos a 6/8 swinging of 50 bodies in coloured silk skirts, swooshing, lilting backwards and forwards. They are dresses sweeping the floor, they are arms swinging in unison, they are turning, turning like flowers towards the sun. In Australian dance we almost never see that number of dancers filling a stage with polyrhythms. We are not prepared for this moment of sheer beauty, however it does not last and cannot. We must relinquish the possibility of transcendence and domination, especially since September 11. There is already something wrong with the pattern, a dancer breaks away, there is someone speaking a foreign language. One dancer turns against another and then another turns against another and then there are more and more who break step. There is a man swearing, he is in Hell. He tells us his nightmares, we hear them vividly, they are repugnant but so then is death, is dying, in the face of the rhythm of life.

Eidos:Telos was a work of great passion, intensely vocal—dancing bodies in defiance against a taut string. Without choreography that challenges old precepts and moves across boundaries, ballet will ossify and collapse. Wake up, Australia!

Eidos:Telos, choreography William Forsythe, text Dana Casperson, Ballett Frankfurt, State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne,
Oct 17-21

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 7

© Rachel Fensham; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Terrapin Puppet Theatre, Meat Eaters

Terrapin Puppet Theatre, Meat Eaters

Terrapin Puppet Theatre, Meat Eaters

Insatiable: adj; incapable of being satisfied.

Death as a vocation. The constant hunger for seduction. Entertainment as commodity fetish. Dancing with the shadow self. Four works comprise the short, sharp and shameless motif of Terrapin Theatre’s latest production Insatiable: Meat Eaters (Angela Warren), Succulent (Catherine Fargher), The Dog Within (Terrapin artists) and Lian Tanner’s Corpus Nullius.

A soldier’s desolation is interrupted by an aircraft overhead. A body drops from the sky. This event instantly alters what was before and what is to come. The soldier and a praying mantis meet over the corpse. Both are starving.

Meat Eaters offers a droll yet confronting humour. In a subversion of instinct the female mantis has failed to devour her mate’s head: “Bite me honey, I’m through.” Her failure to cannibalise denies the mantis “the sacredness of death.”

Soldier and insect anticipate death. One through vocation and the other through instinctual patterning. Performers Kirsty Grierson, Michael O’Donoghue, Melissa King and Jacob Williams manipulate the mantis with impressive dexterity. A highlight of Ben Sibson’s sound score is the percussive clack of its segmented body. Humour and pathos are compounded as the mantis and soldier confront survival in a hostile terrain.

“You know nothing about survival” taunts the mantis. In a reversal of anthropomorphism, the man/tis tutors the soldier in cannibalism as a potential strategy for survival by pouncing and devouring an emerging cicada. Although denied self-fulfilment through death, the insect encourages the soldier to hone an instinctual capacity for life. The lighting shifts. Human omnipotence and moral conscience are reduced to a fade out and the sound of chomping.

The Demeter/Persephone myth is the starting place for Succulent. Mark Cornelius’ and Hanna Pärssinen’s projected images establish the territory of seduction: a filigree of leaves overlaid by shifting gradients of green. In the midst of this viriditas appears a red-headed figure in a red dress, and a single flower. The 2 figures are separated by a swathe of red lines, bending and attracting in a Möbius of inversion and desire: “I’m kissing your stamens/pistils all over my cheek.”

Flowers spill, enhancing allure and its aftermath. The Persephone-figure insatiably seeks the sensuousness of petal against skin. Her naiveté excludes any insight into how rapidly idyll can involute into threat. A strangler vine envelops her neck. Desire and awareness are mediated by darkness. The soul’s dark domain remains an adjunct to the girl’s metamorphosis from innocence to experience.

There is little innocence evident in The Dog Within. A human-sized boxer and a poodle serve as a device to bridge the interval. The audience’s delighted response to a panoply of canine sniffing and pissing affirms the intention of the piece—the corporate market’s insatiable need for entertaining and accessible images. The Dog Within is predictable and non-challenging but will remain successful with audiences. That is its point.

Lighting designer Don Hopkins’ subtle separation between light and shadow is integral to the performance of Corpus Nullius. The Terrapin artists operate bunraku puppets to portray 2 ballet dancers; one performing in light, the other in shade. The piece potently explores the concept of compliance with an imagined ideal. The containment of Corpus Nullius on a stage within a stage enhances the fragility, nuance, and sheer bloody-mindedness of the dancers engaged in discord between 2 aspects of the one personae.

Corpus Nullius presents the familiar Jungian construct of the shadow. The shadow self struggles with the conformist self’s desire to maintain socialised predicates of acceptability. Dance is used to measure the success of attainment through the perfect tutu, the perfectly held arabesque, and the perfect music. Conformism gradually collapses. The shadow rebels, breaks out into Scottish dance patterns and refuses to sustain the arabesque while uttering stifled screams of frustration. The shadow dancer responds to different rhythms and the potential of an alternate self. Neither the disapproving tap of a point shoe, nor a deathly shaking can control the shadow’s defiance.

Finally, against the pull and counterpull of discordance, the damaged wreck of the shadow takes revenge. A tunicate-shaped bag evolves. Chasing, waiting and snatching, the bag devours the classical dancer’s insatiable desire for perfection piece by corporeal piece.

Director Jessica Wilson has assembled 4 thematically linked yet diverse pieces. Insatiable continues Terrapin’s role of amusing and bemusing audiences through visual theatre for adults, which reflects the collaborative finesse of its performance and production team.

Insatiable: Meat Eaters, writer Angela Warren; Succulent, writer Catherine Fargher; The Dog Within, devised by Terrapin artists, Corpus Nullius, writer Lian Tanner, director Jessica Wilson, designers Greg Methé & Hanna Pärssinen, performers Kirsty Grierson, Michael O’Donoghue, Melissa King, Jacob Williams, Peacock Theatre, Hobart, Nov 14-18

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 39

© Sue Moss; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Andrew Brackman & Alison Gordon, The Memory Museum

Andrew Brackman & Alison Gordon, The Memory Museum

Andrew Brackman & Alison Gordon, The Memory Museum

The Adelaide-based Memory Museum is one of the more ambitious, if sadly ephemeral, events to be celebrated for the Centenary of Federation. Appropriately staged in the old Drill Hall of the Torrens Parade Ground, the installation works the theme of war through the metaphor of memory excavation. The Memory Museum stages a dramatic, visually and aurally challenging, emotionally provocative experience; a polyglot of the different voices of South Australia. Visitors begin their labyrinthine journey in near-darkness on an archaeological site where excavators call out names of war dead retrieved from the ruins of Western civilisation for a Roll of Honour. From there we journey through 13 chambers in 9 rooms, each connected to different historical moments recalling Australia’s engagements with war.

In 9 sites, students from the Flinders University Drama Centre enact short performances or monologues to conjure up memories of people and events associated with the war. Under the tutelage of drama professor Julie Holledge, students devised segments of the performance and sometimes scripted the monologues in the year leading up to the exhibition. Research included the conduct of personal interviews with members of veteran associations as well as Indigenous, women’s and refugee groups, in addition to working with archival material from national, state and private collections. As in good postcolonial practice, students do not occupy the spaces of those remembered; rather they become the retrievers and curators of memory, piecing together fragments from interviews, letters, postcards and photographs to construct versions of stories that are then exchanged and passed on. Droll stories like the one that ‘takes the piss’ out of British General Birdwood standing semi-naked in the Aussie heat, or resourceful stories like those of WRAN prisoners of war fashioning outfits from worn-out sailor’s pants, colourfully designed with lipstick features.

There are 2 exceptions to the student-as-curator-of-memory rule. One is the poignant performance of Peter Michell, who effectively embodies the memory of his grandfather, a man he never met (he died in the war) but whose censored letters home provide the springboard to memory. Through recovering gaps in the letters Michell relives 5 wartime events, from incidences of hookworm to a horrendous bombing which resulted in shrapnel wounds to his grandfather’s ankle, rump, and arm, and the loss of his right eye. Standing on an excavation site that doubles as a bunker, set against a backdrop of walls papered with hundreds of letters home, Michell renders the horrors of war through the loving voice of the laconic Anzac soldier: “Don’t worry love, I’m really fine…You can hardly notice.”

The other notable exception is the performance of Vietnamese-born, Australian-raised war orphan, Dominic Golding. Dominic was rescued from Saigon through the auspices of the World Vision Orphanage, initiated in the 1970s by a now-prominent South Australian psychotherapist, Rosemary Taylor. Sitting cross-legged on the ground in army fatigues, Dominic relates his reminiscences to a camcorder in a halting, speech impaired voice. Two massive screens behind him pick up his face, superimposed upon images that fill in the gaps of his stories. Ironies abound, like how he constructed his “Vietnamese” identity through American post-war movies; or suffered discrimination while growing up in Mount Gambier, not so much as a result of his ethnicity but because of his deafness; and how he realised his nostalgia for the “old” Saigon through doctored videos taken in 1999 during his first trip “home.”

Mary Moore conceived the complex, interactive staging for the exhibition around effective and economic geographies of colour, light, sound and space. A womb-like space occupies the core of the labyrinth, where colours of the student curators’ uniforms change from stark black and white to pink, and where the lighting lifts from the grey shades of outdoor battlefield ruins to the warm, flesh-toned interiors of kitchen, lounge, laundry and sewing room. At the centre, 2 female curators ‘pick’ at the fragments of garments obtained from women’s prison camps. An overstuffed armchair, a cast iron stove and a sewing machine punctuate the walls of the detention camp, suggesting an interpenetration of public and private spheres, a co-mingling of the war at home and abroad. Nora Heysen’s lively portraits and official photographs of WRAN nurses line the walls of the outer circle. Voices of survivors and crackling newsreel tapes echo round the space, telling of the fall of Singapore and the capture, detention and death of hundreds of nurses at the hands of the Japanese. Outside the circle, the war at home is remembered through a wall plastered with features from Women’s Weekly and life-sized blowups of the Anzac Arch and “Cheer Up” clubs that once occupied the banks of the Torrens where the Festival Centre now stands.

As groups mingle in the spaces, boundaries between official military history and personal reminiscence, archive and memory, past and present, performance and recollection, performer and visitor break down. Carrying a postcard with them on which they are invited to record their own memory of war, visitors exit from the white glare of the final “treaty” room to a desk, a computer display and an Australia Post mail bag. Off to the side, a student curator sorts the postcards, registering through her silent gestures the gamut of emotions they provoke. The journey loops back to our beginnings and spirals beyond, loosening history from its moorings to live on/in us.

Memory Museum, commisioned by Centenary of Federation SA, producers Adelaide Festival Trust, Flinder University, Creative Director Mary Moore, Installation Director Tim Maddock, Drill Hall, Torrens Parade Ground, Adelaide, Oct 21- Nov 4

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 37

© Kay Schaffer; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Tammy Anderson, I Don't Wanna Play House

Tammy Anderson, I Don’t Wanna Play House

Tammy Anderson, I Don’t Wanna Play House

If, regrettably, domestic violence is now known to be widespread and not confined to any particular socio-economic group, it is still unlikely to be considered the stuff of successful comic theatre. Tammy Anderson’s remarkable two-hander, I Don’t Wanna Play House, takes this very difficult topic and, thanks to engrossing storytelling, deft characterisation and highly professional production values, creates an engaging and often wryly amusing work.

I Don’t Wanna Play House is essentially Anderson’s dramatised memory of a childhood and adolescence marked and marred by male violence, most notably at the hands of her “battling” mother’s various boyfriends.

Much of these memories were, formerly, suppressed and Anderson reveals “I was watching my children playing in the backyard one day, jumping on the trampoline, laughing and running around, and my daughter asked me to give her a ‘whizzy.’ It all came back to me. Secrets. Secrets. Secrets. I put pen to paper and started writing about these secrets and I wrote pages and pages and pages.”

As Director John Bolton explains, “During a class in grotesque theatre Tammy beckoned the whole group with her finger and whispered ‘Come here.’ It was a short simple moment but what lay behind it was apparent to everyone. There was a communal exhalation, a deep silence and a desire to know ‘what next?.’ A year later I read Tammy’s first writings and knew I would like to direct her piece; here was the what next? in its most raw and honest state. Tammy’s courage and ability to play with events that would ‘do most people in’ has been incredible to witness. Her joy, humour and lightness have continued to shine through a piece which explores some of the most difficult aspects of our existence…”

Having premiered at the CUB Malthouse in Melbourne earlier this year, the work had its Tasmanian premiere at the Peacock Theatre in the Salamanca Arts Centre in late September. Anderson is a Launceston-born Palawa (Aboriginal) woman who has lived in Melbourne for the past 14 years. She is a graduate of the Swinburne University Indigenous Performing Arts Course and has participated in numerous creative development workshops for Ilbijerri Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Cooperative, Playbox and Melbourne Workers’ Theatre. Thus, she brings a wealth of creative experience and artistic integrity to I Don’t Wanna Play House.

The work sees Anderson describing and frequently incarnating the characters of her often disordered childhood; the travels to and from “the mainland”—so typical for Tasmanians looking for a new start; her family’s constant search for stability; the struggle to get an education and an apprenticeship—and all with the steadfast figure of her grandmother (with her well kept household and well loved pet dog) as the one constant to return to. Anderson recounts her life’s events in a combination of the matter-of-fact and sardonic; nothing is glossed over or glamorised. She strings together a series of anecdotes, tales of triumph and near-defeat, deftly switching character from this character. She has an extraordinary knack for portraying, with a new vocal inflection or a distinctive gesture, a range of very different characters and emotions. In this outstanding performance, she lays bare her own story, telling it without self-pity, but with plenty of vitality and vigour. As in the best theatre, she makes a very particular story seem utterly universal.

The stark Peacock Theatre, famously hewn from a natural rock-face, is expertly lit by Michelle Preshaw, but is otherwise unadorned by sets or props. Anderson’s co-performer, Don Hopkins, plays something of a second fiddle to her tour-de-force—his role is to provide the occasional country song that punctuates or steers the narrative. And while this music is just right in the context of a young Palawa woman’s journey to selfhood, it is something of an aural backdrop.

It is not so often that a performance receives a standing ovation; for its Hobart opening night I Don’t Wanna Play House received this spontaneous tribute, recognition of a moving tale told honestly, bravely and with much good humour—and of an almost faultless, brilliantly versatile lead performance from the very same woman who had lived and survived the indignities portrayed. There is some talk of a return season of this most exciting, gutsy play. Not to be missed.

I Don’t Wanna Play House, writer/performer Tammy Anderson, director John Bolton, Salamanca Arts Centre, Playbox & Women Tasmania, Peacock Theatre, Hobart, Sept 18-22

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 38

© Di Klaosen; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

David Goldie, Sohail Dahdal

David Goldie, Sohail Dahdal

What are we to make of the decisive role that the policy to turn away refugee boats appears to have played in the return of the Howard government? The strength of passion occasioned by this issue, and the astonishing effect that it has had on our electoral process, gives it a great urgency. How do we understand what this means about Australia?

The swift capitulation of Labor to Howard’s policy saw a consensus among both major political parties that to champion the cause of the refugees was electoral death. On election night, Kim Beazley, speaking from the depths of his own compromise, employed the metaphor of bleak angels and good angels as some sort of grandiloquent codewords for racism.

In the centenary of Federation, it is apt to invoke historical precedent. The manipulation of fear of the ‘Asian hordes’ seems a constant in our political process. For all the rhetoric of multiculturalism and reconciliation, when push comes to shove, we know who’s going to get the shove.

What’s particularly interesting is the way public opinion on this issue has been managed through handling the visual media. The government has been at pains to keep television cameras and microphones away from the refugees, so that they remain as abstracted representatives of preconceived ideas. Visual media have the power to give them a voice, to transform them into real people acting out of despair and courage.

It is significant, therefore, that the debate over asylum seekers has been taken up so swiftly by the major government-funded media institutions. SBSi has commissioned a new series of Tales from a Suitcase featuring Afghani Muslims. The Australian Film Commission’s one fully funded documentary for the year deals with refugees. The AFC, in collaboration with ABC Online, has also funded a refugee project as one of 4 web-streamed projects on the ABC site.

Project 1: Tales from a Suitcase

The third series of Tales, to be broadcast on SBS next year, is to be directed by Andrea Dal Bosco and produced by Will Davies of Look Films. While the first 2 series dealt with migrant experiences in the periods from 1946 to 1959, this one will centre on oral histories of Afghani Muslims talking about their Australian migration experience.

Davies sees the material as being vitally important to current political debates over refugees: “People are dying and being kept out when we should be opening the doors. Australians generally do not understand the Afghan people, their history, suffering or present predicament. A series like Tales can tell individual stories that paint a broad picture of the Afghan migrant experience and through personal, often very private stories, we get to hear and hence understand their situation.”

The background of the series has been a style that Davies calls “pure Oral history.” In order to foreground the immediacy of the experiences of their subjects, the filmmakers have, in the past, refused archival material to establish context. They have used only edited interviews illustrated sparingly with visual material such as photographs, supplied by their subjects. In this series, however, Davies claims to be searching for more evocative visual material to augment the oral history.

“This is the strongest and most confronting way to tell history”, says Davies. “Though we obviously edit their interviews, we do so to tell their core story and to help in the broad matrix of experience we are looking to expose across the series. What we produce (and this comes out in every episode we have made) are very human, very revealing stories that general approaches to history pass by as insignificant and unimportant. To us, the individual is the most important and this is who we want to celebrate and empower through the window on the media we can offer.”

Davies sees the importance of this approach as its ability to make people see the issue in a new frame of reference: “All we hear about are queue jumpers and economic migrants. These poor Afghan people are desperate, they have nothing, are powerless, stateless and destitute, and we turn them away. The media must come to their aid, tell their story, correct the imbalance in the media now.

“What we hope to achieve is that the audience will get a far clearer picture of the Afghan people, their experience and their wish to live in peace in Australia. We want to have their situation understood and have Australia feel the shame they should for how they deal with these people.”

Project 2: Escape to Freedom

Four documentaries were recently selected for the new web-streaming project to be hosted on ABC Online. The project is part of an ABC/Australian Film Commission initiative that aims to challenge conventional documentary forms through exploiting the possibilities of the internet.

One of these projects, Escape to Freedom, will be produced by Goldie Dahdal New Media, and will deal with Australia’s response to the plight of refugees. David Goldie, who along with Sohail Dahdal is overseeing the project, stresses its importance: “As a country, our attitude to immigration, and to refugees in particular, strikes to the heart of what modern Australia is all about. We are the second most multicultural country in the world, so immigration has played a fundamental part in the past 200 years in who we are and what we are.”

Goldie says that the aim of the project is “to examine the experience of being an asylum seeker and the process that they must go through to be accepted to settle in this country.”

It will endeavour to do this by employing the possibilities opened up by new technologies. “The traditional approach to documentary filmmaking will be tipped on its head,” claims Goldie. “Online documentaries add 2 important things to conventional doco; one, is making it accessible to a wider international audience, especially a younger audience; two, it’s interactive, which allows the viewer to view it their own way, and interact with the documentary in ways traditional documentaries cannot.”

The genesis of the project was with designer Dahdal, who has a great deal of interactive and general new media experience, but lacked a traditional filmmaking background. Goldie aims to combine the multiple possibilities of interactive pathways with a strong sense of narrative. He believes that interactivity must work hand in hand with “a bloody good story to hold the viewer.”

Project 3: Anthem

While the Australian government has been spending large amounts keeping refugees away from journalists and redistributing them throughout the South Pacific, its peak film industry body, the Australian Film Commission, has committed $250,000 to fully fund a feature-length documentary on the issue. Anthem will be directed by Helen Newman and by Tahir Cambis, whose film Exile in Sarajevo won several international awards including an Emmy.

Newman and Cambis’s work has grown out of a concern with the hardening of attitudes towards refugees in this country over the past 2 years. They began taping with Kosovo refugees at the time refugee havens were becoming detention centres.

As a former refugee himself, Cambis is particularly interested in the construction of “empathy between audience and refugees” as well as civil rights issues that extend beyond the refugee question.

The filmmakers are planning to travel to Pakistan soon to begin tracing the paths taken by refugees from Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan as they make their way through Indonesia to the variety of detention centres that await them in Australia, and now the South Pacific. Anthem will foreground both the institutional and individual aspects of this crisis. It will look at the role of Australian government, of the judiciary and of the media, but also attempt to give a human face to the refugees, who have been demonised or abstracted by government and media.

In the lead up to the election, the visual media were marked by the absent and unclear role they played. We have seen refugees only as indistinct figures through a telephoto lens, as sites for all the darkness that Australia has within it. Let’s hope that these projects redress some of that balance. While Australia has one of the most conservative fictional film industries in the world, this issue should bring to the fore the strength and courage of documentary film production in this land of asylum.

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 13

© Mike Walsh; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Lucy Gerhman, A Letter to Mama, from Mamadrama

Lucy Gerhman, A Letter to Mama, from Mamadrama

Monique Schwartz’s Mamadrama is a rare Australian documentary in that it takes ‘thinking about cinema’ as its subject. It also openly reveals the filmmaker’s own process of testing and questioning the limits of film and its modes of representation.

Mamadrama traces the difficulties Schwartz experienced attempting to reconcile the Jewish mothers of the silver screen with her images and ideas of her own mother. This very personal narrative drives a rigorous investigation into the representation of Jewish mothers in American, Yiddish and Israeli cinema. Schwartz treats her subject with great respect, both critiquing and taking pleasure in the rhythms and idiosyncrasies of the Jewish mother characters and their creators.

Mamadrama is such a big research project. How did you prepare for it and what was the genesis of the idea?

It came out of my academic work, at Melbourne University. I have always been interested in women and Jews. In this instance, I was particularly interested in the idea of the mother and especially the Jewish mother. If you look at the ‘mother’ in film, you see there is a very big difference between the way the Jewish mother and the non-Jewish mother is represented. There are many problems with the representation of the mother anyway, but there is more of a problem with the Jewish mother.

I’m interested to know what your selection criteria was in both the films you decided to profile and the people you chose to interview.

The films had to be feature length; the mother had to have a reasonable amount of screen presence; the woman’s role as a mother had to be substantive; and the films had to be talked about in the literature in some way. A lot of people said ‘Oh you’ve gotta look at Crossing Delancey’, which is a fabulous film, but the character is a grandmother. Then there is a Yiddish film called Two Little Mothers, but it’s a daughter playing a mother, so I couldn’t use that. I wanted to keep very strictly to the feature criterion too, so “Oedipus Rex” in New York Stories is really a 40 minute segment, and maybe I’m being pedantic, but I didn’t feel 100% comfortable about using it.

I interviewed people who directed or acted in these films…I didn’t interview the writers because you can write a character’s lines, like ‘I love my son’ and, in the end, it’s the direction that determines how it will come out on screen.

It’s always very ambitious, and often very difficult, to work a personalised narrative around an intellectual premise; can you talk about your process of weaving those strands of the film together?

Well that process started in the script. All the work that I have done has a personal dimension and a public dimension, showing the context of the personal and the structured reality. I can’t actually see any other way of doing things. I was a little scared in the first instance, and I had to be cajoled into keeping myself in there. I’ve never done something quite so personal, you know. I’ve always had a distance in there, different points of view. I had a lot of help from the script editor Annette Blonski, commissioning editors Sabine Bubeck-Paaz (ZDF) in Germany and John Hughes (SBS) here and the editor, Uri Mizrahi, to make sure I got the balance right and that the personal narrative always reconnected to the main theme.

There is a very interesting moment in the interview with Paul Mazursky where he says, “I should do a Jewish mother heroine” with this sense of surprise as if the idea that a Jewish mother could be a heroine has never occurred to him before. I wondered how you felt in those moments where the premise of the film was almost subconsciously proved correct by the commentary of some of your subjects.

I knew the sort of material I was going to end up getting because I’d interviewed them all before. You do the research interview and then people will often repeat themselves the second time, verbatim. I was very grateful for whatever people gave me because they were very open and talked about their mothers and their mother experiences which are very close to them…it’s an incredible act of trust…I end up respecting and caring for the people I interview which is why I don’t make aggressive films! I thought he was very funny, Paul Mazursky; he was desperate to do this film because he believes in Jewish cinema and he was so happy that I’d got this film together.

I was really fascinated with a lot of the archival material and certainly the Yiddish films were new to me. How did you get introduced to that work?

I am very interested in Yiddish culture and Yiddish film in particular. The interest followed on from Bitter Herbs and Honey and working at 3ZZZ community radio [Melbourne], when I was very involved with the Yiddish-speaking community. I began to investigate the sort of cultural product they made and I was fascinated by the whole culture which is very dedicated to the world of ideas. Not only that, when I looked at the films themselves, I noticed that they were incredibly radical. Some of that Yiddish cinema employed the techniques and methodologies that feminist filmmaking employs like breaking the narrative, bursting into song, positioning the women at the centre of the narrative drive and the stories not revolving around the rejoining of the couple…In addition to the gender point of view, they were also politically radical in that they would make very strong commentary about migrant life and about the class system that Jewish migrants were dealing with when they arrived in places like New York. Of course I found them totally transporting emotionally and the musical items in them, well, I always found those to be just fabulous.

I love the title. I liked that it had its own phonetic quality at the same time as ‘Mama’ replacing ‘music’ in ‘Melodrama’.
Mamadrama has a lot of play on words…it’s very musical, and it actually is a word that comes directly out of discussion about Yiddish films with film critic Jim Hoberman. He came up with the term when I first interviewed him 6 years ago.

I noticed that there was a temporal cut-off point in relation to the American cinema, more so than the Israeli cinema and the historical end-point of Yiddish cinema. Do you see any change going on with contemporary American representations of Jewish Mothers?

Not that I’ve seen. You know there are hardly any Jewish mothers now in feature films. But they have moved over to television and they’re all the same, and if anything they’ve got worse…it’s vile, a stereotype.

Although the situation of those mother characters can be funny when you watch them, there’s something very sad about them…because you see in front of your nose the history of the Jewish people, and it makes you very aware of what a turbulent and difficult history that has been. That’s how I felt during the middle of editing. Yes these excerpts are really funny—hee hee haw haw—but there is an underlying tone of real sadness.

And that’s where the personal narrative works really well because you can draw that out in a melancholic way, instead of a sentimental way. You’ve referred to Yiddish culture’s interest in upholding the world of ideas, and obviously this film on a supertextual level is really doing that as well…

Well you know I hope its very entertaining too. I don’t like ideas by themselves, they have to be entertaining, they’ve gotta make you laugh, they’ve gotta make you cry. That’s what I tried to do, and I think I achieved it to a certain extent with Mamadrama.

Mamadrama, writer/director Monique Schwartz, distributor Sharmill Films, is screening in Melbourne and Sydney with other states to follow.

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 14

© Clare Stewart; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Andrew Plain

Andrew Plain

Andrew Plain

Debate over the condition of Australian cinema hasn’t been so heated for many years. In this new column, Watchdog, we’ve invited a writer to pursue key Australian cinema issues over 3 consecutive editions of OnScreen. Because she’s riding a wave of debate over her new book The Money Shot (Pluto Press) in the press and on radio, we thought it’d be a good moment to catch Jane Mills’ thoughts as new Australian films find their way to the screen. Eds.

I was at the drive-in cinema in Sydney’s western suburbs with everything I desired: a Vietnamese takeaway from nearby Parramatta nicely steaming up the windows, a Hot Date sufficiently agile to negotiate the gearstick, and a double bill to snuggle down to. Having seen Moulin Rouge, I was confident that my passion for it would be returned with a truth, beauty and love, that would rub off on the Hot Date and provide me with some insight into spectatorship theory. As for Robert Lutekic’s Legally Blonde, I was interested to learn what this young Australian director had done with his Hollywood debut.

My admiration for Moulin Rouge (in particular for editor Jill Bilcock) remains unalloyed, and we both thought Legally Blonde fun, funky and feminist. A problem, however, lay in their soundscapes. They had a disconcerting effect on my libido since I found it necessary to look at the screen the whole time: I felt like Jeff (James Stewart) in Rear Window who preferred to follow the narratives being acted out through the windows of his apartment than concentrate on the lips of his girlfriend (Grace Kelly).

Yes, I know that films aren’t made to be heard on an FM radio channel. But while both films, in their own ways, are bold and inventive, visually and musically (Moulin) or narratively and comedically (Blonde), neither manifest any courage in their sound design. Film sound theorist Michel Chion noted that “we never see the same thing when we also hear; we don’t hear the same thing when we see as well.” But, in most films today what we hear is precisely what we see. This point is well made by sound designer Randy Thom (Forrest Gump, Castaway):

Many directors who like to think they appreciate sound still have a pretty narrow idea of the potential for sound in storytelling. The generally accepted view is that it’s useful to have ‘good’ sound in order to enhance the visuals and root the images in a kind of temporal reality. But that isn’t collaboration, it’s slavery. And the product it yields is bound to be less complex and interesting than it would be if sound could somehow be set free to be an active player in the process. Only when each craft influences every other craft does the movie begin to take on a life of its own.

When sound designer Andrew Plain went up on stage at the IF Awards recently, he had to ask which of his 2 films, La Spagnola or Lantana, had won. I was disappointed that his award was for La Spagnola, which has the sort of safe soundscape that many contemporary filmmakers rate highly because no-one notices it. The sound for Lantana, however, while less exciting than it could be, contributes something filmic in addition to the picture and not merely in support of it.

Plain says that like many directors, Ray Lawrence couldn’t articulate exactly what sound he wanted, but unlike other directors this was only because he lacked the vocabulary, not the concepts:

Ray had this idea of La Paglia’s character being crushed in the city. So we gave everything in the city a sound. We see him experience fear that his heart may be weak, but the sum total of the layer upon layer of the different sounds we recorded crushes him from within and reduces him to emotional inactivity.

And when he’s driving through a tunnel out of the city, we see the double white lines reflected in the windscreen. We laid heaps of sound tones for the white lines. We wanted the audience to feel rather than hear these lines. I don’t think anyone will hear it. But it gets there and delivers the feel that Ray wanted.

Plain is particularly pleased with the opening sequence that he says “initially delivers loud, over the top, cicada sounds that change into moody sounds of the other world as the camera tracks into the bushes.” It’s the sound, not the picture, that first reveals that lantana, the film’s central trope, is a noxious weed that has escaped cultivation and doesn’t belong in the bush—like the betrayal and misplaced trust that doesn’t belong in a relationship if it is to survive.

Lawrence didn’t want Plain merely to reproduce reality, but to create a scape that delivered sounds and tones relating to responses he wanted in audiences. Which is what the documentary Facing the Music, about Sydney University Music Professor Anne Boyd, does better than any other Australian film in a long time. This, too, was sound designed by Plain who says the filmmakers Robert Connolly, Robyn Anderson and Ray Thomas (editor) were persuaded to treat the soundscape as it would be on a feature film. The resulting Dolby digital 6-track format produces extraordinarily powerful feelings and moods by daring to treat actuality more creatively than most documentaries dare:

There’s a scene where she’s actually listening to music in her room on her CD player. But we treat it as if it’s off screen, then treat it so it sounds like it’s filling her room…so we hear it as she does from her CD, which doesn’t satisfy the reality of her CD player, but is designed to create in the audience the passion that it creates in her. When we cut back to her at her desk, conducting the music on her CD player, the music soars as if it’s her heart soaring. Her passion is made palpable by how we treated the music. One of the good things about non-linear editing is that there’s literally no reason why docos like Facing the Music can’t end up with a soundtrack every bit as good as for a feature film. But it’s much more costly than most doco filmmakers are prepared to pay.

Plain points out that a few years ago feature filmmakers began to think creatively of the relationship between the screen, architectural cinema space and audiences. With films like Jurassic Park and Last Action Hero, he says:

Finally you could say filmmakers realised the power of the sound environment. But it was used so boringly and conventionally. Audiences were so getting off on sound coming from everywhere; they were streets ahead of most filmmakers. Around this time, however, documentaries like Sunless (Chris Marker) and Camera Natura (Ross Gibson) used sound creatively while feature films were plodding along with mundane tracks. Then it all stopped. They weren’t prepared to spend the money. Or make the mind shift required to think of sound separate from the picture.

Few filmmakers today are prepared to remove the glue that conventionally sticks image and sound together. Plain is especially concerned for the documentary form which has been ‘gazumped’ by Reality TV:

If they’re to rise to the challenge of the popularity of these television reality programs, they’re going to have to be inventive. They’re going to have to go back and experiment with sound, just as they did in the early 1930s when sound was new.

When Plain first started in the film industry with a film studies degree, he used to pin up quotes in his office from legendary filmmaker Robert Bresson such as: “If the eye is entirely won, give nothing or almost nothing to the ear. One can not be at the same time all eye and all ear. And vice versa, if the ear is entirely won, give nothing to the eye.” But he now believes he was too pedantic:

It’s more about what’s appropriate. In Cut, for example, we broke the rules because the film breaks rules. There’s this scene where the actual murderer and another character playing the role of the murderer have a Wes Craven style face-off and we gave it an outrageous sound. The point was that we shouldn’t have got away with it—but we took the risk and we did get away with it.

Clearly more Australian filmmakers need to take more risks (and spend more money) if they are to come even close to achieving what Plain cites as the soundscape that best exemplifies the change in mindset that he’s looking for:

The sound in La Haine (1996), the French film by Matthieu Kassowitz’s, is incredible, extraordinary. There’s no way that film was shot without the director knowing while he was shooting exactly what the sound would be like. It’s an exciting example of a film that demonstrates how incredibly important it is to plan sound and music before you shoot.

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 16

© Jane Mills; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Iain Mott, Close, installation

Iain Mott, Close, installation

Under the direction of Lisa Logan, Experimenta’s major annual event for 2001 was more like a festival, with the Media Lounge at the centre of a series of screenings, events and web effluence on the theme of ‘waste.’ Black Box theatre was decked out for the occasion in an excessive pile of techno-garbage: old circuit-boards, mutated monitors, broken TVs, defunct phones and alarm clocks as well as the odd deformed bicycle and rusty compost tumbler. If the post-industrial wasteland aesthetic seemed a little uninspired, the theatrical décor provided a moody venue for a diverse collection of new media art. Twenty-one artists from Australia, India, Korea, China and the USA were billed as presenting works. Unfortunately, this was reduced to 20 when Katrien Jacobs’ Libidot 2001: Sexy Flowers (USA) installation was unceremoniously removed an hour before the opening due to its pornographic content (see RTpost).

Easily the most memorable piece was Ian Haig’s Excelsior 3000—Bowel Technology Project (2001), featuring 2 ‘super toilets’ located in the centre of the space. “I was greatly relieved to see the ‘Dunny Installation’”, one visitor scrawled in the comments book. Indeed, this treatise in anal fixation provided a welcome escape from some of the more tired themes of Australian new media art (genetics, AI, etc). Literalising Paul Virilio’s observation that high-technology has paradoxically disabling effects, Haig’s twin sculptural assemblages are awash with lights, plumbing, hydraulic systems and other gizmos. It’s a fantasy toilet, allowing the user to select, using a retro push button interface, various bowel motivation material to watch on small screens (including gushing mudflows which the artist calls “pornography for your bowel”). A dysfunctional excess of technology, like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, Haig’s parody extends his work in the convergence of the utilitarian into the fantastic. With toxic sound by Philip Samartzis—including deep frequencies from under the toilet bowl—the work takes an old theme, the relationship of the body and technology, and makes it at once ordinary and perverse. Of the important precedents for exhibiting excrement culture in art contexts—Duchamp’s urinal, Manzoni’s cans of shit and Oldenburg’s pop toilets—none is more participatory. As Dominique Laporte argues in his book History of Shit, the toilet contributed heavily to the creation of the bourgeois Western individual, so it was pleasing to see people enthusiastically embark on a public trip to the throne.

In Iain Mott’s Close (2001) you sit on a barber’s chair surrounded by 4 large video screens and, through the abnormal proximity of a soundscape offered by headphones, experience a haircut from start to end. The video shows a man shaved to his eyebrows against a sound chamber (which could almost be a virtual landscape or hair follicles), while binaural recording offers the unnerving feel of having your scalp scraped by a razor. John Tonkin’s video These are the Days (1994), is more subtle, with its sheets of paper gently falling to the floor and a soundtrack counting them as they fall (courtesy of Philip Glass)—a shame it was presented in what was really a passageway.

Of the numerous interactives, Natasha Dwyer’s Appeal R-Tip (2000) broke down the contrast between the rubble and all the desirable hardware by adding bits of rubbish to the keyboard and plastic wrap to the mouse. Presented on upturned rubbish bins, you place an order for trash, but the work really needs to be online. Same goes for Shilpa Gupta’s Sentiment Express (India 2001), where we request love-letters from India behind a pink curtained booth. Other engaging Australian works were included, such as Leon Cmielewski and Josephine Starrs’ Dream Kitchen (see RT 37 p22). However, the poetics of Korea’s premier net artist Young-Hae Chang’s flashy text work Samsung Project and Lotus Blossom, wonderful to break the monotony of routine computer use, was lost in this messy offline context. Similarly, a video projection of Quake excerpts by Chinese artist Feng Mengbo (Q3 1999) looked barely distinguishable from promotion for the game. Liu Wei’s video of people scavenging to recycle bits of garbage in a Beijing rubbish tip (Underneath, China 2000), presented on a massive widescreen TV, seemed more likely to positively confuse our media imaginaries.

Waste was a befitting theme for Experimenta, since there’s hardly another product in the world that contains as many hazardous materials and has such a toxic effect on the environment as the eternally obsolete outputs of the high tech industry. And, given that the the Media Lounge was evidently popular with a range of audiences, especially younger ones, perhaps it was appropriate that some of the work looked like the residue of a school display (such as a glib presentation of ‘new media’ at various historical moments – paper, CD, etc.). With the rhetoric of ‘art for everyone’ in the air, we have to accept the good with the bad; and hope there’s room for the as yet unclassified.

Waste Interactive Media Lounge, Experimenta Media Arts, Black Box, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne, Oct 19-Nov 3. Unless indicated, works referred to are Australian.

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 20

© Daniel Palmer; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Newcastle: This Is Not Art festival…a 4-way conjunction of the new media-tech festival electrofringe, the National Young Writers Festival, the National Student Media Conference and Sound Summit 2001. This diverse cross-section of interests descended amidst grand-final-fever in Newcastle to explore an extensive program of workshops, panel discussions, project expositions and forums by day, with evenings offering all kinds of entertainment in the form of sound experiments and visual collaborations.

Navigating a dense schedule was relieved somewhat by my brief to focus on new media arts, implying mostly electrofringe content. This Is Not Art (acronym alert…) presented a broad overview of the state of the creative ‘fringe’, providing crossing-points between a flourishing underground of youthful enterprise and more established structures. Organised largely as non-formal presentation forums, the relaxed and amicable style of delivery provided mostly interesting and enlivening discussion with a high level of audience engagement. There were a few hit-and-miss hazards, certain forums suffering a frustrating lack of direction/focus, or thwarted by tech-glitches/panellist no-shows (such as the mystery of the elusive Mark Dery). Overall, content was generous and most sessions highly rewarding.

With pragmatics, playfulness and politics intersecting in the realm of creative appropriation, one key theme of TINA discussion centred on copyright, exploring the ethics of ‘cultural recycling’ in the use of ‘sampled’ sound/images/text within creative practice. This topic reveals the marginal status of those applying non-sponsored creativity towards technology, within the grey-zone politics of ownership vs authorship in the age of digital reproduction. Citing “the glamour of theft” and “the pleasure of the intertext”, San Franciscan Steev Hise discussed the censorship dilemma for artists working in sample-based appropriation which led to the development of his site as a secure, non-censored server for such artists. In an entertaining flipside to creative appropriation, Mark Gunderson (Evolution Control Committee) exposed leaks in the now defunct Napster file-sharing phenomenon, where people unwittingly allow computer soundfiles of their own (excruciatingly) personal recordings to be shared by lax default settings. These dodgy karaoke moments and pillow talk, as unconsenting gems of kooky source material, present hilarious examples of the fruits of creative trespass, with such anonymous authorship throwing questions of privacy into discussions of the creative ethics of ‘fair use.’

The balance between politics and play within appropriation-as-subversion emerged through topical discussion of ‘culture jamming…art or activism?’. (‘Culture jamming’ implies symbolic/concrete interventions into the public space of communications, introducing noise into the signal of ‘the proper’ economy of status quo commercial/official interests.) In the shadow of the recent shock of spectacle terrorism and its military responses, the forum on resistance politics, subversion and art was thrown into stark relief. In arguing the question of effectiveness—either as art or activism—within the elusive hit-and-run tactics of cultural jamming, the frustrations of such symbolic resistance revealed itself a necessary altruism for those who choose peaceful, non-militant modes of cultural critique (to whatever degree such subversions manifest as material interventions). An example of such creative interference was presented by Andy Cox (Together We Can Defeat Capitalism) with the (re)launch of the pseudo-corporate para-sites www.citibank-global-domination.com and www.citigroup-global-domination.com. This web intervention masquerading as bank home page (cunningly tweaked to pop up high on key-word searches) creates links to legitimate wilderness group sites, revealing factual information about the global/environmental impacts of this and other banks’ activities.

electrofringe presented highly informative workshops offering practical insights into digital tools, complemented by interesting panel discussions on online environments, multi-user virtual ‘worlds’, and developments within the gaming industry. With unanimous emphasis on the importance of freely accessible and ‘open-source’ software for lateral applications of digital ingenuity, one important topic was that of customising software through ‘patching.’ This is the process where software is altered through manipulating its source code in order to offer new tools for digital manipulation, project development and creative novelty. Presentations included Anne Marie Schleiner’s curated examples of gaming culture art and experimental game patches such as alternative character ‘skins’ for established games (see www.opensorcery.net); the use of existing game engines as a base from which to develop a 3D environment as with the interesting game project Spookyville; Celine Bernadeau’s discussion of current game industry developments; and other engaging discussions on the future of the ‘global village.’

Other tech presentations focused on current technologies for processing audio/video signals in realtime, with excellent tutorial workshops in software tools such as MAX/JMAX. This also opened up a view into the arcanely fresh phenomenon of vision mixing or VJ-ing using realtime manipulation of video to generate either images in response to external audio sources, or combining a complete AV signal with ‘scratch’ techniques of cut-up collaging to create an integrated sound+vision ‘musicvideo.’ UK feature guest Vicki Bennett (aka People Like Us) offered both consummate performance in vision mixing as well as engaging workshop discussion on the technical processes. Other VJs offered excellent examples of this recent media artistry throughout the festival, a greatly appreciated visual content in the program. Also worth mentioning were the excellent Archimedia screenings and other random site showings that manifested in the streets and venues of Newcastle.

electrofringe, directors Joni Taylor & Shannon O’Neil, part of
This Is Not Art festival, Newcastle, Sept 26-Oct

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 20

© Felena Alach; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

not copyright, boat-people.org, emerging from a workshop led by Deborah Kelly at the Tactical Autonomous Zone [TAZ]

not copyright, boat-people.org, emerging from a workshop led by Deborah Kelly at the Tactical Autonomous Zone [TAZ]

Following on from what is now merely referred to as ‘September 11’, the world climate was an unplanned and underlying issue at this year’s futureScreen festival, which included the TILT symposium and seminar. The positioning of TILT (“Trading Independent Lateral Tactics”) had to become far less dramatic and serious than the electro-militant attempts to overturn the status quo as seen at other similar-themed events in the late 1990s. The serious political issues merely reinforced the importance of humour and theatrics so vital in successful subversion.

The line-up was exceptional. Organisers Leah Grycewicz and Josephine Starrs put together a group of established art practitioners and independent media makers of the calibre of ®TMark, Steve Kurtz (Critical Art Ensemble), Ricardo Dominguez, Francesca da Rimini, as well as artists from the experimental music and squat subcultures such as Mark Gunderson (Evolution Control Committee), Agnese Trochii (Discordia), Spanky and Stealth Video Ninja.

Although the international representation was phenomenally strong, it was the local and Indigenous participants who brought the important issues into focus: Australia’s geographical and ethical positioning in these times, who is doing what, and the impact this has in collaborating with other activists around the world.

The symposium (“Talking Tactics”) acted as a take-off point. In what was a memorable introduction, immigrant community worker Paula Abood opened the conference with her film Of Middle Eastern Appearance. Has the world really changed for “the invisible” people after September 11? Melbourne artist Deborah Kelly presented an entertaining look at her invasion of public spaces as an art practitioner. Famous for her Hey Hetero series, many may have noticed her “ESCAPED REFUGEES WELCOME HERE” poster in windows across town.

On the other end of the spectrum to Kelly’s comparatively “low tech” operations, Steve Kurtz gave an eye-opening talk on the possibilities of bio-engineering. Tactical response for Kurtz involves resisting the capitalisation of the food chain by developing genetic alternatives.

To many, the avant-entrepreneur ®TMark was the conference superstar. His exposé of the infiltration of the Yes Men into various World Trade Organisation seminars was hilarious. (The ongoing dialogue is highly recommended.) Coming to a town near you.

Noteworthy were the comments and observations about the manipulation of media and structured narratives around such events as the G8 summit in Genoa. Marco Deseriis (Italy) presented an at times harrowing account of the lead up to the death of Carlo Giuliani. It emphasised the necessity for independent media such as www.indymedia.org and www.freespeech.org in exposing such “truths” as the creation of popular reaction to violent protesters such as the Black Blok. Other independent media organisations represented included Australia’s The Paper as well as www.shnewz.org, edited by John Hodges. Rix-c was represented by Rasa Smite and Raitis Smits, and is based in Riga. It is the uniting point for many Eastern European media centres and lists such as XCHANGE and www.borderland.org [expired].

The importance of watching the watching was again highlighted by Ricardo Dominguez of the Electronic Disturbance Theater who talked about his Anchors project, which he described as “little sister watching big brother.” This method of implementing panopticon-like ideas in areas of indigenous oppression is a continuation of actions in the Chiapas region in alliance with the Zapatistas.

Kevin Buzzcott (Keepers of Lake Eyre) and Rebecca Bear Wingfield, from Irati Wanti, are Arabunna people and anti-nuclear activists. On the same panel as Dominguez (“Poisoned Planet: Waste Not, Want Not?”) they reiterated the dangers of uranium extraction, and how the responsibility of Australians is now more urgent than ever. Methods of spreading Indigenous ideas and rights don’t have to be high-tech either. It can be done, explained community worker Nina Brown, on the one and only radio station in Coober Pedy.

The technological capabilities of the net are still a tactical method under review, but the more empowering DIY approach to the www structure is replacing sheer techno utopianism. Irene Graham and Scott Mcphee addressed censorship, privacy and the law, while Mark Gunderson showed how programs such as Napster could be used to address copyright laws and intellectual property.

Other elements of the festival included the TAZ space at Imperial Slacks Gallery. This dark cross-cabled techno environment grew during the course of the festival with ongoing collaborations, both technical and intellectual, and daily workshops.

Outcomes of a festival like this are important. Following the event, most of the participants continue to communicate with each other on a net list. Dominguez has created a web toy for Irati Wanti in its fight against Western Mining, and other spontaneous collaborations occurred at events like cinema concrete and Stealth Video Ninja.

And who were the raiders and tactical players that literally exploded out of the festival borders? There were vigilante boat projections on the Opera House, unannounced Chilean songs of mourning and exploding gnomes that were strangely ignored by officials.

Breaking away from the screen-based technologies altogether, TILT was a gathering, at times spontaneous and informal, sharing, discussing and presenting alternatives to science, arts and politics.

TILT, part of dLux media arts’ futureScreen 01, in association with ANAT, Imperial Slacks, House of Laudanum & Metro Screen. Seminar: “Tactical Media”, Paddington RSL, Oct 8; Symposium, College of Fine Arts, Sydney, Oct 12-14

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 21

© Joni Taylor; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Troy Innocent, Artefact

Troy Innocent, Artefact

(OK, so it’s risking an inelegant pun but) Troy Innocent’s work is in fact comprehensively complicit. It’s always been performative and reflexive but this time the dynamics are those of video/computer games and the competing modes of modelling realities with which they’ve memetically infected perception…so you expect, and gloriously get, DIY puzzlers about interactivity, interface, languages, translation and immersion.

Artefact is split—entirely in keeping with its matrix of critical themes—into 2 sections, alternate dimensions with disconcerting shifts of scale. The first, Mixed Reality, is gorgeously uber-kitsch: grouped assemblages of sculptural elements, stylised dioramas made from screen-dumps of an overpopulated video game…the one someone’s playing next door, actually. Built from exuberant glossy-plastic blocks of bright colour, the iconography of Artefact’s second dimension (the game Semiomorph) here emerges lifesize, so you feel you’re in the game. And interactive, with icon-cutout pressure-activated pads on the floor for the viewer to stand on, triggering complexly-patterned light-n-sound-shows around and in the pieces. Each assemblage seems to have its own interface and interactivity protocols, eliciting the classic audience lo-fi paranoia (press here? harder? faster? is it tracking me? are the lights in synch? can I play DJ? why is there a sign warning me not to look at the laser?) and the epistemological dance that accompanies it (no no let ME! See, if you walk through here, then step just…here…and move like this). Hokay, yes, it’s fun, and a bit like a dodgem soundscape, and a bit like an over-ambitious multimedia rave performance, and occasionally a bit like the hypnosis scenes in Exorcist II, but it’s also got Doppler allegorical resonances—about modelling, simulating environments, hyperrealisms, modalities of interaction and the fantastical desire to attribute life/agency/meaning to artificial set-ups—that you take with you when you move into the game itself.

Semiomorph is set up next door in a darkened room with widescreen projection and surround sound, joystick mounted on lectern. The gameplay is as pared back as the virtual environment is densely cluttered: first-person, simplified avatar, routinised navigation, joystick for viewpoint shifts, buttons for movement and firing, collect energy points, elude opposing entities and avoid the randomised blast icons. When you reach a critical mass, or via the intervention of ‘muticons’ or ‘power-ups’, the mode of representation can shift abruptly, transforming the rules of play and relationships between icons and your avatar. At the level of ‘text’ you get viral mutation, when you’re in ‘simulation’ there’s rolling realistic hills, in ‘iconic’ you get chequerboard wire-frame-y constructions and in the ‘diagrammatic’ level you’re faced with a maze. Each level of representation has its own familiar, an icon, tamagotchi-fied and uncannily-cute (eg icon is ‘Specular’, a saucer-eyed anthropomorphised M&M). The environment has no loop-back to a default state, so how the last visitor left it is how you engage with it, disorienting and volatile, algorithmic, promising systematic morphing, logical programming and familiar simulation, but experienced as a series of synthetic disjunctions. As a participatory investigative method for analysing reality modelling—from toys and gaming, through stylised mapping and interactive 3D simulations, among artificial life and virtual realisms, in levels of abstraction and spatialisation, playing with narrative and usability—it’d be difficult to top.

But Innocent does, of course. It comes complete with trading cards (featuring the major avatars of each dimension, listing traits, abilities, “special attacks” and what beats what how), slinky-metallic stickers, impossibly-funky catalogue and essay (pedigree by Darren Tofts out of Andrew Trevillian) and official gameplay instructions with an exoskeleton of compact context. There’s the reminder, for instance, that “Artefact” is a graphics term for errors, those pixellated scruffy bits left over when compressing or translating one file format to another, the unpredictable and ineradicable granular excess that disturbs the smooth artifice of naturalness.

Moreover, Artefact works intermedially within what is perhaps the most consistent, centripetal and rigorously reflexive oeuvre yet produced in Australia that takes as its critical object and creative praxis the phenomenology of digital/new media art, but—yay! yum!—it dramatises what it analyses and critiques. It’s as intriguingly playful as it is heuristic, like a Piccinini installation that’s accidentally incubated an idea.

Perhaps the most fitting comment on the impossibility of perfectible machine translations—between modes of representation, across disparate realities’ media, between the video, computer and other games we play with semiosis, across incommensurate languages—comes from the endearingly ye-olde-world feedback mechanism in one corner of Artefact: the guestbook: “Someone’s eaten too much acid in their lifetime…nice work though.”

Artefact, Troy Innocent, Faculty Gallery, Monash University,
Melbourne, Sept 23 – Nov 3

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 21

© Dean Kiley; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

“MAAP is a concept and a vision, not a place or a time,” according to Kim Machan, speaking indefatigably as director/curator of Excess, Multimedia Art Asia Pacific Festival 2001. This vision over 4 festivals has seen major partnerships developed between regional new media organisations in China, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the Philippines and Australia. Making her stand on behalf of the immediate cultural exchange of artistic voices, Machan warns that the developing economic rationalist rhetoric in Australia seeks to divide the arts and cultural community into those who make money and those who don’t, stigmatising the latter as ‘elite’ and out of touch. The media here is the internet. Lack of infrastructure becomes a strength that allows MAAP to be whatever it wants—international, cross-cultural, transportable.

MAAP 2001 installations were as varied in form as in their conceptual concerns, sometimes savagely sardonic or wittily confronting. Ruark Lewis’ video installation, Untitled 1, deconstructed the written word (Helen Demidenko’s The Hand that Signed the Paper, a notoriously fake historical reconstruction) by physically ripping up the book. Golden Time, by Japanese artists’ collective Candy Factory, projected repeats of a televised aerobics class from Australia to an empty wheelchair located directly beneath a glitzy, suspended noose made from display cable lighting (“we move domestic boredom into different media, to show exactly the same program people are bored with…”). Korean artist Oh Sang Gil’s comment on excess and waste seemingly dripped blood into a toilet bowl until the flushing revealed it as the formalised “minimal aesthetic of an everyday motion.”

My point of entry began at the Judith Wright Centre for Contemporary Art where, meditating upon (being meditated upon by) Gong Xin Wang’s triple-screened My Sun (see RT45 p22) coloured and toned subsequent encounters: the fallen jacaranda blossoms while walking to the Powerhouse, experienced as psychedelic tessellations; the pure Zen task of ‘sitting’ in the AO: Audio Only sound art gallery curated by Andrew Kettle. Yan Zhenzong’s I Will Die 2001 completed this trio of contemplative exercises.

Zhenzong’s work relentlessly and fascinatingly presented ordinary people, young and old facing the camera, speaking the words of the title in their own languages. Sometimes with embarrassment or evident disbelief, sometimes with authentic solemnity—inducing a cumulative effect of stilling the mind from asking Western style, cooler aesthetic questions.

Viewing the Excess Chinese video program curated by Wu Meichun and Machan, I particularly liked Yang Fudong’s Backyard: Hey the Sun is Rising! which decontextualised traditional Eastern martial arts into an absurd choreography with, at times, a Buster Keaton-like wistfulness for a more innocent version of masculinity. It was also a privilege to see an earlier work of Wang’s Myth Power (1990), which, in a ‘worked’ anthropological documentary style, demonstrated his ongoing investigation into belief systems and post-Communist tensions between individualism and the masses. With an underlying sense of loss of community, the sun here is sometimes shown in negative (the black sun alchemists took to symbolise the unconscious in its base, ‘unworked’, state prior to individuation). Wang’s new work for MAAP, Prayer, continues this line: visuals pan from a pair of hands praying before an altar, continue up through the temple architecture to the sky and descend again into a ‘cityscape’ of uniformly replicated stone plinths. Antennae of wires open and close in systolic fashion to an invisible sun, duplicating the praying hands. The suggestion is that even the endeavours of modernity are supplications.

By introducing the notion of ‘sublimity’ in her essay on Wang, and with the Blakean intimations of Excess, Machan reveals an extant neo-Romanticism. Certainly there are more than echoes of 70s ‘happenings’ in Post Sensibility: SPREE 2001—documentation of a wild underground event held in Beijing. Machan considers that Chinese artists have been digesting the whole of Western art history in the past 3 or 4 years (installation art was still banned in China 4 years ago), and are pushing limits, searching for individual expression. This new wave of Protestantism in the arts invites comparison with our own, relatively staid, practices.

But it was Sydney-based Melinda Rackham’s interactive, computer-generated cosmos, empyrean, that chimed on a different front, particularly with Wang’s preoccupation with the human desire for transcendence and ambivalences about traversing a non-referential universe. At once ‘charming’ (like the quark), and terrifying.

And there was so much more…

MAAP01, director Kim Machan, Brisbane Powerhouse
Centre for the Live Arts, Oct 12-14

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 22

© Douglas Leonard; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Australian poetry culture is experiencing major shifts which, given time, will see new challenges for publishing houses, literary journals, poets and readers alike. Readers and artists are still there, eager to give voice to their meditations, but the financial support is not. Massive funding cuts to publishers of this work is seeing poets turn away from the traditional champion of their articulations, the print industry, to embrace the liberating possibilities of a new medium.

This transference not only means that poets may sidestep the economically driven publishing industry, but that their work now becomes available to a new, more dynamic and diverse audience. Working in CD-ROM, poets can experiment with the neoteric forms such a medium invites and invokes. The tangible qualities of print are hybridised with a multimedia aesthetic, and a marriage between textuality and movement is born.

Papertiger: New World Poetry is one such creation. Its eclectic style is generated by a heterogeneous mix of poets from around the globe, who form a polyvocal international revolution in poetry. Papertiger incorporates the work of artists such as Melissa Ashley, S M Chianti, Michele Leggott and Lisa Jacobson, catapulting Australian artists onto the international stage. Papertiger is a theatrical experience for the senses and it is refreshing to see a strong cast of local talent taking the lead.

Once installed, the reader/user/viewer is invited to begin a journey into the rich matrix of possibilities on the screen. A seductive, linguistic striptease announces Papertiger’s arrival as ‘the true art of our time’—not far off the money. As words slide in and out of the screen, an oral backdrop shapes what is to be a dramatic reading experience. Subject matter ranges from chaos theory to the subjectivity of corpses, with much contemplation in between. In chasing the maps of such poetics, one is simultaneously grounded in the acute intimacy of observation and the awareness of a ‘bigger picture.’

The poems (some 100 plus) are divided into 4 sections: yama, agni, varuna and ishana. While most are presented in a more traditional manner—a linear, stabilised textuality—there are some that experiment with the liquid flexibility of digitised space. Michele Leggott, for example, showcases her four-part poem a woman, a rose, and what has it to do with her or they with one another by overlaying the text with spoken word. A soft, feminine voice guides the reader through a rich lamentation of loss and longing, and it is the poet’s acoustic presence that secures its siren-like quality.

This new-found projection into acoustic space is taken to another level with Patricia Smith’s Chinese cucumbers. Here there is no text as such—at least, not in the way we have come to think of it. This poem is more like an avant-garde music video. Once again, the poet’s voice takes us through interweaving images, some out of focus, or in slow motion, some intimate and others confronting. This intertextuality mirrors the reader’s movement as she glides over the top or dives deep into the poem’s delicately woven fabric.

Each meditation exists as an autonomous entity, a moment of pause or a grating fragment, but it is the reader, and her desire to drift or to dip, to create fissures of her own making, that makes Papertiger a truly innovative reading experience.

Papertiger: New World Poetry captures the moment of a revolution in form, stylistics and energy, and I encourage readers to embrace this dynamic experience. The book of the new millennium may be dead, but its poets have only just begun speaking.

Papertiger New World Poetry #1, editor Paul Hardacre, Papertiger Media, rrp for CD-ROM,

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 22

© Jo Gray; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Conan the Bubbleman, The Clockwork Divide

Conan the Bubbleman, The Clockwork Divide

Conan the Bubbleman, The Clockwork Divide

I adore arts festivals. Having performed in, produced for, or just hung around many of them over the years, I look forward hungrily to these opportunities to see new work, and to network and socialise with other artists.

Unfortunately I find myself living in a city where the cultural planners seem determined not to have a decent arts festival. Canberra has completely stuffed up over the last few years. We let the National Festival of Australian Theatre (and its sibling, the Australian Performing Arts Market) slip through our fingers to Adelaide. The ACT Government insisted that the old Canberra Festival was a ‘cultural’ and not an ‘arts’ festival and so it became not much more than a limp parade, a food fair for drunken yobs, and a (very expensive) Neil Cameron fire spectacle by the lake. Then it was forced into a shotgun marriage with the Multicultural Festival, which nearly killed both. Instead, the ACT Government ladles millions of dollars into a V8 SuperCar race that has no cultural relevance to our city, in the name of tourism.

But those of us who like our art fast, new and daring always had Festival of Contemporary Arts (FOCA). Fostered by Gorman House Arts Centre, FOCA always seemed subversive and held promise that there would be something to surprise. It was programmed by a curatorium. It brought many of the Canberra ex-pats back to town. Odd Productions would set up camp in the service courtyard of Gorman House with a bar and DJs and there would be a fortnight-long party. It was, simply, the most exciting time for artists in Canberra.

Tragically, the czars of the ACT Cultural Council decided that this little mutant festival had no value and took away its funding. The ensuing outcry saw a small fraction of that funding restored, but the big plans had to be abandoned. Talk about funding something to fail…but we True Believers kept our fingers crossed.

The centrepiece of the first weekend was the program of outdoor performance in Civic Square. This plaza, bounded by the ACT Legislative Assembly Building, the Canberra Theatre and the Canberra Museum and Gallery, has become the obsession of cultural planners determined to make the square into a vibrant locus of street life. It’s a futile exercise. Garema Place is the true heart of Canberra and all attempts to transplant it, as in the last Multicultural Festival, have died on the operating table.

In previous years the passing trade of Garema Place and City Walk, including an avenue of street performance and food and market stalls, created a carnival atmosphere. The opening of FOCA5 in Civic Square, by contrast, had the performers outnumbering the audience, especially in Abreaktion’s Temenos. Billed as an “alternative” tour of Canberra, Temenos was a gaggle of poets, actors, musicians and performance artists roving through installations (a great Canberra tradition) and lacking the production finesse to get its message across. Most of the time the audience simply couldn’t hear what was being spoken.

Next up was the cyber-feralism of Odd Productions. Odd’s massive set pieces have been a feature of previous editions of FOCA, and Dream Home was advertised as including the installation of a whole demountable house with transparent walls. Alas, budgetary and logistical constraints seem to have prevented this. Instead we were given some pretty, but unchallenging, physical theatre. Great visuals, great performances, great music, but lacking development in the text. Odd would benefit immensely from a dedicated and experienced writer on the team if they want to evolve beyond satire.

So, indoors for some of yer proper theatre. Gorman House’s Currong Theatre had a full program of plays and performances that proved popular. The prodigious Iain Sinclair of Elbow Theatre performed Wallace Shawn’s solo piece The Fever. It’s a thoughtful work, not much more than a monologue, examining an upper-middle-class fop developing a social conscience. It was written to be performed in lounge rooms and I’d love to see it that way. The night I went, it was followed by a self-devised solo work from Melbourne performer Scott Gooding, Pure Escapism. Gooding’s another extremely talented performer and this piece could be powerful, given time to develop some dynamics other than teeth-grittingly manic.

The party aspect was limited to 2 events, the major being artbeat at the Canberra Theatre Centre’s Link space. The daggy title presaged the slight sinking feeling I get at the notion of seeing ‘performance’ in a dance club, but this had some nice surprises (remember, the Sydney Front used to do club shows once upon a time…). The program was put together by Canberra club pioneer Sylvie Stern, who has been unstinting in promoting young artists and in trying to foster crossover between the club and the arty scenes. The mix worked exceptionally well on this occasion, with engaging performances from Beren Moloney and newcomers Flipside, and some intriguing installations by Madeleine Challender (see RT42 p36), Aimee Frodsham, Calen Robinson and John Ashauer. Of course we were really there to dance, with the bill headlined by Nicole Skeltys of B(if)tek. My booty was most shaken by the breaks of local Bec Paton.

Of the real highlights of FOCA, one was a complete surprise and the other a huge relief. Clockwork Divide was a small jewel of physical theatre devised by Blaide Lallemand, unknown to me before the festival. It featured clever and beautiful use of soap bubbles and membranes, the work of Conan the Bubbleman, that literally brought gasps of astonishment from the audience. I went back a second time with my kids, and it was standing room only.

It was a huge collective sigh of relief and gratitude that greeted CIA’s, and Director David Branson’s, stunning return to form with Demons, devised by Wayne Macaulay and loosely based on Dostoyevsky’s The Devils. Demons is a gutsy work, breathing new life into the multimedia/performance/ installation/theatre tradition that was once a Canberra trademark. It features some standout acting as well, most notably Pip Branson, who could easily make a career on the stage if he wasn’t already such a consummate musician (formerly of much-loved indie band Sidewinder and now with Something for Kate). Phil Roberts and Rebecca Rutter were also first-rate. Demons is the first work I have seen deal effectively with ramifications of the Melbourne S11 protests—the meeting scene, where the audience becomes for a moment part of a direct-action planning group, was as real as theatre gets.

In the end, the artists were able to make this festival their own once again, and the people came despite a tiny publicity budget and the absence of any work from the Australian Choreographic Centre that dominates Gorman House. Plaudits especially must go to Festival Manager Anne-Marie Peard, whose iron will and passion made FOCA work.

Ironically, between FOCA and my finishing this review, the ACT Government initiated a “Festivals Review”. Maybe Canberra will eventually have a major mainstream arts festival—but FOCA is now owned by the community of artists and if anyone tries to defund it again or make it a ‘fringe’ to something, there will be blood in the streets.

Festival of Contemporary Arts 5, Canberra, Sept 25 – Oct 7

Gavin Findlay plays trombone in lounge-funk sensations CooCoo Fondoo, who put on the last night artists’ party at Gorman House.
It rocked.

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 9

© Gavin Findlay; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Everyone knows where they were on September 11. I was in Darwin watching CNN as it happened, in a house in Philip St, Fannie Bay (subsequently the subject of an ABC program, Our Street). Meanwhile a group of senior artists from Balgo on the edge of the Great Sandy Desert, near the WA border, were en route by road to Darwin for the NATSIAA Aboriginal Art Award. They arrived that evening and I sat down with them to watch it all over again on the ABC news, and tried to imagine what the demise of New York looked like to them—like a video they said, scenes from a disaster movie. It looked the same to all of us…Eric Michaels, an anthropologist who famously studied the effects of the introduction of television in the Warlpiri desert community of Yuendumu, would have been perversely pleased by the egalitarianism of mediated disaster.

Michaels would also have enjoyed Djon Mundine’s rant at the forum at Northern Territory University, organised by 24 HR Art, on “Criticism and Indigenous art or Sacred Cows and Bulls at the Gate”, because Michaels wrote brilliantly about the whole vexed issue himself before his untimely death in 1988. Mundine, in black beret, racy red braces and the usual dreds, insisted that until Western art critics learnt Warlpiri as routinely as they might learn French, there could be no real progress in their understanding of Indigenous art. Other panellists—Benjamin Genocchio (art writer from The Australian and academics Ian McLean (White Aborigines; a study of Gordon Bennett) and Pat Hoffie—were more moderate. Mundine raised the difficulties of situating the subject amidst the territorial imperatives of the 2 great houses of academe, Anthropology and Fine Arts, and argued that most Indigenous art doesn’t fit the canons of Western art, and to talk in a colloquial style smacks of colonialism and simplification, and to be a Modernist or Post-Colonialist tends to lead to mere comparison viz Aboriginal Cubism and other nonsenses.

Djon’s own practice was predicated on his defining experience as an art advisor in NE Arnhemland where he took up the go-between role, translating and explaining the inside to the outside; cultural boundary riding. He cited his writing in The Native Born as an exemplar of his approach, where he creates a dialogue between himself and the artists, and quotes extensively from interviews he has done with them. He also acknowledged that he takes an ideological position of not attacking Aboriginal people publicly (in case he’s quoted by Keith Windshuttle in Quadrant)

Which brings us neatly back to Bad Aboriginal Art vide Michaels 1988—is there any? And if so, who says so? Michaels (like Mundine) says Indigenous art is the product of too many contradictory discourses that resist resolution. Genocchio acknowledged a pressing need for an engaged form of criticism but wasn’t volunteering to hang himself on the wall in pyjamas to be a target. Hoffie and McLean were more forthcoming and accepted the responsibility of having an opinion—”not falling silent”—and finding a way to engage with the mythologies and reflect self-critically on the possibilities of cross cultural exchange by acting as an interpreter of a culture of which you are not part.

Meanwhile, at the Art Award, it was the usual big night out for all of us—artists, advisers, dealers, collectors, critics, and what seems every year to be more of the whole of Darwin—who gave a standing ovation on the lawn under the stars to the new Chief Minister and erstwhile Member for Fannie Bay, Clare Martin, the first woman, first Labor CM, since self-government. Spirits were high and there was a general feeling that the judges Bernice Murphy and Michael Riley had done good in awarding first prize to Dorothy Napangardi. There was also intense local pride in the win by Larrakia elder, Prince of Wales, in the Open painting section.

Art Award week is always a big one and, in recognition of this, an effort was made to coordinate the numerous exhibition openings which immediately follow the announcement. It was even advertised in the NT News as an “Art Crawl” and listed 5 openings on one day featuring Indigenous artists. This hectic day included a reception at Parliament House for the representatives of the Indigenous arts industry hosted by the new Member for Arafura, Marion Scrymgour, the first Indigenous woman MP (deputising for Clare Martin who was in Canberra for urgent talks on the Ansett collapse and its devastating impact on the NT). This was the first such reception and it would be neat to assume it was because of the change of government, but I was assured it was well in train beforehand.

