Regional arts

Regional arts are enjoying new levels of activity, prominence and support. Innovative models of participation, infrastructure and audience development are emerging as a generation of regional artists are making significant work with an impact far beyond their homes. The interplay between urban, rural and outback artists is also reaching a new level of intensity.

Our original impulse was to do a brisk national survey of innovations in regional arts practice and support networks, but the enormous volume of activity in New South Wales alone suggested we start there before moving on to other states in later editions of RealTime. While we were preparing this edition, Meeting Place, Regional Arts Australia’s 2004 conference, was being held in Horsham, Victoria with record attendances, forums, exhibitions and performances.

Space and Place, a hybrid performance work at the conference by Victorian regional artists, featured interactive animation, music, aerial dance and shadow play on the 27m high Natimuk silos, attracting an audience of 2,500 to a town of 480 people. The work was directed by Jillian Pearce and performed by physical theatre company Y Space, with animations and still projections by Dave Jones, puppetry and shadow play by young people from Natimuk led by local artist Mary French, choral music and sound by Warburton artist Santha Press and the Wallup Mara Indigenous dance group directed by Farren Branson. Another work on the conference program, Fire Dog—Smoke Lizard combined sculpture, neon, fireworks and sound on the Wimmera River and its banks.

More regional arts & film

There’s more from the regions in our reports from the Darwin Festival, in multimedia performance group Bonemap’s northern Queensland collaboration with British artist Simon Whitehead and, also from Cairns, JUTE Theatre’s My of course life at the Brisbane Festival as well as their collaboration with Darwin’s Knock-em-Down Theatre on Surviving Jonah Salt, for the Darwin Festival. We also report on FTI’s Making Movies Roadshow which teaches participants, often young Aboriginal people in regional areas of Western Australia, how to script, film and edit short movies.

Performance Space turns 21

2004 continues to be a year of birthdays, the most recent and one of the most significant being Sydney’s Performance Space celebrating 21 years of nurturing and hosting performance, dance, visual arts and debate. See our cover and a report on the celebratory events, reflections on the history of the space and a polemical reponse to how we think about it. Many Happy Returns Performance Space! RT

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg. 3

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

Linsey Gosper, 2NDSK1N: Modern Machine Girls series

Linsey Gosper, 2NDSK1N: Modern Machine Girls series

The nurturing and celebration of innovative art are in evidence right across New South Wales. Distance, once a tyranny, has become a virtue as towns and communities embrace the arts as means for expressing local distinctiveness, at the same time reducing the sense of cultural distance between city and country. The interplay between urban, rural and outback artists is increasingly complex and rewarding with city artists moving to the country for the short or long term, collaborating and workshopping with regional artists who in turn are influencing the shape of things to come.

Our survey of regional arts in New South Wales is the first of a series taking us around Australia. You’ll read about innovative events like Electrofringe and Live Sites in Newcastle, unsound in Wagga Wagga, the exhibiting of new media and video art in Broken Hill and Bathurst and beyond, the revival of rural cinemas and a surge of new filmmaking in numerous towns, and regenerative community development through workshops and projects driven by committed artists. There’s also much state government support and encouragement and a progressive regional arts infrastructure which encourages self-determination.

Once upon a time, cultural deprivation outside of Australia’s major cities was addressed by taking art to the countryside. Nowadays, Regional Arts NSW (RANSW), the peak body for the arts and community cultural development in regional and rural NSW, declares that it is “fostering and enhancing the capacity of regional communities for sustainable, self-determined cultural development.” Of course, that doesn’t mean the end of touring art to regional centres; in fact the case for touring grows even stronger as urban and regional artists search for new audiences and markets within Australia as well as overseas. Wollongong-based Circus Monoxide, for example, casts its touring net widely across NSW.
Linsey Gosper, 2NDSK1N: Modern Machine Girls series

Linsey Gosper, 2NDSK1N: Modern Machine Girls series

RANSW’s comprehensive quarterly magazine, ArtReach, reveals the enormous extent of contemporary arts activity across the great distances of the state and reveals the organisation’s capacity to co-manage the big picture with 13 Regional Arts Boards (RABs) around the state. This network services over 100 local government areas over 662,000 square kilometres, with a population of 1.7 million people and some 1200 local arts and cultural groups.

As a peak organisation RANSW acts as advocate and lobbyist, and is involved in audience development, collaborative marketing and cultural mapping. Additionally, it offers seed funding for one-off community projects as well as major funding to 2 to 3-year projects, and advises on governance and administration. RANSW communicates with the sector through ArtReach, its website and an e-Bulletin. Financially, RANSW CEO Victoria Keighery explains, “The core budget is largely provided by the NSW Ministry for the Arts, but it is local government contributions that increase the capacity and reach of an RAB” (ArtReach, March 2004). Federal funds for regional development add to the budget.

The RABs comprise representatives from local arts groups and councils, from local government, tourism, community organisations, individual artists and community members. Each employs a Regional Arts Development Officer (RADO) who manages the delivery of cultural programs in their area. Regional Arts NSW acts as the secretariat for the RABs and RADOs as well as assisting with their recruitment, supervision and coordination.
Linsey Gosper, 2NDSK1N: Modern Machine Girls series

Linsey Gosper, 2NDSK1N: Modern Machine Girls series

The NSW Ministry for the Arts statistics on cultural participation in the state show that people who live outside Sydney collectively make good audiences as well as potential arts practitioners. They make up a large part of the population, 21% to 32%, who attend galleries, cinemas, museums, libraries, popular and classical music concerts, theatre, dance and opera performances (www.arts.nsw.gov.au/ pubs/NSW_Cultural_data/cultdata.htm). The refurbishment of old cinemas in country towns and the building of new arts centres (some with cinemas as well as theatre, gallery and workshop spaces) will doubtless strengthen attendance levels and suggest that Playing Australia, Visions Australia and Mobile States will all play major roles in the future of Australia’s arts.

A significant initiative in this era of networks and clusters has been the NSW Ministry for the Arts 2003 appointment of Clarissa Arndt as Cultural Development Broker for the Lower Hunter region—Newcastle and the local governments of Lake Macquarie, Port Stephens, Maitland and Cessnock. Brokerage is the latest of a string of terms borrowed from business to enter the arts, with Arndt “to play a key role in building and facilitating partnerships across the arts, community, private and education sectors in the Lower Hunter region”, said then Director of Arts Development, Susan Donnelly. This appointment is no mere ‘top-down’ imposition but a response to some significant and idiosyncratic activity much of it from young artists in Newcastle exemplified by the Octapod Association and the This Is Not Art festival incorporating Electrofringe. The 2 Til 5 Youth Theatre, Newcastle Region Art Gallery and Rocketart gallery also play key roles.

The arts are crucial in the regeneration of Newcastle. Theatre Kantanka’s Michael Cohen has moved from Sydney to Newcastle to manage Newcastle Live Sites, a free cultural events program designed to enliven the city, taking place in 6 public spaces. It has included concerts, dance, circus, a Legs on the Wall workshop, a fire spectacle (with 500 jumbo-sized burning candles, 3 commissioned sculptures including a gigantic burning brazier, 4 burning log sculptures and public lantern-making); installations (eg illuminated tents created by artists Vicki Sienczuk and Caroline Hale, and sculptors, performers, artists and craftsmen creating contraptions from scrap material, under the direction of Stalker Theatre’s Joey Ruigrok van der Werven); the Reeldance dance-on-film program; and a wide range of music from gypsy and swing to electronica and the truly eclectic Randai Circus Project. True to the pervasive contemporary principle of partnership, the program is jointly funded by the Newcastle Alliance, the Honeysuckle Development Corporation, the Newcastle City Council and the NSW Ministry for the Arts.

The report on regional arts in NSW on these pages can only be introductory, offering some sense of the context in which artists practise, the support and networks available, and the vital interplay of local, regional, national and international that is part of the emerging picture of regional arts. You see this in the current Newcastle Region Art Gallery’s Auto Fetish, The Mechanics of Desire (www.autofetish.com), a contribution to the city’s hotted-up car culture with, for example, images from Bill Henson side by side with Newcastle photographers including Linsey Gosper whose work featured on the cover of RealTime 62. Electrofringe mixes international new media innovators with locals in an event that draws artists, emerging and established, from across Australia to its workshops, forums and events. At the same time, regional artists develop on their own terms. This dialectic of independent development and mutual influence is vital to the evolution of regional arts. Rachael Vincent, editor of ArtReach writes in “Finding the voice of many in one” that RANSW could be thought of “as a decentralised organisation made up of diverse components, each with their own distinctive needs and characteristics. But we are also a group, which must at times speak with a singular voice…” (ArtReach, March 2004; www.regionalartsnsw.com.au). As Fiona Martin’s account of the arts on the NSW North Coast makes clear, local cultural ecology can evolve in complex ways, breeding its own identity and networks of support. The very acknowledgment of that difference, created in part by distance, is fundamental to the future of regional arts.

Newcastle Region Art Gallery’s Auto Fetish, The Mechanics of Desire, Nov 27-Jan 23

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg. 4

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

<img src="http://www.realtime.org.au/wp-content/uploads/art/8/863_martin.jpg" alt="Samaan Michaelis, Spirit of the Walking Dead,
Shearwater Wearable Arts Awards”>

Samaan Michaelis, Spirit of the Walking Dead,
Shearwater Wearable Arts Awards

Samaan Michaelis, Spirit of the Walking Dead,
Shearwater Wearable Arts Awards

From outside the NSW North Coast, Byron Bay might seem like the region’s creative omphalos. In this Newtown-by-the-beach you can’t move for poets, musicians, digital artists and visionaries. Everyone has a project. But most are just in town for coffee; artists can barely afford to live in the Bay since real estate prices hit the million plus mark. In recent years it’s more the territory of Richard Florida’s “super creatives”: retired/cashed up entrepreneurs, architects and arts executives, or those temporarily escaping the rigours of urban life.

But while wealth gravitates to Wategos Beach, the cultural ecology of the Rainbow Region is far more complex than one boho-luxe holiday spot. You have to look to the hills and valleys in the distance for creativity beyond the consumption. They host a cultural legacy based as much on alternative philosophy, spirituality and politics as a marketable lifestyle, and driven increasingly by what media studies scholar Helen Wilson describes as the “simultaneous attraction and repulsion of the city.”

Byron Shire, the most urbane of ruralities, is certainly part of the reason the North Coast ranks second among Australia’s regional areas in attracting creative professionals. It has a domestic arts tourism profile with its Blues and Roots and Writers’ festivals. Outside Sydney and Melbourne it has the highest concentration of screen industry professionals, who in 2003 hosted the first regional Australian International Documentary Conference. Briefly a radical pulse on the global electronica/rave scene, Byron is settling into the economic comfort and social hybridity of a reliable backpacker destination. However these are 1990s phenomena, pushed on by the continuous flow of bodies from polis to province.

Besides its robust Bundjalung Indigenous heritage, the coastal area from the Tweed down to Grafton has a surprising cultural vitality and distinctiveness rooted in older migrations. In documenting its transformation from a declining rural region in the 1960s to the artistic idyll of the new millennium, the essay collection Belonging in the Rainbow Region (Helen Wilson ed, Southern Cross University Press) reaches an interesting consensus. The region’s creative profile owes most to the waves of surfers and then hippies who came to the North Coast in the early 1970s, settling in the hills and valleys around Mullumbimby, then Nimbin and beyond. The influx of these “alternate seekers”, as historian Peter Cock calls them, prompted an invitation from the Australian Union of Students to host a national counter-cultural event, the 1973 Nimbin Aquarius Festival. Despite a 30 year dilution of the ideals that fuelled Aquarius—an anti-capitalist, non-violent, anarchist, back to the earth celebration—the moment arguably continues to resonate strongly throughout the region’s creative life.

Former Aquarian Christopher Dean is now one of the area’s major arts philanthropists and owner of Ballina’s Thursday Plantation Industries, producers of ti-tree oil and natural therapies products. Among other events he funds an annual acquisitive sculpture award, the largest such outdoor show in regional Australia (www.sculptureshow.net). Robert Bleakley, founding director of Sotheby’s Australia, had a juice stand at the festival. An avid art collector, he now identifies an emerging school of “Northern Mysticism”, including works by William Robinson. Bleakley rejects simplistic New Age tags for the movement, emphasising its theoretical depth and diversity, from deep ecology to shamanic spirituality.

A similar transformative aesthetic imbued Mullumbimby’s fourth annual Shearwater Wearable Arts Awards, Southern Mandala, Gondwana Opalescence. The event, which attracts textile artists from across the country and involves an entire Steiner school, local TAFEs, musicians and performers, demanded entrants re-interpret the panoply of Australian mythos, with spectacular, provocative result (www.shearwater.nsw.edu.au/wearables_frmset.html).

More pervasive Aquarian ripples have spread from the region’s intentional communities, many of which were formed after the 1973 festival as a rejection of suburban consumerism (www.abc.net.au/rn/utopias). The North Coast is now home to Australia’s highest concentration of these groups. They usually share a common ethical vision and also often share land, facilities, work and decision-making. Contrary to popular myth, they aren’t retreats for drug-fucked layabouts.

Communitarians have been instrumental in establishing the region’s craft market economy, and supporting the growth of community arts. They slowly popularised the idea of sustainable housing, provoking building code and planning reforms, developing early domestic solar energy technologies and promoting eco-waste disposal technologies such as composting toilets and reed bed filters. They fought the seminal Terania Creek forest battle, giving birth to Australia’s direct action environmental campaigns (Pegasus networks, Australia’s first public internet provider was launched in 1989 at the Terania protest site).

That communitarian ethic bolsters a broader collaborative arts and performance practice: the Piece Gallery Printmakers, Nimbin Feltmakers, Byron Filmmakers Co-op and the many community arts festivals. The ethic segues neatly from older bush traditions of resource sharing, and sparks cross-fertilisation, such as when lantern makers team up with fire-workers to travel the country, or video-makers, philosophers, historians, performers and composers come together to recreate NORPA’s archetypal Flood (see RT 61, p55). It’s an environment that belies the cliches underlying cheap shots taken at ageing hippiedom. It also runs counter to the liberal argument that bohemia’s anti-mainstream ethos is a spent force, or the more recent ‘creative classes’ thesis that the counterculture’s primary legacy was Silicon Valley, with its momentary challenge to the aesthetics and experience of work. North Coast alternate seekers are still looking for meaning, and still rocking the boat.

There are predictable ecological tensions. You often encounter a Byron-is-not-us sentiment among hinterlanders, who deride its urban facade and design-is-all attitude. Nimbinians, bypassed by the real estate boom, and affluent sea-changers regard the Bay as a place afflicted with a comfortable conservatism. There’s certainly more edge at the Nimbin Performance Poetry Cup than in the marquees of the Writers Festival.

Then there’s that metropolitan ambivalence. City immigrants tend to dominate cultural planning and snap up the available arts jobs, leaving locals to carry an unenviable volunteer load. And there’s a curiosity. With all this talent flooding into the area and all the elements of a Florida-type renewal apparent, why have the region’s creative industries failed to take off and provide serious employment, rather than a handful of part-time or project based jobs?

Other struggles are bureaucratic: public liability costs demand small performing arts groups take no risks, broadband connections are endlessly delayed and unsustainable funding strategies are devised in metropolitan areas. Despite being key players in regional innovation, many local councils are only now developing cultural plans, pushed on by ministerial edict. Some are still debating what culture is or might include. So it’s the Tweed, not Byron Shire, which has won Bob Carr’s 2-year City of the Arts grant, with an ambitious cultural development strategy. The area’s voracious developers happily fund arts initiatives and market their arid coastal estates as eco-friendly. I doubt this was what the Aquarians had in mind, but it’s a fine line between transformation and co-option in the exodus north. Marcuse might have said “I told you so…”

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg. 6

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

Barka Dreaming Art Camp (see note at end of article)

Barka Dreaming Art Camp (see note at end of article)

Barka Dreaming Art Camp (see note at end of article)

For art’s sake

“It’s been frustrating, it’s been hard, it’s been a matter of faith; and at times I’ve thought, ‘This is crazy, no one cares about the performing arts here’—but it’s also been the best working life I’ve ever had.” Lee Pemberton was an independent dance professional in Melbourne in 1997 when she felt the need for a break. She found Bega on the far south coast of NSW, had a rest, a sea change and never went back to Melbourne. Two years later, though, her hunger for dance was such that she set out to create a totally unlikely professional existence for herself in a region of cheese-making and fishing, holiday houses and skiing. Now Fling is the only regional contemporary dance company in New South Wales and one of only a small number of youth dance companies in Australia. It’s hosted workshops this year by urban pros Legs on the Wall, B Boy Swipa and Tess de Quincey, has a 9-community tour lined up for December, and is planning a season in Sydney next year.

“There’s no doubt that Fling exists because I’m a dancer, not because of local demand or as a community arts exercise”, Pemberton acknowledges. “So the outside experts were selected because of my interests—they’re a life support for me, and for the kids (aged 14 to 20) who’d soon get sick of me otherwise. I think we also gave them (the townies) a living and breathing space down here. But their work has to be blended in with Fling’s identity as a youth dance company and a regionally based one, doing work like A Dictionary of Habitats (2004), all about local environments.”

Survival and support

But how does Fling survive, even with an audience of 1000 over 8 performances for A Dictionary of Habitats? Well, it began when Pemberton marched into the NSW Arts Ministry and asked its Performing Arts and Regional officers, “How do I go about dancing in Bega?”. They were able to introduce her to the newly created system of 13 Regional Arts Boards (RABs), each with a Regional Arts Development Officer (RADO) and a Board made up from local shires and community representatives. Each RAB sends a representative to Regional Arts NSW, making for an administrative centre that isn’t about urban patronage. In the words of CEO Victoria Keighery, it’s “an outside/in model. We’re only here in Sydney to keep the profile of regional arts in the face of governments—State and Federal.”

The State is the major funder of RANSW and of the RADOs, currently to the tune of $1.5 million a year. It also funds a City of the Arts for 2 years—currently Tweed Shire—at $300,000. But there’s a surprising amount of other money out there, especially at election time: local councils co-funding the RADOs and the Federal Government’s heavily promoted Regional Arts Fund. Then there’s Playing Australia for touring and Visions Australia, which both come out of DCITA (Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts), and a comparable heritage program.

The key policy areas touted by the Ministry are summed up in the notion of active regional cultures. Regional galleries, for instance, are no longer funded on the basis of their collections, but on what they do with them and with artists. Performing arts companies like NORPA (Lismore) and Hothouse (Albury) have developed a double-barrelled producing/presenting model. New arts centre buildings like those in Port Macquarie and Gunnedah are not a “lumping together” of competing artforms in the name of economics but a “contemporary practice-driven combination” of facilities. Only in the Indigenous area has NSW been let down by a national system that fails to fund fairly by population numbers, meaning that local Indigenous organisations also dealing with housing and health are all too often overwhelmed before they even get to the arts.