The Crawl began at 24 HR Art with Judy Watson’s Cumulus series, continued to Cullen Bay, where Red Rock Art showed new work in ochre from established Kimberley artists, then back to town to the foyer of the Supreme Court, where a feast of paintings, prints and weavings from Milingimbi, Crocodile Islands, in Central Arnhemland were on view, and for sale at such reasonable prices they were snapped up on the day. Milingimbi was one of the earliest art centres established in the 70s but has been dormant for the last 15 years, so its resurgence was greeted with great enthusiasm by a large contingent of artists and town council members.

Flushed by their justified success at the Art Awards (in the Works on Paper category, for the suite of 30 etchings based on the historic Yeundumu Doors by Paddy Japaljarri Sims and Paddy Japaljarri Stewart), the Northern Editions opening at NTU Gallery was a highlight with a new batch of screenprints from Yirrkala, produced and editioned in the community. There were many bold works but Marrnyula Mununggurr’s linocut showing how Centrelink works outside the big towns combined her usual acute observation of Balanda ways—rows of people sitting at computer terminals—with her distinctive graphic style grounded in bark painting. The newest and smartest gallery for Indigenous art, Raft Artspace on Frances Bay, opened the first solo show of Balgo painter Elizabeth Nyumi. Again these luscious paintings of the fruitfulness of desert country in bloom were like confections in creamy pinks, reds and golden yellows, so thick and generous you wanted to eat them straight from the canvas.

In a week dominated by Indigenous art, was there any room for what becomes in the context the ‘other’ art? Yes, some. Local sculptor Judith Durnford opened her first solo show Moves, Moves Not at Woods St Galllery—132 pairs of shoes made of paperbark. Later Durnford packed up the fragile footwear and flew off to Japan where she exhibited them again, managing to link the Top End and Japan in a unique exchange of culture.

At Browns Mart, Knock-Em-Down Theatre and Darwin Theatre Company produced ROAD HOUSE, a season of 4 new one act plays. Knock-Em-Down is the brainchild of Stephen Carleton and Gail Evans, and rightly describes itself as “a strident new voice” that “probes life at the northern edge.” ROAD HOUSE is a companion piece to their 1999 season, BLOCK, which was based in a block of flats in urban Darwin. There are no wimpy half measures here, no ersatz Southern sophistication; they rework the Frontier Myth into a new genre, Territory Gothic. In ROAD HOUSE the drover’s wife wakes in fright at the Bates Motel—the road’s flooded, she can’t leave—and outside a serial killer lies in wait to snatch her baby!

Four plays, 4 writers—Carleton and Evans plus Marian Devitt and Andrew McMillan—directed by Carleton, Evans and Ken Conway, and performed by an ensemble of 10 actors including Carleton, Evans and Conway. The brief: it happens in a roadhouse and no-one can leave. Gail Evans’ Burden, which she described as an “ugly play” with a simmering background of serial killing, was powerfully disturbing. It also had the stand out performance by Merrilee Mills as Bet, the catatonic, droll religious fanatic who had us mesmerised with her opening: “Hot enough for ya?” We are appalled but on side. “You oughta get yourself looked at”, her man Jack (played with sensitivity by Conway) mutters out of the side of his mouth and we agree. As the investigation into the bodies that keep turning up goes on, Bet ponders in a very spooky way, “maybe I served the killer petrol.” Maybe she did. Carleton’s Forbidden Tongues Whispered in a Night of Desert Rapture was lighter (anything would have been), a mix of satire and magic realism bringing together 2 Sydney gay boy types and a local harpy. Conway’s direction was the best in show, and Gail Evans’ performance as Lurleen (the chatelaine of the roadhouse) was a high camp treat. Devitt’s Deadline was strong on immersion in the local—the flooded cabins and the blocked writer en route to Timor—but it foundered in the diffuseness of its universal insights. While McMillan’s Dingo Calling was a collection of separate bizarre character schticks, never able to get a dynamic going, although Bob Scheer’s portrayal of the superbly organised and well informed teutonic tourist was a delight with some amusing overtones of Bruce Chatwin, just as Amelia Hunter’s hippy mother, Sunbeam, wickedly recalled the Lindy story.

A significant feature of all these plays was the tendency to go paranormal—spiritual, New Age or cosmic phenomena—when the writer wanted to up the ante in the narrative tension or character conflict; unfortunately this often results in flaccid and predictable denouements. Invariably I find, whether it’s one act plays or short stories, I want the ones I like to be longer, yet that belies the exercise and probably would strain the material. Each play, like each Territory roadhouse (as McMillan said) has a distinct character because of the person who runs it.

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 10

© Suzanne Spunner; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba, Memorial Project Nha Trang Vietnam–towards the complex–for the Courageous, the Curious and the Cowards, 2001

Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba, Memorial Project Nha Trang Vietnam–towards the complex–for the Courageous, the Curious and the Cowards, 2001

The moving image is inescapable. Imagery can be retouched, manipulated or fabricated, it can be projected onto cloth, walls, moulded surfaces, the floor, and through TV and computer screens. It can be cued by the viewer. It can be blunt or surreptitious, naïve or cryptic, romantic or coldly passionless, intellectual or infantile, political or vacuous, archival or hallucinatory. We’re moths in moth heaven—a zone of infinite bright lights, all beckoning. We’re always alert to a potential story.

Much new work is designed for the art museum/gallery, staged in large cubicles and sometimes allied with static elements. Much is televisable or internet/computer transmissible. The form is endlessly variable—quasi-documentary, pictorial imagery, narrative, computer graphic.

Maybe half of the 100 or so artists in the inaugural and meticulously mounted Yokohama Triennale in Japan use screen-based imagery of some kind.

Political concerns are foremost in many works. Mats Hjelm’s Man to Man (Sweden), involving a split screen, made its point by juxtaposing adroitly edited imagery constructed from material left behind by Hjelm’s late father, a documentary maker. It includes scenes from prisons, American POWs fresh from Vietnam condemning the war, a French clown singing a patriotic song, young South American girls playing musical chairs, third world construction workers, cattle starving in an African drought. Hjelm collapses key issues in world politics into a powerful 45-minute montage and shows how they’re still relevant.

In Krzysztof Wodiczko’s Tijuana Projection (Poland/US), female Mexican labourers describe the abuse they have suffered, wearing the camera just under the chin to narrow the image of their faces. The video is of a performance before an audience who watch the women’s faces projected onto a large screen, the women just visible sitting at a table below the screen as they speak.

There is much beauty, even pathos. Fiona Tan’s enchanting St Sebastian (Indonesia/ Netherlands) shows girls from Kyoto practising archery. Across Japan, girls of 20 (the age of adulthood) go through various ceremonies, wearing their ‘coming out’ kimono. The video shows close-ups of faces, hair, skin, the drawing back of the bow and the practising of the movements, as they contemplate the meaning of the ritual.

Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba’s delightful video, Memorial Project Nha Trang Vietnam—towards the complex—for the Courageous, the Curious and the Cowards (Vietnam), shows several young men pulling and riding old Vietnamese tri-shaws underwater. They pause regularly to surface for breath before continuing their work. There follows a scene of the underwater topography, and white tents of mosquito netting, suggesting an empty, submerged village—a moving portrayal of post-colonial Vietnam.

Pipilotti Rist’s fun Related Legs (Yokohama Dandelions) (Switzerland) is in a space hung with white lace curtain materials, onto which are projected images of people, eg a face pressed against a pane of glass. One projector rotates to shift the image from curtain to curtain, the work suggesting something ephemeral, inconsequential. Oladélé Ajiboyé Bamgboyé’s video (Nigeria/UK) is a few minutes of unfocused shots, like an abstract painting that moves, backgrounded by a gentle keyboard soundtrack. Marijke Van Warmerdam’s scratchy, 8mm B&W movie (Netherlands) continuously shows falling blossoms transmuting into leaves and then scattering in the wind, the camera then returning to the tree shedding the blossoms.

There are great animations. Tabaimo’s Japanese Commuter Train (Japan) is a cartoon rear-projected on all sides of a narrow arena—viewers are inside the train with the commuters. Akimoto Kitune’s stunning computer-generated cartoon UFO (Japan) is a surreal trip through space, with a groovy dance track, rear-projected onto an opaque white paper window in a child’s room. Monster heads adorn the room’s walls. While computer animation is the means rather than the end, UFO shows how far the medium has come, and reminds us how central cartoons are.

Sowon Kwon’s oblique work (Korea/US) uses pieces of archival footage of Olympic gymnasts or people walking about, and traces the figures with a coloured line to emphasise the movement. Though recalling Muybridge, the work says more about perception and figure drawing than kinaesthesia or biomechanics. And it defeats association with the subject, eg Nadia Comaneci.

Xing Danwen (China/US) projects New York and Beijing Street scenes into an open cubicle that has a glass-box-like a treasure chest at its entrance. The box houses objects and more projected images counterposing those on the wall. It’s as if we’re inside the artist’s head, watching memories. More literally cranial is Bigert and Bergström’s 3-metre wide hemispherical dome (Sweden) with projections on its inside surface. Equally introspective is Uri Tzaig’s streetlight that projects a metre-wide circular image onto the floor, adjacent to park benches from which people can watch.

There is concern with the architectural and topographical. Florian Claar’s work (Germany/Japan) comprises light projections on sculpted surfaces to suggest landscape. Tacita Dean’s (UK) video, shot inside a revolving restaurant, induces a meditative state as you absorb the banality of the diners, waiters and the slowly shifting background, the outside world as mere scenery. Bahc Yiso (Korea) has roughly cut one wall out of his cubicle, placed it on its side and projects onto it a direct image of the sky above the exhibition hall. Florian Pumhosl’s work (Austria) comprises 3 large projector screens, hanging in space to define a zone, showing videos of buildings in Europe and Madagascar (and fireflies).

Many works combined screen imagery with other elements. Jason Rhoades’ cryptic installation (US) of found and other objects on an artificial lawn included TVs both as object and information source. Oki Keitsuke’s Bodyfuture—have you ever seen your brain? (Japan) has hundreds of white plastic brains on the floor, with CAD 3D illustrations of brains. In La Charme, Emiko Kasahara (Japan/US) covers a floor with circular wigs a metre and a half wide and shows a video of women with matching hair colours sitting on these mats. Candy Factory’s Re:move (Japan) comprises a timber gallows painted a garish yellow, around which are placed wheelchairs and exercise equipment. An adjacent laptop computer displays a video of people learning to use a wheelchair. Candy Factory’s computer-based work is generated collaboratively using the internet.

Yang FuDong’s disturbing work (China) has 3 elements: 4 large screens showing a traditional Chinese garden with superimposed, miniaturised images of naked girls as nymphs/ fairies, while normal-sized people move about obliviously; a cluster of 16 small TVs showing scenes of lovers in a park or men exercising; and 3 other TVs showing scenes suggesting women waiting in a brothel. What separates surveillance, documentary, voyeurism and fantasy?

Rirkrit Tiravanija (Argentina/Thailand/ US/Germany) brought his small van stacked with video players connected to TVs outside it, each with a chair for viewing the videos he shot from the van while driving around Japan. This itinerant artist is more often associated with performance or installation—he once made a replica of his New York apartment and placed it in a Köln museum. Watching his videos is like entering his history, taking part in his interaction with the world.

The Triennale extended outside its exhibition halls and into the adjacent shopping mall. Aernout Mik (Netherlands) depicted a stock market floor with stricken traders amid the carnage of a crash. This surreal work repeated seamlessly, suggesting to bemused shoppers an endless cycle.

The screen is even mocked. Alexandra Ranner’s glass-enclosed room (Germany), containing seating arranged to view a lamp post visible through a window, evokes the absent, impotent television. Adel Abessemed’s Adel has resigned (Algeria/US) is an endlessly repeating 5 second image of a woman’s face as she states “Adel has resigned”, shown on a TV monitor that sits in the corner of an empty room. The artist indeed appears to have taken his leave. With time, this mantra might be hypnotic or meditative, but I didn’t wait.

William Kentridge’s haunting work (South Africa) is a glass bathroom-cabinet, with a rear projection inside it, showing animations he makes by photographing sequences of his drawings—news headlines interspersed with depictions of the troubled citizen.

The video is a panopticon. It can condense the photographic, the narrative, the performative and the representationally abstract. The aesthetic is flexible, indeterminate. If there is any story, it’s typically remote, conjectural. If not, you look for symbol and metaphor, or respond reflexively. The screen image’s power lies in its ability to shift our thinking and emotions, and it is becoming a dominant artform. Amidst more conventional artworks, screen works stand out in Yokohama.

Yokohama 2001 International Triennale of Contemporary Art, Mega Wave—Towards a New Synthesis, Yokohama, Japan, Sept 2 – Nov 11

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 29

© Chris Reid; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Carolyn Rundell, Shadowlands Virtual Skies

Carolyn Rundell, Shadowlands Virtual Skies

It’s often said that innovation and dynamism occur not at the centre of systems, but at the periphery. Try applying this notion to metropolitan and regional art scenes and you’ll often find an uneasy silence. At least that’s been my experience since arriving in Warrnambool, 3 hours south west of Melbourne.

Logic in these parts deems the distance from Melbourne to Warrnambool at least twice that of the reverse journey so that much of what occurs in terms of the visual arts in this region remains unremarked or, at worst, invisible to those elsewhere.

So, what is happening on this strip of English landscape transposed to the shores of the Southern Ocean? The town of Warrnambool boasts a Deakin University campus nestled between river and paddock. Graduates from the Visual Arts school here are regularly represented in the National Art exhibition, Hatched, hosted by the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts.

Warrnambool Gallery’s permanent collection contains turn of the century European salon paintings, colonial landscapes including works of Eugene von Geurhard and Louis Buvelot, and other historic images of the Shipwreck Coast region. What may surprise is the collection’s strong representation of works of avant-garde Modernism including artists Albert Tucker, Sidney Nolan, Charles Blackman and Joy Hester as well as those of contemporary artists Juan Davila, Barbara Hanrahan and Ray Arnold. In addition, 2 temporary spaces host works from leading artists as well as touring exhibitions. Monash University’s Telling Tales: The Child in Contemporary Photography (see RT39 p9) is a recent example of the latter, featuring Anne Ferran’s series Carnal Knowledge, Ronnie Van Hout ‘s Mephitis and Bill Henson’s Untitled 1983/1984.

The gallery deviates from the conventional white cube in its encouragement of community and emerging artists through the availability (at a small fee) of a temporary exhibition space, the Alan Lane Community Gallery. Though risky in many ways, this generative move unearths some interesting contemporary practices and talent.

Evidence of this was seen in October, with Tate Plozza Radford’s exhibition Junk Food, a raw but coherent body of works. Using spray paint, Radford uses a process of marking and layering to produce a palimpsest effect or visual overlays evoking ancient cave paintings and alleyway graffiti. Temporal and spatial boundaries are blurred formally and thematically, through a superimposition of pristine dinosaur terrains, urban bleakscapes and the clutter of contemporary existence. This body of work may be viewed as an allegory of the planet’s progressive/regressive occupation by human and other forms of life.

Showing at the same time in the larger gallery was the Deakin University annual exhibition (by design or chance) entitled Regula Fries. The show displays an interesting intersection between fine art, photography and graphic design forged through Deakin University’s Visual Arts program that allows students to work across these areas throughout their undergraduate studies.

Another recent exhibition/event Slessar’s/4 Works (which deserves more space than can be given here) suggests the attribute of dogged tenacity is not lacking amongst local artists Adam Harding, Amanda Fewell, Chelsey Reis and Carolyn Rundell. The initiative culminated in a body of site-specific works interrogating the role of the gallery system as arbiter, and allowing the makers and audience to explore emergent relationships between art practice, space/place and community.

Slessar’s Motor Electric Shop, built in Koroit Street at the turn of the century—dark, begrimed and somewhat decrepit—was up for lease with no takers. With persistence the artists were able to secure the building free of charge for 6 weeks.

Works produced by Fewell and Reis emerge as a direct response to the nature of the building as a place of male labour, and demonstrate how craft can operate simultaneously as aesthetic conceptual and critical practice. Fewell’s intricately woven rolls of cash register dockets allude to the commercial history of the site. The alchemical visual transformation of waste paper into rich and delicate fabric is a validation of women’s labour where once only men toiled.

Reis took inspiration from discarded oil-stained T-shirts and fragments of texts—graffiti and notes—left by workmen, converting them into finely embroidered garments. Producing the work from and in the space, Reis questions the logic of Western attitudes to work and applies what she terms a “low-tech, hand-made approach, linking the aesthetics of craft to meaningful work practice.”

Rundell, known for her monolithic sculptural works woven from barbed wire, continues the dialogue with Shadow Lands Virtual Skies, a massive quilt woven from barbed wire and suspended from the ceiling over a bed within a darkened space. She views domestic space and landscape as strong influences on our psyche and comments, “The work attempts to illustrate the paradox of love and control in both domestic space and the wider Australian landscape.”

Harding (remembered for prior interventions through his Black Cats and other projects in Geelong) is new to the town and, without a car, is bemused by the proliferation of roundabouts and traffic barriers thwarting walkers and drivers. Assuming ownership of the roundabout as a front yard, the first phase of his work involved knitting a pastel-coloured mohair cover for steel barriers at the nearby corner—a performance which amused passers-by. Other responses included some suspicion from the local constabulary, discomforted by interference with civic infrastructure and a strong belief that knitting is not a blokey thing to do. The mohair tubing was later filled with white wadding and installed in the building as a precarious railing, producing comic contrast to an unyielding mechanical darkness.

The Slessar’s project afforded a new connection with the building’s history and its departed community. For some, it seemed to satisfy a yearning for something rough, gritty and perhaps bohemian. The makeshift bar and kitchen offered a place for artists and curious visitors to linger for a yarn and ponder anew the notion of change, transformation and this business called art.

Interest and activity around the site has led a local restaurateur to take up a lease to convert Slessar’s Electric Motor Shop into a bistro restaurant—art slipping, almost seamlessly, into life?

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 30

© Estelle Barrett; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

In correct syntax brings together the work of 3 artists, Melbourne writer Mammad Aidani, Singapore based installation artist Matthew Ngui, who sometimes lives in Perth, and Tasmanian textile artist Greg Leong, currently Launceston based. The curators, Niki Vouis and Mehmet Adil, presented the artists with a series of artistic challenges.

First, the artists were asked to engage thoughtfully and deeply with the work of the others. In the next stage they worked collaboratively to make new installation work in which they incorporated visual and other textual references to each other’s artistic oeuvre. Spatiality, space sharing and attendant questions of power were related issues with which the artists had to contend, since the new work commissioned had to be site specific. The resulting installation work was custom-made for Adelaide’s tiny and rather idiosyncratic Nexus Gallery space.

In response to this curatorial brief, Hong Kong-born Greg Leong chose to incorporate an ancient Persian motif, the boteh symbol, into his work. The boteh apparently originated in Persia then traversed India, Central Asia, the Caucasus and Asia Minor before winding up in Scotland where eventually it morphed into the well known and relatively contemporary paisley design. Leong’s mixed media quilts, suspended from the ceiling of this small gallery, speak eloquently to the possibilities of a borderless world based on globalised kinship systems where identities are neither singular nor monolithic but are routinely and complexly intersecting and hyphenated. In rich red Chinese silk and brocade, inscribed with texts of different verses by poet Mammad Aidani, the works look for all the world like gorgeous inverted seahorses floating and bobbing underwater.

The entire exhibition gave me the feeling of finding myself below sea level, encountering treasures rich and rare in a dark and quiet space. The aquarium-like feel of the space and the exhibition itself was reinforced by the continuous flickering presence of the live video installation by Matthew Ngui projecting Mammad Aidani’s elegantly hand-written ink-on-paper poems in Farsi script. I loved the work that Ngui and Iranian-born Aidani jointly created. Aidani’s Poem in Persian (2001, ink on paper), reconfigured by Ngui and projected on to the wall of the gallery, was ethereal, memorable and moving. The fleeting, sensual qualities of their installation contrasted interestingly with the other more literally material works.

All of the works here show that migration, late capitalism and personal markers including gender, ethnicity, ‘race’ and sexuality combine to produce complex identities at the nexus of a set of sometimes contradictory elements. If art is about transcending the spaces into which one is born, both physical and metaphorical, and embarking upon aesthetic adventures of identity, this exhibition succeeds par excellence.

This is a thinking person’s exhibition. The curators have consciously drawn an analogy between visual images and other kinds of texts, especially linguistic ones. Specifically, the exhibition conveys the idea that all artistic traditions (for example, ‘Chinese’, ‘Persian’, ‘European’) have an underlying grammar or ‘syntax’. Just as there are rules governing spoken and written expression, the structure and visual patterns or possible arrangements in any given ‘visual language’ are subject to certain cultural parameters.

While this is a challengeable assertion, as there are limitations with respect to how far such a linguistic analogy can be extended to visual media, the idea raises a plethora of fascinating, supplementary questions. For instance, are these new, hybrid artistic works akin to linguistic pidgins and creoles? If the latter, each of these works could be understood as greater than the sum of its component parts, regarded as unique transcultural creations. Or are they simply arbitrary agglutinations of various visual and cultural signs and symbols, the artistic equivalent of, say, broken English? There is a suggestion in the accompanying brochure that this may be the case, and that lying in the interstices and cracks of seemingly inadequate spoken language are unappreciated riches. Or are the works on display here merely tricksy, along the lines of Pig Latin, for example?

Thanks to Adil and Vouis throwing down the curatorial gauntlet, these culturally diverse artists have created installations that give us a good deal to look at and think through with no instant gratification to be had, visually or in other ways! Of course, there’s nothing new about artists ‘pinching’ or appropriating visual patterns, ideas and styles from other cultures and traditions in the course of cultural contact. What is different about In correct syntax is that the artists were actually directed to do so for the purposes of this exhibition. Now that’s a different ball game.

In correct syntax, curated by Mehmet Adil & Niki Vouis, artists Matthew Ngui, Mammad Aidani, Greg Leong, Nexus Gallery, Lions Arts Centre, Adelaide, Sept 6 – Oct 7

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 30

© Christine Nicholls; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

I was lookin back to see if you were lookin back at me
To see me lookin back at you
Massive Attack

‘Observation’, it seems safe to say, has made it to zeitgeist status. Whether it’s the bizarre phenomenon of watching the making of Man Down (the ‘film’ shot by Big Brother inmates) or the maddeningly abstract formulations of Niklas Luhmann (German sociologist and ur-reflexivity theorist) observation is the critical stance of choice across a range of artistic practices and cultural sites. The video art program Wet and Dry explored this cultural trope—the “lingua franca of hyper referentiality” (curators)—with edgy wit and a disquieting aesthetic. Curated by Ian Haig and Dominic Redfern, the event brought together recent work from a diverse set of Australian and international screen-based video artists.

Wet and Dry was organised conceptually according to a number of technological, formal, and thematic criteria and the trope of observation played itself out in different ways over the 2-night screening. For many of the pieces within the Wet program this meant self-consciousness about the pop-cultural heritage of video art. Ferrum 5000 (directed by Steve Doughton), for example, clashes Busby Berkleyesque references with images that recall The Residents together with 50s sci-fi ‘green goo’ iconography. And I Cried by Cassandra Tytler makes observation an explicit concern in its exploration of ‘celebrity’ and the longing for stardom. Drawing from televisual culture, with an obvious fondness for 50s crime narratives and 60s set design, Tytler’s piece is both homage to and critique of the ‘cult’ of the image. Video diarist supremo George Kuchar is, of course, rather a cult figure himself. The 2 works screened, Culinary Linkage and Art Asylum, are poignantly kitsch studies of trash culture and TV land: “beautiful people emoting” as Kuchar puts it. Emoting is something Kuchar does extremely well. But it’s not quite the emotion of Sunset Beach. His sensibility is pitched somewhere between Samuel Beckett and Eddie the Egg Lady—the excruciating passage of time and the pathos of bodily function. Sadie Benning’s Aerobicide, a music video for the band Julie Ruin is, ostensibly, a critique of sales pitches, focus groups, motivation seminars, target audiences and the rest of the corporate grammar of consumerism: the “Girls Rule (kind of) strategy” to use their ironic phrase. But the video looks so goddamn good—gaudy colours, modernist architecture and fluorescent office lighting—that it’s hard to resist the urge to join in the whiteboard fun. And pleasure, as all good visual culture theorists know, is intimately connected with the business of ‘watching.’

The Dry program brought fresh, albeit vexing, interpretation to the ‘scopic’ desire of screen-based art practice. Hood by Klaus vom Bruch explores the spectral and uncanny forces behind visual iteration and feedback. A woman’s face is caught mid-glance as she turns her head. The shot is played again and again, till you get the sneaking suspicion she is actually looking back at that which plays her back. Mesmerising and intractable, this image, her slightly anxious face, her gaze, forms a self-referential loop from which it is difficult to disengage. If Hood is slightly vexatious in its attention to the materialities of screen culture, its quiet insistence to look at rather than through the interface, then Joseph Hyde’s Zoetrope is relentless. Here, we find Laura Mulvey’s theories on the pleasure of visual phenomenology pushed to ear splitting and pupil constricting extremes. Zoetrope seems almost pornographic. Yet there are no undressed bodies, no unexpected flashes of flesh to excite our carnal appetites and hence shame the viewer/voyeur. No, what is pornographic about Hyde’s work is the way it focuses on observation sans object. Twenty-one long minutes of raging, screaming feedback and migraine-inducing white noise creates claustrophobic soundscapes and optical distress. Zoetrope transforms the romantic experience of watching something (narrative development, character formation, scenic construction) to the somatic reality of neurological response. Watching becomes an intransitive verb. Theoretically very pleasing; corporeally—not so much.

One of the last works screened was pleasing on both counts. Conceptually adroit and visually stimulating, Involuntary Reception by Kristin Lucas is about a woman afflicted with an “enormous electromagnetic field.” The formal arrangement of the video is double imaged, reflecting her ambivalence about technological mediation. Because of her extreme sensitivity to electromagnetic signals this character, played by Lucas, can crash computers, read people’s minds or make cats fry as she explains in a beautifully sparse, monotone voice: “Yeah, I’ve had a pet before. You just have to be careful not to…pet them. Because that just builds the static energy and…I guess the static charge was just too much for her…I’d start petting her and the static would build up. And then one day…it was just too much. Love kills. Love kills.” Indeed, a fried cat is iconic of this video art program itself: half wet, half dry, disquieting but compelling to watch.

Wet & Dry: International video art, curated by Ian Haig and Dominic Redfern, presented by City of Melbourne & Centre for Contemporary Photography, Cinemedia @ Treasury Theatre, Melbourne, Sept 21 & 22

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 32

© Esther Milne; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Horst Kiechle, Pizza Surprise

Horst Kiechle, Pizza Surprise

Reviewing Pizza Surprise! is an exercise in restraint. An abundance of culinary and other lame clichés spring to mind, willing me to make them manifest. The reality of the Pizza Surprise! project and its outcomes, however, is that though the work and its literal delivery are based on a packaged concept of convenience, it is far too cunning to be so easily dispatched.

Pizza Surprise! is unabashedly what it is, a commercial, marketed-to-the-eyeballs, good-value visual arts project, and much more. It is a national and international event, a travelling show, and a low-price, egalitarian and accessible exhibition for your lounge-room table. Conceived by local Perth curators and recently pizza delivery chicks, Michelle Glaser and Katie Major (Art to Go), Pizza Surprise! is, above all its superfluous and incidental concerns, a collection of damn fine art. Seven artists including Bruce Slatter (my personal choice), Martine Corompt, Bevan Honey, Mari Velonaki, Scanner, Horst Kiechle and Sam Collins tackled the compressed white, flip-top cube with work that spanned the supernatural to the structural.

A strange kind of value judgement starts to operate when art is offered, home-delivered in a family-sized pizza box, for $19.95 (+GST). The generic nature of presentation, the online order form and automated responses solicit hasty decision. I knew I had to have one but further scrutiny of the work would have prompted me to order the lot! Therein lies the paradox; as a show of 25×7 packaged multiples, it has proved unattractive to artistic, commercial and cultural entities (who should be kicking themselves), but immensely popular within the gp.

The work by no means suffers for this, as all artists engage with the pizza box’s spatial and commercial paradigms with incisive, deconstructive and, yes, entertaining work. Sam Collins’ Appliance for the Decoration of a Common Void is a neat composition of circuitry and wires with a discrete switch that, when plugged into a TV, begins to scroll a number of test-pattern orientated compositions, creating a changing abstract-art feature for any living-room.

Another technologically-orientated work, Pizza Aphonia by Mari Velonaki, uses text formed by a number of LEDs that light up when the box is opened. This work, deconstructing an intimate letter within 25 pizza boxes, has resonances with the film noir secret briefcase. Martine Corompt’s gruesomely cute Household Names includes a cannibalistic cartoon adventure of 4 physically distorted, wannabe pop-starlets and a pink, rubbery doll of the same extended proportions.

Bevan Honey takes the framing and placing concerns of The Hot Sell into a zone of questioning the consumer experience. His work includes a piece of timber thickly layered with varnish that covers a random, linear pattern in black paint. The reverse of the pizza box includes detailed instructions for hanging that suggest a considered approach to placement in the home.

Cardboard constructivist Horst Kiechle’s Partially Iconoclastic Zero-Zen Art (PIZZA) uses the pizza box as a starting point for the folding of a series of boxes, from cube to non-cube. These works are carefully cut in the same material as the pizza box, and rely on the customer following specific instructions for their creation. UK sound artist Scanner’s Spread recreates a soundtrack of someone-else’s everyday, transplanted into the home of another.

A condition of buying a Pizza Surprise is that the owner must send Art to Go a document of its installation. My Bruce Slatter Painter’s Palette Ouija Board deserves a home-movie séance replete with candles and much foaming of the mouth to conjure one of the “…really great dead painters.”

Pizza Surprise! curated by Art to Go (Katie Major & Michelle Glaser), various homes in regional areas & metropolitan cities of Australia, Oct 23-Nov 7

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 32

© Bec Dean; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Lindsay Vickery

Lindsay Vickery

Lindsay Vickery has been based in Perth for the last 10 of his 15 years composing and performing New Music including works for acoustic and electronic instruments in interactive electronic, improvised or fully notated settings, ranging from solo pieces to opera. He has been commissioned by numerous groups and has performed in Holland, Norway, Germany England, the USA and across Australia. In December he will be resident again at STEIM (Amsterdam) working on an interactive video project and in January he will undertake a 9 states tour of the US culminating in a residency at the Center for Experimental Music and Intermedia (CEMI) at the University of Northern Texas. Vickery also lectures in music at the Western Australian Conservatorium of Music where he founded the laboratory Study for Research in Performance Technology.

…one can observe that numerous important elements coincide with real facts with a strange recurrence that is therefore disconcerting. And, while other elements of the narrative stray deliberately away from those facts, they always do so in so suspicious a manner that one is forced to see there is a systematic intent, as though some secret motive had dictated those changes and those inventions.

The genesis of Lindsay Vickery’s creation, Rendez-vous—an Opera Noir, is reflected in these opening lines. Adapted from Alain Robbe-Grillet’s novel Djinn, Rendez-vous has strayed with systematic intent through the decade of its making. Over coffee, between teaching and rehearsals, Vickery spoke about his latest work.

“At the end of ‘93 Warwick Stengards, who was the Artistic Director of Pocket Opera, came to see me. He was interested in commissioning a work. I actually suggested a number of things before Rendez-vous because Djinn was quite a difficult work to adapt…”—Vickery gives a short laugh “…Stengards wasn’t interested in any of those but he thought Rendez-vous sounded like a great idea.

“So that conversation resulted in me writing a libretto. We applied for money to write a score. I wrote a score…Rendez-vous was completed back in 1995 so that gives a measure of how difficult it is to put on new opera…particularly in Perth. There is no infrastructure to put on work of this nature. So, there was a workshop period back then in ‘95. Then Pocket Opera went bust and Magnetic Pig picked it up and did a concert version, just the music (in ‘97) which was so we could get recordings to push the work forward. Since then it’s been a period of collecting bits and pieces of grants to develop this part, grants to develop that part, collaborations with various people. Finally, this last 18 months or so has seen Black Swan (Theatre Company) coming on board, Tura (Events Company) coming on board.

“We had a meeting the other day where all of the various partners who are involved in this work were in the same room. And, you know, it really is indicative of the difficulty of doing this that it has taken 6 or 7 major collaborators to come together to be able to put this thing on.”

Vickery, along with Cathy Travers and Taryn Fiebig, has been performing excerpts from the opera for the past 5 years.

“That’s been quite an important element in keeping the work alive. One of the songs has been recorded for Musica Viva and has been touring schools and that kind of thing.” He laughs. “It is so innocuous that it has been to primary schools.”

There have been other diversions for Rendez-vous along the way.

“Just in frustration really. A couple of years ago I took some ideas from it and made a separate piece called Noir which used the Miburi jump suit as a midi controller, controlling lights. Noir didn’t use any text appropriated from Rendez-vous, Robbe-Grillet’s text; it was an original text. But there is a little tiny bit of the music from Noir which I pinched for the car chase scene. But essentially Noir was a work, a separate work, a quite closely related second-cousin.”

When asked if, at that stage, he just wanted to see something completed, even if it was a second cousin, Vickery replied, “Yes. It felt really great to be in this room with people who were all pointing in the same direction, and keen to see a work finally up and running.”

Now Rendez-vous is up and running. At the time of the interview it was only days away from rehearsals and all of the video footage, for the virtual set, had been shot and was being edited.

“We have a really great team of people working on it. Obviously, like so many contemporary artists, they are not being paid a heap of money. Well, particularly Vikki Wilson of Retarded Eye. We came up with the idea of having virtual sets, projected sets, maybe 3 years ago, and she and I have expended an enormous amount of energy discussing how we were going to create this work and what it was going to look like. She’s got a great visual sense and a really encyclopaedic knowledge of the postmodern literature scene, the postmodern theory scene, which comes through in her work in a way that’s not overbearing. She creates really incredibly beautiful images.

“Talya [Masel, the director] was in on the process right from the beginning. She ran the first workshop back in ‘95. She has been in on the various stages and transformations, incarnations, of the work. She’s been ideal; she’s definitely got a sense of French literature and postmodernist literature.

“Andrew Broadbent, who plays Simon, has a music-theatre background. Taryn Fiebig, she crosses over between the classical music and contemporary music streams, and also music theatre. Then there is Kathryn McCusker who is firmly planted in the Australian Opera, in the classical tradition. So there is a kind of hierarchy there which is reflected in the characters they play.”

Vickery’s “kind of hierarchy” also contributes to the development of the opera’s narrative and its structure.

“In film noir where everybody is talking at the bottom of their range, and everybody is being as cool as possible, is as far away as you can get from opera where everyone is talking at the top of their voices, as loud as they possibly can. We needed a transition through that. So, we picked up on the increasing complexity that you get in the novel by having the characters begin at the bottom of their range in a style that is much closer to natural speaking, and they gradually go into more and more heightened speaking and eventually full singing. I hope that this will be a seamless thing. That’s part of why we cast the way we did.”

Vickery concludes, “Tos Mahoney (see RT 41 p32) at Tura (Events Company) has been really important. I think this is the most complicated single work that has been put on by Tura”—looking across the table Vickery laughs—”this is definitely the most complicated work that I have put on.” Then, suddenly serious, “I hope the momentum from putting something like this together can remain for other projects out there. After this, hopefully, they’ll know it can be done successfully.”

At the end of the year Vickery will be taking QuickTime footage of Rendez-vous to a number of venues and producers in the US. The University of Northern Texas has already made enquiries about staging it.

Lindsay Vickery, Rendez-vous—an Opera Noir, Rechabites Hall,
Perth, Nov 21 – 25

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 33

© Andrew Beck; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Sonia Leber & David Chesworth, The Masters Voice

Sonia Leber & David Chesworth, The Masters Voice

Sonia Leber & David Chesworth, The Masters Voice

Visitors to Canberra, or new arrivals, are often anxious to find out where ‘town’ is, where they are in relation to the middle of things, the action, the hub, the urban focus. There’s a common conversation that goes along the lines of, “So where’s the city?” “Well…” (apologetically) “there’s Civic…” Civic is the diffuse middle of this diffuse city—a loose mix of malls, cafes and bus terminals; visitors greet it with some suspicion, as if there’s actually a real urban centre somewhere else which is being kept from them.

The retail and restaurant cluster is around Garema Place, the wide pedestrian plaza that is truly, in social, street-life terms, the middle of town. Its image has been dominated by petty crime and drugs, until recently; the Place has been ‘cleaned up,’ and local government seems intent on encouraging a more lively and non-threatening public space. There’s certainly a pulse now: lots of fire-twirling, the odd band, packs of skateboarders and freestyle bike riders, hopping around the steps and benches like biomechanical goats. As well, public sculptures have been multiplying in the Place precinct, part of a public art program being run by local government. The latest of these is The Master’s Voice, a sound installation by Melbourne-based collaborators David Chesworth and Sonia Leber.

The work is physically almost surreptitious: 11 straps of stainless steel grille, inset into the pavement and up an adjacent wall. It borders a pedestrian thoroughfare through low-key retail and cafes, a transitional space. Crouching below waist level, it trips up passers-by, induces double-takes, private puzzled glances. It calls out: “Come ‘ere…gedaround ya lazy dog / Chook-chook-chook-chook! / Back…back…back…good boy, Whoa!” It addresses us directly, in a language and a sonic shape that is completely familiar. It’s just that we’re not usually the addressee, here. A throng of animal-voices: calls, exhortations, orders, signals, admonishments, affectionate jibes. In fact they’re real-world recordings of people talking to their animals, with the sonic presence of the animals themselves edited out. There’s a kind of hole in the air where an animal should be, but it’s only occasionally clear what kind of animal, and anyway it keeps changing. A phantom menagerie, chooks, dogs, elephants, horses, who-knows-what. That’s what passing humans walk into, what alerts and draws them in, a virtual form made from silly, anthropomorphised animal-talk, but a form which points to the real presence of one of those inscrutable ‘others.’

Leber and Chesworth have edited the calls together into short compositions, layered sequences which follow a passerby the length of the work. There are arrangements of sense and subject but especially sound: pitch, contour, cadence, rhythm. The ‘sensible’ inflections of speech get stretched into wild glisses and warbling melisma; syllables shorten into abstract sonic punctuation. There’s a bit of outright mimesis, growls and clucks and budgie whistles, but more often the calls work 2 strata at once, language and sound, human and animal. The words are there as a scaffolding for the sonic forms—the elements which do the behavioural work—but also for the speaker’s own benefit, a warmly ironic monologue. “You’re not going to be able to walk, your stomach’s that big…You aren’t…Eh?” At the same time these calls are full of questions, invitations to conversation, spaces for exchange; there’s this urge for an interchange, which in the absence of an articulate partner, puts words in its mouth, or maw.

So these candid, charged interspecies moments emerge from inconspicuous slots in a mallscape; their sonic shapes stand out against the ‘public’ murmur of social verbosity. As Tony MacGregor (Executive Producer, Radio Eye, ABC Radio National) pointed out at the work’s opening, Canberra is nominally a location for public, social, civilised speech; yet the House of Reps is dubbed the “bear pit.” Meanwhile these real interchanges have an immediacy that the scripted drivel of most political discourse lacks. Most striking, though, is the presence which the work projects, the way it subtly deforms this coolly anthropocentric public plaza, turning civilised language into silly noises, and turning people, momentarily, into animals.

The Master’s Voice, sound installation by Sonia Leber & David Chesworth in association with H2o architects, Pocket Park, Corner Garema Place & Akuna Street, Civic, Canberra.

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 33

© Mitchell Whitelaw; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

At the beginning of Toru Takemitsu’s work, Stanza II for amplified harp and tape, Marshall McGuire stopped to retune his harp. The simple gesture of standing, quietly checking, plucking, and moving on to the next strings held a quiet kind of physicality and inherent theatre, that had the potential to serve as a source of inspiration for the mixed media content of the 3 concerts I attended in September, as part of the Sydney Spring Festival.

That work was a festival highlight. The tape track of the Takemitsu, written/recorded in 1971, was exciting and rich. Something in it grabbed the imagination and flung it up into the air. The harp (both treated in realtime and appearing on tape) sounded as if it had been left alone in a dusty corner of a city warehouse where the daily movements of the sun across its strings and frame, and the shifting humidity of a decade’s seasons, had caused it to disintegrate…popping to itself, the wood creaks, the strings sound brittle, a bat flying past brushes the strings and they shimmer and flick apart. This was organic and dark music, almost vocal, as the harp cried out its fracturing. We heard the city outside the windows, and voices, briefly, as they peered into the room—though they didn’t seem to see the pieces of the harp in the corner.

This work came at the end of the Twentieth Century Harp concert, featuring a selection of favourites from renowned contemporary harpist Marshall McGuire. Also a delight during that concert was Berio’s Sequenza II—always a pleasure to hear the recognisable gestures of a Berio Sequenza, of which he wrote several, for various solo instruments. Kaija Saariaho’s Fall also had electronic elements, echoing from the corners of the room, flirting briefly with the lower registers of the instrument—I never knew a harp could growl. And McGuire playing Franco Donatoni’s Marches at times created a physical effect—a swoon of harp swirls made the back of my head tingle as with the first draw on a cigarette and, there again, a pleasurable exploration of the colours of the instrument’s lower registers.

The video projections throughout the concert, by Nicole Lee, worked reasonably well with the Takemitsu—images of a dark-eyed and serious young man moving through a cityscape. We’d seen him earlier throughout the concert, turning in slow motion to face us.

At the Colin Bright evening, The Wild Boys, I enjoyed the playful and ironic Stalin, with the recorded voice of Jas H Duke working itself into hysteria, crying out the name of the Russian dictator like a child for his mother, or a lover for his partner. And given that it was just a week after the bombing of the World Trade Centre in New York, and consequent Australian government posturing, the re-presentation of Amanda Stewart’s 1988 Bicentenial work work, N.aim, was horrifyingly prescient. Stewart’s presence in the audience, reminded us how welcome a live performance would have been.

The recordings introduced the artist to the listener before Bright manipulated them. They also added a much needed change of texture through the concert, as I found The Wild Boys, Ratsinkafka and There Ain’t No Harps in Hell, Angel too long, too loud, and too didactic. Musically they were all bombardment, with little tonal variety. And call me old-fashioned, but there’s something odd and frustrating about hearing great musicians (Sandy Evans, Marjery Smith, Synergy Percussion et al) on tape in a concert. The one live appearance from Marshall McGuire for There Ain’t No Harps in Hell, Angel was a disappointment—outdated and predictable in its references. AC/DC with Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus? Give me a break.

Towards the end of the festival, Delia Silvan’s program, Night Vision, was musically enjoyable, with exquisite performances. Roger Woodward’s 2 Chopin Nocturnes were like a caress, McGuire pensive and perfect in Ludovico Einaudi’s Stanza and From Where?, and cellist David Pereira played Carl Vine’s work with tape, Inner World, with precision and appropriately withheld emotion.

But the dance didn’t work for me. Delia Silvan is a fine dancer and her first attempt at choreography was sometimes pretty, but overall somewhat clichéd in its subject matter—women and darkness—and its choreography. Meanwhile the music inevitably becomes secondary—an emotional support team for the main game. An odd thing in a music festival.

For this concert, as with the other 2, I found the imposition of other elements upon the music exactly that—an imposition. Looking for points of integration of purpose in each I could find very few—what did manifest for a moment in Lee’s video work, and that of Dean Edwards during the Colin Bright concert, was soon evaporated by monotonous repetition.

Watching digitally rendered red dots split and multiply I wondered at their function. Similarly I ended up averting my eyes from the repeated replays of Lee walking up a beach. Can someone tell me the point of using digitally made landscapes through which the viewer is rushed ever onwards, as if in a video game (Edwards). A comment on the sterility of the way we interpret the world around us, or the mindlessness of video games…or are the images themselves sterile, with no connection to the psyche of the audience, nor the artist? Abstract images appeared throughout the Bright concert, combined with more immediately graspable, repeated images—newspaper clippings, drawings of Stalin, dollar signs, Aboriginal children, the Greenpeace web address. So does the repetition indicate that the music is all the same? Or that the issues are? Either way, if you can say it once why say it again, and again?

These 3 concerts demonstrated the fundamental problem of contemporary music’s continuing disconnection from contemporary performance practice. Musicians are prone to repeating, in their ignorance, the practices of awkward, early days of collaboration. If Sydney Spring is to stake a claim in this worthwhile territory, then the organisers should think about adding a specialist curator to its artistic team to help realise its admirable intentions. Otherwise, keep it simple and stick to the music.

12th Sydney Spring International Festival of New Music: The Wild Boys, Colin Bright, Sept 18; Twentieth Century Harp, Sept 20; Night Vision, Sept 22, The Studio, Sydney Opera House

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 35

© Gretchen Miller; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Erik Griswold, Sarah Pirie (Clocked Out Duo) & Craig Foltz Other Planes

Erik Griswold, Sarah Pirie (Clocked Out Duo) & Craig Foltz Other Planes

The Sydney Spring International Festival of New Music is an intimate garden where new works sprout side by side with modernist rarities—old seeds newly planted and nurtured. A small audience of admirers and the curious gather in the Sydney Opera House’s The Studio. For a significant part of the festival we are joined by a larger audience of ABC radio listeners. We clap like buggery to make them feel there’s a big turnout. Once again it’s a surprise that Sydney Spring can survive on the small audiences and a modest budget while yielding a richly coloured crop of quality performances planted by Artistic Director Roger Woodward and Executive Producer Barry Plews. But it does, attracting grant and sponsorships and some concerts pulling sizeable and appreciative audiences.

The pick of the bunch were the concerts by Clocked Out Duo, Erik Griswold, Ensemble Sirius, Marshall McGuire, and the Homage to the Iannis Xenakis, who died in February this year. A feature of this year’s Sydney Spring was the interplay between music and other media—video, visual art works, dance and combinations of these. Compared with the 2000 festival’s Exile, these were less developed and sometimes less than ideal combinations (see Gretchen Miller’s response above). Nonetheless they were indicative not only of healthy explorations in hybridity but also of a widespread concern to reach new audiences intrigued by multimedia possibilities.

Russian Futurism, Sept 14, 8.00pm

This proved an unusual opening concert, providing in part a prelude to Russian musical Futurism (or Constructivism as it is sometimes called as in the Sitsky Adelaide Festival concerts) with works from Skryabin, his son Julian (who drowned aged 11) and Pasternak (who gave up music to write). Skryabin's Feuillet d'album (1910) is his first venture into atonality. Roger Woodward plays an earlier work of intriguing beauty of the same title (1905). The son's Two Preludes (1918) seem even more prescient of the music to come, yet sustain the beauty of his father's dark romanticism. Then we were plunged into the middle of Russian Futurism with the 4 piano Symphonie: Ainsi parlait Zarathoustre (Thus spake Zarathustra; 1929-30) by Ivan Vishnegradzky. A musical mystic following Skryabin, the composer employed quartertones and microtones (a preoccupation too of our contemporary, the Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina) to evoke cosmic consciousness, in this case 2 pianos tuned to normal pitch, 2 in quarter and 3-quarter semitones. The effect is extraordinary, initially like a bevy of slightly out of tune pianolas exercising scales on the edge of chaos. The second part is rhythmically rich but even more harmonically disturbing, the tonal shifts sounding like massive re-tunings of a master instrument. The brave pianists were Robert Curry, Daniel Herscovitch, Erzsbet Marosszky and Stephanie McCallum. The second part of the concert was a great debut for the Grand Masonic Russian Chamber Choir of Sydney, conduced by Artistic Director Piotr Raspopov. How the post-World War II works they performed fitted under the Futurism mantle wasn't clear. Shostakovitch was a contemporary of the Futurists and a fellow member of the doomed Association of Contemporary Music—some early works, like Symphonies 2 and 4, share the robust sense of machine and chaotic speed associated with Futurism. However, the Poems 5, 6 & 7 from Ten Poems on Texts by Revolutionary Poets are elegaic, seamless constructions that allow the choir to demonstrate its range from classically rich Russian basses to lucid sopranos. The short work by Georgi Sviridov, Sacred Love, was remarkable only for its long, layered closing chord. by now I was beginning to think that Futurism had indeed been thoroughly purged by Stalin. However, the next 2 works, Da-di-da and Sunset Music, both by Valeri Gavrilan, suggested a tradition kept alive with their mix of the sung and the spoken, whoops and laughter and an insistent if heavily punctuated rhythmic drive. A dogged cuteness indicated that a radical inheritance was not be found here. What we got was a choir with a lot of promise and at its best in the Shostakovitch.

ACME Jazz Unit, Sept 14, 10.30pm

In the first of the late night jazz offerings from Sydney Spring, Adelaide's ACME Jazz Unit performed with polish and exuberance and was rewarded with rapturous applause. That's a good outcome, considering that the band's natural home would appear to a be a quality jazz club and that we'd of our drinks on entering The Studio. Vocalist Libby O'Donovan reckoned it would have been nice to have cigarette smoke too, but only for the atmosphere. The sense of musicians speaking the same language was evident from the beginning. In tightly scored, short works, improvisation was not a priority, but the many nuances that adorned the works yielded an engaging conversational ease. O'Donovan's range rose from raunchy belter to music theatre mezzo to a soft, all-sweetness-and-light soprano (thankfully without American vowels). While looking spectacular in her high heel sneakers, ultra-punk-spike hair and slick black plastic 3-quarter coat, she moved little, energy focused and embodied in the voice and on sharing the stage with the instrumentalists. Aside from one all too brief avant garde-ish contribution, Space: Tone Poem, the works, all composed by band members, were pretty safe for a new music festival, the pleasure mostly coming from the sheer dexterity of the delivery. There were exceptions, the gentle, opening number Harvest Time erupted into wild vocal riffs against the minimalist pulse of piano and drum. In Man of Sorrow, Julian Ferraretto's violin sang sinuously in the tradition of Stephan Grapelli. In his own La Zia Zangara (The Gypsy Aunt) the same voice spoke with a dynamic flamenco accent, shades of Chick Corea's Spanish phase. Throughout, bassist Shireen Khemlani proved an audience favorite with her right-on-the note melodic inventiveness and fluency while drummer Mario Marino provided clear lines of support with plenty of dextrous treble and no signs of heavy footedness. Group leader and key composer, Deanna Djuri, is an eloquent, melodic pianist, deftly creating a big city, bluesy Sweet Lullaby with a soaring vocal line for O'Donovan. Djuric's prize-winning, gospel-inflected Don't Let Go allowed the vocalist even further off the leash in the final number. The concert's centre-piece was Soap, a set of songs (Suspicion, Love, Jealous, Revenge) commissioned from Adelaide composer Angelina Zucco. Moments of musical inventiveness and committed performances didn't quite prevent it feeling like a sketch for a music theatre work and one in search of some real substance. ACME Jazz Unit made an impression that only frequent visits will sustain, bridging pop, jazz and music theatre with a coherent vision.

Ensemble Sirius, Sept 15, 8.15pm

The American duo (Michael Fowler, piano, keyboards; Stuart Gerber, percussion) play Stockhausen with a simple, elegant theatricality and a bracing, lucid sonic intensity. They first gesture their way to their instruments to perform 6 of the star signs from Tierkreis (Zodiac, 1975). Nasenflügeltanz (1983/88), the engrossing duo version for percussion and synthesizer of part of the huge 7-opera cycle, Licht, had percussionist Gerber singing Lucifer’s lines, punctuated with orchestrated hand signalling. The best known work on the program, Kontakte (Contacts, 1959-60) sounded less familiar as a piano, tape and percussion work than as an electronic score, but was nonetheless rivetting.

Colin Bright, Wild Boys, Sept 18, 8.15pm

A sampling of Bright's works played vividly over the sound system was accompanied by video images projected on a central screen and slide collages on screens to either side. The curious mix of videogame-like digital imagery and agitprop collage (Dean Edwards) was too busy and sometimes too literally illustrative to ever enter into a dynamic relationship with scores that were already full on, replete with their own texts (the late, great Chas H Duke, William Burroughs, Amanda Stewart) and powerful aural imagery. Bright is a unique and provocative voice, but going visual needs care—ears wide, eyes shut.

Erik Griswold, Sept 19th, 8.15pm

Erik Griswold is not Jo Dudley. Dudley was still in Germany. Griswold filled in, replacing Dudley’s sensual and whimsical theatricality with one of the most rewarding and intense performances of the festival. The tall, lean pianist-composer hovered over narrow stretches of his keyboard and picked and pounded out Other Planes: trance music for prepared piano. Rubber wedges, bolts, weights and business cards variously contributed to the alchemical transformation of furious, minimal clusters into eerie harmonics and distant half-heard melodies, sudden evocations of gamelan and marimba. American writer Craig Foltz provided text and voice via phone line for the title work, the apocalyptic intoning of the banalities of the everyday focused on air travel made for unsettling September 11 associations. Visual artists Sarah Pirie framed Griswold with treated fabrics pierced by light, echoing the detail of the compositions and the preparation of the piano.

Marshall McGuire, 20th Century Harp, Sept 20, 8.15pm

Rough Magic (ABC Classics 456 696-2) is rarely away from my CD player. This concert proved a great companion program providing more 20th century music for the harp, extending McGuire’s project into powerful works with amplification and tapes. Gentle works—the twinkling harmonies of Tounier’s Vers la source dans le bois (1922), the seductively song-like Hindemith Sonata (1939), Peggy Glanville-Hicks’ pastoral Sonata for Harp (1952)—preceded Berio’s lyrical and theatrical Sequenza II (1962), shot through with harmonics and abrupt punctuations (slaps, taps, sudden dampings), Kaija Saariaho’s Fall (1991), metallic, big and pulsing, with great rumblings and sweeps of the strings, Donatoni’s Marches (1979 and on the Rough Magic CD), an obsessive, hesitant dance with its passages of intense quiet pitted against grand guignol hyperbole, and Takemitsu’s Stanza II (1971), unexpectedly alternating aggression and reflection (with gagaku resonances), strings burring, chords bell-like, declamatory, fusing with blocks of haunting pre-recorded sound. The home video banality of the accompanying screen material (Nicole Lee) provided neither companionship nor counterpoint for the delicacy of the more introspective works or the grand gestures of the larger ones.

Clocked Out Duo, Sept 21, 8.15pm

This proved to be the most idiosyncratic concert of the festival, a striking and original fusion of minimalist and jazz (and other) impulses realised in piano (Erik Griswold) and percussion (Vanessa Tomlinson). The concert reproduced track by track their CD Clocked Out Duo: Every Night the Same Dream (COP-CD001) including the sublime title work (Griswold) with its engaging recurrent neo-boogie drive and percussive chatter, Graeme Leak’s lilting dialogue between a Vietnamese newsreader and solo percussion, Tomlinson’s intense musical monologue, Practice, Griswold’s Bonedance (with seed pod rattles tied to the pianist’s wrists, first driven and then ruminatory), his beautiful and, here and there, unusually romantic Hypnotic Strains (“Varese/Xenakis inspired percussion” with piano improvisation) and Warren Burt’s Beat Generation in the California Coastal Ranges. If Griswold’s highly focussed rapid fire pianism often magically conjures a clear, transcendent musical line, Burt starts out with and sustains a gently pulsing note (“the beating of one note against another as moving sine waves undulate against delicate vibraphone chords” says the program note). It carries you along, sound and texture everything, the vibraphone a Buddhist bell beneath Big Sur pines.

Delia Silvan, Night Vision, Sept 22, 8.30pm

There are still those choreographers who employ a selection of musical compositions, often excerpts from substantial works, as a framework for their own creation. It's a rather tired tradition, especially in an era where composers, sound designers and dj-composers are creating challenging scores that may well entail any number of appropiated works but which add up to challenging totalities. In Night Vision Delia Silvan dances to a collection of compositions played live that make for an occasionally interesting but unlikely concert program and Silvan's choreography is not strong enough to provide the requisite coherence. The intention is that the work comprise a “series of interconnected 'duets'” (with Marshall McGuire, the Clocked Out Duo, Roger Woodward and David Pereria playing works by Einadu, Griswold, Chopin and Vine respectively). The relationships seemed all too circumstantial. The design (Silvan and Craig Clifford) with its 2 columns of moveable light (suspended perspex poles through-lit from the top) however suggests potential, framing and enabling the choreography's obsessive dance with the self.

Homage to Iannis Xenakis, Sept 23, 6.00pm

Two things were striking in this extraordinary event performed by Roger Woodward, Stephanie McCallum, Vanessa Tomlinson, Nathan Waks and Edward Neeman. One was the demands made by Xenakis on the performers, whether on piano, cello or percussion, as if possessing them from beyond, enforcing the tortuous stretch of arms and hands in the rapid traversal of keyboards, Vanessa Tomlinson’s furious playing-as-dance, Woodward’s manipulation of an original score comprising massive pages. The other defining element was an enduring sense of the compositions as aural architecture, the conjuring of vast imaginary spaces sounding ever more accessible and inhabitable, ever more beautiful with age. A fitting conclusion to the 12th Sydney Spring.

12th Sydney Spring International Festival of New Music, The Studio, Sydney Opera House, September 14

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 35

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

Christian Eggen, Dark Matter

Christian Eggen, Dark Matter

Christian Eggen, Dark Matter

As a guest of Brisbane’s ELISION at the world premiere of Dark Matter I offer the following not as a review, but as personal and descriptive account of the work and the feelings and thoughts it provoked. The work is the joint creation of the ELISION ensemble and the Norwegian CIKADA ensemble, their conductor Christian Eggen, and the primary collaborators, British composer Richard Barrett and Norwegian visual artist Per Inge Bjørlo working with Daryl Buckley, the artistic Director of ELISION.
Dark Matter is a massive and mysterious work. It embraces its audience and eludes it, unites and divides it, hectors and seduces it. It solves nothing, it opens up everything. This is the dialectic you ride for 75 minutes if you have the patience and the stamina, or the will to surrender. I wrestled and played with Dark Matter over 2 performances, worried at and relished it. Treasured its intelligence and its stark beauty.

Installations come in all sizes. This was a huge one, a performative installation in the Brisbane Powerhouse’s large theatre, the seating removed, the space a concert hall, an unfamiliar church, a panopticon, at the very least all of these. On entering you don’t know where to place yourself. This is something like a concert hall: there are musical instruments at one end, seats of a kind at the other, but each is a sculpted space. The musical terrain is of platforms, a brightly lit box and a tank behind a glass wall, all at various elevations: the audience plane is flat but on it are metal cages, benches and tubular stools, short and sharp-edged. Glaring lights on tall stands assail us as we seek out seats. Some of the seats in the cages (evoking miners’ lifts) face away from the musicians. Between a row of stools on one side and benches on another, a metal sheet is lined with truncated cones topped with glass disks. It looks dangerous, an object for contemplation, as is the whole space for the duration of the performance.

Not a note has been played, but the performance has already begun as the audience enter and transform and become the installation. They move about, selecting seats on which they place the industrial cloth handed them as they enter. The light is too bright, they change seats. Or they stay and, choosing only to listen, tie on the masks they find on their seats. Or they sit to find themselves facing a small metal-cased monitor on a stand on which they or their fellow audience members appear. They are watched as they watch. Visual artist Per Inge Bjørlo has divided the audience from itself.

Bjørlo has transformed concert hall into gallery, given a listening audience objects, screens and other people to contemplate. The objects might be made from industrial detritus but they appear honed and burnished. Harsh quartz halogen light scatters through wire mesh and heavy grilles, fusing the whole into one architecture. But its wholeness is racked with interference, a scientific phenomenon that Per Inge Bjørlo sees his own art sharing with composer Richard Barrett’s. This is an installation that interrupts the view, compels the audience to mask, or seek out new spaces, to sit amidst the musicians, or stand or lie anywhere, to hear the play of electronics from very different vantage points. The audience can choose to visually and aurally compose its response to Dark Matter, to the push and pull of invisible material.

In the very centre of the floor, dominating the space, is a tall, circular platform, its base a metre and half tower of metal grille through which scatters white light. Above a stool, a score, small loudspeakers facing in: the conductor’s pulpit, the centre of this panopticon. Already in the austerity of the materials, the dazzling purity of the light, an audience atomised into contemplative individuals, there’s a sense of church, an unfamiliar one, not holy, not home to dogma (as Barrett ever stresses), but mysterious, enquiring, as art should be. Barrett in a program note refers to Dark Matter as a “cosmological oratorio”, and given the range of his sources and inspirations from various creation myths through arcane Renaissance thinkers and doers to Samuel Beckett’s painfully optimistic but entropic vision, it’s apt.

Even before we hear a note of music (which confirms and changes everything), another association constellates round the design. The metallic austerity, the light, suggest laboratory, or reactor. And when the music commences, as Barrett says, Christian Eggen becomes a conductor in more senses than one. Composer and visual artist visited a particle accelerator in Switzerland as part of their preparation. Bjørlo imbues the space with the stark beauty of a Protestant church and an industrial ugliness suggesting danger—an aesthetic we have embraced since at least the early 20th century and in which Nature has no easy place.

Behind the conductor and in a large cage of their own (ironies abound) sit composer Barrett and sound engineer Michael Hewes, outputting the electronic and amplified sounds that dialogue and aurally dance with and challenge the acoustic instruments before them. In the major electronic passages it is fascinating to watch Barrett leaning over his small cluster of pads and keyboards, fingers flying, hands hovering, striking. The sounds generated and meeting with those of the acoustic instruments build another space in and about the installation often beyond description, often beyond the sometimes too familiar cosmic sci-fi sounds of electronics. Like the installation and its evocations, individual and collective sounds, phrases and passages and whole movements have a rare sonic purity, found also in Deborah Kayser’s soprano meditations or her adroitly spare reading of Beckett, and even in the rapidly articulated (mock shamanistic was it?) wordless litany from contrabass clarinettist Carl Rossman.

It is however the questing voice of the electric guitar that tests the prevailing tone of chaos constantly if barely ordered. It is here that the composer—the artist as analogous to the scientist, as Barrett would like to see him/her—takes us somewhere very different. Curiously, in the entropic finale to the work, after all else has faded in a sustained, sublime reverie, and the last words of Beckett’s Sounds have left us, the electric guitar alone sings on, but it is fading, being faded, until the plug is pulled, leaving only the faint plucking of a near soundless instrument. Barrett, in a dialogue with Buckley in the printed program puts it more precisely:

…6 superimposed guitar parts…create a chaotic and meaningless tangle of notes against which the live guitar struggles aggressively but is ultimately defeated, first in its attempt to make sense of things and finally in its attempt to make any sound at all, as its amplification is withdrawn, turning it from the loudest instrument in the ensemble to the quietest.
For a complex musical work, in which like jazz you can lose yourself, lose track, find your way again, Barrett’s Dark Matter is lucidly constructed, canonical, interpolated with these astonishing electric guitar passages (transmissions) from Daryl Buckley, which progress from delicate harmonics to huge chordal shifts and dense buzzings and burrings (that seem to evoke but avoid the idiom of jazz and rock greats) and apocalyptic hymnings that nothing else in the work approaches, and nor should it. Fittingly the guitarist sits at the highest point of the ensemble atop a metal platform mounted on what appears to be a huge abstract concrete foot pointing into the space; behind the guitarist a screen fills the vast theatre wall, a single light radiating nova-like across it.

Barrett describes Dark Matter as modular, as unfinished. This first version will be augmented with new passages and re-shaped in future versions. I’ll be keen to hear how they work, whether this art as investigation will continue to take the same shape it does now: creation and its instabilities; erudite investigations, beautiful orderings, cosmic imaginings; the word and its end; musical entropy. The passage from the Big Bang or Lucretian Chaos or Creation to Entropy or the Day of Judgement or various brands of static Eternity is an all too familiar macro-narrative. Umberto Eco has mused, “..what if the story of the big bang were a tale as fantastic as the gnostic account that insisted the universe was generated by the lapsus of a clumsy demiurge?” Of course, Dark Matter’s rich complexities and artistic illogic defy such broad patterning moment by dramatic moment.

Whatever thoughts (and anxieties) Dark Matter gives rise to, the work is already a deeply memorable one for me. It was a pleasure to see a work on such a scale, of such beauty, with such a range of invention and skilful realisation emanating from a long and sustained international collaboration.

This report on Dark Matter is part of a RealTime-ELISION ensemble joint venture. At the invitation of ELISION, Keith Gallasch travelled to Brisbane to see 2 performances of the work and participated in a public forum in which he and musicologist Richard Toop interviewed composer Richard Barrett. The performance of Dark Matter was recorded for radio by the ABC. We hope to soon reproduce the printed program’s Richard Barrett-Daryl Buckley dialogue on our website.

Dark Matter, ELISION and CIKADA ensembles in association with the Brisbane Powerhouse, composer Richard Barrett, visual artist Per Inge Bjørlo, conductor Christian Eggen, sound engineer Michael Hewes; Brisbane Powerhouse, Nov 16-18

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 36

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

A major shift in the phenomenology of modern listening is marked by the distinction between Swann’s infatuation with the “little phrase” from the Vinteuil sonata in Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, and Hans Castorp’s absorption in gramophone recordings in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. For Swann the evanescent “little phrase” remains always different from itself, not only because of variations in performance, but because the successive occasions on which he hears it are separated by the years of his own existence. For Castorp, on the other hand, the obsessive replaying of his favourite records marks an attempt to escape time, to attain within the temporal flow of music an arrested state in which every note is always played “just so.” In both cases this musical infatuation gradually decays to an intellectual and emotional nullity, not because familiarity breeds contempt, but because the interiorisation of music absolves the listener from the difficult labour of listening.

We might characterise modernity as producing a simultaneous disappearance and proliferation of music in our lives, for if there has been a steady decline in participatory musicianship, at the same time we are more than ever surrounded by music in its recorded forms. The concert form, exemplified by the chamber recital, might be seen as an intermediate stage in this division of musical labour, between the involved listening of musical participation and the distracted listening of a saturated musical environment.

Since 1995 the 4 Adelaide-based composers Raymond Chapman-Smith, Quentin Grant, David Kotlowy and John Polglase, known collectively as The Firm, have been refining a kind of pure and uncompromising musical event. They see themselves as working in the chamber tradition, of a serious intellectual music granted leave from music’s traditional subordination to social functions, where the audience is brought together not to pray or celebrate or even necessarily be entertained, but simply to listen.

In a musical equivalent of the artist-run gallery, The Firm organise their concerts themselves, from the programming of the music to the more mundane details like mailing lists and tickets. Always on a tight budget, they dedicate their resources to hiring the best performers available. They have built up a strong local audience and have featured regularly at the Adelaide Festival and Barossa Music Festival. Through recordings and broadcasts they have gained increasing recognition nationally and overseas, with Chapman-Smith, Grant and Polglase having recently been commissioned to write pieces for the Schoenberg sesquicentenary celebrations at the Vienna Festival.

Chapman-Smith’s work is probably the most austerely intellectual of the four. Although minimalism influenced his earlier work, his primary musical filiation is with the Second Viennese School of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern. Other inspirations also derive from the German romantic tradition, such as the quasi-mystical abstraction of Klee and Mondrian, or the metaphysical lyricism of Paul Celan’s poetry. Chapman-Smith’s approach is to rework the classical forms of an older tradition, such as Bach’s tautly symmetrical Baroque dance-forms, within the rigorous language of a reinvented serialism. Far from a dry academic exercise, however, the highly restrictive parameters Chapman-Smith sets himself work to temper the extreme expressiveness of his ‘raw material’, giving his music a restrained but powerful eloquence.

Grant’s work is the most diverse. He identifies 3 distinct styles in his music, which he tends to use in alternation rather than trying to draw them together into some reconciled mode of expression. The first is an aggressive expressionism, in which a percussive element derived from minimalism drives a kind of grunge exploration of the dark side of the human psyche. As a psychological antidote to this material, Grant’s second style is more serene, a mystical attempt to achieve what he calls “whiteness”—a spare, open, aesthetic deriving from Eastern Orthodox religious music. Grant’s third style, which has emerged more fully in recent years, is a yearning or nostalgic Romanticism which owes much to central European composers such as Leos Janacek or Pavel Haas, in which the simplicity and openness of the melodic and harmonic elements lends the music simultaneously a great vulnerability and resilience.

Kotlowy’s work is intensely focused on the act of listening. Inspired in part by Eastern meditative traditions, as well as Cage and Feldman, the basic structure of his music is extremely simple, single distinct notes sounded separately between periods of silence. There is no ‘line’, no stepping from one note to another, nor is there ‘development’, in the sense that the middle or the end of the piece is qualitatively different from the beginning. Instead, Kotlowy concentrates a microscopic focus on the character of each note in isolation, making audible its distant delicate harmonic resonances, but also drawing attention to the incidental variations in the act of playing. It resembles Chinese calligraphy, in that the artist’s gestures leave large areas of the canvas untouched. A recent string quartet is a typical example, with each player given a series of sustained notes to be played pianissimo. The notes overlap to create delicate shifts of harmonic texture, but developmental flow is quietly resisted, creating a sense of being in time rather than moving through it.

Polglase describes his primary concerns as “tonal, thematic, developmental.” Fundamentally expressionist, his is a densely textured music, driven by melodic invention and characterised by dramatic contrasts in mood. Although he has recently concentrated on commissions for orchestral works, he sees the chamber form as the quintessential site for exploration and experiment in music, offering more flexibility and potential for expression than larger ensembles.