Another significant factor is the different rural cycles of life. “You always have to know when harvest time is”, says the Ministry’s Kim Spinks. South West Arts RAB and RADO must have learnt that early because they’ve got a swag of projects up at Hay, such as Marion Borgelt turning her gallery mandala into a 3-dimensional maze as part of the Shear Outback project, and the earthy Outback Theatre doing workshops with Sydney’s gritty PACT Youth Theatre in their ongoing collaboration (RT53, p35).

Art solutions

There’s still more movement from the city to the bush than the other way around, despite the fact that 35% of NSW is country, compared to just 20% in Victoria and WA. But Vic Keighery foresees a reversal of that pattern. “It’s all new and fresh out there, with few competing models. We’ll soon be importing their ideas on arts tourism and program management, I bet. And there may be fewer teaching jobs for artists out there [except in music, with conservatoriums seemingly popping up everywhere], but the Lee Pembertons will stay where they are if the means are provided to keep working.”

North West Regional Arts RADO Jack Ritchie goes even further: “It’s so exciting—there always seems to be a solution, though it may take some time to discover it.” The former stage and film designer sought a mountain change 13 years ago, returning to his family home of Glen Innes. When Arts North West needed a RADO, he applied, got the job, and justified his new office being in Glen Innes. His patch spreads from Walcha to the Queensland border, and westwards from the ridges of the Great Dividing Range out to Moree. Solutions for Ritchie have come from “good partnerships”, which include a Board that mixes brilliantly with the Sydney pollies and a number of projects with the Big hART team who seem to be able to charm money from a range of both political and financial trees. Their recent film on alcohol abuse in Moree was hailed as “a masterpiece” by no less than State Minister John Della Bosca.

“Since 1998”, says Ritchie, “it’s been increasingly possible to use the arts to examine social issues. Non-arts sources will happily fund work involving young people with multiple disadvantages out here. What’s hard is for our young people to access the professional arts.”

Which is why the Carr government started a $1.9 million Arts Access program this year. So far it’s brought kids from remote areas into a visual arts workshop and allowed them to experience touring professional theatre. It’s also brought 2 isolated arts teachers into professional placements, with Coonabarabran’s Di Suthons spending 4 weeks with an Australian Chamber Orchestra that itself has recently discovered a regional/educational responsibility.

“Coonabarabran can support a thriving painting community”, says Suthons. “But it’s impossible to imagine a career as a muso there. “We had a visiting singing teacher from the Tamworth Con for a time; but her successor didn’t want to stay overnight. And we’ve managed some video conferencing for wind players with Mark Walton at the Sydney Con. But parental support for the cost of instruments and lessons is always hard to maintain—enthusiasm needs to be regenerated all the time. A conservative area doesn’t see much point in a continuing music education. But after the ACO educational event in Parkes, where Peter Sculthorpe worked on an arrangement of a Tim Whitlam song, I’m dreaming of something in Coona linking our Siding Springs telescope and the stars to composition.”


And yet Di Suthons seems to have it easy compared to projects like Luke Robinson’s Paddock Bashin’ in Coonamble, or Kate Reid’s remarkable Brewarrina kids circus. Both are specialist artists transporting their skills westwards to work with Indigenous youth. But a comparison of the 2 projects reveals that the social one (Robinson’s) was much easier to set up, with the Attorney-General’s Department leaping on board with funds, while Reid sat out 3 years to raise the money for an artistic and skills-based effort. And now she’s doing it voluntarily from a house she bought herself when no other accommodation was available: “I just can’t walk away”, she insists sadly; “too many have walked away from these kids before.”

Both crave sustainability for their efforts, but doubt whether it’s achievable. Luke Robinson sees his mix of the physicality of drumming, the permanence of a percussive piece of public art, and the organisational skills that have already led to a youth council and a new local park, as worth franchising to other communities. “Sport hasn’t worked by comparison—it always leaves the weakest out”, he explains. “But there is a resistance to ‘the arts.’ And getting people to take ownership is hard. The schools in particular are so under-resourced.”

Kate Reid dreams of Brewarrina having a circus strand in its school that would attract specialist teachers and undoubtedly boost the 20% attendance rates achieved currently. But the educational, police and medical professionals in town are all temporary, all straight out of college, with no cultural training and no commitment. “It’s a punishment posting” she assesses. “It’s a really racist town; I couldn’t believe it. Yet somehow we took 30 kids who’d spent their lives running away from people to the Adelaide Fringe, put on 10 shows in a row…and had tears at every show. Back home, the video of the show makes people burst with pride every time they see it. Yet I’ve no idea whether it’s sustainable.”

More than art

So it ain’t all a bowl of cherries out there, despite an official spin suggesting that getting the infrastructure and the funding must lead to top people being attracted to the regions. But I can’t deny developing a warm feeling that, while in the cities, a certain pride is taken in producing art that’s hermetic and inscrutable, out bush, as Vic Keighery put it, “artists are not producing for a homogenised, commercialised market, it’s about where they live.” Is it a bit like religion? Just as the social and political aspects of church life are being expunged by uncaring fundamentalists all over the world, so art about Art has excluded community and social benefit from the equation. Except in the country.

Photo: The Barka Dreaming Art Camp was a Year of the Outback event organised by West Darling Arts, the Central Darling Shire and Far West Health. The 3-day camp brought together young Indigenous people from the remote communities of Wilcannia, Dareton, Broken Hill, Ivanhoe and Menindee to introduce them to contemporary and traditional artforms and learn about their shared culture. One of the outcomes was the creation of 3 large charcoal drawings, each made up of 52 smaller drawings. The one here is a portrait of a Barkanji elder, Mrs Lulla King. It was installed in the main hall of the community centre. Two local Barkanji boys performed a dance for the elders of Menindee just prior to the community hall being decorated for that night’s NAIDOC Week celebrations in 2002.

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg. 8

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

Eric Singer, GuitarBot

Eric Singer, GuitarBot

Eric Singer, GuitarBot

Electrofringe, the new media arts component of the This Is Not Art festival, has grown to the point where no single review can be comprehensive. There were 95 events over 5 days including panels, workshops, showcases and screenings. Over 80 contributors competed for the attention of an audience of artists, students, musicians and experimentalists.

One of the traditions of Electrofringe that allies it with academic conferences is the importation of an international luminary to cast an air of dignity over the proceedings. Eric Singer (ericsinger.com), a quietly spoken American, is one of the founders of LEMUR (League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots, www.lemurbots.org), a collective specialising in the design and construction of robotic instruments. Since its establishment, LEMUR has been responsible for a whole range of semi-autonomous noise-making machines, including the enigmatic TibetBot, a robot that plays Tibetan Buddhist bells like a demented carillon.

Singer was in Newcastle specifically to show off GuitarBot, an instrument that consists of 4 single string slide guitars complete with robotically controlled picks and servo-controlled moving bridges. Because the units resonate independently, each string can be played at a different rhythm and a different pitch, allowing for an uncanny range of tonalities. The GuitarBot then receives instructions from a controller unit which might feed it a prewritten score, or instructions generated in real time in response to a live stimulus. That stimulus can come in the form of a musician, as when GuitarBot played a live duet with the Japanese violinist Mari Kimura in New York. Each unit is approximately 3 feet in length. When on a stand, GuitarBot is at least 7 feet high and jerks and bobs on its suspension as the heavy bridges race up and down their tracks. In performance, it towers over its humanoid collaborator like a monstrous venus flytrap.


In keeping with the theme of this year’s Electrofringe, GuitarBot was not the only musical robot in attendance. Also present was CeLL (www.cell.org.au), a creation of Nick Wishart (an original member of Toy Death) and Miles Van Dorrsen, having already made appearances at the Big Day Out and Bondi’s Livebait festival. CeLL is a shipping container fitted out with pneumatic rams that beat against the sides and frame turning the entire structure into a giant percussion instrument. The sound of the container being repeatedly punched by pistons is accompanied by giant xylophones and klaxons, all controlled via MIDI. The resultant cacophony has to be heard to be believed. CeLL sounds like an orchestrated shipping yard. Except louder.

If Eric Singer played the role of international star at this year’s festival, George Poonkhin Khut was a surprise local hero. His presentation represented the eclecticism and professionalism of Electrofringe at its best. Khut kept a small disorderly audience enraptured for over an hour in what was essentially a highly technical presentation. He works with biofeedback technologies to generate multimedia environments. In lay terms, he takes the pulse and measures the respiration of a volunteer. This information is then converted into MIDI signals (a stream of integers no different from those produced by a keyboard synthesiser) which are used to drive video and sound installations through the interpretive device of a Max patch. Max is a visual programming language that can receive and give information in multiple formats, allowing programmers to develop virtual devices, known as Max patches, to control their robots or steer video installations.

The participant in Khut’s work hears a shifting sequence of tones, depending on their heart rate, and sees a delicate pattern of concentric circles that expand and contract, the old annuli slowly collapsing into themselves to produce the impression of a 3-dimensional tunnel-of-breath. To see the patterns generated was mesmerising, but to participate was downright astonishing. Strapped into a chest-expansion measurement belt with a pulse reader attached to my wrist, I found myself steering the generation of an eerie landscape of which I had only partial conscious control. It had never before occurred to me that my pulse rate and inhalation were directly connected. A long, deep exhalation immediately lowers the heart rate. I experienced this as a deepening tone as the tunnel before my eyes contracted, and an ascending tone as it expanded. It was akin to the sort of discovery one might make after many arduous weeks of meditation in Zen boot camp, but without any of the exertion.

The discovery of the ability to influence our autonomic physical processes gave biofeedback technology its name. The technology itself dates back to the 1960s and has been studied in psychology departments and experimented with by self help gurus ever since. There is even a product on the market called CEO that allows you to see your own brainwaves for the putative purposes of self improvement. What makes Khut’s work so significant is that it brings this technology into an entirely new context. He transforms an esoteric science into an artform, fulfilling the Electrofringe promise of cross-fertilisation. It’s a difficult trick to pull off, and one that can easily degenerate into a pretentious exchange of overheated metaphors. Khut’s ability to act as midwife for his mutant project is facilitated by his excellent bedside manner—although his job title is ‘artist’, his air is of a reserved and observant scientist.

Finally, at this transitional zone of science and art, mention of Matt Gardiner’s Oribotics (www.oribotics.net) must be made. The Oribots are robotically driven origami, a group of which were exhibited at the Newcastle Region Art Gallery for the duration of Electrofringe. The Oribots began as small, compact units, and then, to the whirring of servo motors, unfolded themselves into full bloom. Lit from above by kaleidoscopic lights, the delicate paper structures seemed animated by a desire to be flowers, whose form they closely resembled. Some, and I should stress I saw them late in the festival, had so eagerly tried to become flowers that they had animated themselves out of existence. Unfolded to the point of disconnecting from the fine wires that held them in form, the dead Oribots twisted helplessly on their motorised supports.

The message at Electrofringe this year was one of inclusion: we’re all behind the Wizard’s curtain here. Anyone can be an artist, anyone can get involved. This attitude is a political one. By building robots out of everyday objects, by appropriating pop music to make mash-ups, by wiring your computer to your heart, you are fighting the overwhelming media stream. It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you co-opt, disassemble and invent. Or as the directors of this year’s festival put it: replicate, automate, infiltrate.

Electrofringe, directors Gail Priest, Wade Marynowsky, Emma Stewart, various venues, Newcastle, Sept 30-Oct 4, www.electrofringe.net

Volunteers play an important role in Electrofringe. To keep yourself informed or to participate, sign up to the mailing group at: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/electrofringe/

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg. 9

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

Clare Cooper

Clare Cooper

Clare Cooper

unsound04 featured 2 days and nights of installations and performance marked by a wonderful sense of community generated by the generosity, humour and hospitality of those involved. The evening program included performances by Team Red, Lawrence English, Clare Cooper, The Von Crapp Family, Dirt Bones Assembly, The Re-mains, Bureau Infidel, Sleepville, Garry Bradbury, Lucas Abela, spbaker, ffwuc and Oren Ambarchi.

Many of these deserve more attention than space allows, and some of the performances incorporated video components that seemed underdeveloped and unnecessary. Lucas Abela’s performance lived up to expectations, with the artist, a piece of glass and an electronic current fusing in a dynamic and sustained scream evocative of the moment of birth of Frankenstein’s monster, or a cathartic electrified cunnilingus. Oren Ambarchi’s deft improvisation was an engaging, rapidly evolving stream of sound. The Von Crapp family were fantastic: the youngest family member lashed out on a mini-drum kit while dad cut up a guitar and the eldest boy played kazoo, standing in crucifixion pose and dressed in a black KKK outfit. An apt antidote to John Howard’s ‘family’-oriented policy platform and its mule-like braying of Barbie and Ken normality. However, while the performances were satisfying it was the installation program that separated unsound from other festivals.

Mutable Landscapes, a program of 7 site-specific collaborative artworks, is the brain-child of unsound04 curator and project manager Sarah Last. On Saturday and Sunday audience members travelled on a bus to visit the installation sites scattered around the surrounding countryside. The bus ride itself became a significant experience with opportunities to talk and build anticipation for the next work. Each installation was allocated a minimum of 45 minutes of listening/viewing time, allowing for a slow process of exploration, consideration and discussion.

Melissa Delaney and Dominic Redfern worked together in the print workshop of the now abandoned University Visual Art Department. Their installation was perhaps the most considerate of local factors and existing content, a vivid and articulate multi-channel sound and video work. Melissa and Dom are interested in the reappropriation of space by nature, but I read the work as highlighting the absence of life—human or vegetable—within an apparently functional building. The sound composition was particularly memorable; a series of sound screens, discrete walls of mass temporarily thrown into life.

Oren Ambarchi and minus eleven error (Johannes Klabbers) presented an installation in an unlit old train carriage. The audience moved through and sat in the compartments which each contained a particular sound. Big waves of bass were felt as much as heard, with the connecting passageway containing a voice (Joseph Beuys) muttering “nee, nee, nee” at one end and “ja, ja, ja” at the other. The raw physicality of the bass contrasted with the simple philosophy of the speech, with the repetition of both parts making for a slightly hypnotic sense of abstraction.
Michael Graeve & Scott Howie, sound installation, Junee Railway Roundhouse

Michael Graeve & Scott Howie, sound installation, Junee Railway Roundhouse

Michael Graeve & Scott Howie, sound installation, Junee Railway Roundhouse

Michael Graeve and Scott Howie’s installation, comprising edited field recordings and domestic turntables, was set in the Junee railway round-house, a circular structure with some 35 locomotives around the edge and a rotating turntable in the centre. It was from the centre of this turntable that the work was best experienced. The strongest aspect of the work was its use of the building’s scale, with sounds projected at the audience from across what felt like a great distance. The composition co-existed with the feel of the workshop itself—strong material at a quiet pace.

A third installation at the railway round-house was Parallax by Lawrence English and Adam Bell. Set in a small 2-room structure, the work featured the sound of a slow drip and a self-destructing speaker amplified by a 40 gallon drum. While the work contrasted nicely with the scale of the other installations, it didn’t provide quite the same open and evocative experience.

Gary Butler and Damien Gooley worked together in Coolamon’s historic Up-To-Date store. This space had a stand-offish, slightly foreboding feel, and it took 10 minutes to begin to take stock of what was happening. The key for me was a set of wired up Ugg Boots which emitted a series of sheep bleats. The ‘Baa’-producing electronic mechanism was located in a member of the small herd of lamb-sized blow-up sheep sex dolls hanging from the ceiling. I was thinking that Butler, who conceived this aspect of the work, had a refreshingly keen sense of humour until the site-specificity of the work was revealed. As the story goes, Coolamon, in the context of a civic meeting, had decided that it needed an angle to attract visitors, and selected the concept, “Coolamon, Home of the Dirty Weekend.”

Alan Lamb and Scott Baker worked together on an Aeolian Harp, the instrument from which Alan records his Wire Music. It was fascinating to see the mechanism of this music: literally a set of wires strung between 2 rocks across a slight valley, with a number of contact microphones amplifying the small sounds within the wires. These were further amplified through a car stereo and also broadcast on an FM transmitter. Listening to the music in headphones was a startling experience, as the sound of the world was silenced and replaced by the electronic whips and ringings of the wire. Ideally, the wires respond to variations in wind and temperature, creating their signature harmonic drone. In this case the wind blew from the ‘wrong’ direction, leading to an interesting discussion with Johannes Klabbers (Wagga Space program co-founder) about the incorporation of ‘failure’ in the works: “if you are going to work with nature, you have to go with it.” This work is installed permanently and visitors can be taken out to the site on request.

Sarah Last and Raimond DeWeerdt developed one of the most inventive sound installations I’ve ever encountered. Erected in a small clearing were 6 tents in which the artists were breeding flies with the intention on making them ‘perform’ by prodding the tent with sticks. Unfortunately, in the weeks leading up to unsound the weather was not hot enough to stimulate the breeding process. While the work failed in one sense, the concept is evocative, and it takes only a small leap to imagine the intensity and strangeness of hearing thousands of flies buzzing at close range.

Last has designed an excellent program, incorporating interesting sites, site-specific production, well documented artistic collaborations and an intelligent mode of consumption. These approaches are her response to dissatisfaction with the lack of inclusion of regional new media arts practice into metropolitan exhibitions and the shortcomings of the new media industry and its attendant professionals. The absence of institutional involvement, of overwhelming architecture, of security personnel and marketing hype, made clear how much these factors can distract and detract from an interesting art experience.

Mutable Landscapes was an intriguing, and satisfying program which challenged its artists through choice of sites and collaborators rather than through fatuous themes. There was not a whisper of “the work is beyond your grasp”, “ahead of its time” or “isn’t it amazing what can be done with technology?”, or any of the other excuses posed for the ongoing stream of tedious new media installations that lack ideas and/or the confidence to create an experience. Congratulations to all at the Wagga Space Program.

Mutable Landscapes, unsound04, curator Sarah Last; presented by the Wagga Space Program; Wagga Wagga, NSW; Nov 13-14, www.space-program.org/unsound/

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg. 10

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

version 1.0	photo: Heidrun Löhr

version 1.0 photo: Heidrun Löhr

Massive though they were in scale, meticulously managed, formal in tone and spectacularly presented, the Performance Space birthday celebrations were a constant reminder of the sheer force, vulgarity, sensuality, complexity and political oomph of the work that PS has nurtured and hosted for 2 decades. This was evident not only in performances at the cocktail party for the huge number of intimates of the space and Bulls Eye, the giant public show-cum-dance party 2 days later, but also in the faux museum (objects, sounds and texts), the video selection (edited by Peter Oldham), a collection of video-taped personal recollections, 2 huge panels documenting an impressive history of artists and shows, and the photographic exhibitions by Heidrun Löhr and Sam James.

On the night of the big party, Alan Schacher’s attempt to reproduce a performative installation over the entrance to PS led to his removal by the police after a passerby thought he might be suicidal. The Sydney Front temporarily re-formed to persuade a sizeable chunk of the audience to either slip into petticoats or take off their clothes altogether and to dance with each other to the Fascination Waltz. There was no shortage of takers. Version 1.0 showing continued commitment to boozing their way through the current political depression, at least performatively, bared an arse to a rapped-up version of John Howard’s victory speech. Not subtle, but it wasn’t that kind of night.

Performance Space Patron Robyn Archer kicked off the celebrations over the birthday cake a few days before, urging debate and commitment amidst the gloom arising from the Howard election victory and Bush’s imminent defeat of John Kerry. Approving of Mark Latham’s stance on a woman’s right to control her own body when it came to abortion, she despaired at the same politician’s opposition to gay marriage: “Whether I wish to be or not, I am now an outlaw because of my sexual preference.” Archer argued the urgent need for alternative voices to be heard, emphasising Performance Space’s role in this and in its “support for local artists, but also in presenting a very special interface between the local and the international.”

The well-deserved and wildly applauded awards to Performance Space Legends (what next, PS Idol?) presented at the cocktail party in the form of plaques and framed photographs of classic performances went to performer Nigel Kellaway, architect and long-term Board member Brian Zulaikha, dance critic Jill Sykes, photographer Heidrun Löhr and founding artistic director Mike Mullins.

The one-day symposium, Performance Space: Politics & Culture, held at Museum of Sydney, proved fertile ground for what should be an ongoing discussion about the place of Performance Space in Sydney and in Australian culture and a serious opportunity to discuss its future as it nears the move to the Eveleigh Carriageworks in Redfern. From the symposium we’ve reproduced Julie-Anne Long’s personal reflection on Performance Space as building and community, specifically in its relationship with dance. Ian Maxwell, in a polemical mood, looks at the various ways Performance Space was described in the course of the symposium and the degrees to which those representations were inadequate. Hopefully Ian’s argument will provoke the debate we are all eager for. As Anthony Steel argued in his keynote address, “Very seldom do governments and funding bodies talk about the arts in philosophical terms, and it is that debate that is so urgently needed.”

Performance Space’s 21st birthday celebrations were best of all an intensely communal event, a huge gathering of former artistic directors, managers and other staff, board members, supporters, arts bureaucrats, and the many artists who have performed in that eternally transformable building. Performance Space has engendered and supported an enormous amount of work over its 2 decades and is part of a larger network to which it has contributed and which influences it in turn, including Sidetrack, Omeo Studio, Urban Theatre Projects, Pacific Wave, One Extra, PACT Youth Theatre and now Red Box at Lilyfield as well as Time_Place_Space, the Mobile States touring consortium, and the Breathing Space program in association with Arnolfini in Bristol. Performance Space is more than a building.

Congratulations to Director Fiona Winning, PS staff and additional workers, to the Board and outgoing Chair Tim Wilson, for a magnificent 5 days. Like the best of birthdays this one was rich in anecdote and history, confirmed a sense of identity (however you want to define it) and brought together a community that increasingly extends well beyond Sydney. RT

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg. 11

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


#1 The Floor
A significant defining moment for dance, especially at Performance Space, occurred when the present floor was laid. The floor is a dancer’s best friend—the spring, the grain, the feel, the blisters, the burns, the slide. It’s a very intimate relationship that the dancer has with the floor.

Russell Dumas and Dance Exchange accomplices spent many gruelling hours preparing the floor in the theatre—cleaning, sanding, coating, polishing. That was a labour of love and a defining moment for dance at Performance Space. There have been a few accidents on the floor over the years but, unlike the patchwork walls of the theatre space with the nails and hooks and holes and gaps, the floor is sacred. Cursed be anyone who damages the Performance Space floor!

When Performance Space moves to The Carriageworks, this floor will be sorely missed, its glowing reflections hard to match—there’d better be a good replacement floor or it may be the demise of dance as we know it.

#2 The Dressing Rooms
For anyone who has not experienced the glamour behind-the-scenes at Performance Space it’s hard to know where to begin. All you need to know is that there are no toilets backstage. If you remember to race to the toilet before the audience comes in, you’re fine. But if you’ve made a fatal miscalculation, the audience is seated and you don’t fancy filling any of the emergency vessels at hand in the dressing room, you realise that you have to perform those ‘amazing feats of virtuosity’ that dancers are known for—with a full bladder. On a number of occasions the discomfort of the full bladder has defined dance at Performance Space.

#3 The Foyer
Dance in Sydney is made up of overlapping, intersecting communities. The place where the collaborative processes of dance have the potential to meet and share information and experiences, to bump into each other, is Performance Space.

I’m described on the program as an “independent artist” and I was wondering when we started using the word “independent” and what it actually means. We are all dependent on each other, on other artists and on the collaborative process. I freely admit that I want to be influenced by others as a circuitous route to making my own decisions. This hardly seems independent. Many of us here are especially dependent on Performance Space for function and validity. We are dependent on audiences we know, and audiences we haven’t met yet. I like the intimacy of dance, the family created by the working process, the sociability of the post-show drink. And I propose that we are dependent on the post-show drink in the Performance Space foyer for the health of our practice.



#1 The full-time Ensemble: Now Extinct
The full-time dance company with an ongoing core of performers is a way of making dance and movement that “works.” It was last seen in the vicinity of Performance Space in the early 1990s. In 1985 One Extra was a dance company with a permanent space and a full-time core of 4 performers. The company had the opportunity to employ guest artists to supplement its core cast, according to the specifics of each work.

In 1985 Rhys Martin, an early One Extra member, returned from Germany to create Dinosaur with the company in Sydney. Dinosaur was an intensely chaotic work matched by an equally intense process. The core members of One Extra for this work were Scott Blick, Roz Hervey, Garry Lester, myself and John Baylis who was also the One Extra manager at the time. We were joined by Clare Grant and Chris Ryan. Significant relationships were forged and developed during Dinosaur—Chris, Clare, John and Roz were in the original line up of The Sydney Front’s first major theatre work, Waltz, which premiered at Performance Space in early 1987. But that’s another story.

In this context I’m not interested in describing the work itself but the conditions defining this moment which centred on an ensemble of performers who had the opportunity to develop a physical practice base because they worked with each other every day. They knew each other VERY WELL—a structure which no longer exists in the small dance company strata in Sydney.

The other significant defining factor was the work’s overt influence from somewhere else. Dinosaur was clearly identified as being from “another side of the world.” At this time (mid-80s) Australian dance artists were returning from Germany, Japan, France and America with new ways of moving, and gradually over the next few years dance at the Performance Space was frequently defined by the fresh interpretations of home from these travellers.

When Tess de Quincey appeared with her haircut, strident in satin striped gown and boots, we suspected that we were in Lake Mungo, a departure from the strong pull of Japan in her earlier works. For me this work is/was a defining moment in dance at Performance Space.

Other full-time dance companies of this period who performed regularly at Performance Space included Entr’acte, Darc Swan, Kinetic Energy and Dance Exchange. Sadly, none of these survives with an ongoing group of dancers. Some of them no longer exist.

Many of us in Sydney miss the work of Russell Dumas and his special attention to bodies and light, cultivated with care over the years, at different times, with lighting designers Margie Medlin, Karen Norris and Neil Simpson. The tender partnership between Jo McKendry and Nic Sable in Dance Exchange could only have been achieved by working day in and day out alongside each other, over an extended period of time. For me, the work of Dance Exchange rarely fell short of defining moments.

#2 The Independent Artist: regularly sighted but often spotted struggling
At the Brisbane Expo in 1988. Sue-ellen Kohler was part of The Sydney Front in the street parade. Sue-ellen was a beautiful butterfly with floating lycra wings on the top of one metre high stilts. In a single moment the beautiful butterfly was caught under foot and became tangled with the ugly moth. She was pulled off and pushed back…Splat! One week in hospital, crushed T12 vertebrae, half the size at the front. That accident, on the job, in Brisbane was a defining moment for dance at Performance Space.

Sue-ellen had done a little bit of yoga practice before her accident but it was yoga that she used to reconnect with her body and get herself back onto her feet. She began to make her own performance work. It came out of her injured body experience. Her rules for making the work were defined by the body with which she found herself. An uncomfortable body, a fragmented body, a desirable body, an admirable body.

In May 1992 Sue-ellen Kohler and Sandra Perrin presented BUG Body Under Ground. It was a strange and beautiful science fiction, intensely theatrical and very sexy. They were like creatures from an underground dis/organisation. I yearn to see dance work this monstrous, this illegitimate. This was a significant defining moment in dance at Performance Space, in Australia I would say.

Many, many, many defining moments in dance at Performance Space have occurred in many, many, many bodies. Bodies walking, running and in stillness—my favourite! We have seen the body as an intelligence accumulating the information of space over time. I personally am attracted to the small moments of definition in my rememberings, rather than the grand epic sweeping gestures of dance in history books.

Now is not the time for detail but I would like to list some of my favourite defining moments in dance at Performance Space according to the body. I’ll put my self on the line and apologise profusely for omissions which I’m sure I’ll think of tomorrow.

The silhouette of the archetypal mythical feminine creature which was Nikki Heywood’s locker room mutation is etched forever on my retina from Creatures Ourselves. Oh, the agony of the Burn Sonata family. Ben Grieve and Claire Hague screaming in their shells. Anna Sabiel defying gravity in Tensile, her body balancing under and inside her structural scaffolding exoskeleton. We didn’t see enough of this. The Sydney debut at the Performance Space of Chunky Move at the end of 1995 amidst a flurry of media activity. The exciting quality of movement, comic representations. It seemed a shame to lose them to Melbourne. Garry Stewart’s extremes of the body as spectacle—a kind of dance sport—now reaping the benefits of a permanent home and ensemble of dancers in Adelaide. Dance Camp left a trace at the Performance Space with their Stepford Wives and inspired a generation of dancers when they delivered the Bandstand footage of a go-go dancing Graeme Watson. Kate Champion at the wall in Face Value. Katia Molino’s repeated falling in Entr’acte’s Possessed/Dispossessed. I aspired to falling like Katia. Lucy Guerin and Ros Warby in Robbery Waitress on Bail up to no good in those uniforms. George Khut and Wendy McPhee installed—haunting the gallery in Nightshift. Andrew Morrish, Tony Osborne, Peter Trotman—real men (not boys) being spontaneous. Shelly Lasica’s elegant behaviour. Trevor Patrick in costume and again in another and then the orange wall (Cinnabar Field). Alan Schacher across, around, up and down the building. Rosalind Crisp as Lucy. If you saw her you’ll remember the arc of an arm, the reach of her leg. The riotous NAISDA (National Aboriginal & Islander Dance Academy) end of year productions. Open City and their interest in engaging with the dancing body: Virginia will dance yet—wait and see. Legs on the Wall playing and fighting without a safety net in All of Me. The motor mouth of Brian Carbee. The political power of US Antistatic guest Jennifer Monson re-imagining what bodies can do and what they should look like. Helen Herbertson and Ben Cobham’s strange dark world (Morphia Series). An erotic equestrian scenario from Lee Wilson and Mirabelle Wouters (Sentimental Reason).

What about… (SHAKE HEAD FROM SIDE TO SIDE THEN CHANGE TO HANDS) Martin del Amo’s head and (ROLL HEAD SLOWLY BACK AND UP) …and the experience of being inside Gravity Feed’s Monstrous Body.

Why didn’t we see more of that? Did we have to have so much of that? Well, who am I to say. It’s just what I like. It’s hardly dance sport, there’s no points system and there are only the rules you make to suit yourself.

#3 Short Works—Missing in Action
Bring back Open Week—the Good, the Bad and the Ugly, where the theatre was provided free of charge to a range of performers (usually over 100 during the course of the season) from a multiplicity of backgrounds, having a chance to strut their stuff and swap ideas with other artists and their audiences.

Bring back The Dance Collections originally produced by Chrissie Koltai and Jenny Andrews and Dance Base. Copping a bit of flack, these non-curated events were always a hit and miss affair. But they did give dance artists the platform to make the short work—I love a short work. You’ve got to be making it, working at that craft somehow, anyhow, to develop. I say bring them all back, the more the merrier. We’ve got to stop thinking we have to “produce” work all the time, we need places to show it along the way and move on. We’ve got to stop only showing what is considered a finished work when it really isn’t, claim opportunities for unfinished ideas, incomplete, totally baffling moments of dance at Performance Space.

The three Steps programs presented by Theatre is Moving and the Performance Space were curated by Leisa Shelton who was very clear about what she was doing and starting, dealing with dancers/performers in a transitional phase from working in a professional dance company (not many of them around any more) and moving towards working independently. It was an establishing stage rather than a wholly initiating one and the fact that it was curated was important.

Performance Space produced many event spaces and the much missed cLUB bENT where Dean Walsh won the prize for quantity and quality every year. Dean was the master of the short work. (I say ‘was’ because he’s currently working on a full-length work, although I’m sure he’ll come back to his roots.) Dean’s naked headstand splits got a humungus round of applause at cLUB bENT but created a disgusted stir when performed outside Performance Space. The question must be asked; to go out more or to stay at home?

The Performance Space’s biennial dance research workshop and performance festival Antistatic was originally curated by Sydney based practitioners Sue-ellen Kohler, Matthew Bergan, Eleanor Brickhill, Rosalind Crisp and Angharad Wynne-Jones. It has always encouraged an intense scrutiny and investigation into the body as an intelligence. Forums, documentation and discourse are a central part of its reason for being. Dance is getting better at engaging in these ways, so let’s keep talking.

On that note I refuse to conclude because the best is yet to come, and time has run out.

Performance Space Symposium: Politics & Culture, Museum of Sydney, Nov 6

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg. 11

© Julie-Anne Long; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Any event marking a significant anniversary is bound to yield a degree of nostalgia, back-slapping and self-congratulation, particularly when old colleagues gather and are given the benefit of an audience, microphone and 20 minutes. Especially when the achievement being celebrated is so remarkable: twenty one years of Performance Space; an occasion all the more significant as Performance Space contemplates its long anticipated move to new accommodation at the Eveleigh Carriageworks. Any attempt to take up critical cudgels about such an event might be seen as, at best, churlish.

We gathered—perhaps 60 people—at the Museum of Sydney for a symposium titled ‘Performance Space: Politics & Culture’. The tone was set early. Invited to “address 3 key [Performance Space] moments” John Baylis, tongue firmly in cheek, proposed an entire narrative culminating in the Sydney Front, a group he co-founded, created and performed with throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s. The account resonated deeply with those gathered, for many of whom the Sydney Front’s work was deeply affecting, powerful and formative. For this constituency, Baylis’ master-narrative of Performance Space and contemporary performance was reassuring and affirming.

But as the gathering contemplated Performance Space’s place in the cultural landscape, it became apparent that the reflective nature of the event, notwithstanding gestures towards contextualisation, could not move far beyond the limits of (Baylis joked) ‘triumphalist’ narrative.

The problem was apparent when the keynote speaker, Anthony Steel, anchored the Performance Space project in an idea about autonomous art. Steele recalled that, “When I arrived in Adelaide in 1972 I had a personal mission to bring contemporary work to the festival there—indeed I was called ‘a proselytising modernist’.” Railing against post-Coombesian Australian anti-intellectualism, Steele spoke of arts organisations’ struggles to establish and sustain themselves as a ‘front’ in ‘the culture wars’. With proselytising modernism come assumptions about political purpose, the terms of which became more and more tangled as the day proceeded. Within such a framework, Performance Space’s struggle for a place and resources easily conflates with a generalised commitment to the new (form, media, audience, contemporary-ness), the post(modern, colonial), the queer, the alternative—categories themselves subsumed under the broad rubric of avant-gardism as politics. Autonomous art and political struggle become annealed. Any otherness, opposition, post-ness, or novelty, any alternative practice, becomes a progressive politics.

Later, Ross Gibson and Marian Pastor Roces argued that these terms are outmoded, embedded in nineteenth century sensibilities. Such terms are, they thought, complicit with that to which they claim an opposition, an observation which helped to clarify the day’s confusions about the relationships between, and the relative statuses of, ‘cultural practice’, ‘art’ and ‘politics.’

These confusions were exacerbated by a failure to address Performance Space as a sociological phenomenon. While speakers rehearsed arts policy/funding, rued the new anti-intellectualism, reflected on ‘the culture wars’, the rise to hegemony of neo-liberal market ideology, such contexts were only raised insofar as they related to Performance Space, and that cluster of artists, intellectuals and audiences (these categories, of course, overlapping) identifying themselves as the ‘we’ of Performance Space. Performance Space as itself, a social field, potentially subject to sociological analysis was not discussed.

Such an analysis would understand Performance Space as a project with its own species of cultural capital, investments and constructions of value and meaning: those sustaining ideas Pierre Bourdieu called illusio. The denial of this Realpolitik, sociological dimension takes the form, precisely, of claims to transcendental aspirations: (pure) art, an assumption of an undefined progressive politics, and so on, in the context of which Performance Space as a social phenomenon is rendered as transparent cipher, an unproblematised, invisible given.

That this is a problem became apparent in the middle session, ‘Emergent Space-Bridges to the Future.’ First, Keith Gallasch proposed a metaphorical reframing of the Performance Space project, drawn from a dog-eared text on emergence theory: slime mold, a microorganism able to meld, in times of environmental crisis, into a pseudo-macroorganism, drawing strength from temporary homogeneity, before, upon the emergence of more favourable conditions, breaking into individual spores, propagating far and wide. Mutable, self-effacing, unglamorous, resistant to all manner of predator or turn of environmental event, the metaphor drew nods of recognition and understanding: clearly for this audience there was something both phenomenologically resonant and ideologically appealing in the anti-aesthetic of slime. Extending the metaphor, Gallasch invited us to consider the cultural landscape as an ecology, replete with micro-climates, foodchains, symbiosis and, I suppose, competition.

The metaphor is at once compelling and repulsive, offering spaces, evoking ideas of diversity and inter-dependence, satisfyingly organic, and gesturing to a progressive (green) politics. At the same time, it readily lends itself to pseudo-Darwinian ideas about fitness, and to a determinism devoid of agency. Everything becomes a natural process, echoing Baylis’ earlier ideas about the inevitability of the Sydney Front’s emergence. For what it is worth, Gallasch’s account of his own engagement with Performance Space took the form of an elective affinity: Performance Space drew him and his company, Open City, almost alchemically: “we were looking for such a place.” Again, the narrative, although accommodating some agency (Open City did, after all, go looking) creates an inevitability, a sense of things finding their right balance.

And of course, the ecological metaphor brings with it ideas about conservation, sustainability, balance: a natural order of things. Sarah Miller, speaking next, invoked a ‘we-ness’ charged with “holding onto” those things that Performance Space achieved, made possible, stood for. Then Nick Tsoutas, again invoking a ‘we’ charged with the responsibility for carrying the flame, lamented the invisibility of ‘the next generation’ of performance workers: “I can’t see them”, he cried, scanning the audience. Finally, Mike Mullins exhorted ‘us’ all to “slow down”: to resist the pressure to create “the new”: to instead take time out to reflect, to thicken our engagement with ideas, practice and so on. His entreaty was a categorical imperative, again with a nebulous, inclusive ‘we’ positioned as the subject: we must all slow down.

Now, I do not, for a moment, wish to disparage these 3 speakers, all former artistic directors of Performance Space, all provocative, committed contributors to the vitality of the field. Indeed, they are among the handful of people who made the field. Nor do I want to indulge in a coarse generationalism, on the model of Mark Davis’ Gangland. (At any rate, I am of the older generation, a tenured academic and part of the establishment. And for what it is worth, I sympathise with Mullins’ imprecation for a radical slowing down. But that is not the point here.)