Grant comments that over the years The Firm have tended to reduce the instrumental colour of the ensembles they work with, preferring the classic chamber groupings of string quartet, piano trio, or solo piano, rather than the larger mixed ensembles that include wind, brass and percussion. This reduction in colour, Grant comments, forces the composer to abandon “rhetorical” effects, relying on a more “conversational” relationship with the audience, in which structures, forms and ideas are at the heart of the musical experience.

Russell Smith is an Adelaide-based writer and teaches in literary and cultural studies at Adelaide University.

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 34

© Russell Smith; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Ros Warby

Ros Warby

Ros Warby

Ros Warby is one of a handful of truly distinctive Australian solo dancer-choreographers creating a body of unique works and steadily gaining international attention. Warby’s work has also included significant periods since 1990 with Danceworks, Russell Dumas’ Dance Exchange and currently with Lucy Guerin Inc, performing memorably with Guerin in Robbery Waitress on Bail around the world. Over the last 6 years, Warby has been committed to presenting her own work created in collaboration with sound and design artists. Her program Solos, which premiered in Melbourne early this year, will tour to the 2002 Adelaide Festival and the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (USA). Erin Brannigan spoke to Warby fresh from working in the US with choreographer Deborah Hay.


The US experience

Was your main purpose in the US to work with Deborah Hay and learn Music?

Yes, I travelled to Whidbey Island outside of Seattle last August where Deborah conducts the Solo Commissioning Project each year. It was there that I learnt and performed Music. This is the second solo I have learnt of Deborah’s. I performed my adaptation of Fire, which Deborah choreographed in 1999, in my own program Solos earlier this year and again in NYC with Deborah in her trilogy program at St Mark’s Church. It was a tremendous experience for me. We performed the solos back to back. I was in white leotard and headband, she in an odd shaped black pantsuit. She is 60. I am 34.


What is your history with Hay?

I have worked with Deborah over the past 5 or 6 years in Melbourne, New York, and on Whidbey. I first met her at one of her Melbourne workshops in 1996. Her work resonated deeply and immediately with my own. I recognised an extraordinary teacher and artist, and understood how her experience and practice could expand my own…Her attention in performance is extraordinary…her clarity and efficiency in getting to the core of what makes concise and refined dance performance.


Working through the ranks

How would you describe your career as a dance practitioner?

I went through the ranks I guess. I trained in Europe at a variety of international ballet schools and on returning home immediately made a beeline for Dance Works (this was around the time Nanette Hassall, who had founded the company, was leaving). I needed frameworks for my development as a dancer and an improviser/choreographer (as I then imagined myself) and a company like Dance Works seemed to offer those opportunities. I did not presume for a second I could figure all this out on my own.

After 3 years at Dance Works I went to work with Russell Dumas in Sydney for the next 3. His influence was profound…Russell and other Dance Exchange founding members had created and were nurturing links with American dancers, improvisers and choreographers–such as Dana Reitz, Eva Karczag and Lisa Nelson–who became important teachers for me. All the while I was plodding along with my solo work and from my early Melbourne days knew Shelley [Lasica], Trevor [Patrick], and Sandy [Parker]. Shelley was making a lot of solo work at the time and had Extensions studio where work was being shown. However unconsciously, these people represented a context or framework for my solo work. But the influence of the American practitioners has had the most profound impact on my practice in the long-term.

I had met Lucy Guerin in NY when I was on a travel study tour in 1993. I began working with her after my time with Russell and I have worked with her for the past 6 years, the same time as with Deborah. Over this period I have arrived at a point where I feel I have the appropriate history and stimulation to concentrate on my own choreographic and performance practice.


Given your interest in and connection with high profile American dance practitioner, why haven’t you chosen to relocate overseas?

When I was on my travel study tour and finished working with those artists in America, I considered staying and working in the States. But because I was interested in developing my own practice and had an opportunity to work with Russell Dumas, I decided that I would have more time, space and opportunities to do that in Australia. And the fact that I have been travelling backwards and forwards to maintain those connections has been imperative to my development.


The importance of solo

So you have always combined working as a soloist and working with companies. I have a preference for solo work–the focus it allows me and the chance to become familiar with a singular way of moving. But perhaps this is a symptom of what’s on offer in Australia outside the large companies. What are your feelings about solo work?

I love solo dance–the opportunity to see a performer’s attention moving through them. It is difficult to see, and sometimes to practice, such specificity in group choreography when the focus is often directed elsewhere. As a solo performer, I love the opportunity to direct people’s attention to the most intimate and invisible moments. I am actually directing my own attention there, and hope others may recognise something. I love the simplicity of the form.


The recent performances of your solo work Eve seemed to me like a departure for you into what almost verged on role-playing. The ‘muttered’ gestures and whispered words were often directed to the audience in a way I haven’t seen in your work before. Did this solo work mark a shift in your relation with the audience?

My very early solo work, prior to the influence of the American practitioners, contained the essence of this recent solo. The early work was very emotionally driven, but I didn’t have the facility to utilise that expression well and I’d wind it up in a little ball. I recognised that I wouldn’t get much mileage out of that kind of intensity. The work with Deborah, Eva and Russell over the last decade has allowed me to filter that intensity through my whole body. Deborah uses the term “loyalty and disinterestedness at the same time.” My work with Deborah is very relevant here, particularly her performance practice. She always leaves the house lights on in the theatre when she performs. It’s so that the performer’s perceptual awareness is fully engaged–on a visual, oral and cellular level.

Eve is about the multi-faceted nature of the female character, the various layers of child, adult, sister and lover. The invitation to be seen and a generosity of spirit runs throughout the entire piece. In the first section where I am quite child-like, there is a simple, storytelling, look-at-me quality, along with reference to dance class and following the teacher’s steps. And then in the last section it arrives at a more integrated place, a place where the character is generous and inviting. I was referencing the Dying Swan a bit…but rather than death, a kind of lightness or flight. Eve is more character-based than anything else I’ve done in the last 6 years. Mary, an early solo work from 1990, was also character-based so I feel as though I’ve come full circle.

Putting it into words feels like I’m undoing the complexity of that process. The only way I can work with those kind of simplistic images in performance is if there is a sophisticated layering occurring… to be with the image or instruction and out of it and combining it with other images at the same time. I have to say, I’m not focusing on characterisation, it’s just something that grows out of my practice. Perhaps it’s the nature of solo performance. When I’m performing Eve, it’s like I’m following a path or a ‘yellow brick road’, but I’m being constantly available at every moment to impacts upon my perception–whether they’re from the audience, the space, the instructions or my imagination.


Working with choreographers

How does the process of working with others fit in with your own choreographic work?

I presented 3 solos in February this year in a season called Solos. One was by Lucy Guerin, one by Deborah Hay and one by myself (Eve). There are 2 aspects here–the choreography and the dancing. I am primarily interested in the dancer and dancing. I have always practiced dancing and this usually happens in solo moments, hence the attraction and empathy I have with the solo form. By ‘practicing dancing’ I mean the dancer dancing alone as a pianist would practice alone. This is not something encouraged in dance training in general, yet it seems essential. So whether I’m dancing my own choreography or someone else’s, I engage in the same performance practice. The choreographic instructions vary, the limitations and liberties I place on myself differ slightly in each work, but the attention is equal.

Framing, crafting and aestheticising dance is the choreography–an opportunity to detach from your individual idiosyncrasies and go beyond the surface of that purely kinaesthetic sensation. Choreography makes room for the performer to manage and organise themselves in mind and body, imagination and timing, within the framework of a singular vision. I am interested in how best I can occupy those frameworks. In relation to other people’s choreography, that’s my job. Although, in my own work, the process towards finding a clear framework for myself to occupy is often more challenging than when it is delivered to me. In my work I can choose when and where to go. I feel I can inject more of myself into the work, not indulging the emotional self, but investing in it and detaching from it simultaneously.

Both Lucy’s and Deborah’s choreographic practice provide me with similar room. The choreographic instructions are clear as a bell and this is the work that rings true to me, that interests me. It’s the clarity of their work that allows me to fill the choreography with a cellular intelligence. Feed the imagination with impossible tasks. Trust the body as mind. It requires a lot of thinking and re-thinking, moment after moment to arrive in this place.


Dancing and Choreography

Can you explain a little more what you mean by ‘dancing’ here and why it occurs in solos as a more ‘purely kinaesthetic’ experience? And how it is different to ‘choreography’?

Dancing, for me, is how the dancer organises themselves inside their own perceptual, physical, emotional and intellectual realm, and inside the choreographic structure. It is a state in which the dancer engages this ‘cellular intelligence’ to translate choreography into dance. The choreography is the framework or score for the dancer to occupy, whether in solo or ensemble form. Choreography is a designed structure that can provide strong reference points for the dancer to dance from, or inside of, and not get lost in their own preoccupations. Choreography cannot be seen unless danced, as a song is not heard unless sung. The dancing performer has the task of integrating all cellular and perceptual intelligence–many layers of experience–body, mind and heart, in order to articulate choreographic ideas. A dancer needs to practice ‘dancing’, not simply an execution of choreography.

I find indulging in the kinaesthetic sensation alone, a limiting approach to dance performance. The kinaesthetic sensation I am referring to is responding immediately to a physical, emotional or intellectual impulse and allowing the body to follow that momentum uninterrupted. It is more interesting as a solo dancer to challenge that moment of impulse, to pause and give space to the whole system organising itself within the instruction, idea, choreography or whatever, so the expression of this moment is not overloaded with meaning but at the same time enriched with the dancers entire experience. This does not limit the dancer to just the kinaesthetic experience, but broadens the experience by including all perception, imagined or true. Dancing solo offers opportunity to listen to this process closely and embody the choreography appropriately, so it is full, not empty, or overflowing. It is a delicate balance.


What do you mean by ‘the body as mind’?

I have spent many years training and re-training my body and mind to be in dialogue with one another. This has involved physical training, ballet, modern dance, tai chi, meditation, Alexander Technique etc. When I talk about the body as mind I am assuming for myself that a lot of understanding already exists in the body without the need for me to interfere, reinvent, relearn or think through this system. I am trusting my body as my teacher. It is from this point I can begin to practice performance, to detach from self and to utilise all past work and training to it’s optimum, inviting and trusting my perception to steer the dance within the choreography. This practice is to attend to what is there, in each moment, within the choreography, within the task, to attend to the task with complete commitment and loyalty, to invite the layers present to be appropriate to the moment I’m experiencing.


Can you talk a little about your own choreographic process… methodologies, collaborations, the relation between improvisation and performance?

I have always improvised, which is really what I mean by ‘dancing’ When I begin dancing in the studio I start these sessions with a very particular attention. It’s a listening…a patience and diligence in waiting for the body-as-mind to deliver. I then identify particular things from that that interest me and slowly build the choreography or the score with this material. I identify the intent and can begin imagining, and then experience a storyboard unfolding. By storyboard I mean that as the sections of the piece develop, I take that material and create a storyboard on paper so that I can begin to play with the structure. With Eve, the film images were very specific to exposing aspects the character that I, as the dancer, couldn’t imagine expressing. The film’s processes provided a way of separating the layers at specific moments.

Earlier in my work I collaborated with musicians and composers, Helen Mountford in particular. I worked with the choreography between movement and sound, letting that lead the development of the score. I still work with sound but trust the song of the dance more these days, for instance, letting Helen see the dance before she begins the sound score.

I also let space and circumstance influence the shape a new work takes. I imagine the actual framework that may house a particular dance. Imagining the house you may like to inhabit or occupy for instance. This means including design much earlier on in my work than before. I have collaborated with Margie Medlin on my last 2 projects (Original Home and Eve). I trust her work with mine and, like trusting a choreographer, know that she will work toward framing the dance, whether with structures, in light, or on film. Margie also worked with me on my first solo, Mary, in 1990 which I mentioned earlier, so we really have come full circle.


Dancing with film

What do you see as the relationship between the film image and the image of the live dancer?

I am interested in film having the ability to reframe the dancing body, to show details of the dance from inside the dancer’s experience, to show moments that are sometimes missed by the audience because of distance or attention. In the context of Eve, I originally designed the dance to fluctuate between the live and filmed dancer as a means of clearly drawing the viewer’s attention to details–face, hand, torso–that were relevant to the character’s experience. I imagined some of the projected film images to be quite small. Margie [Medlin] made them large, often 4 times life-size. The result impacted on the dance substantially. As I storyboarded the dance and the film, I wasn’t taking into account an environment within which the character could exist, so Margie’s contribution was not only the projection design, but also the creation of that total environment. Margie became interested in the character having other playmates and an overwhelming playground, hence the oversized projected figures.

I am also interested in the choreography between the film and live image to create a dialogue or phrasing in the work, literally the rhythm of the piece as a whole, similar to how I’ve worked with the choreography between sound and movement. Trusting Margie’s aesthetic and artistic choices has been important and has often bought into focus for me a particular intent or moment. We have a compatible aesthetic and process and are attuned to improvising together, building frameworks to house a dance.

Ros Warby’s Eve was seen as part of the antistatic dance program Scope at Performance Space. Also featured in Scope were Lisa O’Neill’s Fugu san and Cazerine Barry’s Sprung. Scope will be reviewed in RealTime 47, Feb-March, 2002.

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 26

© Erin Brannigan; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Willem Dafoe, The Hairy Ape

Willem Dafoe, The Hairy Ape

Music theatre was a common element in 2 of the most striking shows of the 2001 Melbourne Festival, The Hairy Ape and 2Pack. The New York-based Wooster Group’s The Hairy Ape sold out months in advance, due largely to Willem Dafoe playing the lead. Many spectators were therefore surprised to find themselves at something resembling a physicalised radio play, or a percussive, almost rap-style performance of early 20th century American working class patois. Those who walked out did not however follow Eidos: Telos discontents in phoning talkback radio.

The Hairy Ape had considerable acoustic power. Dafoe’s guttural tones modulated between sharp assaults and almost liquid intermingling words. The industrial set comprising a 2-storey metal grid emphasised the violence of Elizabeth LeCompte’s direction. The design also established a New York studio feel in the otherwise cavernous Merlyn Theatre. This was classic postmodern Brecht. The deliberately intrusive microphones and constant amplification of the text ensured that one was never simply lost in the drama. Rather one reflected on how things came about on stage, both aesthetically and narratively.

Eugene O’Neill’s play seems at first ideal for such an approach. It is vitally concerned with working class identity, the role of the unions, and class distinctions. O’Neill’s tale of a disenfranchised ship’s furnace stoker is however problematic. It brilliantly captures workers’ fears regarding technology. Yank’s peers have become slaves to the iron machines of capital. Yank/Dafoe is literally enmeshed in the production’s technologies, a microphone permanently strapped into his paw. To become free, one must regain control of one’s physical labour and body. O’Neill alternates between eulogising Yank’s brute physical prowess and showing how his faith in these muscular, self-punishing values turns him into the hairy ape he has been likened to.

Class solidarity is only possible for O’Neill if the muscular working class expels femininity. The world of the play is divided between hyper-masculine working class men possessed of an easy male camaraderie, and a divided upper class of effeminate men and women. It is the intrusion of a tremulously voiced upper class woman which shatters Yank’s fraternal below-deck paradise.

LeCompte’s staging presents O’Neill’s text as an acoustic object to be critically worked upon in the space. This leaves one free to reject the author’s dubious gender politics. The absence of even the possibility of female workers in this representation of a period characterised by a massive female workforce and women’s increasing political and social visibility (the so-called New Woman, suffragettes, socialists like Rosa Luxembourg etc) is troubling though. LeCompte offers no commentary beyond casting the same performer (Kate Valk) as both the naive female upper class intruder and the ape to whose deadly embrace Yank finally surrenders himself. This might suggest that the association between physical strength, masculinity and working class identity is not as strong as one might otherwise imagine. Despite such flaws, The Hairy Ape is a compelling, complex production. Given the long history of post-WWII reinterpretations of Brechtian theatre (Heiner Muller, Elin Diamond, Peter Brook et al) though it is hardly the radical work it continues to be hailed as. This is the sort of production Playbox and MTC should be doing.

O’Neill’s implicit gender politics are reversed in the latest piece from Melbourne circus-theatre company Dislocate. Where O’Neill’s same-sex community evokes a working class paradise violated by a new Eve, playwright Michael Gow’s script for Dislocate’s festival show, Risk Reduction, suggests that homosocial relations are the problem, more a male angel menaced by a comic Lucifer here. In Risk Reduction we meet performer Geoffrey Dunstan as a fearful office worker whose body is cleaned and dressed by his personal servant, Rudi Mineur as Mr Muscle. Their relationship is illustrated by a beautiful acrobatic sequence, Dunstan affectionately and intimately manipulated by his companion. It is again the intrusion of femininity—this time in the form of Kate Fryer as a photocopy assistant—which disturbs this male idyll. Dunstan’s homosocial introversion however is here represented as pathological. His salvation occurs when he rejects Mr Muscle in favour of a return to heterosexual society, gathering the courage to act on his (normal) desire for the woman.

Mine is definitely a more subtle reading than Risk Reduction is designed to elicit. The work is primarily a caricature, boldly painted using episodic acrobatic sequences and simple dramatic scenarios. We meet Dunstan’s paranoid-neurotic stumbling through a park at night, helpless outside of his hermetic work and domestic environments. Fryer swoops down upon him from the rigging. Her black cockroach suit and panto-villain laugh are a joy. Risk Reduction is great fun for adults and children, but Gow’s simplistic narrative lacked the wonderful, mad complexity of the John Romeril text for Dislocate’s Acronetic (2000). Risk Reduction is a comparatively slight work, more of a crowd pleaser.

Belgian company Hush Hush Hush’s 2Pack provided a needed correlative to these festival productions. Belgian-Algerian director Abdelaziz Sarrokh has worked with Alain Platel’s Les Ballets C. de la B. Platel’s influence was visible in 2Pack’s structure as a chaotic series of impressions taken from an evening in the life of an ethnic working class community manifest on stage. The set comprised 9 cubicles stacked on top of each other as in the ghettoised high-density housing one finds from Ghent to LA (or Melbourne). A bar in a ground-floor corner, action spilling out of it onto the main stage. The area in front of the flats came to represent both the streets on which the inhabitants socialised on as well as a space in which their troubled dreams were enacted.

2Pack mixed Expressionist ideas and choreographic fragments with hip-hop culture; Pina Bausch’s dance theatre meets freestylin. A well-selected score of phat classics acted as the characters’ projected mental jukebox. B-boy styles and dance-offs sat alongside suggestions of personal histories of sexual abuse, the physical manifestation of racial pressures and other themes. The production was eminently accessible with these devices and pop-culture references, while still being challengingly abstract and dense. At one point a woman’s inchoate psychic pain led her to wrap herself in knots and stuff white balls into her mouth as she executed an angrily ecstatic, arching, operatic, melodramatic solo. Multiple social constraints were alluded to, energising the production. Hip-hop was revealed as a cultural amalgam which produces art from conflict. An old skool track of Ice T cautioning listeners not to be fooled into believing the Gulf War is about freedom, but about imperialism at home and abroad, took on chilling relevance in light of the destruction of Afghanistan.

2Pack was moreover the only Melbourne Festival production to effectively dramatise women’s lives. The sexual freedom of one woman, objectified by a man who gazed at her and provoked her with his tongue, became a source of both her liberation and oppression. She found ecstasy in her sexual provocations, yet it was she who later retired to her flat to muse on her scarred sexual consciousness. The women were indeed amongst the strongest performers, moving beyond the classic B-boy stylings which the men excelled at, gesturing towards flamenco and athletic modern dance. One tall, taut woman revelled in going head to head with the others, employing a distinctive, low, acrodance style. The combination of tightly choreographed sections with improvised play-offs eventually exploding the entire dramatic structure, made 2Pack the best of these 3 shows, yet even it could not compete with the Greenaway-meets-Cunningham, postmodern ballet-opera of Ballett Frankfurt’s Eidos: Telos.

The Hairy Ape, by Eugene O’ Neill, Wooster Group, director Elizabeth LeCompte, Merlyn Theatre, CUB Malthouse, Oct 19 – Nov 3; Risk Reduction, direction/text Michael Gow, performers/devisers Kate Fryer, Geoffrey Dunstan, performer Rudi Mineur, North Melbourne Town Hall, Oct 24 – Nov 3; 2Pack, by Hush Hush Hush, director/performer Abdelaziz Sarrokh, State Theatre, Oct 24-27.

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 8

© Jonathan Marshall; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Hellen Sky, Company in Space

Hellen Sky, Company in Space

Hellen Sky, Company in Space

Where do cultural fantasies about physically transplanting a human body instantly to another part of the world (read galaxy) come from if not from artistic license? State of the art instant electronic transfers that substitute digital images of the body only serve to taunt us with the inadequacies of current technology in relation to our grander imaginings. As John McCormick and Hellen Sky of Company in Space experimented with transposing the movement of Sky’s body from Melbourne to Florida, they imaginatively stretched towards the ‘what if’ of transporting her whole body. But on opening night, we were not able to witness how her body’s movement was received in Florida because the reciprocal transfer of a moving male body from there to Melbourne was not fully realised for the audience.

Company in Space’s performance work may well stir the spatial imagination of viewers. While it is at the mercy of the law of technology—we desire what it has yet to deliver—CO3 as an event was composed of multiple performances by bodies on the sidelines. Sky, in a motion capture suit, moved in slow motion along a balcony at the Capitol Theatre, across to its aisles and down to the stage. She moved under the weight of the leather suit with its metal rod structure outlining her limbs like a second skeleton, one worn outside the muscular frame. She carried the added weight of familiar images of space suits moving on the moon or divers on the ocean floor. I enjoyed the metaphoric resonance of a healthy body at large, hooked up to monitors capturing its every twitch, its every breath, and watched intensely by attendants—another visible performance.

Sky’s body in motion radiated with the aesthetic beauty of exposed machinery; from the delicate brass of an old clock mechanism at Greenwich to a new look Apple iMac. Competing for attention with her live body, however, was her live movement doubled into animated screen imagery.

On the screen were animated figures moving in unfamiliar trajectories. Sky was controlling them from her motion capture suit without any visible delay. As she moved her arms, personified figures moved theirs in animated landscapes; firstly, an old woman outside a house as it began to snow; secondly, a young woman in an earth-bound landscape with artificial trees. A bodiless coat joined this screen woman followed by 2 upside-down legs. The background began to erode into darkness and the virtual world turned into an arcade with a robotic figure and then into shadows. Once the simulation of humanness vanished and figures became geometric in constant motion, patterns swirled like digital diagrams of a body’s movement. The most sublime was a paper-like image in an electronic wind.

There was sound, but on reflection it may have been supplementary if not incidental, sometimes like flowing water, mostly an electronic hum. McCormick and the production team worked in reaction to Sky’s bodily movements as she drove the visual effects. Why was I drawn to watch Sky more than the screen most of the time? Even a completely covered live body in slow motion was more appealing to this perceptual body-self. Paradoxically, the dancer’s physical body was hidden to make its muscular movement visible on the screen.

Company in Space, CO3, concept John McCormick developed in collaboration with Miriam English, Hellen Sky, Keith Robertson. RMIT Capitol Theatre, Melbourne, Sept 6

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 27

© Peta Tait; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Quick Brown Fox, Leigh Warren & William Forsythe

Quick Brown Fox, Leigh Warren & William Forsythe

William Forsythe presented 2 works at this year’s Melbourne Festival. One, Quick Brown Fox, was made in collaboration with Adelaide’s Leigh Warren and Dancers, the other, Eidos: Telos, was performed by his own company, Ballett Frankfurt. Quick Brown Fox was inspired by the typist’s motto, which uses each letter in the alphabet at least once. Philosophers have long recognised that, on the one hand, language consists of a finite number of words and, on the other, that these words can be combined in an infinite number of ways. Thus, the open ended nature of language. Similarly Forsythe’s work is built upon classical ballet with its finite lexicon of movement. Yet he too manages to combine finitude in order to create.

Vacillating between movement and stillness, Quick Brown Fox replicates the syntactic challenge of its namesake. All dancers are assigned their own phrase material. Upon a spoken command—one of 26—the dancers adapt their movements, mainly in relation to the presence of other bodies, to form a composite body. Frozen for a moment, they then resume their individual dance. Kinaesthetically, the movement is ballet based; clearly shaped, with its characteristic pelvis, head held high. Yet, many deformations of ballet also occur. While it’s clear that everyone has their own moves—moves that seem to suit each body—they also combine in complex ways with the others, sharing weight, weaving in and out, making room.

Quick Brown Fox is a relentless series of formations, deformations, solos and duets. The score is a deconstructed collage of simple musics, in and out of tempo. Some people complain that one hour straight is hard going. I find it totally absorbing and thoroughly stimulating. The dancers are so clear to watch. It’s not that the movement as such is so interesting but the flow, the combinations, the complexity, the abstract permutations make the work compelling. The cool jazz of Quick Brown Fox brings forth something I haven’t noticed in previous works by Warren.

Eidos: Telos is a much more difficult piece to write about. Harder to grasp, harder to recount. In 3 parts, Part I presents a piece (Self Meant to Govern) made the year before Eidos: Telos. Clocks tick backwards, time is scrambled, muscular bodies move, forming permutations and combinations. A violinist plays amidst the action. It is fast. There are moments when whatever order has been achieved drops a notch. Not that the execution is any less controlled, more that a certain disorder is represented. The edges of the tarquet floor are peeled back, creating an inexplicable sense of horror that a boundary is now permeable, vulnerable. Part II pokes a finger into that hole, plumbing its depths, emerging to examine the contents. One performer (Dana Casperson), bare breasted in an orange skirt, screeches as a spider, speaking of her time below and above the earth, evoking the mythical personae of Persephone, Kore and Demeter. Her voice sounds like fingernails on a blackboard. After Casperson’s solo, the company enters, bare breasted men and women, in flowing skirts: Velasquez‚ Las Meninas. Waltzing, curving through space, occasionally one performer speaks, challenging the audience with aggressive remarks. A mixture of beauty and mortal despair.

Part III suggests a return to Part I, refracted through the memory and sensibilities of the performers. There is a palpable sense of the dancers recreating in movement something from dances past—Proust lives. At one point giant strings stretch across the stage, their twanged reverberations effecting gross changes of mood and texture.

There are many occasions when a great deal is happening, decentering any sense that there is one line of action to follow, one line of thought. Difficult, dark, beautiful, suggestive, puzzling. I’m not very good with myth but I can tell you that death has something to do with it. And life.

For the record, some of you may have heard about nudity and obscenity. Casperson had no undies on under her floor length skirt. It was comparable to Sharon Stone’s apocryphal flash in Basic Instinct. My mother missed it altogether. And the obscenities? Some words spoken in anger. Unfortunately, I’ve heard them before from fellow drivers.

Quick Brown Fox, choreography Leigh Warren & William Forsythe with the ensemble (Peter Furness, Kim Hales-McCarthur, Deon Hastie, Rachel Jenson, Glen McCurley, Aidan Kane Munn, Jo Roads), Leigh Warren and Dancers, The Merlyn, C.U.B. Malthouse, Oct 11-13; Eidos:Telos, choreography William Forsythe, text Dana Casperson, Ballett Frankfurt, State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne International Festival of Arts, Oct 17-21

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 8

© Philipa Rothfield; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

My Mother India

My Mother India

In family lore there’s the insult that goes beyond the pale, the revelation that brings shame on the name and then there’s making a film. There may be a market hungry for reality but what about the wash up in the lives of filmmakers who risk being excised from the will or at least struck off the Christmas list?

At this year’s WOW International Film Festival organised by Women in Film and TV (WIFT), an event jam packed with shorts, features, forums and celebrations impressively curated by Jacqui North and her team, a special day of documentaries featured 4 films that negotiated some of the perils and pleasures of personal filmmaking.

Jessica Douglas-Henry’s Our Brother James is really a portrait of the filmmaker’s sister Alix and her learning to live with their brother James’ suicide at age 20. In exposing the holes in the family fabric that allowed a vulnerable boy to slip through, the filmmaker opens herself to some judgemental responses from the audience—”where were you?”, they niggle, and “why didn’t we hear from your mother?” When you enter this terrain, it’s too easy to forget it’s film you’re watching. To prove it Douglas-Henry describes the strands that disappeared in the cut, replaced by the power of Alix’s considerable screen presence and the power of her “story.” Jessica invites Alix into her “split focus” scenario. Together the sisters take the journey back to Geraldton, back to the house where Alix found her dead brother, back along the path of personal grief that led her to public action—she is now involved with a voluntary suicide prevention organisation.

The film begins at the remote family homestead and moves through a crossroads and onto the dusty road to Geraldton. Jessica drives the car and asks the questions. Somewhat uncomfortable on camera, she defers to her sister who’s easy with it. “I don’t want to sound crass,” said someone in the audience after, “but she’s great talent.” As with all family stories, truths conflict but here the filmmaker listens intently to her younger sister’s side of the story. At one point, in response to Alix’s memory, she directs the camera to follow the nape of a neck, a young boy in the street who looks alarmingly like James. But no matter how careful she is to be objective, as Alix watches her own child playing, Jessica’s eye drifts to the sand dunes around Geraldton. Much of the film’s strength lies in the evocative way Douglas-Henry locates the family drama in a very particular landscape.

Melissa Lee set out with a project to research Korean-American documentary filmmakers and wound up with something altogether more interesting. A True Story About Love exposes her problematic romance with her first Korean lover (Melissa is Korean-Australian) and simultaneously his friend, a Japanese actor (the star of Peter Wang’s Chan is Missing). Lee takes a while to shake off her ‘researcher’ role. When the actor asks her out she interrogates her own image, “How could I go out with him after what Japan did to Korea?” Like other good films in this genre (Dennis O’Rourke’s The Good Woman of Bangkok, Sophie Calle’s No Sex Last Night) this little film reveals some big truths about relationships. It mixes narration, confession into the mirror, with intimate conversations with the 2 men in and out of bed. Given the sheets are still warm, Lee’s subjects are understandably less than comfortable with her surveillance, sometimes confronting it. And the filmmaker is upfront when the Japanese actor unleashes some scary thoughts on race and sexual power which, in the end, she doesn’t really want to hear. As often happens in these films, there’s no happy ending. Lee follows her filmmaker’s heart and is left with only the hand-held.

Safina Uberoi is nervous before the screening of her film. No wonder! Half the Indian community of Sydney has turned up for My Mother India and here she is with an opening shot of underwear hanging on a line. “One of the recurring horrors of my childhood was that my mother hung her panties on the washing line. I don’t know what Indian women wore under their saris but they never ever hung them where other people could see them.”

So begins a story more fascinating than any fiction I’ve encountered lately (outside my own family) and with an unforgettable cast of characters: Patricia Uberoi, the filmmaker’s mother who recounts her story so eloquently; JPS Uberoi the philosopher father; the Sikh guru grandfather who in the madness of his dying days “awesomely” relived Partition as the 1984 anti-Sikh riots raged in the streets; and his wife, the strong-willed grandmother who never forgave “the atrocity” of his treatment of her in 1947. The film weaves all this with the personal story of Patricia whose Canberra family could never bring themselves to visit her in Delhi, whose composure breaks only when she talks about giving up her Australian citizenship as an act of violence. You feel the intensity in the eyes of each family member as they meet those of the filmmaker and her husband (Himma Dhamija) behind the camera. The face of Patricia Uberoi, a study in itself, is interspersed with footage shot in India. At the heart of this film is a daughter’s homage to her complicated heritage. As we watch the fair-skinned faced Patricia kneading chapatis, Safina says, “My father is Indian and so is my mother, the identity of each a lifetime’s quest that is always being played out in complex ways.” Introducing the film to the huge crowd Safina speaks confidently about her reasons for “sacrificing” her family’s story to public scrutiny: “What happened to India happened to us”

Rob, the subject of Charlotte Roseby’s film Still Breathing, suffers from cystic fibrosis. Between drugs, hospital stays, a severely restricted lifestyle, he makes the most of what he knows is limited time. His calm insights into mortality conflict with the medical profession: “Death is seen by doctors as a looming giant ready to pounce if they do something wrong.” As he narrates the film his descriptions of the physical sensations of the disease, of lungs filling with fluid, are translated into images of rocks and water. At one point, his hospital bed is transposed to the beach. “Independence shrinks to body size,” he says, and it’s this restriction to his freedom that hastens the decision to list himself for a lung transplant, which may or may not work. My one quibble with this film was that it succumbed to the documentary cliché, adding text to tell us what happened when the cameras stopped.

As Safina Uberoi said in the afternoon forum, while personal documentary is not for everyone, the challenges involved in it—including the ones to do with confronting the subjects of your work, ie your family and friends—is great discipline for any filmmaker.

Our Brother James (52 mins), director Jessica Douglas-Henry, producer Mary-Ellen Mullane; A True Story About Love (27 mins), director/producer Melissa Lee; My Mother India (52 mins), director Safina Uberoi, producer Penny McDonald; Still Breathing, director/producer Charlotte Roseby, producer Nell White. WOW International Film Festival, Chauvel Cinema, Sydney, Oct 20.

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 18

© Virginia Baxter; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

John Osborne, 1959 (Damn You England: Collected Prose, Faber and Faber, 1994)

John Osborne, 1959 (Damn You England: Collected Prose, Faber and Faber, 1994)

A legend has been deliberately circulated that a revolution has begun to take place. As yet there has been little fighting in the streets, a great deal of whispering behind closed doors, with odd, isolated, blustering outbreaks; but the machinery of government goes on much the same as ever…You still want to be a revolutionary? You’ve plenty of time. The party has scarcely started.

New Brutalism. The Brit-Pack. The Blood and Sperm Generation. Cool Britannia. In-Yer-Face Theatre.

Whatever the moniker, do these names signify the triumph of marketing over substance? Are these nasty newish British plays just full of puerile shock tactics or do they mark a genuine shift in the form and content of theatre?

Aleks Sierz, a London-based writer and reviewer (and RealTime correspondent), suggests the latter and has produced a timely volume, In-Yer-Face Theatre, on the nature and depth of this shift. He details quite exactly the forms and chances taken in this gut-wrenching, heart-stopping and mind-numbing theatre work. His inelegant neologistic title hints at the oblique angles some new British drama has taken. In-Yer-Face theatre, Sierz explains, is anything new on stage that swears, vomits or fucks up; anything that is scatological, funny, violent, shocking, provocative; something that breaks taboos, explodes prejudice or betrays your trust. More than this, he explains, “this kind of theatre is so powerful, so visceral, that it forces audiences to react; either they feel like fleeing the building or they are suddenly convinced that it is the best thing they have ever seen and want all their friends to see it too.”

And this is what gives this particular volume a fascinating currency—that this new writing did attract a significant audience. Indeed it was, and is, often commercial (many of the plays examined here started in small or medium sized theatres and ended up on the West End, and even Broadway). Commerce and art rarely mix well but these plays often sold out, without their authors ever ‘selling out’. And in this respect the Royal Court led the way. As it did back in 1956 with John Osbourne’s Look Back in Anger.

Such an artistic policy did attract much criticism (though it was also good for business). Some commentators have suggested that many of these plays were opportunistically conceived, modish and written to formula—add genital mutilation, heroin, dance music and amusingly lewd and drunken slacker angst, a nifty title and stir. Others argued that this fuss was simply much ado about the young; the transfiguration of the new, the naughty and the young purely because it was, and they were, new, naughty and young—an inversely sentimental charmed circle of youth. Another form of flak was one I encountered here in Australia. On expressing public support for this work I was attacked by the dramaturg of an established theatre company on the grounds that if I liked that new British stuff I must be shallowly obsessed with sex and violence. I retorted that most good theatre is usually about sex, violence, death or game-playing, at least to some degree—thus inadvertently suggesting a new strain of critique, that everything old is new again. Finally, and unsurprisingly, conservative critics damned as amoral this seeming concentration on sexy violence and violent sex. Who could forget the Daily Telegraph’s Jack Tinker on Sarah Kane’s Blasted: “this disgusting feast of filth.” Whatever the motivation, ethics or quality of the new British drama that Sierz studies, however—and I will get to this soon—these works genuinely pulled a new audience into theatres.

Whether you like them or not, the works of Patrick Marber, Sarah Kane, Conor Macpherson, Jez Butterworth, Judy Upton, Martin Crimp, Antony Neilson, Martin McDonagh, Rebecca Prichard, Joe Penhall, Mark Ravenhill, Rebecca Gilman, Che Walker, Nic Grosso—and many others examined by Sierz, most of whom came up through the Court—have reinvigorated an industry that was asking itself less than 10 years ago: ‘Why is our audience so fucking middle aged?’ This was Stephen Daldry’s mission statement when he took over the Royal Court in 1993. It was against all orthodoxies that the Royal Court put on a season of first plays by new writers on their mainstage; indeed Graham Whybrow, its Literary Manager, mentioned to me in an interview in 1998 that all his colleagues “stroked their beards” and said such a venture would certainly fail. This brave and astute programming worked, however, and continues to do so. By this I mean, and Sierz’s book supports this, that writers kept writing and people kept coming. It did shock. It did hit the tabloids. It did mean there were renewed calls for censorship. It also had people talking about theatre again, and a larger audience than there had been. Sure that’s a woolly unqualified statement, but this book is testament to the interest and excitement this new work generated. Nor were these new plays simply cool or hip (though they were that too), but hard-nosed social comment and thorough, visceral explorations of humanity and the inhumane. This new kind of theatre, what Sierz refers to as “experiential”, has also been enormously influential. The breakthrough, and salutary lesson, then for other more staid theatre companies was (and remains) that new theatre writing was commercially possible, even desirable. In the past 10 years new work has indeed been where the money is. This lends legitimacy to the notion that something important was going on, a new blend of innovation and moneymaking.

Gone were the pompous state of the nation plays, the Brechtian bulldozer, the arch Ibsenite punch and concentration on established writers. In swept a king tide of female and male playwrights of mixed races, complex political affiliations and even more confusing sexual obsessions. Specificity of class, race and gendered experience was the key to these howls of pain or laughter. On close study they remain powerful, genuine and finely crafted. The work of Kane, for instance, here studied in some detail, is fascinating for its continual experimentation, explosive humour and horrifying honesty. Similarly the work of Prichard or Penhall is undeniable in its fierce intelligence and sinuous, extreme naturalism.

This is work that marks an important change in culture, politics and theatre—reminding us also that these are inseparable. Theatre can and must tell stories for us to reflect on who we are and where we live so we can reinvent the world, laugh at its possibilities, our foibles, mutability, idealism or alienation. And in this case the more contemporary the story’s resonance, the better. On stage anything is possible and in that respect Sierz’ book makes great reading. It is thrilling to read about a society and an industry/profession that supports unknown writers because of their clarity of vision and determination to think through and beyond literal limitations, cultural reservations and societal constructs.

In his analysis of this work Sierz makes much of the passepartout “experiential” (this theatre was new and dangerous because it was not simply naturalistic, emotionally extreme or terrifying; it is totally involving like it is happening to you too, thus experiential) but he can afford to be more specific and more academic than that. It tends to collapse idea and form into a hagiographic mess, and though I know what he means, it feels both too upbeat and too generalised. What needs to be understood about this new writing is that not only is it exciting, but that it has been painstakingly, professionally and expensively developed, programmed and produced. The Royal Court produces 19 new plays in full production a year. Not all that work is going to be earth-shattering, but some of it will probably be quite good. And along with the Royal Court, the theatres that survive solely by producing only new work are many and varied (and these are only the ones I can remember off the top of my head): The Traverse, Paines Plough, Out of Joint, Soho Theatre Company, Royal National Studio, The Gate, the Bush, Hampstead Theatre, the Glasgow Cits and the studio theatre at the West Yorkshire Playhouse.

It should also be noted that the rather grand claim of the title (“British Drama Today”) is not borne out in the book. It is not about all British drama today. It focuses exclusively on a small number of young playwrights. Their innovations in form and content are important but are totally text based. Also, by concentrating mainly on the shock value attached to these plays’ depictions of sex and violence, it misrepresents the breadth and scope of the new writing that was produced at this time, and the reasons for its sudden accessibility. In addition to this, Sierz enlivens and emboldens the concept of the playwright. This might irritate some—like a performer and writer I spoke to recently who dismissed the notion of the playwright as bourgeois, 19th century and moribund. This book is primarily descriptive too, referring often to fashion, and to things that are cool and hip. As a result its analysis feels a little slippery but the book is essentially a marvellous resource and an important signpost. As is Sierz’s great website. If you don’t like this particular flavour of new British writing, this book probably won’t change your mind about it; but it will certainly open up your eyes to the seriousness of the work, its pretensions, enthusiasm, irony and vaulting ambition.

In-Yer-Face Theatre: British Drama Today by Aleks Sierz was published by Faber and Faber in March 2001. www.inyerface-theatre.com

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 37

© Chris Mead; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Nigel Helyer, Caliban's Children (above), Densil Cabrera, Serenade, in Crosstalk (on plinths)

Nigel Helyer, Caliban's Children (above), Densil Cabrera, Serenade, in Crosstalk (on plinths)

The cross talk of the title no doubt refers to the way sounds from the different pieces ‘bleed’ (ouch!) into one another when placed in close proximity. Often, in exhibitions involving sound, ‘cross’ could apply to the antagonism of competing sounds, but here there is no anger, no claims staked, nobody out of control, no rude interruptions. The installation strategy of Cross Talk is to only include works that are so gentle and unobtrusive that, even as they share the same space, they don’t get in each other’s way. Faced with the alternatives—come up with the money for separate, insulated spaces; alternate the operation of pieces; put them on headphones; or let them battle it out, the most boisterous wins—this is perfectly valid. It is a bit odd, however, given the institutional connection, since architecture at some point conjures up monumentality, the discarded shells of history lashed by weather and baked mercilessly for generations by the sun, the gaudiness of too many expensive magazines and self-congratulatory award ceremonies, you name it, not just quiet little corners more reminiscent of cupboards. Whether all 6 pieces in the show flourish in such toned-down surrounds is a separate question.

Konrad Skirlis’s BuzZAir was the loudest of the bunch, but then again its delicate gritty squeals, windy pulses and the like—what he calls dirty sounds—have been exiled to the outside. Problem was that the buses, cars and aeroplanes were there first and if electricity is to compete with the sounds of the petroleum economy, it needs some juice. A block down the street there was a transformer in ill repair that put up more of a fight. Densil Cabrera’s Serenade was a belated entry into the contest held by the Imperial Academy of St. Petersburg in 1779 to determine the character of vowel sounds and make a device to sound them, so to speak. With the assistance of the glass artist Peter Wright, Cabrera modelled vocal tracts down the centre of rugged glass plugs, upon which listeners rested their ears. It was difficult to determine which vowels were being fluted from the separate pieces, probably because they were reduced to a whisper. The pieces were elegant and the idea a good one, but Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein already won the contest in the early 1780s. Kratzenstein had an inexplicable aversion to diphthongs; perhaps there is something to explore here.

Floriferous was a beautiful multimedia work by Kirsty Beilharz, who also composed and performed the accompanying piano piece. The piece was a good vehicle for harmonizing obvious talents flowing in several directions, but the material substratum of all the carved frames, garden shots, orientalism, sat awkwardly on the flat little screen, and the music of a high modernist register seemed out of place for a show ostensibly addressing the problematic and possibilities of sound. Likewise, Michaela James’ Overbalancing seemed more concerned with reconciling sound with the artist’s skills as a painter rather than proposing an integrated work in its own right.

The 2 most successful works were by Mark Jones and Nigel Helyer. Jones’ Eine Kleine Licht Musik was certainly the most architectural. Light, projected through 2 rotating multicoloured and mineralised filters, continually traversed across the mouth of a large white ceramic bowl flanked by 2 white vases. Tucked away at the back were sensors that converted the light to raspy little sounds emanating from a speaker placed below the crockery. It was difficult to determine how the light might correlate to the sounds, as the filters overlapped and went in and out of phase with one another, but the overall effect was to give light movement and volume, common attributes of sound, while the sound assumed more of the steady-state feel of light. The piece could have been more architectural still if Vitruvius had been consulted on “sounding vessels in the theatre,” Chapter 5, Book 5, of his Ten Books of Architecture.

Finally, Helyer’s Caliban’s Children comprised a series of what looked like large plexiglas squid suspended from the ceiling, or ornate trumpets, squid trumpets, driven by some circuit-board and speaker action where the mouthpiece should be. The title refers to the sound sensitive Caliban and his “isle full of noises” from Shakespeare’s Tempest. The isle, in this case, is Australia and the children are its inhabitants, who not only tread upon the indigenous and colonial politics on the “un-inhabited island” of the play, but also tread upon sounds from a more geological time frame. The squid resemble radiolaria, the microscopic sea creatures that gave up their crusts a long long time ago to help form Australia’s foundations. The sound of these stiff, hypertrophied creatures turns out to be an intense little sine wave, which bends as you approach closer or try another angle. This change in pitch might be influenced by the array of baffles that are the creature’s tentacles, but comes most certainly from the Theremin circuit, which renders the pitch sensitive to movement. Here the radiolaria meld into the radio technology upon which the Theremin was based. The Theremin was originally designed to mimic the movements of a conductor’s hands. Like conductors themselves, an autocratic design. In this case, instead of hands it is your head; instead of conducting an orchestra you are trying to listen to the past; and instead of autocratic directives it is an ever-changing relationship. Helyer will have to go into mass production, however, if the installation is to approach the “thousand twangling instruments” of which Caliban spoke.

Cross Talk: Works Involving Sound, Tin Sheds Gallery, University of Sydney’s Faculty of Architecture, Sydney, Oct 20 – Nov 10

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 34

© Douglas Kahn; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Lisa Ffrench, Part-Time

Lisa Ffrench, Part-Time

Lisa Ffrench, Part-Time

Just a few keywords to give you the flavour: swirly amorphously romantic music, the absurd keenness of youth, and a terrible urge to smile—all strong features in Lisa Ffrench’s new solo work, Part-Time. Meet Lisa, a girl with a part-time sales job and a full-time desire for stardom: the almost epic squabble between tedious reality and an insatiable fantasy life, making her in the end a sadder but wiser part-time choreographer.

One teeters between disbelief and amazement at the possibility that her story is autobiographical. Does the Lisa Ffrench we know actually (but secretly) worship at a pink heart-shaped altar to George Clooney? Does she really devour Vanity Fair with rabid desperation to feel closer to the stars? Or is this some other fictitious Lisa—like Muriel—perhaps, with stardom rather than a wedding as her supreme goal? Maybe the answer doesn’t matter. Ffrench’s aims are, to a certain extent at least, ironical and self-mocking. However, unlike Muriel’s Wedding, the purpose is unclear in the straightforward narrative delivery. While she leaves minimal room for interpretation, most people who watched her performance didn’t seem to mind. They also enjoyed the dance which was simple, accomplished and unambiguous, containing literal gesture and well-formed steps. Finally, Ffrench delivers a short, touching song that manages to reach places the rest of the performance might have missed.

The Fondue Set, originally billed as an “also featuring” act, delivered a show which, despite its obvious limitations (Emma Saunders had a broken foot complete with cast), managed to create something quite new in Sydney dance culture, bringing their own particular flamboyant party girl context with them from night club to theatre. Soft Cheese is in roughly 8 sections, illuminating the social behaviour of girls with their guard drooping, at a party or just looking for a good time. The scaffolding for this behaviour is most likely the familiar 60s cocktail scene, where politeness gradually disintegrates with the quantity of drugs ingested. There’s also the particularly bitchy, tragic, nihilistic flavour of today’s public party crowds—women dressing up and getting blotto in their efforts to have a good time.

The movement itself seems to seep naturally out of the nightlives of the 3 women, becoming heightened when they’re frocked up in red tulle and ankle boots or chilled out in an excess of cool. Whether falling face first into a bar top and a plate of Jatz, staggering boozed through cigarette smoke patterns, exhibiting nonchalance as if it were a lifestyle or slowly swaying to the beat as they pour drinks over themselves in perfect unison, the dancers recapture fragments of the fantasies of some other fast-disappearing generation.

Jane McKernan slowly rolls across the floor to face the audience, legs awkwardly kicking, doll-like and unstrung, arms gesturing, beckoning. It’s quiet but for Louise Davis who sings a plangent unaccompanied version of The Doors’ Hello, I Love You. McKernan scrawls her phone number in lipstick on the inside of her arm, sprawled out for the taking.

In the last section, Gabby Adamik and McKernan don what look to be netball colours for the quaintly charming elite team event of marathon dancing. But what starts out to be a very slight joke becomes a dance which breaks over the audience with increasing abandon, a gruelling, driving, repetitive cycle of unison phrases, and with each repetition the dancers become more breathless and out of control. This dance caused me to rush out and buy The White Stripes’ CD just for those 50 seconds of Little Room. The Fondue Set make it last for at least 10 minutes.

One Extra Dance Company, Part-Time, solo work by Lisa Ffrench; Soft Cheese, The Fondue Set (Emma Saunders, Jane McKernan & Gabrielle Adamik), Downstairs Theatre, Seymour Centre, Sydney, Oct 25

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 28

© Eleanor Brickhill; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Stand Your Ground

Stand Your Ground

Stand Your Ground

Great excitement at the door and an insistent clamouring to get in from some young people who had not booked, still giving it a go although they don’t carry the magic ticket. A security guard and box office at the gate manage to create a sense of energy contained. A bit of a scramble for seats inside and the image of a small sea of excited moving figures. The shoreline of performer-audience geography shifts back and forth as the players burn with animation, leaning forward from their front row seats—emptied and filled again as they jump up to perform then slither back to ogle and shout support, to call to a performing friend, shy-looking and focused on her task. They must have told her something good. Her composure dissolves only for a moment.

The noise is big (from performers, parents, friends, teachers) and the entrances grand, with the exception of the quiet still presence of Billy MacPherson who welcomes us to the land with a raw and powerful sung poem—a rare still point amidst moving lights, projected images, furious dancing. Our focus on this place at this time is heightened by the filmed story of a city boy’s return home after a stay in the bush. Life in the streets of the innercity is a comfort after sleeping out with the terror of the spirits of someone else’s country.

Images of the street, voices in the dark telling it how it is and 3 white-shirted, rock-solid, soft-voiced young male singers leaning into their hand-held ‘voice box’ mikes. Anchors in a raucous hyped-up crowd of spectators and performers urged on by master rapper and hip-hop artist Morgan Lewis playing MC, throwing in the odd bit of drumming and break-dancing.

Huge shouts of recognition and acknowledgment for each group, which swells as the Miamis are bumped into the space from the street in the back of a big white people-mover van. The shout that goes up for “Waterloo 2017” makes sure we will never forget the singers’ postcode.

The noise and action contrast with the angular diffidence, squishy T-shirt adjustments, totally self-contained rippling movements of dancing bodies with many kinds of grace. They check the next series of steps over their shoulders as they work the chewing gum and grin momentarily, then drop us into a new reality as we see them hanging out at the gym, dancing in the streets, running from the police or involved in a street dispute captured in multiples on video screens.

Stand Your Ground, the creation of 70 young people, many of them Indigenous, from Redfern, Waterloo, Alexandria and Erskineville, generates a tremendous sense of place and identity. The performers celebrate the slice of innercity Sydney where they live, its group loyalties are passionate, its dangers tinged with excitement. It’s in the media again this week—public transport re-routed after hurled objects repeatedly damage buses. It’s a site of maximum development—vast stretches of expensive new apartment blocks, revitalised industrial sites, car showrooms, trendy pubs and cafes—and chronic underdevelopment: unemployment, poor housing, poverty and the social tensions they breed.

A one-off like Stand Your Ground, where everyone seems to know everyone, and where pride can be displayed without antagonism, talent given a go or the community have fun, is more necessary than just worth doing. It might not be up to PACT’s usual stringent aesthetic standards, but it’s not that kind of show: its volatility, the calls that pass between stage and audience, the raucous shocks and pleasures of recognition and sharing constitute something more palpable than a fiction on stage. Stand Your Ground is one deadly multimedia concert.

Stand Your Ground, Hip Hop, Morganics (aka Morgan Lewis); dance, Leah Howard; performance, Caitlin Newton-Broad & Billy MacPherson; video. Rebecca Ingram; design, Jonathan Jones; consultant Alicia Talbot; lighting, Shane Stevens; production manager, Richard Montgomery; PACT Youth Theatre in collaboration with Cleveland Street High School, JJ Cahill Memorial High School, Waterloo Girls Centre, Fact Tree, South Sydney Youth Service, Joseph Sargeant Centre, The Settlement & Cell block Youth Health Services; Australia Council (Community Cultural Development Board), South Sydney Council, Myer Family Foundation. PACT Youth Theatre, September 21-22

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 39

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

Survival of the Species: Something’s Got to Give

Survival of the Species: Something’s Got to Give

Survival of the Species—now there’s a topical title—is a comment not only on the parlous living and working conditions of most dance artists in this country but also on the means by which a species reproduces itself, in this case mating rituals and relationships.

Context of course is everything. Like many people, I find myself struggling, in the wake of terrorism, war, the refugee crisis, elections and so on, to find meaning and relevance in the art that I view. So, is my disappointment with these works a matter of bad timing or something else? Confronted by so much trauma and loss of life across the globe, doesn’t the term survival take on a much more compelling edge? And conversely, shouldn’t it be possible to enjoy the sheer escapism of work that plays with flirtation, sexuality and the moody ambience of a smoky New York jazz club where the women are sinful and the men are dangerous?

That should be the case but in Something’s Got to Give, by Paul O’Sullivan, it’s hard to see these dancers as the epitome of a get down and dirty sexuality. While the men strut for the wrong women, and the women only have eyes for the posturings of the wrong man, the choreography is polite and the dancing tentative. The cut and thrust of an urgent sexuality suggested by the design and soundtrack gives way to careful phrases that stop just before the end of each bar. The dancing is so cautious in some instances that I start to worry about injuries.

Visually, Something’s Got to Give strongly references film noir. The design is darkly atmospheric, utilising blackness, slivers of white light and projected (uninteresting) reversed black and white images. The moodiness is complemented by the soundtrack, particularly Ennio Morricone’s Peur sur la Ville, so evocative of the aforementioned jazz dive that when the choreography shifts from sexual strut to adolescent push and shove—slap and tickle—either I completely miss the point or the work completely loses the plot.

O’Sullivan’s previous works have been beautifully controlled, self-devised solos that utilise his quirky sense of humour, idiosyncratic take on life and beautifully relaxed and loose limbed dancing. It was precisely these qualities that were missing in this project. I’m very familiar with the dancing of all these performers so it was disappointing that their performances were cartoonish rather than modulated, never moving beyond their respective comfort zones. O’Sullivan has yet to find a way of imparting his aesthetic and direction onto other bodies.

Sue Peacock’s Tempting Fate is a development from an earlier work, Near Enemies, and, as might be expected from this more experienced choreographer, is confident, taking choreographic risks that result in engaged performances. The design relied heavily on projected images of old 50s movie posters with Bette Davis, Doris Day and Robert Vaughan in hysterical technicolour. Equally filmic in its references, and with a strong musical through line from the soundtrack of David Lynch’s Lost Highway this project begins with a seemingly fatal shooting and explores various alternate scenarios from the dancepoint of the individual performers.

Throughout this piece a couple, Peacock and Bill Handley, come and go, occasionally discovered in a passionate embrace, sometimes just moving through the work, but at all times oblivious to the world of the other dancers. The highlight is a performative duet between the 2 with Peacock playing straight woman to Handley’s absurdity. I have no idea what it means. It is very silly but very satisfying. Handley, wearing his suit jacket like an apron, a hanky on his head topped by a small black hat, shuffles a reference to soft-shoe and party magicians, occasionally exposing his bare white buttocks to the audience. Of all the filmic references, Handley’s absurd physicality is by far the most effective, being less literal, more lateral, and highly evocative of those physical comedy greats Groucho Marx and Buster Keaton.

In the end, however, for this particular species to survive, there has to be a lot more risk and I suspect a lot more understanding of capital A art and how it might engage with the world. The relationship of film to live performance is particularly fraught. For most people, even a bad film is more compelling than a live performance. Consequently, dance artists need to be asking more questions and taking less for granted when it comes to putting steps with narrative and exploring form, structure and design. To do so, however, takes sustained development time. Given the vagaries of funding and the current political climate, nothing seems less likely.

Survival of the Species: Something’s Got to Give, choreographer Paul O’Sullivan, dancers Stefan Karlsson, Olivia Millard, Sue Peacock, & Sete Tele; Tempting Fate, choreographer Sue Peacock, dancers Claudia Alessi, Bill Handley, Olivia Millard, Sete Tele & Sue Peacock, lighting Andrew Lake, photography Ashley de Prazer & Graeme Macleod, Playhouse Theatre, Perth, Nov 1-3

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 28

© Sarah Miller; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

“Ballistic is a community dance development project that sets out to extend the creative potential developed by the dancers over the past 24 months of DADAA (Disability in the Arts, Disadvantage in the Arts) dance workshops. Essentially Ballistic celebrates cultural exchange between young people with and without disabilities.”
PICA (Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts) Bimonthly

According to choreographer Sete Tele, Ballistic is a response to the desire of DADAA members to “dance fast.”

The performance space is sparse. The only props are 9 screens on wheels with clear plastic centres positioned as a barrier between the audience and the space. There are 3 large projection screens, one on the back wall and one on either side; the side screens are columns of fabric. The performers enter, dressed in surgical costumes—clear aprons, some with headscarves and gloves. Initially I am unsure of the significance of the outfits—are they a comment on the human body, or on the ways in which bodies are commodified or classified within the medical paradigm? What is the relationship between the images of cells, scientific diagrams and body parts projected on to the back screen, and the infinitely more interesting groupwork and exchanges occurring on the floor? Is this design meant to symbolise something clinical?

I consult the program—the designer’s statement is bizarre—although I do eventually surmise that his quest is to interrogate the idea of “surgical examination” and to comment on the issues of agency, or lack of, surrounding these processes for those with “mental and physical disability.” Yet for me this piece is precisely about ability, not disability. It is a celebration of difference, of exchange and of humour. I am happily distracted from my musings by the movement sequences. A number of the dancers perform solos and each is different and profound. Some like Julia Hales and Yolanda Berg choose slower music to demonstrate complicated sequences while others prefer faster more dynamic dance styles.

The dancers seem to be enjoying the process. There is teamwork here, and many of the sequences seem to involve partnerships with one dancer leading or guiding the other. There is lots of laughter and sharing; the pace of the soundscape quickens and the performers speed up in response. At this stage the screens have been moved and used as partners in the dance—twisted, woven and swirled around the space then pulled away to the back projection screen.

The music changes to a techno beat and Joshua Bott takes up a central position—he cheers, chants, performs a series of breakdance- style moves and invites performers into the centre to perform solos. Joshua gyrates, clasps his crotch, and asks the other dancers for high fives—he has great presence and knows how to mobilise it. He demands our attention and tells us to clap in time with his movement—he boogies along, laughing and cheering his co-dancers. Virginia Calabrese joins him and performs a number of fast moves, calling to her co-dancers to join her, shouting ‘go girl’ as they step into the limelight.

There is a sense of freedom now. The partnerships which dominated the first part of the performance have been fractured, the performers, particularly Bott and Calabrese, take control of the process and flout convention in their excitement. A sense of mischief abounds in these seemingly improvised sequences. The audience cheers in response to this more dynamic pace and everyone is having a great time. There is a sense that we are near the point of metamorphosis, an overwhelming sense of joy in the air. Joshua makes eyes at the girls in the front row and revels in the attention.

I can’t remember the last time I attended a performance that created so much energy and excitement for both audience and performers. After a few minutes of this high-energy action the performers gather together and begin to glide back and forth across the space and to twirl in pairs. The mood changes. Things become stiller. The screens are placed at the front of the space; there is a voiceover in German. Maria Lisa Hill takes centre stage and performs a slow and meditative solo piece. I feel deflated. It’s not that I don’t enjoy Maria Lisa’s work, it’s just that the power and excitement harnessed in the previous, more freely improvised, piece seems to have been capped and bottled rather than built upon to achieve the promised metamorphosis. The piece ends on a sombre note and the performers exit. I hope that in their next work the performers pursue that “fast dancing” to see where it leads.

Ballistic, DADAA WA, choreographer Sete Tele, performers Rachel Ogle, Susan Smith, Fanci Hitanaya, Lui Sit, Yolanda Berg, Virginia Calabrese, Julia Hales, Maria Lisa Hill, Lisa Collins, Joshua Bott, Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, Nov 8 – 10

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 10

© Helena Grehan; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

It’s been a momentous couple of months and this OnScreen reflects the political concerns of filmmakers and writers. Many are starting to recount their experiences of September 11…I sat in a Sydney café watching television, surrounded by people pressed against the glass—like photos I’ve seen of the 1956 Melbourne Olympics—tears streaming. The streets were quiet. It made me see the city differently, the towering buildings suddenly threatening around our office, the planes flying too low over my house in Leichhardt. It’s affected our writers too, along with the recent election, which has galvanised people into action, the need to debate. Mike Walsh tackles the highly topical issue of asylum seekers and detention centres, and the incongruity of government agencies (like the AFC) funding documentaries that question and explore the government’s own policies and problematic attitudes towards refugees. He speaks to a number of filmmakers, including David Goldie, about their involvement with upcoming projects. Meanwhile, Felena Alach and Joni Taylor link youth festivals with activism (Electrofringe and TILT Symposium), arenas where the digital and political collide—who can forget the Boat People image projected boldly onto the sails of the Opera House.

What these events haven’t affected is cinema going (unlike other areas such as performance). The recent IF and AFI awards highlighted the strength of the Aussie film field this year. I particularly enjoyed IF’s play with the awards format: one hour, no ads (SBS), a witty and politicised host (Liz Gorr) who had fun with the guests, the replacement of bimbos stiffly holding awards with a girl in crazy short tutu and a parrot on her shoulder, and genuine recognition of young and established filmmakers working in the areas of shorts and documentary. What the IF Awards recognised, finally, is that there’s no point trying to recreate the Academy Awards. Our industry is small, people know each other. The IFs had a family atmosphere. The AFIs were quite a contrast. Beautifully situated in Melbourne’s Exhibition Buildings, the stage looked to be about 100 metres from the audience and this feeling of distance persisted. A truly awful start (David Reyne and Marcia Hines singing Forever Young—cringe) led to an uncharacteristically careful performance from Roy and HG. Where was ‘the Dump’ on film culture? Some presenters were so nervous they could hardly speak, while others were so drunk they could hardly stand, like the Logies days of old. At nearly 3 hours it was low on entertainment and often failed to seriously acknowledge film talent—some Awards I was waiting for (in categories of documentary, short films and sound) were simply listed before the ad breaks.

As expected, Lantana was the winner on both nights, taking best director for Ray Lawrence and most acting gongs, including IF’s unusual stance of giving Best Actress to all 5 women in Lantana (Rachael Blake saw this as true recognition of collaborative effort).

In this edition Jane Mills starts our new column on issues in Australian film culture, Watchdog, with an interview with sound designer Andrew Plain (IF Award winner for La Spagnola, who also worked on Lantana and Facing the Music). Also featured are Monique Schwartz, Melbourne-based director of a film about Jewish mothers in cinema, ANAT Executive Director Julianne Pierce looking after the best interests of new media artists, the perils and pleasures of the personal documentary at the WOW festival, a virtual youth festival in noise, experimenta’s provocative Waste exhibition (see RTpost) and digital artist Troy Innocent goes seriously material.

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg.

© Kirsten Krauth; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Crossroads: Shanghai and the Jews of China

Crossroads: Shanghai and the Jews of China

An exhibition, a film, a CD and a CD-ROM make for an immersive, disturbingly evocative experience of cultural history in Crossroads: Shanghai and the Jews of China at Sydney’s Jewish Museum. The experience is heightened during my visit by a woman keenly identifying relatives in photographs exhibited on the walls and asking me to find her family on the computer screen—like me she had taken a while to work out that clicking on some but not all of the candles of the Menorah was the way into family histories. For many of us the history of the Jews in China is new, as with the Jews of Calcutta, whose story (partly that of her husband’s family) is to be told by the 2001 NSW Writers Fellowship winner, Bem la Hunte, in her next novel.

Crossroads is seductively intimate, occupying a small space at the top of the museum building. Through the design and selection of materials (much of it on loan from Australian families) the exhibition interweaves Western and Eastern imagery within the rich red and gold that frames a fascinating history. Shanghai was home to Sephardi (Oriental) Jews, mostly from Baghdad, from the mid 19th century. This small community, 800 by the mid 1930s, some of its families very wealthy, played an influential economic and cultural role. They were joined in the early decades of the 20th century by Russian Jews fleeing first Tsarist and then Bolshevik rule. A participant in the documentary Crossroads: Jewish Stories from Shanghai (director, Jonathon Robinson, Paradox Films) says, “Life in China was a utopia. We had the operetta, the symphony…it was a cultural life.” Others comment that they experienced no anti-semitism, “We were just foreigners.” Theirs was a culture of one belief but many languages—Russian, French, English, Chinese and Arabic—and, remarks one woman, cuisines: “you could get cooks that could cook anything—Iraqi, British, Russian…”

By 1941, a wave of refugees from Europe that began in the mid 30s had swollen the community from 4,000 to some 25,000 inhabitants. No visa was required to enter China. Exit visas from Europe had been the great barrier to escape—homage is paid to Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese consul in Lithuania who issued visas to thousands who would otherwise have been murdered. Highly organised community groups in Shanghai helped refugees with welfare, jobs and education. Despite inistent Nazi pressure, the Japanese did not eliminate Shanghai’s Jews, but did force many into the over-crowded Hongkew district. At the end of the war, most migrated to other countries, including Australia, Canada, USA, Israel and Brazil. The exhibition displays photographs, everyday belongings, religious objects and documents, including ample evidence of oppression: “Stateless refugees are prohibited to pass here without permission”, says one sign.

The CD-ROM, The Menorah of Fang Bang Lu, a work-in-progress by Andrew Jackubowicz (Writer/Producer) and the new media artist Tatiana Pentes (Creative Director) is engrossing. There are texts by the authors telling the stories of their own family connections with Shanghai. Jackubowicz recounts a trip to China, the search for what was once his family’s home and buying an old Menorah (a candelabra for use in religious ceremonies) but this one with a music box in its base! He finds it buried in a pile of objects in a shop. Pentes’ grandfather is Shanghai band leader Sergei Ermolaeff (Serge Ermoll). The central experience of the CD-ROM for the user is a pictorial one that wisely sidesteps elaborate textual detail. The impact is impressionistic, but it works in the way that family albums and old photographs invariably do—they require us to query, to imagine, to project, to search the image for points of recognition. Pentes has used a simple but effective layering of images. A click on a Menorah candle opens a family page which in turn opens to a circle of 7 images, a graphic index of topics that cover a family history and its place in Shanghai culture. Click on one of these and you enter another layer with a row of images across the top of the page. Below these is a delicate, ghostly, halftone black and white collage of a large clockface, a child, and a wintry, mountainous rural scene—the Europe lost to these refugees?

As the cursor hovers over an image at the top of the page, the same picture appears enlarged below for closer perusal, sometimes accompanied by a brief text, the font subtly evoking both Hebrew and Chinese writing. As you move from image to image (documents, tickets, precious objects, curios, wedding and school photos, casual snaps) and then onto another aspect of a family’s life (leaving Europe, relations with Chinese, life under the Japanese, leaving Shanghai…), a sense of personal history emerges. And they’re very different histories, although they all share great pleasure in Shanghai life before the Japanese take over the city. The Gunsbergers meet on the Tran-Siberian Railway on their way to China and soon marry—there’s a wedding gift of a glowing Russian Art Deco coffee service, looking like it was made yesterday. There are snaps of the family left behind, killed by the Nazis, Fred Gunsberger as scoutmaster in Shanghai, the margarine factory he worked in and which brought financial ruin, Fred after the motorcycle accident in Australia that left him blind. The Moalem family were Sephardic (Babylonian/Spanish), their prosperous Shanghai history reaching back into the 19th century, their stay in China after the war longer than most. Canada rejects them, Australia accepts them in 1950.

There are other aspects to the CD-ROM (eventually destined for online transmission) including paintings and postcards stamped with Nazi icons (a chilling sight) and a sketchbook of Shanghai street figures that scrolls at length right to left across the screen.

The CD commissioned to accompany the exhibition features the kind of music heard in Shanghai in the 30s and 40s—Yiddish song, Schumann, Gershwin, Ellington and Russian and Baghdadian traditional tunes—along with compositions by Kim Cunio (the son of a retired opera singer from Shanghai) that evoke the intercultural feel of Shanghai (Crossroads, Kim Cunio & Heather Lee, Lotus Foot CD, LFP 104.2).

Crossroads is an effective, informative and multilayered exhibition, well worth experiencing, and especially intriguing to engage with in the company of older Jewish Australians passing through. Hopefully, the online version will be available soon.

Crossroads: Shanghai and the Jews of China; Project Manager Alan Jacobs; Curator Jane Wesley; Sydney Jewish Museum, 148 Darlinghurst Rd, Darlinghurst: currently showing until March; The Menorah of Fang Bang Lu, an Installation as a Work in Progress, Carnival, Performance Space, Oct 5-14

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 12

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

The title Eat My Shorts puts even a hardened Performance Space audience on notice and, for the most part, comes up with performative provocations that are defiant more in terms of form and cultural specifity than direct political content. The show begins with a deceptive air of the spiritual: Cicily Ponnor, neat, well-mannered, sari-clad, with a lotus made of coloured powders on the floor. She may well be dressed in tradition but it soon becomes clear that she is not altogether of it as Bollywood obsessions (the star, the singing, the dancing, the “wet sari scene”), Bankstown teen dreams and realities and escalating rough language climax in the vacuum-cleaner obliteration of lotus harmony. Ponnor is funny and sharp; Teenage Masala left me wanting more of Indian-Australian life in the suburbs and the imagination.