The point is that the ecological metaphor, the construction of a natural order of things and a supposedly inclusive ‘we’ constituting a kind of meta-agency or collective subjectivity (a slime mold), co-extensive and identified with the totality of the ecosystem (‘we are the field of contemporary performance’), yields an understanding in which difference—in this instance, the ‘next generation’—is necessarily invisible. And this creates the possibility of dismissing the aspirations of the next generation, in the name of that all-encompassing ‘we’ that must slow down.

The inclusive ‘we-ness’ extends to a collective self-recognition—of performance style, of belonging, of feeling at home-that functions to exclude, a possibility that, with one exception, was not raised throughout the day. Let me explain.

Baylis’ determinist narrative was bound up with an idea about a house style identified with Performance Space. The inability to describe the Performance Space house style in anything other than the broadest terms (ie that which inevitably emerged; that which we all recognise without having to define) misrecognises the significance of house style as a discriminator, the role of taste-makers and gatekeepers. Placing the various practices that took and take place at Performance Space within broad rubrics such as ‘contemporary performance’, making a virtue of an apparent lack of formal or generic consistency across the spectrum of that work, and producing a history and organising metaphor devoid of agency (Performance Space necessarily produced Sydney Front; we are slime mold), masks the agencies, labour and practices of inclusion and exclusion that constitute Performance Space as a social entity. Instead, the insiders—those subsumed under the ‘we—understand their practice as open, natural, and self-evidently progressive.

From the outside, things look very different. The only moment all day going anywhere near acknowledging this was Jane Goodall’s description of her first Performance Space experience. The ultimate outsider experience: driving from Newcastle (subtly evoked as a cultural other to cosmopolitan centre), wearing pink jeans and t-shirt—the ultimate outré. Of course, on arrival, everyone was wearing, in Goodall’s recollection, “110% black”. My point is not ‘what’s wrong with pink?’, but to notice the self-evidence of the pink faux pas. Goodall’s self-deprecatory mocking of her dress sense played upon the insiderness of her audience: ‘everyone’ knows that Performance Space habituées wear black. More than this, however, those who belong with Performance Space experience that belongingness in an easy, natural way that outsiders simply do not share. They may aspire to share it, but must do so not by sharing a(n ill-defined) politics, education, class, appreciation for art, but by means of a certain process of habituation that, necessarily, is informed by politics, education, class etc, but manifests as a feeling-for Performance Space-ness: precisely what Bourdieu means by his term habitus.

Revealingly, aside from Goodall’s anecdote, none of this came up in the course of the day. When something like a ‘feel for Performance Space’ did arise, it was negotiated in the quasi-mystical language of ‘feeling for place’, understood as a kind of haunting of the physical environment by use, artistic practice, evocative anecdotes and so on.

So, the ‘we’ misrecognises its own contingency, its grounding in a social milieu. Instead, it aspires to the totality of a cultural landscape. The ‘we’ starts to negotiate the future, expressing a concern for the crisis of generational succession, and a desire to ‘hold onto’ that which has been secured.

And there’s the rub. The anxiety informing Performance Space’s celebrations is that concerned with the immanent relocation to a new site: a site paid for by the NSW Ministry of the Arts, purpose-built for what appears to be, on the strength of various politicians’ testimonies reproduced in the anniversary booklet, a value-adding, productive-diversity model of arts practice. Understandably, Performance Space’s Board and management, artists, audiences, academics, old guard, new guard and so on are nervous about the implications of such patronage. The concerns are very real, and eminently practice-related: Will I be allowed to drill holes in the wall? Paper the toilets with pornography? Mess with the seating? The kinds of things with which overly sensible bureaucratic management have so much trouble. To stake a claim to holding onto past practices is, in the face of such anxieties, more than reasonable.

Yet…Speaking towards the end of the day, Marian Pastor Roces evoked the imaginary architecture of a building designed for an artform yet to be invented, a music yet to be heard. Subtly at odds with the conservationist (dare I say nostalgic?) version of the ecological metaphor, Pastor Roces invited us to consider not just what we need to hold onto, but that which we must let go. In a very real sense, Performance Space, when it moves, will end. The landscape will be fundamentally and irreversibly changed: an environmental cataclysm, perhaps, to really milk the metaphor; an errant asteroid wiping out the dinosaurs. In such times, there can be no holding on. Rather, the invisible—the as-yet unknown—will appear. In its new incarnation, Performance Space’s obligation will be to allow for those appearances—and there is a very good chance that it—we—will not recognise them. That is far more challenging than holding on, requiring a rethinking of ideas about tradition: tradition not as maintenance of a status quo, but as a continuity that lets go. Not a mere ‘re-thinking’ but, in a sense, a letting go of the assumption of the right to do the re-thinking.

Performance Space, as a tradition, as a connectedness with a past that is, genuinely, past, must be more than a re-invention; it must be an architecture for artforms yet to be invented, responsive to an as-yet unconstituted, future ‘we’. This is the truth of the ecological metaphor.

Performance Space Symposium: Politics & Culture, Museum of Sydney, November 5

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg. 14

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

TRACKS, Snakes Gods and Deities

TRACKS, Snakes Gods and Deities

TRACKS, Snakes Gods and Deities

In Darwin for the Indigenous Art Award and the Darwin Festival, I felt a palpable change in the mood of the place. It was brought home to me when 24 HR Art’s new media man, Malcolm Smith, pointedly drew my attention to his distinction between the louvres and the aircon people, or the Louvrists and the Aircognescenti. He knew I was an unreconstructed Louvrist while he naturally aligns with the Aircongnescenti, but he is nostalgic for the louvres as only a true po-mo can be. The distinction refers to those who hold onto Old Darwin and the new breed who want to place the town in modern mainstream Australia; for me it is about valuing the distinctive and the distance.

The Hotel Darwin has gone, the genius of Troppo architects has left (leaving behind a thriving business), and feminist historian, National Trust advocate and planning activist Barbara James has gone (to heaven). Blazez has gone and so style has left the room—in its place a homewares shop called, without any irony, Humidity. The Roma Bar threatens to close due to rapacious development. Cane toads have already reached Kakadu and they are expected in town this Wet. Central Darwin is left looking like a theme park of Irish pubs and tacky franchises. What was particular, even peculiar about Darwin is being swamped in its rush to be just like everywhere else: mirage architecture multi-storey airconditioned boxes squashed together. The Labor Party is in power but the pit bulls are still off their leashes and savaging the innocent. Small business rules supreme. Darwin’s development is a chimera as it always has been, dependent on something that’s about to happen and either doesn’t, or if it does, doesn’t deliver. The much vaunted railway, for instance, has delivered pensioner tourists who spend little and lack vibrancy and curiosity. Now Darwin waits on the disputed and morally tainted Timor gas for its next boom around the corner. The pipeline has replaced the railway line.
TRACKS, Snakes Gods and Deities

TRACKS, Snakes Gods and Deities

TRACKS, Snakes Gods and Deities

We were at the opening night of Surviving Jonah Salt, a collaboration across the tropics between Darwin’s Knock-em-Down Theatre and Cairns’ JUTE. Brisbane-based Darwin writer Stephen Carleton, Darwin’s Gail Evans, Alice Springs’ Anne Harris and Cairns-based Kathryn Ash wrote the play, based on a proposal by Carleton: one place, 3 ways, a roadhouse midway between Cairns, Darwin and the Alice. Four characters (one per writer) leave home and meet there. In the second act they collide. Realised by JUTE director Suellen Maunder and performed by Darwin’s Mary Anne Butler and Tessa Pauling and Cairns’ Susan Prince and Nick Skubiji, it opened in Cairns to rave notices and returned to Darwin in triumph.

On opening night Playlab Press launched From the Edge: Two Plays from Northern Australia, which included Surviving Jonah Salt. The mood was high and the vibe good, a sense of relief in the air. Heart stopping performances and taut classic drama in the vein of Tennessee Williams (must be that steamy weather) with a dash of magic realism. Among all that class, Carleton’s writing and Pauling’s performance as the Valley tart Patricia stood out.

The relief was due to the fact that in the same week another new play opened on the big stage at the Entertainment Centre. Tin Hotel by Darwin Theatre Company was jointly written and directed by Gail Evans and Tania Lieman. Publicity was everywhere, and with a large local cast, expectations were high. The cast was solid, the musical direction by Merrilee Mills good, the design by Kathryn Sproul stylish. The concept and writing were problematic; it was uncertain where to pitch its tent. Was it a feelgood musical about multi-racial Darwin, like Bran Nue Dae? Or a searing racially driven tragedy with wild comic overtones, like Louis Nowra’s adaptation of Capricornia? If it wasn’t either of these, then what and where was it? Its grasp of history, politics and race relations was sentimental and naïve; scenes were short and ‘cinematic’, meaning quick edits which on a big stage with a large cast became ponderous. Often the scene changes seemed longer than the action. It felt as if it was constantly about to go deeper, develop an idea, a character, a conflict, but shied away every time. There was potential for something else in the opening and the scenes involving the 3 town gossips, led by the redoubtable Kay Brown in a marvelously black performance.

I started hearing that people are sick of historical plays, bored by theatre about the place, asking “why can’t we just have some solid plays about somewhere else?” They reckon they’ve had too many, which as a Louvrist who has championed a regional identity I found disturbing and confusing. Further questioning revealed that it was alright if it was good; they all agreed for instance that The Pearler by Sarah Cathcart was fine (RT63, p44).

WordStorm, the NT Writer’s Festival had successfully negotiated the regional-national nexus, typified by the involvement of nationally significant writers such as Barry Hill, Neil Murray, Nicholas Rothwell and Peter Goldsworthy—all of whom passionately engaged with the Northern Territory in sessions alongside locals like Andrew McMillan, Stephen Gray and Sandra Thibodeaux. The event included masterclasses, debates, songwriting and ‘how to’ sessions—a proper writer’s festival, not just a publishers’ feast. All the words I heard about the ‘Storm were positive and a tribute to the vision and organisation of Mary-Anne Butler, director of the NT Writers Centre. True North, an anthology of contemporary writing from the NT, edited by previous director Marian Devitt, was launched at the ‘Storm.

There is a strong sense that Darwin has changed and few are comfortable with the level of unbridled development. The opening scene of Tin Hotel combined news footage of the wolve’s-hour demolition of the Hotel Darwin with a dance routine in which everyone brandished the ubiquitous hot pink plasticated cardboard development signs. Winsome Jobling’s entry in Sculpture in the Park also echoed the concern. She constructed an entire estate of tiny ticky tacky boxes by carefully cutting up the pink signs. Glimpse, the winning work by Tobias Richardson, was a clever tilt at the bland-ising of the city. The title referred to an aqua blue paint that has been used for all the street furniture in the City Mall’s most recent refurbishment. Richardson painted dozens of household objects with the colour and placed them throughout the mall, making them so indistinguishable it took several circuits to identify the ring-ins.

Tracks’ new show Snakes, Gods and Deities was a reminder of what Darwin can do better than most other places: the outdoor, site specific event. Conceived by Tim Newth and directed by Newth and David McMicken, the show was a cultural exchange arising from Newth’s residency in Sri Lanka. It brought 3 dancers and a drummer from the Sama Ballet to Darwin and teamed them with local dancers and musicians. The show included seriously large live snakes, a fabulous Bollywood sequence, Maori Haka and break dancing. This was eclecticism run riot, reined in by the direction and the precision of the aesthetic as exemplified by the setting. A shimmering curtain of broken CDs was suspended like a glass prism behind the exquisite, perfectly spreading branches of a vast raintree.

Darwin does outdoors best, and the festival under the direction of Malcolm Blaylock saw the smart sound Star Shell installed in the Botanic Gardens. Every night there was a program of live music and performance that included alongside international artists Darwin’s own Balinese Tunas Mekar in collaboration with dancers and musicians from Ubud, Indigenous music and dance such as The Red Flag dancers and Yilila from Numbulwar, and Djilpin Dancers from Wugularr.
Galuku Gallery, Darwin Festival photo: monsoonaustralia.com (www.monsoonaustralia.com)

Galuku Gallery, Darwin Festival photo: monsoonaustralia.com (www.monsoonaustralia.com)

Aboriginal art was everywhere at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, in all the galleries around the town and even in the Botanic Gardens. Following on from the Garma Festival, the Galuku Gallery, or gallery in the trees, came to town for the first time. An array of wonderful coloured linocuts from Yirrkala in North East Arnhemland were hung and illuminated every evening by spotlights in a grove of palm trees. The trunks of these squat trees were ochred white, making a witty mockery of the sanitised white walls of the modern art gallery. After partying at the Festival Club in the Star Shell you could wander among the cool art in the gallery under the stars.

The final show in the Star Shell was the inaugural NT Indigenous Music Awards. The audience overflowed into the surrounding gardens where the concert and presentations in the shell were relayed onto big screens. You could picnic on the grass, watch the action and listen to the music, all for free. A Darwin experience that suited everybody: locals, tourists and those who’d come in from remote communities.

Darwin Festival, Aug 12-29

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg. 15-

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

Gabriella Hegyes, en route (video still), 2003

Gabriella Hegyes, en route (video still), 2003

New media art has generally been a resolutely urban affair, largely because until recently the technology simply hasn’t been available outside the cities to exhibit, let alone produce such work. However, the efforts of the Sydney-based dLux Media Arts organisation and a scattered band of intrepid regional gallery curators has seen a steady growth in the exhibition of screen-based works outside cities. While these works are not necessarily representative of the full spectrum of new media art, they indicate a significant break with the forms that have generally characterised exhibition in regional areas.

Tour dLux

Since 2001 dLux Media Arts have been assisting in touring and staging exhibitions of digital media art across NSW through their Tour dLux program. For dLux director David Cranswick, developing an audience for this work in the regions has gone hand in hand with building support in the curatorial community. The organisation has been able to provide invaluable advice for galleries not familiar with the requirements of computer technologies or the challenges of exhibiting multiple works, many with an audio component. The Tracking exhibition at the Bathurst Regional Gallery in mid-2003 was a Tour dLux initiative, and provides an interesting case study of how the program works. Gallery Director Alexandra Torrens explains: “For us it was one of our first focuses on new media…dLux were basically offering to bring out a curator with new media expertise…[Aaron Seeto, at that time director of Gallery 4A in Sydney]…to work with artists in our region…and to bring the media into the art gallery for the first time.”


Seeto sought out 3 artists living in or near the Bathurst region and commissioned them to produce works specifically for the Tracing exhibition. Local artist Gabriella Hegyes produced en route, a video installation about her experiences fleeing Hungary as a refugee in the 1970s. Brad Hammond, a South African artist who had recently emigrated from Paris, contributed the video work El Nino. Blue Mountains new media artist Andrew Gadow created Inverse Maps, a sound and video work about the old roads across the Moutains and out to the state’s west. The artists also ran a series of workshops through the local TAFE in conjunction with the exhibition.

David Cranswick sees the direct personal involvement of artists in the Tour dLux exhibitions as vital. Their presence through gallery talks and workshops allows regional audiences who may not be familiar with digital media art to ask questions about the processes that go into the creation of such work.

However, while Tracking provided an introduction to screen-based art for Bathurst audiences, it also revealed some of the technical constraints faced by regional galleries. Gallery director Torrens recalls that Brad Hammond’s El Nino required a large digital projection, which neither dLux nor the gallery were able to provide. Much to the artist’s disappointment, the work ended up on a TV monitor. Generally, however, Tour dLux has allowed regional galleries to successfully delve into screen-based media without having to make a large initial investment, since dLux can usually arrange for the hire and setting up of the necessary equipment. In some areas this has led to a major shift in the direction of long term infrastructure development. Since Tracking, Bathurst Regional Gallery has made a commitment to regularly exhibit screen-based work and has purchased 4 DVD players, 3 digital projectors and a sound system.

Broken Hill

Broken Hill City Art Gallery has made an even bigger commitment to screen-based art. The long term involvement of Gallery Manager Jacqui Hemsley with Tour dLux and her commitment to digital media meant that technical infrastructurebecame a major priority in the development of the gallery’s new premises which opened in October. The new space is larger and specifically designed to cater for multimedia work. Previously, there was no space in Broken Hill suited to the exhibition of contemporary media installations. The new space has also allowed Broken Hill Gallery to become something of an alternative screening venue in a town with only one cinema. The gallery recently screened a showcase of films from the WOW (World of Women) Film Festival and have toured to outlying regions like Wilcannia, projecting films against the side of a bus for audiences with virtually no exposure to film culture.

Hemsley sees the crossover between traditional visual arts and video as one of the most exciting developments opened up by the incorporation of screen-based work into the gallery’s program. She cites the example of Forgotten Dream, a recent sculptural exhibition by local Indigenous artist Irene Kemp, which prompted a documentary on the artist made by 2 school students from Broken Hill and South Australia. “They did it at such a high standard we sent it off to Message Sticks and will use it as part of our local regional broadcasting here through BKN TV…Irene now feels more comfortable with that medium as an artist, but also the young kids have been able to get a different exposure as well.”

Network strength

The Broken Hill gallery regularly screens local work and has built a close association with the local high school’s Ross Clarke Centre, which is fitted out with equipment for advanced video production. The complementary role played by the gallery and school in stimulating interest in screen-based forms is indicative of a broader trend across the state. Although the efforts of dLux and regional curators have played a vital role in propagating an awareness of screen-based art, the work has generally been most successfully established as part of the regional landscape when supported by a broader network of educational institutions and/or festivals. For example, both Aaron Seeto and Alexandra Torrens feel that the success of the Tracking exhibition and associated workshops in Bathurst owed much to the local TAFE’s considerable resources and interest in digital media forms.

Newcastle, new media

Given the ongoing success of the This Is Not Art (TINA) festival in Newcastle, it is not surprising that the region has become another hub of digital media activity. Both the Newcastle Region Art Gallery and the smaller local gallery Rocketart, have shown a strong commitment to digital media work. Rocketart co-director Izabela Pluta regards the Electrofringe component of TINA as having played a crucial role in stimulating local interest in digital media (see Jasper: We, robots). While most regional galleries are focussed solely on video art and video-based installations, Rocketart is pursuing a broader agenda with a program due to kick off at the end of January 2005 with 3 artists launching online projects, with a further 2 projects to be added every 3 weeks. This ambitious program has received funding from the Australia Council’s New Media Arts Board and will run parallel to shows in the gallery’s exhibition space.

The next stage

This survey provides only a small snapshot of what is happening in the realm of screen-based and digital media outside Sydney. The exhibition of this work across NSW is highly uneven at present, with even the most progressive galleries focussed primarily on video art and the technical requirements of exhibiting bio-art or even net-based work representing a considerable financial challenge. Museum and Galleries NSW and dLux have recognised the need for a broader study of the technical requirements of regional galleries in the 21st century, and one of the masterclasses at next year’s Leading from the Edge public galleries summit in Wagga Wagga will focus on art’s digital future. Beyond the challenge of digitising regional gallery spaces lies the challenge of providing sufficient support for regional digital artists.

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg. 17

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

The restored Roxy cinema, Bingara, NSW

The restored Roxy cinema, Bingara, NSW

Recent years have seen an explosion of new cinemas opening across regional NSW with evidence of a subsequent upswing of interest in filmmaking in some regional areas. For urban cinephiles it might seem incomprehensible that since the 1970s many Australians have grown up outside the cities having never attended a cinema. The adoption of new business models and a healthy injection of funds from local councils and particularly from the NSW government have seen this situation radically transformed in the last 5 years.

The absence of local cinemas was one of the first things Jack Ritchie noticed when he began work in 1996 as a Regional Arts Development Officer (see Eccles) in the New England region of northern New South Wales. Ritchie initiated research which established that very few NSW towns with a population of 15,000 or less (about 75% of towns in the state) had cinemas. On the other hand, Glenn Innes, the town in which Ritchie was based, had enjoyed a successful volunteer-run cinema for many years.

This prompted Ritchie and a group of regional arts workers to submit a report to the NSW Ministry of Arts on cinemas in regional NSW. It contained 3 key recommendations: that a group be formed linking regional arts offices, the NSW Film and Television Office (FTO) and the NSW Ministry for the Arts; that the local government and shires association conduct a survey to ascertain the state of cinema across NSW; and that a forum be established to discuss the development of a funding program. All of these recommendations were implemented and the progress made since that time has been phenomenal. Jane Cruickshank, the FTO’s Regional Cinema Officer tells me that the organisation has been involved in over 70 cinema projects since the inception of its regional cinema program in 2000, providing advice, publications, and organising regular Flicks in the Sticks forums across the state for communities interested in restoring their local cinema or converting other spaces into screening venues. The program was awarded a prize in the recent Public Sector Awards for Services to Rural NSW.

Jack Ritchie is now the Regional Arts Development Officer for New England where he has seen the founding of 4 local screening venues. The Roxy Theatre in Bingara was the first. Built in 1936 in classic art deco style and operated as a cinema until its closure in 1956, the theatre’s interior has remained largely intact. The local council purchased the building in 1999 with a grant from the NSW government and, with further state and federal funding, the venue was restored and opened by the Premier in May this year. Manager Sandy McNaughton describes the Roxy as a “multi-purpose performing arts venue”, noting that as well as screening contemporary mainstream movies the venue hosts live theatre, theatre courses and special events. This is the way many regional cinemas operate, functioning as a hub for other community activities that are subsidised by movie screenings. As with most of these ventures, all of the Roxy staff are volunteers, with the exception of the manager.

One of the most important long-term effects of the regional cinema revival has been the potential for an increase in local filmmaking, especially among young people. As Jack Ritchie comments: “Because it’s a modern form of communication, and people are becoming more au fait with screen culture, it has created a fair bit of interest in what’s possible…the film schools up here are now getting an incredible response. That’s through TAFE—they didn’t exist out here only a couple of years ago, and now they’re full.” One manifestation of this interest in production has been the North West Film Festival, a new showcase for local talent which kicked off at the Roxy in October this year. 42 films were screened, including many projects produced through local schools and TAFEs.

Similarly, the Bowraville Theatre on the NSW north coast has hosted a number of events featuring local talent since the restored space re-opened in August 2003. Unlike venues in the New England region, Bowraville has had trouble attracting audiences to mainstream screenings, but has had considerable success hosting special events such as the Travelling Sydney Film Festival and the Tropfest tour program. Additionally, a small band of amateur and professional filmmakers residing in the area have formed Verandah Post Films, which has produced 2 works that have already won awards at local festivals: Jacquelin Melilli’s Outside the Square and Rosie Sutherland’s Dear Old Dad. The Bowraville Surf Classic was also initiated in April, intended as an annual showcase of surfing films by NSW filmmakers.

For observers of Australian cinema, this slowly growing stream of films made in regional areas is one of the most interesting aspect of the regional cinema revival. In an era when the cultural and political gap between urban and regional Australia threatens to widen to a gaping chasm, a regional film culture may provide a creative arena in which regional issues can be expressed and stereotypes exploded. In the longer term, it may also provide an influx of talent for the nation’s film industry from outside the urban centres.

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg. 18

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

“Isn’t truth enough?” asks Robert (Paul Jeffrey), talking passionately at a party about the autobiographical films he wants to make. Warming to his theme, he defends his commitment to realism above escapist entertainment: “What goes on in my life has relevance to what goes on in everyone else’s. Is there anyone who doesn’t want to be loved?”

Heartfelt as these sentiments may be, they’re not having much impact on his main interlocutor, a chain-smoking swine who responds to trigger words such as “vulnerability” with grunts of rage. But it’s clear that to some extent Robert is speaking for Paul Jeffrey himself, as the writer-director-star of the Australian DV feature In The Moment (2003). As the title implies, it’s a film that puts a high value on authenticity—the full engagement with reality that comes from living in the present tense. A sometime drama tutor, Robert tells his students that if they’re asked to enact emotional devastation, faking it won’t do: “You’ve got to be emotionally devastated.”

Apply that principle to the film itself and you’d have to believe that it’s literally Jeffrey up there on screen, baring his soul. Yet it would be just as easy to describe In The Moment as a quintessentially artsy 20-something movie in a long and sometimes noble Melbourne tradition, complete with characters who work in a video store and a would-be aphoristic voiceover somewhere between Godard and The Secret Life of Us. In fact neither straightforward confession nor ‘postmodern’ flippancy is the name of the game. For Robert as well as his girlfriend and muse Christine (Tania Lentini) identity is not fixed or fluid but plausibly problematic. Thus it’s hard to say whether fulfilment is a matter of realising the self or escaping it; “change and randomness and openness” may be stars to steer by, yet a truly spontaneous course can’t be plotted in advance. “It’s so easy to remember your face. It’s so easy to imagine your face. But to actually look…”

Actually, the relationship between Robert and his alter ego is not that crucial: of these two impatient idealists, it’s Christine who mostly draws the camera’s attention, and ours. She’s dark and stroppy in contrast to his default mode of easygoing goodwill (which shades perhaps into an innocent egoism, a willingness to take the pleasures of life as they come). She wants him, but she also wants autonomy, integrity, a free and private self, none of which is easily compatible with love. Skirting self-pity, Lentini’s characteristic note of wounded bravado doesn’t encourage immediate identification: rather, her intractability directs our attention towards the existential puzzle of filmmaking itself, as we’re left to wonder how far it stems from a real reluctance to yield herself to the camera or viewer.

Something similar could be said for In the Moment’s quasi home-movie style, both asserting and belying the transparency of video as a medium. With some scenes composed of long shapeless takes, others of rigidly alternating talking heads, editing ingenuity shows through mainly in the ordering of episodes, asking us to follow several chronologies at once. The leaps in time suggest that the real narrative is the adventure of filmmaking, the artwork’s own activity of piecing itself together. Indeed, as Robert moves closer to realising his artistic goals, In The Moment turns increasingly reflexive, as if the fiction were another prison the characters willed themselves to escape.

Is it Christine or Lentini who grows increasingly resentful of her director’s male gaze? (“This film is supposed to be about our relationship,” she complains, “but both the characters are you.”) Proving his cinephilia goes more than skin deep, Jeffrey triangulates Hitchcock, Godard and Cassavetes, less as formal ancestors than as men filming women, or fantasies, or both. It hardly needs to be spelt out that Christine’s tantrum over Vertigo stems from her own refusal to become a cinematic fetish: “I’m not just some hole for you to fill,” she tells Robert as he goes for another take.

Again, complexities emerge. Christine may insist that Robert shares her anti-Hitchcock stance, but it’s doubtful the same applies to her sister Adriana (Andrea D’Onofrio), who with her bright eyes and brighter lipstick might be the heroine of a different film altogether, perhaps the “romantic comedy” someone proposes, or a glossy thriller (like Kim Novak, she’s dark and blonde by turns). Struggling not only with the definition of a “couple” but in the equally confining matrix of the family, Christine denounces Adriana as “the epitome of falseness and contrivance.” Yet such meticulously staged innocence has its own attractions—for Robert at least. Unable to feel other than betrayed, Christine is trapped in her own high-minded logic: when the devastation is real, can freedom, respect, acceptance survive as more than mere words?

No easy answers. Still, to the end the film keeps faith with its understanding of creativity as an ongoing process that joins life and art, an activity that extends well beyond the results that are fixed in the editing suite and shown to the public. Or so we might presume from the final scene that Christine and Robert—by this point scarcely “characters” to be distinguished from Tania and Paul—create between them, as they sit on the verandah improvising different ways the story could go, until time or tape runs out. Indeed, this is one of the few movies I’ve seen that shifts not only its focus but its authorship as it goes along. The opening credits announce In the Moment as “written and directed by Paul Jeffrey”, but a final title gives both he and Lentini equal status as writers, directors, actors, cinematographers, editors and producers. So, 2 filmmakers to watch.

In The Moment, directors/writers/ producers Paul Jeffrey and Tania Lentini, 2003

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg. 19

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

Letters to Ali (montage)

Letters to Ali (montage)

Clara Law says Letters to Ali, her new documentary about Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers, is a film she had to make, even though “I wish I never had to.” In directing the film, Law says she “discovered the good, the bad, the ugly and the beautiful about Australia.”

Originally Law set out to write a drama after reading an article in The Age newspaper in September 2002 profiling Melbourne doctor Trish Kerbi and her family, who were corresponding with a young Afghan refugee in the Port Headland Detention Centre: “What touched me most when I read the story that Trish wrote was that I could easily empathise with the plight of this boy, that he was away from home, he was totally cut off from his roots, that everything was so unfamiliar.”

Both Law and her partner Eddie Fong, who co-wrote, co-produced, edited and shot Letters to Ali, moved to Australia from Hong Kong in 1995. “To be so far away and not to be given any love or protection is a very, very hard thing.” Law didn’t want the film to shy away from the fact that she and Eddie are immigrants. “We knew from the beginning that we had to be part of the story.” The film begins with images of their own comfortable middle class home; unlike Ali they had lots of support, were well educated, had careers to pursue and family here in Australia. But rather than make them complacent, Law says this generated a sense of responsibility and obligation to bring this story to the screen. Law wants to contribute to a more just Australia, using the craft she knows best: “I had a lot of optimism when I settled down here,” says Law, “I don’t feel the same any more. And I can see the danger of where we’re heading if this is going to continue.”

The more Law researched the film, the more she feared the process of scripting and shooting a drama, as well as having to raise finance, would delay Ali’s story getting to the screen: “The issue is so powerful and so immediate we needed to do it now, and to do it without re-creating.” So they decided to make a documentary. Using their own funds, and with no distributor or broadcaster locked in, they started filming. “There was no time to wait; we just had to do it,” says Fong. “The bottom line was if there was no distributor we would have to distribute the film ourselves.” Fong adds that they were prepared to take the film direct to DVD and sell it via the internet.

Clara Law believes that revealing the reality of Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers is as important as it was to broadcast the truth of what happened on Tiananmen Square in 1989. Law and Fong were still living in Hong Kong when democracy protesters staged their peaceful demonstration against the Chinese Government in Beijing. The subsequent massacre of hundreds of demonstrators unfolded on television screens around the globe and Law remembers feeling compelled to race home every day to witness the grisly scenes. “The strength and impact of [those broadcasts] was because it was happening so immediately.”

Although shooting a documentary was simply the most immediate way for Law and Fong to bring the issue of asylum seekers to the screen, they found the process of shooting with digital video liberating after their extensive experience directing and shooting drama. Fong was extremely impressed with the quality of image they achieved with the digital medium, as was Law with its capacity to capture the spontaneous poetic imagery that is integral to the film’s aesthetics. One such image, shot on their journey to Port Headland to visit Ali, became a poignant and powerful metaphor for the film: a beautiful cloud formation after a fall of rain, which in the film Law likens to a mother dragon bringing home her young.

By the time the film was shot and edited Ali had turned 18, but the lawyer representing him feared his application for refugee status might be jeopardised if his true identity was revealed. As a result Law made the difficult decision to keep Ali’s identity secret. We don’t hear him speak and the few images we see of him have been blurred in postproduction. The effect is of an eerie, ghost-like figure. Initially she included a voice-over from Ali in a section of the film where he and Trish articulate their different feelings about love, death, family, etc. But the filmmaker was worried Ali could be identified and so summarised his comments in short haiku-like statements. In the end she believes this was a more effective way to convey Ali’s emotional states: “People are able to feel his anger, his pain and his anguish much more…You realise more the plight of these people because they don’t have a face and they don’t have a voice.”

By May this year Law and Fong had a version of the film to show distributors. They took it first to Palace, who had distributed their previous film, The Goddess of 67, anticipating it would take about a month to get an answer. After watching the film Fong says Palace “decided on the spot they wanted to do this film.”

Palace was just one of the many organisations and people who got behind Letters to Ali. The film was made using borrowed gear, donated resources, and discounted facilities. “Deep down I think [Australians] do know what is right and wrong and I think that is why we’ve got so much support.”

Ali’s legal status is still in limbo. There are times when the pain and anguish of what he’s been through manifest in depression, screaming fits and vomiting. “The damage has been done and whether it can ever be mended is really an open question.”

This article was based on an interview conducted by radio broadcaster and filmmaker Anne Delaney for Popcorn Taxi at the Valhalla Cinema in Sydney. www.popcorntaxi.com.au

Letters to Ali, director Clara Law, writers/producers Clara Law and Eddie Fong, distributor Palace Films

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg. 20

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

Malcolm Hubert, Onslow Making Movies Roadshow

Malcolm Hubert, Onslow Making Movies Roadshow

Malcolm Hubert, Onslow Making Movies Roadshow

Now in its second year, the Making Movies Roadshow is a touring unit of Western Australia’s Film and Television Institute (FTI), spending an intensive 5 days in 10 separate regional locations each year, teaching participants how to script, film and edit a short movie. Although the FTI has been in operation for 30 years, and one-off visits to regional areas have been organised in the past, this is the first structured regional filmmaking program of its type in WA.

In 2003, Local Government and Regional Development Minister Tom Stephens provided the FTI with a Regional Initiatives Scheme grant that, combined with further funding from ScreenWest, allowed the Roadshow to go ahead. So far, the unit has visited remote communities as far north as Kununurra, as far east as Kalgoorlie, and as far south as Esperance, but program coordinator Janine Boreland says they intend to visit new locations each year.

The Roadshow calls for expressions of interest from local shires and regional arts organisations throughout the state, but is selective about the applications it accepts. “Because the program is subsidised, we want to give it to people who have no access to filmmaking training or screen culture,” says Boreland, “so that’s a pretty strong basis for it going to low socio-economic areas that are geographically isolated, and where there are stories to tell. There’s a huge emphasis not just on training, but getting those regional stories into other parts of regional WA and into metropolitan screening programs.”

The Roadshow’s aims are twofold: to provide people living in remote areas with basic filmmaking skills, but also to provide participants with a sense of personal achievement and self-esteem. Seventy per cent of Roadshow participants are Indigenous. “Even though it’s primarily a training program, it definitely has a community development aspect to it,” Boreland notes. “We’re often working with people who have low literacy levels, and working with something that is highly visual has a very strong impact. The workshops give people a chance to tell their stories and be creative in a really short space of time.”

Boreland goes on the road with a crew of 3: tutor Mike Parish and 2 technicians. Workshop participants learn how to write scripts, use a digital camera, edit in i-Movie and create their own soundtracks. The end result is a 1-5 minute short film. Works produced so far have ranged from community documentaries and dramas to stop-motion animation pieces and music videos. At the conclusion of each 5 day workshop, the Roadshow crew holds a community screening of finished works. The feedback Boreland gets from community members after the screenings is invariably positive: “Often we go to places that are so culturally different—remote Aboriginal communities in particular—and it’s a really nice way for the people in the community to see movies that their children or friends have made that feature their place, that feature their landscape. They really seem to value it—they find it really empowering to see that anyone, in that really brief amount of time, can come out the other end and say they’ve been able to make a short film.”

Two things have become imprinted in Boreland’s mind during her time with the Roadshow. At each screening, the interconnectedness of family and community in regional WA hits home. Particularly in north-west WA, she says, “everybody seems to know everybody else…it’s quite exciting when you’re travelling these films around the regions and seeing these networks of community and family groups that know each other.”

Secondly, program participants are rarely fearful of the technology to which they are exposed, despite often never having come into contact with a digital camera or sound equipment before. “We mostly work with Indigenous people and young people, and they’re not fearful of the technology at all,” says Boreland. “They jump right in there, and they have total respect for the equipment. More often than not, people are quite comfortable using the equipment and just go for it.”

Participants in the Roadshow can make films on a subject of their choice, but Boreland says people naturally want to tell stories about their particular cultures and communities, and animated Dreamtime stories were a central feature of this year’s output. Sometimes these animated stories are as simple as chalk drawings moving on a blackboard, or a tale played out with plasticine figures.

One of Boreland’s favourite films this year was a brief personal narrative by an inmate of Roeburn regional prison. The film contains views from inside the prison, with a simple voice-over warning viewers against a life of crime.

In the Kimberley’s Kadjina community, schoolchildren were given the opportunity to produce their own Footy Show, interspersed with hilarious animated ‘footage’ of regional football games. The panel of 3 commentators were slightly stiff in front of the cameras, but clearly enjoyed themselves.

Although Boreland had already travelled extensively throughout regional WA as a holiday-maker, her time working with the Making Movies Roadshow has connected her to the state’s regional communities in a way she had never experienced in her previous travels. “You can drive through a place and not really get to know it. You really have no idea of what goes on behind the scenes unless you happen to know someone or have friends living in a regional area. When you’ve only got 5 days in a place, by the end of the first day you’ve really bonded with people. There’s some really unique people out there that maybe you wouldn’t otherwise get to meet.”

For more information on the Making Movies Roadshow, go to: www.fti.asn.au

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg. 20-

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

Belinda O’Connor, Juliet Hone, Desire

Belinda O’Connor, Juliet Hone, Desire

Like low flying aircraft that fail to register on the radar, there is a level of distinctive and impressive filmmaking activity in this country that goes largely unnoticed by the wider film culture. A case in point is the Subtle Strokes program recently screened at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI). Across 2 evenings, the program showcased 4 self-financed films by Melbourne independent filmmakers Bill Mousoulis and Mark La Rosa.

The first evening, thematically entitled The Maze of Relationships, featured La Rosa’s 16mm short Paper Chains (1992, co-director Mark Touhy) and Mousoulis’ 16mm/video feature Desire (1999). The second evening, The Intrigue of Murder, comprised La Rosa’s 16mm short feature Black Trade (1999) and Mousoulis’ most recent feature Lovesick (2002, Super 16/video). The filmmakers hired the theatre, generated their own promotional material and publicity, and introduced the screenings.