Richard Lagarto and Angela Grima in Cultural Frankenstein & Other Gourmet Delights enter with the requisite suitcases and appear to mock community theatre cliches and demands for cultural specificity with a bizarre pan-Mediterraneanism where nothing much is what it seems—are those biscotti Scotch Fingers? What’s Zorba the Greek got to do with being Portuguese or Maltese? And why has that dance turned hip-hop? In Australia the ingestion of other cultures has become a promiscuous gourmet activity. With scenes strung together like revue skits and looking decidely under-rehearsed, Lagarto and Grima got away with their thesis by turning on chatty charm addressed directly to their audience.

Brian Fuata, a 23-year old New Zealander of Samoan extraction, on the other hand, offered rare precision in language and movement along with emotional intensity in his ongoing exploration of his mother, sexuality and cultures. Each time you see Fuata you experience another episode in a life unfolding as he muses over key incidents, some you’ve heard before (that’s part of the adventure), and intones a litany of observations that are droll (“There is Mother in my madness”) and mind-bendingly dialectical (where mother and son roles symbolically reverse to make perverse sense). Fuata locks into 3 demanding, animated poses standing in each of 3 trays of grass (installation artist, Haydn Fowler) tighly lit by Neil Simpson, throwing his young body into disturbing relief, making something of a monster of this obsessive ruminator.

The cultural and gender fantasia of De Quincey & Co’s Seep was hilariously delinquent and rudely non-specific, a sublimely unintelligible dance of self-obsession and flirtation that evoked bad heavily-bewigged opera (“3 counter tenors act as signifiers of Byzantine, Arabic and Chinese vocal traditions” says the program) and, with consummate control, bad dance. Seep it did, as cultural and gender identity bled in every direction in a gloriously promiscuous collaboration between Xu Feng Shan, Michael Demetris-Dale, Victoria Hunt, Kristina Harrison, Koon Fei Wang, Roger Hany, Francesca da Rimini, Virginia Barratt, John Gillies, Russell Emerson, Richard Manner (lighting) and Tess de Quincey (direction).

Like Fuata, Angel Boudjiba is an interesting writer and has the makings of an engaging performer as witnessed in Urban Theatre Projects’ Asylum. In Thudarth—Survivor, Boudjiba, an Algerian Berber, does a verbal Magritte, an act that includes transforming the onstage table into something other than that beheld. As he measures the furniture, this surreal act becomes political: “This desk is a home of crime, it looks like a desk, but it is a congress that hides truth…The desk made the white man superior in history, but what makes Jesus a white man?” A suit is similarly deployed—equipped with cyber-terrorist devices “it can destroy me, if I try to think.” Against the reductive powers of table and suit, Boudjiba invokes specificity, asking audience members to speak in their foreign languages as he sings a Berber song. Curated by Performance Space’s Fiona Winning and Michaela Coventry as part of the 2001 Carnivale program, Eat My Shorts was evidence yet again that contemporary performance is a rich site of cross-cultural collaboration.

Eat My Shorts, Performance Space, Carnivale 2001,Sydney, Oct 12-14

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 12

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

Flickerfest 2002 is in its 11th year, offering the most comprehensive roundup of Australian and international short films, and now touring its various programs nationally (see www.flickerfest.com.au for dates and locations). It is also one of few festivals to seriously recognise shorts filmmakers’ talents with a number of awards on offer and a chance to be picked up by SBS’s Eat Carpet for broadcast.

This year’s program features 4 main sections. International Shorts is where the best worldwide and Australian films are in competition. There’s Australian Shorts if you just want to catch local action. The Short Documentary Competition offers the rare chance to see this highly specific format. And there’s the category I’m pretty excited about, the first ever Online Festival, 60 minutes of digital shorts in competition on the Flickerfest website throughout January, where you can vote for your favourite film. It’s great that Flickerfest has acknowledged the many filmmakers creating shorts for the web. There’s also a spotlight on 3 years of Canadian shorts, and a 12 year retrospective of the Australian White Gloves Festival.

Special sessions include a Tribute to Alfred Hitchcock program with shorts that reference Hitchcock films, experimental films that recycle his footage and Bon voyage, one of only 2 shorts he made for the big screen. One of the films featured is Das Ei (The Egg, Hans George Andes, Germany, 1993). Now, a lot of people have a thing about softboiled eggs. They can’t stand the sight of runny egg yolk or the wobbly, mucousy, white albumen. Das Ei plays on these deep fears in a day in the life/death of an egg set in realtime to Bernard Hermann’s score from the shower scene in Psycho. Hitchcock shots are transformed: the spray of the kitchen tap; the knife in the membrane; the yolk gurgling down the drain. Great stuff.

Other film highlights include Hop, Skip and Jump (Srdan Vuletic, Slovenia, 1999) and Copy Shop (Virgil Widrich, Austria, 2000). The former I’ve seen before and it’s hard to forget. Jumping from the 1984 Olympics to the streets of Sarajevo in 1993, a relationship wrestles amidst the battles of war. Boys play games, teasing snipers. Through a target we see a boy killed; his body too small, feet too slow. And what happens if your former lover turns out to be the sniper, wreaking vengeance, firing into your apartment? It’s a disturbing and clever film.

Even better is Copy Shop, a mini-masterpiece, where the film itself appears like paper coming out of a photocopier. The film, like the central character, looks set to disintegrate. It’s flimsy, it tears. Brilliantly self-referential, our main man works in a copy shop where he starts to photocopy his own body. As he does, the machine starts to take over, spitting out copies of film stills we’ve seen earlier, eventually making copies of the man himself. The obsessive narrative can’t help but turn in on itself and, as in Being John Malkovich, he eventually has to confront a world populated by endless editions of himself. In a moving ending, he looks down from the heights to see a wriggling mass of his own heads, seething like disease under a microscope. A witty, stylised and just plain weird take on the exciting possibilities of cloning.

Flickerfest is helped by its atmospheric setting; the verandah looks out onto the well-oiled bodies and cool horizons of Bondi Beach. In the heat of summer, it’s a good place to chill out. See the next issue for a comprehensive roundup of the best of the fest.

Flickerfest 2002, 11th International Short Film Festival, Bondi Pavilion, Bondi Beach, Sydney, January 4-12, touring nationally

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 16

© Kirsten Krauth; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Arlene TextaQueen, portrait

Arlene TextaQueen, portrait

We’re such bums that we don’t want a proper 9 to 5 job and we’ll do anything else, whether play in a band, write a sitcom or, ahhhhh,
sell T-shirts…
Luke Sparke & band mates, noise [tv]

Listen to that. The wind through the grass. That’s a hit around here, man.
Damien, NoKTuRNL, noise [tv]

The week before the federal election I heard a talkback session on Life Matters (Radio National, weekdays, 9am) where young voters, aged 18-25, were asked to call in and discuss who they were voting for and why. In nearly all cases, callers stressed that they were not going to vote for major parties (preferring Democrats or Greens but understanding fully where their preferences would end up) and practically all were against both Labor and Liberal’s stance on asylum seeker issues. The other striking thing about this program was the hogging of the airwaves by older listeners who, even though Geraldine Doogue repeatedly stated that the floor was only open this time to younger people, had to get their 2 cents worth in with inane chatter. Time and time again, Doogue had to ask, “excuse me but are you really under 25?” It highlighted how rare it is for young people to get their voices heard in the mainstream media, which is a shame for the rest of us who miss out on the thoughts of a generation that is articulate, creative and politically astute.

Of course, there are other outlets for young voices (see TILT and This is Not Art) and noise is a major player, a national and media-based festival, which followed on from LOUD in 1998. In the 4 years since LOUD I’ve moved from the right demographic (under 25) to no longer eligible and it’s a curious shift; I can no longer speak with authority from the tender perspective of youth. LOUD was important to me: my short fiction was published online, it was peer-assessed with critical feedback (and yes, young people are good critics) and it gave me the confidence to apply for a ‘real job’ in publishing (RealTime), where, happily, my first review was of LOUD itself (see RT23 p3). noise has broadened to keep up with technological advances: over 25 projects and 10,000 artistic entries, appearing in magazines like Voiceworks, HQ and Black and White, on SBS and ABC in noise [tv] and short fuse, online with a cacophony of Flash, sound and visual arts, and in Pluto Press’s beautifully produced Anthology, which matches a witty and sensitive introduction by Richard Fidler with angry cartoons and some wild fiction.

With so much on offer, there’s really no option but to sample. And this is what the noise site is designed for. But I quickly lose patience as I spring around in circles unable to find what I’m looking for and it dawns on me that I’m heading towards 30 and I don’t know what I’m looking for and that’s why I can’t find it. These creative projects don’t look like my idea of youth art, whatever that is. I’m looking at websites that look like corporate designs. And that’s when I realise what it is that seems new about these creators; there are no boundaries between life, work and art. This is just stuff that they do. For noise, a website (whether personal or for a corporation) is artistic practice, it’s about technique, compiling elements to be gorgeous and sleek or grungy and impenetrable, intricate constructions of a state of mind, full of design flair and whimsy. And it is as much about profile—who these people are, what they like, their obsessions. I find a girl who’s obsessed with buttons and it leads me on to people around the world obsessed with buttons and then I’m scrolling down this list of fantastic hand-designed buttons with grrrl bands like Bikini Kill for sale and I’m so tempted but they’re in American dollars and my credit card is over the limit.

I lob into E-Works and find Konrad McCarthy’s Humanesque Web and—damn I need to get a better computer. Sleeping babies lie in the nursery and welcome us. Heads lift and turn into phones and envelopes, the surreal icons of contact web-style, and I’m loading, a rocketship about to take off, into a series of interactive comics, and I like the mix of anti-authoritarianism and multimedia know-how. A wretched mother spits out “a smile is just an upside down frown” and tries to force her kid into submission after he gives her the finger. This same woman punches her baby in a mockery of Funniest Home Videos, while a power gauge that we click effects her level of violence: “if it doesn’t bleed, it doesn’t lead.” The design is incredible but, as is often the case, the writing’s a bit slack. It always amazes me that people who spend hours playing with software and computer code can’t be bothered doing a spellcheck, especially when certain jokes depend on rhymes that fall kinda flat when the spelling’s wrong. Best of all are Konrad’s variations of nursery rhymes with choose-your-own endings: Black Sheep, persecuted by his White classmates, goes ‘postal’; Cat and the Fiddle offers Gratuitous Drug, Violence, Sexual Reference or Toilet Humour options. Who could resist?

Felicity Electricity, Decoupage Car

Felicity Electricity, Decoupage Car

Estelle Ihasz is everywhere. She has over 30 creative entries in various sections of the program and I’m again in a loop when I link to links to linking things that loop to, finally, Visual Frequencies, the Museum of Contemporary Art’s noise project. The Flash fest where everything bumps and grinds quickly fades to the stillness of this exhibition, with 30 works by 10 artists, in a range of styles. I find the ‘educational’ aspect a little tedious here—great pains are taken to describe the work and explain how it’s done, which either seems pretty bloody obvious or leaves little scope for the imagination—but the site itself is beautifully set up and easy to navigate. And I’m back to Estelle’s imagery, luminous photographs of bedroom walls touched by morning/afternoon light, the sun tracked by subtle changes of colour: a corner of a room from pearl to beach sand to Antarctic ice. It’s a great curatorial idea (and something that noise in general should do more) presenting a range of examples of each artist’s work.

“Do I look in the camera…or ignore it, or what” asks DJ Kat Kid, one of the many artists profiled on noise [tv] (screened Saturday nights in October on ABC, before Rage). Hiphop culture and all its elements (graffiti, turntabling, rap, skateboarding and sampling) permeate the lives of many featured here. It’s easy to forget that these subcultures have been around for almost 20 years yet they still have the appeal of the new. DJ Kat has a gorgeous honeyed voice and dreds, and performs in Brisbane’s Powerhouse, sampling Julie Andrews, Michael Jackson and promoting Mother Tongue, an Australian label that features female hip-hop artists. Dean Wells, a filmmaker from Newcastle, explores the skateboard culture and takes us into his living room, introducing his personal chef (dad) and pretty impressive digital camera and computer editing suite setup. Arlene TextaQueen is a Sydney star, unforgettable with her space cadet outfit of coloured textas, who does portraits of kids, friends and people at dance parties. But my favourite of all is the completely eccentric Adelaide-based Felicity Electricity (soon to add the middle name Publicity) whose art comprises a Hillman Minx completely plastered with magazine clippings of Princess Di, including pics with John Travolta and Michael Jackson. Taking decoupage to new heights, she is currently working on a 1950s caravan to be covered with pics of the Royals (so Princess Di can tow the royal family) and her next project will be a London bus. This girl is going to be big.

As with other aspects of the festival, the segments in noise [tv] are just too short. All of the artists mentioned could have done with more than a snippet. We never really get to know what makes them tick. I guess it’s mainly a budget thing but they all needed an Australian Story of their own. Unfortunately, ‘youth’ tends to be equated with ‘quick.’ And if you hear often enough that you have no concentration span, you’ll end up believing it. As the festival tends to concentrate on individual profiles, young artists appear like islands dotting the cultural landscape, little worlds to themselves, isolated, rather than part of a community. It’d be interesting to see how many of these artists join together, are connected, by being part of noise. Surely one of the aims of this festival should be to build bridges for the future, or for the next festival at least.

noise, various media outlets throughout Australia, October 2001

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 17

© Kirsten Krauth; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Julianne Pierce

Julianne Pierce

Julianne Pierce

Julianne Pierce has been an artist (one of VNS Matrix, an influential team of cyberfeminist artists), a program manager (Performance Space), a producer (of the award winning Debra Petrovich CD-ROM Uncle Bill), co-curator (Biomachines, Telstra Adelaide Festival 2000 and Spectrascope, Sydney Biennale 2000 satellite exhibition), curator (Encryption Corruption, Physics Room NZ, 1998 and Code Red, Performance Space, 1997). She is now Director of ANAT (Australian Network for Art & Technology), the peak national art, science and technology body based in Adelaide. According to Julianne, her first 12 months as Director have gone very quickly. As well as running a number of projects she’s used this as establishment time to find her niche in the organisation and to work with staff and Board on the way forward.

One of the directions from our Board was to embark on a period of consolidation because ANAT had been through such growth, and there were 3 new staff—myself, the Manager Caroline Farmer and Web and Technical officer, Claudia Raddatz. The only staff member who was not new was Charity Bramwell, the Information Officer. So the first task was to look at the infrastructure and settle in the new staff and reassess where we were and rebuild some of our systems. And look at things like marketing and ANAT’s profile and how we’re positioned and how to actually give the organisation greater visibility.

ANAT’s seen as valuable to its membership, especially for the training opportunities it offers a lot of artists.

The training has been integral to the organisation: the National Summer Schools still play a really important role. But we’re noticing that a lot more training opportunities are being offered by people like Metro Screen in Sydney and Ngapartji in Adelaide. We’re interested in focusing more on specialised training. We’re running an Indigenous Summer School in late 2002. The first one we did in Darwin at NT University in 1999 was very successful. So we want to do another next year and also focus on masterclasses. We’re keeping on the professional development arm and we’re looking at our Conference and Workshop fund as part of professional development.

What sort of fund is that?

It’s a small fund that ANAT offers on a monthly basis. It works on quick response. It’s open for ANAT members to apply for up to $2,000 to attend a conference or event within Australia or overseas.

It’s true that there are lots of courses being offered around the country, but in any artform there’s often not much for mid-career artists.

The Summer Schools are also a meeting place. It’s not just about training, it’s about networking and some really interesting projects have come out of them such as nervous objects, an informal collective of artists working with sound and other media. We want to keep that momentum going but using different models and perhaps not providing so much grass roots training.

Does ANAT play a facilitating role in collaborations?

More and more. And increasingly we’re seeing ANAT as having a brokering role. Under the umbrella of professional development is our residency program. We’ve brokered 3 Indigenous residencies in the last 12 months: Jason Davidson at 24HR Art in Darwin, Christian Bumbarra Thompson at CCP in Melbourne and Jenny Fraser with Hermannsburg potters in the Northern Territory.

This year we’ve also developed 2 science residencies as part of the Scientific Serendipity Program with the support of the Science and Technology Awareness Program run by the Federal Government’s Department of Industry Science and Resources. There have been 4 residencies in all, and in 2001 we negotiated for Brisbane-based sound artist Adam Donovan to work at the Defence, Science and Technology Organisation in Salisbury, South Australia. Sydney artist Justine Cooper has been supported by ANAT in her residency at the Museum of Natural History in New York. Both of these artists are included in the Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art (2002 Adelaide Festival), which is a great outcome for our residency program.

We’re also supporting collaborations between artists. For example, out of Alchemy (the Summer School in New Media Art and Curation held at the Brisbane Powerhouse last year: RT38 Working the Screen 2000, p10-11) has come a collaborative performance/hybrid work between Monica Narula from Sarai (RT43, p21) in New Delhi, Sarah Neville from Adelaide and Sydney-based digital artist Mari Velonaki. We help with planning and we provided some seed funding for Sarah and Mari to go to India for a couple of weeks. We don’t see ourselves as a producer but as a supportive partner.

Basically the organisation supports the membership. We have quite a substantial national membership. We produce a quarterly newsletter and send out an email digest with updates, conference and workshop reports and some critical writing. More and more our members use us as a resource. This year we have a full-time staff member servicing the membership so that we can respond to requests within 24 hours.

We also play an advocacy role and represent our members to government and lobby groups, and I sit on quite a few committees. ANAT is being called on more and more to represent the cultural sector to government. This is where we need to be focusing in terms of bringing more revenue into the organisation but also having an effective voice to add to government policy. But how do you maintain the status as a peak body within a continually shifting landscape? The number of reports that come through! There are so many opportunities and ANAT has to be able to respond to those.

Do you mean by the “shifting landscape”, the developments in new media that are constantly happening or changes in the political landscape?

Across the spectrum. For instance, with Senator Alston’s recent release of the funding for broadband and the whole issue of digital content and digital industry clustering, how does ANAT get involved with these processes and represent “the cultural sector”? I read lots of reports and I think the funding scenario is now shifting. Obviously, the New Media Arts Board of the Australia Council plays a vital role but increasingly state government bodies are supporting projects and artists and, of course, there’s the AFC. I’m thinking also of initiatives like the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne’s Federation Square that will provide a permanent exhibition venue for Australian screen based work.

Do you think in the future it will still be viable for the New Media Arts Board of the Australia Council to be funding distinctly digital media works on the one hand and, on the other, hybrid performance works, some with new media components, some not?

Obviously the fund developed in response to a change in practice. I don’t think it’s the other way around. There was a recognition that some forms were shifting to a more interdisciplinary mode. Those directions were very strong and still are. But there probably needs to be a clearer distinction within the Board of what sort of work they support, because I think it’s unclear to some people. I still think the fund can accommodate both of those strands. It’s difficult for interdisciplinary artists to go to the Theatre or Dance Boards because their guidelines are quite rigid whereas the New Media Arts Board is flexible and fluid and responsive to that work.

I think new media practice is still seen as marginalised within the visual arts and crafts sector. And I think that exhibitions like Space Odysseys (AGNSW, see review) are creating an acceptance of the practice. It’s a new genre but artists are creating fascinating and important work. There’s been a great leap beyond the technical barriers, creating work that goes beyond pure technicalities. This sort of work has to be accepted within a more mainstream visual arts culture. I think it is an issue of resources for a lot of galleries but it also challenges the idea of what contemporary practice is, in the same way that installation once did.

Is ANAT working with the Adelaide Festival?

Yes. Charity Bramwell is working a day each week as the archivist for the Adelaide Biennial so she’s collecting material and documentation which will end up as a web-based database of artists, resources, notes. For the Adelaide Fringe we’re co-ordinating the Trickster masterclass on VJ-ing and video-mixing. The masterclass is being conducted by VJ Iko from Portugal, who has worked with Jean Michel Jarre, the Beastie Boys and Daft Punk. We often partner with other organisations around Australia to develop projects, such as the recent TILT event in Sydney, which was developed in partnership with dLux media arts. This is a great strength of ANAT, enabling us to work with different organisations and reach diverse audiences.

You also have a publication coming out in December?

We’re aiming at 3 publications over the next 12 months. Arcadia (Theology and Technology) has resulted from a research project conducted by Samara Mitchell. It involved a research phase which developed into a listserv discussion on a broad range of topics. The listserv was moderated by Samara and involved invited participants discussing spirituality, the arcane, the idea of soul etc in relation to current developments in technology. The publication includes edited excerpts from the listserv and we’ve commissioned Hakim Bey and Eric Davis to contribute essays. We’re launching it in print in December and it will be free. The other 2 publications will also result from projects and residencies, and will be launched during 2002.

At the moment every time that “infrastructure organisation” is mentioned, everybody immediately thinks “service”. It’s not that simple.

We did a members’ survey this year, getting some feedback about our direction. We’re also working on putting up a new website. Doing that has really made us reassess how we talk concisely about an organisation which is quite amorphous and broad. Basically the organisation has a professional development arm, an information and resources arm, and a project development and support arm. We can talk about the organisation as having specific roles. When people say, so what does ANAT do, it’s always been a bit like, well what doesn’t it do! Reaching a younger audience and engaging with a diversity of dialogues and attitudes is also important to us, hence the TILT and the VJ-ing projects.

Some great clusters!

Yeh, we’re clustering! ANAT has a high profile internationally. We get so many queries from overseas, wanting to connect to Australian artists, wanting to know what’s on. In terms of the service we provide as a membership-based organisation, that sort of thing is really beyond our charter in a way. But it’s a vital aspect of what we do. And servicing an international community who are wanting to find out about Australian artists is ultimately supporting our membership.

As a peak organisation, presumably you’ll have a position on the whole broadband issue?

I think we’ve got to be there. We have to represent artists, look at their role as “content providers” for broadband. Look at the role of artists and creative thinkers and cultural workers in creating this new landscape of digital content. New media artists are already working in games companies, working in the media. I think one of the beauties of new media art is that these artists are really working with language and narrative and non-linearity. And they’re experts at it, specialists in it. They can really contribute to ideas like what interactive television could be.

I’m looking at how new media artists are remunerated for their work. What do you charge for a link to a website from a gallery? What do you charge if someone wants to cache your work in an exhibition? We have to look at setting some protocols. The whole method of distribution changes the nature of the work and I think some artists are feeling exploited and a bit unsure about how to deal with institutions and the distribution of their work. New media artists are also incredibly in demand which is both a positive and a negative, as it can put strain on an artists’ output and practice.

At the same time, it’s very exciting for artists working in this field, who continue to work both nationally and internationally. ANAT has really been at the forefront of this push over the last 12 years. It reflects the growth and maturity of the sector. It’s a great time to be involved in ANAT.

ANAT, Australian Network For Art

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 19

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

Ross Harley, Woman in Room 32

Ross Harley, Woman in Room 32

In an unused section of office space at the MCA, the seats were hard and the lighting fluorescent. Yet the symposium, Technologies of Magic: Ghosts & Their Machines, in itself proved an example of the technology of magic. It is in us, the beholden of those to whom we cede authority, that the magic is produced, whether in film or media, the theatre or the book, and with whatever tools they have at the time. The relationship “between technology and mysticism” and the production and representation of the immaterial was the theme of this one-day conference. Technology is our magic, it extends us with its reach, mediates our intimacy, vanishes from sight becoming ubiquity and environment. The invisible electrical fluids that we once understood as the spirit, inaccessible and beyond worldly thinking, are now the means by which we open our lives to others in the world, far beyond the local. The invisible is now the immaterial; a phantasm embedded in the Cartesian framework, animating the technological and the biological object.

Yet our emotions are quintessentially of the body: our visceral acknowledgement of the impact of the other. Rachel Moore, in her analysis of the role of archival film and old technologies in modern cinema, suggested that technology is often the mediator of the magical—ancient spirits and modern emotions (re)animated in the movie. The quickening of love between protagonists is triggered not by Cupid’s arrow but by incidental technological intervention. Magic and technology “alike accede to the notion that romantic love requires a magical trigger that comes from outside the lovers’ bodies, and is powerful enough to effect the bodies’ every sense.” Technology replaces nature and “in modern times, magic inhabits technology to produce the necessary elation of the body’s senses.” But technology also offers communication, bringing the remote into a single frame, a medium for emotions to weld and join, the medium through which that most magical event, falling in love, might be achieved.

Simon During introduced the magical effects of the 19th century stage. These, too, were the means whereby technology brought about the wondrous, and led to special effects in the cinema. Stage effects and optical illusions such as Pepper’s Ghost allowed the presentation in the theatre of all sorts of extraordinary occurrences. Nineteenth century popular concerns were imbued with the remainders of the spirit as religious object following the ravages of the Enlightenment. Spiritualism and a fascination with death presented a prime opportunity for entertainments based in phantasmagorical effects. Yet, as During pointed out, there was a curious interweaving of spiritualist séance and magical entertainment. Theatrical entertainment became the vehicle for ghost stories and mind-reading exercises with many practitioners moving from one stream to another.

John Potts provided a typology of ghosts: from poltergeist to personal ghosts, to harbingers of the future, to “non-interactive recording” ghosts obsessively repeating some event known only to themselves. Suggesting that they are often a moral warning or a signifier of the ancestors, he distinguished ghosts’ earlier cultural roles from their modern ones in the inexplicable. Now we have other terms for them: orbs, energy anomalies, yet they are still placeholders for things as yet unexplained. But hauntings are a re-presentation of the past, a kind of memory. As Potts pointed out, while the contemporary dialect we use to speak of magic borrows from science, “the ghost is the past speaking to the present and we will continue to hear it no matter what dialect it uses.” The “non-interactive recording ghost” is like a tape-recording and he wondered whether the magnetism of certain rocks might support such remembering. Human remembering is inadequately understood, and Potts offered a brief look at possible mechanisms, pointing to the role of emotion in the “recording strength” of memory.

Annette Hamilton, in her paper on the Uncanny, reminded us that Descartes dissociated the mind from the body—making it an object while rendering it immaterial. The mind, the ghost in the machine, becomes a thing in itself that houses within it all other things. We create technological objects through desire; they remain just a thing yet they belong to their maker. Hegel claimed that we carry a right to put our will into things and own them, producing a confusion of the subjective and the object. Hamilton explored this production of the object beginning with the mother’s breast and its fetishisation and following through to the function of the pet as a transitional object, a substitute, and finally the substitute for the substitute that we see in the Sony AIBO robotic dog. AIBO becomes an emotional prosthetic in its capacity to respond to its owner’s behaviour and voice. Finally Hamilton suggested that the fundamental break between the eye and the thing may well be coming to an end as the object begins again to have a meaning and subjectivity inherent in it, perhaps independent of our own desires.

Edward Scheer spoke about Stelarc and his relationship to the technology that increasingly adheres to him in his performances. Stelarc’s “visual excess of technology” ties him into the network of cyberspace, collapsing distance and representing a crisis in the identity of self and the body that emerges as we enter the new conceptual spaces that the net affords. For Stelarc the body in its narrow form is obsolete. It now extends across the net as the avatar, though animated as an emotionless extension of ourselves. But what will happen to these avatars? Do they become ghosts enabled to move bodies as Stelarc is moved within his exoskeletal Movatar? But Stelarc takes it further, folding his movement back onto the avatar in an endless precession—the exoskeleton becomes a servo-mechanism, staging feedback loops between the avatar and its rider. The avatar becomes a ghost riding our human machine, as it is yet a machine ridden by remote, networked users who are its ghosts. Stelarc’s cybernetic corporeality embraces the entities of its operation, extended across the net as they are, while in this curiously emotionless surrender he becomes the vehicle for animating the emotions of the networked personae of his riders.

Nigel Helyer’s concern is with the sound, the ear and the voice. For him the ear is a bringer of warnings, an indicator of danger signals; receiver of sounds regarded as phantastical, magical discarnate. The voice in the classical world of the oracle or the spirit guide is discarnate, separated from its origins. In drawing attention to the relationship between the dead, the spirit world and technological development, he mentioned Edison’s interest in recording the voices of people as memento-mori for their survivors and in his attempts to develop a “spirit-phone” to communicate with the dead. The 19th century idea that electricity animated the body leads to Edison’s interest and many other associations of technology with magic. Helyer spoke about his project for placing sounds, readings and music on the gravestones in the cemetery at St Stephen’s Church in Newtown. Engaging in the process of re-enchanting the world, he is developing means for enlivening objects, giving them their own voice using virtual reality technologies.

Ross Harley introduced 2 installation works that invoke the ghostly presence of people who had such an impact as to render them well remembered after their deaths. Woman in Room 32 remembers an eccentric woman who lived in the Regent’s Court Hotel in Kings Cross. She refused to move from her room when the hotel was renovated, embarking on “a campaign of terror” by playing her organ late into the night and giving hotel staff a difficult time. The installation in Room 32 of the hotel was built from a ‘live’ broadcast that could be viewed on the hotel’s TV system. Static and interference in the TV program marked the ghostly presence, in a room in which the TVs and their electronics were exposed and dangerous. The work seems to have had the effect of an exorcism in that the staff felt they could enter the room once the show was finished and the renovation of that room could be completed shortly thereafter.

I found it hard to see any real connection between the talks. The theme may well have been to do with the re-enchantment of the world, but this reading is contingent upon my own fascinations. We must invert this view so that we understand not that the world is some disjunctive realm of mind having priority over the material but that matter self-organises into the structures that bring it to life. This removes the need to invoke some outside agency—the ghost. Life and mind emerge as the results of this process, a necessary function of matter in its organised complexity. Technology is the prosthesis not the producer; it is perception which constructs and intentionality that produces, and these are themselves both functions of the conscious being.

Technologies of Magic: Ghosts and their Machines, a symposium organised by John Potts, Macquarie University & Edward Scheer, University of New South Wales, in conjunction with Performance Space; Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, July 18

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 23

© Stephen Jones; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Cazerine Barry, Sprung

Cazerine Barry, Sprung

According to my dictionary, an ‘audient’ is a listener, and this particular aspect of my experience at l’attitude 27.5? probably began with my walk between the rose beds at New Farm Park past noisy crowds of hefty looking crows. Is it just me or is Brisbane teeming with those big black birds? The auditory offensive hit a peak with the 2 live shows I managed to catch and the La Bouche installation. (The sprawling program which covers nearly 4 weeks means that interstate visitors have to be content with a slice of the festival.) Lisa O’Neill and Caroline Dunphy’s Rodin’s Kiss and Cazerine Barry’s Sprung are both challenging auditory experiences with scores by Brett Collery and Barry & Adrian Hauser respectively. And the La Bouche installation, a computer program including tracks and videoclips from the group, has their particular brand of early 80s electronic pop spilling into the cavernous interior of the Powerhouse. Of the 2 workshops I had a peek at, Brian Lucas was toying with spoken text combined with gestural movement, while Vinildas Gurukkal’s masterclass (part of the Igneous company residency) was the exception, being an exercise in silent mimicry.

As for ‘bodies’ and ‘technology’, they were both present in abundance. The emphasis is on ‘live arts’ as well as ‘contemporary dance’ in the program copy from curator Zane Trow (who shared this job with Powerhouse Program Manager Gail Hewton). The part of the festival I saw works through, but also around, the idea of independent contemporary dance practice. The bodies here do much more than the requisite mind-body exploration that often defines ‘cutting edge’ dance. Collaborations with actors, pop musicians, martial arts experts and untrained dancers, and technologies such as projection, lighting, web-casting, music video and storytelling place the dancer/choreographer within a broader context of cultural innovation. The larger vision of the organisers in producing such a program can perhaps be traced to the refreshing ease with which they use the much tortured term ‘independent.’ Clearly defining this as “individual dancers and choreographers who work outside of the established ‘dance company’ structure”, l’attitudes 27.5? can get on with the more important job of servicing the wide variety of practitioners who fall within the independent field. With Hewton sharing the curator’s role with Brian Lucas next year, and a strong shift of emphasis towards workshops, the annual l’attitudes 27.5? could make interstate travel very worthwhile for independents looking to share ideas and make connections.

Creating from the Body 1

First stop was Brisbane-based dance-choreographer Brian Lucas’ 2 single-day workshops, “Creating from the Body” 1 & 2. Open to untrained dancers, it attracted an interesting cross-section of participants, some from circus and non-dance backgrounds. Entering the Stores Studio, I thought for a moment that I had stumbled on a John Cleese Funny Walks workshop, with the participants strutting, waddling, scurrying and loping across the room while muttering to themselves. It was soon revealed that fairytales had provided the starting point for this exercise, familiar stories which were then combined with random actions. The participants’ odd trajectories across the space then made perfect sense; physically moving from one scenario to another or to mark the passage of time, and the activity of storytelling, are natural partners.

Lucas later told me he was attempting to disrupt the relation between the performer and their personal stories, in the creation of solo work through the various means I had witnessed; beginning with traditional stories, adding incongruent gestures or new instructions regarding speed and order, interrupting the spoken text with other words or giving so many instructions that interesting things come out of the resulting ‘mistakes.’ He finds that these processes provide a “non-threatening” way into telling one’s story. At one point Lucas defined what was ‘interesting’ as “the bits that you want to follow, or see again.” So the individual story emerges from the editing of the material, and the movements that survive the process are perhaps those that resist immediate perception. Providing a means for distancing the performer from the performance is a central aim, and Lucas stressed that it was the effort or attempt to achieve this which was central to the workshop process.

Lucas, like so many independents, works alone, but has found—or rather has had a role in creating—supportive communities such as the Cherry Herring which preceded the Powerhouse development in Brisbane. Now an artist in residence as part of the Incubator creative development program at the Powerhouse, Lucas is in an ideal position to develop his own practice and share something of his experience with the larger community through projects such as these workshops. And these 2 activities feed each other, as Lucas points out. The residency also offers a certain credibility given what he describes as the “nebulous nature of the freelancer”, and places him in contact with the array of artists who pass through the venue. The custom-made facilities at the Powerhouse have had another less quantifiable effect on artists such as Lucas; as he puts it, “if you know the space values you then you value the space.”

Rodin’s Kiss

Later that night Robyn Backen’s installation The Building That Speaks, built into the walls of the venue, guided me back to the Powerhouse with its flashing morse code messages for Rodin’s Kiss. In this work by 2 solo artists, actress/director Caroline Dunphy and dancer/choreographer Lisa O’Neill, the bold staging places the 2 figures against the powerful vertical thrust of what looks like a huge sheet of ice. Dramatic lighting strikes from the sides, sometimes fractured to throw cracks of light across the stage. The extreme changes in lighting and music (designed by Matt Scott and Brett Collery respectively) cut across the action just as often as they accentuate it, so that between these interjections, and the way the drastic set and lighting effects transect the physical space, the theme of unnatural interference or an improper interruption to an established order emerges.

This is in keeping with the narrative on which the work is based; a woman seduced by an ice sculpture of Rodin’s The Kiss. The protagonist’s desire transgresses the parameters of romantic love. This character, played by O’Neill, spends most of the work in a kind of stupor, swooning at the sculpture with her back to us, knees turned in, wandering from side to side with her arms raised, or showing us the face of stealthy desperation as she crouches low to the ground. Her embodiment of the character is complete and consistent; she repeats this swooning walk often and the moments of desolate inaction have the same deflated posture. But it was the more agile choreographic sequences that I began to anticipate. Having never seen O’Neill perform before, her eclectic phrases, grounded physicality and theatrical delivery brought on one of those revelatory moments when movement as a way of articulating does seem endless in its possibilities. She begins the show with a series of falls to the floor (falling for him?) that happen so instantaneously, the actual movement can hardly be seen, just the before and after. This quality continues through a phrase against the ice wall, O’Neill’s jagged shapes succeeding each other with almost indiscernible transitions. Flashdance literally flashes through my mind, but the resonance in O’Neill’s movement with a popular, punchy style of dance, lingers. There’s definitely something sexy and radically hip about these more rigorous choreographic sequences. This impression may be enhanced by her costume (by Sandra Andersen) of a short dress, bustier-style top and knee pads.

Dunphy played 1 female and 2 male characters who all work around the central female protagonist. She, in turn, seems in some ways to conjure them into being. The idea of characterisation is never straightforward in this work, but costume, actions and voice are utilised to distinguish 4 separate ‘players.’ Dunphy also spoke but it wasn’t simply a case of spoken text and various characterisations filling in the information suggested by the mute, but physically articulate, O’Neill. The dialogue was obtuse and delivered with a forced theatricality that deflected any straightforward reading, and little of the text stayed with me perhaps for that reason. One character walked casually into the action, hands in pockets, speaking in a relaxed drawl. The other male character entered with a glittering and dramatic flourish, dressed in a dark suit and hat in Michael Jackson’s Smooth Criminal mode, throwing off a couple of Jackson’s moves and poses. The second female character appeared only briefly, perhaps as the displaced woman in the sculpture, asking for her lover’s return.

The gaze plays an important role throughout with the performers looking directly out at the audience or at the ice wall, at one point singling out spectators and consequently drawing them into the drama. This redirection of the gaze, away from each other on stage and through what is beyond their physical presence, is so essential to the work that the final moment when 2 of the characters lock eyes is shattering. The themes of seduction, desire, romance and ‘first love’ emerged for me mainly through this refraction of the gaze, loosening these overworked ideas from any specific identity and bouncing them between the stage and audience, but also through the figure of O’Neill, physically drenched in a sort of love-sick and desperate inertia.

Vinildas Gurrukal Masterclass

Vinildas Gurrukal’s masterclasses in Kalaripayatt, the traditional martial art of Kerala in southern India, are part of the 6-week Igneous residency at Brisbane Powerhouse. Igneous’ co-artistic directors, James Cunningham and Suzon Fuks, say their work with Gurrukal grew out of time spent in India where they were impressed by the quantity and variety of physical skills. The nature of Gurrukal’s body practices and his willingness to share resources provided them with not only an artistic collaborator, but a training methodology. Kalaripayatt involves exercising the mind as well as body and has an intensely spiritual dimension. The class begins and ends with salutations directed at a Hindu icon, placed in the corner of the room, and proceeds with a meditative focus and mood.

As in Lucas’ workshop, the members of the class come from varied backgrounds, some with dance training, some circus and martial arts disciplines. The choreographic quality of Kalaripayatt, with its emphasis on agility rather than strength and on defensive moves rather than offensive, is demonstrated when Gurrukal partner’s each participant one-on-one. The student repeats Gurrukal’s movements so there’s a mirroring of his actions, a to and fro rhythm that has a swinging follow-through as opposed to an aggressive attack. Gurrukal can obviously do these movements in his sleep, watching each group of activity in the room and giving instructions while sparring. The eye choreography exercises are particularly intriguing, obviously designed to fix challengers in their sights, but looking very flirtatious.

Igneous Playshops

Gurrukal’s work with Igneous has also inspired the Lismore-based company to incorporate an Indian approach into their performance context. This new direction involves drawing from the geography and culture of the environment in which they are working, as well as being informed by the contingent status of the performative moment in Indian culture; the slippery shifts between warm-up and spectacle, audience attention and absence, performer and character. Hence the sight of Playshops’ participants climbing all over the interior of the Powerhouse in the Visy Foyer prior to Cazerine Barry’s Sprung.

Igneous are also continuing their investigation of video as a performance component. They utilise video in 5 ways: shooting to plan, projecting ‘live’ during the work so that the on and off screen performances correspond, utilising archival material in performance, using projection as ‘set’ and projecting onto bodies in the performance space. These approaches can overlap in any specific case and Cunningham describes it as a doubling of the performance space or “involution”.


What’s the difference between a computer program and an installation, or a video and an installation? I’m not sure, but I did enjoy the slice of 80s electronic music offered by the La Bouche program and the quick update on the transmute collective offered by the 2 videos on a loop, both in the Visy Foyer in the belly of the Powerhouse.

La Bouche was created by musician Andy Arthurs, one of the original members of the UK-based La Bouche collective, along with musician Philip Chambon and choreographer Lloyd Newson. Arthurs is now Head of Music at QUT and 2 of the dancers who worked with the group, Fiona Cullen and Shaaron Boughen, also work at QUT, hence the Brisbane interest. Newson, currently director of DV8 Dance Theatre, is of course Australian and another choreographer who worked on La Bouche’s first show, Graeme Watson, was artistic director of One Extra in Sydney for some time.

The most interesting aspects of the installation are the video clips for Reaching for Blue and La Bouche, as they give an idea of the cross-disciplinary collaborations that the group was involved in. The addition of filmmaker Peter Lydon and composer/performer Alan Belk rounded out the group’s performative range, with Belk’s “extended vocal technique” providing the signature element. The driving concept of the group was “the de-physicalisation of electronic music and its dislocation from the body”, and the use of the human voice as the basis for sampling created a distinctive sound that ranged from Manhattan Transfer on drugs to sublime choral sounds and many things in-between. Live appearances at major UK festivals and on television, video clips and recordings make up their body of work, but unfortunately there is no footage of the festival appearances.

The La Bouche video was choreographed by Newson and shares aesthetics with Phillipe Decoufle videos being made in simultaneously in France and the US, utilising rhythmic, almost graphic choreography, radical costumes and in-your-face special effects. The difference between this work and other music videos of the time (many of which were aesthetically progressive, such as the videos that accompanied the New Romantic wave in the UK) is the focus on dancers rather than singers and the originality of the choreography and some of the visual concepts. Squarish black sunglasses are de rigeur, smeared lipstick, spiky short hair and boxy red clothing, and the choreography for the 3 dancers sitting on chairs is all cool posturing with some nifty rhythmic footwork. The Reaching for Blue clip is more contemporary dance and less music video, shot in B&W with the same dancers caught in several locations. Shots of TVs and Barbie Dolls, and a jazz sensibility in the choreography, keeps things connected to the pop-culture world. La Bouche represents an enduring example of that ‘something else’ that was going on at the interface between the arts and popular music at that time.

The transmute installation has a more direct relevance to the l’attitude 27.5? program and speeds us ahead 2 decades to another interdisciplinary, multimedia collaboration. It consists of 2 looped videos; one on the making of a 1999 installation, transit_lounge (The Fantastic Adventures of Ling Change), and the other on a performance from earlier this year, Liquid Gold (The All New Adventures of Ling Change). The latter was the first outcome of the transmute collective’s residency at the Brisbane Powerhouse which will continue into 2002.

The artistic director of the collective is new media artist Keith Armstrong and Lisa O’Neill is the performer/choreographer who plays several roles in each of the works. They are joined by Gavin Sade, a multimedia interface designer, and sound designer Guy Webster. The samplers and video special effects of the 80s are replaced with digital technology, computer animation, web casting and custom built chat servers. What remains the same is a desire to find the humanity through the technology, and to that end the transmute collective are assisted by Dr Liz Baker, who brings the element of ‘philosophical ecology’ to the process, which manifests in both the form and content of the work. It informs the design of these interactive creations and produces visual elements such as the animated flowers that grow or die in response to the spectator’s interaction with the installation environment (transit_lounge).

There is obviously a strength in this collaboration that exceeds its parts, a point that is reiterated in the videos. The future for transmute is a new work, Transact, which will “produce a new ‘Net-work’ of interdependent installations connected by the Internet.” The collective’s overall aim is “putting some of the ‘liveness’ back into the work that is lost through the lo-fi images and sounds that the web currently allows.” It is hard to glean what kind of experience these real and virtual environments present to an audience. But descriptions and images of writers responding instantaneously to online performances, audience members feeling out their impact on a sensor driven installation and the cartoon-like characters dreamt up and costumed by O’Neill, all point to a warmer, fuzzier technological experience. While the overall style of the work is thoroughly contemporary, there was also a kind of comfort in the Alice in Wonderland feel of the Ling Change character and the images of O’Neill marking out her movements against a blue screen…just like Gene Kelly filming his scene with Jerry the mouse in Anchors Away.


Cazerine Barry’s double-bill, Sprung and Lampscape, was the perfect end to my Brisbane experience. As a solo performer Barry, like O’Neill, has embraced technology, specifically digital video design, which she projects onto a scrim in front of her live solo performance. Unlike O’Neill, Barry is almost a one-woman show, liberated by the ability to pre-program. For Sprung she is credited as choreographer, devisor, digital designer and sound mixer. She is assisted in this work by associate director Rachael Spiers.

Barry appears as a 60s girl/woman both on screen and behind, dressed in a demure house frock, knee-high black socks and flat black shoes. The plan of a house is super-imposed over the action and has a Patrick Caulfield-esque look, especially later depictions of room set-ups consisting of 2D black outlines. In one such room the real Barry blows through an air vent, fluttering the virtual Barry’s skirt, then the action is reversed. Humour runs through the piece and the kitschy 60s music operates through the same wild and abandoned editing process as the visuals. Constant transformation is the outstanding element of the work and I was surprised at the end to find myself back where I started with the house floor plan and the 2 Barrys. The visual, aural and cultural sidetrips on this journey take full advantage of the mutability of virtual environments, while directly reflecting the central theme of the work; “a dislocated sense of home and place” and the Australian dream of home ownership.

In a frenzy of capitalistic excess, Barry drives a coin like a steering wheel and poses in one of her many neat ‘frames’ beside prime-ministers’ portraits, subtly mocking their posturing. A male character appears who shrinks and grows all over the place. A monkey head and a skeleton frame Barry on either side as she sings and dances to a cute 30s tune, Busy Line. Then the image of a foetus appears with a corresponding voiceover and Barry is cocking her leg in a disturbing manner, crotch to the audience like a dog. The misty effect of the scrim clouds our vision of her at times and the roughness of some of the video images colludes with this effect to point to the presence of the technology. Barry has fun with these new tools and utilises them in a personable and relevant way.

With the choreography, I again have a sense of limitless possibilities. Barry appears to do whatever is right for this character in the various situations she finds herself in. Tap dancing, Charleston, go-go, stylised everyday gestures…She keeps pulling things out of her choreographic box of tricks as rapidly as the virtual world she has created leads us through its trippy labyrinth. Popular and social dance somehow makes perfect sense in this environment.

In Lampscape Barry is joined by sound designer Adrian Hauser and costume designer Anna Tregloan. This piece has a similar format to Sprung but a much darker tone, beginning with Barry rolling across the base of the scrim. The shadowing effect is more eerie than amusing now, the colonial figure changing size and multiplying like a ghost dredged up from the past and appearing on the screen by mistake. Rocking chairs, outback landscapes, stuffed kangaroos and a heavy ornamental proscenium frame (sometimes featuring old-fashioned doilies) conjure a colonial culture across generations. This piece features more extended dance sequences, both in terms of their length and the breadth of movement, with the ghosting effect forcing the audience to draw the figure out of the darkness.

l’attitde 27.5º: Creating from the Body 1, physical performance workshop with Brian Lucas, Stores Studio, Sept 23; Rodin’s Kiss, Lisa O’Neill & Caroline Dunphy, Sept 19-23; Masterclass with Vinildas Gurrukal, Stores Studio, Sept 8-Oct 13; La Bouche: A Retrospective, Visy Foyer, Sept 19-Oct 14; Transmute, Visy Foyer, Sept 19-Oct 14; Igneous Playshops, Turbine Rehearsal Room, Sept 5-Oct 13; Sprung, Cazerine Barry, Visy Theatre, Sept 26-30; Brisbane Powerhouse.

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 24-

© Erin Brannigan; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Yumi Umiumare & Tony Yap, How Could You Even Begin to Understand?

Yumi Umiumare & Tony Yap, How Could You Even Begin to Understand?

Yumi Umiumare & Tony Yap, How Could You Even Begin to Understand?

Butoh’s founder Tatsumi Hijikata once reflected that a body that rests upon straight legs is a body equipped with reason, while that on bent legs lies at the edge of reasonable understanding (Jean Viala, Nourit Masson-Sekine, eds, Butoh: Shades of darkness, Tokyo, Shufunotomo, 1991). Mixed Metaphor 2001 abounded with dancers whose forms rose above the ground with an uneasy step. Opera Somatica for example offered a study of empty, externalised identity which concluded with a near naked performer tottering before a projection of cracked soil, while Lynne Santos bent low to the floor to transform her body, sensorium and movement into a sympathetic environmental system.

The highlight was the latest collaboration from Butoh-trained Yumi Umiumare and Grotowski-trained Tony Yap. Umiumare and Yap have often come together for others (Kagome, Meat Party) as well as their own productions, of which How Could You Even Begin to Understand? comprised the 9th to 12th versions. Over the past 6 years they have developed a sensitivity finely tuned not only to each other’s movements, but also each other’s states and microscopic energy fluxes. They venture far beyond their original training into a fluid, loving, meditative discipline which is as close as many of us will come to shamanistic techniques—though their work is no more fully described by such terms than it is by postmodernist performance art. The communion and slight return that they enacted simply by moving past each other was redolent of soft restraint, generously deferred violence, uninhibited, chaotic improvisation, and structured, minimal abstraction.

The distinctiveness of this compassionate vision of sympathetic, physical, ‘chaos without limit’ is especially apparent in light of the visit to Melbourne of Butoh luminary Min Tanaka earlier this year. Ironically, Yap and Umiumare have produced their most individual aesthetic yet by returning to a style strongly akin to that of Tanaka’s nearly prop-less, terrifying yet joyful, physical amorphousness. This artistic progression in Umiumare and Yap is echoed by that of their sometime collaborator Santos.

Though Santos is a superb, multi-disciplinary performer, she has tended to be slightly overshadowed in her work with Yap and Umiumare. Her latest self-devised solo however has definitively established her as an independent artist with her own take on these traditions. Santos has a taut yet soft presence all her own, with that slightly deferred sense of gender one finds in Laurie Anderson’s performances: not quite ‘feminine’, yet not ‘masculine’—a cool, relaxed elegance.

In Desert Country—A body record Santos epitomised the performative ideal of existing in and through space. Her body was like a bead on a string or a sieve in water, a porous site through which air and space flows. Santos spinning while holding a basic flag, literally generating a sympathetic response in the windy ether, was a particular highlight. Using a mixture of stripped-back anthropomorphisms, open-armed salutes to the skies, and pseudo-pleasurable tremors, she reproduced not only the physical memory of what it is to be in the desert, but what it is to be desert. This was beautifully enhanced by Nik Pajanti’s lighting. For How Could You Even Begin? Pajanti provided amber streams tightly confined to Yap, Umiumare and the path that connected them. In Desert Country however the whole space darkened or glowed with colour in response to Santos’ emotional states.

Martin Kwasner’s ‘body-map’ from Legless Lizard was rather different. The closest comparison to his solo is Trevor Patrick’s Continental Drift (1997). Both comprise a psychokinetic auto-portrait. The body is described by light (here large illuminated slits, and projected close-ups of body parts), choreography and text to produce an abstract biography. Whereas Continental Drift had a striking sense of cyclic cohesion, Kwasner produced a pleasing sense of disparity and montage. His fluid yet various movement phrases functioned similarly to the filmic mise en scene of Robert Altman and Quentin Tarantino. To quote The Simpsons: “There is no moral—it’s just a bunch of stuff that happens!” Kwasner’s solo operated on a prosaic, humorous level while also hinting at deeper relationships and experiences (an unnamed soul-mate, an unexplained affinity for the feeling of rain).

The irregular surges of momentum and angularity which have tended to define the work of Lucy Guerin and some other Melbourne choreographers played only a small part in Kwasner’s solo. Nevertheless the extremely expressive abstraction he produced recalled Guerin’s more dramatically accessible yet conceptually dense combinations of late (notably The Ends of Things). Kwasner’s more rounded, ‘user-friendly’, choreography represents the new face of this trend, which sits well alongside the post-Butoh movement to which Melbourne also home.

Mixed Metaphor, season curator Helen Herbertson: How Could You Even Begin to Understand? Version #9-#12, performers/devisers Tony Yap, Yumi Umiumare; Wall Pieces, performers/devisers Wendy Morrow, Leigh Hobba; FashionMotionExhibit, BODY, choreographers Natalie Cursio & dancers, performers Shona Erskine, Danika Barnett, Anna Burgess, Kimberly Lawrence, Elsie Nelson, Felicity Pearson, Ellise Peart, Leana Rack; Mask, Opera Somatica, performer/deviser Elizabeth Keen, operator/performer Circle K; Desert Country—A body record, performer/deviser Lynne Santos; Legless Lizard, choreographer/performer/writer Martin Kwasner; Dancehouse, Melbourne, Sept 13 – 22

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 27

© Jonathan Marshall; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Leeanna Walsman & Robyn Nevin, Old Masters

Leeanna Walsman & Robyn Nevin, Old Masters

Leeanna Walsman & Robyn Nevin, Old Masters

A large red curtain diagonals the stage. Between it and the audience, a triangle of earth, a music hallish forestage. A performer opens the curtain, more soil, tall tufts of dead grass, the wall of a house built from old cupboards, trunks and wardrobes, adorned with stuffed native animals and a piano—later to be played by a wombat. Along the adjoining, long black wall, a row of gas jets—a very old house, a theatre from another century? For Beatrix Christian’s Old Masters, a neo-Shakespearean comedy with a droll Chekhovian discursiveness, director Benedict Andrews and designer Justin Kurzel have created a magical double world where relationships between individuals can be scrutinised with an acid, poetic realism and the thin line between life and art can be writ large like a fable, one in which all will end…well enough. Disbeliefs are rapidly suspended, characters break into affecting song (mock pop, Sondheim, Schubert, Waits), the hired help (an opera chorine, name of Henry [Frank Whitten]) lurks with a skull mask, doubling as Death, witness to the torments of lovers in a magic circle of trees. A shocking death will only be a dream…but life will never be the same. As well, our hostess is unwilling: “I’m a muse, not a narrator”, objects Fleur Wattle (Jacki Weaver) the ageing, life-long nude model to Lillian Fromm, the great artist (Robyn Nevin) who is suffering the painter’s block on which hinges a large part of the play’s outcome.

The Fromm family have gathered, each with their own burden, each in search of some resolution or preservation. Lillian’s former husband, womaniser (including an affair with Fleur) and heart-attack candidate Gordon (Max Cullen), is on hand with his second wife, Dorotéa (Julie Forysth), at first appearance a tough petit bourgeois out to get half of Lillian’s property. She is, but we grow to understand her charitable motive for refugee women. There’s Lillian and Gordon’s son, Ford (Aaron Blabey), a postal contractor, an escapee from his mother’s greatness, and from an affair with Fleur which will threaten the bond with his father. However, Ford’s determination to achieve ordinariness is usurped by his love for Vivika, a junkie poet, whom Lillian seizes on as her new muse. Will Lillian be inspired anew? Will Vivika stay with Lillian and be freed of her drug dependency? Will Ford lose the love of Vivika and his father? Can Dorotéa get Gordon to will her his share of Lillian’s land? Will Gordon die unloved? What kind of life does Fleur face, ageing, stripped of lovers, fully clothed and nobody’s muse?

The establishing of this interlocking set of emotional dilemmas is dazzlingly realised. Christian’s dialogue is alive with sharp one liners, rhyme and half rhyme and a compelling aphoristic drive as well as that Australian rarity, a distinctive voice for each character. Andrews provides a theatrical sleight of hand that allows complex emotional moments to be dealt with briskly, comically and with a fitting, choreographed physical intensity. He sustains this to the very end, but on the way something has gone wrong, or missing, been thinned out. The words stop hitting home, we’re witnessing economy resolutions, simple homilies, mere narration. It’s unnerving. After all we’ve been through, is this it?

The pivotal moment in Act II, before the play seems to fade, is the sneak preview of Lillian’s painting of Vivika, a marvellous physical and verbal dance of a scene in which Vivika, Fleur and Dorotéa interpret the artwork. Whose feet are they? Vivika’s? She is so proud. But what do they represent? Christ’s feet? Yes. But they’re old feet. Fleur’s feet! Fleur is ecstatic, the muse once more. Lillian, emerging from the dark, says yes, they are Fleur’s, but announces that she has no more need of her. Fleur collapses. Nor, we soon see, will Lillian need Vivika. Just herself…she ponders self-portraits. It gets a laugh. It fosters a thought. Of all the characters—and despite Robyn Nevin’s fine, restrained portrait of a self-possessed, sometimes inadvertantly cruel person, never wifely, rarely motherly, always the artist—this is the one character who is most symbolic and the least actual. Her few moments of interiority are conveyed largely in song; she has few protracted exchanges with the others; little they do impinges on her. Of course, Fleur is at the centre of a play, finally enjoying playing narrator, coming to grips with her loss…but all this is pretty perfunctory in the end, as if there is nothing that can be said between her and Lillian, not even the struggle to speak. Expectations are high, outcomes low. Perhaps the adherence to a comic vision curtailed pushing the emotional limits, kept Lillian in the artist box. But the history of comedy is full of sublime darkness.

These worries don’t extend to the performances which are formidable, suggesting the outer reaches to which the play doesn’t always extend. Leeana Walsman excels in an off-the-edge performance, the tottering, ankle-collapsing, shooting-up junkie poet in love with Ford but glimpsing salvation as a muse, knowing that a return to ordinary life means death—and to it she goes.

There is so much to relish and treasure in Old Masters that it seems niggardly to criticise it for what it doesn’t perhaps aspire to. However, there were many who thought that Beatrix Christian’s The Governor’s Family was a great play. The playwright got a critical thrashing for it. With Fred and Old Masters under her belt and the critics’ warm approval, it’s to be hoped that her adaptations of Chekhov’s The Three Sisters (STC, 2001) and Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (STC 2002) will encourage Christian to explore the outer limits of her vision in her own next play.

Beatrix Christian, Old Masters, director Benedict Andrews, designer Justin Kurzel, composer Max Lambert, lighting Nigel Levings, costumes Fiona Crombie; Wharf 1, Sydney Theatre Company, opened October 17

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 38

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

Our cover image says it all on 2001. Ian Haig’s scary and suggestive Excelsior 3000—Bowel Technology Project mocks the banal functionalism of the application of new technologies with an image of constipated privacy hooked into a world rendered entirely virtual. These days media veils, governmental obfuscations and censorships combine with the dreamside of new media to closet us in cosy fantasias. No wonder cyberactivism is on the rise (see TILT).

Meanwhile RealTime keeps the lines open with an edition packed with reports and responses from across Australia (welcome Warrnambool) and beyond to the Yokohama Triennale and Britain’s In-Yer-Face theatre.

RealTime staff wish you well in these harsh times. However powerless we might feel in yet another New World Order, we need to be active on behalf of Afghani and other refugees in a time when an insular Australia’s primary forays into the world seem to be military.

Have yourself a Merry little Xmas!

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 3

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

IMA entrance, Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts

IMA entrance, Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts

On the edge of Fortitude Valley, as Brunswick Street heads into New Farm, just minutes away by car from the remarkable Brisbane Powerhouse is another astonishing addition to the Queensland arts scene—The Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts (JWCCA). At the very moment that post-election rumour sweeps Australia suggesting to the small to medium performing arts companies that the federal inquiry into their well-being will come to nothing, here is a new, magnificently equipped home for 7 Brisbane-based contemporary arts companies and organisations: IMA (Institute of Modern Art), Expressions Dance Company, Rock’n’Roll Circus, Kooemba Jdarra Indigenous Performing Arts, ELISION new music ensemble, AFTRS (Australian Film Television & Radio School, Queensland branch) and The Arterial Group.

JWCCA is big, 2 buildings fused into one by Michael Rayner of Cox Rayner Architects: the old Empire office furniture store (facing the main road) and, behind it, the Bushells tea and coffee factory (the artwork faded but still visible from the street). Near the corner of Brunswick and the adjoining side street, a glass tower gives the building its unity and contemporary character. A few steps down the side street and onto a gently sloping terraced courtyard (bounded by a low stone wall inscribed with some of Judith Wright’s verse) and you’re at the glass-walled entrance to the IMA. Back on the busy main road, the building is lined with shopfronts waiting to be leased and the main entrance. The latter gives immediate access to the theatre at the centre of the building, those organisations on the ground floor, and, wisely, alternative access to the IMA. The foyer includes an installation (not functioning on my visit), a dedication to Judith Wright, the poet and activist after whom the building is named, lift access to the other levels of the building, a bar and an adjoining outdoor balcony.

For IMA Director Michael Snelling and Expressions General Manager Abel Valls the journey to the opening of the centre has been a long hard haul over many years. A mid-90s Green Paper on the needs of small to medium arts organisations prompted the Coalition state government to purchase the site. A change of government to Labor meant re-charging the project, seeking the support of Arts Minister Matt Foley, who persuaded cabinet colleagues to run with it, and investing an enormous amount of time in negotiating with organisations and architects. Valls says that he and Snelling once estimated that they were each spending at least a day per week on planning and negotiating for years. Issues included getting the theatre right, providing quality studio spaces for the performing arts companies, sane acoustics (with performing arts companies working in such close juxtaposition), security, live-in artist studios, workshops, a loading dock, freight lift and good storage space. The cost was $15.25m and the building and everything in it looks worth every cent.

The companies pay rent for their spaces and the theatre is available for hire to outside users. It has a large, flexible performing area, excellent height and a catwalk, freight lift access to all levels, excellent lighting equipment and seating for 200. The seating is retractable (push-button, 15 minute operation) making the space ideal for all kinds of performance. For a company like Expressions, the number of seats means that while the theatre will be ideal for developing new works, for small seasons and hosting guest companies (like Singapore’s Odyssey Dance Theatre in 2002) its not going to achieve the kind of box office that their Queensland Performing Arts Centre seasons do in a couple of weeks. But, says Valls, the JWCCA provides them with the very flexibility they need.

Under the artistic direction of Maggi Sietsma, Expressions tours internationally, throughout Queensland and beyond to schools and art centres, and runs choreographic workshops and community dance classes. Their major operations are now very much under one roof and the JWCCA is custom built to match the company’s needs. Valls says that within a few weeks the company felt totally at home in the building, a significant test after spending 15 years in their previous one above a Hare Krishna restaurant and miles from their 2 storage spaces out near the airport. A stairway leads up from the company offices (reception, direction, management, production, promotion, design etc) to a large dance studio with lighting bars (for workshop performances for audiences of up to 60), a perfect dance floor (the best of some 6 prototypes), natural light, and the choice of fresh or conditioned air. Expressions christened the new theatre with Sketches III revealing its capaciousness and versatility.

Rock’n’Roll Circus, one of Australia’s leading physical theatre companies, has a more modestly sized office but a very impressive studio with plenty of height for performers to swing and to toss each other about. Artistic Director Yaron Lifschitz is clearly very pleased with the space and the facilities. The theatre though is of less immediate significance because of the hire cost and the company’s successful partnership with the Brisbane Powerhouse. However, the JWCCA is ideal for the company for rehearsal, management and the projected creation of their Circus Training Centre and for community workshops including with young blind people in a project with the Royal Blind Foundation. Like Expressions, the JWCCA is a base for national and international touring, with New Zealand and Europe in the company’s sights.

ELISION new music ensemble has an impressive record of extensive national and international touring and collaborations (see Dark Matter, p36). ELISION’s brand of contemporary music can at times be aggressively if sublimely loud. Abel Valls claimed he could sit in his office and not hear Daryl Buckley, ELISION’s Artistic Director, practising the Transmission electric guitar series for Dark Matter in the studio below.

Also resident in the Judith Wright Centre are Kooemba Jdarra who nurture Indigenous artists in all aspects of theatre and have a fine track record of premieres and touring works. The community new media Arterial Group were featured in RealTime 45 (p29) with their monumental, international collaboration with San Francisco sound installation artist Barry Schwartz.

IMA has 3 gallery spaces, 2 workshops and 3 fully furnished artist studios. The substantial gallery spaces, 2 of them large and one intimate, all currently feature works by Queenslander Robert Macpherson. These are fine, cool, spaces to wind through taking in Macpherson’s droll vision. IMA can present 15 to 20 exhibitions involving around 100 artists a year, as well as publish 10 titles ranging from small catalogues to substantial volumes containing the work of some 50 writers and artists. The JWCCA should give the IMA the increased visibility it warrants.

There are some challenges for JWCCA. The name of the centre is hardly a good hook for attracting audiences. As well, while it’s nice to honour Judith Wright, it’s a little odd to do so in a centre that has no literary organisations. Certainly the name of the theatre (as yet unannounced) will need careful consideration. The kind of stores that front the building will also shape public attitudes. A couple of the centre’s residents thought that a bookshop (in a large suburban area devoid of one) would be ideal…but unlikely. One thing however seems certain, Fortitude Valley and the densely populated New Farm with its growing number of restaurants, cinemas and cafes and a 25-40 age demographic, could provide an immediate audience for the JWCCA theatre and gallery.

The most significant thing about the JWCCA is that it is that Australian rarity, a civilised, well-appointed home for arts companies where they can develop new work, sustain extant work, teach, workshop, have artists truly in residence and be accessible to the other artists and the public. Like the very different Brisbane Powerhouse (a performance venue, but crucially also a producer), the Judith Wright Centre for the Contemporary Arts is a complex production house, a model for other Australian states to take a long serious look at.

While most of the major arts companies of Australia provide expensive entertainment to those who can afford it, it is the smaller creators who are the innovators, uniquely representative of Australian culture and much more likely to be welcomed and applauded overseas. In most other states of Australia, companies of this scale desperately await the justice that will give them decent working conditions and homes in which work can be consistently developed.

The Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts, 420 Brunswick St Fortitude Valley, Qld.

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 4

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

I can’t vouch for the Turkish-Australian content of Doctor Akar’s Women, a first play from Antonia Baldo a young Australian resident in London where she’s having her first feature film screenplay produced in 2002. She’s visited Turkey but freely admits (though refusing to go into any detail) that her play is about her own family but filtered through another culture. Whatever its provenance and regardless of its first play failings, Doctor Akar’s Women is a fine work about masculinity—a study of the male child of a father who suicided, his situation complicated by unresolved cultural and sexual tensions.

Akar is a doctor, a general practitioner, born in Australia of a Turkish immigrant father and an Australian mother. On the one hand he appears benign, a storyteller, passing on family lore—to the women who langorously surround him as the play opens—and casually interested in his cultural origins, signalled by the small moments of male Turkish dance he slips into, usually when he’s on his own. He is indifferent to his wife, distant from his surgeon-trainee daughter who is desperate for his advice and emotional support as she learns to cut up corpses in class. On the grounds that his sister’s estranged lover behaves a little like he’s gay, Akar mocks her desire to return to the relationship. Harry is also totally removed from his formidable mother. Harry Akar is not a nice man. That is one of the Baldo’s great strengths, the ability to create a man who is superficially amiable, who expects to be heard but does not listen, and the will to keep him unlikeable.

Without having yet to spend any sympathy on Harry, we gradually accumulate material for a murky case study. He loves and hates the father who suicided when he was 12. Harry was abandoned; Harry in turn abandons all about him. But he treasures the memory and the storytelling of the father, he becomes him in a way, entangled in the unresolved love between his mother and father, wanting to blame his mother for his betrayal. Harry Akar is afraid of love, of commitment. His wife Connie reminds him that his political activism at university attracted her—he can’t remember it, he says, abusing her for her Double Bay lifestyle and financial dependence. Harry is a case, and while we can’t sympathise, we can understand, and we can foresee the hell into which he is about to cast himself.

Harry has an affair with a patient with advanced tuberculosis who seeks him out because he has a reputation for handing out drugs, no questions asked. Despite, or because of, her death wish Harry is drawn to her, wants to help her, leaves his family, tries to move in with her in one of the play’s most discomfiting scenes. Here is a woman who is used to being alone with herself and an imminent death. But the world moves on regardless of Harry; the woman dies, his daughter masters the challenge of surgery, his sister reunites with her lover, his wife forms a relationship with Harry’s accountant, and Harry has to learn the complexity of his mother’s feelings about her husband’s suicide. Harry has lost a lot, gained some, been uprooted from the saturnine ease of cynicism. Unfortunately the play’s final scenes manage these resolutions too briskly, too comfortably. However, Dr Akar's Women stays with you: at a deeper level than the functional ending there's something extremely disturbing in the constellation of a fracturing family, the mystery of suicide, an initiation into surgery, and an affair between a man on the verge of emotional death and a woman whose body has betrayed her.

Sandro Colarelli plays the challenging role of Harry with a dextrous physical ease and a Kevin Kline charm that constantly and bitterly undercuts itself. Angela Punch McGregor is surprisingly tough as Harry's mother, in her own way not unlike Harry—the forceful surface belies unresolved grief. Overall, the cast is strong, the multicultural mix a reminder how predominantly Anglo our mainstages still are.

Antonio Baldo, Dr Akar's Women, director Ros Horin, designer Catherine Raven, costumes Karin Thorn, lighting Chris Yates, musical director Max Lyandvert; Griffin Theatre Company, Oct 5 – Nov 10

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. web

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

Gerard Van Dyck’s Collapsible Man was an immediate hit at this year’s Melbourne Fringe Festival. Van Dyck plays a whimsical, vaudevillian character, living out of a portable, intricately constructed box. Chair and table slot in and out, a bed of sorts springs out, doors form and reform. Van Dyck purports to lecture his audience—an interminable, anatomical collage is wound out of an overhead projector like an old musical box. God knows what kind of body snakes out, bones connected to implausible bones. He flips, slips and somersaults within the context of presenting his ‘ideas’ to the audience.