This, of course, is not an altogether unusual occurrence for independent directors working at the extreme margins of the industry. Aside from the respective merits of the films there was a wider and significant subtext to Mousoulis’ and La Rosa’s gambit of exhibiting their work, and it had to do with the relation between the industrial model of filmmaking, the possibilities open to a genuinely independent film practice and the local (and internationalist) film culture with which these filmmakers engage. These issues were alluded to in their introductions and subsequent comments. According to Mousoulis: “Currently, it is the best of times and the worst of times. We have an abundance of film festivals and cinemas, but safe programming; cheap technology to produce films, but a swarm of wannabe Hollywood filmmakers; people and organisations [entering] into the history of cinema, but problematic government funding. I obviously exist within, but very much to the side of, all this hype-ridden, commercial film culture. I see few filmmakers who are knowledgeable and passionate about the cinema. And I see many who began in the 70s or 80s now totally neglected. Australian cinema is dominated by its industrial side—there are only token attempts at producing an ‘art cinema.’ The championing of neophyte auteurs such as Ivan Sen or Cate Shortland is questionable. Only one or 2 Australian features each year are worth anything at all. And the best filmmakers are the true indies, such as Dirk de Bruyn, Chris Windmill, Ettore Siracusa, Nigel Buesst.”

La Rosa is more circumspect, his tone reflecting the many vicissitudes of a filmmaking practice forged on the margins, drawing inspiration from filmmaking styles more often than not under-appreciated or misunderstood by the broader film community in this country: “Despite recent self-promotional claims, I don’t see myself holding much of a position in local film culture, without even an audience or a profile. On the positive side, I do of course enjoy more freedom than most, thereby encouraging me to be more exploratory in my approaches to narrative. I aspire to make professionally resourced work like any other filmmaker, but without dramatic storylines and bold themes—which don’t appeal to my sensibility—I’m not sure how far I can go. I like minimalist films. Early on, when I was making films about wayward teenagers, I was excited by the work of Paul Morrissey and Monte Hellman. Since then I’ve come to appreciate filmmakers like Yasujiro Ozu and Robert Bresson…I also like Jean-Pierre Melville, Carl Dreyer and Otto Preminger. I have collaborated with both Richard Tuohy and Bill Mousoulis and have no doubt absorbed something from each of them.”

Lest they be taken as arrogant up-starts, it may come as a surprise to those who know little of their history that both Mousoulis and La Rosa are into their third decade of activity having forged ‘careers’ with negligible support from funding bodies. Both emerged from the vibrant and eclectic Melbourne Super 8 scene of the 1980s. In defiance of the current climate, where filmmakers are groomed by film schools and virtually ‘sponsored’ by script development grants and production funds, both filmmakers continue in a hands-on, do-it-yourself vein. Like the celebrated French New Wave directors their education was the cinema—not Henri Langlois’ fabled Cinémathèque Française, but the more modest Melbourne Cinémathèque. As Mousoulis puts it: “For me, filmmaking and film watching are inextricably linked. I was a cinephile prior to being a cineaste, and I continue to be a cinephile even as I spend an inordinate amount of time making films. My cinematic loves, and therefore influences, are certain art auteurs. My holy trinity is (and may forever be) Godard, Bresson and Rossellini, with Rossellini clearly the one with lessons for me (and other filmmakers) yet to learn. These 3 are deep within me. For Desire and Lovesick I was influenced by recent Asian art cinema. For Desire it was Wong Kar-wai, especially Happy Together…For Lovesick it was the wide-vista Asian cinema that served as my inspiration: Hong Sang-soo, Jia Zhangke, and especially Shinji Aoyama’s Eureka. But people see Rivette, Antonioni, Akerman in Lovesick—which doesn’t surprise me. They’re all in there, undoubtedly.”

Mousoulis has always been obsessed with desire in all its permutations. His whole oeuvre, in one sense, has been an exploration of its ebbs and flows, how it takes possession of characters and where it takes them. It is not surprising that his most ambitious film to date is entitled Desire. He may also have called it Summer in the City, for like Eric Rohmer he has the ability to give desire its appropriate location and seasonal ambience. The film is a moody and melancholic tale of love lost and found, failed encounters and often misaligned desire. Nonetheless, it leaves one with the idea that the continued belief in the possibility and potential of love is what’s important. Lovesick, as the title implies, is a story of l’amour fou between 2 characters who are so entranced with one another that they are blind to the world and the moral consequences of their acts, including murder. Mousoulis’ camera passes no moral judgement on the characters and at the closing of the film remains ambivalent about their fate.

La Rosa’s Paper Chains is a minimalist chamber piece also about characters caught in misaligned desires, which shows that the emotional ties that bind people are about as resistant as shreds of paper in the breeze. In contrast, Black Trade is a worthy exercise in genre filmmaking about a criminal gang, with a surprising sting in the tail.

Australian cinema has been sorely lacking in inspiration and originality in recent years. Our cinematic landscape would be altogether more impoverished if indie filmmakers like Mousoulis and La Rosa were to disappear. Australia needs its underground mavericks just as much as it needs its box office hits.

Subtle Strokes: the Films of Mark La Rosa and Bill Mousoulis, ACMI, Melbourne, Aug 24 and 27

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg. 21

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

Paul Glabicki, Full Moon Segment 2

Paul Glabicki, Full Moon Segment 2

There is a form of film that is trying to evolve that area of thinking which I call ‘moving visual thinking.’ And it is intrinsically a visual music…. Stan Brakhage

The 2 screening programs comprising Kinetica 4 at the 5th Brisbane International Animation Festival (BIAF) represented the latest instalment in what has been an unprecedented series of rare historic and contemporary art film screenings in Queensland this year. The Kinetica programs screened alongside the more conventional representational works in the international section of BIAF, serving to expand conceptions of animation and avant-garde film and providing a timely corrective to the still prevalent view of animation as a cute populist form.

The Kinetica programs were curated by the late great abstract film champion Dr William Moritz and made available by the iota Center, a nonprofit US organisation devoted to the preservation, promotion and exhibition of “the art of abstraction in the moving image.” Their appearance at BIAF was facilitated by local curator and filmmaker Erik Roberts, building upon the success of the recent Illuminated Frames season of rare art films. Both Kinetica programs were curated around the theme of synaesthesia, the phenomenon whereby stimuli acting on one sense, such as hearing, are involuntarily perceived by another sense, allowing us to ‘hear’ colours, or ‘see’ music.

Synaesthesia has a long history in human artistic endeavour. Classical Greek philosophers debated whether colour, like pitch, could be considered a quality of music. There have also been various mystical explorations with musical scales and the colours of the rainbow, such as the colour-organ experiments of the Jesuit priest Castel in the early 18th century. Then there were the modernist projects of Survage, Kandinsky and others in the early 20th century. The first Kinetica 4 program, The Sixties: Spirituality and Psychedelia, focused on the moment when a convergence of interests in Eastern religions, arcana, mind-expanding drugs and radical film form saw the blossoming of abstract filmmaking. The second program, Contemporary Abstraction, explored the many ways in which film and video artists have followed on from the 1960s, including the present-day explosion of work employing digital image-making technologies.

The sizeable audience for the first program—drawn from archives and the personal collections of artists—attested to Brisbane’s hunger for key works of art film history. Some of the better known canonical works to screen included: James Whitney’s famous handmade and step-printed kinetic dot work, Haut Voltage (1957); the mandalic Lapis, created on a Whitney Brothers-designed analogue computer-controlled machine system; and John Whitney Snr’s whirling, geometric Permutations (1968). However, some of the other historical works had not been seen in Australia for decades, and possibly never in Queensland. The surprisingly contemporary looking computer graphics of John Stehura’s Cibernetik (1965), and the intricate play with negative space, mirroring and colour relationships in Pat O’Neill’s 7362 reminded viewers of the painstaking hand-crafting which characterised the pre-digital abstract film era.

The landmark OFFON (1968) represented an important collaborative work in an area of film practice usually characterised by solo artisans. Acknowledged as one of the earliest expressions of electronic cinema, the work saw Scott Bartlett’s film loops synthesised with Glen McKay’s light show liquid imagery through a primitive video effects bank. The results were then filmed by Mike MacNamee. Single Wing Turquoise Bird (1971), by the light-show group of the same name, was a similarly valuable and rare document of an expanded cinema ‘happening.’

The continuation of these explorations in synaesthesia in moving images by today’s VJs and digital media artists provided a conceptual link between the earlier films and the works of the second program. Part 2 brought together examples of “visual music” animation from the last 3 decades, extending 1960s concerns such as the exploration of spirituality and perception. The 60s fetishisation of Eastern religions was echoed in David Lebrun’s not entirely successful animation of Tibetan scroll paintings synchronised to psychedelic rock in Tanka (1976), and the Noughties’ ambivalent, postmodern cherry-picking approach to spirituality was played out in some of the more recent works. Bill Alves’ aleph (2002) references the geometric patterns of Islamic art and the Arabic language, while Paul Glabicki’s cosmic Full Moon Segment 2 (2001) synthesises abstract and figurative forms in a beautiful choreography. Both works employ cutting-edge computer imaging technology in their intimations of a search for meaning beyond traditional structures of thought. With its complex system of symbols composited to rotate in unique spatial rhythms, Full Moon Segment 2 is one of the truly original works of recent computer animation.

In contrast, Stephanie Maxwell’s Please Don’t Stop (1988), influenced by the experience of driving at night, is a masterpiece of hand-worked film. With every 35mm frame painted, stencilled, airbrushed or etched, its seductive kinesis and glorious tumbling colours revel in the textural play of the form. Also indulging gleefully in a loving nostalgia for celluloid, Jeremy Rendina’s Seaweed (1999) is of the objects-stuck-to-film-strips genre inaugurated by Brakhage with Mothlight in 1963 and continued by numerous artists, including Australia’s Geoffrey Godhard with Liquid Ambar in 2001. Also using direct techniques was Barbell Neubauer’s extraordinary Feuerhaus (1998), which synchronised flashlit exposures of plants and stones directly placed on film (the famous rayogram technique pioneered by Man Ray) to a techno track also created by the artist. For me the stand out work of the program, Feuerhaus’s meticulous composition (involving both positive and negative prints), extraordinary editing and dramatic structure demonstrated both the aesthetic and narrative potential of handmade moving images.

The most interesting aspect of this collocation of digital and handmade films in the second Kinetica program was the breaking down of distinctions between very different modes of practice under the banner of ‘cameraless film.’ Just as abstraction in art addresses perception and consciousness, these works encourage different ways of seeing not just formal elements, but relationships between film radicals of the past and formations in today’s youth culture, as well as the intimate connection between film, video and other contemporary visual arts.

Kinetica 4 Part 1: Classic Abstract Animation; Part 2: Contemporary Abstract Animation, Queensland College of Art Theatrette and Southbank Cinemas, 5th Brisbane International Animation Festival, Oct 14-17

Danni Zuvela co-presented Illuminated Frames with Erik Roberts earlier this year, and worked on the programming of the 5th Brisbane International Animation Festival.

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg. 22

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

The Ister

The Ister

The Ister is the ultimate philosophical road movie, a 3-hour journey the length of the Danube River accompanied by major contemporary philosophers discussing humanity, technology, politics and Martin Heidegger. It is an ambitious film in every sense. Yet this is the self-funded debut of Melbourne-based filmmakers David Barison and Daniel Ross—IT professional and Philosophy PhD respectively—who 5 years ago travelled to Europe, hired an old bread-van, bought a mini-DV camera and set about filming. In an interview with RealTime, Barison and Ross commented that they “obtained absolutely no funding whatsoever, largely due to our fear of bureaucracy and the film’s lack of ‘Australian content’.” Although in my view the best local film of the year, The Ister is about as un-Australian as you can get in terms of the arcane criteria guiding our funding bodies.

The film concerns questions of home in the broadest and most challenging philosophical sense—questions that are of no less potential relevance in Australia than elsewhere. The filmmakers told me they wanted to position this theme as the film’s ambiguous centre by beginning with an evocation of European ‘home’ in the form of Germany (the source of the Danube), and then start the journey with ‘the foreign’ in the form of Romania (where the Danube meets the Black Sea). How to judge such a distinction is left to the audience.

Flowing from Europe’s ‘centre’ to its ‘periphery’, the Danube is a paradoxical icon of time, perpetual change and home. The film’s multi-levelled, epic journey takes us from Romania, through a NATO-bombed former Yugoslavia, then Hungary—all currently undergoing radical transformations vis-a-vis what constitutes the nation state, national identity and political culture within an expanding Europe. The journey finally ends in Germany, a country riddled with markers of the Enlightenment and Fascism, and the heart of the EU’s unfolding experiment in multilateral politics, economics and culture.

While such a journey makes for the grandest of poetic and philosophical tropes, it is also treated with some sly humour. At every stop up the river, on-screen text not only informs us where we are, but also the “distance to source.” Reaching said source in the heart of Germany’s Black Forest is not only anticlimactic (it’s a modest porcelain pool); we then go beyond the river’s starting point by following small tributaries, the film now designating the distance from source in negative digits. Yet this subtly absurd extension of the search for origins is also deadly serious, offering both a philosophical substantiation of our mythical investments in home and a concurrent note of auto-critique.

This river-road movie is given its explicitly philosophical textual content via extended meditations by a range of interviewees on a 1942 lecture series by influential German philosopher Martin Heidegger on Hölderlin’s poem Der Ister (the Germanised variation of an old Greco-Roman name for the Danube). But prior to honing in on Heidegger, the film’s first hour features an extensive interview with contemporary German-French philosopher Bernard Stiegler, providing a wide-ranging exegesis of Western thought from Ancient Greek mythology through the middle ages and the Industrial Revolution to late (post)modernity. Combined with beautifully contrived images of mythological and contemporary Europe, Stiegler’s entertaining storytelling provides important big-picture historical and conceptual background, and a devoted yet also circuitous and ambivalent framing of Heidegger’s view of technology.

The guiding theme developed by Stiegler is the question of ‘technis’, which he addresses ontologically as technology’s inextricable, prosthetic relationship to the human. While memory is literally unthinkable without technology for a 21st century audience, Stiegler argues that this has been the case since the origins of human culture. In fact he defines human culture as the ability to transmit information across space and time, a crucial distinction between the experience of human beings and other animals. The filmmakers enact this notion in quite playful ways via repeated images of animals and environments that remind us of earlier scenes. Like the aphorism about not being able to put one’s foot in the same river twice, these recurring images are inevitably ‘different’ the second time around, and prompt ‘faulty’ recollection or even forgetting just as frequently as the subject’s intermittent ability to affirm recognition in the face of time. According to Ross, this is one of the things the filmmakers most wanted to show. “The impossibility of holding everything together in one’s head, and of putting all the pieces together intelligibly in one sitting,” he suggests, “is thus itself something the audience is forced to acknowledge, and hopefully to draw conclusions from.”

After asking ‘what is’ the human being, its politics and culture in light of what Stiegler argues is technology’s ontologically inextricable role, Heidegger enters centre stage. Although the filmmakers are clearly devotees of his philosophy, the viewer is strongly encouraged to enact their own perspective. This is brought to a head when the film broaches the topic of Heidegger’s association with National Socialism (the philosopher enthusiastically embraced Nazism in 1933, disassociating himself a year later). In light of the Holocaust, the film explicitly addresses the question of the vexed relationship between Heidegger’s notorious political choices and his arguments and views regarding technology. This discussion is based in part around Heidegger’s controversial suggestion of an equivalence between the Nazi gas chambers and automated agriculture.

Barison and Ross say they sought to deal with the question of this important but contested link by maintaining its ‘enigmatic’ nature. While The Ister enters into a nuanced critique of the political outcomes of Heidegger’s personal and philosophical choices, it also reveals the limits to which the filmmakers want to push such a debate. In our interview they suggested that the questions Heidegger pursues are “not reducible to a rhetorical trick by which he escapes political judgment”, and posited an argument Heidegger’s more scathing critics strongly contest: that one can, or even should, be able to differentiate his thinking from his politics.

Rather than a necessarily flawless assertion of Heidegger’s continuing relevance, The Ister offers a dense yet well orchestrated philosophical portrait of a controversial figure that encapsulates what is most impressive and ‘substantial’ about European (particularly German) thought, as well as its flawed and disturbing elements. The film’s potentially problematic aspects actually add to its multi-layered pleasures by strongly encouraging the viewer to engage actively and dialectically, rhapsodically and/or critically, at any given moment. No other film so extensively extols the genuine pleasures of philosophical thinking.

In making the film, Barison and Ross wanted to approach philosophy as both an academic discipline and an embodied event. While the viewer is guided to some degree by the on-screen ‘professionals’, philosophy is presented as a kind of thinking that “belongs to everyone, and is a part of the character of human being.” The Ister is an impressive testament to the filmmakers’ belief that the fusion of philosophy and art, as exemplified by Heidegger’s meditation on Hölderlin’s poem, can reap extraordinarily rich results.

“Our main intention and hope”, the filmmakers told me, “was to find a method for communicating cinematically both the rigour of philosophy and the awe about the world that inspires philosophy.” Central to this experience for the viewer is an immense textural pleasure derived from leisurely, meditative rhythms generated by very careful editing, allowing generous screen duration for images of astounding technical quality and deceptively simple composition. Ross rightly says, “The Ister is actually put together in a largely non-symbolic way,” even being “hopefully very concrete.” This formal rigour and concreteness gives the viewer the necessary time-space material with which to engage the challenging ideas at hand.

“In essence”, Barison and Ross assert, “we wanted to say to philosophy: ‘look at this incredible tool for framing concepts, for telling abstract stories’…look how much is gained with the use of sound and image.” The filmmakers have fused cinema and philosophy in a process that beautifully exemplifies Stiegler’s account of technology’s prosthetic relationship to the human. The Ister amply demonstrates and embodies the incredibly rich results that can be generated from such an ontologically confusing yet entirely ‘natural’ event.

The Ister, writers/directors David Barison, Daniel Ross, 2004.

The Ister debuted at International Film Festival Rotterdam in January 2004 and has since played at numerous local and internation festivals. The film will soon be available on DVD from www.theister.com

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg. 23

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

They come swirling at me in a mass, screaming, with mobile phones flashing. I’m at the Pusan International Film Festival (PIFF) in Korea, standing between the overwhelmingly youthful crowd and the object of their adulation, Kim Ki-duk (RT50 Mike Walsh: The ferocious eye of Kim Ki-duk), director of 3-Iron. PIFF, in only its ninth year, has rocketed to prominence as Asia’s pre-eminent film festival.

As mainstream exhibition in Australia coalesces around multiplexing and teenage genres, it is useful to reflect on the form and function of events such as this, given the increasing role played by film festivals in ensuring the health of alternative types of cinema. One of the most significant factors in Pusan’s success is the way it brings together a popular festival, an industry trade show (BIFCOM) and a seeding event for filmmakers known as the Pusan Promotion Plan (PPP). The latter, modelled on Rotterdam’s Hubert Bals Fund, might give Australian festivals some food for thought.

One of the key weaknesses in Australian cinema is the yawning chasm between a largely conservative production sector and innovative screen culture events. All of Australia’s film festivals showcase premieres of new Australian films and have industry liaison staff, but some are now moving towards more sustained connections.

Katrina Sedgwick, director of Adelaide’s newly-revived film festival, believes that “the role of a festival is not only to create a critical mass of consumption and discussion of art but also to engage with its industry in, ideally, an ongoing and genuinely productive way.” Adelaide has an investment fund and Melbourne partially funded Clara Law’s Letters to Ali last year, though both initiatives differ significantly from Pusan’s internationally acclaimed PPP.

The PPP brings in a wide range of regional filmmakers who network with distributors and sales agents and pitch projects to a panel. The amount of funding actually given to winners is rather small, but the potential for pre-sale investment for winners is significant given the distributor-rich environment of the festival. Several of the films shown at Pusan this year were PPP winners from the previous 2 years.

The proven success of this model has led to its emulation throughout the region. Hong Kong, aiming to maintain its regional prominence, has announced that it will hold next year’s festival in synch with its annual film awards, the FilMart market event, and the Hong Kong-Asia Film Financing Forum, its copy of Pusan’s PPP. Locally, Adelaide has incorporated some of this thinking by scheduling the Australian International Documentary Conference at the same time as the film festival next February. This will allow it to share guests and expenses, but also establish a framework in which production activity and screen culture are shown to be mutually relevant.

The other significant issue raised by PIFF is the audience demographic. Film is a strong part of youth culture in South Korea and the entire audience at PIFF seems to be under 25. Given that Australia’s 2 largest festivals, Melbourne and Sydney, are now in their 50s and had their salad days during the rise of the art cinema movements of the 1960s, the issue of audience renewal is crucial.

Melbourne appears to have made the transition to a new, younger audience by moving into the CBD, and Sydney is now facing up to the challenge of finding a new audience while not alienating its loyal followers who have spent their youth in the State Theatre. Sydney’s new artistic director, Lynden Barber, claims: “The festival’s strong audience growth among younger audiences in the last couple of years is encouraging. 65% of our new audience in that period is now under 35, partly a result of the introduction of student discounts, and films on musical acts such as Metallica, Tupac Shakur, The Ramones, and Macy Gray.”

This brings us to the images cultivated by each festival and the programming specialisations that have emerged. Melbourne is the big guy on the Australian scene, supporting such a large number of films spread over 17 days that it can pursue specialisations in Korean film or other regional cinemas while still having space to satisfy more traditional tastes. Brisbane has emerged as the film buff’s festival, with an Asian focus but also a willingness to take bold chances on historical retrospectives such as the Ozu and Shimizu seasons of the past 2 years.

Of course, the image of a film festival is dependent on factors other than programming. The question of venues is vital. Melbourne, with 5 large theatres within a short sprint of each other is ideally placed (though it’s not clear how much longer the Capitol and Forum can last without significant refurbishment). In Sydney there are longstanding question marks over attempts to take the festival into venues other than the State Theatre, and the ability to arrive at a ticketing system which will facilitate this.

Festivals are influenced by their place in the annual calendar, since proximity to the world premiere festivals (Cannes, Berlin, Venice) has a significant impact on the availability of prominent new films. Melbourne’s move to late July some years back worked well in giving it access to films premiering at Cannes. Hong Kong’s Easter date is just far enough ahead of Cannes that it finds it difficult to pick up new films being held back for the French festival. Making a virtue of necessity, it has developed a specialisation around the growing importance of the Hong Kong Film Archive and its ability to mount strong retrospectives on Chinese film history supported by accompanying publications.

Festivals are a growing part of a diversifying global industry where first-run art cinema release, DVD sales and Pay TV rights combine to create quickly changing, product-hungry markets. For educated audiences marginalised by the commercial multiplex and the Sundancing of art cinema, festivals represent an increasingly important opportunity to access more innovative film forms. The exciting question for Australian audiences is how our festivals will read these changes and respond to them.

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg. 24

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

Practical workshops, a commitment to new media and the founding of a production fund mark the biennial Adelaide Film Festival as a bold experiment in Australian film festival programming. The 2005 event contains a number of new initiatives and will incorporate the Australian International Documentary Conference 2005 (AIDC) at a moment when documentary is in the ascendancy.

The key feature differentiating the AFF from other festivals is a film investment fund underwritten by the Rann state government. Nine projects backed by the festival were announced earlier this year, and several of these will premiere in 2005, including Sarah Watt’s debut feature Look Both Ways and a bio-pic on Spike Milligan entitled I Told You I Was Ill.

Festival Director Katrina Sedgewick is also expanding the ambit of film with the launch of the multi-platform digital media project UsMob (RT63, p17), also partly funded by the AFF. Continuing the focus on digital forms, ANAT’s miniSeries program will showcase an international selection of narrative and experimental live-action and animated films for mobile phones. Creative phone content is an area of explosive growth internationally, and ANAT and the AFF are taking the lead in introducing this work to local audiences. UK production company The-Phone-Book-Ltd will be on hand running a variety of workshops. As most current phones are unable to handle the kind of audio-visual content appearing in miniSeries, the work will be exhibited via phone booths set up in the Greater Union Hindley Street complex. The-Phone-Book-Ltd will also be running a kiosk where festival attendees can create their own mini-movies.

As well as the phone workshops, UK animation group Shynola, whose clips for bands such as Blur and Radiohead have won numerous awards, will be conducting a 3-day intensive workshop on developing and pitching ideas for music videos. Fifteen Australian animators will be invited by the festival to participate; registration for selection is via the festival website (www.adelaidefilmfestival.org) . Canadian “video and cinema kamikazes” KINO will also be on hand to facilitate the writing, shooting, editing and screening of a short film every 2 days throughout the festival, giving festival attendees the chance to see KINO’s motto in action: “Do well with nothing, do better with little, and do it right now.”

Alongside these production-orientated events will be programs of local and international films, including the world premiere of Day and Night (Wang Chao, China), Checkpoint (Yoav Shamir, Israel), Moolaadé (Sembene Ousmane, Senegal) and Machuca (Andres Wood, Chile).

Film music afficionados will be delighted to hear that the overseas guests include Lalo Schifrin. This legendary screen composer has scored almost 100 films, including several key works of the ‘new Hollywood’ period like Bullitt (1968) and Cool Hand Luke (1967). Bullitt will be screening at the festival along with the Schifrin-scored Enter the Dragon (1973) and Carlos Saura’s Tango, no me dejes nunca (1998).

Cementing the relationship with the local industry, the Australian International Documentary Conference will take place across 4 days of the festival. As well as a documentary screening program, AIDC will offer documentary makers multiple opportunities to get new projects off the ground. The Australian DOCUmart offers a one day session in which filmmakers can pitch to a panel of international broadcaster representatives and investors. Entry for the pitching session is competitive and all submissions must be received by December 17. See the AIDC website for details (www.aidc.com.au).

STEPS International, a working group of commissioning editors and producers, will be inviting submissions for documentaries on the theme of democracy (democracy@dayzero.co.za). The initiative will comprise 10 one hour films, 2 features produced for theatrical exhibition and a major online component.

Adelaide is the first Australian festival to actively pursue a production as well as screening agenda, and the event’s integration with local and regional industries brings it in line with the model adopted by several major Asian festivals such as Hong Kong and Pusan (see Walsh). Given that Adelaide was the centre of the Australian film renaissance in the early 1970s, it seems only fitting that the city is now pioneering new directions in local film festival culture.

Adelaide Film Festival, Greater Union Hindley St complex and Mercury Cinema, Adelaide, Feb 18-March 3 2005

Australian International Documentary Conference, Adelaide Hilton International, Adelaide, Feb 21-24 2005

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg. 24

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

Nicholas Clauss, Radio Days

Nicholas Clauss, Radio Days

I must admit I expected reactivate! to be an exhibition of game art, since it is part of a broader event that includes a showcase of Australian games and the symposium GameTime. To my surprise the French-Australian collaboration between curators Isabelle Arvers and Antoanetta Ivanova and has instead exhibited artists working with, or influenced by, games and game culture. Architecture students, filmmakers, digital artists, graphic designers, roboticists, musicians and game developers have pounced on game technology, design, culture and theory to produce interactive films, game art, commercial games, sound art, networked environments and interactive installations.

A popular attraction is Mari Velonaki’s interactive installation Throw (Australia). On a large white wall clear plastic brackets frame projected images of men and women in formal attire staring at us. Soft red balls litter the floor and urge activity, turning the viewer into what Keir Smith calls a “viuser” (“viewer/user” or “Visual Information User”). As figures glide across screen the viuser throws the balls at them triggering a red dot along with a word or numeral beneath the image. The skill of a fun park knockdown game is juxtaposed with the cognitive puzzle of deciphering the (literal) beat poem that emerges.

The audiovisual works move to a beat of another kind. Nicolas Clauss’ Radio Days (France) is an online work resulting from collaboration with musicians and visitors to a website. Layers of photos, scans and animations of brushes skewed into a DNA strand-like dance around the screen to haunting music. Clicking on links (or ‘clinking’) was cleverly designed for optimal meaning. Marc Em’s Audiogame (France) meshes visual presence and sound to represent user activity. For instance, I can bounce a speaker around the screen, sending it underwater with muffled, almost gargling sound effects; or increase the volume and intensity of a track by manipulating an animation of a fist. The 2-channel reaction to my asinine clinking was delightfully empowering.

I dragged myself from Audiogame and turned to Martin Le Chevallier’s Safe Society (France), a short video of 3D animated images from a tongue-in-cheek ideal world where “pollution has disappeared” and “neurosis will be under control.” The work tells of a desire to create an alternative and ‘guilt-free’ world in the digital domain, and in the real world. Likewise Julien Alma and Laurent Hart’s Borderland (France) inverts the bloodless space of computers by offering viusers real world combatants. Of the 55 live action characters I chose a woman in lingerie brandishing a whip to fight a man with a breadstick, and then a housewife in thongs to battle a man in plaid holding a puppy. Leon Cmielewski and Josephine Starrs’ Floating Territories (Australia, RT63, pp34-35) “uses a series of screen-based games to explore issues of migration and border protection” (catalogue). Each game is activated by the scanning of a card chosen by the gamer. This allocates him or her a tribe and offers motivation: to defend, wander, escape, converge, colonise or petition. Once a game is successfully completed the gamer can contribute their personal migration history to a world map.

Another example of a work that permits user contribution is Lycette Bros’ The Modern Compendium of Miniature Automata (Australia). The screen space is set out like a book with detailed, da Vinci-like sketches and descriptions of tiny mechanical creatures that travel through blood. Users can read about miniature automota in the collection, like the creature that collects spittle from the corners of mouths, or create their own. Judging by the direct, casual and humorous address, the descriptions have become conversations between users, creating a cycle of communication through the artwork.

Computer mediated interaction in real time is facilitated by the multiplayer games of Jules Moloney’s Palazzo Littorio (Australia/New Zealand) and selectparks’ acmipark (Australia). Palazzo Littorio is a stark space, almost post-apocalyptic with its dark grey, blue and red urban landscape. It is in fact the digital realisation of an architectural design submitted for a competition commissioned by Benedito Mussolini in 1934. The efforts of architecture students, headed by Moloney, virtually manifest an alternate reality where Mussolini is still in power. Alternatively, acmipark models the extant space of Federation Square. Players log on from Experimedia or ACMI (these 2 works are located at both venues), explore the representation of the space they are sitting in or envisioning, and converse with fellow travellers.

Wicked Witch’s Ned Kelly (Australia) permits the exploration of an historical space for a single player. The game tells the tale of Ned Kelly’s famous last stand at Glenrowan. Perspectives can be shifted and you can watch and listen as the story unfolds, or change to ‘explore’ mode and run around the space of your own accord. I was struck by how much the change of perspective affected me. I had to ask myself the question: do I want to take on the first-person perspective of a figure in a situation where I know the outcome? I found this, and Warlpiri Media’s Bush Mechanics—The Game (Australia), excellent examples of games as pedagogical tools. I was reminded of Sherry Turkle’s observations about the power of simulations, and how they can be used to teach students to question the producer of words, messages, intentions and context.

Indeed, the exhibition is an intensive learning environment for all. Practitioners from a variety of arts fields have either learnt programming and interaction design or opened their hearts to games and game culture. There are 22 works in this exhibition, some works-in-progress, others commercial successes. All, however, tread a brave path of original design and content.

reactivate! will tour to the Adelaide Film Festival in February, 2005.

reactivate!, curators Antoanetta Ivanova and Isabelle Arvers, Experimedia, State Library of Victoria, Oct 1-Nov 14

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg. 31

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

Two screen-based works recently exhibited at Sydney’s Artspace evoke the notion of new, technological landscapes in 21st century art. Some way into John Conomos’ video work Aura, the artist observes in voiceover: “Artificial infinities exist everywhere, as nature recedes only to be replaced by a technological landscape.” Across the gallery, East Art Map (2003-04), a CD-ROM by Slovenian artists’ group IRWIN, constructs a 3-dimensional time-space landscape through which the user can journey and discover the fragmented history of post-war Eastern European art.

Aura opens with a series of indistinct, overlapping images. Shimmering strings on musical instruments, glossy wood panelling and hands vibrating over fretboards merge, gradually cross-fading to a green landscape of rolling hills. Meanwhile, the voice-over sketches 2 traditions of the sublime in Western thought. One is vaguely described as nostalgic, in which the subject strives to achieve a communion with nature. The other is a Kantian tradition, in which the subject moves to an awareness of an ‘infinite beyond’ through aesthetic experience; an apprehension without comprehension of an immense, unknowable force that undermines any notion of a stable order.

As Aura progresses, we move through an ever shifting series of landscapes: calm green pastoral scenes, trees swaying on dark horizons and the ethereal, pockmarked surfaces of planets seen from space. Faces sometimes appear superimposed over these images. We also see musicians in a studio recording Robert Lloyd’s string ensemble score, and Conomos standing at a cliff railing, his hands raised in wonder or dismay. The constant movement between images of nature and humankind’s apprehension of these scenes—through perception and the creation of art—invokes the aesthetic experience central to Kantian notions of the sublime.

As the voiceover notes, however, in the modern era there are critics who disavow any notion of the sublime. But Aura suggests that a postmodern technological sublime might function as a way of thinking about a technologised future that keeps that future open and permeable, pointing towards a realm of infinite possibilities.

While the concept is rife with potential, it’s difficult to discern exactly what Conomos means when he speaks of a postmodern technological sublime. Does he mean that a potential sense of the sublime lies in our experience of the technology itself? Or might it emerge from the contemplation of endless possibilities offered by virtual worlds? The images of Aura suggest otherwise, since the only landscapes we see—from tree-covered hills to planetary surfaces—are from the natural, physical world. However, these landscapes are all mediated by technology; namely video cameras and satellites in space. The silent planets hovering in the immensity of space certainly inspire a sense of awe and wonder, but it is debatable whether Kant’s sublime, with its religious implications, is the most useful concept for exploring our reaction to these images or our relationship to the technology that makes them possible.

On the other side of the gallery IRWIN’s CD-ROM East Art Map directly employs a technological landscape to raise questions of a more material nature. The work attempts to bring together the fragmented histories of Eastern European art during the post-war era of Soviet domination. The totalitarian nature of the Eastern Bloc states precluded the emergence of a pan-national Eastern European artistic consciousness, as national borders were rigorously enforced and each government singled out certain artists and movements for support, while suppressing others.

The CD-ROM opens with a statement that constitutes the work’s raison-d’être: “History is not given—it has to be constructed.” A series of abstract shapes come together, unfold and are reconfigured. When clicked on, they dissolve into a 3-dimensional ‘map’ comprising spheres hanging in space, some linked by red lines (“inter-relations”), others by blue (“development lines of specific issues”). With the computer’s arrow keys, the user enters this virtual space and different time-space sectors are identified via labels appearing at the top of the screen, such as “Yugoslavia, Romania, 1947-1973.” Some of the spheres glow brightly when passed over; if the user clicks on these they access a particular artist’s biography and an illustration of one or more works. A set of important critics from each time and place also accompanies every sector.

In its endless parade of informational fragments, East Art Map provokes a certain anxiety in the user. There is too much information here, but at the same time each fragment feels inadequate to account for the life and work of the individual artists. As a research tool, I imagine it works best as a springboard for further investigations, but as an aesthetic experience it serves to reveal the complex processes involved in the construction of History.

There is the sense of an infinite number of stories, artists, movements and works that can never be grasped as a totality, implying a history of Eastern European art that can be imagined, but never constituted as a whole. East Art Map creates, but deliberately fails to satisfy, the desire for historical coherence, revealing History to be a discursive act involving the imposition of narrative over a disparate but related set of experiences, legends and objects. In the West, we have enough established, generally recognised ‘grand narratives’ to give an illusion of historical coherence to our past. East Art Map reveals the absence of such narratives in Eastern Europe, but in doing so points towards a different kind of historical understanding, one that sees history as a 3-dimentional, constantly shifting set of interrelations and possibilities. As well as providing insight into the little known art world of Eastern Europe, the work employs the interactivity and multiple pathways of the CD-ROM to forge a fascinating technological landscape that re-configures positivist mappings.

Aura, writer/director John Conomos, music Robert Lloyd, Oct 7-30; East Art Map, IRWIN, Oct 7-29 Artspace, Sydney

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg. 32

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

Sue Thomas
Hello World: travels in virtuality
Raw Nerve Books, University of York, UK 2004

Hello World is a small book. It easily fits into my bag, so I take it with me on the train. The size of the book, I decide, meshes with the tone—personal and poetic.

Hello World opens with the first person narrator engaged in an intimate act of looking out her bedroom window at 1am, “…as the moon bleeds whiteness across the grass.” Soon after describing the scene at the window, the narrator draws an analogy. The stillness of the night can be like the stillness online: “It is the charm of midnight, the intimacy of the unconscious to sit here knowing how many sleeping things are close by yet hidden from my view and to be aware that such quiet does not signal solitude, as it might in the daylight, but means simply that this part of the work is in suspension.” Perhaps the experience is “hypnogogic”, she concludes, perhaps online we are midway between sleeping and waking. Perhaps it is a form of daydreaming.

I look out the window at a man with a 3-legged dog. I read on. The narrator abandons her house to traverse the nearby fields, and then, feeling the need for company, turns to home and logs on to LambdaMOO. I decide that there is another way of thinking about the intimate scale of this book (bag-sized, if not pocket-sized). Hello World is a user’s manual and a short, very personal history of the internet (for instructions on how to MOO see page 24.)

By largely eschewing the language of academia, Sue Thomas demonstrates that she has no desire to fuel such flagging oppositions as those between body and machine, or subjective knowledge and technophilic expertise. Or indeed, between the intimacy of print-based reading and the online experience. Thomas, however, recognises the specificity of the internet, and the book is at its most intriguing when striving for a metaphoric language adequate to the net, only to admit that we cannot yet (ever?) settle on any one way of thinking about this space: “So many of us are trying to capture electracy, but it will not allow itself to be held. Write, paint, sing, dance…yet still it slips from our grasp, shimmering away to that bright intangible boundary marking the edges of the screen…we are sensing a world which cannot yet be expressed.”