There is a gentle grace to this character, as if he might have been a renowned academic if he could only stop the impossibility of his own eccentricities. Instead though, it seems he is an itinerant of ideas. Some of his suggestions are simply lewd, however; an orifice is used to engulf his body to hilarious effect. Straddling the roof of his dilapidated abode, Van Dyck is finally confronted with a blinking neon sign: a giant arrow points stage left. At last, the penny drops, and Van Dyck sits down at the piano to sketch a musical conclusion.

Van Dyck uses all his dancerly skills in a very understated fashion. The result is an endearing presentation, oddly reminiscent of Brian Lipson’s A Large Attendance in the Antechamber (RT 41 p25), in the sense that both pieces involve strong performances of weird people from another time and place.

Little Asia Dance 2001 showed 5 dance works in Melbourne, before touring the lot to Hong Kong, Taipei, Korea and Japan. The first half of the show consists of 3 solos by women. Although coincidental, the dancing in these works is not dissimilar. Li Mei-Kuang’s The Last 15 Minutes (Taipei) is an emotional but dancerly presentation of a sense of yearning. Done with commitment, I have a sense however that there is a certain holding back from looking the audience in the eye. Hyan-Hea Bang’s Flashback (Korea) is more in-your-face, about self and identity, face and representation, involving 2 rows of pictures, which she uses dramatically. Wai-mei Yeung’s Tango of Water Sleeves (Hong Kong) is the most stimulating. Beginning with a stiletto walk along the back wall, in front of video projections of text, Wai-mei uses the space of the theatre more than her predecessors. The last segment is very effective, with canny use of video projections of a Beijing Opera character on her own body, effecting a virtual duet with herself.

The second half features the boys—Australian Brett Daffy and Japan’s Tsuyoshi Ozawa. Daffy shows Ward: Human Meat Processing Works about subjection and manipulation. He performs his suffering through dancing a distorted body that is artificially modified. His movement is both stunning and hermaphroditic. Ozawa’s piece is the more dramatic, about death, performed to Purcell’s famous lament from Dido & Aeneas. Ozawa has an incredibly flexible back that he uses to the max to convey feeling.

The Collapsible Man, choreographer/ performer Gerard Van Dyck, Melbourne Fringe Festival, Dancehouse, Oct 12-20; Little Asia Dance 2001: Hirano, solos by Li Mei Kuang, Hyan-Hea Bang, Wai-mei Yeung, Brett Daffy & Tsuyoshi Ozawa, C.U.B. Malthouse, Melbourne, Sept 27-29

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg.

© Philipa Rothfield; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Daniel Shipp, Bike, from The Jettisoned State series, 2000

Daniel Shipp, Bike, from The Jettisoned State series, 2000

Along with the usual insights into the ideas of new Australian photo artists this year’s Photo Technica Award Exhibition, The Whole Picture offers exercise for the eyes.

The lush coloured lambda print on the wall just inside the door could be anything anywhere. In one of a series entitled Conjecture, Samuel Phelps’ eagle-eyed aerial view of “the banal spaces we inhabit” (ie domestic interiors), colour and form offer an intriguing optical puzzle.This is the sort of picture that has people doing little head bobbing dances in front of it.

Heightening the theatricality of the celebrity chef portrait, one of Paul County’s black and white series on Tasmanian restaurateurs is posed in a museum set with a giant kangaroo. All is revealed when the photographer, who used to work in the hospitality industry, tells me that the chef in the picture came from South Africa and found no demand in Hobart for his skills in cooking wild animals.

“The world looks beautiful through a Hasselblad,” says David van Royen. Something of this young photographer’s broader vision is captured in these 2 examples from his series (him self) featuring men who are “no longer boys, (but) individuals moving beyond their prolonged adolescence… struggling with what it is to be male in today’s changing community.” The photographer takes only 3 or 4 shots, his subjects posed or “paused” in doorways. Not so taken with life caught candidly, Van Royen negotiates gestures or moves in intuitive interactions with his subjects and together they subtly re-constitute thema for the camera.

For a moment Paul Knight’s panoramic type C print of one of those peekaboo sex salons makes a desultory scene look glamorous. But before your eyes the pink light and mirrored surfaces give way to the worn exercise mat, the vase of dead flowers and the line of private portals which remind you how much the truth of this vision depends on your perspective. I look forward to other sightings in this photographer’s ongoing project of “questioning escapist vistas”. Nice one.

Catherine Brease haunts more familiarly ambiguous spaces (abandoned industrial sites) imbued with that enigmatic quality—presence, in her Pendulous Series. Rebecca Ewer stages spooky little tableaux with plastic models in Thalassa Park. Eleni Daviskas restages dream places by dramatically lighting and colouring urban landscapes at night.

There’s more to Shannon Sutherland’s project than meets the eye. She’s interested in “the physical and metaphysical nature of ownership.” Her subjects are the objects that she lives with but “the sense of possession is suggested without revealing their physical form.” Certainly in these 3 prints Shannon gives little away but I was intrigued by the idea and returned to them for another look. And though I thought I had outgrown dolly photographs, Keira Cooper managed to evoke sharp childhood memory (smell and touch combining with the visual) from closeups of scratched plastic cheeks, sand inside a sealed ear and a scalp threaded with nylon hair.

Kirsten Podlich set out to explore the people and the domestic interiors of the Fassifern Lutheran Parish of South East Queensland but came back with only evidence. Along with the photographer, we stare blankly at elderly people caught in the glare inside their own homes, framed by their idiosyncrasies.

Twelve finalists were selected for this show from 180 entries by emerging photographic artists from across the country.

My pick for the prize was Rebecca Ann Hobbs for her idiosyncratic Suck Roar series—3 self-portraits with possums, squid and very large dog. Hobbs is taken with “femininity and ferocity, wetness and hunger, fear and affinity” She took me with her. Hobbs was the runner up. The judges (Judy Annear photography curator Art Gallery of NSW, photo-media artist Rosemary Laing and ACP Director, Alasdair Foster) chose Daniel Shipp for his meticulously crafted series The Jettisoned State. Here performances are created for the camera to elicit “unspecified feelings” from the viewer. Mostly these reminded me of Hal Hartley movies I haven’t seen yet. The judges describe Daniel’s work as “enigmatic but knowing without ever falling into cliche…” and having “a sophisticated understanding of the visual language employed that engages the viewer and makes them an equal participant.”

Daniel Shipp graduated this year with BRA Honours from the School of Fine Arts, University of Sydney. Rebecca Ann Hobbs is in her final year of a BFA degree at the Victorian College of the Arts.

The Nikon Award for ACP Student of the Year went to Holly Schumacher and the runner-up was Kirstie Rickwood.

Australian Centre for Photography Photo Technica Award for New Australian Photo-Artist of the Year 2001, November 16-December 23, Australian Centre for Photography, Oxford Street, Paddington.

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg.

© Virginia Baxter; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Wendy McPhee, George Poonkhin Khut, Nightshift

Wendy McPhee, George Poonkhin Khut, Nightshift

Whenever you attend a show at Performance Space, you walk along a corridor either side of which are small gallery spaces. Sometimes the rooms are crammed with people attending the opening of an exhibition. At other times a solo artist like Jonathon Sinatra can be observed making work in progress. Sometimes you stop and watch for a while on your way to the box office. Sometimes you simply walk past.

On the way to Eat My Shorts, I happened into George Khut’s installation and almost missed the show I’d come to see. To describe the elements gives little sense of their combined effect. In the dark, on 2 lightweight screens are projected black and white images of the dancer Wendy McPhee. Layered over her fragmented movement is a flickering text. Words and limbs fly as in some wild rewind to a score that sounds like film spooling or slides shuddering and with a hint of distant voices.

Sitting at either end of the installation my eyes choreograph a subliminal dance from a language of barely detected forms and lightning fast words, sometimes projected backwards. George Khut has plans to extend this work and show it more extensively. It certainly deserves a longer look and a wider audience. Like so much impressive work being created these days, this one surprises us as it comes into view, briefly flares and leaves only a light trace.

New Work, George Poonkhin Khut with Wendy McPhee, Carnivale, Performance Space

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg.

© Virginia Baxter; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Kate Murphy, Britney Love

Kate Murphy, Britney Love

Welcome to postmodernism, where without regular excursions into the outdoors, artists have fallen prone to a pestilent force other than nature. Stylistically the artists in ::contagion:, an exhibition of Australian work, are a generation raised on globalised visual culture imported via the television; their work representing what they have ‘seen.’ Curator Linda Wallace describes these artists as using media forms as ‘the machine’ for reprocessing images into art—a form of time machine.

Kate Murphy’s Britney Love, uses television style as performance. Displayed on 6 floor monitors, in pop-girl/boy group formation, an 11-year-old from Glasgow makes public a private performance derived from watching similarly styled performances on television. Britney Love has provoked strong responses from viewers, some taking issue with the artist’s apparent abuse of power over a minor. While Murphy, with her access to a camera might have been in a position of power, the child is (despite the probability of retrospective embarrassment) manufacturing a dream legitimised by watching television. That this idea comes from a mainstream form is a good adjunct to the notion of pedophiles lurking in the dark recesses of the net waiting to snap up innocent children. Artistic vision was once considered to be representative of society in general. A work like Murphy’s throws the modernist concept of the uniquely individual artist back in the face of the viewer.

New media exhibitions pose some prickly questions; like how ‘new’ does media need to be and is copying onto new technologies muddying the waters? Without advocating any tardy purity of materials, just how ‘new’ is PhotoShop? Perspectives on technology are momentarily focused on the newest, raising the issue of how an art of new media might fare. In some senses, ‘new media’ shows how much art appreciation involves backtracking away from literal meaning. Audiences to new media exhibitions might arrive with the expectation of finding ‘self-absorbed’ video or cinematic SFX displays but are dumbfounded when confronted with the likes of Vivienne Dadour’s, Realm, a paper-based text and photographic work. After all, Realm, in reproducing colonial government texts on controlling non-British immigrants, and utilising such passé media as paint, is the stuff of most, plain flavored, contemporary art shows. Meanwhile Matthew Riley’s Memo, presented on CD-ROM, has the look and feel of a picture book. In this way, ::contagion:: takes the approach that ‘nothing’ is ever really ‘new’; that ‘new’ is firmly grounded in the processes of the ‘old.’

In Artist, Tracey Moffatt & Gary Hillberg edit together an exposé of ‘the artist’ sampled from films and reassembled in a sequence that mimics traditional cinematic narrative structure; beginning (creation), middle (reception) and end (destruction). The artist in popular culture is a pathetic figure; their desire to represent does not have a contagious effect on the general populace. In the examples re-used by Moffat & Hillberg, artist and audience ultimately react violently towards aspirations for the ‘new’–whether stylistic and/or technological. Wallace’s own work, eurovision, re-uses imagery from film and television to re-use ideas within a contemporary context; it may be ‘new’ media but the how and what of representation still plagues artists. These works are poignant examples of how visual sampling can work. The hunger to represent despite technological change remains (whether paint brush, digital video or source code).

With the physical space showing paper-based work and using video, monitors and projection, as a screening format, the online content is where ::contagion:: ‘feels’ digital. Sites gathered here as ‘webworks’, such as subtle.net and laudible.net, show how current new mediums broaden the scope of art into wider issues of communication and broadcast. On laudible.net, the work of sound artists forms an archive of mock webcasts. These sites raise art appreciation to a new level, visually advocating technological formalism and inviting critiques of programming styles. This contrasts with the work of Gary Foley’s; here accessibility is both a visual and political strategy. The use of technology and the design of the site aim at a wide audience. In ::contagion::, these sites are a survey of Australian web activity over the past five years.

Just one quibble to finish, if Koori artists are not hooking into current urban and net-based new media communities curators could be meeting these artists on their own ground. If reconciliation is to be addressed, is this not be part of making it happen?

::contagion:: Australian Media Art @ the Centenary of Federation, curated by Linda Wallace, The Film Centre Wellington, Oct-Nov.

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001

© Lissa Mitchell; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

The Goddess of 1967

The Goddess of 1967

The annual Emirates AFI Awards play a crucial role in protecting the health of our screen culture. They give us the chance to ask what Australian cinema is and what we’d like it to be. This isn’t such a solipsistic or negative activity as it sounds.
It lets us see more clearly that Australian cinema is, as Tom O’Regan clearly demonstrates in Australian National Cinema (Routledge, 1996), “a messy affair…not only in our ways of knowing, reading, consuming and producing films and the larger film-making milieu of which they are a part, but also a messiness among the films themselves with features far apart” in terms of style, content and purpose. It’s also in constant conversation with the mainstream and other national and local cinemas. If it weren’t, our whole culture would be in trouble since our cinema plays a large part in how we imagine ourselves in relation to the rest of the world.

Our cinema shows how our filmmakers are negotiating and participating in an ever-moving dialogue; what critics, reviewers and audiences watch, write and think about is also in constant motion. What we want our cinema to be is never static: if we don’t speak out about what we want and don’t want Australian cinema to be, then the dynamic relationship between film producer and consumer becomes arid and nothing, or very little, can come to fruition.

For some years, a number of film critics have expressed concern about the way our production and critical practices have come to a halt due to a lack in awareness and understanding of screen culture. That audiences lack this is understandable: despite the valiant efforts of SBS and the AFI, the burgeoning number of film festivals, and the tiny number of brave independent cinemas and distributors, there simply isn’t the opportunity for audiences to see a wide range of movies from local and national cinemas all over the world. That filmmakers also lack much knowledge of the many different ways cinema can tell a story is reprehensible, although the responsibility may not lie entirely with them: they too have to be taught and our film schools and university film courses may not be adequate to the task.

In the late 1980s, Elizabeth Jacka wrote of “a loss of vision, a failure of nerve” in Australian cinema and regretted “that the complex set of discourses and institutions that constitute the space in which cinema exists is deeply inimical to ideas, controversy or aesthetic adventurousness” (“Australian cinema: an anachronism in the 1980s?” in S Dermody and E Jacka eds, The Imaginary Industry, Sydney, Currency Press, 1988). In the mid-90s O’Regan expressed similar concern about a cinema that has a limited range of “film-making repertoires” and much still to embrace and understand. Presciently, Adrian Martin had diagnosed the causes in the 80s:

[E]very practicing film-maker must ask…‘What is cinema for me?’ […must] be able to dream or imagine the cinema that he or she desires. I tend to believe that, for true film-makers…this imagining is not primarily expressed in terms of, ‘What do I want to say with film?’ but, rather, ‘What do I want to see and hear on film?’ That is, the ability to imagine certain configurations of image, sound, movement, form, fiction and mood matters more than convictions concerning which social issues, types of behaviour and so on should be presented on screen. Perhaps for true filmmakers the two stages happen simultaneously: for to imagine a form of cinema is naturally to project certain images and shapes
of life in action.

“Nurturing the Next Wave: What is cinema?” in Scott Murray (ed) Back of Beyond: Discovering Australian Film and Television, Sydney, AFC, 1988

The analyses of last year’s AFI nominations suggested that few of our filmmakers had a strong grasp of film language. Tina Kaufman, warning of the dangers of neglecting screen culture, concluded: “If the films produced in a year are the outward manifestation of the health of the local industry, the Australian film industry is indeed ailing. (Metro, 121/122, 2000). Given this persistent critical framing of the question ‘What is Australian cinema?’ and the apparent refusal of filmmakers to ask the same question, how do this year’s movies measure up?

He Died With a Felafel in his Hand

He Died With a Felafel in his Hand

There’s certainly been diversity. I feasted my eyes on the spectacular Moulin Rouge (Baz Luhrmann), but felt visually starved during the stage-bound Silent Partner (Alkinos Tsilimidos), which looks more like a lump of yesterday’s porridge than a movie. I was forced to play anthropologist to Australian culture, as O’Regan puts it, in films such as The Dish (Rob Sitch) and La Spagnola (Steve Jacobs) and also, more reluctantly, to nerdy, forever-adolescent, male culture in He Died with a Felafel in His Hand (Richard Lowenstein) and Mullet (David Caesar). But, if these irritated me witless, I was deeply moved watching the men in Ray Lawrence’s thoughtful Lantana learning either to grow up or that they never will. And, at the time, I didn’t even notice how the female roles were mostly reduced to mere cipher in the gripping thriller The Bank (Robert Connolly).

Watching Serenades (Mojgan Khadem) and Yolngu Boy (Stephen Johnson) I sadly agreed with Adrian Martin’s 1988 dictum: that a cinema of good intentions, which prides itself on its progressivist record, is essentially a conservative cinema. But an antidote to androcentricity and the mainstream, at least, was to be found in the otherwise disappointing The Monkey’s Mask (Samantha Lang) and in Clara Law’s wild and unwieldy The Goddess of 1967.

While critical of many of these films, I also enjoyed several and—as I increasingly demand of a movie—I got to see and/or hear something entirely new or to detect a cineliteracy behind the filmmakers’ repertoire of screen language. This year, 4 films filled this need—that’s a lot in one year. First-time director Connolly (The Bank) drew upon an extensive knowledge and a keenly intelligent understanding of film language and history that makes me impatient for his next film. The more experienced Lawrence clearly has a similar relationship to film culture and he uses it to pleasurably unsettling effect in Lantana.

Law’s The Goddess of 1967 delivered a more dilute pleasure. There have been few Australian arthouse features in recent years—I can’t think of one since Tracey Moffat’s beDevil (1993)—so it was especially important that this film was funded and distributed. At times, just when the plot or dialogue made it irredeemably banal, Law and her cinematographer, Dion Beebe, gave me a visually exciting and a startlingly different cinematic experience that engulfed me in wonder.

Finally, Moulin Rouge. I may not be ready to give a considered criticism of this film, as my love for it is still pretty much unconditional. Like the cancan dance itself, it flirted and seduced by frustrating my desire for a full look at what I know to be there, but which can’t be revealed if I am to be kept wanting more. I saw this film in Dubbo in rural New South Wales at a late night screening. Whatever the cultural differences in the audience, well after midnight we all gave the film a standing ovation. Now that was something entirely new.

In order to draw upon the full palettte of options that a knowledge of screen language offers, a filmmaker needs to be aware of the cinephiliac and how to deliver it. Too often, Australian filmmakers appear to be unaware of this.

Acutely aware of the need for screen culture if Australian cinema is to flourish, the AFI discovered a way of delivering it. This explains why, last June, I found myself bathed in sweat in the large, galvanised iron barn-cum-studio of Broome’s Indigenous radio and television station under a 20 foot papier maché rainbow serpent, giving a critical analysis of the title sequence of Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969).

Exploring the meaning of the intensely cinephiliac moment when Captain America, aka Wyatt, aka Peter Bogdanovich, takes off his wrist watch, kisses it goodbye, and chucks it into the dust where it lies like the tin star in High Noon, a symbol of law and order that no longer works, is tough when you’re crying out for a long, cold drink and a swim, and Western Australia in 2001 seems a long way from late 60s Californian hippiedom.

But there was no stopping the group of cinephiles and would-be filmmakers attending my seminar; they were unfazed by the temperature in the high 30s, the almost deafening sound of the enormous 8 foot fan as, like a projector, it went wyrrrrum, wyrrrrum (or was it dziga, dziga?), and the impossibly fuzzy picture on a sand-blown monitor.

Moving on from Hopper’s dope-filled frames and a range of other classic road movies, from Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night to Ridley Scott’s Thelma & Louise, I analysed Australian cinema’s love of the genre, including The Back of Beyond (John Heyer), The FJ Holden (Michael Thornhill), Wrong Side of the Road (Ned Lander), Backroads, (Phil Noyce), Mad Max (George Miller), Priscilla Queen of the Desert (Stephan Elliott), Bill Bennett’s Spider and Rose and Kiss or Kill and, finally, The Goddess of 1967. What did rural Australians make of this intensely intellectual, multicultural, postmodern road movie?

That they saw it at all was thanks to the AFI’s Burning Rubber initiative, which took a handful of Australian road movies—followed up by my 2-hour seminars—on the road to rural towns all round Australia to launch a road movie video-making competition. In Leongatha, Townsville, Bundaberg, Dubbo, Tamworth, Broome, Bunbury, Darwin, Port Lincoln and Launceston, while some said they were baffled by Clara Law’s film—they’d never seen anything like it—many told how deeply impressed they were, precisely because they had been unaware of cinema’s ability to speak in so many different tongues.

I’ve yet to see whether their own short road movies reflect an increased awareness of film history and culture. But I’m optimistic that they’ll prove a more thoughtful audience for Australian movies. In the long term, this might mean that there will be greater competition for an AFI award from filmmakers who ask the question ‘What is cinema to me?’ Those who do are more likely to make uninhibited films, displaying a greater range of “film-making repertoires” and more “ideas, controversy or aesthetic adventurousness” than many do currently.

RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. 15

© Jane Mills; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net



The Emirates AFI Awards need to be all things to all people. They have to be industry awards, and antipodean Oscars, as well as reflecting the high-toned claims for capital C Cultural relevance in which the film industry indulges to justify keeping its snout in publicly-funded troughs.

The cost of the awards system finally caught up with them last year. Previously any feature could be entered and all films were toured around the country for the voting membership. This produced an impenetrable thicket of films that only the hardiest of cineastes could struggle through to reach the ballot box on the other side.

This year, films must have a distributor in order to be eligible. This has taken out the undergrowth, leaving 13 of the taller trees. It also constitutes a realistic intervention in recognising that, as much as we all lionise production, distribution is the most important component of the industry. Australian cinema loads all of its energies into development, but a film with no distributor is a tree falling with no one to hear it. This year Moulin Rouge (Fox) opened on over 250 screens and grossed $27 million domestically. The Dish (Roadshow) peaked on 284 screens, grossing $17 million. The rest of the Australian cinema spent the year in the arthouse outhouse. Daylight came third before Mullet which did heroically to gross south of a million dollars after opening on 9 screens and expanding to 15.

Moulin Rouge is the central film in this year’s field. It is the quintessential product of the If We Build It They Will Come philosophy. Well, they came, they brought money and shiny trinkets like Nicole with them, and now the question remains: is this a good thing? The fate of the film at the awards will be a judgement on its status as one possible future for the industry. When Arthur Philip turned up he found that the locals took the trinkets but maintained a suspicious distance. Two hundred and thirteen years later and the jury is still out on this as a strategy. Moulin Rouge may possibly win Best Picture, though if they ran the awards like Big Brother, I suspect it would also be the first eviction.

Meanwhile, in the golden fields of theory, we might nod wisely in Baz’s general direction. Ah, the pastiche! Ah, the dazzling play of the empty signifier (and signifiers don’t get any emptier than Nicole in this film)! Surely all films must be like this in the brave new world of the postmodern, where we know there is nothing but the reworking of cliche! Though, of course, if all films were like this, Baz would be no big deal. Instead, he is a distinctive innovator who is trying to import these notions from the avant-garde into the mainstream.

In the other corner, we have Mullet, the skinny kid fighting above his weight and being careful not to throw too many punches. If things go wrong for the Tall Poppy, he might be the one left standing at the end of the night. Perhaps this would be fitting given that David Caesar’s film is exemplary of several trends within Australian cinema. It is firmly in the mainstream of a formally conservative ‘cinema of quality’ accentuating themes of personal growth.

Dramatically, it is a good instance of the dialogue-driven actorly cinema, which results from the dominance of theatrical values in Australia. The increasing emphasis on script development means that more has to go onto the page, encouraging the primacy of dialogue. This is ironic given that one of the major thematic strands to emerge this year is the inarticulacy of the Australian male. Characters in Mullet spend an enormous amount of time talking around their problems, such as the inability of blokes to express love.

What do you get if you cross Ewan McGregor with Ben Mendelsohn? Noah Taylor in He Died With A Felafel in His Hand, another bloke whose problem is that he is unable to express love. He smokes Gauloises, covers his wall with photos of Anna Karina and Sartre, plays at being the writer as loser, Henry Lawson updated to pomo wanker. This is ironic bohemian fantasy for those who can’t afford Fox Studios. It is all excellent fun, until the film decides that it’s time to settle down and get serious—the thematic equivalent of getting a job. I guess we all have to grow up sometime but Richard Lowenstein’s strength is his comic version of Australian urban subculture.

Anthony LaPaglia in Lantana is a cop unable to express love. This sets up common ground between him and Geoffrey Rush, who is also unable to…well, you get the picture. Ray Lawrence takes this material and runs it through the stylistic system of a director like Atom Egoyan. Characters circle each other with motifs leaping from one to the other in a tightening spiral of transference and condensation. The camera prowls slowly and the music oozes unease. While the film walks the line between brooding and ponderous, its use of a detective plot also raises the question of genre filmmaking in Australia.

“You’re a great fuck, but you’re a very ordinary detective,” observes Kelly McGillis of the Susie Porter private eye in The Monkey’s Mask. This is a neat observation of the split in priorities of Australian films. They tend to shy away from action-based genre narratives with goal-oriented protagonists, as this is too much like fighting the Americans on their own turf. Instead they try to be the great fuck, to explore the interpersonal nuance rather than the narrative pleasures that are typically at the heart of genre.

Risk is atypical in taking its genre narrative more seriously. In the context of the Australian cinema, this is indeed a risky undertaking. The conventions of film noir are easier to identify than to replicate. Claudia Karvan, for example, gets left holding the bag both in the story and the performance area, where she makes an unlikely femme fatale. But she seems like such a nice girl.

The Bank, Robert Connolly’s populist thriller, tries to compromise with genre on several fronts. Its thrills are worked into dramatic confrontations rather than externalised into action. Once again, dialogue has to drive the film, resulting in periodic lapses into didacticism. Its other way around action-based spectacle is the quotation of lush nostalgic style, with Bernard Herrmann music and Saul Bass title sequence and graphics thickening the action.

I’ve stressed the closeness of Australian cinema to theatre. The most obvious example is Silent Partner which leaves Daniel Keene’s play essentially intact. I don’t have a problem with this—Andre Bazin once noted that one of cinema’s strengths was its ability to enhance theatrical drama—though too often the influence stops at an overwrought theatrical performance style. This film adopts a very unromanticised view of what it is to inhabit the lower economic depths, which makes the publicity for it as an ultra-low budget film particularly apt. Let’s launch into interpretive space and see the film as metaphorising its own impoverished circumstances. To make Australian films is to be poor, and to be poor is to be crushed but, improbably, to survive.

Perhaps this is why Clara Law seems a perverse presence in the Australian cinema—an established director who migrated to Australia. After her diaspora film, Floating Life, we have her landscape film, The Goddess of 1967. The perversity extends to her treatment of landscape, all bleach bypass, and accentuated blues. It is interesting to see her revisiting the terrain of Nicholas Roeg and Walkabout, when so much local filmmaking is trying to ground itself in the specificity of urban cultures.

Yolngu Boy and Serenades mark a welcome return to Indigenous themes in Australian film after last year’s silence. Yolngu Boy, made by the Australian Children’s Television Foundation, strives to be cool in order to win the respect of its primary youth audience. There’s rock’n’roll, petrol sniffing, and the hyperactive camera style of a generation that has absorbed rock videos straight into its central nervous system. It resists the impulse to preach for as long as possible.

Mojgan Khadem’s film Serenades deserves credit for delving into a social history rarely seen in our cinema. The heroine moves between Aboriginal culture, Christianity and Islam, all of which are seen as variant forms of patriarchy. The coalition of interests between Afghanis and Aborigines is a potentially interesting one, as is the observation that women are doubly marginalised within these formations. At the point when our heroine has no alternative but to reclaim some sense of Aboriginal identity, however, the jig is up. Aboriginality functions as a vague form of nature worship and a position of victimhood.

La Spagnola, like Yolngu Boy, is very conscious of the value of stylistic flourish. Set against the postwar migration experience in the skippy badlands, this film tries to reappropriate the stereotypes of southern European migrants. OK, so the women scream, the men are dumb and horny, and they all wave their arms around a lot. But at least they have decent music and they know how to cook! Women on the verge of a nervous breakdown on the verge of Sydney, although there is no formal experimentation to shock or act as an alternative focus of interest as there is with Almodovar at his best.

Let’s end by returning to the question of popularity. The Castle opened up fresh vistas for Australian film a few years back. Here was a film that was able to break out of the government subsidy, niche-market bracket and connect with a broad Australian public. The standard criticism was that it wasn’t much to look at. I found this to be a refreshing change as Australian films are often Beautiful, especially when they are nothing else. The Dish arrives as an attempted corrective. If I had to describe it in a word, that word would be burnished. Surprisingly little happens in the film, but much of it happens at the magic hour. In an industry which generally cares more about getting films made rather than watched, the quiet efficiency of this film’s success stands out as a beacon of unfashionable success.

If I was a betting man, I’d be looking at the each way odds for Mullet. (It seems wussy to back Moulin Rouge for anything but a win.) The romantic in me (sorry Baz, I know that’s a cliche) might also be prepared to lose a few dollars on He Died With A Felafel In His Hand.

RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. 16

© Mike Walsh; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Professor Anne Boyd at the University of Sydney, Facing the Music

Professor Anne Boyd at the University of Sydney, Facing the Music

Professor Anne Boyd at the University of Sydney, Facing the Music

This year baby-boomers battle it out with baby-documenters for Best Documentary and Best Documentary Director in the Emirates AFI Awards. 5 documentaries are nominated across several categories. I recommend that you go see them all. In this review I will nitpick and critique rather than praise the tireless and often largely underpaid work of the docomakers. The praise should be assumed by default.

When Professor Anne Boyd, the central character of Robin Anderson and Bob Connolly’s Facing the Music, walks off in the distance and says, “The university is dead”, it is a poignant moment. I took an academic friend to see the film and she cried, realising that she, like many of her colleagues, had to grieve the passing of tertiary education in Australia. Connolly/Anderson’s film is timely. The story of defunding universities and of academics suffering stress and heart attacks is increasingly common. Boyd’s university is more absorbed with budgets than with research and she can only find 10 days in a whole year to write music which, considering her importance to Australian music, is a great loss.

Anderson and Connolly, along with their editor Ray Thomas, are masters of the craft. The documentary sounds and looks gorgeous. My quibbles with the film are twofold. Firstly, it ends very suddenly. The final cadence of the film is almost non-existent and the final scene is played out in text superimposed over images of the characters. ‘Life goes on’ endings still need to leave me with a sense of finish before I find them successful. If only because, for me, life does not go on. It ends with the credits. My second quibble is just how well crafted it is. Anderson and Connolly have been making these observational films about chiefs for some time, whether professors of music or heads of Pacific tribes. I want them to break out and do something new. I want them to move onto their next series and see what interesting experimentations they come up with.

Vanessa Gorman’s Losing Layla is the story of that one percent we have nightmares about becoming. Gorman, a producer on Australian Story, documents her own feelings and those of her partner throughout her pregnancy, the birth and the death of their baby daughter. To be honest I purposely missed the TV screening because I just didn’t want to have to confront this kind of story. But I bite the bullet and see it in the screening room of the AFI, a small glassed-in and sealed-off podium. I feel strangely like a fish in a bowl (or a documentary subject) as people walk by embarrassed at seeing tears roll down my cheeks.

I find the interviews with Layla’s father beautiful and sensitive. The build up to the birth is done well but we spend too much time with the couple and Layla after her death and before her burial. Also, I would have liked to see Gorman make the final statement about her relationship to Layla’s father direct to camera. As in Facing the Music, closure occurs off camera.

Peter Du Cane and Matthew Kelly’s Playing the Game episode is a straight up and down documentary about the secret bombing of Cambodia. The woman next to me in the theatre keeps exclaiming loudly “oh!” as we find out more about the US involvement and bombing. I have no doubt she would have voted it best doco. I find the film’s portrayal of Prince Sihanouk as a political mastermind surprising.

Du Cane and Kelly’s documentary leaps effectively across time and national borders and I am never lost in the narrative or left dangling with questions unanswered. I gain some insight into Cambodian affairs but as a filmmaker I find the work too straight and authoritative in its manner. This is in contrast to another film nominated for a craft award, David Max Brown’s and Tom Zubrycki’s Secret Safari which uses all the traditional tricks, but with a playfulness and glint in the eye that pokes just a little bit of fun at the form.

When Dennis O’Rourke read a critique that a colleague once wrote about his work he told me that this person should sit down and watch and rewatch his films until he understood them. So I did that. I rewatched Cunnamulla, hoping that I would find it amazing and that I had just missed the point in my first viewing. The film follows a year in the life of various Cunnamulla locals. But O’Rourke’s subjects are not going through any particularly riveting crises—compared with Professor Anne Boyd or Layla’s mother or even Cambodia—and we only scrape the surface of who they are.

I think O’Rourke is one of the greats and his Good Woman of Bangkok is one of the most poetic and complex documentaries I have seen. His work is a mixed bag, but to his credit he keeps reinventing his style and challenging the form. And so it is inevitable that some works will be brilliant and some less so. I’m in a minority in being bored by this film; most everyone else thinks it’s fab.

In Wonderboy Andrew Wiseman revisits the subjects of a previous documentary, Driving with Richard. Footage from the first film shows the young and brain-damaged Richard in conflict with his parents, and is used as flashback material. The subjects reflect upon the previous portrayal and fill us in on the current situation.

The documentary is cut by the legendary Uri Mizrahi. The films he edits are leisurely in pace and he is not afraid of using images of people in everyday life. Sometimes the unique nature of everydayness is fascinating but at times I feel these images are disguising a story told in interviews or voiceover. Despite the on-camera breakdown of the mother, the film is too passive and gentle. But a third episode about the crisis when the father is too old and must hand Richard over to public care should be interesting viewing.

Out of all of this concentrated viewing I noticed that endings are an issue for Australian documentaries. The films with stronger endings seem overplayed and the ones with weaker endings leave me thinking ‘oh, it’s finished.’ Wiseman’s ending errs towards the overly dramatic. It holds on an image of Richard as his father’s voice says that the community (read audience) will have to look after Richard once his dad gets old. On the other hand Facing the Music and Losing Layla, my favourite films of the bunch, both finish frustratingly off camera.

RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. 18

© Catherine Gough-Brady; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Living with Happiness

Living with Happiness

What is animation? In the case of this year’s AFI nominees the more relevant question may be what isn’t animation? If we limit the scope of our analysis to include only 2-dimensional moving images, it could be argued that nothing falls outside the category of animation. ‘Live action’ could in theory be defined as pixelation (a term coined almost 50 years ago by legendary Canadian animation pioneer Norman McLaren, to describe the technique of stopmotion animation that used real actors in life-size sets, as seen in his movie Neighbours [1952]). Interestingly enough, this was the same technique used to great effect by Louis and Auguste Lumière in some of the first motion pictures ever made, where the interval between frames taken perfectly matches that between frames projected. This is taking things to an extreme but perhaps ‘animation’ as a single category for a film award might simply be too broad. I found this problematic when attempting to review last year’s nominees, and it was no easier this time around. If anything it was more difficult, with this year’s selection presenting an even more diverse cross section of ‘animated’ films.
With The Exploding Woman, Nancy Allen has delivered a second wave feminist fable in which a woman finds her existence reduced to an isolated postnatal life of washing and ironing. Paranoid and delusional, the woman finds her domestic environs increasingly menacing. Even that good old Aussie icon, the Hills hoist, turns nasty, making a cameo appearance as the harbinger of all evil. Although its dark vision may still ring true for many new mothers, the narrative has a distinctly 70s flavour, also present in the film’s somewhat dated visual style—most notably the psychedelic sea of tears and the hand drawn images that appear momentarily near the end. A grab bag of various filter effects, animation techniques and editing styles are used to enliven what is essentially simplistic live action. The resultant disjointed feel is perhaps meant to mirror the protagonist’s unstable mental state but it came off as unresolved and clunky. On a more positive note I thought the ultrasound images were used very well in the final credits.

Bad Baby Amy by Anthony Lucas is a children’s film set on a drought-ravaged outback cattle station. While dad is in town trying to save the station from the bank—not too hopeful without rain in the very near future—Baby Amy accidentally on purpose swallows one of her Italian Nona’s magic glass beads. Local wise blackfella Bill is roused from his ‘thinking place’ to drive Amy and her 11 year old sister Rose to the doctor. Bill brakes suddenly to avoid a dead cow (“stupid mob them bullocks”) and Amy coughs up the magic bead near a termite mound. Lo and behold, next morning the rain begins to fall, a happy ending for rural multiculturalism.

Rendered using 3D sets and plasticine armatures this film beautifully captures a dusty red Australian outback. Several scenes also feature digital postproduction (both animation and compositing), with some clever handling of water—one of the greatest challenges facing the stop-motion animator. The excellent lip syncing lends the characters a credible screen presence (though I’ve never seen a baby crawl quite like that), while good lighting (especially the sun behind the windmill) and several well-executed camera moves top off some fine cinematography. Personally I found this film—though not without charm—to be kinda humourless though. Basically it took itself a little too seriously for my taste.

Norah Mulroney’s Collective is a slick and polished film, though more an exercise in compositing than an animated short. In a variation on the tried and true ‘nature gets her own back’ theme, a butterfly collector is imprisoned when his collection decides to turn the tables. Breaking free in a flurry of CG wings, they dance a while with their prey before enveloping him in a human chrysalis.

Now there is one thing I find especially painful when compositing live actors with computer generated elements and that is an actor trying to ‘see’ something that has yet to come into existence and having obviously no solid idea where to look. Humans are so adept at tracking the eye movements of other humans that it’s almost impossible to get this right (no matter how big your computer is—show me a single character in Phantom Menace who once looked Jah Jah Binks square in the eye). To her credit though, Mulroney pulled off the landing of a CG butterfly on a ‘real’ hand extremely well. And the film’s sumptuous production design and cinematography are completed by some very tasty credit sequence images.

AFI nominee regular Sarah Watt collaborated with animator Emma Kelly to produce the last film in this year’s selection, Living with Happiness. Like Allen’s The Exploding Woman, this film evokes the darker side of new motherhood but does so much more successfully. Here we see how a mother’s precarious happiness with her new baby is threatened as domestic vignettes are humorously intercut with her worst case scenario fantasies. The cutaways to visions of impending doom escalate from simple household accidents—baby drowning in the bath or being showered with boiling water—to the more extreme—kids whacking up skag in the playground—and absurd (if strangely pertinent)—airliner crashing into the house. Deciding to clear her head with a walk on the beach, she is swept out to sea by a freak wave, uttering expletives (convincingly delivered by Sigrid Thornton). She is eventually rescued by a 9 year old on a surfboard who delivers the moral of the story, sensibly informing her that “the thing is, not to panic.”

Living with Happiness is something of a stylistic departure from Watt’s recent work. Several of the disaster scenarios use clear pencil lines and extreme shifts of view and perspective, giving them a distinctly Plymptonesque feel (Bill Plympton, American animator best known for his quirky [and often hyper-violent] hand drawn films such as the hilarious 25 Ways to Quit Smoking). And Watt’s typically painterly style is used to great effect in the ocean scenes with excellent beach crashing waves and some really nice underwater moments.

RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. 17-

© Daniel Crooks; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Anele Vellom, Inja

Anele Vellom, Inja

As I watched the 4 nominations for Best Short Film it occurred to me that there was something similar about them that I couldn’t immediately pinpoint. After watching for a second time the source of this commonality became apparent—it was me, or rather my response to each of the films. Against all my expectations as a jaded viewer of too many ‘clever, clever’ shorts, I was rather bewilderingly affected by these films. (Not that they aren’t clever.) Those immediate qualities such as a deftness of direction and narrative assuredness that we’re used to in lauded shorts are here matched by gentle, nuanced performances and most significantly a desire to explore what it is that moves people. Each of these films concerns itself with the minutiae of human interaction; the volumes that small moments speak about the emotional lives of characters and, at the same time, the broader social, cultural and political factors that frame them.

In Jane Manning’s Delivery Day Trang, a young Vietnamese girl, gets dressed for school on parent-teacher interview day, only to be told by her mother that she must stay at home to help in the family outworker factory as it is delivery day. She tries to negotiate with her mother to make the interview, but the day slips away. A variety of small incidents and exchanges punctuate the day and the rhythms of family and community life are beautifully and believably rendered through the eyes of a wise and preternaturally responsible child. Deborah Lee’s performance as Trang is particularly noteworthy. While Trang’s urging of the younger adults not to waste time is played to amuse, it also reveals an understanding and hence anxiety about the consequences of not making the deadline. Similarly, her fear that a Foxtel salesman is an inspector points to the everyday pressures on the family.

What is particularly striking about this film is the way in which it depicts the Vietnamese-Australian family entirely in their own element and not self-consciously in relation to Australia—the only Anglo-Australian character is the teacher who, while extremely significant to Trang, remains nevertheless marginal. Screenwriter Khoa Do focuses instead on the extended family, the conversations they have as they work about the hazy past and their aspirations for the future. They speak in the half-English so familiar to migrants yet so rarely captured. Care is also taken to visually detail the actual work that is done by the outworkers—those mysterious stamped numbers found on clothing tags are thus transformed into a story about how people survive.

Saturn’s Return (Wenona Byrne) begins in a fairly pedestrian way—2 young men, Dimi and Dan, videotape themselves embarking on a road trip from Melbourne to Sydney. They stop en route at Bonegilla, the migrant camp where Dimi’s parents first met. They are on their way to see Dan’s father. Layers are slowly added to this apparently unremarkable premise and their cumulative effect has a strong emotional impact.

The 2 men, who are lovers, try to negotiate their very different relationships with their parents and their parents’ histories. While Dimi’s parents are Greek migrants and Dan’s are drug casualties from the 60s, they each face similar issues of identity, ties to family and to the past, which they deal with in their own ways. This is conveyed with humour and restraint, and the performances are again accomplished, particularly Joel Edgerton as Dan. He skillfully and believably conveys the pain and weight of responsibility on a son yet again having to play a parental role. I wasn’t surprised to discover that the film was based on a short story by Christos Tsiolkas (who also wrote the screenplay), a writer who always manages to dig out the truth and heart of the seemingly obvious.

In The Big House, writer-director Rachel Ward explores the emotional side of prison life. Tony Martin plays a long-term crim who has gotten used to and understands the system. He waits near the entrance of the prison for new young inmates he can take under his wing to both initiate into and protect from the harsh realities of prison life. A combination of Martin’s performance and clever dialogue make this a blackly comic scenario. There are echoes here of Martin’s Neddy Smith in Blue Murder and this memorable performance rivals the earlier one. It is also quite a fascinating exploration of social performance and masculinity at its most isolated, pressured and extreme.

While gritty and detailed enough to seem believable, the film is also at times quite formal, even stylised in a broad sense. It takes a confident hand to make all this work and Ward displays real skill in creating a pared down, yet not overly contrived, structure. She gives an emotional insight into this uninspiring world without being condescending or heavy handed, and the final result is funny, humane and depressing, all at the same time.

The most outstanding of this impressive group of films is Steven Pavlovsky’s Inja. Set in South Africa (‘Inja’ is the Xhosa word for dog), this parable-like film tells the story of a dog brutally trained by its white owner to hate the Xhosa boy who has lovingly reared it, an act which years later backfires on the owner. The film uses the sort of twist typical in short films to great moral effect. What could be something akin to Alfred Hitchcock’s Tales of the Unexpected (that is, clever and forgettable) is given a sense of immediate relevance by being solidly placed against the political backdrop of a changing South Africa—the film marks the shift with the small boy raising the old South African flag at the beginning, and the new flag as an adolescent.

The careful and precise pace along with the beautiful cinematography serves the story well. The time taken to establish the subtleties of the relationships within the film—between the boy, the dog, the farmer, his wife, the women who work on the farm and, importantly, the landscape—provides the film with its substance. While parables tend toward the unambiguous, Pavlovsky explores the complexities inherent in relationships where proximity and otherness are interwoven and competing at every turn. It is a rare feat to capture so much within 17 minutes.

It is also interesting that a student film (Australian Film Television & Radio School) should be set entirely in South Africa. Like Delivery Day and Saturn’s Return, both part of SBS Television’s 13 part Hybrid Life series, Inja reflects the extremely varied preoccupations of filmmakers in Australia today. In engaging with such a range of experiences, concerns and histories, all the short films nominated represent the breadth of cultural and social diversity that is so often experienced on an everyday level, yet so infrequently treated in such thoughtful ways on Australian screens. After viewing these films I have the feeling that the Australian film landscape might finally be growing towards a much anticipated maturity, even if it has taken a sapling to show it the way.

Needeya Islam has just been appointed Coordinator, Young Filmmakers’ Fund, FTO

RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. 17

© Needeya Islam; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Until recently, the Australian film community was in a state of nervous discontent following some years of static or declining government funding. Despite several reports on industry concerns over low development and falling production levels, and high profile deputations to Canberra, the Federal Government had hardly responded to the growing sense of crisis. When the Australian Tax Office ruled against tax concessions for investors in Red Planet and Moulin Rouge, it seemed as if even the expanding offshore production sector was under threat. Despite this, however, overall production in Australia has continued to grow and spread in style, content and diversity. Overseas films and television productions are being made at the Fox Studios in Sydney and the Gold Coast Studios in Queensland, employing local casts and crews, using local post-production facilities and putting money into the local economy. We’re seeing a seemingly ever-increasing number of low budget/no-budget productions, short films made for short film competitions and festivals that proliferate across the country and the calendar, and guerilla features made on digicam and bankcard.

At the beginning of September, everything changed. The Federal Government announced a comprehensive package of assistance for the local film industry, comprising increased funding of $92.7 million over 4 years for the Australian film bodies, including the Film Finance Corporation, the Australian Film Commission, Film Australia and SBS Independent (in recognition of that organisation’s success in beefing up a limited funding allocation to an impressive production slate. Head of SBSI, Glenys Rowe, is now talking about the possibility of a miniseries). The package was bolstered with a new refundable tax offset for qualifying large film productions, to act as an incentive for foreign productions made in Australia. Euphoria reigned, and spokespeople for the film bodies and industry groups rushed to welcome the injection of urgently needed funds into the industry, as well as the reassurance provided to foreign investors who could have decided against Australia after the adverse Red Planet decision.

(To attract local investors, offshore productions shooting in Australia had been using an Australian tax concession, Division 10B of the Tax Act, which allowed 100 percent deduction on investment over a 2 year period, and had much less stringent local content requirements than the better known Division 10BA, more commonly used for Australian films. However the ATO recently decided that these concessions should not be allowed, as the investment was not ‘at risk’, the condition that allowed the concession in the first place. A recent report has estimated that offshore production had brought over $600 million into the country over the past 4 years, with that cash inflow promising to increase substantially.)

Kim Dalton, chief executive of the AFC, welcomes the government’s announcement. “It’s a package, as far as the local production industry is concerned, that works across the key agencies involved in the areas of development and production.” Although there have been complaints that the increases in funding only restore what had previously been cut, Dalton believes that to a certain extent the level of funding that’s been provided is the level which the government clearly feels is appropriate to the size of industry that they’re prepared to support. “And the fact that the government has decided to intervene in the area of foreign production as part of the package is a recognition that foreign production is an important component of the Australian industry, an understanding that the local production sector and the foreign production sector are interdependent and should be addressed so.”

Director (and past Australian Screen Directors Association president) Stephen Wallace is less enthusiastic. “Of course we should be grateful for what we’ve been given, and we are…But really the FFC needed much more, because basically what they’ve been given is just for high end TV production. There are apparently $200 million worth of projects they could invest in, and they’ve got $48 million. We know it’s not enough, because three-quarters of the people in the industry aren’t working.”

But Dalton believes that higher budget television production has been an area of concern in the local industry. “The number of miniseries now being produced is very low, one to two a year, and for a form that’s very popular with Australian audiences, that’s unfortunate. It is an issue to be addressed in the context of the current review into Australian content standards by the Australian Broadcasting Authority. The ABA has already set levels of first-run children’s drama but there clearly remains a problem about how that level of quality drama is going to be funded. Part of the government’s new package, $7.5 million next year and $10 million the year after, to the FFC, is specifically directed at adult drama and children’s drama, and will go some way towards dealing with this. But it is still a concern.”

The new tax incentives look set to benefit only foreign film productions, as few Australian films have the at least $A15m budget required to qualify for the tax benefits. Wallace wishes that the government had looked at improving the tax benefits available to those who invest in the Film Licensed Investment Company Scheme (government-sponsored schemes to raise concessional money for investment in film), which are having a hard time attracting investors at the moment. “We need some other doors to investment in local production; currently the FFC is the only door, and it controls everything.” He also believes that the requirement that a local film project have an Australian distributor has narrowed things down dramatically, given that Palace is the only distributor really offering support, but there’s a 6 month wait to even have a script read at Palace. “I just wish the government would look at some of the issues that actually mean that there’s only one door for investment and that’s the FFC. We need more doors, more diversity in funding.”

After releasing an important review into the state of development in the local industry, which concluded that we spend far less, and take far longer, on this vital component than most other national industries, the AFC last year reallocated its internal priorities to highlight and support its primary developmental role. The increased funding it has now been promised will allow it to further sustain the vital areas of script and professional development for not only features but short films, documentary, animation and interactive media. “We’re now funding what we believe to be some really interesting and strong projects, and those projects have been put to us by teams, often writer/producer, and sometimes writer/producer/director, teams of people who are the more established players within the industry. That’s something we wanted to do, to say to the industry that by development, the AFC didn’t only mean the development of new and emerging talent (although we continue to do that), but the provision of a proper level of development funding to established practitioners. Those people are coming back to the AFC, and are appreciative of the fact that we are attempting, within our limited resources, to provide high levels of support.”

“I thought I was making the first of what would be a series of Asian Australian co-productions—that there haven’t been many since is very disappointing,” said director Brian Trenchard Smith at the screening of the restored version of his first feature, The Man From Hong Kong (1975), on the closing night of the second Sydney Asia Pacific Film Festival (see p20). “Australia’s closest relationship is with Asia, we should be choosing subjects that appeal to both markets. If we’re short of finance in this country, look to Asia. What’s important is that you put time and effort into your script, make your characters real within the genre you’re using—it’s not easy, but it’s worth trying. Co-productions are a very good way of hedging your bets, and they also double your prospects of making money, as long as the film appeals to both markets. Golden Harvest was able to milk (Man From Hong Kong) in the Asian markets, and the rest of the world was gravy.”

“It’s not up to the AFC to socially engineer the industry,” says Dalton. “If writers and producers come to us with ideas along these lines, we’d look at them. There’s certainly no resistance to such a development. But the reality is that the majority of the films that get made in Australia are going to focus on very specifically Australian stories, and the ones that do move off our shores—given the realities of finance and casting—tend to look towards Europe or America.”

But if people are still managing to develop projects and to get into production, why is it so hard to get audiences to watch Australian films? In a recent television interview, producer Jan Chapman talked about the Australian features that had done well in Australia but had been unable to translate this to overseas results, either not selling in other territories, or underperforming on overseas release, often despite good reviews and promotion. Films like Looking for Alibrandi, The Dish and Chopper are probably among those she had in mind. In an increasingly crowded world market, Australian films have a problem; for a small industry that can really only afford to make relatively small films, the way to go, financially as well as creatively, is to make films for the domestic market even though that market is dominated by US product, and local success is still hard won (apart from Moulin Rouge, which is counted as an Australian film, only Mullet and The Bank either have or look as if they might make a little dent in the local box office this year). “We have the immense disadvantage overseas in that we were once so fashionable, and we’re not even slightly fashionable anymore,” says producer Richard Brennan. “And even locally we’re competing for distributors and release dates. And when we do get a release, we have very little to spend compared with US films with lots more money for promotion and advertising.”

Dalton argues that it’s the market conditions that have altered dramatically. “It’s much harder, not just for Australian films, but for British films, or any other specialist cinema. The market has contracted, and it’s tougher out there to sell films internationally.”

“What we need,” says AFI Director Deb Verhoeven, “is a genuinely national cinema, in which films are not only produced, but are watched by an appreciative audience. We need a recognition of a viewing nation—we don’t really seem to have that concept. The funding cuts that the AFI has experienced are simply a demonstration of the lack of importance given to exhibition and the audience in the overall film community. What we have in Australia is a viewing population, not a viewing nation. We’re a great audience, but not really for our own films.”

RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. 19

© Tina Kaufman; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Electric Dragon 80,000 Volts

Electric Dragon 80,000 Volts

By any standards, this year’s Melbourne Film Festival was a major success. Attendances were at record levels, and for good reason, as the festival has capitalised on past innovations such as the wide distribution of a free catalogue, the use of major media partners and government promotional support, as well as 4 good theatres close together in the CBD. Overall, the festival gave solid expression to the importance of screen culture to the city.
There were some fine European films such as Agnes Varda’s The Gleaners and I and François Ozon’s Under the Sand (both reviewed here after their Sydney screenings). However the big news was the increased programming emphasis on Asian cinema under new director, James Hewison. There is obviously a hole in the market that the festival filled. Mainstream cinema has decamped to the shopping malls and the arthouses are clogged with crossover films and the rancid stench of Sundance. Anyone with eyes for new vitality can see that it is coming from east Asia.

We have come to associate the Brisbane International and Sydney Asia Pacific Festivals (see p20) with strengths in this area, but Melbourne gained a lot of ground this year with 2 programming coups: a sustained focus on new Korean film and a retrospective on Japanese director, Ishii Sogo.

South Korea has emerged as a major regional cinema, capturing over 40% of its domestic box office with locally made film (compare this to Australia’s highly touted 8% last year). The output of the Korean industry combines popular genres and specialised art cinema, and Melbourne contained a good range of it with 10 features. The quality varied, but it was valuable to see a range of films and get a sense of the cultural, industrial and aesthetic outlines of this as an emergent national cinema.

Of the 10 films, 3 were outstanding. Bong Joon-ho’s debut film Barking Dogs Never Bite is a brilliantly constructed fable of disillusionment and the endurance of hope. It takes the familiar theme of emotional emptiness at the heart of urban life, but finds fresh hope by looking to new (or under-represented) social groups. It contains one of the great female heroes of our times. Forget Lara Croft, this girl walks out of the office to save lost puppy dogs!

Hong Sang-soo’s The Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors is an experiment in modernist narration. It tells a narrative then seizes up and retells the same story in altered form. You can play the Rashomon interpretive game about the subjective nature of interpersonal relations, but more importantly, this is a puzzle about the role of memory in narrative comprehension.

The Isle divided a lot of viewers with its minimalist dramatic style combined with brutal imagery. Baz Luhrmann might believe that love stories are constructed out of banal mush, but here is a love story in which a lot of fish hooks get inserted into bodily orifices. Boy meets girl and a lot of blood gets spilt in the process. The disturbing aspect is that there is quite a compelling logic to everything that happens.

We’ve seen political thrillers in the past from Korea such as last year’s Shiri. This year’s version was Joint Security Area, an immensely enjoyable thriller-comedy about the irresistible impulses toward political reunification and the attendant fears involved in the process. A political cinema which can successfully frame urgent contemporary issues in popular genre terms is no small achievement.

The Korean cinema looks to have its fair share of dark horror films and thrillers. The whodunnit Tell Me Something by Chang Youn-hyun contained so many red herrings I think I ended up being the killer. It’s replete with dismembered body parts and wild car crashes without much pretext other than a commitment to the richness of genre experience.

Schoolgirl horror is an ascendant cycle within the supernatural genre, following Whispering Corridors. This year’s entry was Memento Mori, which takes us once more into the heady atmosphere of schoolroom crushes, suicide, guilt and the return of unquiet spirits. This is carried off in a compelling way here as the narrative shuttles back and forth through memories until finding a redemptive image of happiness to bring its horror to a close.

The director of Whispering Corridors, Park Ki-hyung, had a new film, Secret Tears, once again centring on a schoolgirl with that bad, bad mixture of teenage angst and supernatural power. The impulse behind this cycle seems to be the realisation that women have stuff inside them, which once released, threatens to change the world. Let’s hope they find out quickly.

The other major event in the Asian component of the festival was a retrospective of 7 films by Ishii Sogo dating from 1970s Crazy Thunder Road to the irresistibly named Electric Dragon 80,000 Volts. This most recent film led off the retrospective and resulted in enormous queues for all of Ishii’s work. As a child its protagonist had absorbed an enormous charge of electricity that could only be dissipated through an electric guitar. You can’t go wrong with a quickly cut film based around noise and music played at a volume to make the seats shake.

The key to Sogo’s work is his commitment to excess, either in the frenetic performance style of his early films such as Crazy Family (1984), the overwrought montage and audio-sweetening of his most recent films, such as last year’s samurai film, Gojoe, or the excessive restraint of his middle period films, best represented by Labyrinth of Dreams (1997).

The most significant film from China was Jia Zhang Ke’s Platform, which was unfortunately only available in a truncated version. This did some violence to a film about the texture of social change in the transition to market socialism. This immensely important change is chronicled through a troupe of cultural workers who begin the film performing Maoist propaganda and end as a breakdancing group. The film continues the thread of Chinese filmmaking, which includes Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-hsien, in which long takes and distant framing are combined with innovative staging to discover new ways of manipulating space.

The news wasn’t all good for those who follow Asian filmmakers. New films by Takeshi Kitano (Brother) and Abbas Kiarostami (ABC Africa) were major disappointments, and I’m still looking for someone with a good word for the aptly-titled horror prequel Ring O. However you don’t judge a festival simply by the good films it serves up. Good festivals bring new things to your attention in a concerted fashion. I’m thinking maybe Thailand next year for a regional focus?

50th Melbourne International Film Festival, various venues, Melbourne, July 18-August 5

RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. 21

© Mike Walsh; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Devils on the Doorstep

Devils on the Doorstep

At the Sydney Asia Pacific Film Festival (SAPFF), at a seminar on digital filmmaking in Asia, an older man was getting increasingly agitated in front of me. As filmmakers Garin Nugroho (Indonesia), Im Sang Soo (Korea) and Richard Harris (Australian Screen Directors Association) debated the technical merits of digicam, he suddenly charged out into the aisle and yelled “Asia’s killing off people all over the place. You don’t give a damn!” as he left. Harris quickly quipped “he’s our resident performance artist” but it did remind us of the racism and sense of anger directed at certain groups in our community that has overflowed in the last month. Why was he there? What answers did he want? He certainly missed the point of the forum; many of the participating filmmakers at the festival do give a damn—about the lingering effects of wars and violence—in Cambodia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, China.
The wonderful thing about SAPFF is its insistence on showing films from as many countries in the Asia-Pacific region as possible. Not content with just Hong Kong action genre, the screenings this year exploded the notion of ‘Asian cinema.’ It just doesn’t exist. There was as much variety amongst these films as any other cinema around the world: comedy, chaos and martial arts in Shaolin Soccer (Hong Kong), newly restored The Man From Hong Kong (Australia) and Chicken Rice War (Singapore); black comedies Devils on the Doorstep (China) and Space Travellers (Japan); reflections on passions and violence in Mirror Image (Taiwan), Tears (Korea), A Poet (Indonesia), This Is My Moon (Sri Lanka), Wharf of Widows (Vietnam) and Woman on a Tin Roof (Philippines); and a documentary on laying high speed internet cable in the Cambodian Land of Wandering Souls. A new entrée on the menu was Short Soup, a competition open to short films made by or about Asian-Australians; the winning films screened on
SBS’s Eat Carpet.

The difficulties and joys of translation permeated the festival’s films and seminars. At the seminar, both Nugroho and Soo had translators (who incidentally weren’t acknowledged—should they always be invisible?). It was a long, often tedious, sometimes unexpected, sometimes funny Q & A; you can translate words but not necessarily meaning in our technology driven world. The translators often didn’t seem to understand the technical terms associated with digital filmmaking and cinema theory. It was a subtle game of give and take with more questions than answers. It was great to hear those who understood Korean exclaim in joy at Im Sang Soo’s answers while the rest of us sat waiting (this happened throughout the screenings too when the subtitles were dodgy). Soo is a cool dude, laid-back, sunglasses, in rebel pose. He says that his film Tears was aimed as revenge at all the producers who’d knocked him back for financing—he put more graphic sex and violence in. His translator at this point is hesitant about talking dirty: “it’s his word, not my
word” she emphasises.

Tears uses 3 digicams to capture the spontaneity of life on the streets for homeless teenagers in Seoul. The cameras were often hidden from the performers, waiting, ready to pounce. This sense of the unexpected gives life to a gutsy film reminiscent of Larry Clarke’s Kids. Use of non-actors (kids picked up at a local nightclub) adds to the grit. Soo argues that the digital camera is so small that “no-one thinks ‘this is a camera…I have to be an actor.’ On the street no-one realises you’re making a film, you get free extras.” General audience reaction to Tears was poor in Korea; its target market, teenagers, were restricted from seeing it, but the ones who snuck in, not surprisingly, loved it.

Nugroho sees the digital format as more democratic, economical and flexible, but believes there needs to be greater discipline because of the ease of getting footage. He explained that Indonesian cinemas screen digital/local films because Hollywood films have become too expensive to import. Cinemas are closing everywhere due to lack of choice. It’s hard to imagine his film A Poet having a screening there. Based on the writings of Ibrahim Kadir, a didong poet from Gayo, Central Aceh, the film was shot in 6 days in long takes, recreating events of 1965 when the Indonesian military imprisoned suspected members of the Communist Party. Non-actors—Kadir and villagers who actually experienced the terror—appear in the film which is set in one location, the interior of a prison. An estimated half a million (probably more) people were murdered. The film is shot in eloquent black and white, gliding from closeup to closeup of prisoners’ faces as they wait for their names to be called. There’s remarkable use of language and chanting as the camera captures rituals from above—encircled clapping and singing about meeting first loves, a wedding song and dance repeated—stories told and heard many times, enriched by the re-telling. The men and women are separated but can make each other out through a tiny peephole. Women prepare meals for the men in front of the prison bars. We never see the torture or death but it’s made real in the calling of names, the cries at night, the gradually emptying prison cell and Kadir’s daily duty of tying the ropes to close the sacks over people’s heads, as they are led out into darkness to be “hacked up like banana logs.” Kadir wrote the film’s poem-songs in prison. He was later told he had been mistakenly incarcerated, one of the few surviving witnesses.

Prisoners in sacks are also a feature of another stunner, Devils on the Doorstep (Jiang Wen), which won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes in 2000. It is an unforgettable blend of farce, sly humour, ethical dilemmas and jaw-clenching violence packed into 139 minutes in crisp black and white. It’s 1945 and children in a northern Chinese village line up for sweets from a man on horseback leading an army band playing a jaunty tune of Japanese invasion. This tune will come back to haunt us later. The opening 5 minutes—shots of feet twisting during love-making, a gun in the mouth, knives thrust through paper thin bedroom walls—reveal Devils to be not the usual ‘Red Sorghum-Chinese Lantern’ softcore Chinese film we’re used to seeing. An anonymous messenger delivers 2 sacks with the instructions that they will be collected in a few days. The sacks contain 2 men, a Japanese army officer and his translator (who is Chinese). If anything happens to them, the entire village will be killed. So, we are introduced to an eccentric mix of beautifully moulded characters. Again, the notion of translation is at the heart of the film’s success with exquisite, finely tuned dialogue. The Japanese officer wants to die and screams abuse at his gentle captors, saying that he will rape and murder their women. His companion wisely translates everything he says as a plea for mercy. The officer wants to learn swear words that he can hurl. The translator teaches him “you are my grandfather I am your son happy new year” which the officer then screams repeatedly to the bemused villagers who appreciate the words but can’t quite understand the delivery. The translator explains that Japanese sound the same whether they are angry or happy. The film is full of such delicate balancing acts in a world that gradually disintegrates into madness. The final half hour is one of the most shocking 30 minutes I’ve experienced in cinema, a surreal, gruesome parallel to films like Apocalypse Now, revealing just how far the minds of men can bend to unimaginable actions during war.

SAPFF is one of the rare festivals that manages to successfully balance popular hits like Shaolin Soccer with the real treasures touched upon above. Overall the quality of films was outstanding and it was a shame that some, like A Poet, didn’t manage to get the audiences they deserved. Its portrayal of a peaceful Islamic community caught up in the violence of an extremist military is particularly relevant right now as a message to those in our community who are braying for blood and targeting Muslims with their hatred. Festivals like SAPFF contribute to an awareness that it’s useless to use blanket terms to define people who live in other countries, let alone simply characterising them as ‘Asian’ or ‘Middle Eastern’. I wish the agitated man in the opening paragraph had stuck around to see A Poet. He might have learned something.

Sydney Asia Pacific Film Festival, directors Juanita Kwok & Paul de Carvalho, Reading Cinemas, Sydney, August 9-18; Center Cinema, Canberra, August 23-26

RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. 20

© Kirsten Krauth; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net



The published script of Chopper has 2 introductions that afford a way ‘in’ to one of the most controversial and successful Australian films of recent times. The first is by the subject of the film, Mark ‘Chopper’ Read, and the second is by the writer/director Andrew Dominik. Both are angry responses to the film production process, resentful of the arduous, emotionally sapping task of bringing a story to the screen.
Read suggests that by understanding him, or wanting to, we might be on the path to ‘unlocking’ our own demons. It is a fanciful notion that many of us are like him, just more suppressed. What is not so fanciful is our fascination with him as a screen presence, elevated to the level of popular hero by a feature film, appearances on television, and extensive press coverage in the cultural rather than crime columns.

The audience’s repulsion and/or attraction to ‘Choppers’ of all descriptions seems to confirm that the cinema touches some primal place where we only have the courage to go vicariously. And one of the reasons the film did so well at the box office was that local audiences, after so many years confronting (mainly) American psychopaths in the dark, were relieved to have a homegrown one to admire.

But Chopper is no Oscar Schindler, around whom there grew a vigorous moral debate concerning his motives in rescuing, then using, so many people as workers in his factory. In Chopper our task is to understand a repulsive personality, and perhaps see him as an Australian man socialised into violent, often deadly, personal conflicts.

The Chopper screenplay is a good example of how the reality of a film image is not necessarily visible on the page. Dominik complains of the treatment he received from funding assessors who didn’t ‘see’ his film from the script and, in particular, what moral position the audience were meant to take in relation to this one-man-killing-machine. This is because the film’s strength lies in a plain directorial style and a mesmerising performance from Eric Bana as Chopper. The power or quality of an actor’s performance, plus the look of the image, can often be hidden within the words on the page.

This gap between word and image is the universal dilemma of scriptwriters whose work must enthuse both the production team and the bankers long before the first frame is turned. For example, in Scene 77, a carpark outside Bo Jangles nightclub is the setting for the murder of Sammy by Chopper. The script records the following description:

Sammy tries to move past Chopper. Chopper fires, blowing a hole through Sammy’s left eye. Sammy stands there for a couple of hysterical seconds, right eye blinking and then slowly crumples.

What appears on the screen is less ‘hysterical’ than matter of fact, almost banal, action in the half-light. It is shocking in its ordinariness. And then the ordinary is turned on itself by the tone of Bana’s apology—Sorry mate. It is at this moment, through the totality of the performance, that we realise Chopper is a personality completely out of control.

Several times in the film, at the moment just before his victim’s death, Chopper seems mesmerised by the result of his actions, fascinated by the spurting blood yet dismayed that he might have hurt someone. The script does not fully convey the interest this split personality response can generate at these moments.

Chopper is a study in badness much like Mailer’s book on Gary Gilmore (The Executioner’s Song), along with the obligatory media fascination with the criminal ‘character.’ The end result is the elevation of the psychopath to hero—Chopper is portrayed in film publicity with folded arms and guns crossed, in Ned Kelly pose.

The historical/contemporary criminal hero nexus is misleading because it distorts the true nature of heroism, and heroic deeds. In Chopper’s case it suggests something more than he really was, even though his victims (thought to number 19) were mainly drug dealers. His attraction, so cleverly worked in Dominik’s film, is based on the vigilante persona that has a long tradition in the movies. Admiration for revenge, it seems, eschews the need for complex moral debate everytime.

Chopper, film: writer-director Andrew Dominik, writer Mark Brandon Read; screenplay: publisher Currency Press, Sydney, 2000

RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. 21

© Hunter Cordaiy; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Luc Courchesne, The Visitor: Living by Number, 2001

Luc Courchesne, The Visitor: Living by Number, 2001

Luc Courchesne, The Visitor: Living by Number, 2001

You are averse to entering large dark corridors—inhibition dictates it. You slowly move forward, before your eyes adjust, into what premonition has told you to distrust. It is an annoying sensation, this fear, since common sense tells you that the experience is not harmful. You are gripped by the suddenness of this disorientation in a space that is not the world: a heavy cloak of warm darkness, a mouth whose teeth are slivers of light. As you approach them, they approach you, these figures whose shape and luminosity appear as you have always imagined ghosts to be. You move closer to a man who gazes out with an emotionless but inquisitive stare, and he retreats; at the end of the corridor a girl surges from the darkness, made more from air and light than from flesh and bone. They are communicating with you in an impossible mixture of intimacy and callousness. You do not know whether it is out of some unspoken need that these remote worlds have come to visit you, or whether you, for a moment more vulnerable, have called on them for help.

And leaving Gary Hill’s Tall Ships (1992) is very much like being woken from a hypnotic spell, recurring in residues and flashes. It is technological art at its very finest, for it does not call attention to itself as technology, does not play a game of cleverness with the viewer, does not make the viewer feel like a Luddite or in need of updating, does not try to initiate the viewer into some new maxi-digi-cyber-techno-syntax. If it takes up something new in our eyes, it is more in its forms; its concerns are perennial. Hill’s pale blue figures, the “ships”, though mute, speak to us before we realise that they have, because they speak to us about the condition of the purgatorial span between birth and death, and the feeling that most of us have that there is something more to material life, though we are at a loss to say what it is. These ships are mirrors and they are gods, making us feel both more secure, and more lost.

It is this depth rather than the puerile lust for hyper-technology that makes Space Odysseys: Sensation and Immersion profound, absorbing—and touching. If we are looking for poignancy without sentimentality, technology is not habitually the first place we will turn. Speaking generally, too many bad experiences have warned the average art-goer off art associated with technology, and rightly so, as the abuses of video art, as well as other so-called new media, are now more associated with sensory solecisms than stimulation. Yet this is one of the most inviting and, whoops, enjoyable exhibitions of contemporary art that I can remember.

It is curious to see the word “immersion” in the title for it immediately evokes its antonyms in the 20th century canon, associated with Duchamp and Minimalism: alienation and theatricality. It is curious because technological art, with its dark rooms and dramatic build-ups, is among the most stagy; not to mention everything we have been told about the alienating effects of technology. In the case of one of the 2 non-technological works, Bruce Nauman’s Triangle Room (1978-80), made in the name of unease, you are left wondering—immersed—as to the very source of alienation. It plays negative shrine to James Turrell’s positive one, an exercise in visual stealth. The first moments of being in the chamber for Turrell’s Between the Seen, with its 2 dull spots flanking a green oblong, can be spent waiting for something to happen. Nothing changes, and stepping closer to the green reveals it as a void; you stand at its raised edge with a calm feeling of having touched nothingness.

The larger claims, if any, of the exhibition were not clear to me, although Victoria Lynn in her introduction to the catalogue cites Cocteau’s film Orpheus, characterising the viewer’s role in the exhibition as an Orphic passage into rich and different spaces. The suggestion is that we, the viewers, are encouraged to become poetic beings who, out of duty to our wish to seek more than mundanities, descend into absorptive unknowns (although Orpheus went to hell to retrieve Eurydice and was subsequently torn to pieces, we thankfully remain intact).

In addition to its concerns for new spaces and dimensions caused by light, it was perhaps an effort to avoid (or dodge) recent dogmas about alienation and technological over-determination that led to the inclusion of László Moholy-Nagy’s Light Space Modulator. For it reminds us that new media is not necessarily all that new. His highly abstract black-and-white film is of a piece with the multi-disciplinary experiments of artists and designers at the Bauhaus, where he also taught.

There is a very new and active encouragement of collaboration in the Bauhaus, extending beyond architecture, and distinct from previous epochs, because the collaboration is between equals. David Hanes and Joyce Hinterding, artists with long and separate careers, have produced The Blinds and the Shutters, a 4-channel video and sound piece, taking up the entire room. On facing walls are alternately large topographic projections in black-and-white, and colour landscapes. The most frontal projection, surface opposite the entry, depicts a classic Modernist style house in the midst of a typical Australian landscape encircled by objects belonging to its interior: a blanket, cushions, a billowing white shirt. It carries a similar semantic obliqueness to the work by Moholy-Nagy but, again, not a negative sense, as you do not straight away feel that you have missed the point. Calm and expansive, the work is a conundrum whose sensuous qualities suffice.

In Lynette Wallworth’s Hold Vessel #1 and Hold Vessel #2, the viewer is asked to take one of the frosted glass bowls from the entry to be used as a visual receptacle for the 3 constantly changing visual mutations and gyrations projected from the ceiling. Most unusually, the viewer is given a device for viewing, a bowl, making him or her an essential component in receiving the luscious colours and designs, apparently inspired from sea-life. To soft, non-descript sounds, the images swell and mutate on the concave or convex surface in your hands. Here the viewer is not put into the role of passively experiencing, but of capturing.

Space Odysseys: Sensation and Immersion, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, August 18 – October 21; ACMI (Australian Centre for the Moving Image), Melbourne, 2002. Luc Courchesne’s artist’s talk will appear in RT#46

RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. 25

© Adam Hyde; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

There are no classrooms in the electrosphere.
There are no Teachers and there are no Students.
(Capital T, capital S). Likewise, there are no rules. Or they are fleeting. Born and broken in a moment of recognition, our rules have become martyrs, in this, the economy of digitisation.
Enter trAce’s Online Writing Programme.

For those of you familiar with trAce, it will come as no surprise that they are among the first to embrace the dawn of electracy, a kind of electric literacy where emphasis is placed on the former component of the word when used in conjunction with the latter, and vice versa. Or to walk a path already trodden—e-literacy, netwurk, wryting, digerati, hypertext.

The fundamental characteristic of electracy, and something trAce has taken to heart, is the instantaneous connectivity explicit in the act of electronic transmission. Or put simply, the physical manifestation of creative energy.

Flirtatious dialogue between 2 strangers who have met (disembodied—in name only) through their love of abstract poetry. Rhizomatic threads of a bustling bulletin board, composed of inroads and exits only. The shape of an idea, its future glimpsed through the tail-tale signs of metamorphosis. These are the new classrooms we inhabit—the imagined space of transient connections.

It was with this in mind that I enrolled in trAce’s inaugural series of Writing Workshops. Here the premise was simple. trAce supplied the space, tools, e-lit celebrities and starting points for conversation. The rest would be decided by the Event of the moment.

This Event, always elsewhere on the textual horizon, drove each of us forward, but in disparate directions. For 8 weeks (and a further 6 days) we were unified by a common desire—to reach our end and then paint the illusion. What began as a relatively small space grew in infinite proportions as each co-conspirator travelled forever outward, taking the centre with them.

This was to be a learning experience I could not have imagined. Once logged onto the school, the catalogue of possibilities began to course through the blood like a drug of addiction. In this space, ideas were encouraged to reach fruition. I was simultaneously a writer, a teacher, a voyeur and a pupil—a fly on the wall of imagination. These roles, which shifted along an axis of rhetorical experimentation, founded the idea of a neoteric community. Our bodies slipped in and out of disguise as we opened our minds to a hypertextual consciousness.

I would like to thank trAce for securing a parcel of empty space on the electronic frontier, to be filled with the effects of the imagination. For nurturing this fragile block in its embryonic stages and for testing its boundaries in infancy and beyond.

Through trAce’s noble duty to creativity and connectivity, I feel that I have glimpsed the first stages of a burgeoning entity. A school with no rules, or rules that belong only to the individual. A school that nurtures independent thought through the very nature of its infinite flexibility. And a school that resides only in the imagination, made real through the desire to speak and made better through our ability to listen.

Go to the trAce website for more information, or to enrol in their online writing courses

RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. 23

© Jo Gray; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

In her solo exhibition Open Inspection at the Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia (CACSA), Sam Small subverted the contemporary art gallery. She took away its name, re-established its context and altered audience preconceptions, almost to a point of deception. The first indication was the signage. CACSA is an old villa, complete with return verandah and shrubby front garden. The large suave, brushed steel sign placed asymmetrically on the fence is the only outside element differentiating it from other houses on its street. Small replaced the CACSA sign with a large bold one, akin to that of the real estate industry, that reads:

—Character Bluestone Villa—

Superbly located and retaining all its period charm, this unique exhibition home comprises 4 main rooms…(etc)

A similar advertisement was placed in the weekend real estate pages of the local paper. The effect was remarkable. People came in droves to have a peek into someone else’s home. Suddenly the contemporary art gallery had currency—as real estate. Small was playing with fire. Politically she was confronting the ongoing and still unanswered problem of Australia’s limited contemporary art audience. Socially she was pushing at the edges of acceptable public and private information. Personally she was confronting an unsuspecting audience with their preconceptions. Artistically she was establishing her own work in direct competition with the architecture and real estate value of the gallery building.

So people came, driving up in their shiny cars, some with children in tow. Most, I am told, stayed to look. I wonder what they were looking at—the “ornate lofty ceilings” or the “original timber floors”? However, getting people along was only the first step in a marketing campaign; the next was having an appealing product. Inside, Small’s installation was not bright and shiny. It stood in great contrast to the bold sign out the front, and the slick advertisement in the paper. Hers was not a contemporary art marketing campaign, rather a playful and insightful exploration into notions surrounding public and private spheres.

In the first 2 galleries were 2 miniature partly built houses on stilts, far too high for anyone to see through the windows, although a warm yellow light emanating from inside the buildings was enticing. In the third gallery a pile of carpets blocked the entire entrance. This was an intriguing piece, not only because it made me wonder how Small managed to do it, but also because it took a little while to work out what it was. Suddenly I realised I was looking at cross-sections—of houses, of carpets. Everyday things that I don’t see because I don’t ever look at them from Small’s point of view. The carpets, now vertical, had lost their role as protectors of the bare foot from the hard horizontal.

Tucked away in the back gallery, was the most perverse work. Small had gone through the Adelaide white pages and systematically documented every residence listed under the name of Jones, and displayed a photo of each house and marking its street address on a poster-like street directory of Adelaide. This was more than just a play on the adage ‘keeping up with the Joneses.’ It was a thorough, organised and premeditated travesty of public information. At last we got our peek into the private domain, but by a very public means. Hopefully the irony of displaying very personal information from a public book in a public gallery was not lost on the visitors hoping to get a look into somebody else’s home.

The most impressive part of Small’s exhibition was the constant traffic. Her work became a performance without the artist being present. Watching people confidently approach the gallery as though entering someone’s home was fascinating, even without the knowledge that at some point it was going to become obvious to them this was not an open inspection. And then there was the awkwardness, the shared awareness of having been tricked, and the resulting discomfort. Sam Small’s installation was not easy, but very clever.

Open Inspection, Sam Small, Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia, Adelaide, July 7-29

RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. 27

© Sarah Minney; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Fiona Cameron, Looking for a Life Cure

Fiona Cameron, Looking for a Life Cure

Fiona Cameron, Looking for a Life Cure

Two attempts to represent the relation between self and world, similar in theory, utterly diverse in practice. Normally known for her abstract dance tapestries, in Fraught Sandra Parker (Dance Works) collaborates with dramaturg Yoni Prior to create an existential condition all too familiar—angst. A mood for our times, the work is a relentless presentation of intersubjective tension, irritation, frustration and rejection. The performers look like they have accessed their own interiority to give substance to the emotional flavours of the piece. A series of appeals, negations and irritated refusals occurs between the dancers. No-one is being nice to anyone. Not that they are cruel. Just caught within their own little world views, unable to walk in the footsteps of the other. And yet, there is no solipsism here. Hands press flesh, need fuels touch. Unfortunately, the touch of the other is not experienced as pleasure, rather, it is an imposition, unwanted and irritating. The pink residue of repeated tactile appeals looks raw, an injurious slight to autonomy.

Fraught sustains its emotional tenor throughout. Although there does seem to be some variation in the interactions between the performers, I can’t discern a qualitative difference at a meaning level. In the end I start to get irritable, probably proving Parker’s argument. There is no rupture between my own tensions and those on the stage. Without subscribing to the ‘art should be entertaining’ banality, I want to be shown a way out, a means whereby I can move on. Later I’m not so sure. Perhaps Fraught is like Derek Jarman’s film, Blue, a monochrome meditation. If so, it would be good to see the work in train as the audience enters, and still happening as they leave.

Fraught stands out as a courageous departure for Parker, away from the finely modulated abstract towards kinaesthetic feeling in the realm of the Real. Yoni Prior’s dramaturgy works well in terms of the visible integrity of the performers. Deanne Butterworth’s emotional embodiment is particularly convincing. Fraught is an attempt to represent a certain zeitgeist in movement terms. As such it is redolent and evocative, but it never aspires beyond reflecting the way the world is. It would be nice to see the hand of Parker within the work, saying something further about this, not a solution but perhaps another side, a neglected facet of an existential state of affairs.

Could Fiona Cameron’s Looking for a Life Cure offer an answer to the woes of Fraught? Get real. Nothing is too serious about this playful work. Performers Cameron, Brett Daffy and Kirstie McCracken engage in a number of scenarios, fantasies of acclaim, fame and gratification. None too promising, each does little more than depict the scene of satisfaction, certainly not its attainment. The joy of this work is in the dancing and in its quirky character. Cameron is a charismatic performer. Somehow she manages to combine skill with abandon. In one section she plays a French diva performing a deconstructed cancan as part of a Godzilla film. Take #1, take #2, take #3 requires the repetition of an enormously demanding routine. And yet, each time Cameron launches herself into huge leg extensions, jumps and floor work with the same self-possessed eccentric movement style. Brett Daffy is also a superb dancer, fluid and precise. There’s a sense that Cameron has collaborated with Daffy and McCracken to develop material, but each person’s movement has its own kinaesthetic flavour.

Performed upstairs in a wide but shallow room at the Malthouse, with one big window, I saw Looking for a Life Cure in the late afternoon. Set against a darkening sky, over time, architectural silhouettes transformed into twinkling lights. This added a poetic dimension to Cameron’s final, heaving figure against the window, offering no more than a moist and tired being. I left smiling.

Fraught, Dance Works, choreographer Sandra Parker, dramaturg Yoni Prior, dancers Deanne Butterworth, Jo Lloyd, Brooke Stamp, Michael O’Donoghue, Tamara Steel & Mia Hollingworth, Athenaeum Theatre 2, Melbourne, August 10-18; Looking for a Life Cure, choreographer Fiona Cameron, performers Fiona Cameron, Brett Daffy & Kirstie McCracken, The Tower, C.U.B. Malthouse, Melbourne, August 8-11

RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. 12

© Philipa Rothfield; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Andrew Morrish

Andrew Morrish

Andrew Morrish

Is it true that Australian dance is currently undergoing a major resurgence of interest in improvisation as performance—or is it simply my personal bias towards the endlessly exhilarating environment in which I find myself? Whether true or not, the question has been pounced on by people from other major cities, not just on the east coast. Some say yes, some say no. While there are many people in little pockets around Australia who use improvisation in various ways, sometimes as a choreographic tool, or with scores around which a performance is based, these processes seem different from performance that is totally improvised—no scores, no structures, just-get-out-there-and-see-what-happens.

In Sydney there’s been a shift of focus, a critical mass of interest constellated by one or 2 events, notably Andrew Morrish’s performance project, Rushing for the Sloth, at Omeo Studios (Newtown) which had its inaugural performance early in 2000, and the Relentlessly On… performance season at Performance Space earlier this year, by Tony Osborne and Andrew Morrish (see RT#44 p37). Rushing for the Sloth is an ongoing forum curated monthly (the last Sunday of each month) which Morrish says “remains dedicated to the development of audiences interested in the potentiality of improvisational performance to create new form, endorse presence and embody openness.” He adds, “I’m not interested in having this conversation about what I’m responsible for, frankly. I’m just doing what I want to do, and that’s all there is to it. People improvise for a whole lot of reasons. Some people don’t need to get any better for it to work for them, and I’m very happy for that to be the case, but my own interest is in making increasingly interesting theatre.” With this aim in view, the intervening Sundays function as more intimate forums (Taming of the Sloth) for a core group of 5 to 10 practitioners and invited guests to develop skills, pushing themselves to expand their range of material.

Melbourne practitioner Martin Hughes (State of Flux) asks how I might be assessing this so-called resurgence. “Who is it showing all this sudden interest? Clearly we are talking about a very specific population. The popularity of Morrish and Peter Trotman, who for more than 15 years have been able to find audiences, attests to a long-standing interest in improvisation as performance. Theatre Of The Ordinary, Al Wunder’s performance group, has operated for more than 20 years. And witness the huge interest in Deborah Hay’s classes recently. I believe this could only be possible with a history of practice for many years prior to her classes. Ros Warby is another name that comes to mind [see interview RT#46, Dec, 2001], someone who has a long history of exploring improvisation as performance.”

Most certainly improvisation has a history, though for a long time government grants were reserved for purely choreographic endeavour. Perhaps, wisely, the word ‘improvisation’ has simply been absent from the discussion even if it was present in many people’s practice. In the early 1980s, Dancelink invited a number of American improvisers to Australia to teach and perform, notably Steve Paxton, Lisa Nelson and Dana Reitz. The development of ongoing mentoring relationships with international artists has continued, more recently with further visits from Deborah Hay, Lisa Nelson, Jennifer Monson, Eva Karczag, Julyen Hamilton and Ishmael Houston-Jones, to name a few, and many Australian artists discuss their relationship to these people as primarily important in their artistic development.

Adelaide artist Helen Omand suggests that improvisation holds an interesting mirror to current political changes, in that the autocratic creator is now going by the wayside. In Steve Paxton’s view (“The History and Future of Dance Improvisation”, Contact Quarterly, Vol 26, No 2, 2001) governmental regimes have changed from controlling forces which expect their populations to do as they’re told, to ones which expect their populations to take responsibility for making their own work. Further, Paxton writes, “Since the recent popularity of chaos theory, chaos has been rationalised, seen to have structure, and proves to be metaphoric of sensitivity rather than insanity. It has been upgraded. It is invited to the dinner table, and shows up at dance performances.”

Ryk Goddard, artistic director of Hobart’s Salamanca Theatre Company, discusses what’s afoot: “The scene is very young here, but there are already crossovers occurring between dance and theatre performers, underlying the strength of the scenes in Melbourne and Sydney. The new improvisation is not pure, but hybrid, collaborative and fuelled by curiosity. It’s built around practitioners like Wunder, Morrish and Helen Clarke Lapin, who have stayed with the form since the 1970s. Contemporary practitioners are no longer trying to shock or smash the system but are engaging in a genuine exploration, and this moves it from a training or developmental tool into a performance form in its own right.

“The forms reflect social structure. The 4-act play, for example, reflects a classic, 1950s-style school-marriage-career-retirement social order. In the 1970s when these structures were being torn down, improvisation became a tool to do this with. In the 1980s, Theatre Sports became the ‘accessible’ art, and suited the prevailing culture that said that even art could make money. Unfortunately the make-or-break quality meant that performances were sometimes based on cleverness rather than genuine exploration. Now, people move relatively quickly in and out of different countries, institutions, employment. We are better at multi-tracking, allowing creativity to sit beside business, including imagination in intelligence.”

Goddard established Eat Space in Hobart, teaching performance improvisation focusing on ensemble, solo or duet. He teaches movement, voice and text skills, examining different ways to create scores or lines of enquiry which shape performance. Two students have set up Blink, a monthly performance improvisation laboratory, like Sydney’s Sloth, on the last Sunday of every month. People have very different interests and performing styles, and because the scene is new, performance times are short (5 or 10 minutes). As people become more skilled, times will become more flexible.

Morrish drew a schematic diagram of names, with circles and arrows going from one to another, trying to explain all the relationships that, in his view, create the complexity of Australian improvisation culture. A central name in his scheme is Al Wunder, Melbourne teacher and practitioner, often mentioned as the most influential artist in Australian dance improvisation, if not directly then via his students, some of whom now teach and perform internationally.

In 1962, the only performed improvisation Wunder knew about was jazz music. Later, his growing pleasure in watching improvised class exercises fuelled the idea of totally improvised dance performance. At Judson Church in New York this was already happening, and contact improvisation was born out of this. Contact has traditionally been based on the development of physical skills—particularly partnering skills where 2 people move around an ever-changing point of contact—and as a response to the high dance culture of 1950s and 60s USA. Meanwhile those skills continue to be refined in a variety of performance contexts, in choreographic endeavour (eg DV8in the UK) and improvisation of all sorts.

For Wunder, there is little similarity between his work and traditional contact improvisation. He encourages people to use any and all of the performing arts—music, all kinds of dance, theatre—as a means to communicate to the audience. Most people believe it is the non-competitive nature of his style of teaching that has proved so popular. His teaching methodology deals primarily with physical awareness and articulation, but essential to this is the idea of positive feedback. “Whenever we talk about exercises or performances, we state what we enjoyed doing or seeing and try to say why we enjoyed it. This gets rid of the negative judge and fosters confidence in both performing improvisation and developing one’s own aesthetics.” Martin Hughes thinks this is fundamental to what happens in Melbourne, engendering a very positive environment for exploration that goes well beyond the classes and is evident at many performances, strongly supporting Melbourne improvisational performance practice.

Melbourne in particular has hosted a number of the now very popular ongoing improvisational performance forums, beginning with The Flummery Room, set up by Morrish and Peter Trotman, which flourished for several years. According to Hughes, this kind of ongoing forum has been very much led by the example of Trotman, Morrish and the group Born In A Taxi, providing performance opportunities for themselves whenever they had the need to test out their latest exploration. In similar style, the monthly improvisational performance forum, Conundrum, was initiated by 2 groups, Five Square Metres and State of Flux. Running for 6 years, these nights now have a minimum audience of 80 enthusiasts.

Five Square Metres base their work on ‘school of fish’ ensemble movement, storytelling and character creating a collage of imaginative, abstract performance, a theatrical world that closely resembles a way of life. Pieces range from 25-35 minutes. State of Flux play with scores and structures, but also use no scores to find new territory. Classes focus on contact skills, but their overt aim is to explore the ‘performability’ of contact, enhanced by the diversity of skills in the group.

Born in a Taxi have found audiences and income in the corporate market, bringing theatre practice to movement improvisation disciplines, creating forms of improvisation that balance entertainment with genuine exploration and imaginative licence. Theatre of the Ordinary, Wunder’s performance group, is based at Cecil Street, Fitzroy. Hughes and his partner are responsible for running the Cecil Street studios, and maintain a diverse range of improvisation classes.

Jo Pollitt, Perth artist, found inspiration in her experience of the huge New York improvisation scene in 1999. Her performance/research group, Response, began in March 2000 with 14 dancers, retaining a more workable number of 5. With a visit from Jennifer Monson from the US last year, they have also developed a working relationship with an improvisational orchestra, Ensembleu. Pollitt teaches improvisation at the West Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA), and from time to time holds increasingly popular ‘quick response’ lunchtime improvisation sessions. “In terms of dance, I definitely feel like I am pretty much on my own here in Perth, although I am very supported at WAAPA and have no trouble finding interested dancers to work with.” Recently, Perth performers Tony Osborne, Alice Cummins and Jonathan Sinatra have moved to Sydney, and along with Morrish’s move from Melbourne, have enriched the Sydney scene immeasurably.

Pollitt’s interest is in “the potential energy and the value of the body and the person, in light of the glut of new technology, today’s cyber-infused world, and dance-theatre inspired work. Is the body still interesting to watch in itself? I think dance improvisation in performance can offer a precise and non-linear insight into the performer. Humans are complex and it is this I hope to reveal through dance, in the performers’ choices and responses.”

Helen Omand in Adelaide has found that although there are improvisation practitioners there (rumour has it that there’s yet another group called Eat Space), it is still mostly an unknown, little understood form in the dance community. She began teaching classes on returning from Europe late last year although student numbers were low. “Kat Worth and I have been inviting different people to jam with us, but this has also proven slow; professional dancers are so busy, juggling paid jobs and grants. We are still looking for the right form for things to take off.”

Omand says, “Everything in nature forms patterns. In fact, the biggest fallacy about improvisation is the idea of freedom. You cannot be free if you are not placed and present. To be able to make choices, you first have to ‘know’ where you are. Then comes the ability to be open to the realm of possibilities, choosing whilst maintaining presence. The best improvisations are when it seems like the score has already been written in space/time, and the body makes it manifest.”

Similarly for Goddard, contemporary improvisation is all about form. It’s about learning how to recognise the dynamic you are in to bring out its richness. If you expand the moment enough, ideas and themes emerge and become recognisable. “At its best—and there are many great practitioners—it is satisfying, demanding performance that is honest, reflects in its energy the way people live their lives, and allows the coming together of imagination, the body, the intellect, humour and grace.”

Thanks to Al Wunder, Helen Omond, Ryk Goddard, Andrew Morrish, Martin Hughes & Jo Pollitt for their generosity in contributing ideas to this article, and to the many improvisers whose ongoing practices have made the vibrancy of the scene worth talking about.

RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. 11

© Eleanor Brickhill; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

At a recent Sydney forum on artist-run spaces, an observer suggested that rather than offering a radical alternative, such spaces merely mimic dominant commercial models, maintaining the status quo by reiterating the hierarchical prestige of those venues. If this is the case, then the frequently cited adage that artist-run spaces are merely the training grounds for tomorrow’s (commercially) successful contemporary artists would necessarily be true. So if artist-run spaces no longer fulfil any experimental or broad cultural purpose, where does that purpose lie today? If the artist’s self-directed conviction in do-it-yourself practices is still alive then where is it found?

A series of events and propositions exist that confound and complicate simplistic notions of artist coordinated events as well as the roles of ‘traditional’ artist-run spaces. Some of these have taken contemporary work outdoors for brief periods. Others have hijacked the physical and conceptual boundaries of the gallery while at the same time questioning existing spatial models of contemporary practice. Still others have utilised the 4 walls of the gallery but for widely divergent ambitions, more aligned to the utopian politics of direct action. Of course none of these are ‘new’ or unique historically. What they demonstrate, however, is the return and continued vitality of thinking resistant to readily available precursors. Such efforts promise to render the exchange between artist, gallery, public venue and community more fluid and, at the same time, less definable.

In 1998 a one-off project titled Glovebox was launched. It was overseen by Simon Barney and Chris Fortesque, directors of the now defunct South gallery in Surry Hills. Glovebox occurred on the top storey of a carpark close to Sydney’s Central Station. The premise of the exhibition was explorative and vaguely irreverent. Artists were asked to install work in the gloveboxes of friends’ or other artists’ cars. On a nominated date, which became the standard opening, cars containing completed works congregated at the aforementioned venue. As cars were parked, visitors and drivers were able to roam among them investigating the art on show. Such work varied dramatically from the ironic to the deadly earnest. It spanned everything from more conventional media like painting and photography to free-form audio compositions designed to be played on car stereos for extended periods. The work in Glovebox ranged from highly intricate installations to wry minimalist gestures.

What distinguished the show was its expanded thinking on what constitutes an exhibition. Aligned with this thinking were the obvious suggestions of mobility and direct interchange between artists and general car-owners. Glovebox exploited the symbolic reverberation of cars in Australian culture that remains highly charged. Although in certain respects simply an exhibition in an alternative venue, the show was equally a parody and skewed celebration of the car-meet or car-boot sale. While free of artist run space nominalism, Glovebox was generated from the activities of such a space and at least partially from the inherent frustrations of its daily coordination. Also challenging was the implied durational aspect of the event. Participants were asked to caretake the work in their cars for a period of at least 2 months. In this time such work might travel considerable distances and to places not normally associated with contemporary art. Glovebox set a precedent for the alternative reception of contemporary art in Sydney.

Partly influenced by the social and artistic success of Glovebox was KWL (Keep Within the Lines). Once again this was an event staged in a public carpark. The Seymour Centre carpark adjacent to Sydney University is a central and spacious venue that provides additional panoramic views of the surrounding area. KWL was organised by Josie Cavallaro, Sarah Goffman and Lisa Kelly, 3 Sydney-based artists who approached the university to use the site. Artists were invited to produce work in direct response to the physical confines of the standard parking space. Such work might specifically address the nature of the carpark environment and its attendant conceptual underpinnings. On the other hand it might appropriately engage the basic dimension of the parking space. In the former category was the Duchampian display of an immaculate lime green Torana propped in mid air. Related works included: an installed car-stereo and speakers that emitted the phantasmic repetitive splutters of a car failing to start; a rooftop display of pyrotechnics courtesy of a rocket-propelled trolley; a self-regulating fountain-come-shower and clusters of small grotesque heads grimacing as though in imminent threat of annihilation by an arriving vehicle.

Once again the possibilities for social interaction were emphasised, particularly in lieu of the carpark’s general accessibility. In this instance the focus of the event was orientated more towards concepts of modular containability than duration. KWL questioned the compartmentalisation of contemporary practices by humorously overlaying them with standardised concepts of urban separation. Once again the spectre of the car, that modern civilian container par-excellence, was conjured in its absence. Through recourse to the parking space, KWL cast a wry and questioning eye over the premises of both artist-run and commercial spaces. Most of the participants were regular exhibitors in either or both.

Returning to the 4 walls of the gallery—though in an activist guise—were the activities of now defunct Squatspace. As the name suggests, Squatspace was an adjunct of those buildings (with squatters) on the busy thoroughfare of Sydney’s Broadway. The location has undergone one of the most dramatic transformations in recent local history, converted from a strip of disused or under-subscribed businesses to an area marked by a constant stream of pedestrian and road traffic. Most of this is primarily the result of the multi-million dollar redevelopment of the Grace Brothers buildings nearby.

Squatspace grew out of intense conviction in self-reliance and disillusionment in the escalating commercial structures re-shaping Sydney. As a gallery, Squatspace superficially resembled many other artist-run spaces, coordinated principally by the artists Lucas Ihlein and Mickie Quick, and supported by a team of indispensable helpers including lawyers, musicians and performers. What marked Squatspace was not only its mode of operation but its public association with squatters’ rights and ongoing tussles with local council. The highly visible location meant that it was a target for oppositional attacks by members of the public and others. Significant to its practices was its embrace of generally unfashionable forms of overtly politicised art: poster making, pamphleteering, performance and other activities flippantly considered ‘marginal’ to dominant modes of contemporary cultural production.

Squatspace generated a climate of public engagement by inviting people for free dinners, discussions and films. Within this climate the art displayed was varied and often far from flawless. Its importance, like that of the projects previously mentioned, lay in its open critique of the broader function of art in society. Rather than accepting art’s contemporary role as a self-contained given, the projects discussed here assist in exploding its possibilities in multiple directions. They require serious consideration no matter how humorous or novel they seem at first. At the same time, the metamorphic quality of such projects questions the place and reception of art as a living, interactive entity. No matter what their ultimate results, such practices promise something more vital than the simple justification of career demands.

RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. 26

© Alex Gawronski; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Anton Hart, George Popperwell, The Cloak Room, installation detail

Anton Hart, George Popperwell, The Cloak Room, installation detail

Anton Hart, George Popperwell, The Cloak Room, installation detail

The Cloak Room exhibition is curiously un-cloakroomlike: large, open, filled with fantastic structures—and not a coat in sight. An exhibition verging on the opaque, one gets a sense of meaning restless beneath the impenetrably smooth surfaces of metal and cardboard.

Even the extensive EAF space, for which the work was designed, seems almost too small for, or is made too small by, the fabrications wedged within. Clean and beautifully constructed corrugated-cardboard structures speak of architecture or design as they span the space like cityscapes in miniature. Dividing these stacked arrangements are strips of industrial rubber flooring, a normally prosaic material made oddly inviting as it forms pathways that trail off the raised platforms of cardboard and onto the floor. These pathways tempt, constructed as they are from a material designed to be walked on: a sign outside says “Please do not walk on the artwork” but the footprints of earlier visitors are clear.

Expanses of cardboard are used both in conjunction with this flooring material and with the metal and wood sections of the installation. Light-weight, disposable and malleable it seems to reference models, maquettes and mock-ups, the stuff of design, while the timber and metal are the raw building materials themselves. Together they suggest the transition from plan to product, from a concept to its manifestation.

Around the edges of the exhibition space other intrusions crop and swell. At a-little-above-head-height, 6 three-dimensional L-shaped cardboard fabrications, shot through with skewers, protrude from the walls. These speared, spiky forms cast sharp shadows, yet are surprisingly without menace. Stolid in the corner is a further indeterminate object, like a huge overtoppled table with its legs sheared off and lunging in haphazard directions. Monolithic, these legs at first evoke the columns of classical architecture, though this impression is rapidly counteracted: made of zinc-coated steel and supported with metal pinned-joints the effect is more functional, mechanical. It is an exhibition of such multiple realisations: later visits prove the topography of the cardboard structures to be in more subdued relief than initially judged, less a dominating cityscape than platform or stage.

Expectations are confounded again by the animated sequence that shows a computer-generated, generic multi-story building falling down in a cloud of dust and rubble: a mundane enough image, but here disorientingly projected on its side. Immediately this building collapses into the ground it begins to reform, a mesmerising process re-enacted continuously. Each time, the structure is not so much re-built, but rather the dismantling process is reversed, in a constant and continuous process of action and reaction. So the message becomes less about the relentless ravages of time—civilisations, like buildings, will fall—or of inexorable progress—man struggling from the ruins to create again—but instead the process implies pre-determination and a surprisingly satisfying inevitability.

This first collaboration of George Popperwell and Anton Hart has produced a dense exhibition where following conventional chains of inference and connotation will perhaps never yield distinct conclusions. The accompanying essay by University of NSW architecture teacher Michael Tawa recognises this with its pertinent etymological exploration of various concepts associated with the idea of ‘the cloakroom’: as prelude, threshold, vestibule of play that “conceals, decoys, baits and lures.” It is in reading this essay, in following its complex relationship of words, that the viewer is prepared for what will be essential processes of exploration and excavation.

While the essay provides a non-literal explanation, a suggested approach to viewing, there are concrete connections included amongst what seems to be a thoroughly abstract piece of writing. When Tawa states that the “metaphors wander” and names his analogies—jungle snare, factory floor—one is tempted to tick off the elements (the spiked traps, the box-stacked Pirelli-covered industrial floor) that one recognises. But while it is important to realise that this installation can be appreciated purely for its aesthetic merits, being skilfully designed and faultlessly constructed, much of its value seems to lie in the chains of meanings it creates. The inclusion of the various fantastic objects inspires all kinds of literal and metaphorical analogies and the resulting sense of Derridean destabilisation is possibly what gives the work, initially frustratingly static, its sub-surface sense of restlessness.

The Cloak Room, Anton Hart & George Popperwell, Experimental Art Foundation, August 10-September 8

RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. 28

© Jena Woodburn; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

You enter a darkened gallery strategically dotted with unidentified objects. Besides the darkness, the most pervasive element is the pulsating soundscape that incorporates traditional Arabic song and contemporary Western dance/club music. As your eyes adjust, the video projections at either end of the gallery seem to change from amorphous, whirling colours to images of festive folkloric Arabic dance: on one wall, belly dancers writhing to a Syrian song; on the other, a group of dancers in bright, Arabic costumes have been paired with an upbeat, disco soundtrack, strikingly recontextualised by this unusual juxtaposition.

Welcome to Fassih Keiso’s installation at Hobart’s CAST Gallery: Not Only Skins and Fabric.

Keiso is a Syrian-born artist who completed a BFA in interior design and a postgraduate diploma in theatre design at the University of Lebanon before coming to Australia. He is currently a PhD candidate at the Sydney College of the Arts. His areas of study are echoed in the spectacle—the theatricality—of this installation, the attention to detail evident in the work and his calculated use and manipulation of interior space.

Keiso has a comprehensive history of solo exhibitions, installations and performance works in far-flung venues from New York to Poland, Tunisia to Melbourne and Syria to Sydney. He is also a film and videomaker and has taken part in dozens of group shows in Australia and internationally. He has recently capped off an impressive record of prizes, grants and residencies by being selected as one of this year’s winners of the prestigious Samstag International Visual Arts Travelling Scholarships.

Over recent years, Keiso’s work has “examined the tensions between current Middle-Eastern and western perceptions of the body and sexuality.” He connects traditional Arabic elements relating to the body with technologies and media such as video, slide projection, photography and computer-imaging to present them in a contemporary context. This permits an absorbing, personalised view of the body in Arabic culture, opening up a compelling dialogue for viewers.

Besides the technology, other elements dot the gallery. Large animal-skin drums become the ‘screens’ for the slide projections: in one instance the word “skin” is superimposed on what seems to be a vastly enlarged, confronting close-up of a surgically stitched wound on golden flesh—tiny wrinkles, blemishes and downy body hair are all exaggerated in size to create something perversely fascinating. To add to the bizarre ambience, each of several drums is accompanied by drumsticks, inviting the gallery visitor to contibute to the gallery’s soundscape.

To this increasingly eclectic mix, Keiso has added a mirror ball—symbol and cliché par excellence of western disco culture—and flashing party lights: a sort of “discothèque in a tribal, desert tent” effect and a strange amalgam of 2 very different and very strong cultures. The overall work is dazzling, even dizzying—it truly impacts on the gallery visitor who physically experiences and becomes part of the installation.

The work succeeds in Keiso’s aim of “examining the cultural politics of sexuality and morality” through the body’s absence in Arabic representation contrasted with its presence, even ubiquity, in western culture and representation. The work effectively challenges western definitions and views of Middle Eastern cultures and the perceptions and even clichés these ideas perpetuate. Not Only Skins and Fabric takes 2 cultures and questions the dichotomy between the perception of western society as open and contemporary versus the idea of Arab culture as Other, traditional and exotic.

Not Only Skins and Fabric is a celebratory, uplifting, thought-provoking work. Keiso clearly values his Syrian Arabic heritage and is able to impart this to his audience. In an Australia currently struggling to maintain its multicultural image, works such as this are particularly relevant.

Not Only Skins and Fabric, installation by Fassih Keiso, Contemporary Art Services Tasmania Gallery, North Hobart, June 8-July 1

RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. 29

© Di Klaosen; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Chug R Chug, Scot Horscroft

Chug R Chug, Scot Horscroft

Chug R Chug, Scot Horscroft

“Bored boys checking their email”— Robin Rimbeau aka Scanner’s description of a predominant performance mode in electronic sound art (artist talk, Artspace, August 11). I was glad to hear it wan’t just me who had observed these tendencies. (Share the secret. What is it in fact that you are doing up there?). Refreshing too to see the phenomenon challenged by the majority of artists in Static Museum.two, curated by Garry Bradbury at Artspace.

Over 2 nights Bradbury brought together a collection artists to “struggle against utopian technocratic digital hegemony”, fighting the fast trade in new technologies rendering the old favourites obsolete. This was particularly evident in A Kind of Bloop by the Loop Orchestra, consisting of tape loops of Miles Davis and porn thrown on to struggling reel to reel decks. There is such comfort in a loop—rhythmic irregularities create their own logic, become safe and predictable, only to sweep out of sync into a whole new groove. The Loop Orchestra create a climactic aural orgy of groans, hoots and howls both human and instrumental that run around the 4-speakered corners of the room. Particularly beautiful is the poetic denouement—2 loops of the same riff, one slightly longer than the other, dizzyingly lurching and cycling round us, like the ghost of Davis himself, just not quite able to stop playing yet.

Scot Horscroft and friends’ Chug R Chug created an intriguing dichotomy between physical presence and sound emission. In an act of RSI-inducing endurance, 4 very visible musicians play repetitive chords on unamplified electric guitars, which are picked up and processed though an invisible but very audible laptop. The ‘chugs’ of the almost inaudible power chords are tweaked and effected to create a subtle lake of overlays and sonic swellings. What we are seeing seems so very different from what we are hearing, one excessive and visceral one minimalist and ephemeral.

Zero Charisma, A Construction—a collaboration between Mutante Frequante and Milk from Triclops—also aurally manipulates the physical space. Forty gallon drums variously fitted with speakers are installed around the space—one with an oscillating speaker emitting dopplering sirens, others working as metallic echo chambers and “vibraphonic” implements.

Garry Bradbury’s work as Sanity Clause with Ian Andrews is raucously engaging as the fragile and physical nature of vinyl records is explored, amplifying the defects and histories—a shame that technical hitches prevented us hearing its ‘bilabial plosives.” Bradbury’s work on the second evening was outstanding, varying from an amazing piece created from a Dark Side of the Moon album cut in half and stuck back together the wrong way round, to deft manipulation of clean and dirty sounds to create a satisfying and polished aesthetic. Also of note was Rik Rue’s Things Change, things Remain the Same (ver 3), an epic performance and radiophonic work of cracking landscapes, sonic tectonic shifts and monumental mountainous groans.

It occurred to me, as I pondered the notable absence of female artists (save Jasmine Guffond, half of Minit), that there is a particular approach to sound as experiments in science—the fascination with frequencies, waveforms, electric spasms and gadgets—that, as a sound artist myself, I cannot access. I simply don’t think of creating sound in this way. I’m sure there are female sound artists with the technical aptitude I don’t have—so where are they? Do they, like me, simply lack the inclination? (I invite responses to this oversimplified provocation.)

Static Museum was an epic 2 night experience with more artists than I have space to mention. It was an excellent forum for a variety of sonic explorations, celebrating a vibrant, if male-centred sound culture in Sydney.

Static Museum.two, Artspace, Sydney, curated by Garry Bradbury, August 30 & 31

RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. 33

© Gail Priest; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

The first Waveform conference attempted to open up what has become a stagnant forum for the discussion of academic based computer music. This discipline has reached the end of its usefulness, partially due to the development of personal computers and the release of high-end applications for digital audio processing and realtime performance. These applications have been placed firmly in the hands of a large (often non-academic) community including those making experimental music.

The conference included talks on contemporary trends in digital music, while retaining a number of speakers who were either not up to the task or stuck in the ‘old ways.’ There are not many people speaking about digital music and theories around new music practices. Future conferences could open up the range of topics to include other disciplines that cross into the area of digital music, such as popular music studies and musicology.

Conference director, Julian Knowles is a lecturer in electronic arts and music at UWS, a sought after sound engineer and audio producer. His recent performances have revealed a highly developed ear and a forward thinking use of computer sound applications.

Kim Cascone (USA) was the keynote guest and is a post-digital audio producer at the centre of the current trend in contemporary experimental audio, known as glitch and microsound. He also writes about this trend in a number of periodicals including the Computer Music Journal. His performance at the conference was, however, lost in the huge space, demonstrating just how live computer music can be.

Australia has developed a strong foothold in this experimental subculture with a number of exponents achieving international exposure. Sydney based producer Pimmon (Paul Gough) has had a slew of releases on labels from Britain, Japan, Ireland and the USA. The first night’s performance saw tables messily spread over the performance space with laptops on most. Pimmon’s set displayed a new playfulness, with melody creeping into his output, as well as the usual series of perplexing sounds and tones. Another local producing hugely interesting audio is Peter Blamey who uses only a mixing desk and oscillator to create feedback which takes the form of pulsing tones, often very bassy. He manipulates these sounds by fading them in and out. This makes for a dynamic set bordering on the rhythmic while retaining an element of disorder, as Blamey is never certain of what will form.

Two Melbourne based exponents were also up to scratch, displaying the new interest in using gaming technologies for sound performance. Seo’s performative piece (a rare thing in the world of laptop virtuosity) made use of a gaming console joystick to push and pull audio out of his laptop. Delire uses the gaming engine itself to house his audio, taking advantage of the system’s 3D sound. This is a new area in experimental digital audio and opens up a huge range of possibilities.

Scot Horscroft’s work featured 5 guitarists who repeatedly played a single note for the duration of Chug r Chug. The electric guitars were plugged into Horscroft’s computer, the sounds then heavily effected and incorporated into his larger audio framework. The guitars emerge as a glimmer of what we might imagine from such a number of instruments. The glistening sounds rise and fall in the mix, never quite reaching what might be expectations.

Although the contemporary scene is often criticised for its use of the space bar (a reference to starting an audio file and letting it run), it is simply not the case that all live performance offers is a sound producer sitting in front of a laptop twiddling with invisible patches. These live performances displayed just how out of touch the tape music is. Being forced to sit through under-developed work simply played through the sound system was proof enough of the need for the live element. Digital audio exponents need also to show some understanding of contemporary thought.

Other standout performances were heard from Donna Hewitt, Julian Knowles, Shannon O’Neill, Sun Valley and Phil Niblock (USA).

Waveform 2001: Digital Musics, School of Contemporary Arts, University of Western Sydney, July 12-14

RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. 33

© Caleb K; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

The Acousmonium, Storey Hall

The Acousmonium, Storey Hall

The Acousmonium, Storey Hall

Listening to electroacoustic music can be tough. Despite hours of practicing seated spectatorship, the prospect of remaining focused through 2 hours of electronic music is daunting. Immersed in mediated sound, we are a silenced society of listeners, and have been since the speaker displaced the piano over 100 years ago. Babies are LOUD, and have no understanding of socially encoded silence. When we get drunk, our gag is loosened, and we can become noisy. Mostly though, westerners are lumpen flesh antennas, receiving spectacle from a posterior position and any urges toward communal sound production and participation are lost in a sea of star-envy and self-consciousness.

Electroacoustic music usually has no performer, no entertaining beat and no memorable melody. There are no iconic human forms to focus on, no dancers or dancing, and no bar. Daniel Turrugi, head of the French electronic music institute GRM who came from France to present parts of Immersion 2, readily admitted that it can be hard to concentrate in this type of sonic environment. The French have thought long and hard about issues of presentation in electronic music. Also, they have not flinched from bringing the sound engineer to the foreground and exploring their role as artists. In the 70s, they decided to challenge the orchestral establishment on its own turf (any challengers to the Melbourne Symphony at the Concert Hall?). They invented the Acousmonium, an orchestra of 24-60 speakers arranged around and within the audience, and through regular concerts trained people in moving music in space.

Immersion 2 featured 3 evening concerts: French Historical, Contemporary European and Contemporary Australian, and a 3-hour workshop. The French programs and workshop were presented and curated by Turrugi. Performing live spatialisations for 8 of the 11 French pieces, he demonstrated the richness and spontaneity possible using the speaker orchestra. His skill is the outcome of France’s commitment to research and facilitation of this form; conversely some spatialisation by Australians, such as at Sonic Residues 02, demonstrated the corresponding lack of support here.

The performative aspect of spatialisation became apparent across the 3 concerts. During the first evening, the dynamic movement increased with each of the 6 pieces, as if Turrugi was warming to the system. Any hesitation disappeared when performing his own composition, Mano a Mano, as the piece began by being mixed entirely behind the audience. The second work, La roue Ferris, a masterpiece by Bernard Parmegiani, was a favourite of many in the audience. Following this was François Bayle’s Troupe dans le ciel (1979), a 22-minute epic which used 2 two-note molecules for its construction; it evoked geometric architectural structures such as the geodesic dome. Though the novelty of glitches has well and truly worn off, their appearance in the final piece for the night, Christian Zanesi’s Archeion: Les Mots de Pierre Schaeffer, showed that at least one French Electroacoust ician listens beyond the repertoire.

The second evening program, Contemporary European, contained 5 works by 4 composers, of which 3 were premixed onto 8-track tape. While allowing composition for 8 speakers, these tape works lacked the dynamics of those in which the spatialisation was conceived and performed live by Turrugi in the space. This program tended toward the current trend in French Electroacoustic music, and was characterised by bombastic sprays of dry sound objects. One piece was described as “minimal and noisy” as if it were a daring derivation, yet fans of minimal noise would have had a hard time getting satisfaction from it.

The final program of Contemporary Australian work began strongly with Carpark and Incidentals by Carl Priestly, the spatialisation of which showed off the site-specific re-designing Priestly had done in the rehearsal period. The piece realised the evocative potential of spatial movement as an element of composition, and at only 8 minutes duration, left me wanting more. Darrin Verhagen presented 3 short pieces, the second of which licking the rope burns of the muse stood out for its musical effects—at Immersion 2 the convention of music with sound effects was reversed. Philip Samartzis’ sound for Storey, a collaboration with video artist Dominic Redfern, included layers of texture which, when mixed in space, sounded as if the hall’s vertical surfaces were hung with sound-sheets. Samartzis’ sound came from a stereo source, and was mixed live around the speaker system, demonstrating the advantages of designing the spatialisation at the site. Some of the other works on the night lacked this dimension and a few suffered from being drenched in reverb, which served to wash out their spatial dynamics. In fact, the repeated use of abstracted pianos with reverb detracted from the program as did the bombastic theme of the European program.

Hearing the Acousmonium in the flesh was irreplaceable for experiencing the material possibilities of spatialisation. So too was Turrugi’s workshop, which addressed issues of presentation of electronic music thoroughly researched by the French, such as expanding audiences by doing as much as possible to make this often difficult form accessible. While it would be a mistake to consider the GRM the last word in electroacoustic music, it seems a waste that their research is not more widely known or experienced.

Immersion 2, coordinated & presented by sound artist/academic Philip Samartzis, RMIT Storey Hall, Melbourne, September 7-9

RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. 33

© Bruce Mowson; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Shigeaki Iwai, a shot of Kellerberrin #5/8

Shigeaki Iwai, a shot of Kellerberrin #5/8

Somewhere between Perth and Kalgoorlie lies the small wheatbelt town of Kellerberrin, home to the International Art Space Kellerberrin Australia (IASKA). On a glorious spring day in 1999, I drove to Kellerberrin with Japanese artist Shigeaki Iwai to check out both the art space and the town. The day was full of colour: red roadside dirt, vast blue sky, pink and white paper daisies and the blinding gold of canola fields in flower.

At times, the canola fields stretch past the horizon, bending your eyeballs and doing very weird things to your sense of space.

IASKA is housed in the main street of Kellerberrin. Arriving at midday, we could see precisely 2 cars, one sleeping dog (of course) and no people. Now, city girl that I am, I am at least familiar with the concept of space and country. I can’t imagine what it might mean for an artist from megatropolis Tokyo, a city of 37 million people, to encounter that landscape, let alone spend 3 months in a tiny community with a population of 1000 (including the surrounding district). Nevertheless, in 2001, Iwai, his wife and 3-year-old son, did just that. His exhibition Could you guide me around, ‘cos I’m just tourist from Japan was the outcome of that residency.

Iwai’s project for IASKA , sometimes funny, often poignant and always moving, gently and perceptively opened up a space of engagement between the local and the global, an interface between community and conceptual practice. The exhibition might be described as a town portrait in 3 parts—a conceptual triptych.

The first part consists of a series of 8 postcards, each identified only by edition number as “a shot of Kellerberrin” and carrying the words, Imagine…now you are in a tiny wheatbelt town in Australia. A single postcard was sent to about 100 people in Japan, Europe and the US. No other information about the place or the people was provided. Fifty postcards commenting on the images were returned for installation in the gallery.

Before Iwai’s arrival, the town only had one postcard—a picture of the post office. Conversely, Iwai’s images, like those of most tourists, document his rather more personal ‘monuments’, images that provide a key to his growing sense of place. They include: a view of the town from its only ‘lookout’—the country is unbelievably flat; sunrise over a shearing shed; a moody night-time image of the old deco-style cinema (now closed); primary school children in yellow t-shirts and blue trackie pants; derelict cars rusting in a paddock; an Aboriginal grave-site with plastic flowers, incense and small statuettes of the Virgin Mary; a portrait of Noongar elder Cath Yarran with her sister; and a smiling Australian woman holding a photocopied sheet containing salient facts about Kellerberrin.

The responses to those images suggest that many people view Australia through the filter of a 1950s B-grade American western. Some respondents seek out similarities to their own place while others struggle with the unknown. Some are friendly. A couple are antagonistic. Whilst one Japanese recipient was amazed by a place with so much space you could leave cars to rot in a field, a Dutch correspondent was appalled by this clear ‘evidence’ of violent Australian men who drink too much, concluding, “I NEVER want to go there.” Ironically, I find myself feeling a little defensive.

Iwai’s research also consisted of 20 interviews with local people. Rather than transcribing, he wrote a subjective response to the experience of those intensive interviews undertaken with (for instance) a local doctor, a farmer, a Noongar Elder and a retired Italian construction worker. For the third component of the exhibition, Iwai borrowed a representative chair from each subject. Each chair—centrally positioned in a circle in the space—was draped in red fabric onto which Iwai had screen printed unidentified verbatim quotes from the interviews.

Returning to Kellerberrin for Iwai’s opening, I discover that not only the gallery but 2 other shopfronts have been taken over (at least temporarily) by Perth-based artists Philip Gamblen, Brigitta Hupfel and Andrew Smith, who participated in a week long workshop with Iwai. The next day I hear about the performance area planned for a salt flat on a property just west of Kellerberrin, while others are mulling over the possibility of re-opening the old cinema. In the front window of the IASKA space, slide projectors are flicking through images of Kellerberrin and Tokyo, while in the gallery the audience of mostly local residents are doing the opening thing—drinking, chatting, looking, reading and having a whole lot to say about the exhibition and their roles within it. As dusk falls, I experience a kind of epiphany: imponderables like ‘arts led recovery’, elitism, community, space, conceptual art, cultural exchange, centres and peripheries, and Japanese tour guides with little coloured flags flicker through my consciousness. I seem to have landed in ‘Art Town Kellerberrin: a great place to live’.

Shigeaki Iwai was IASKA artist in residence, June-August 2001; exhibition: Kellerberrin Gallery, August 4-September 2. A publication from his residency is forthcoming.

RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. 27

© Sarah Miller; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Richard (the rash) Lewer vs Luke Sinclair, Adrift: Nomadic New Zealand Art, opening night of Conical (performance documentation)

Richard (the rash) Lewer vs Luke Sinclair, Adrift: Nomadic New Zealand Art, opening night of Conical (performance documentation)

Richard (the rash) Lewer vs Luke Sinclair, Adrift: Nomadic New Zealand Art, opening night of Conical (performance documentation)

Everyone knows that artist-run spaces are essential to the networks that make up the Australian visual arts infrastructure. Yet, for a variety of familiar reasons, they’re usually short-lived enterprises. Even the funding category—artist-run initiative—reflects this sense of a beginning. Artists disperse, rents go up, ARIs come and go. Yet a commitment to collaboration sustains pockets of Melbourne’s art community, and around the more established spaces such as Platform and 1st Floor, once impatient young artists have become prominent figures. While this has forced some reflection over the viability of the model as a subsidising ‘feeder’ for the commercial sector, new generations of artists seem continually eager to make their own opportunities, along a classic self-service ethos. With 3 new artist run spaces opening in only a month, it feels like a new wave has just hit Melbourne’s contemporary scene. Together with the new gallery at the VCA, Conical, Bus and the TCB/Uplands assemblage represent significant new additions to the artscape.

Anything can happen at an art opening today. So the fact that Conical opened its doors with a boxing match staged between 2 artists—Richard (the Rash) Lewer and Luke Sinclair—shouldn’t surprise. Billed as “an arts/sporting event never before seen”, in the context of the group exhibition Adrift: Nomadic New Zealand Art, curated by Emily Cormack and Lewer, it suggested the difficulties faced by landless New Zealanders moving into Melbourne’s art scene (one-eighth of NZ’s population apparently live in Australia). Fight Club it wasn’t, but with the help of trainers and a professional MC it made a pretty good simulation—a kind of performance art for our times, neither about self-expression nor the politics of the body but simply about mimicking the spectacle on its own terms (with live feed piped to a TV with street-frontage below, and making it onto ABC TV’s Sunday morning Coast to Coast).

Just off Brunswick Street in Fitzroy, Conical is the brainchild of Adrien Allen, an emerging artist and Masters student at VCA. The space came about fortuitously and—although it has been dubbed a grand sounding ‘Contemporary Art Space’—he sees it functioning as a project space. Allen’s interest in the ideology of the white cube has also extended to the gallery fit-out: one half is moderno white, the other consists of peeling green painted brick walls. Allen speaks of it in terms of the white cube’s entropic process, complemented at the launch with these bricks dotted with live moss landscapes (a work by Anoushka Akel). Conical’s future is a matter for negotiation and probable collaboration; in the meantime, Louise Hubbard and Chris Köller show in October.

Bus, another artist-run space, opened in late August on the wettest of Melbourne’s winter nights—which didn’t stop a crowd filling the place. Located opposite Troika Bar in the CBD, Bus occupies the first floor level of a 1940s industrial building. Comprising 3 spaces defined by white walls and high gable trusses, it offers a dedicated ‘sound space’ “for the emerging sound artist…to push the discipline.” They’ve already staged a weekend event of sound performances, adding to the growing literacy of sound art in Melbourne (radiating from the hub of Samartzis-Brophy at RMIT). The opening show of emerging artists, Departure, included an installation by Renee So, sculpture by Nick Mangan, photographs by Selina Ou, as well as a digital installation by Chad Chatterton and Julian Oliver. Bus aims to promote cross disciplinary collaborative art practice, a philosophy which may have something to do with its board members stemming from fields as diverse as architecture, graphic design, animation and sound. Bus is the offspring of a design firm of the same name, located in the front of the building.

Down the road in Chinatown, up an alley and next to a sex shop, TCB Inc. Art (Taking Care Of Business) reopened at the start of September in a joint project with a new commercial space called Uplands. TCB began in the former Grey Area window-gallery space in Port Philip Arcade for 18 months before it was squeezed out last September. TCB is composed of a committee of 9 artists, with an average age of 26—mostly graduates of the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA). Uplands runs independently. Gallerists Blair Trethowan (an emerging artist included in Primavera this year) and Jarrod Rawlins (a fellow member of DAMP) decided to start up a business, and earlier this year found a space to house the 2 separate organisations. The gallery then held a substantial fundraiser to completely renovate the compact spaces. In their minds, Uplands and TCB are independent and yet inseparable; one could not exist without the other. Here, the relationship between the artist-run space and the commercial sector is transparent—TCB subleases from Uplands—but the dealer’s eagle-like position is somewhat short-circuited. Accordingly, the artists represented by Uplands are a mix of emerging and established (many with international links)—A Constructed World (Jacqueline Riva and Geoff Lowe), Jon Campbell, Nadine Christensen, DAMP, Sharon Goodwin, James Lynch, David Noonan and Blair Trethowan. Exhibitions change fortnightly at TCB and monthly at Uplands, and the 2001 TCB program includes shows by Brendan Lee (the first part of which has just shown at Westspace, another artist-run space in the city, tucked away near the Queen Victoria Markets), Amanda Marburg and Selina Ou. An interesting experiment in a new model; everyone in the visual arts will be watching closely.

Rent prices have raised Melbourne’s artist-run spaces to the first floor. The ground floor Victorian College of the Arts Gallery also opened in August, under the supervision of Head of the School of Art, Su Baker. Essentially 2 white cubes, well situated between the St Kilda Road National Gallery of Victoria site and the soon-to-be new Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, its first show was the Besen Foundation’s Roger Kemp Memorial Prize—with David Rozetsky’s Custom Made reconstructed for the occasion (RT38 p35). It’s not a student gallery. Exhibitions will include local, national and international artists curated in-house and by guest curators, including a forthcoming collaboration with Centre for Contemporary Photography and a show curated
by Elizabeth Gower.

Conical: Contemporary Art Space, 182 Johnston St, Fitzroy, 03 9528 1567, Wed-Sat 11-5; Bus, 117 Little Lonsdale St, Melbourne, 03 9662 2442, Tues-Fri 11-6, Sat 11-4; TCB Inc. Art/Uplands, Level 1, 12 Waratah Place, Melbourne, 03 9747 8203, Tues-Thu 12-6, Fri 12-8, Sat 12-6, , ; Victorian College of the Arts Gallery, corner Grant & Dodd Sts, South Bank, 03 9685 9468, Wed-Sat 12-5

RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. 27

© Daniel Palmer; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Just as Australian-Norwegian relations were souring over Australia’s handling of the Tampa affair, Daryl Buckley was working on the final stages of an international collaboration some 4 years in the making. A rumoured ban on Australian wine was making Buckley nervous about getting Norwegian artists and freight into Australia for the November premiere of Dark Matter at the Brisbane Powerhouse.
Buckley is Artistic Director of ELISION, the enterprising and widely travelled, Brisbane-based, new music ensemble. ELISION and Buckley are now at their busiest. Sonorous Bodies (composer Liza Lim, koto Satsuki Odamura, video Judith Wright) has just opened in Berlin. Moon Spirit Feasting (premiered as Yuè Ling Jié at the 2000 Adelaide Festival) is on the Melbourne Festival program this October and is being recorded for CD release. And Buckley and Lim are going to be parents.

Dark Matter began as a conversation between Buckley and Christian Eggen of Norway’s CIKADA Ensemble in 1997 when the conductor was working with ELISION. Eggen had been inspired, says Buckley, by the way ELISION was opening up ensemble practice. The companies “liked each other and decided to something that was not a concert. ELISION has had a long relationship with English composer Richard Barrett in investigating form and it was decided to get him aboard.”

A search for “an installation artist with an architectural sensibility” was also initiated. ELISION has made its mark in a commitment to contemporary composition, but more especially in investigating the dynamic between music and visual imagery especially in the use of space evident in Opening of the Mouth (Midland Railway Workshop, Perth Festival, 1977, Brussels, 1998) with British artist Crow, and Bar-do’I-thos-grol (The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Lismore) with composer Liza Lim, artist Domenico de Clario. Moon Spirit Feasting (composer Liza Lim, director Michael Kantor, designer Dorotka Sopinska) was performed on a barge on Adelaide’s River Torrens.

The leading Norwegian artist, Per Inge Bjørlo with his long history of creating installations and working with industrial waste, was the artist selected for Dark Matter. In 1985 he had been commissioned to carry out decorative work for Follum Factories. A studio was put at his disposal free of charge and, ever since, Bjørlo has been associated with this paper-producing factory where expertise, machines and a working milieu are at hand. his internationally exhibited works have incorporated mirror splinters, hair, stainless steel, blindingly strong light bulbs and rubber floors.

Buckley describes his encounter with Barrett and Bjørlo in Amsterdam in 1999 as “a meeting of intense minds” with “a lived commitment to art.” Progress since the project’s inception has been extraordinary, he says, given the risks of cultural and geographic gaps. With British Council support Barrett was able to work with Per Inge Bjørlo at his home in Norway. Buckley describes it as an ideal collaboration. The proximity to the paper mill sponsor was another advantage.

Buckley is a guitarist and will play a key role in Dark Matter. He’s been working on the Transmissions sections of the work with Barrett for 2 years. As well, with the composer he’s discussed the selection of players, “those with the capability and who can be pushed.” Also on the agenda has been, he says, “how to work with CIKADA in an intelligent way…they haven’t had ELISION’s experience with Barrett. It’s not ELISION plus CIKADA, but all the musicians working as a whole.” CIKADA, in turn, have played pieces from Dark Matter at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in the UK. Carl Rossman has been playing some of the work as a solo for contrabass clarinet.

The impulse to deal with dark matter (particles that go through matter as in a particle physics laboratory in Cern, Switzerland, visited by the composer and designer) came from composer Barrett, the phrase suggesting what is not known, evocative of a cosmological theme beyond physics. “It’s also about the spirit of a quest into existence.” He describes Barrett as a materialist, “an older kind of Marxist’, “however, the final movement is influenced by Buddhist precepts.” Buckley says that “Richard Barrett will be at the sound desk with sound designer Michael Hewes manipulating taped sound in real time.” The text comprises English, Chinese and an invented language and is sung by Deborah Kayser.

Dark Matter explores the interconnectedness and transmission of human knowledge. It incorporates understandings of human consciousness and perception drawn from Hindu metaphysics, Renaissance `hermetic’ thought to more recent developments within the realm of physics. Its imaginary `narrative’ is formed within the listener/viewer as they move through multiple spaces and acoustic environments creating their own pathway through a labyrinth of real (acoustic and/or electronic) sound-sources. The location of a moving ‘body’ (performer, audience) within ‘space’ is central to the manipulation of sound and physical elements. (ELISION website)

As for the spatial dimensions of the work, the main theatre at the Powerhouse will be cleared of its seating and the audience will be placed among the performers and the sculptural elements of the work. Some of the audience of 150 will find themselves viewing the work from chambers. not that Buckley’s seen the very final design—”They’re being a little secretive.”

The Powerhouse will be transformed into multiple spaces: one relatively large area in the centre, in front of the main stages, where all activities are audible and more or less visible, and other spaces delimited by installation-elements, which will have spatial and acoustic qualities of their own, based on their shape and the materials from which they are made. For instance, a small `claustrophobic’ area containing a speaker, whose sound is deadened by the area being surrounded by felt: also rows of large cubical frameworks made of steel pipes lined with various materials; and other pieces and objects already made by Per Inge Bjørlo. The audience enter through a small aperture. A choreography of relocations for the performers constantly recomposes and reforms the performing ensemble, extending the multiplicity of available perspectives.

Support for the work has amazed Buckley with pre-production funding coming from the Norwegian Cultural Council, sponsorship from the Norska paper mill assisting with manufacturing and freight, and a steel company providing raw material. A power factory in Norway assisted with travel. The British Council and DAAD, Berlin have assisted Barrett and the production has been supported by the New Media Arts Fund of the Australia Council.

Buckley is proud of the model he and ELISION have pioneered for international collaboration. “Australian artists think a lot about touring but they should be thinking collaboration. The trouble with touring is that you don’t enter into local history. You leave little behind. You don’t influence people’s thinking. You merely briefly fill a space left by someone else. How do do you become part of a city somewhere else in the world and make a serious contribution to it?” Dark Matter might, says Buckley, “really open the door to central Europe… John Howard willing.”

ELISION ensemble, CIKADA ensemble, Dark Matter, composer Richard Barrett, soprano Deborah Kayser, designer Per Inge Bjørlo, sound designer Michael Hewes; Brisbane Powerhouse, November 16-18

RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. 10

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

The Tube

The Tube

The Tube

The experience of this year’s Festival of Darwin was inextricably linked to events that unfolded on election night, Saturday August 18. There couldn’t have been a better time to launch a festival, one that could ride the unprecedented wave of excitement and the possibility of change. It happened like this…Only 2 days after the festival’s official launch, we all went off to vote. A friend and I had booked to see a local multimedia production that night. The election had been seen as a foregone conclusion, a bit depressing actually. Even this time, the pundits had us believe there was only going to be marginal change. However, on the way to the show, the story was breaking on the car radio. Seats that had been held for 26 years were falling like cards in the northern suburbs, the CLP heartland. Things were happening, excitement was building, a sense of momentous occasion starting to dawn. We didn’t want to go inside and leave the radio. Doing our duty, we entered the womb, and immersed ourselves in an extraordinary environment. The clamour of the outside world diminished for a moment.

The Tube, a multimedia installation and performance created by 2 Darwin women, Elka Kerkhofs and Elle Parsonson, was described as “an intriguing journey through the mind, body and emotions of women.” The distinguishing feature of this project was its setting in the amazing WWII Tunnels under the Esplanade in the city. This site, once a fuel storage area, is a 250m long subterranean tunnel with a post-apocalyptic industrial ambience, dripping with water and disused heavy machinery. For this production the tunnel became the metaphor for the internal bodily landscape. We entered through the mouth, were shepherded through the vagina and ended up in the womb, where there just happened to be a DJ, a stage and a whole lot of TVs.

The first marshalling area near the mouth contained a multi-layered, diaphanous installation on which images were projected, with references to peeling back layers of clothes and consciousness. The tunnel contains a dogleg just past this point and, led further by a woman on stilts, we were presented with an extraordinary sight. The tunnel at this point stretches 170m in a straight line, with curved rock walls and a shallow drain running along the floor. At regular intervals, 9 naked women, wearing only swimming goggles, were stationed, each holding a flickering monitor to her crotch. The scene stretched seemingly to infinity. The screens, glowing blue, illuminated the dimly lit scene as the audience craned to get a look. The tunnel is not wide and we passed single file by the women. The frisson of proximity and possible recognition combined with the sexualised imagery on the screens added to the sense of drama. It was an intriguing and mysterious experience as we made our way down the tunnel of love. The saga of conception and reproduction was enacted by dancers in front of a large bank of monitors flanking the DJ. Unfortunately the performance, where the metaphor was spelled out rather too literally, did not quite live up to the introduction. There was a tendency, as with a lot of performances that blend hybrid art forms, to try to do too much. The Tube—a major logistical feat by emerging artists—was successful when they stuck to their strengths.

I couldn’t wait to get back to the car radio and find out what had happened. The rest as they say is history and we were re-born into a new reality where the political landscape had changed forever. We went along to the Waratahs where the party faithful, and really anyone who wanted to go, were drawn like moths to the flame of change. It was quite a night. Party politics aside, the euphoria was palpable. It really was time!

The Festival of Darwin is a community event. It falls on the cusp of the Dry just as the weather is about to change. The setting sun glows like a huge orange, reddened by the dry season haze. It’s all about to turn nasty…but not yet. The festival is in some ways the peak of the crescendo of activity that builds up during the Dry. There is so much going on that it’s impossible to get to it all. The place is packed. Events like the Grand Parade, the Teddy Bears’ Picnic, the Festival Club on the Wharf, the Fig Jam Indigenous music gig, the Barrdy’wanga Gunga String Festival, innumerable art openings and performances draw huge crowds. Amazing cross-cultural interactions are often noted by visitors, but if you live here it’s like that all the time. It just escalates during the festival as the ranks swell.

Tracks Dance usually stages one of its trademark multimedia, cross-cultural performances, often a highlight of the festival. Tracks have worked for many years with groups including Indigenous communities, cultural groups, young people, trauma survivors, elderly women and even football teams. Their’s is a theatre of inclusion.

Their latest production Fierce is based on the life of Olive Pink—anthropologist, botanist, Aboriginal rights activist and cranky soul—who lived in Central Australia. She was variously labelled a communist, a mad woman and the “fiercest white woman in captivity.” This production focuses on historical and fictitious elements relating to an encounter between Miss Pink and the Warlpiri people of the Central Desert. In director Tim Newth’s notes, the performance is said to be about connections between a white world and a Warlpiri world. He’s talking about the Grey Panthers and the Warlpiri Ceremonial Dancers of Lajamanu, 2 groups of female elders with whom Tracks has worked extensively. Between these 2 groups and at their intersection hovers the awkward figure of Olive, who in this production is played by Melbourne-based performer Trevor Patrick. The old women dominate the production.

The Grey Panthers are first seen as a Greek chorus decked out in plain calico dresses, their faces also masked with calico, features exaggerated as grotesques. This is the white world where they sing “Nothing else to do” as they wave Olive off into the distant ‘other’ world she will inhabit as an alien for the rest of her life. Patrick’s portrayal of Olive, which ranges from affected geisha to high camp drag, is strongly counterpointed with the earthy femaleness of the Lajamanu women, natural and charismatic performers. In contrast, at times everyone else seems stilted and not totally together. Olive’s botanical work, her strident and relentless writings appear in various ways in the design and narrative. Some members of the cast had first hand contact with Olive and cross-cultural misunderstandings about her story add to the narrative, the notion of her ‘pinkness’ being one.

In development for 3 years, the production is a rich and layered experience. It also involves the melding of various artforms with original music from the Arafura Ensemble, visuals by Gay Hawkes and Mat Mainsbridge, and choreography by the creative team, highlighting the collaborative way in which Tracks works. The subtext is the exploration of encounters with ‘difference’ on all levels, which this company has made their signature in recent years.

The visual arts were well represented in this year’s festival. One of the most interesting was Ending Offending, Our Message. This collection, created by inmates of the NT Correctional centre as part of the Ending Offending initiative, presented a strong show of mostly Indigenous, first time, artists. Staged at the disused Fanny Bay Gaol in a wire-caged shed, the opening crowd was a strange mix of the usual art set, art advisors, prison guards and prisoners. The food was definitely non veg. The show was opened by Margie West, Aboriginal Art Curator from Museum and Art Gallery Northern Territory (MAGNT), who pointed out that the gaol has been the scene of art production for over 100 years, as prisoners contributed to one of the first shows of Indigenous art, The Dawn of Art, in 1888. Some delicate reproductions from that show hang in the cellblocks in another part of the gaol. The predominance of Aboriginal artists is a sad reflection on the disproportionate number of Indigenous prisoners in NT gaols and this exhibition, the fourth of its kind, focused on the concerns of the prisoners in a very direct way. Much of the work is narrative and contains heartfelt messages of reconciliation or pleas such as “I like to see my family to make me happy.” The project and these paintings are important for cultural maintenance and the telling of collective narratives, documenting harsh social realities from domestic violence to commentary on the justice system, with a raw honesty and stylistic freedom often only found in first time painters. The artworks employ hybrid styles with naïve painted storyboards, outlined with dot work or other traditional styles. My favourite, Horses around Oenpelli by Lennie Naborlhborth, is a poignant reminder of country and experience far from the confines of his present situation. Now there is a government in power committed to the scrapping of Mandatory Sentencing legislation, there may be some cause for celebration by prison inmates as well.

These events, totally different and realised with varying degrees of success, represent a snippet of the diversity of the Festival of Darwin. For many people it was the best of times and it just keeps getting better.

Ending Offending Our Message, Fannie Bay Gaol, August 30-September 31; Fierce, Tracks Dance, Browns Mart, September 22-26; The Tube, WW11 Tunnels, the Esplanade, Darwin, September 17-19

RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. 9

© Cath Bowdler; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Alwin Reamillo, Semena Santa Cruxtations, 2001 (detail)

Alwin Reamillo, Semena Santa Cruxtations, 2001 (detail)

Semena Santa: Castillian Holy Week/ semen-seamen
Crux: Latin term for the Southern Cross
Cruxtations: crux + stations/marine class of invertebrates including crabs

Semena Santa Cruxtations is a multiplicitous, mimetic, contradictory, carnivalesque, neo-Baroque, semi-collaborative installation/event by Perth-based Manila-born artist Alwin Raemillo. The work is at present journeying from Manila to Hong Kong to Darwin to Melbourne to Fremantle. It involves large quantities of local crabs and beach sand, a collection of small horns made from film strips and various other exotic items of Filipino kitsch, and Mickey Mouse printed bed sheets with photocopy transfers of images of The Last Supper and Ronald McDonald. Coming from the densely hybrid society of the Philippines, Raemillo displays a mischievous contempt for the hypocrisies of the Catholic church and the greed of globalised business interests. International fast food chains are a favourite target. Ronald McDonald, with crown of thorns and spattered with blood, is portrayed as a modern day Christ, Mickey Mouse stands guard over a herd of sheep and cattle ready for slaughter, and The Last Supper is stabbed with fondue forks.

On the opening night, a relaxed and gently anarchic event which encouraged impromptu audience intervention in the site, Raemillo read from and burned copies of the Bible translated into Bahasa Indonesian and a creole for Indigenous Australians. The crabs, caught or bought locally, cooked and eaten in a Filipino style feast, were cleaned and printed with photocopy emulsion transfers of maps, money, food packaging logos and various icons of Australiana, wired to the gallery walls and embedded in the sand that covered the floor in diminutive hills. They became a multilayered metaphor: for the cancerous spread of globalised business, the liminal realm between 2 environments/cultures and the nonlinear, nonprogressive movement of social change. In the modern world radical differences are clustered together, constructing irresolvable contradictions. An ethics embracing cultural diversity becomes a necessity.

Tropical Darwin, on the edge, where the complex and brutal consequences of colonisation are daily confronted and a migrant sensibility seems the norm (everyone here is in some sense displaced) was a perfect site for Raemillo’s project. It was offered and received warmly and generously and we hope to see him back.

In a sense, his postmodern strategies of appropriation and conflation served as a supportive framework for the rituals of shared labour, dialogue and festivity that were the real life of the project. Sure the artist brought his agenda and props with him and the rules of participation were his. He also created an inclusive, nonprecious and pleasurable environment for creative practice that was consistent with his notions of local revolution and acceptance of the realities of cultural difference. His communication skills are an intrinsic component of his work; he is a keen advocate of collaborative practice (he has done several projects with his partner, Juliet Lee) and a thoughtful pedagogue. Semena Santa Cruxtations was not only an installation: it was fishing, feasting, discussing, performing and socialising. The crabs got caught, the weather was perfect for the dinner, a positive sense of artistic
camaraderie evolved.

We have just held our first post-Semena Santa Cruxtations dinner on the art school lawn. We intend to make them a regular event.

Semena Santa Cruxtations, Alwin Reamillo, 24HR Art, Darwin, August 17-September 1

RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. 25

© Anne Ooms; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Ruark Lewis, Jonathan Bottrell Jones, Nuha Saad, Oyster, 2001

Ruark Lewis, Jonathan Bottrell Jones, Nuha Saad, Oyster, 2001

Reckoning: to settle accounts with, to rely or depend on,
of considerable importance or influence…

In the winter of 2001 there are a lot of reckonings going on. The poisonous assumptions of White Australia pervade public and private life; not since before the 60s—the era of civil rights—has ‘Australia’ so blatantly been made to mean ‘Anglo’, asylum seekers imprisoned, crimes racialised. During this winter, and the spring months before, a group of 4 installation artists and 2 curators, commissioned by Performance Space, have been collectively reckoning with the meanings and contexts of reconciliation (or, as Wesley Enoch calls it,“Wreck – Con – Silly – Nation”).

The brief was to explore and problematise popular and political notions of reconciliation, undertaking a rewriting and remapping of Redfern through the exchange of memories and histories, and to develop a collective art process and collaborative means of production. Redfern, the site of the Performance Space, is a long-term meeting place for decades of Aboriginal people arriving from the country and interstate, as well as the site of some of Sydney’s oldest non-Anglo migrant communities.

The 2 curators, Rea and Ihab Shalbak, and the 4 installation artists, Jonathan Bottrell Jones, Ruark Lewis, Romaine Moreton and Nuha Saad, each have complex histories and memories of Redfern; ‘funereal’ is how Ruark describes it—many of their combined memories of Redfern relate to a past of deceased people and cultures passed away.

In Shalbak’s words, “the experimental collectivity initiated by Reckonings” released poetic responses to ideas of place and home. As you entered the gallery, you heard people discussing Redfern as both place and idea, a set of histories and present stories, recorded on the move through Redfern’s streets. This is the first of many layers of remapping, compounded by further works: video images of faces exiting Redfern station; Drive-by Shooting—flashing impressions of Redfern’s streets from the safety of the car, playing on the outsider’s fear of the area’s Mean Streets; and a tiny screen around a dark corner intimately revealing interspersed shots of a private and public Redfern. More immediately, you are arrested by Moreton’s use of footage of the largest gathering of Aboriginal people ever, the protests against celebrating 200 years of white invasion in ‘88, the celebration of survival, the March Against Forgetting. Running around this installation are 2 contrasting soliloquies to the idea of place: Kafka’s late 19th century yearning for the security of home (in German) and ‘Bindamayi’s song about Country:

Murtanga-ulla-la tharkiart kumarnha-la putarri
Kulawina yarku kujurri kuralanha
(When I come back to my country
Someone has built a stockyard on the flat land,
And a whitefella, Bluey, is sleeping in my birthplace.)

Despite the quotations representing the unequal power relationships of colonialism, an urgent poignancy erupts in the meaning produced between them. They share a sense of yearning, not just for a home but, on Bindamayi’s part—as Joseph Pugliese writes in the Reckonings catalogue—of the right to offer hospitality, “a right so brutally arrogated from Aboriginal peoples”, in that first moment of invasion, and throughout white/Aboriginal contact.

Moving through the rooms the sense of collaboration between the artists is expressed through Jonathon Bottrell Jones’ forty ambivalent words, running stencilled along the walls in 2 parallel lines, cohering the diverse work on exhibit. The viewer is left with plenty of space to insert their own meanings into the often abstract and oblique formalist work: Ruark Lewis’ tall ruler-like measuring sticks, totemic in size and colour, calibrating differing systems of measuring land title, evoking those flood-level, river-crossing poles; Nuha Saad’s pieces of architrave, painted green, arranged and lit on the floor, surrounded by dissected banister poles. Only after several viewings did I start to comprehend the poetics of these pieces; in counterpoint with the name of the architrave work, Green Lake, you could hear the whispering of 19th century houses, and the name’s relationship to ‘The Red Fern’. The child-size house-frames offered beguiling pillows to be hauntingly smoothed, Daisy Bates-way, ‘for a dying race.’

We are saturated with imagery from a popular, global culture in denial of history and memory; incorporating words in conjunction with images works to create a new dynamic. Within this dialectical space, new meanings erupt. One of the themes produced through the process of inter-cultural and inter-racial collaboration, through talking and listening, is the idea of living and working within difference, and listening to the layers of the past as they exist in the present. The Reckonings exhibition featured white powder as a central motif—the lime produced from the first days of white invasion by grinding down the massive shell middens (or “monuments” as Peter Myers calls them) which lined Sydney harbour. Oyster shells spilling over bricks and mortar tell how a second Sydney was built from the Eora place—the shells of the Eora contained to this day within the lime mortar of Sydney’s buildings. But the white powder also brings into the present the white flour, white sugar—mission food, arsenic-laced ‘White Man’s Poison’, and the ubiquitous heroin currently poisoning the community.

The urgency of the questions surrounding reconciliation creates the context for the formalist artists producing the Reckonings exhibition, highlighting the difference between meaningless abstraction and the creation of poetically charged objects whose material value resonates. This was not an exhibition to be quickly consumed. Ruark Lewis commented that, like all allegorical work, disguising and masking initiates you slowly into a process, much like the reconciliation process itself. Unlike the directness and speed of agit prop, allegorical formalist work requires time to ponder the signs, and make your own connections. Or you could miss the strategies of reclaiming, incorporated in the simple way the re-writing of ‘Red Fern’ magically unleashes the imagination to hear the sounds of a pre-colonial past, a fern-lined creek, dripping water and calling voices, breaking apart the conquering myths of place.

Reckonings, curated by Rea & Ihab Shalbak,
Performance Space, Sydney, July 27-Aug 26

RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. 28

© Cassi Plate; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Dear Editors

In a recently released discussion paper, the Office of Film and Literature Classification has highlighted several areas that are under consideration for substantial changes in the guidelines to the classification of films, videos, and computer games in Australia. The adoption of a single set of classification standards that would cover films, videos, computer games, DVDs, internet content and CD-ROM films is one of the main proposals, while the possibility of an R rating for computer games and a special children only C rating has also been raised.

The OFLC has called for public submissions in its review of the current guidelines, giving a deadline of October 31, and citing the need to ensure that the guidelines “reflect current community standards” as the main rationale behind the review. Film guidelines were last reviewed in 1996, and the guidelines for computer games were established in 1994. An analysis of submissions received by the OFLC will be followed by further consultation with industry and interest groups, and consideration of the proposed revised guidelines by “independent experts, including a language expert.” The final decision on the changes, if any, will be made by the Commonwealth, State and Territory ministers with classification responsibilities.

Despite the stated aim of Australia’s Classification process being that “adults should be able to read, hear and see what they want,” the draft guidelines included in the OFLC discussion paper seem to offer further restrictions on nudity, violence and drugs, while a new clause argues that the “inappropriate use of substances that might damage health or are legally restricted to adults must not be promoted or encouraged.” The draft guidelines also allow the classification board to consider the likelihood of certain actions or events within a film or video game being imitated inappropriately, especially by young children, in real life. Such actions or events may include the detailed portrayal of criminal or violent techniques, or actions that may promote illegal or dangerous behaviour. The degree of interactivity may also be used to affect the impact of a film or game, and therefore its classification.

The discussion paper points out that both industry and community groups have noted that the current guidelines do not address convergence in various entertainment media. With DVDs and CDfilms now widely available for sale or rental, and online material much more available, interactive features, computer games and links to internet sites are becoming regular features. The discussion paper asks whether there should be a single set of classification standards for all media, with interactive products classified in the same way as films and videos, or should an age-based approach be introduced, similar to the G8 category for computer games.

Anti-censorship group Electronic Frontiers Australia has welcomed the possibility of the introduction of an R rating for computer games, which would see a relaxing of bans on some adult games. However EFA believes the proposal to use the same guidelines for films and computer games could result in increased restrictions on films.

Parent group Young Media Australia is concerned that the introduction of an R rating could put children at risk of exposure to violent or sexually explicit material. At present, computer games that do not comply with MA15+ classification are banned in Australia. Computer games are banned if they have realistic violence, extreme horror, simulated or explicit sex acts, sexual violence and detailed instruction or encouragement of crime, violence or proscribed drugs.

In this context, a very interesting appendix to the discussion paper is the report of the research project Computer Games and Australians Today, a nationwide investigation completed in 3 stages during 1995-99. The primary focus was on the role of aggressive content and, interestingly, the project concluded that although many of the games had aggressive content, it did not appear to be the central attraction, nor was it taken seriously. The report also noted that none of the independent research published to date has demonstrated serious effects of aggressive gameplay on the behaviour of young people. A notable development is that as the first generation of computer gameplayers reach adulthood, they have sustained their interest in this activity, with the adult market for games large and growing. It therefore appears anomalous and without scientific basis to continue to refuse to allow an adults only, or R category, in this one medium.

RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. 10

© Tina Kaufman; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Gong Xin Wang, My Sun, 2001, 3-data-projector installation

Gong Xin Wang, My Sun, 2001, 3-data-projector installation

“The road of excess leads to the place of wisdom”, wrote William Blake some 200 years ago. Kim Machan, director and curator of MAAP01 (Multimedia Art Asia-Pacific) seems to have taken this line the Proverbs of Heaven and Hell to heart, titling her 4th annual new media arts festival Excess and packing 3 days at the Brisbane Powerhouse with a plentitude of digital media experiences ranging through viewing, interactive participation, dark-room listening and rave.
Machan’s focus is “on the extreme positions adopted by artists in their engagement with new media.” She sees this as substantially different from the conventional excesses of mainstream media which are desensitising and make the whole idea of excess meaningless: “when artists take an idea and push it continually, we are refreshed with ways to re-engage with electronic media [encountering] deeply personal positions speaking from richly different cultural positions.”

MAAP is in its 4th year, heroically directed, curated and managed by the mercurial Machan, an intrepid seeker of sponsorships, in-kind deals and hard-to-get funding. She has a good eye for innovative new media art in Australia and across Asia, and has steadily built ongoing connections in the region. This year’s partners include the Digital Media Festival (Manila), Arts Centre Nabi (Seoul), The Loft New Media ArtSpace (Beijing), Videotage (Hong Kong) and Experimenta 2001 Festival (Melbourne). Like the Asia Pacific Triennial (its partner in 1999), MAAP reaches out, drawing a disparate region together, linking artists, organisations and audiences.

This year, the Brisbane Powerhouse will be home to MAAP01 while a wider audience will join the event online. The huge Turbine Hall will show CD-ROM works and online events on a big screen and a host of large screen Mac G4s and iMacs. Artist Di Ball will play host with a guided tour of a CD-ROM sampler. Machan says that these and online works like Melinda Rackham’s empyrean will be “given the zoom treatment”, transported onto a big screen, no longer “a tangled tight bunch of information stuck on a computer…but sumptuous.”

This program includes Excessive up close and personal featuring Lucy Francis (with the artist providing a live cello track) and Keith Armstrong (of the transmute collective). Ball will also introduce young artists who will talk about their work. The net cost forum on digital media issues will be broadcast in collaboration with the ABC’s online Headspace and Experimenta Media Arts.

Also in the Turbine Hall, Dion Sanderson’s installation, Work for the Office, will comprise 10 computers. Users activate programs to create what Machan calls “an orchestra of computers.” In the adjoining Sparks Bar, small monitors on the tables will feature video works including contributions from Singaporean-Australian artist Emil Goh, and New Zealand’s Raewyn Turner.

A selection of installations will be found in various parts of the Powerhouse. In a stairwell, Korean artist Oh San Gil’s video looks “like blood dripping,” says Machan, “an excessive red projected onto the floor…Then, finally, you realise what you are looking at.” (Machan’s not saying.) Elsewhere, an empyrean installation and an untitled Ruark Lewis video work will sneak up on audiences wandering the building. Also featured are dLux media arts’ d>art01 program (RT44, p24) and Andrew Kettle’s selection of sound works from across Australia. The latter will be played in the darkened AO-Audio Room (for Audio Only) with the additional luxury of eye masks for the sense deprivation that makes the most of sound.

Music and performance are to play a vital role. At the launch Melbourne’s Toy Satellite Collective (video artists 2Loops [Kim Bounds, John Power], producer/sound designer Andrew Garton) will collaborate with composer/DJ Jimi Chen and video artists Vince Chung and Austin Wang from the Eyedrink Collective, Taiwan. The collaboration debuted at the 2001 Taipei International Arts Festival as Undercurrents. Also appearing will be Japan’s Candy Factory who work internationally on web projects and new media installations (www.trans.artnet.or.jp/~transart/). Each night an Art Rave will be created with massive sound and vision mixes.

A significant contribution to MAAP01 will be a video installation by Chinese artists Gong Xin Wang at the new Judith Wright Centre for Contemporary Art (soon to be the home for IMA, Arterial, ELISION ensemble and Rock’n’Roll Circus). MAAP has invited Wang to show his latest video installation My Sun, a 3 screen panorama that poetically investigates questions of society and the individual through presenting a Chinese peasant woman’s relationship to the sun. The woman works in a large open field, repeatedly reaching up to grasp the light as the sun rises, enters the landscape and leaves its traditional orbit. Her image multiplies, creating an army of replicas. The individual becomes the mass, or does she?

The internationally exhibited Wang (born 1960) lives in Beijing. He spent nearly 8 years in the late 80s, early 90s living and exhibiting in New York before returning to China to continue his practice. His work is seen as integral to the history of video art epitomised by Bill Viola and Gary Hill (whose Tall Ships is an eery highlight in the AGNSW Space Odysseys, see p25). In recent years Wang has focused on video portraiture. Machan writes in her essay on Gong Xin Wang that in The Fly (2000) a person struggles to fight off a fly. The fly’s path is traced across the screen and is heard on the audio track. The camera slowly zooms in to reveal that the face is constructed from pixels…each revealed to be that of a single fly—an individual face made of a mosaic of flies.

MAAP’s vision of close new media and cultural relations with Asia has been carefully sustained. Machan speaks of “incredible Korean interest in MAAP…The Koreans look on Australians as new media experts.” She fantasizes about the possibility of running a version of MAAP from Seoul at some stage and describes The Loft New Media ArtSpace (China’s first new media space) as “damn sexy, scary.” As an extension of a giant night club, it features digital art works embedded in the floor and on monitors running down the walls. Live performance includes German and Dutch experimental musicians, guest international curators and regular experimental screenings”. Machan’s MAAP presentation at The Loft was reviewed and broadcast on CCTV. Australia needs friends like the festivals and venues MAAP is connecting with.

How has MAAP survived financially, running ambitious programs on small budgets? Machan’s answer is succinct: “So much of what we do comes from in-kind support.” The Powerhouse gives MAAP the space and support for the event. Equipment, like data projectors, is borrowed from QUT, Arterial, QAG and elsewhere. Macromedia have shown unswerving support and collaborations with the ABC and Experimenta are vital. “MAAP pays for most of the program and artists’ fees. Our sponsorship is really in the delivery and things like invitations, catering, nuts and bolts. We have no office rent or overheads—or paid staff! We leverage off others’ infrastructure.”

As for box office, Machan likes to keep the event free. “It’s early days for new media arts. People don’t know what they’re going to see.” She thinks that rather than a small paying audience it’s better to have a good-sized audience open to new experience.

MAAP01, Brisbane Powerhouse Centre for the Live Arts, October 12-14

Gong Xin Wang, My Sun, MAAP01 in partnership with the IMA, Performance Space, Judith Wright Centre for Contemporary Art, Brisbane, October 6-16; Artspace, Sydney, October 4-27

RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. 22

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

John Safran let loose

John Safran, the smart and entertaining punster from Race Around the World, has been signed by SBSi for a new series screening 2002 on contemporary music. The 10 part series will focus mainly on dance, rap, rock and pop and “stories that perhaps Stuart Littlemore would cover if he hosted Video Hits”. Safran commented: “I’ll be talking to the artists I’ve grown up with, and the ones I’m shaking my butt to now. And it’s going to be very multicultural as well; I’m told one of the guys in Metallica is half-Dutch.” Richard Lowenstein is Executive Producer of the series.

Good news for Oz docos

For the first time ever, SBSi will commission and fully finance a proposal for their provocative Cutting Edge series, which screens Thursdays, 8.30pm. General Manager Glenys Rowe commented: “This initiative will enable production of docos which in the past could not have been made”, providing complete finance of $275,000 for one film to be commissioned before June 2002. It is designed to provide a fast track for subjects which need immediate shooting, without the delay of the usual financing timeframe. SBSi welcomes proposals from creative teams that include writers and directors skilled in drama, as well as documentary filmmakers. Amy Frasca, SBSI Documentary Co-ordinator,
02 9430 3915,

Cannes Palme D’or winner at Italian Film Festival

Nanni Moretti’s The Son’s Room will close the second Italian Film Festival. A big success last year, the festival will screen this year at Palace Norton St and Palace Academy Twin in Sydney, October 10-24, before travelling to Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth and Brisbane in October/November. Other films screened will include Malena (Cinema Paradiso director Giuseppe Tornatore), The Last Kiss, Honolulu Baby (The Icicle Thief director Maurizio Nichetti) and Placido Rizzotto, based on a true story about the murder of a trade union leader by the mafia in Sicily.

Screentour – planning resource for exhibition touring

In May 2001, Media Resource Centre (MRC) in Adelaide gained funding from AFC to further develop Screentour, an online planning database for those involved in screen-based exhibition touring throughout Australia. The database has 3 functions: to provide a ‘one stop shop’ for programmers wishing to research and secure screen-based touring programs; to provide partnership opportunities for programs in development; and to provide date and location information about upcoming tours to prevent scheduling clashes and encourage longer-term planning.

Cinema Sprints on again

The Glen Eira Film Festival, November 9-11, is once again holding its Cinema Sprints program, which features shorts from 30 seconds to 3 minutes. If you want to watch or participate, contact Rosanna Verde, Festival Coordinator,

Daisy Bates at the Adelaide Festival

Pre-production has begun on 26 Hooks and Eyes, a South Australian Film Corporation-funded short film based on the life of Daisy Bates. A series of vignettes will link the past to the present, “a dramatic map of obsession and the colonial imagination.” A collaboration between the Adelaide Festival Corporation and SBSi, the film will premiere at the Adelaide Festival 2002.

Local NSW film events

Project Contemporary Art Space is staging a film retrospective and exhibition, A Century of Cinema, in Wollongong, showing archival footage including tourist promotion films, industrial films, short films, amateur productions and old newsreel footage. Movie-house memorabilia, photographs and lectures will accompany the screenings. The films will be screened October 13-20 in Wollongong and most sessions are free. A full program is available in October. 02 4226 6546, . Meanwhile on the other side of Sydney, Screen Me! The Blue Mountains Short Film Festival, Katoomba Scenic Railway, March 14, is looking for interesting works of all genres under 15 minutes. They are particularly keen on animation and documentary. Deadline December 14.
02 4782 9976

And the AWGIE goes to…

John Romeril celebrated a double win at the AWGIES this year. As screenwriter for One Night the Moon, he took home awards in the Telemovie Original Category and was presented with the 2001 Major Award (along with Rachel Perkins). The hosts of the night HG Nelson and Rampaging Roy Slaven also won the Fred Parsons Award for a Special Contribution to Australian Comedy. Other scripts honoured included Lantana (Andrew Bovell), Mullet (David Caesar), Australians at War (Geoff Burton), Wee Jimmy (Stephen Mitchell) and The Secret Life of Us (Christopher Lee).

RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. 23

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

Solar Circuit in Tassie

Tasmania will host Solar Circuit in January/February 2002, involving workshops, wilderness residencies for artists, conference, artists’ presentations and exhibitions. It is the Australian gathering of Polar Circuit, hosted in Finland since 1997. Solar Circuit aims to: “create a truly translocal media and arts environment by extending the international input of the Polar Circuit community, establishing a link between the far north and the far south” and offers “an opportunity for artists to work together over a given period of time to develop new artistic content exploring the relation between new media and the artists’ response to a geographically remote place, the Tasmanian wilderness.”

Flickerfest goes onlin

Flickerfest continues its exciting showcase of international and Australian shorts in 2002 by announcing its first online festival, along with a tribute to Alfred Hitchcock. The festival will also increase the number of Australian short film sessions and showcase 2 Canadian programmes curated by Shane Smith, director of the Canadian Worldwide short film fest in Toronto. Director Bronwyn Kidd commented, “we are very keen to be able to move beyond traditional short film exhibition this year by incorporating elements of new media into the festival.” Flickerfest tours to Melbourne, Perth, Darwin, Adelaide and Brisbane after beginning at the Bondi Pavilion, January 4-12.

Gearing up for noise

Following on from the success of loud in 1998, the noise festival, which profiles the creative work of artists under 25, will be taking over Australia’s media in October. As well as in print, on TV and radio, noise will be online with E-Works, Postcards from Heaven, Online Gallery, Fake Ads: An Online Collection and MCA Curation (noise.net.au from October 1), An Artist a Day (www.visualarts.net.au) and audio art (www.sbs.com.au/noise)


For some time now Australian artists have been working in a range of collaborative ventures and residences with ZKM, Centre for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany’s leading new media research centre and museum. Now, there’s an opportunity to glimpse some of the work that’s emerging in Morphologies, a joint project of Artspace and Ivan Dougherty Gallery, Sydney College of Fine Arts (Nov 22-Dec 15). The exhibition occupies the 2 venues and features recent digital video work produced at ZKM by both ZKM artists and generations of Australian artists working at the forefront of experimentation in areas such as interactive cinema including Dennis Del Favero, Agnes Hegedus, Ian Howard, Susan Norrie, Jeffrey Shaw, Skan (Skye Daley and Daniel Wright) and Peter Weibel. Speakers at the symposium on Friday 23 November at COFA include Michele Barker, Ross Gibson, Lev Manovich, Anna Munster, Kate Richards and Jeffrey Shaw.

RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. 23

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

Barry Schwartz & The Arterial Group, ELEKTROSONIC INTERFERENCE

Barry Schwartz & The Arterial Group, ELEKTROSONIC INTERFERENCE

Barry Schwartz & The Arterial Group, ELEKTROSONIC INTERFERENCE

The huge, wide walls of the Brisbane Powerhouse Turbine Hall wrap around us, flooded with images moving slowly, vertically, the effect is vertiginous. In the centre of the hall digital images play on a large screen above a collection of bright metal sculptures standing just above water. A projection on another wall picks up artists and technicians as they move purposefully about the space. A choir appears on various levels delivering text in song, chatter, chirp and mutter. The recorded voice of an elderly one-time Powerhouse worker, Max Ham, intones the fun of working life (including his workers’ skiffle group, The 5 Kilowatts) and the horrors of a building then awash with asbestos and machines that chopped off fingers and limbs. A long row of artists and technicians sit at a bank of computers, lighting and sound desks. Centre stage is the American Barry Schwartz (electro-mechanical structures, RT#44) and, constellating about him, the Belgian Bastiaan Maris (chemo-acoustic installations), the Brisbane artists Andrew Kettle (sound) and Keith Armstrong (visual production) and others in their coveralls.

As the installation-performance slowly unfolds over the hour, sparks begin to fly, shooting out of the top of a condensor accompanied by shards of sound. Schwartz activates the sculptures. The stroking of a large metal disk yields eerily primal metallic groans. The artist lowers what looks like a huge, smoking turntable arm onto the same disk unleashing pure, massive cymbal-like tones. The pace of the work accelerates, the tone growing more ominous, the choir heralding something apocalyptic, Ham telling of death by electric shocks, death by asbestosis. Schwartz dons long, protective, insulated yellow sleeves and big gloves, dips them into water and turns to the big screen, now streaming with water. He strikes, igniting the water with balls of electricity that travel up and fade, as others climb higher and higher, each stroke ringing out like chorded bells heralding the end of time. Unlike the workers in the Powerhouse who were electrocuted and resuscitated or died, Schwartz is safe, transforming danger into awesome, if grim beauty.

In a key moment, a wiry tree sculpture (realised exquisitely as well in a digital version onscreen) is picked up, electrified and inverted by Schwartz—“The possibilities for radical enchantment are signified by an inverted wattle tree—resembling the Jewish inverted tree of life—which was part of the ceremonial initiation of young [Indigenous] men and was called kakka, meaning ‘something wonderful’” (program note).

To see a living installation on such a scale and of such ambition as Elektrosonic Interference in Australia is a very rare experience. Limited funds, short development periods, inadequate venues and scarce technical resources usually gravitate against the realisation of artistic visions of this kind. However, Brisbane’s Arterial Group have managed to find the collaborators, the financial support, goodwill and the venue with which to realise a major multimedia creation.

It’s hard to do justice to the scale of the work. There are other resonating layers. The site-specific response to the Powerhouse (built in the 20s to power Brisbane’s tram fleet) also includes the site’s environmental and Indigenous past, primarily found in writer Douglas Leonard’s text, scored by composer Stephen Leek and performed by The Australian Voices, and visually echoed in the projections on the Powerhouse walls, spelling out ‘Terra Nullius’. In antithesis to this oppressive notion, Leonard uses another local Indigenous word, Kore, denoting wonder. The text and composition, Kore, includes a litany of environmental riches:

eastern water dragon/saw-shelled tortoise/swamp snake/broad-palmed rocket frog/clicking froglet/echidna/chocolate bat/fawn-footed melomys/ferny azolla/spikerush grogbit/golden-lined whiting/bull rout/pacific-eyed rainbow fish/freshwater catfish/azure kingfisher/rainbow lorikeet/red-legged pademelon/rufous bettong sugar glider

These are spoken against sung lines: “They are coming back, the weeping bottle-brush, the broad-leafed apple, giant ironwood, white bean, black ti-tree, native holly, axe-handle wood…Kore, Kore, Kore, they are coming back,” and an invocation of Nguril, the Creator of the river, plains and creeks of the region.

Barry Schwartz & The Arterial Group, ELEKTROSONIC INTERFERENCE

Barry Schwartz & The Arterial Group, ELEKTROSONIC INTERFERENCE

Barry Schwartz & The Arterial Group, ELEKTROSONIC INTERFERENCE

Leonard has also constructed the sound text drawing on the oral histories of the multicultural Powerhouse workers, revealed in their terse natural poetry, their detached accounts of workplace accidents and management negligence, recollections of the Powerhouse cat, a river overflowing with fish, and pride in The 5 Kilowatts.

The cinematic dimension to the work is enveloping, entailing whole walls and screens, recorded and live projections. It provides a rich theatre of simultaneity, of choosing where to direct one’s gaze as the work unfolds.

For a creation of such ambition and textural complexity it’s not surprising that it didn’t always work or please everyone. Opening night appeared to be seriously under-rehearsed. For 20 minutes it looked like it wasn’t working at all, although there was a lot of flurried techy movement about the stage. The choir, even when miked, were often hard to hear above the soundtrack and the talkative audience—but when they were heard in their scored whispering, muttering, coughing and singing, they excelled. Lighting ranged from spectacular to inadequate—Schwartz was seriously underlit at crucial moments. A show that sets up such huge theatrical expectations has to go some way towards meeting them, even if it is an installation with its roots in the anti-theatrics of performance art.

For many who found the first 40 minutes sluggish and unfocused, all was forgiven in the last 20. For others the work was always unwieldy—too many layers, too many collaborators. Some had seen Schwartz perform overseas, describing his work as more complete, more coherent when more or less on his own. One viewer described him as a showman out of context in the preoccupations of his collaborators. Of course, the line between showman and artist is often a thin one in contemporary performance, and certainly Schwartz’s offering in Elektrosonic Interference was not as spectacular as some had hoped. Its beauty was rare and idiosyncratic and the meshing of water, electrical flow and spark and sound was often remarkable. But for the audience the work did require a special patience and attention under sometimes difficult circumstances—awkward production values, tiny program notes, an hour or more of standing, often crowded viewing. Apparently, subsequent performances were more focused and more satisfying.

Elektrosonic Interference needs to be rewarded for more than ambition. Australia can be a punishing place to work, off-the-cuff dismissal is de rigeur, failure to recognise achievement and potential is common, though a little less brutal than it has been. Works on the scale of Arterial’s vision (involving more than 70 artists, technicians, singers, volunteers) remain rare and are usually the province of overseas artists in shows we hear about, but rarely if ever see. The collaboration with Schwartz and Maris offered an opportunity to embark on such a venture. It is to be hoped that the Australian collaborators will carry this unique experience forward into new, equally ambitious projects.

It has been wearying in recent decades to see theatre company casts whittled down, performance ensembles disappear, feature films strangled by small budgets. No wonder Theft of Sita and Cloudstreet have been greeted so passionately—scale is integral to their power. Brisbane’s ELISION ensemble is another company working with installation as performance and across artforms. transmisi was performed in the Tennyson Powerhouse in 1999 for the Asia Pacific Triennial, Opening of the Mouth in the Midland Railway Workshop for the 1997 Perth Festival. IHOS Opera too operate on a rarely seen scale. Big is not always best, but unless Australian artists seek to experiment with scale, and are empowered to do so, we’ll continue to feel that something is missing.

Arterial Group-Barry Schwartz Collaboration, Elektrosonic Interference, director/performance artist Barry Schwartz; sculpture workshop/technical director Bastiaan Maris; concept development Douglas Leonard, Barry Schwartz, Therese Nolan-Brown; Turbine Hall, Brisbane Powerhouse, Sept 6-8

RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. 29

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

Rockhampton Gardens Symphony

Rockhampton Gardens Symphony

Rockhampton Gardens Symphony

In Brisbane

For 10 music-filled days I saw concerts and wrote and edited in the Brisbane Powerhouse, site for much of Lyndon Terracini’s 2001 Queensland Biennial Festival of Music (see interview, RT#43). It was an intense, always enjoyable and often revelatory experience—not only of unique music expertly played, but also of an artistic community celebrating what it loves to do and finding time to spend together. With Assistant Editor Jenny Speed and a team of Brisbane writers, most of them artists, RealTime produced reviews online and distributed print copies in the Powerhouse. Also now on our website are articles on the Biennial’s International Critics’ Symposium. A small selection from our QBFM articles, and excerpts from others, appear on these pages along with a list of all the reviews online.

Beyond the Powerhouse, the festival made Brisbane appearances at Southbank (a stunning, standing ovation-Turangalila-symphonie), City Hall (Anumadutchi, the Dutch percussion group with African guests ), Customs House (ELISION ensemble’s Spirit Weapons), St Mary’s (a packed out Critical Mass for the homeless and a rivetting Song Company recital) and, again at Southbank, the Stuart Series, an excellent set of twilight concerts working out the new Stuart grand piano (Lisa Moore, Paul Grabowsky and Michael Kieran Harvey brilliantly showcasing the instrument).

Across Queensland

Concerts were staged in Mackay, Townsville and Cooroy, and in Barcaldine, Rockhampton and Logan City workshops and events brought artists and communities together. In Logan City, in Queensland’s Bible belt, Terracini successfully introduced Sydney’s Cafe at the Gate of Salvation (in performance and workshop) and the Indigenous singer Rochelle Watson to an audience of thousands in a 7 hour celebration of song including some wildly received Christian rock’n’roll.

Terracini wanted to hold a festival that people in regional Queensland could feel connected to. He’s particularly proud the way participation worked so well in the remote western town of Barcaldine (home to the Tree of Knowledge, site of the famous 1891 shearer’s strike meetings and birthplace of the Australian Labor Party) where 200 townspeople made and played marimbas. Terracini said, “It’s one of those events where people will say ‘I was there.’ One of the reasons it worked well was because everyone wanted to work together. They came from everywhere in the Barcaldine community. They had a great relationship with Jacinta Foale and Mik Moore. Mik took all the workshops for making the marimbas and Jacinta taught them how to play and wrote a piece called Barcaldee. Now it’s their piece.

“We rehearsed in this huge space, the Workers’ Heritage Centre. I had to mould a huge cast into an ensemble and that happened very quickly in 2 rehearsals. Venáncio Mbande was there from Mozambique and the participants saw the marimbas he’d made and was playing…there was a fantastic bond.

“We closed off the street at 2am, built the stage—the whole thing was a huge logistical exercise. We asked David Thompson, a custodian of the country up there to speak first to welcome us all to country. He’s a descendant of the Aboriginal people who had lived there who were massacred. He’s gone back to live there. He came off stage and burst into tears, an extraordinary moment. Then the Mornington Island song men—freezing, painted up, in their head dresses, doing a terrific job—were singing festival to Queensland. And the sun came up and shone through the branches of the Tree of Knowledge. We’d timed it.

Anumadutchi came on and did the Barcaldine Suite written especially for the festival. The 200 players of the Barcaldine Big Marimba band were seated either side of the stage joining in and 1,500 people in the street were screaming and whistling—a wonderful atmosphere at 7.20 in the morning. And then the Barcaldine Big Marimba played Jacinta’s piece and one by Linsey Pollak, and then they played with Anumadutchi—a fantastic finale. Then we had a barbeque.

“Then we went on to Rockhampton. The gardens are beautiful. We had a number of stages, again with trees as a theme—a bamboo stage, a banyan stage and a hoop pine stage. Various Rockhampton ensembles played on the smaller stages so people could move through the gardens and hear concerts during the day. Thousands turned out. The Song Company performed on the massive hoop pine stage (we had to be able to get 400 people on it) in a kind of natural amphitheatre. At 4.45 Roland Peelman came on to conduct the premiere of Elena Kats-Chernin’s Rockhampton Gardens Symphony, a half hour choral symphony with the Rockhampton Concert Orchestra, marimba band, the City Brass Band, drum kit, 2 choirs and a tenor soloist from Rockhampton, Christopher Saunders—and a text by Queensland poet Mark Svendsen.

“At the end 5,000 people were on their feet. You don’t expect this in a garden. There was so much applause they had to play the last movement again and then the applause still went on. The players who were originally bemused by the music were now enamoured of it and they said would like to do more as a change from The Sound of Music. Normally you’d never get a standing ovation for this kind of work, but because it was theirs they were responding to new music, a new work, a world premiere. The town councillors took a risk on it and it paid off. The premiere got on to the front page of the Rockhampton Bulletin which called called it ‘a thriller of a symphony.’

“The contrast with the Federal government’s $200,000 Really Useful Company tour of Grease is disgraceful. If (Minister for the Arts) Richard Alston had seen these concerts…The lack of knowledge about what is happening to art and culture in regional Australia is appalling. If the Really Useful Company had to apply to the Australia Council for funding, they would never have qualified under the Council’s usual conditions.”

Terracini’s Biennial looked a success, even at its half way point when we met to talk. He was excited not only by the positive community response across Queensland, the standing ovations (“a new phenomenon here”), but also because, even though he wasn’t getting to sing, directing the festival “was like doing a show.” Despite the rather grim prospects for new music delineated in the accompanying International Critic’s Symposium, the festival’s audiences suggested a brighter picture. Though, as we all know, a festival can succeed where the year-round programming of new music can fail to engender anything other than small audiences comprising the usual appreciative suspects. Even so, Terracini’s adroit programming managed to satisfy diverse audiences without compromising the quality of the work, and suggests possible ways forward. My greatest pleasure came from being able to experience Messiaen’s Turangalîla-symphonie and new or rarely heard works performed by Lisa Moore, Michael Kieran Harvey, the Australian Art Orchestra, Topology, ELISION ensemble and Orkest de Volharding. Let’s hope that in 2003, the Biennial will return with Terracini again at the helm.

RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. 31

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




Loops & Topology: Airwaves

Brisbane Powerhouse, July 24

Seventy-five minutes of radio archive history. FM clarity, AM telephone bandwidth. Old timers scraped out of mouldy shellac grooves. Naïve racists on rusty tapes. Databases of dickheads, geniuses, opportunists, and self-promoters. Arranged in reverse chronology. From now to then, from us to them, a salad of history where before White Australia was Belsen, before Clinton was Ghandi, where men had to walk on the Moon before Cathy could run that great 400. But the vocal text isn’t about cheap moralisms. It’s stochastic history not storyboard history.

And over and under the ‘Voice Portraits’ plays the music. A series of episodes and program pieces to reinforce or foil the text. George Bush whingeing about Saddam and damn that’s some funky bass. The Goons bubble up and Max Geldray lives again. Dad and Dave ride on the back of Click Go the Shears. Sometimes the musical quotes were right there on the staves; cut and paste, a straight up arrangement. But most times the references were oblique, witty, laugh out loud nostalgia. Not that the music was all quotes and ironic degree by a long shot.

…At the beginning I think of a happy John Zorn, then associations disappear pretty quickly as I get caught up in the individual personality of the piece. The sound is excellent, right volume, right balance on the instruments. The performers play to a click track, they’ve each got headphones on. I’m not surprised, the music’s often complex, the timing always precise. Strange, abstract rhythms suddenly synch perfectly to all time favourites. ‘Now is the time.’ ‘I have a dream.’ ‘Turn on, tune in and drop out.’

In Airwaves, music effortlessly holds the mirror to the musicality of language. And it is not just that either. Airwaves is a big piece, chockerblock, a must-have for the collection when the CD comes out. Play it entire or dip in and out. Don’t play it in the car while driving. Too distracting.

Greg Hooper

Karaikudi R Mani, Sruthi Laya Ensemble

Karaikudi R Mani, Sruthi Laya Ensemble

Karaikudi R Mani, Sruthi Laya Ensemble

Australian Art Orchestra: Into the Fire

Brisbane Powerhouse, July 24

The AAO musicians were seated in a semi circle, cradling the Sruthi Laya ensemble, who sat at the very front of the stage. A big band in the round with the karnatic musicians in the solo spot. Adrian Sheriff and Sri Mani’s title track from the Into the Fire CD grew out of their 1996 collaboration in India and later in Adelaide. One of the real difficulties in cross-cultural composition is the need to find ways of overlapping the styles, and also of working at a level of depth and respect within the 2 cultures. The composers have taken the basic material of the raag, the karnatik scale, and developed an exhilarating, enthralling performance. With the brilliance and accuracy of some of the best classical and jazz players in Australia flying through the melodic phrases, sparse but warm harmonic material, and the total focus and control of the Indian master musicians, the audience was captivated. At an emotional level I found the performance of this composition deeply satisfying. If there is a definitive list of “classic” cross-cultural compositions and performances, then Into the Fire is definitely on it for me. …Just as we reached the crescendo, the AAO put down their instruments and sat back to listen to the Sruthi Laya. For 20 minutes we were mesmerised by the brilliance and accuracy of their playing. Then, as if this wasn’t enough, the AAO members moved back into position and with the mighty clap of Paul Grabowsky’s guiding hands the orchestra joined in again, thundering through to the coda. Beautiful stuff.

Jim Chapman

The Queensland Orchestra: Turangalîla-symphonie

The Concert Hall, QPAC, July 21

…The end result was both richly textured and wonderfully playful, completely enveloping the audience in the composer’s unique and often unpredictable sound-world. Michael Kieran Harvey particularly seemed to revel in the demanding piano lines. At times he pushed the brassy Stuart & Sons instrument to compete with the full orchestra while at others he interjected with Messiaen’s trademark snatches of birdsong (most prominent in the languorous sixth movement). If anything, perhaps the performance erred more on the raw dynamic side, losing some of the carefully layered harmonies and elements in the overall wash of sound. Some of the blame for this, however, could be levelled at the acoustics of the Concert Hall which at times lacked the clarity required for such a work.

Valérie Hartmann-Claverie’s Ondes Martenot had no such problems with the hall or competition from the orchestra—its pure sound managed to cut through everything. Messiaen gives the main love theme to this instrument and uses its soaring glissando effects to evoke an otherworldly and transcendent space…Hartmann-Claverie’s delicate use of vibrato layered with slow violins in the restrained sixth movement helped produce a haunting crystalline sound that beckoned the audience to gaze into the starry face of eternity while Kieran Harvey’s piano called us back with the earthbound song of birds. It is with this type of beautiful and essentially melancholic moment that Messiaen strives to express the inexpressible and to give us a space to experience a time outside of time. For a moment during the movement I closed my eyes and dreamed of the stained-glass light of Sainte Chappelle which so inspired Messiaen’s musical language.

…In the final acts of the work [conductor] de Leeuw pulled out all stops and let loose the rawness of Messiaen’s orchestration with the tuned percussion and brass sections particularly working frantically to deliver. This had such an overwhelming effect that by the end of the symphony’s epic 75 minutes most of the audience rose enthusiastically for a standing ovation. The overall effect was inspiring and revealed a viscerality and feeling that I had not encountered in recorded versions of Messiaen’s oeuvre. Though this performance may not stand as what some may call a definitive interpretation of the Turangalîla-symphonie it was certainly one to be experienced–tutti con brio!

Richard Wilding

Anumadutchi & The Queensland Orchestra

Brisbane City Hall, July 26

…The performers brought the venerable Venáncio on stage and set up the 8 pieces of the timbila. This was a rare treat for a Brisbane audience. This xylophone-like ensemble is something quite special. Venáncio is a Mozambican man who has led a hard life, like many from this region, but who has managed to maintain the tradition of this music nonetheless. The instruments range from the 19 key sanje to the 12 key dibhinda and the amazing 3 key chikulu. Each instrument is played with a 2-handed, complex polyrhythmic pattern. Imagine hearing them played at breakneck speed, and with each of the different instruments playing different parts, once again interlocking. It is a richly textured kaleidophone. The only way you can hear it is to let it sink into your mind and to focus on any of the hundreds of possible patterns that can be heard. Visually, the playing is exciting, especially watching the chikulu players hurling themselves at the 3 log sized keys of their instruments. Venáncio is an unbelievable player. The counter melodies that he was playing were so deep in the cracks of the other patterns that it’s hard to imagine that anyone else could play them. He is probably the best timbila player in the world. He is regarded as such in Southern Africa, and his performance confirms this.

Jim Chapman

ELISION: Spirit Weapons

Customs House, Brisbane, July 22

…Since its inception, ELISION has excelled in the production of a brilliant palette of sound colours. It is this range which leads me to think in gastronomic terms—the sounds are so physical one can almost taste them. Michael Smetanin’s Vault has this quality, with its gorgeously crystalline sounds made by spiky high notes on the harp combined with viola harmonics, metallic percussion and rushing piccolo runs, along with bottom-register bass clarinet rumblings. The music’s physicality is also expressed in body-based rhythms, played with James Brown tightness by the ensemble.

…Anthony Burr’s robust performance style (on contrabass clarinet) was used to great advantage in an extraordinary new work by Liza Lim. A new piece by Lim is always an event, and she continues to surprise. Spirit Weapons consists of 2 short pieces drawn from Machine for Contacting the Dead. Lim composed this large work for Paris’ Ensemble Intercontemporain on the occasion of an exhibition of newly unearthed 2,400-year-old Chinese musical instruments. She resisted the obvious choice of composing for replicas of these instruments and instead invented ritualistic music referring to another object found in the tomb—a triple-daggered halberd (cutting/stabbing weapon). Three percussionists, perhaps reflecting the 3 daggers, form a “meta-instrument” with the contrabass clarinetist. This is very serious music, a “radiation of ancient wood and metal”, but I can’t help imagining a sense of fun, perhaps even mischief, in Lim’s use of instruments.

Like Gavin Bryars’ Sinking of the Titanic, this is music imagined as happening under water, and the Leviathan sound of the contrabass clarinet is a perfect fit. The piece is a “slowed down, submarine version” of the other component of Spirit Weapons, a cello solo, played with miraculous fluency by Rosanne Hunt, in which harmonic overtones continually emerge from sliding notes and the dark sounds of loosened strings.

Robert Davidson

Orkest de Volharding: Andriessen Music Video Program

Brisbane Powerhouse, July 27-29

…Smetanin’s Eternity was musically the most interesting thing on the program, drawing a completely different sound world from the ensemble. Two clarinets were added (Paul Dean and Diana Tolmie, both familiar to Brisbane audiences) which helped even the balance between wind and brass, such that Smetanin was able to play with delicate antiphonal choruses of continually shifting homophonic blocks of sound. Paul Dean’s precise microtonal playing in the upper register was particularly impressive. This strange, symmetrical, microtonal minimalism perfectly distilled a sense of the eternal, the otherworldliness with which Smetanin characterizes his feelings when observing the night sky.

Andriessen and Greenaway have had a fruitful artistic partnership since their first successful collaboration on M is for Man, Music and Mozart (1991). I was in some subtle way disturbed by the live performance of Andriessen’s music alongside a screening of the film. The music, and its performance aspect, was ‘foregrounded’ to an extent inconsistent with how I experience music in Greenaway films. For me it upsets the balance, normally so precise and deftly handled, between the swarming fecundity of Greenaway’s foregrounds and the cool, sparse intellectual rigidity of his background structures. Certainly an interesting idea, and worth trying as a festival event, but ultimately a viewing of the original film gives a more complete and balanced representation of Greenaway’s intentions.

Simon Hewett

Lisa Moore – The Stuart Series

Auditorium, Queensland Cultural Centre, July 27

American composer Martin Bresnick’s For the Sexes: The Gates of Paradise (2001) is a musical take on the William Blake poem and 21 illuminated line engravings of the same name (1818). Directed by Robert Bresnick (the composer’s brother), video artist Leslie Weinberg’s DVD projections consist of simple animations and manipulations of Blake’s black & white and illuminated emblems, enlarged onto an on-stage screen above the piano. Moore’s was both pianist and speaker, this time delivering the entire text of Blake’s poem.

As Moore starts to play the pulsing, determined Prologue, we meet the Lost Traveller, our Everyman companion for this 30 minute piece. He zooms on-screen, cane in hand, and hurriedly moves through time and space while trees pan right, sky pans left. Musically this world is built from colouristic expressive recitative, intersticed with pulsing sections of relatively static harmonies which rock unevenly, restlessly. Moore commands a counterpoint of voice and fingers, sometimes speaking the text to a rhythm; sometimes freer; and sometimes sung, as in the Epilogue’s slow and gentle jig addressed to Satan. …In an era of the supremacy of visual literacy, Bresnick’s collaboration with Weinberg is an example of evolution in action, as is the creation of the Stuart piano. A coherent multi-sensorial work, it invites sustained attention from a far wider audience than ‘pure’ concert music can hope to do.

Lynette Lancini

Michael Kieran Harvey – The Stuart Series

Auditorium, Queensland Cultural Centre July 23

Kieran Harvey explains that Australian composer Laurie Whiffen’s Sonata Mechanical Mirrors is “very loosely based on the Liszt B Sonata” and because it is built on “mirror images of musical cells…is awkward to play.” Well, this might not be Godowsky-does-Chopin, where the melodies at least remain recognisable, but Sonata Mechanical Mirrors is Lisztian in spirit, passionate, even demonic, and an olympian test for player and piano. Great waves of crystalline upper notes cascade against a thundering bass, the Stuart declaring ever greater capacity for volume, its middle range again revealing a bell-like radiance, the whole quaking but without surrender as Kieran Harvey sweeps relentlessly up and down the keyboard, pianist and piano at one. This is an exhausting, cosmos-conjuring 15 minutes. And once again, eruptions are succeeded by calm and afterglow…surrender or grace?

The work that lights up an already enthusiastic audience is Tim Dargaville’s Negra. Kieran Harvey notes its African references, gospel influences, Indian rhythms and distinctive recurrent note row. To my ears this is a great pulsing ragtime fantasia, always hinting at but refusing Joplinesque melody, driven by a pounding, rhythmically familiar left hand style pitted against constellations of upper end trills played at astonishing speed. At times it sounds like a virtuosic cross between Dr John and Jerry Lee Lewis. Is either in the market for a Stuart grand? Kieran Harvey makes a great salesman. In the sublime coda to Negra, as in Andriessen’s Trepidus, as the bottom notes die, the top ones quietly bristle with restless energy…until they too evaporate.

Keith Gallasch

Paul Grabowsky – The Stuart Series

The Auditorium, Queensland Cultural Centre, July 26

…Pivotal to the whole performance was Coal for Cook, dedicated to Ornette Coleman. An audacious nod given the Texan’s key ensemble innovation was the double horn front line quartet with no piano (ie no chordal accompaniment). This in its day freed Coleman’s alto sax into a domain of wild harmonic invention. The alteration of intention and conception was equally profound in the context of Grabowsky’s performance. The tone of the prior pieces, which saw the right hand trying to break free of the constraints imposed by the somewhat repetitive and pendulous walking bass figures, was fractured. This gave way to a much freer section with the pulse merely implied rather than insistently stated and restated and, more than that, feeding on the sheer aggressiveness of the work’s dedicatee. The nicest passage in the piece was perhaps the rapid 2 handed upper register section which mimicked the squally trumpet/alto sax blowing contests of Colemans’ own Prime Time quartet. Rendered on the chimingly bright-toned Stuart piano, these were as coruscations of light on a teeming sea.

Mitch Cunningham

Editor’s Note: RealTime published online reviews during the 2001 QBFM. The full online feature will be re-published in the archive in the future.

RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. 31-

© Greg Hooper & Jim Chapman & Richard Wilding & Robert Davidson & Simon Hewett & Lynette Lancini & Mitch Cunningham; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

part of BAM's Next Wave Festival, New York

Welcome to the third of RealTime's annual surveys of developments in Australian new media art. Working the Screen 2001 celebrates the Australian new media artists and works selected for the Brooklyn Academy of Music's (BAM) Next Wave Festival. Now in its 19th year, Next Wave has long had a reputation for innovative programming. This year the festival includes Next Wave Down Under, a month-long celebration of contemporary Australian arts. The BAM website features the work of nine Australian net.artists, provide links to the sites of fourteen new media artists, two net.sound sites, an online documentary on Chunky Move dance company and audio-on-demand broadcasts of works from ABC radio's The Listening Room. This online exhibition has been titled Under_score: Net Art, Sound, and Essays from Australia (www.bam.org/underscore [link no longer active]).

(Download PDF of liftout – 1.4meg – right or control click for download)

RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. 2

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

When the federal arts ministers Richard Alston and Peter McGauran announced the film industry assistance package last week, the highly managed launch was similar to the opening of a factory or the naming of a dam the only things missing were the hard hats.

Robert Bolton, Australian Financial Review, September 11

In RT#40 (Dec 2000), we published “UK Arts: the creativity panacea” and in the editorial to RT#44 I raised the issue of the widespread retitling of ‘the arts’ as ‘creative industries’, a move heavily influenced by new arts policies from the UK. These days ideas and policy models spread with the efficiency of viruses. Bolton writes that “it’s understood a cultural policy statement is now cautiously being put together by the Department of Communications, with the intention of launching it during the coming election campaign. This will unite the separate sectors of the arts, formally label them as the “cultural industry” and announce them as a cornerstone of the information economy.” The first signs of the Federal Government taking an unusally strong interest in the arts are evident in the initiation of the Visual Arts Enquiry (successfully prompted by expert strategic moves from Tamara Winikoff and NAVA) and the injection of a much-needed $92.7m into the film and television industry. Bolton quotes Peter McGauran, the junior Federal Arts Minister, in an interview with The Australian Financial Review, as saying “‘We’re not going to peddle the myth that the creative sector is going to become the new grounding of economic innovation,’…But McGauran and Richard Alston, the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, have not been immune to current thinking on culture and its impact on the economy.”

The widely promulgated thoughts of Chairman Cutler (friend and advisor to Alston) of the Australia Council have doubtless played a role in these developments. He most certainly has argued that artist innovators can do much for industry and the economy. For this reason RealTime requested an interview with Terry Cutler to ask how the artists benefit from the arts-industry equation. The ensuing discussion with Alessio Cavallaro, Sarah Miller, Linda Wallace and myself makes for fascinating reading.

The promise of improved arts funding looks more than likely. In WA a state budget increase of $7.6 million for the arts and future commitment of $26.5 million has been announced. Its theme, “Rebuilding the Arts”, acknowledged that there is still much more to be done. Arts advocacy group Arts Voice agreed. “The erosion of fiscal resourcing over the past decade has resulted in many organisations being so over-stretched that the energy needed to undertake substantial creative and productive work for the benefit of Western Australians has been sadly diminished.” The budget includes increased support for smaller organisations including the Blue Room Theatre, PICA, Multicultural Arts through Kulcha and the Community Arts Network and Indigenous arts through Yirra Yaakin Noongar Theatre. Arts Voice also welcomes increases in available funds for regional touring for performing, visual and literary arts and a focus on regional access. Sarah Miller, Artistic Director of PICA, cautioned that “these increases will only return organisations to early 1990’s
funding levels.”

Elsewhere, recent Australia Council grant results in New Media Arts, theatre and especially dance left many artists distraught. If new money comes into the Australia Council, and it is vital that it does for this country’s creativity, it should be directed through the Boards to artists and not to special initiatives and one-off programs. If the Federal Government and the Australia Council are putting such store by innovation then they must give it the support it warrants. The In Repertoire guides to exportable Australian performance that RealTime has produced for the Australia Council are proof that innovation here is alive and widespread, often touring internationally, often struggling to survive. They are also evidence that innovation needs to be understood within and without the emerging paradigms of the arts as digital content and cultural industry. While a functional approach to the arts and how they can profit Australia can help justify government expenditure, it could inhibit vision and should be handled with care.

The recent RealTime-Performance Space forum, The Place of the Space, addressing the role of contemporary art spaces and the future of PS, proved a significant event. One hundred participants joined in this 2 hour, open-ended discussion, more in the courtyard afterwards. Eloquent contributions from Nicholas Tsoutas, Sarah Miller, Zane Trow, established and emerging artists, and representatives of other arts venues, provided inspiration and material with which to move forward. The presence of Jennifer Lindsay, the new Deputy Director General of the Arts in NSW, and her participation in the sometimes confronting dialogue made the event even more worthwhile. The transcript of the forum will appear here in early October.

In this edition, we celebrate Australian innovation in new media arts with the publication of our third annual Working the Screen liftout. The artists represented in its pages have been selected by BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) for an online exhibition, Under_score, in its Next Wave Down Under program, part of Next Wave 2001, New York. We hope you enjoy Working the Screen and find it a valuable, ongoing resource. As well, in response to endless requests for the names and websites of new media artists, in October we’re opening our New Media Index (NMI) page on our newly addressed, more easily accessed website: www.realtimearts.net. As NMI grows we’ll be including images, reviews and news.

Sad to say, Philip Brophy, our OnScreen Cinesonic genius, has decided, with regret, to leave RealTime. After 5 years of contributing his bi-monthly column despite a heavy teaching load, organising the unique Cinesonic annual sound and cinema conferences (and getting them published), Philip has decided to commit himself to his art, a reminder that he has been the creator of some key Australian films and responsible for the brilliant sound design for the 2000 feature film, Mallboy. Thanks Philip for the use of your finely tuned cinema-going ears for the last 5 years, we’ll seriously miss them. RealTime readers
will seriously miss them.


RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. 2

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

In a short burst we witnessed unfathomable horror. And yet we have been denied witnessing others’ horror for years. There is compassion for some and not for others. In a brief instant all the gains of dynamic multiculturalism have been decimated. We are witnessing the lie of justice for all and the surge of globally manufactured racism with the invocation of crusader vengeance and the politicisation of difference.

Synergy no longer surprises me although populist ignorance, and talkback’s propensity for connecting the asylum seekers and terrorists, is astounding. Recent actions have made it acceptable to demonise difference. There has been deplorable lack of leadership in the face of cowardly racist attacks. Perverse government policies are sanctioning these actions while contradicting the basic principles of mainstream multicultural society and the ethics of hospitality. Communities are increasingly fragmenting and segregating and the possibilities for reconciliation seem further away than ever. Critical multiculturalism has become a burning issue—the pervading spectre of our time. As John Rajchman asked, “how can we be ‘at home’ in a world where our identity is not given, our being-together in question, our destiny contingent or uncertain?” Responding to this challenge of dealing with cultural and racial difference in the face of the escalating politics of prejudice will be our greatest test of maintaining a just, hospitable and creative society.

At a time that now seems so much lighter, the July Globalisation + Art + Cultural Difference Conference addressed the renegotiation of multicultural discourses for the arts. Providing a multidisciplinary platform of theory, activism, policy, art and ethics, this was a vital colloquium that investigated the current debates in an international context seeking to come up with global solutions. It combined industrial-strength talk with a serious commitment to providing new models of cross-cultural collaboration in workshopping solutions for future action and understanding. This was the first conference I had been to where there was a healthy, non-hierarchical mix of artists, theorists, activists and policy makers.

Convened by Nikos Papastergiadis, Nicholas Tsoutas and sponsored by the Arts in a Multicultural Australia Policy of the Australia Council, the conference attracted a full-house from around Australia to hear 16 excellent papers and celebrate the launch of Jennifer Rutherford’s terrific book, The Gauche Intruder (Melbourne University Press, 2001), that traces the pressures on Australian morality. There was a large contingent of international guests and inspirational Australian speakers: a wonderfully productive cacophony of accents, positions, backgrounds and colours that denied the need to pin down identity.

Papastergiadis set the tone for the weekend by declaring his boredom with cultural identity and theory. In privileging slapstick theory and a dis-ease with identities he called for a proactive engagement with multiculturalism in private relationships and outside official discourses. A number of speakers reminisced about their search for a way to feel at home when confronted by the ambivalence of the hyphenated-experience that inspired both shame and later empowerment in the possibility of escape from the dominant culture. Ien Ang called this routine, so integral to everyday life, “living in translation.” This is a constant process of negotiation between cultures and communication that denies a notion of ethnic homogeneity since the transformations are never uniform, but are oppositional and always localised. Although I used to think that the evolution into hybridity was a positive thing, Ang among others offered a critique of its redemptive powers, noting that hybridity is based on the destruction of optimistic reclamations of difference since they are always bound by power relations.

This floating existence with its de-centred whiteness and identity-in-process shaped for many a general comfort with being outside obvious belonging. Chinese-Australian artist Lindy Lee explained that despite being told from an early age who she was by how she was viewed, she found it liberating not feeling or being all that Chinese but coming to discover it later. By reinventing things through the ‘bad copy’ her work is a continuing assessment of issues of authenticity. She explained that she was looking at that which is not reproducible while questioning the self as an interweaving of myriad experiences. This is a search for living through a constant dismantling and recreation of new configurations. For artists and theorists, becoming-other of themselves and of the social milieu that they inhabit is essential for sketching alternative modes of belonging and possibilities for multiple translations.

Rasheed Arena, a theorist and artist, spoke about the parallels between modernism and multiculturalism and repercussions on art and social agency. He argued for the positive advancement of society through artists thinking collectively not individually, emphasising the critical role of cultural difference in community-based regeneration projects. Gerardo Mosquera, a curator from Cuba working through Caribbean poetry, spoke of the globetrotting installation artist as an allegory of globalisation—more global for some than for others. Jean Fisher, a writer on contemporary art from England, presented an engaging paper and slide show on the metaphysics of shit and the ethics and agency of the trickster. She argued that globalisation is empowering and that artists should make use of its effects—its excesses and waste in deploying an ethical responsibility. Ghassan Hage discussed transcultural migration and the Lebanese diaspora with a special focus on Venezuela. He identified hope as the greatest inspiration for immigration—the bargaining on increased possibilities of difference, greater security and opportunity away from home.

Marcia Langton and Hetti Perkins spoke in very different ways about Aboriginal art, ownership, innovation, authenticity and discursive marketing restrictions. They challenged a variety of preconceptions about Aboriginal art and its institutionalisation in the Western context that all too often just doesn’t get it, missing the playful and the sexy, living, social processes. Langton addressed the issue of authenticity and the suspicion of innovation in Aboriginal art and culture that, in the service of Western value and values, exploits the marketable yet unreconstructed trope of Stone Age primitivism. She argued that this construction of culture as a highly nostalgic post-imperial souvenired commodity denies Aboriginal responses to innovation, globalisation and most importantly secret-humour business. This reproduces the accusations of nostalgic traditionalism often levelled at multicultural art that denies the possibility of innovation through amalgamation. She argued for the dynamism and multiplicity of Aboriginal art that has an importance outside of the postcolonial white world that only gets the spiritual bongo-bongo and commercial value. Telling a story about the Rover Thomas paintings at the police station at Argyle Diamond mine and their community functions, she emphasised that the real audiences of Aboriginal art see the jokes and the dirty bits in an open-ended engagement. The ‘dirty bits’ are often edited out, but reappear in invented translations or place names. It was heartening to learn that the Australian sacred is covered in faeces, urine and sperm.

Similarly, new technologies have unleashed possibilities for new forms of communities and connections for cultural activism. Ricardo Dominguez, concealed in a black balaclava, presented a stunning autobiographical performance of his coming to digital consciousness through his involvement in the Zapatista networked activism. It was exciting to observe the history of hacktervism and its re-emerging connections with the new activists who have reclaimed the streets as sites of resistance. His comments on the ethics of international digital zapatismo tied in with the questioning of the limits of performance art in Coco Fusco’s reading of her as yet unperformed play, The Incredible Disappearing Woman, about the ‘disappearance’ of assembly line workers on the US-Mexican border. The play was not so much about the excesses of a performance artist recording having sex with the corpse of an unknown woman in a Mexican bordertown (and then attending a retrospective of his ‘censored’ work many years later) but, as Fusco explained, an imaginative investigation into the inequitable modes of cultural exchange and their institutionalisation. The decision to use the body of a Mexican woman to carry out a necrophilic sex act as performance, the actual transactions that enabled the artist to acquire the corpse in Mexico, and the ability to ‘make her disappear’ when she was no longer needed, demonstrated the economic and cultural intricacies of US-Mexican relations. The excellent reading was a potent allegory of the spectacle of inequality and the skewed ethical discourses that emerge in art practice. It emphasised the micro struggles by the gallery attendants to intervene in these processes, challenging us to consider how we as artists intervene with language, relations, practice and policy to achieve greater social and cultural equity.

Multiculturalism was seen as contentious with continuously shifting definitions and without a major all-encompassing theory. Although identified as no longer a minority issue, it appears to be meeting increasing resistance from populist voices claiming that it is an assault on Anglo-Australian culture. Fazal Rizvi argued for working pragmatically within prevailing state ideology and language while keeping the notion of multiculturalism unstable to provide active and radical possibilities.

Strategies for destabilising multiculturalism created 2 opinions for defining the way forward. Some argued for mainstreaming multiculturalism and taking it out of the ghetto while others saw benefits in maintaining its ghettoisation as a pragmatic form for artists working with cultural difference to obtain institutional support. Fusco stressed that theory can and should move beyond segregation of multicultural arts whilst funding arrangements continue to foster and support this area. The realities of Australian society and arts practice were identified as no longer fitting the prevailing policy and funding models. The policy of managerial multiculturalism with its benevolent ‘access and equity’ logic that tolerates but manages difference was dismissed. There was a lack of accord on how to ensure that multicultural and Indigenous cultures—the source of Australia’s greatest vibrancy and creativity, far more so than the nostalgic, antiquated ‘white high arts’—receive appropriate support. Yet this inspired a productive range of strategies for engaging with cultural difference and resisting dominance that included a focus on individual artists and issues, greater community engagement, reforming education and the unrealistic financial support of the western canon, battling cultural ignorance and de-categorising cultural difference to make it our central concern. The practical outcomes of this conference will define and influence the conceptualisation of future policy since artists working with cultural difference will continue to struggle with issues ranging between social equality and outlandish creative projects in the hope of negotiating new forms of an ethical, dynamic, multicultural Australia.

The conference was the best talkfest I have been to in terms of the quality and range of the papers, the high level of engagement from the audience and the inspiration for future engagements.

Globalisation + Art + Cultural Difference: on the edge of change Conference, Artspace, Sydney, July 27-29.

Papers from the conference will be published later this year by Artspace.

RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. 8

© Grisha Dolgopolov; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Melissa Madden Gray

Melissa Madden Gray

Melissa Madden Gray

Melissa Madden Gray is a striking performer, whether in ELISION ensemble’s Liza Lim-Beth Yahp opera, Moon Spirit Feasting (formerly Yue Ling Jie, Adelaide Festival 2000, Melbourne Festival October 2001) or in Richard Foreman’s My Head Was a Sledgehammer for the Kitchen Sink company (Belvoir Downstairs, B Sharp, Sydney). Both are demanding works revealing the acting, singing, dancing and choreographic range of Madden Gray’s talents. She arrives for the interview with a touch of the flu, anxious about her voice—she’s performing nightly in the Foreman and rehearsing the opera during the day. But she is driven—no sooner has she been offered a seat and tea, than she’s whipped out the score of Moon Spirit Feasting and is demonstrating its vocal riches, how Lim has scored these and remonstrating with herself for singing when she shouldn’t.

When ELISION contacted me I had to do a demo tape. They’d heard about the work I’d done with Opera Factory in London which was a fairly extreme mixture of physical and vocal delirium. They had in mind a mezzo soprano with acrobatic skills. The framework for the demo was “chesty, nasal, guttural, Chinesey.” I stood in front of the microphone and I couldn’t find a way in to make those noises. This was during the horrors of Kosovo…you know that mass media imagery of all those women in trucks being carted off and that incredible keening, wailing. I couldn’t get it out of my head and the deadline was coming up to send the tape in and, ruthlessly, I used it. But it was honest in that I couldn’t stop thinking, what are we seeing in the world and what we are doing as performers and artists. Liza incorporated the essence of that demo into a chunk of the score—the Ghost Feeding scene. I had to re-process her processing of my ‘noise’ and then find a way into that but with her structure around it, still giving me quite a bit of room to improvise. That’s what’s exciting about working with a living composer.

Can you describe some of the sounds that you had to learn?

She’s making my voice sound like a Chinese gong, using microtonal inflections, throat distortions, gasps, ululations, exhalations, harsh whisperings, extreme crazy vibrati. Sometimes she talks about Chinese Opera parody. There’s Mandarin in there which is very heightened. There’s street Cantonese which is really rough as I discovered when I had some coaching in somebody’s office and caused heads to turn! They’re all the things that come out when you play with the voice and start looking at extreme forms of expression that don’t come out with the general social and theatrical preoccupation with beauty or with careful grotesqueness. Understandably, most opera singers don’t want to push their voices to those limits.

You find ways of placing less stress on the voice. The hardest thing for me with this music is actually being sensible because it is so fantastic. Once you’ve deconstructed it and put it back together again, and put it in your body, it’s hard to do it half-heartedly. I can’t really make those noises unless I really hurl myself into it. Half way through the opera, where I’m pretty “possessed”—and I have simultaneous images of empowerment and disempowerment—I am a vessel for various hungry ghosts and I’ve got all sorts of geisha rape images and Bangkok prostitutes going through my head—it’s hard to put a lid on it. But I had to because for the other half of the opera I’m singing very high and very purely and I simply can’t get those notes if I’ve shredded my voice.

Beijing Opera is very formal. How does this form connect with it?

I did a lot of research before we started, particularly a trip to Singapore and Penang with the director, Michael Kantor, and the designer, Dorotka Sapinska, and looking at the Hungry Ghost Festival that the opera is based on. In Penang, there are shrines on every corner and street theatres where these performances are in constant play to the hungry ghosts who are let out once a year for a month—basically, ghosts who have no descendants to worship them and therefore need assuaging and distracting with constant performance and offerings. Moon Spirit Feasting is based on those street theatre operas which are now in very tawdry form. You can see very old people mouthing the words but a lot of young people don’t know what’s going on. It’s much more fashionable to have a karaoke night or these incredible performances where starlets leap out of black limos and jump on stage and do a couple of numbers in clear plastic raincoats, yodelling…

ELISION’s opera has the feeling of a bridge between something esoteric and something very contemporary. It’s sexy, it’s plastic, the design is almost Foremanesque with its little box stage..

Liza’s very interested in the necessity of ritual and you see it in Penang because people are burning effigies while they’re on their mobile phones. It’s part superstitious and part really entrenched in the psyche. But this work never feels like it’s just a pastiche.

So how do you see the character you play?

It’s like the women performing in the street theatres in Penang during the festival and then she is also an ancient demon goddess who, in various forms of the myth, is either evil or good, fertile or infertile. I was also influenced, in researching this, by the sex clubs we went to in Bangkok. There’s a whole chunk of the opera, The Bridal Bed, where the entire sex manual—

—that’s when some of the audience start to get a little agitated.

Fantastic, I say! What’s art for? I tried to incorporate some of that as well. I had written a lot about the body in performance and pornography as part of my degree at Melbourne University. I did Arts Law and Honours in Fine Arts and German and was doing the final bits of my Law degree while I was still at drama school at WAAPA (West Australian Academy of Performing Arts).

An artist should always have yet another skill.

As much as I could I made it performance-related and I did the final exams when I was rehearsing with Opera Factory in London. By day I was this shrieking primal force and by night I was sitting saying, hmm, trust accounts.

What took you to WAAPA?

I’d had dance training. I had an extraordinary teacher—Merilyn Byrne. She was very strict but her major concern really was the joy of children dancing. I know now how unusual that is. She died last year but I realise now, I knew all the time, she was sort of my creative mother. I miss her terribly. Merilyn was so into the drama of it. She always had a monologue running over the top of everything—(SINGS) “The-ere is the hat for me, run, run, run….” It all had a sing-song thing which I think inadvertently led to my wanting to speak while I was moving.

So you always knew you’d go on to become a performer even with the arts law degree?

I was a stupidly over-imaginative child. I thought I was Elizabeth I for a period of time when I saw Glenda Jackson at age 3 or something. I was always performing. I had the full dance training in ballet and contemporary and jazz. I had a fabulous drama teacher at school and I was singing all the way through and also my mother used to take me to the Pram Factory when I was a wee thing and I would insist on going again and again to the same show, seeing people like Evelyn Krape and Tony Taylor and Sue Ingleton and, later, Robyn Archer. They are my strongest childhood memories. My grandfather was always taking me to the opera and Gilbert & Sullivan. So it was a very theatrical childhood. They’re all lawyers, so there was the simultaneous thing of, well, that’s lovely but of course, you’ll get a sensible career.

What were you performing at university?

It was really quite a hotbed of experimentation—Kosky, Kantor, Lucien Savron. It was a really exciting time and it set me up with an idea of the possibilities of theatre. And then I had a scholarship to go to Berlin. It was this strange world of cultural clashes and essential truths. There was an International Theatre Institute World Congress and I was the Australian rep to the actors’ workshops and I happened to be placed with the Butoh director, Tadashi Endo, who’s based in Germany. That was mind blowing—my first experience of Butoh—especially having come from a movement based background and then to be opened up in a totally different way. As I’d shifted more into ‘acting’, I’d almost had to negate myselfas a dancer, to get weightier or more grounded. This was a different way back into the body. As much as my dance training was incredibly theatrical, you’re still working with that upwards and outwards energy and that I-won’t-breathe-till-I-get-offstage sort of thing. So to suddenly to be thrown into such a primal movement world, which made so much sense, it was really quite extraordinary. At the same time I saw Pina Bausch do Cafe Müller. I had seen her work on video before but to be working in such a supposedly ‘foreign’ theatre form but feel that it absolutely related to tanz theater made sense to me about, I guess, where I am now, using everything I have.

So it helped to place you?

Yes, to say this is all you and these are all modes of expression and when it works it’s about the most pure, terrifying, visceral parts of us. I found that exciting because it’s natural for me to combine sound and body and not to divide them.

This is often seen in the West as hybridity rather than unity.

Hybrid is a great term in some ways but it sounds watered down to me rather than a built-up, holistic thing. Maybe we should refer to everything else as ‘divided’. The work that I’m attracted to, the people that I really love working with, are the ones who force you to confront why you censor.

After Berlin, you went to the Opera Factory?

First I went back to Melbourne University and wrote up my thesis on Annie Sprinkle and the body in performance. That was huge to work on because it felt like I couldn’t disengage from it in an academic or cerebral way. I started from a really anti-porn position, I guess, and the more I read, the more I started to think the more porn the better, the more in control of it people are the better, the fewer chances for exploitation, the more we realise the difference between fantasy and reality, the more we unlock the spirit, the less dangerous it is in repression. Having said that, then seeing those Bangkok sex clubs, I felt that I should re-write my thesis. You know, I’m an educated, white, middle class woman and, of course, speaking in relation to performance art and strip and exotica and pornography in a specific sphere. When I was faced with poverty en masse and desperation, obvious exploitation…so blatantly to do with power and money and the Western dollar, it was horrific. So I did re-enact a scene of that in the opera because I felt so broken by what I’d seen. And if you can’t respond in your artform then I don’t think you can justify being an artist. There are times I think I should be working in a women’s refuge where I can maybe tangibly measure—today I gave this person this phone number or took them and put them into a safe place. So I want to do that in my art and not make it a separate performance for people in the know.

This has been the great appeal of contemporary performance from the 70s onwards, where you can comment directly on your own experience, make your own life the material of your work.

It’s interesting now to know where to take that. I was in New York recently and I saw quite a lot of performance art and there’s such an expectation now for it to be transgressive. Where do you go from there? I saw John Fleck who was one of the NEA 4 and there was this great moment where he put newspaper on the floor and was about to shit and then didn’t. The only way he could now be subversive was not to be.

What made you decide you needed WAAPA?

I think I needed to feel that I had the training. I did Music Theatre but they sold me the course very much in terms of contemporary music theatre more than musicals. And they let me do plays with the theatre school and classes with the dance faculty and work professionally in third year. It was a fantastic place to be, particularly because of the people they brought through. David Freeman from the Opera Factory did a workshop for the STC and he used some of us. To meet and work with him just re-connected me with all of my instincts about what theatre should be. It was totally timely. His way of working is so extreme but I like that.

How is it extreme?

He says, why would you do an improvisation half-heartedly? That’s 2 hours of your life gone! He’s gathered all sorts of exercises and techniques from all over the world. He draws on trance and primal forces and he puts you very quickly into a place where you can’t con yourself. It’s the same with Butoh where you go straight to ‘the thing.’ So his method is to hurl you into a whole lot of situations where something might happen, those blissful moments of no-mind, when you’re not censoring yourself….It’s not indulgent, huggy theatre. It’s about life being short and getting rid of the rubbish and going straight to the essence of things.

Which shows did you do with him?

I did a workshop in Japan on Chikamatsu’s The Love Suicide at Amijima. Chikamatsu is Japan’s Shakespeare. And that was fascinating because there was a fabulous Welsh actor who’d worked a lot with the Royal Shalespeare Company, a Butoh performer now based in Paris, a Japanese soapie actress, a punk rock singer, a straight theatre actor and me. It was absolutely wild. We were doing the David Freeman version of this ancient play and because we didn’t have a common language we had to work in the most primal way. We all came from different performance traditions. In Britain David has this radical opera reputation. He’s got that preoccupation with the body and nudity on stage.

He’s still a provocateur after all these years.

He’s says, “I just can’t help it. They’re just so easy to shock!” So in London I did the final Opera Factory show called And the Snake Sheds Its Skin by Habib Faye, a West African composer, who writes most of Yousso N’ Dour’s music, and a British theatre composer, Adrian Lee on the epic of Gilgamesh. So you had David playing Monteverdi, Phillip Glass, rock’n’roll, all of these different musical genres. For Habib it had no chronological significance and none of the weight of a western canon. It was just music. And David was playing him that and he’s got this fantastic West African pop sensibility and he’s putting this ancient text to music and then it was being morphed into theatre again by a British theatre composer. That’s the kind of collaboration that I love.

Then you came back to Australia?

That production toured around the UK, then I worked with the composer John White. I came back and, since then, I’ve done the opera with ELISION and more recently lots of commercials and mainstream theatre.

These are survival gigs for you?

The commercials are but I just love performing. I am energised by that variety. Recently I played Hedy La Rue in the musical How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying for The Production Company. The following week I did a webcast to the Amsterdam Festival for their closing night, John Cage Song Books. I’d made 3 short films for them and we did this insane live webcast at 5.30 in the morning. The program included people like Joan La Barbara and Sonic Youth—quite a fantastic line-up. The piece that I did was a video duet with my mouth pre-filmed on a Satie phrase, “Et tout cela m’est advenu par la faute de la musique”—“all of that is the fault of music.” And I’d just got back from New York where I’d seen so much well-meaning self-conscious art and some pockets of inspiration but a lot of things that really made me think I’m not gonna find the answer in any city; it’s got to be about collaborating with interesting people globally. The John Cage Song Books sort of encapsulated the joy and exhaustion of the compulsion to create.

It would be very hard to find someone else to do Moon Spirit Feasting the way you do it. But on the other hand, it’s not your work, though you’ve contributed substantially to it. Do you want to build your own repertoire?

I’m doing a crazy 60s deconstructed French cabaret character, Miaow Meow, who is becoming quite a force. She’s emerging but she’s performed for the Totally Huge music gang in Perth at Club Zho with Lindsay Vickery. She’ll do some gigs at the Melbourne Festival. I realise how much of my work is about the shift between sexuality and fetishisation. With Lindsay, I’m working on all those pieces, feeding them into a program that will reconstruct them into totally new songs which I’ll perform as a kind of cyber 60s cabaret girl who’s broken down and come back together again in a new musical framework.

You don’t feel any contradiction? You talked about how Butoh and working with Freeman gave you a holistic sense of total focus and energy where you could suspend that sense of consciousness and yet still be true to the work. Nonetheless, here you are doing a range of work that might make some think, well, yes, she can do Moon Spirit Feasting and the Foreman, but How To Succeed In Business…?

It’s a fantastic part! It’s hilarious. And you’ve got 2000 people at the State Theatre in Melbourne every night who really love it. Always this perceived dichotomy! Rodney Fisher directed me in Design for Living at the MTC and will direct me in Masterclass later this year and was co-producer of My Head Was a Sledgehammer. He’s an extraordinary man who’s obsessed with language and text and he’s got the same kind of intense brain as David Freeman—same but different. They’re just people who are passionate about theatre and getting the essence of you. That’s exciting. I don’t see a difference.

You’re happily based in Australia?

Yes, but I think it’s creatively deadly defining yourself by or limiting yourself to any particular place or scene. I love travelling and the global collaboration that technology facilitates. I’m very excited to do the tour (of Moon Spirit Feasting) to Berlin and Paris next year. Hopefully I’m also doing Dennis Cleveland at the Lincoln Centre with Mikel Rouse. His music is the opposite to Liza Lim’s in many ways but it’s the same in that he’s absolutely specific. He draws on his culture which in this case is TV talk shows, New York. It’s totally different but it makes sense to me to work with those people. They are honest. That’s what makes them interesting. I don’t think there’s pretension in that work, which is what I’m terrified of as a performer. I want to keep finding the ‘real’…even though it’s always shifting.

RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. 4-5

Dr Terry Cutler

Dr Terry Cutler

Dr Terry Cutler

Dr Terry Cutler is 53 years of age, a former chief strategist with Telecom until the early 90s, Deputy Chair of the advisory board to the National Office of Information Economy, 1997-98, Chair of the Australian Government Industry Research and Development Board, 1996-98 and Managing Director Cutler & Co Pty Ld as well as a Council Member, Victorian College of the Arts. Cutler was co-author with venture capitalist Roger Buckeridge of the Commerce in Content report which is said to have fuelled the Keating Labor government’s Creative Nation program.

Cutler’s appointment to the Australia Council is unique: he’s not just a businessman, but one working in new media with projects in Tonga, Malaysia and in Australia and has close connections with government. When appointed Australia Council Chair, Cutler briskly adopted a high profile and made unusually early pronouncements in the press, on IT pages, in an article he wrote for Business Review Weekly and in an edited version of a speech reproduced in the Sydney Morning Herald. In the SMH he was reported as saying that, “Creativity will be the crucial driver of the new economy…and that as the first new chairman of the Australia Council in the 21st century he will be pushing the value of arts in innovation” (“White knight on a mission…”, SMH, June 19).

It was “the value of arts in innovation” that caught my eye. In BRW he declared: “Creative artists will be at the centre of [the] next revolutions, creating technology-enabled solutions that, like all good tools, extend our human capabilities and horizons” (Cutler, “The Art of Innovation”, BRW, June 29). As with Creative Nation, the Blair government’s focus on creativity, the Queensland government investment in “creative industries, and the federal government’s Creative Industries Cluster Study (see below), the connection between the arts and industry is pivotal. Or is it what artists can do for industry? What’s in the relationship for artists?

With this in mind I thought it would be opportune to have a discussion with Cutler early in his Australia Council career, especially on this subject of innovation. Alessio Cavallaro (new media curator and project manager at Cinemedia, former director, dLux media arts), Linda Wallace (artist, writer & curator, most recently of hybridforms, Amsterdam for the Australia Council) and Sarah Miller (writer, Artistic Director, Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts) joined in the discussion, which also included the Council’s New Media Arts Board Manager, Lisa Colley.

Just before the meeting date, Richard Alston, the Federal Minister for Communications, IT & the Arts, announced that the Australian Film Commission would manage a “$2.1m fund to seed the further development of innovative broadband content.” A second initiative was the undertaking of “a study of clusters in the creative digital industries to analyse cross-fertilisation that exists between various capabilities in the Australian economy, creative and otherwise, that are producing, distributing and marketing digital content and applications, and what are the key capabilities we need for the future” (www.dcita.gov.au, Aug 31). The panel monitoring the study is Colin Griffith (President, Australian Interactive Multimedia Industry Association), Professor Robin Williams (Dean, Faculty of Art, Design & Communication, RMIT), Kim Dalton (CEO, Australian Film Commission) and Dr Terry Cutler.

KG What’s in the Creative Industries Cluster Study (CICS) for artists, do you think?

TC Well, hopefully the fact that I’m on that small advisory panel to the study in my OzCo role rather than wearing some of my other hats. It’s been assigned to me to think about it in terms of the role of digital arts within the whole digital industry, digital content arena…[I’ve been] grappling with the issue of how you distinguish between some of the imaginings that we use in this area. We talk a lot about how digital content and digital arts are all digital content, but not all digital content is digital art…The value of the study I think is in trying to have a systematic overview of the whole value chain, if you like, of digital content production.

KG So it’s not just a matter of seeing people as networking or how they might help each other out by sharing costs and so on?

TC Correct, but to have a systematic application of standard industry analysis in a way that I think a lot of the arts could benefit. Trying to get my head around the portfolio here, what I’ve noticed a lack of is any intelligent, comprehensive mapping of the territory in a way that highlights the interconnectedness of practice activities but also, if you like, the interconnectedeness of various elements of the supporting infrastructure.

For example, do we have a good grasp on the changing nature and role of distribution channels and how that affects both the scope for individual artists and their practice and the various pressures that either create channels to audiences or in fact make them more difficult—which I think is always a particular issue in Australia. If you look at content generally, distribution has always been the neglected bottleneck. Film and television is a great example. To me, the initial value of this cluster study is in trying to get that overall mapping and then hopefully, to be able to identify particular points where there has been a lack of attention and focus more government attention on some of those areas. I’d like to see more of that happen across more of the territory.

LW Do you think a study like that could begin to put pressure on the government to free up the media control ownership laws, things like that. That’s one of the sticking points for digital distribution, there’s no channels for it or very few.

TC If you start looking at issues of distribution channels in a digital, networked environment you can begin to understand some of those bottlenecks…and, therefore, the connection with other policy agendas. That will give you a new angle on some of those agendas.

LW So it could have legs, it could really bring about some changes?

TC Well, I’d hope so.

AC More broadly, how might that affect other aspects of the arts, not just digital media arts but arts that are performance-based for example?

TC Well…what I can’t put my hands on at the moment is a good descriptive mapping of the [arts] landscape in a systematic way. What this exercise could do, if we do it properly, is perhaps provide a model that could be replicated more broadly. That’s something that I’m very keen to see here. In the current visual arts review or the review of second tier performing arts companies, how do we understand the landscape and the interdependencies between major companies, smaller companies and so forth? At the moment, it’s very hard to get a picture of that landscape. Certainly I find it hard to find a picture.

SM It’s great to hear that you’re interested in that kind of overall mapping because things have tended to happen because of historical precedent, of course, so there’s not necessarily any reason behind it. It’s just evolved, “growed.”

TC In conjunction with next year’s [Australia Council] Annual Report I’d like to think about producing an annual state of the arts type report, as a way of actually asking what does the landscape look like now, or if your like, how has the cultural biodiversity developed that gives us a reference point for moving forward, because I haven’t seen that. …The challenge there is to find a really good landscape painter.

SM All of us are here because we’ve worked in hybrid new media, interdisciplinary areas and I had the debatable privilege of spending 5 years on the Board of a CMC [the Community Media Centres set up in the wake of Creative Nation]… From my own experience, the desire for convergence and the ability to actualise it are radically different things. It’s a term that comes up in a lot in a number of your papers.

TC To me, confronting the concept of convergence is progressively unpacking something that gets more and more like an octopus. The only way I can make sense of it now is to talk about different waves of convergence. The first wave was really very much technology driven in terms of the integration of the tool side and particularly between computing and telecommunications. The second wave was very much around the whole services sector. This is where it begins to get exceedingly messy, and becomes much more demand-side driven in terms of the applications. The technology then becomes embedded in the re-design of process and practice. The third wave is where you’re getting a convergence between IT and biotechnology, which I think is really interesting in the way that then raises fundamental questions about the nature of meaning, of mind and so forth. That raises a whole lot of new ethical questions about our self-definition as humanity which then, I think, creates challenges for how the arts re-envision how we see ourselves.

Some work we’ve been doing in biotechnology and bio-informatics lately and the arts thinking about how you visualise information and meaning is actually a really interesting new area of convergence, where new skills need to be brought back into what might traditionally be seen as fairly sterile technical areas. That’s an area where some new stimulus in digital arts might come from.

SM Are you aware of SymbioticA— [a collaborative research laboratory in the Department of Anatomy and Human Biology at the University of Western Australia; see The Tissue Culture and Art Project in Working the Screen]?

TC Absolutely. And I think that’s a beautiful example. I find it really exciting. The challenge is how you replicate that experience and learning and particularly in Australia’s uncreative industrial landscape. To get more people to see the value of those forms of interdisciplinary work.

AC A couple of your papers online refer to the book by Kristensen, The Innovator’s Dilemma: Why Technology Causes Great Firms to Fail, and a couple of the key words or phrases that you quote in relation to that book are “disruptive innovations” and “precipitate major disjunctions.” I’m wondering in relation to these sorts of issues how the Australia Council might itself be seen to be productively disruptive to enable these sorts of connections to be made across disciplines. How to introduce artists to industry to try to stimulate a sense of a broader, more lateral, more creative approach to art-making. Not just in digital arts, but to get performers, musicians and so on to think about some of these lateral issues you’ve raised. How might the Australia Council be seen to be a more productive catalyst for such relationships?

TC …Kristensen distinguishes between conventional models of continual improvement—clearly there’s a whole tradition of that in the arts, succeeding generations taking an established disciplinary approach and continually improving, refining, refreshing that—and a second form of innovation around disruptive technologies, which probably does happen in the arts from time to time. To me, the interest is in the way in which the creative arts can be a catalyst for disruptive innovation in other territories. I see it increasingly as a driver of innovation in industry and science, education, health and so forth…and in new areas of collaboration. You can look back to points of radical change in the arts, like the Renaissance and the revolution around the scientific basis of perspective, for example, and how that totally changed an aesthetic. It’s interesting to speculate how our use of digital tools frees us from some of the traditional constraints around time and space and might provide equally radical new ways of conceptualising practice. Some of the most interesting areas for me are combinations of visual art and sound or virtual reality where, again, you’ve got the potential to radically play with those dimensions.

LW What usually gets lost in these kind of collaborations [between art and industry] is the artist and their work. They usually have to compromise. They usually are the poor cousins of science and technology development. They always have been. And the impulse to art is what gets pushed under the table and that’s really key in this.

SM And budgets, which you would know, Terry, from your experience on the [Australia Council’s] New Media Arts Fund.

TC It’s a vicious circle. I totally agree with you about the risk.

LW And it takes a really strong lobbyist to really push for an artist and the art project itself.

TC That’s why we’re all in the job, isn’t it? But to me, there are a number of issues about those collaborations which I think are really important. Only through changing those points of connection you’re going to change people’s perceptions about the value of the artist in the contribution. To me it’s also about a bigger challenge, one of how we re-position perceptions of the importance of the arts in our society, a consequence of which is then you can look at funding and support for artists in a different way. When I think about the challenge of do we provide enough funding and support for artists at the moment, the answer is demonstrably no. How do we increase that and increase the effectiveness of support in all its forms? A key prerequisite for being successful in that is to change people’s perceptions of the value of what we’re offering. And a key part of our job here is actually to work with the sector in trying to change those perceptions.

AC If you were able to achieve that, you’d actually re-position the Australia Council’s role in the cultural community of this country. Are we at such a point now with arts practice and the infrastructure that supports it that we need a radical re-positioning of the Australia Council? If we put it at the centre can it enact more challenging connections, relationships and partnerships with industry and science and other areas, commerce and so forth—and indeed even position Australian art and artworkers internationally to achieve different kinds of work?

TC You’ve got to think about the whole process and mechanics of social change as a generic issue because what we’re talking about is part of that. Is it time for a radical point of reassessment? Thinking about charting the course for the Australia Council and government involvement for the arts at the beginning of the 21st century provides a natural break point that says, ‘where are we headed?’, and that’s a bit irresistible.

AC According to the discussion paper for the [Australia Council] Strategic Plan that’s online at the moment, one of the goals is to develop increased support for innovation, research and development of the arts in a rapidly changing world. But the same could have been written in a list of goals 10 years ago and it would still hold true.

SM It was and then it was withdrawn from the strategic plan…and then it went back in again.

TC But isn’t that interesting and important. To me it’s a really challenging concept, encouraging risk-taking for what it means in practice. I love a line…which I rediscovered the other day in Wired about innovation in the information economy being like the need for new metaphors…new metaphors will probably come from ecology or systems, Chaos theory and talking about “skating to the brink of Chaos”…Now, how we domesticate and become comfortable with those notions within something like the Oz Council is a really interesting challenge.

SM It’s interesting that in a decade that’s been very much about the rhetoric of change, my experience has been that all of that has been about about diminishing of possibilities. We all know that Australia has a small economy and a small population and so on so, [ that] advanced technological research has not seemed to be possible in this country. I think [there’s something in] Alessio’s point about how we engage internationally. Somehow we’ve positioned ourselves outside all those different economic blocks and we’re not accessing effectively it in the way that many other equally small countries in the region are…It’s often been noted, and it seems to me to be true, that Australia has not had a successful research culture or a commitment to it. But the rhetoric keeps emerging. It’s almost as if we want to know in advance which bits of research will be successful before we commit to it.

TC We’re slowly changing. I’ve seen a huge amount of change say in the R and D environment in the last 10 years, in which I’ve been actively involved, in terms of what you can now talk about and what is happening versus what was possible a decade ago. I think we should be quietly optimistic. You’ve put your finger on an interesting area though in terms of that whole issue of international collaboration because part of the solution in the R and D territory is how you make sure Australians can think themselves into being part of global networks and putting to work all our rhetoric about virtual communities and actually actively networking in global collaborations with peer groups. The potential for that is huge including reconnecting with a lot of Australians who have gone offshore, assumed key positions all around the world but who we’ve lost in terms of our own creative base. In a whole lot of industry areas, I’ve been involved in initiatives to actually reconnect those people. I think the scope to do the same in the arts could have huge potential. The flip side of that is that if we really started to think through in more detail what we might mean by multicultural arts practice and so forth, how does that then affect the way we think of cross cultural collaboration more globally. Personally, I’d like to see far more people trying to find more ways of bringing far more people from offshore here and creating a real hotbed of activity.

SM We had the experience this year with a major Taiwanese show which was spectacular with one of the largest financial, integrated services companies in Taiwan. China TV came across to Perth to make a documentary about it. A 20 minute documentary about a Taiwanese exhibition in Perth, you can’t buy that. And before that, these extraordinarily well-connected people didn’t even know that Perth existed except for the curator whose father bought gold from Perth. It’s been very interesting and they paid for all of it. And it would have been worth at least a million US. And the state of Western Australia put $2,750 towards the show.

TC Pivotal seed funding! If we’re serious about the challenge of how we most effectively act at the start of the 21st century, then I think the real role for OzCo is to be much more effective in promoting critical discourse and discussion. To me, coming into this gig, one of the things that’s disappointed me most is the lack of that. And I think the opportunity is there and I think the OzCo can play a natural role in promoting that critical discourse and discussion that then starts to permeate.

LW I’ve had quite a lot to do with [technological institutions] and I think they don’t really want to give an inch to art practice. They’re not really interested That’s my perception. If you can assist me to break down, I look forward to it.

TC What you’ve said just reinforces to me the sense that we’re dealing with incredibly clunky outmoded institutional structures that don’t work as models for collaboration. The challenge is how we invent more effective models for collaboration.

SM I should say with Imago [the Perth-based CMC], the one part which was effective was the arts program. It was the only thing that stayed within budget, the only thing that developed the organisation any profile and it was the first thing they tried to junk in the push to become self-supporting even though they failed miserably on every commercial operation.

TC We’ve also got to be fair because when we go back to that climate in the early 90s that all of that came out of, I think those were important interventions and to say that the world has moved on is not to say very much.

KG It’s been good to talk and if you’re available it would be good to do this again. I think it’s important, especially for the small to medium companies and individual artists, who often feel, given the Nugent years and the Saatchi report, they’ve been left out of the picture, as Rodney Hall says. Discussions like this can be a conduit between Council and artists.

TC It’s crucial. One of the hardest decision I had when this gig landed on my desk was what I gave up. After much debate, one of the things I didn’t give up was being on the Council of the VCA precisely because of that fabulous linkage to the coalface, and to those kids. I get so much out of that. You have different challenges at different points in time. How you stay always connected to the real game and your core business, something that is always going to be a priority for me. And that means the practicing artist because that to me is the touchstone. I’m trying to find ways to stay connected so that I don’t lose the plot. That also means that channels like yours can play a key role in managing the dialogue.

AC …From my perspective I would like to see would be a little bit of extra proactivity taking place…I think some of the issues that have been raised today and your response to them would demonstrate in an exciting way that that might be the case.

TC You can score me on benign proactivity downstream.

This is an edited version of a discussion held at the Australia Council offices in Sydney on Monday, September 3

RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. 6

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




I don’t know any other way apart from convincing people to work with you and getting some work under way, even unpaid, and presenting it to any public—in a cellar, in the back room of a pub, in a hospital ward, in a prison. The energy produced by working is more important than anything else. So don’t let anything stop you from being active, even in the most primitive conditions, rather than wasting time looking for something in better conditions that might not come off. In the end, work attracts work.

So said Peter Brook, trying to answer an enquiry from a hopeful young theatre director.

The problem has always been the same. How to get started, how to continue, how to establish yourself in order to earn a living as an artist whilst not compromising the vision that got you going in the first place. These days, however, the competition is stiff from other media, money is scarce and it is much harder to live on the breadline.

Theatre itself is seriously under threat. The mainstream struggles along with an aging audience and does what it can to attract a younger one, while the non-mainstream has shattered into a thousand directions—all productive, many of them opening up kinds of performance work which would not have been seen in previous generations, but at the same time shattering the audience base and presenting young theatre artists with serious questions of identity in relation to the work they are doing.

Two new theatre companies in Melbourne provide fascinating alternatives to ‘getting some work under way.’ In their names, Theatre @ Risk and Theatre in Decay both directly face the dilemma of the artform. Robert Reid, the founder, writer and director of Theatre In Decay remembered, “When we started in 2000 all I could hear anywhere is that ‘theatre is in decay’ and I felt that I couldn’t work in this industry without acknowledging upfront that is how we are being seen—so what to do about it?” Chris Bendall of Theatre @ Risk admitted that “naming it was tongue in cheek in that we knew we were going into risk in doing it” but asserted, too, that for him and Victor Bizzotto, directors of the company, the only way to save theatre was by taking risks and by challenging their audience to take them—”to go to a deeper level.”

Theatre @ Risk began this year with an ambitious season of works at the recently opened Blackbox Theatre at the Victorian Arts Centre. The first production was a double bill of the thriller, Polygraph, by the French Canadian writer Robert Lepage and the celebration of cultural miscegenation, The B File, by British writer Deborah Levy. Their second production was Louis Nowra’s urban nightmare The Jungle. They were to mount Austrian writer Thomas Bernard’s Histrionics in December until financial considerations caused them to postpone until next year, when they also plan to present a new play by Chilean, Ariel Dorfman, and to develop a show of multi-languages and voices based on the concept of the Tower of Babel. A key focus for the company is what Bendall describes as “trying to find some meeting point between difference, a collision of languages and cultures.”

On an immediate level, this is to do with an interest in performing shows from around the world that would otherwise not be seen in Melbourne, but it was evident too in the collisions between class, gender, race and occupation in The Jungle—the urban chaos of subcultures. The form the company prefers is one that moves fast between various locations and times, a mixture of strong text with bold physical images, judicious use of music and “a pumped up fast and driving techno energy—abrasiveness and rawness.” It is a theatre for a new breed of educated young theatregoer.

The aim nevertheless is to provide an alternative to mainstream theatre from within the body of the beast. The choice of Blackbox as a venue provides a home right in the heart of the Arts Centre. The texts are ones overlooked by other theatre companies but they are recognisable as theatre texts. The shows get reviewed by mainstream as well as alternative press (Helen Thomson of The Age is particularly supportive). Their aim is to develop the company to the point where it can attract government funding. They are in for the long haul. Their productions are minimal and stripped back but they are stylish and as such demand more cost than the still-growing audience numbers can cover. That is their dilemma. All the work so far has been donated free of charge by artists and crew involved. And the directors have outstanding debts to pay. They set themselves this year to get a following and a name. This they have achieved but it has been at enormous cost, physically and financially. For Bizzotto, in his early 40s, the challenge is a critical one:

There is a part of me which wants to continue to be the independent artist out there being invigorated by the challenge and this other part where I get home and it smacks me in the face—it actually frightens me—I have to support my family and I don’t know how I am going to do that.

Robert Reid’s Theatre in Decay is on another path altogether. Since he founded the company in 2000 they have produced 10 plays, nearly all written by Reid and all directed by him. The plays are of various lengths, some monologues, some dialogue, and some grouped together into longer combinations. They play at various venues around the city: fringe theatres, pubs, on the street. The aim is to get stuff out, as much of it as possible and as often as is humanly feasible. It’s like a guerilla theatre—short plays, coming from unexpected angles, happening in different places, in different contexts, about different issues, in different genres—no sense of building up continuity, more a sense of trying to break continuity. When I asked Reid whether the name of the company suggested that they were trying to rescue theatre or to destroy what we have known as theatre, he nodded in amused understanding and quoted Geoffrey Milne’s comment on the company on the ABC: “one wonders whether they are the solution or the problem.” He admitted, “I’m less and less interested in theatre as an idea.” His focus is fully on the relationship of the audience to the performance.

What isn’t being addressed in most theatre that I go to is audience inclusion; everything feels in the same setup—audience/ stalls/darkness/stage/actors/light—audience sit face front, rank-and-file and are expected to not talk not cough not laugh too loudly, in essence pretend we don’t exist, we exist in our own imaginal worlds and any intrusion from outside interrupts it and breaks it—‘the magic of theatre’. It feels to me like that is a brittle, fragile type of theatre, alienating audiences, because people would much rather be a part of an art event than just witness to one. Very often the work of ours that gets the best response is that where the people can move around, talk to their friends, drink, eat, sing along.

In TID actors pretend to be nothing other than actors and to be nowhere other than where they are: ‘‘What you see is what you see; if the actors aren’t pretending to be someone else and somewhere else the audience doesn’t have to pretend to be no-one and nowhere.” The genre that the company prefers to work in feeds that sense of audience stimulation and inclusion—horror, schlock-horror—because “I enjoy it and actors enjoy it and audiences enjoy it and I don’t see it done on stage often coz it’s very difficult to do horror properly.” He cites an example: “All the Damned Zombies culminated in a scene where 14 actors in a pub each grabbed an audience member and ground their crotches into the audience member’s head with confetti flying everywhere and the sound guy picked up a live chainsaw and ran through. Every single night at the end of the scene people burst into applause; it released something deep in them.” This sense of deeper release is another motive for the choice of genre: “what makes it scary is the constant reminder that humans are fragile—a reminder of our own mortality.”

The focus is also on the politics of human interaction: “the stuff I do as a writer is either horror or politics; more often these days both at the same time. New Scum dealt with sweatshop labour and the attitude of the public towards drug use and addicts. The Girl Who Lived in the Coke Sign Above St Kilda Road was a monologue about homelessness and escaping from homelessness but ending up in advertising.”

Unlike Bendall and Bizzotto’s thoroughgoing vision for the future of their company, Reid is far more circumspect: “I don’t know if TID is the kind of company that gets funding—it’s less important for me to have the funding, partially because I believe that if we can buy our way out of a situation we don’t have to think our way out. I think that TID has a relatively short shelf-life and once it has run its length it will evolve into something else.” In his case, the ‘something else’ is 2 plays to be performed by Australian Theatre for Young People, the possibility of a commission from Playbox and works commissioned for The Storeroom.

While Theatre @ Risk are on the lookout around the world for new images, fresh voices, and working tenaciously to keep their vision alive, Robert Reid sits at his job at Telstra with pen and paper at the ready and listens to the wild voices in his head.

Theatre @ Risk: Chris Bendall & Victor Bizzotto (artistic directors), Kirrilly Brentnall (company manager), Amanda Silk, Rob Irwin & Nick Merrylees (design team) and a loose ensemble of actors.

Theatre In Decay: Robert Reid (writer/director), Anniene Stockton (manager) and a loose company of performers including Telia Nevile, Elliot Summers & Robert Reid. Their current play is All Dressed Up and No-one to Blow, 27-31 Munster Tce, Nth Melbourne, September 25-October 13

RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. 36

© Richard Murphet; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Back to Back, Fishman

Back to Back, Fishman

Back to Back, Fishman

This is the story of an unravelling of progress and evolution. It shows that forward is only one direction we might go: is a forward motion better than a backward motion, or sideways? Better to crawl from the water, get up on your legs and do something sensible on dry land? The fishman went the other way. So his story is told from the end, through the middle, the accident and, finally, the beginning.

The end is death. In the dryness of the Wimmera desert, 50 year old Neil Wilson asphyxiated in his home-made waterproof fish suit—no gills, you see—having completed the journey of his life, travelling upstream while the majority rush the other way. Many people saw Neil Wilson, but never knew who he was until he died. He hung naked at the end of a rope under Toolondo Bridge, with Coke cans slung around his waist and seaweed in his hair. He was a fish on a line. He collected vinyl and plastic from the tip and sewed himself his own scaly skin, head plunged in a bucket for periods of time. His parents asked: “What are you doing with your life?” Fishman: “Something special.”

Back to Back are the right people to explore Fishman. This Geelong-based ensemble, formed in 1987, has a core of performers with an intellectual disability. Director Marcia Ferguson worked with the young cast on this contemporary story, making links with older tales of the Indigenous Bunyip and other monsters. The script and performance style allow and embrace quirky, individual characters who emerge from a strong and focused ensemble and slip back again into their collective base. There are 14 people on stage, then 17. Unusual nowadays to see casts of this size. Unusual to see such a diverse group, all intently focused on their fishwork.

Grainy film of dry land and water is projected onto a corrugated fibreglass curve that defines the performance space—almost the inside of a water tank. Another film shows people in plastic/vinyl fishsuits running in circles, flapping around in forlorn black and white paddocks, stranded on the dry land of normality. Fish out of water. This is also the surface for watery lighting that switches to hard, expressionist angles and shadows.

A live video feed at the side of the stage produces images of little gold fish in a tank, a face distorted through the water and glass, a little puppet motorbike—the bike that Neil should not have ridden the day he crashed, acquiring brain injuries 10 years before his death.

Sounds percolate throughout—murky splashing, thick water sounds, bubbles and breath, popping and flapping. Grabs from radio and TV intrude a hard ‘real life’ sound, so thin and banal against the richness of the abnormal, the interior world in which fishman floats.

All this technology, all these people—it comes together seamlessly and backwards. Good stage management helps, but Back to Back have the ability to create a space in their performances where everything is alright, even a gutted fish left on the stage floor at the end.

Fishman Back to Back Theatre, director Marcia Ferguson, choreographer Phillip Adams, designer Anna Tregloan, film Rhian Hinkley, performers Tara Allitt, Adam Berry, Mark Deans, Rita Halabarec, Nicki Holland, Voula Hristeas, Simon Laherty, Sandy Landers, Shannon Lewellin, Meridin Miller, Joel Pollard, Eric Rebernik, Darren Riches, Jamie Senior, Kylie Trevarthen & Bonnie Trotter; Blakiston Theatre, Geelong Performing Arts Centre, Aug 30-Sept 1

RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. 37

© Mary-Ann Robinson; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

My Head is a Sledgehammer

My Head is a Sledgehammer

My Head is a Sledgehammer

Foreman has to be seen to be believed. Limited to reading about his Ontological-Hysteric Theatre for decades, finally in London in 1997 I saw and believed. Foreman and company were in town with the trademark set–a work of art, black and white perspective lines, props displayed as if from an eccentric collection–along with the admired narrative discontinuities and undoing of ‘character’ which Richard Foreman shared with other New York performance notables of the 70s. It was thrilling to see it all in 3-D. But belief had to sustain a few jolts. This was an even more intensely visual experience than expected–by the end of the performance the set had been re-worked, every prop exploited, perspective re-aligned. Whatever else they were doing, the performers were executing an artwork. A more electric and discomfiting jolt was provided by Foreman’s excessive theatricality. In the early 80s I’d seen works by Mabou Mines, Meredith Monk and Robert Wilson where the revolution against the conventional in theatre, dance and opera had been realised as a startling spareness, time distended, the body foregrounded, language undone, an intensely visual experience. Here I was witnessing something furious, fast, bigger than life that seemed on the one hand kind of old-fashioned, on the other radical, since the over-the-top theatricality was not sustaining the verities of plot or character, but something else altogether, a curious admix of the visual and a disjunctive psychology of displacement, condensation, slippage. It was funny, bewildering, disturbing.

It’s one thing to read that Foreman is funny, it’s another to experience it. It’s funny funny. It’s funny in bits, in the Woody Allen manner–waves of one-liners, inverted aphorisms, one-off nonsenses. As with Allen, on their own these sound like something out of Pop Philosophy I, but they accumulate into something more serious, and ontological, and because they’re not bound by narrative flow, hysterically Freudian. But you do have to grab at the language to get a footing. And bells ring as scenes end abruptly and you feel like Pavlov’s dog, stimulated though in this case not sure of your response.

As has been often commented, Foreman puts his audience in a new phenomenonological relationship with theatre. Once this was radically deconstructive (before the term had even gained currency), and it still can be, though 30 years of contemporary performance have made such gestures familiar. What is important is that Foreman’s is a body of work, 30 creations over as many years, unfolding as would a visual artist’s, a tightly conceived cosmos in which combinations of objects, language and sundry personae enter into new permutations. This is not simply deconstruction, you can’t only define a work of art by what it opposes or explains. It’s a unique way of regarding the world…and theatre. It stands on its own. It’s one man’s vision.

Strange then to see a local company, Kitchen Sink, announce that it was going to do a Foreman–My Head Was a Sledgehammer (1994). In contemporary performance the creator of the work is the one who performs it, embodies it. Not only that, but quite unlike the playscript, which can be realised in many ways, performance comprises multi-planed texts of which language might be just one component. A new interpretation of a playtext is always a possibility. But what do you do with the texts of performance–mimic the total effect? However, some American performance has a strong literary streak: Lee Bruer, Richard Foreman and others offer substantial texts that can be intrepreted in different ways from their Mabou Mines and Ontological-Hysterical Theatre originals, not that it’s likely, but…

Kitchen Sink hit a happy balance–the production is Foreman-like, but no carbon copy. The set evokes a mad collector but has neither the space (Downstairs Belvoir St in its new format) nor the inclination to reproduce Foreman’s pictorial vision. Nor can the one-off ensemble reproduce the heightened physical and verbal poetry of the Foreman team. But they do more than a good job as the driven trio of Professor and Students, head-miked and sound-tracked, more animated than perhaps warranted in a small space, but physically dextrous and incredibly responsive to the (il)logic of the language, and to the abrupt gear changes of scene shifts. Helmut Bakaitas as the Professor is a melancholic seeker of truth, his rich resonating vocal timbre perfect for the god-like delivery of platitudes and his worrying at quandaries: “I make up rhymes, but they don’t rhyme,” “The unintended becomes true…I speak it…it becomes true.” Cartesian neatness and cause and effect count for little in this universe, especially when love enters the picture–the Professor’s collapse is a rivetting moment, a sudden psychological faultine opening up along the surface of abstractions. Melissa Madden Gray teetering on a single ballet shoe
excels physically and vocally, and Benjamin Winspear, swathed in phylacteries and stomping in workers boots exudes frightening power. They are the self-possesed Students, all raw energy and possibilities, the youth the Professor has lost, projections of desire and religious yearnings. Mind you, the riot of imagery and utterance means that it’s hard to put your finger on what you’ve just barely understood before Foreman’s world moves on.

Director and sound designer Max Lyandvert (who worked with Foreman, 1996-97), designer Gabriela Tylesova and the performers (including the 3 “gnomes”–Kiruna Stamell, Diana Cottrell, Amanda Shipley–the mysterious managers of the action), do a fine, engrossing Foreman. If only they’d do more but I’m sure that’s unlikely, their biographies suggest work as interpreters on many theatrical fronts, not the single, dedicated line of performance. As for the master, I recall Richard Murphet commenting in London, after we’d seen our first Foreman, words to the effect: “Isn’t it funny. We’ve finally seen the work of someone who’s influenced our work all these years and it’s great but it’s…too late. Like being in a museum.” Richard remembers then “thinking if not saying ‘The artefact is just as I imagined, perfectly preserved…but somehow not to be touched. The display case may have to be cracked open.'”

Kitchen Sink, My Head Was a Sledgehammer, by Richard Foreman, B Sharp season, Belvoir Downstairs Theatre, Sydney, Aug 9-Sept 2

RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. web

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

Kate Roberts, Jennifer in Security

Kate Roberts, Jennifer in Security

Kate Roberts, Jennifer in Security

Australia’s national women’s theatre company has taken a leaf out of Chekhov’s dramaturgy. Like one of his monologues it delivers its satire with puns, outbursts of mania and direct address. There is also a simple but effective suspense. Instead of a gun being introduced in the first act and begging to be fired by the third, it tempts the audience with a set constructed of hundreds of gleaming, neatly piled, fragile pieces of china. Jennifer may work in a shopping mall and be in Security, as her phallic uniform proclaims. But she is the bull in that china shop as well as the toreador. By the time she has manifested a body of personalities ranging from members of her nagging family to Indian shopkeepers and advisors on the political situation in Dubai, she is ready to swing her baton and let fly. The audience at the performance I attended was so delighted that they asked her to do it again.

Director Catherine Fitzgerald has brought the company a long way towards intimacy with spectators and their environment. Noëlle Janaczewska’s inventive text, for example, was originally written with a Sydney backdrop. At the company’s base in the Port and now in the old Odeon cinema at Norwood, it resonates with Adelaide references. Fifty metres down the street are shopping malls overflowing with crockery, alive with the teenagers and pensioners who might be from Jennifer’s own neighbourhood. There’s even a tortoise in the petshop. Her ingenious movement into the play provoked giggles of wonder.

There were many special dimensions to this performance. Kate Roberts slides into the script as if it were written for her (it was). Like a medium, her skill lies in giving each new character an immediately identifiable indicator to demonstrate his or her presence, the swing of a key-chain, the tug of a coat. Because a large section of the auditorium was filled with Auslan users, a signer gracefully stood behind Roberts and shadowed her entire text. The set took its cue from the kitchenware, a serviceable white square whose corners and intersections marked Jennifer’s pursuits and excursions beyond the mall.

The forum afterwards was a relaxed epilogue that allowed the audience’s curiosity to be satisfied and the company to cement their presence in this precinct of temporarily gathered shoppers. Insecurity may be allowed to peep through the imaginary characters. As theatre the company has its feet surely planted on the ground.

Holy Day comes after, and obliterates, any notion of a happy Silent Night. Rosalba Clemente’s production forcefully justifies her program of lengthy Theatre Lab workshopping. With a cast of 8, and growing confidence in pace and blocking, she plays Andrew Bovell’s ambitious text from silence to crescendo. It is always a pleasure to hear an authentic new voice in the theatre, and Bovell’s is already responsible for several fine scripts, including the film Lantana. Here he writes with a genuine sense of mystery and tragedy. Rather than reciting the plot, therefore, I can best serve this work by attempting to give some idea of its atmosphere.

In a mid-19th century travellers’ refuge on the edge of the desert, 2 white and 2 Aboriginal Australians tell their conflicting and equally atrocious stories. Isn’t this, after all, what constitutes history and the attempt to represent it? Even the best playwrights use metaphors, cadences and journeyman entrance/exit speeches that refuse to come alive until pushed to their limits. Not all the actors are strong enough to bear the weight of their lines, though Kerry Walker‘s Nora and Rachel Maza’s Linda succeed with the economy and timing of a chronometer. Polemic and metaphysical, the play is rarely a sermon. Its questions are too painful. Rather than setting up a hierarchy of good and evil, Bovell should have left them that way. This production has brought out elements that make some words and actions unnecessary. The author might wisely consider cutting or rearranging them.

Cath Cantlon’s set is stark and classic. The single raked floor curls just slightly where it meets the horizon line. With the cyclorama descending but never quite touching, it suggests a vast chart. Downstage action is confined to the thrust, where Cantlon’s typical frugality creates the pub’s interior with chests, and benches that look as if they have supported outback Europeans for a century of storms and desert dusks.

Though the space seems empty, boundaries have subliminally been traced. TERRA NULLIUS appears in copperplate letters, and the ground is marked like the ghost of an ordinance survey with a deluded name: FinePlains. Clemente seizes this map to establish the shifting boundaries of the stories. Blackfella’s land becomes fenced. The only waterhole is cut off. Christianity threatens animism, replacing the Southern Cross with a blazing crucifix. In hoc signo…what? Shall you conquer or be like a child lost in the wilderness? The perennial national doubt is shot through with Bernie Lynch’s eerie soundscape, fading a human scream into the cawing of a crow. The enforced communality of different people trapped in a single environment has always been the stuff of great tragedy. The House of Bernarda Alba and Riders to the Sea show how electrifying this condensation can be. It is greatly to Bovell’s and the State Theatre Company’s credit that they have entered this area instead of remaining safely with comedy, irony or melodrama. There are moments when you might indeed be in the Abbey with Synge or with La Barracca and Lorca. Australia has fought shy of depicting tragedy except in painting, poetry and the novella. Differences overwhelm us, differences between men and women, black and white, straight and queer, convict and free. If Bovell hasn’t yet managed to open these states into a continent, this excellent production remains a vision of it.

Jennifer in Security, Vitalstatistix, writer Noëlle Janaceszewska, director Catherine Fitzgerald, Norwood Odeon, Aug 21 – Sept 8; Holy Day, State Theatre Company of SA, writer Andrew Bovell, director Rosalbe Clemente, Adelaide Festival Centre, Adelaide, Aug 21- Sept 5

RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. 37

© Noel Purdon; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Neil Thomas & Katy Bowman, Museum of Modern Oddities

Neil Thomas & Katy Bowman, Museum of Modern Oddities

Neil Thomas & Katy Bowman, Museum of Modern Oddities

Rudi shows us a domestic exhibit of soap remains scraped from different household sinks—some perfumed, others cracked and worn thin and still others dirty, a paradox of the object ‘dirty soap’. Constance tells us of the convicts and early Australian settlers who used to hold possum races. The greatest champion of them all, Little Jock, has been preserved for posterity, a venerable and desiccated skeleton on display in a specially made case.

In the traditional museum, objects are classified, stored in order to revive and activate official memories, and then they become monumental. In a hardware shop in Johnston Street, Collingwood, we have walked into an archive of the useful and the useless—the Museum of Modern Oddities. Hardware, with a different meaning from the computer term, is the circuitry of the everyday which consists of screws, kitchen utensils, plumbing parts, paint, sink basins, plastic flowers, rope and lengths of timber. Its temporary proprietors are performance artists Neil Thomas and Katy Bowman whose own collection of oddities comes from previous projects, passers-by and visitors. One photo collection of naked feet is classified with the owner’s own data—what they know about feet, do with their feet, and what they think of them. On one page I find the wrinkled, thin feet of my mother; she likes to rub them in oil.

MoMO ostensibly collects ephemera—a young girl keen to contribute went out on the street and picked up bits from the road, broken glass, a stone, black plastic, a rubber band—but in today’s world, ephemera often slips away. Time is faster and faster, we throw away most of what touches our hands, we rarely stop to notice the ordinary, and we don’t often repair things. Things do not emanate ‘quality’ unless they are designer products. But here, the contents of an old shop are in a museum, which a strange twist of time and space makes precious. In the catalogue, I see a collection of Chinese pottery urns. On a shelf, in a neatly partitioned cardboard box, about 20 small, black urns are lined up, with a single white one isolated like a jewel in the middle. Treasures, these are small Bakelite switches, that will never be switched on. So does that redefine ephemera: not objects used in the everyday but things that might have another existence, if we invest them with one? Alan Read writes of “the accumulative power” that derives from the accretions of the everyday and its rich depository of connections with neighbourhood (Theatre and Everyday Life, Routledge, 1993). MoMO collects with care, not just things but memories.

As we leave, Rudi and Constance show us a photo of the man who owned the shop, proudly standing at the door displaying his useful goods which made him special to many. He visited that day, old and a bit unsteady. He is a Polish Jew who lost the top of his finger when it was shorn off in a grinder by the Nazis; perhaps no wonder his life became a collection of tools and bits for others to make sense of. A sensibility that MoMO digs into by remembering and fabricating a story for things
to live by.

Museum of Modern Oddities, Neil Thomas & Katy Bowman, 137-139 Johnston St Collingwood, Melbourne, August 31-November 11, Wed-Sun 12-5pm, free

RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. 38

© Rachel Fensham; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Canberra's CIA theatre company lobbed briefly at PACT Youth Theatre, Sydney with Punch, young Melbourne playwright Geire Kami's take on the puppet classic, Punch & Judy. As Claude Levi-Strauss has it, every variation on a myth simply reaffirms the 'original', so it is in Punch and many other re-workings of a puppet show (in UK composer Harrison Birtwhistle's version Punch traps his victims with wordplay) that has terrified and intrigued generations of children with its primal violence. Punch & Judy has a mythic power rooted in its ritual inevitability. What you look for in new versions is some connection with the present in play with the story's primordial passions. Kami's Punch is an unemployed, failed suicide on the edge of externalising his anger (Judy recommends “getting a job in wrecking”), afraid to look at himself in the mirrors he then must smash. Fantasies of killing the baby left in his care besiege him until, inevitably, he strangles it, the fear of psychosis realised. Bodies pile up in a cupboard and, finally, it's trial by puppets for Punch, as if the complexities of psychology and morality have been reduced to the mechanics of ritual. Even his longed for death is not going to come easy. Sketched like this you can sense some of the play's promise. Had it and the production been more thorough in their contemporary working of the story, Punch might have been a bracing experience. Instead it alternated uneasily between quaint and grotesque, beset by a mixed bag of acting styles and uneven pacing, best when at full throttle and much bigger than life.

CIA, Punch, writer Geire Kami, director David Branson, designer Emily O'Brien, cast David Branson, Susannah Frith, Scott Gooding, Kai Hodgkin, Fabian Prideaux, Phil Roberts, Anna Voronoff, Barb Kraaz, PACT Youth Theatre, July 31 – Aug 4

RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. web

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

The tango is a powerful, popular form of dance and music from Argentina that has long crossed the high-low art divide, achieving an entirely new level of cultural intensity and global reach in the 90s. Progressive jazz producer Kip Hanrahan played a key role, recording Astor Piazolla and ensemble on the Nonesuch label in the 80s with a rare vivdness and depth of sound, capturing the composer’s rich theatricality. The likes of Daniel Barenboim and Gidon Kremer contributed CDs from the classical end of the spectrum in recent years and Piazolla’s orchestral works and opera have enjoyed a quieter if still significant posthumous profile. Sally Potter’s soggy, mid-life crisis movie about the tango added further to the form’s popularity.

To take on the tango is a brave move and in the hands of Rock’n’Roll Circus and director Yaron Lifschitz, the tango, outside the Piazolla soundtrack, is disappeared–a curious piece of magic. The tango becomes mood, the tango as imaginary rather than real. Look, no dancing.

The globalisation of the tango means that like many a World Music, the form has been uprooted and de-cultured. We’re used to this phenomenon and we’re more often than not forgiving. But Tango, by using the very name, sets up expectations that for some us cannot be met. For others, like the rapturous audience I was part of, it was not an issue.

Put all that aside, which is not easy, and Tango is a pretty good show. Though there are a few other things that I’d like to get out of the way first. After more than 20 years of physical theatre in Australia, here is a company that can’t decide whether it is performing a coherent drama or stringing together routines that require show-bizzy bows. Some of the routines have such a theatrical intensity that it seems a sin to applaud, but the performers are asking for it, so… Others are so mundanely a show of skill that they read like fill. Some are too ambitious–the pre-climax chair-tower scaling is so un-confident that real fear creeps into the audience. The lessons are always the same: know where you’re going, don’t do repertoire for its own sake, do what you can do best and integrate it.

Still, I more than like Tango. The performers look good, they can act, they exude a mix of innocence and brooding intensity that is engaging and when Liftschitz fuses these with sudden spectacular flight and intense physical contact, Tango is gripping.

Tango works, but only moment by moment and not as a coherent vision. The Edward Hopper bar-room narrative it promises peters out leaving the female member of the erstwhile triangle right out of the picture–in fact at the top of a very high pile of chairs. The ending, with Dylan’s “I Shall be Released” is only forgiveable because it is sublimely sung (no tango inflections)–but its fit in the scheme of things seems unmotivated. The set similarly mixes muted Hopper with brightly coloured mats, cancelling out the requisite atmosphere. With so much going for it, Tango could have been helped by taking on a writer, and dancing the tango–it seems the right place for it, its potential for physical display enormous.

Rock’n’Roll Circus, Tango, director Yaron Liftschitz, designer Ralph Myers, lighting Jason Organ, performers Ben Palumbo, Lauri Kilfoyle, Andrew Bright, Davey Sampford; Brisbane Powerhouse, Aug 29-Sept 9

RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. web

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

Antonia Baldo

Antonia Baldo

Antonia Baldo

Antonia Baldo is a young Australian who went to London 5 years ago as a student filmmaker. Doctor Akar’s Women is her first play, derived from a film script that never made it to the screen and expanded for its stage life with the expert encouragement of Griffin Theatre Company’s Artistic Director, Ros Horin, for their 2001 Carnivale contribution.

Doctor Akar’s Women is a great read, a deftly constructed, acerbic account of the lives of second generation, middle class Turkish-Australians. The central figure is the general practitioner Doctor Harry Akar, adrift in a cultural limbo, obsessed with the suicide of his father when Akar was 12. Nominally patriarchs, both men are lost in the female world that encompasses them and in which love is a mystery. If the father suffered its withdrawal by his wife, then Akar has refused it to his wife and daughter. In his despair the father turned to a yearning for Turkey, wearing the curled-up-toe shoes—“picked up at the boutique outside Adelaide”—ballooning trousers, praying—“he’d wander round with a compass trying to decide which direction Mecca was in this week”. Less ostensibly, Akar repeats the ritual but only in private and only in a brief, repeated dance, his arms outstretched, says Baldo, “like the wings of an eagle.” When Akar’s medical student daughter baulks at surgical practice on corpses, her career is threatened, and when he encounters an intriguing female patient who has lost her love for life, the doctor’s world is destined for change.

Asked if she knows a man like Doctor Akar, Antonia Baldo says, “I don’t really want to say. He seems to me very real, and he still is a really charismatic guy. He was a political activist in the 60s. I know myself that when I really believe in something I want to act, rather than sit in a pub and talk about it. I’m not like that but I’d love to be, and he would as well, and to care enough. The actor playing him is so right, I can’t bear it sometimes.”

Akar is cruel, he’s blunt and people are blunt back, but he usually has the upper hand. And the playwright, equally, treats her protagonist cruelly. “I don’t think about it. He really has to have his heart broken in the hardest way. She’s the kind of woman [his patient] he’d fall in love with—to make it hard on himself.”

Baldo is not Turkish. Her grandmother on her father’s side was conceived in Italy, born in Broken Hill, and given the middle name “Australia”; Baldo’s mother is English. Although she won’t go into detail, she says the play is autobiographical: “It is a family thing. I’ve cunningly disguised some of my Italian relatives.”

Why a Turkish family, not Italian? Baldo travelled in Turkey, became fascinated with it—“the landscape felt a lot like Australia, it’s huge and got such a mythic feel to it”—and now lives in a London suburb with a large Turkish population. “We did a short film and had to talk to a lot of people in the Turkish community. When I wanted to check on anything in the play I’d run down to the corner shop and ask the guy to verify facts and names and where people came from.” Because of its 2 generational remove from Turkey, the play doesn’t depend on elaborating cultural detail, but what’s there is evocative. Recollections are most likely to be of stories handed down from first generation migrant parents about their younger years in Australia, tales that have acquired the status and mystique of myth. Of her own family Baldo says, “Nothing tangible or enormous has been passed down. I would love it if there had been, to cling to for a sense of place and history. Though the risk is you can end up romanticising like Harry.” One of the joys of Doctor Akar’s Women is the telling and subsequent testing of a particular family myth.

Antonia Baldo has been working on a feature film which, all being well, starts shooting next May. And she’s writing another play, having enjoyed this experience so far. As for her relationship to Australia, “I’ve spent a lot of time wishing I was back, but there’s something about the distance that has made it easier. I find it hard to write anything set in England…everything I imagine is in the form of Australia and set in the middle of nowhere. There’s no middle of nowhere in England.”

Doctor Akar’s Women should be a rich experience. It’s a tough, naturalistic, often cruelly funny play about love over which death ever hovers. And it’s one of the few plays of recent years that goes beyond-the-suitcase to deal with the dilemmas lived out by the children of migrants.

Griffin Theatre Company, Doctor Akar’s Women, by Antonia Baldo, director Ros Horin, designer Catherine Raven; cast: Ana Maria Belo, Sandro Colarelli, Laura Lattuada, Angela Punch McGregor, Slava Orel, Inga Romantsova, Sarah Smuts-Kennedy, George Sais; Carnivale 2001, The Stables, Sydney, October 5-10

RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. 38

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

John Burrt, Nervous

John Burrt, Nervous

John Burrt, Nervous

We have entered the era of Innovation. In this era, the language of hybridity is increasingly lassoed into creative couplings that are expected to yield unforeseen benefits in the areas of technology and the arts. ‘Art and science’ are the buzzwords of the moment. ‘Risk’ sits on the positive side of this equation, and anyone who dares stand still risks falling right over. Yet in the forgotten trenches where small companies and creative individuals fight it out, risk is an increasingly impossible word. Who can afford to take risks in this climate?

John Burtt takes risks with Nervous, his recent 1 hour solo performance at PICA. John is well known for his collaborations with Skadada, but this time he steps on stage without the accoutrements that have become de rigeur in contemporary performance. No pulsing sound, no montage of groovy Troy Innocent images, no elaborate set—just a performer, a microphone and something to say. This is certainly not dance as we know it. Nervous is, however, the most physical of performances. Conflicting impulses converge and erupt as the body becomes an occupied site. The premise is quite simple, perhaps not wholly original. The performer has ingested a Hypermart, a kind of giant shopping/entertainment/conference centre, a hybrid human-machine complete with a security control centre and rogue elevator. The tone is satirical, the pace breakneck, and the performer’s task Herculean. It is not easy to simulate a car chase with one body and a fast-moving tongue.

Nervous is aptly titled. The experience of watching Burtt perform is like seeing a newcomer to the tightrope-walking business attempt to cross Niagara Falls. Can the performer pull it off, keep on track, hold the audience? When he reached safety I applauded heartily, along with the rest of the enthusiastic audience.

There are weaknesses. The script is not always funny. The writing is uneven, and the performance occasionally falters, particularly where Burtt resorts to a Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em campiness. Nervous would benefit greatly from a script-editor and a dramaturg. Despite all this, Nervous remains funny, brave and worthy of attention. Which is why the reception in both the local WA paper and The Australian is cause for comment. I can only conclude that both reviewers fail in that most unquantifiable of graces—generosity. For them the risk implicit in Nervous meant nothing. They didn’t care if John Burtt fell.

“Tedious”, “juvenile”, “silly”, “irrelevant”, wrote Naomi Millet in The West Australian. And, “…his skill is largely wasted in Nervous, because movement has been pared to a minimum.” “Worst of all”, writes Rita Clarke in an equally dismissive review in the Oz, “he doesn’t dance, staying permanently rooted on the spot.” Burtt has committed the fatal mistake of opening his mouth and refusing to move (I am taken with the image of the reviewer as organ-grinder, the performer as monkey. That damned monkey just won’t dance!). But Skadada has always sought to extend itself beyond dance. Text, voiceovers and narration have been integral to its process.

It is the idea of the dancer as actor/comedian that most offends the reviewers. “The problem is,” writes Clarke, “John Burtt has reinvented himself as a comedian. Bad move.” But Burtt has always been in his metier with comedy. Nervous is a shift in the artist’s focus, but it is not without precedent or preparation. There are specific skills that must be learnt by the actor who speaks, and the performer undertook training in these areas in preparation for Nervous. As a dancer, Burtt has long drawn on the potential of the body as a site of comedic catastrophe and local angst. The subtext of Clarke’s review is that dance is somehow unmediated, silent, that it does not dissemble.

Reviews matter greatly, particularly if you live in the far distant West. A bad review can kill a local audience and influence the future national reception of an your work. Speaking for West Australian work, it is apparent that local reviewing remains a mystifying and opaque business.

Artists are faced with a contradiction. On the one hand, the rhetoric of risk suggests that innovation will be its own reward. On the other hand, extending our areas of established practice places an unavoidable question mark over the final outcome of a work. Do we sacrifice certitude for experimentation and open-ended play?

The situation is certainly enough to make us all very nervous.

Nervous, director Katie Lavers, performer John Burrt, Perth Institute of Contemporary Art, July 26-August 4

RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. 12

© Josephine Wilson; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Ever on the lookout for new permutations of real and virtual bodies interacting in performance–as dancers explore and exploit new media–I was struck by a moment in Jonathon Sinatra's Burning In. Writhing at an angle, head to the wall, Sinatra is joined by a larger than life image of himself on an adjoining wall. The first appearance is rather ghost-like and becomes even more so as another shadowy Sinatra separates off from the virtual one. The original anchored dancertwists sharply and quickly, his duplicates duet gracefully, splitting, merging, splitting.

This performance of doubles is in fact 2 performances, one on the pavement alongside parked cars followed by another inside the Omeo Studio. The first evokes nothing less than someone found in the street, struggling to sit up, crawl, stand, grip at unyielding car bodies for support. The essence of the movement is a kind of off-centredness which is repeated in the studio performance, but no longer always from the ground up. Long moments of near stillness are followed by formal and informal patternings of movement and light that open out the studio space. Even where the body seems to move with most certainty (ghosting another double in an often Rosalind Crisp-like choreographic vocabulary) there always seems to be the inclination to fall, to slip out of frame, to settle uncomfortably, to barely rescue the self, making for an uneasy subtext amplified by Mark Mitchell's dream-like lighting, David Corbet's elemental sound score and Peter Oldham's assured video work.

Jonathan Sinatra, Burning In, Omeo Studio

RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. web

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

Anna Tregloan’s remarkable Skinflick contains the gem of a design idea. On cue, the audience has to crawl underneath and into a set that consists of a floor 4 feet above ground level. We the audience sit underneath that floor with just our heads poking out, a series of runways enabling movement before our very eyes. Meantime fairy lights and music promise a magical experience. Working with light and darkness, and a range of costumes and props, a series of meditations occurs. The genre is physical theatre, along with some instances of the spoken word. Moving alongside a large carried mirror, a mutation of corporeal symmetry occurs. An old woman clones herself, hoping to escape the limits of mortality. Swings, furred feet, extreme poses and disguised bodies are moved into unusual shapings for unusual times. The sky opens and ping-pong balls poetically fall and fall like bouncy snowflakes.

There is a somewhat disjointed character to Skinflick, as if the sections were created independently of each other. There is also a sense that the chosen movements could be further developed with a view to the (kin)aesthetics of the piece. Overall, the design of the set and props has a consistency of wondrous creation that is not always reflected in the action. While the performers are skilful and interesting to watch, I'd like to see more of the initial magical promise come true.

Skinflick, direction & design Anna Tregloan, performers Cazerine Barry, Jody Farrugia & Vanessa Rowell, North Melbourne Town Hall, Melbourne, July 26-Aug 11

RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. web

© Philipa Rothfield; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net