While toying with the ineffable, Sue Thomas grounds her book in an accessible ‘how to’ language. Thomas will be familiar to many readers as the founder of trAce Online Writing Centre (trace.ntu.ac.uk/) and as a maverick community builder. Part history of cyberspace, part travelogue, part autobiography, Hello World tracks the author’s peripatetic journeys into MOOs and MUDs, all the while exploring the metaphoric potential of the computer’s interface language. Short epigrammatic sections are interspersed with a record of her travels over the years across Australia, England and America. Thomas is a vivid writer whose narrative follows surprising trajectories and establishes marvellous connections. Encounters with highways and railways are occasions to draw the reader into a dialogue with the idea of place. After a frightening trip across the mountains by car, Thomas arrives in LA. She writes: “Have I spent too long online that I’ve forgotten to anticipate fear? The terror I experienced was a brutal reminder that I am more than a mechanism for remembering and imagining, and that part of me is a finite body that can malfunction, fall off the sides of mountains and get damaged. I’m shaken up, and frankly rather embarrassed. I just don’t seem to be able to stop trying to drag virtuality into the real. I’ve failed so far, but I’m certain that I can find a reconciliation, some way to live in both places, some state of mind which allows me fluidity. I’m determined to keep looking.”

Hello World is underscored by the desire for travel and connectivity. The book is a testament to the writer’s enthusiasm for the internet and the potential offered by constructing online identities, and to the creativity and community that she has found through her personal odyssey in virtuality:

As for me I set out alone and discovered myself. Imagine a born sailor who has never seen the sea. Imagine how it must feel to at last encounter it, to find this awareness which has simmered inside all their lives without ever having a name! So it is with me. I found virtuality and it was an ocean flooding the horizon and waiting to be explored.

But this is not a solipsistic inquiry. The potential contradictions of the online world are beautifully staged in the diary of Thomas’s arrival by train into Kalgoorlie from the Nullabor: “I had been roughly bumped from the deep mediation of the desert to the harsh reality of profit and exploitation. Just hours earlier I had seen virtuality at its highest level as a sublime experience. Could I really continue to ignore it at its lowest? After all, there are plenty of Golden Miles in cyberspace, and millions of Hay Streets, not to mention the spam which speaks to even deeper needs than sex and money.”

This is occasion for Thomas to revisit her early explorations at LambdaMOO, and undertake a self-conscious analysis of the erotic intensity of her experiences. She concludes that the early days of the MOO were not really about sex or desire; rather there was a kind of “reaching out” for closeness and intimacy. “For many of us, cyberspace opened our imaginative worlds for the first time since childhood, and it was a huge, intense and crazy shock…we began to activate and explore dormant parts of our deepest selves. For some it was very traumatic. For many it was utterly life-changing…transsexuals lived online for a while and then came out IRL. Gays, lesbians and bisexuals began with tentative cybersex and graduated to the Real Thing for the first time…women discovered that they did, after all, possess sexual desire…men discovered that they were, after all, deeply romantic. And innumerable people fell in love…even if it was only for a week or two.”

As an online writing community, trAce has embraced both the specific poetics of online hypertext and enabled print-based fiction and poetry writers to engage in dialogue and critique each other’s work. In Hello World, Thomas offers a way of being in the world that refuses hierarchies and primacies and offers us a model of an engaged and creative practice that is both virtual and real.

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg. 33

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

Fiona Malone, D/VISION

Fiona Malone, D/VISION

Fiona Malone, D/VISION

D/VISION is a new work choreographed by Fiona Malone with second year dance students at the Adelaide Centre for the Arts. The performing arts school has transformed its Xspace theatre with a bilaterally symmetrical design especially created for the performance to reflect the idea of separation and division of people by space.

As the audience enters, each chooses a card from a pack. The colour decides which side of the performance space they sit on. Friends and partners are temporarily separated, then brought together again during the show when they see each other across the space after divisions are removed by the technical crew. For most of the performance friends gaze across the dance floor, sharing the experience in closer cahoots than if they were sitting side by side. Down on the stage the dancers, lit by an under-glow of lights, march in rows and sharply staged formations, filling the space with a sense of discipline.

The choreography is constructed in linear trajectories that crisscross the space. The dancers execute contracted, held movement, the tension caught in their limbs. Their energy is pitched within the ensemble rather than to the audience. Video cameras and handheld video transmitters are employed to reflect the dancers’ interaction with each other and with walls and barriers in rooms elsewhere in the building. These images are then projected on to the divisions in the space. There is an alternation between semi-transparent and opaque screens which later disappear to make way for ensemble choreography and for the audience to better see each other.

Towards the end of the work a projected chess board appears on the floor, demarcating the space, again bringing people face to face across the divide. This contact suddenly seems so much more intimate and personal than side by side communication. Malone uses the analogy in her choreography to dissolve divisions.

The costumes are fashioned along asymmetrical techno military lines reflecting the fashions of the mid-90s and complementing the mostly ambient techno soundscape, punctuated by punk and occasionally happy house music. However, even though placed above the performers, the audience was frustratingly cut off from the sonic environment, with the speakers hung high above the lighting rig.

The dancers performed with control, showcasing their ensemble, vocal and acrobatic skills, bringing their contemporary dance technique to the fore. As the first large-scale choreographic work from South Australian choreographer Fiona Malone, D/VISION was innovative in the connections made between the architecture of its design and a clear conceptual rationale. In 40 minutes we experienced through several mediums the way divisions can also bring people together.

D/VISION, choreographer Fiona Malone, Adelaide Centre for the Arts, September 15-18

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg. 34

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

Gary Lang, David McMicken, RUST

Gary Lang, David McMicken, RUST

Gary Lang, David McMicken, RUST

Earlier this year Expressions Dance Company’s Virtually Richard3 was performed for one night at the Darwin Entertainment Centre to a threadbare crowd. Most likely the poor turnout had less to do with the quality of the production than the fact that Darwin audiences are not adventurous. For artists in Darwin (and throughout regional Australia) this presents a real dilemma: how do you simultaneously build houses and maintain a critical edge in your work?

Tim Newth and David McMicken have been Tracks’ artistic co-directors for over 10 years which has given them the opportunity to develop a practice that tackles this issue. They have established a reputation for intelligent, innovative productions addressing ideas relevant to their audiences with historical narratives, youth-devised works and large scale cross-cultural productions (see Spunner: Keeping our distance). They collaborate with Indigenous communities, youth and seniors. Recently Sri Lanka’s Sama Ballet collaborated with the company to national acclaim.

In their latest production, RUST, Tracks have taken an interesting new direction. Rather than work with a community, David McMicken has chosen to collaborate with electronic artist Elka Kerkhofs and Indigenous dancer Gary Lang. In this intimate production, the threesome explore middle age through a series of vignettes, some of which are serious and insightful, others playful high camp.

The focus of RUST is McMicken’s exploration through dance of his own ageing, looking at the effect of entropy on the physical body and simultaneously the wisdom that comes with age. He looks at the implications of ageing on his career as a dancer. He also manages to laugh at himself, at the prospect of becoming a doddering old thing or a slightly tragic, elderly disco bunny. At times he is joined onstage by Gary Lang who variously plays the part of straight man, partner in crime and spiritual advisor.

Elka Kerkhofs is a Belgian-born artist now based in Darwin where she has developed a practice that integrates performance, music and video. In RUST she has created a series of elegant video sequences on moveable screens, some using archival footage of McMicken’s performances over the past 10 years, some providing evocative backdrops for the dancers. She also devised the creaky, metallic soundscape largely from her own recordings. In this production, Kerkhoffs has achieved a seamlessness unencumbered by the demands of technology.

Tracks often stage their productions several times, sometimes in different towns across the Northern Territory, each staging an opportunity to further develop the work. RUST is slated for a larger production for the Darwin Festival next year allowing time for better articulation of the work’s themes in some scenes. Being able to convey complex ideas through dance is a difficult task and RUST largely achieves this. The directors’ long-term strategy is now paying off, allowing the company to present challenging work to large and appreciative audiences.

Tracks Dance Company, RUST, creators/directors David McMicken, Elka Kerkhofs; choreography/performance David McMicken, Gary Lang; Brown’s Mart Theatre, Darwin, Oct 27-31

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg. 34

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

The Fondue Set, The Set (Up)

The Fondue Set, The Set (Up)

The Fondue Set, The Set (Up)

The art of Sydney-based dance trio The Fondue Set (Jane McKernan, Emma Saunders and Elizabeth Ryan) carefully stages itself as awkward and artless, built through close observations of social behaviour, obsessively embodying the places where personal anxieties transform into group paranoia. The Fondue Set deploy bafflement and embarrassment as key principles of their theatrical dance language which conceals its craft to the point where the Choreographic Centre felt the need to assure audiences in their program note that this was indeed dance. The Set (Up) is literally that—a series of preparations and reconfigurations pointing to a main event that never happens. But the bald facts about the work do small justice to the experience of it: a performance by turns glamorous, calamitous, awkward, hilarious and heartbreaking. Absolute failure has never looked this good.

The audience enters and there they are. The Set. Glammed up. Silver sequined boob tubes. Blonde wigs. Brightly coloured skirts. Overpoweringly loud rock music dominates the space. The dancers are up against the wall, their choreographic grammar that of preparation—shaking, jumping on the spot, leg stretches, rapid dog poses, all in between self-conscious adjustments of clothing and wigs. Jumping around, testing the limits. Seeing how ready they are to begin. The music ends and they stop, looking together at the audience, slightly out of breath. The lights go out.

They re-enter and set up again, with chairs and microphone this time. But the chairs are never in the correct place and the microphone keeps falling over. The lighting is never right. Pose. Tableau. Pause. Pose. Mistake. Grin. Breathe. Confused looks at each other, and increasing anxiety—this should be so simple. Why is nothing working? Elizabeth finally claims the microphone but the music switches on, drowning her out. She and the other dancers continue to explain themselves as the music blasts. They nod and smile, agreeing with each other and expanding on their explanations, but the audience can’t hear a word. The speech ends, the music cuts. Jane dances wildly to fill the sudden, embarrassing silence and succeeds only in making the lights go out.

Emma seems to chase Jane about the stage by constantly moving her microphone stand as she is about to speak. Like so much in the show, it begins playfully and becomes increasingly savage. Jane is finally herded into a corner of the stage, pressed tightly against the wall, left literally unable to speak.

The performance becomes a confusion machine. The grins widen and crack apart. The glitz is always inadequate. Even the walls are a surprise to the dancers as they traverse the stage, continually stumbling and colliding, always bewildered but smiling. Carrying on regardless. The wigs get more and more dishevelled as the frenetic ‘setting up’ continues. Chairs dragged obsessively. Maniacally. More and more chairs are set up, rearranged, fought over. The dancers stamp their shoes and totter about the set up, as if this can somehow make sense of this mess. Time slows and thickens, grinding to a standstill. The lights flash, and are gone.

The Fondue Set, The Set (Up), dancers Jane McKernan, Emma Saunders, Elizabeth Ryan; The Choreographic Centre, Canberra, September 21

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg. 35

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

Since its invention, photography has brought together travel, memory, family, the body and the phantasmagoric. In this sense, director/choreographer Bagryana Popov’s Somewhere Else represented a camera obscura. The mnemonic, image-producing camera was not merely the theatre within which the piece was performed, but also the chamber of the body. Simon Ellis’ performance was intensely physical, his variously relaxed, angry and flailing movements strongly empathetic and present. His performance was simultaneously visibly divided, dispersed and partially absent in a metaphoric sense.

Somewhere Else offered a physical depiction of the effect of migration upon the body—the feeling migrants often have of being elsewhere while inhabiting a new space. Carrying within it a residual perception of another environment, the migrant’s body becomes like a fish-tank. Lifted from one locale to another, the water keeps moving inside, its tides determined by a distant moon. As Nadja Kostich intoned in the voiceover: “Between these bricks are images of other bricks…falling. Between these faces are images of other faces.” Ellis’ performance was defined by strong moments of frustrated masculine Euro-Australian gestures such as soccer-ball kicking, the backward leg crossing and upraised arms of traditional Balkan dance, and the sometimes annoyed, sometimes placid repetition of movements for working an espresso machine. The performance was simultaneously spectral and characterised by a sense of psychophysical absence. The full affective weight of the body was deferred, like a thread strung out across time and space. Akin to a ghost, Ellis’ body was constantly being pulled back by an undertow emanating from across a River Styx of physical distance and emotion.

The bittersweet beauty of Somewhere Else depended on a series of dichotomies: physical immediacy (the literal performance) versus physical indeterminacy (the performer’s dramatic affect); hard gestures versus effortlessly soft ones; the character at ease versus the character at dis-ease; direct affective allusions to a European homeland in the score juxtaposed with a separation from these sensations as manifest within the space in sound and echo. The aesthetic produced by bringing together Popov (a former member of IRAA Theatre who has most recently worked in community theatre) with Ellis meant that the closest parallel to Somewhere Else was Helen Herbertson’s work with theatre-maker Jenny Kemp. Somewhere Else and Herbertson’s Descansos… resting places (1996) and her Delirium (1999) share a wistful yet not entirely nostalgic concept of place, psychophysical image and memory.

The mixture of seductive, gentle persistence and astringent bitterness in Kostich’s delivery was perfectly matched by the performance from Ellis whose primary training is in Contact Improvisation. His current aesthetic as a dance-maker nevertheless recalls that of Butoh improviser Min Tanaka, who described the body as a series of microclimates manifest in dynamic fluctuations with which the performer interacts. Under Popov’s direction Ellis effected an atomised performance, the body becoming akin to a semi-gaseous amalgam of sensations, memories and other components. These materials hovered provisionally about muscle and bone. If affect is the glue holding psychophysical matter together, then the dichotomous affect evoked by Popov and Ellis produced a porous performative body, through whose microtonal interstices emotion ebbed and flowed.

Dancehouse, Somewhere Else, performed as part of Places of Rupture, Dislocation, In Between Places; director/choreographer/ writer Bagryana Popov; performer Simon Ellis; voiceover Nadja Kostich; Dancehouse, Sept 29-Oct 3

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg. 35

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

Brian Lucas

Brian Lucas

Brian Lucas

I suspect that the secret of the universe may very well be that each of us is and has a body different from and the same as every other and our task is to comprehend this complex truth. Brian Lucas prepares the way for us in his the book of revelation(s). Performing naked, Lucas uses movement, text, dance and sound to reflect on the idea that “every living body is an ongoing process of discovery and revelation…It’s about “how we write ourselves and read the bodies of others”, he says.

If there’s one thing a naked performing body needs it’s an enveloping structure and to cover himself, Lucas calls on his favourite filmmaker, Peter Greenaway. framing all of the personal material within the context of a number: 10 key words, 10 gestures, 10 key dance movements, 10 costume pieces and the opening lines from 10 of his favourite books.

Like all the best performance work, the book of revelation(s) has grown from an ongoing collaboration, here between Brian Lucas and sound artist Brett Collery. It has evolved in its own sweet way through a number of work-in-progress showings towards this full-scale version which will be staged in an exclusive 3-night season at Brisbane Powerhouse 15-18 December. In the course of its development, Brian Lucas has also created another work (Monster); participated in the New Moves/New Territories choreographic laboratory in Adelaide and Glasgow; and starred and toured Australia and the USA in Chunky Move’s Tense Dave. He has also been Artist in Residence at Brisbane Powerhouse and contributed to the curation of the space’s dance program—all part of the working life of the artist’s body.

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg. 36

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

Dan Witton, Grant Smith, Jeanne Van de Velde, Cosmonaut

Dan Witton, Grant Smith, Jeanne Van de Velde, Cosmonaut

Dan Witton, Grant Smith, Jeanne Van de Velde, Cosmonaut

Robyn Archer’s superb showcase of new music theatre forms for her final Melbourne Festival more than fulfilled its brief to explore various permutations of the voice in performance. Jude Walton’s No Hope, No Reason, for example, consisted of a series of distinct vignettes collectively bringing together prose poetry, unaccompanied sung poetry (recalling Renaissance devotional music), operatic recital (complete with 3 singers in dinner suits and ball gowns) and postmodern studio dance (with focussed, variously trained dancers in loose fitting garb). The music’s religious associations were echoed by the high ceiling and hushed atmospherics of the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art.

Walton’s style was an aestheticised pedestrianism, of essentially conventional motifs in terms of movement, speech, thought, allusion, music and singing, presented with a gentle yet densely meditated poise which rendered them attractively evocative. Vocally, No Hope replayed the contradictory relationship between profane banalities and divine aesthetics. Terrestrial voices can approach those of angels, but they cannot replicate them since humans remain immured in daily realities of flesh and love. “You think…I don’t care…about you…like I care about…shit”, the singers pronounced, juxtaposing their heavenly vocal technique with the abject dross of life.

Each performer’s presentation was similarly characterised by the counter-posed suppleness of body and speech with content suggesting tense anxiety and unease. These impressions lay like sharp prickles within a silken fabric of text and image. Ian de Gruchy’s projections of richly coloured petals, droplets and clouds were cast over such textual pronunciations as “singing you a blood red flower…as if I were bleeding.” By sketching such parallels between form and content, and by aligning these dualities according to a profound, affective ambivalence, Walton produced a seductive, meditative performance, layering a nostalgia for certainty and contentment upon a resolutely contemporary perspective. In the final passage, one character related that she felt her emotions had been “sullied…sanitised, homogenised, brutalised”, but she retained a compulsion to speak these thoughts, implying that by reciting such imperfections, she could transcend them.

In contrast to No Hope’s poetry, Mikel Rouse’s Failing Kansas explored the limits of recitative and sprechstimme—singing based upon conversational language. Rouse’s topic was the 1959 Southern US murder case which was the subject of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Rouse’s treatment produced a profoundly American musical, mixing national tropes such as jazz, be-bop and Beat poetry, vernacular speech and advertising slogans. Also in the mix were the road trip as a form of cultural imagining, the “American Gothic” ambience of suburban Pentecostal speech, and US socio-racial anxieties regarding the causes of crime.

Musically, Failing Kansas was not notable for its originality, with Rouse’s deft score melding popular musics and American minimalism in a similar vein to Laurie Anderson, Philip Glass and others. It was, however, distinguished by its virtuosic realisation through vocal and visual dramaturgy. Rouse sang the main part live to the recorded accompaniment of electronic organ and other instruments, supporting a dense weaving of multiple recorded and real-time vocal lines. His precise, scat-like intonation rippled through his body between punctuations of live and recorded harmonica, digits dancing at his side as though fingering an impossible instrument.

Failing Kansas resembled an abstract, imagistic, internal mental diary. The piece opened with the sound of flash bulbs, suggesting both holiday snaps and journalistic crime photography. Cliff Baldwin’s accompanying projected montage moved from portraits rich in ambiguities (were they personal mementos, forensic documents, or something else?) to American roadside hoardings, suggesting a muddled affective world in which turns of phrase like “Amazing Offer” or promises of wealth through consumption became hopelessly entangled with the bloody “perfect score” committed by Perry Smith and Dick Hickock. Rouse’s multiple vocalisations harmonised and came together to suggest moments of ecstasy or suspended happiness, as signified by text about flights of parrots or an idyll spent in a Edenic garden with a companion who may have been Smith’s lover, or conversely Hickock himself (whose serpentine temptations led Smith to sin). Rouse’s voices then became split, dispersed or self-interrupted when these joys decayed and a chaos of thoughts and interlocutors crowded into Smith’s brain along with his darker memories. Failing Kansas superbly represented the American dream turned nightmare.

David Chesworth’s long awaited opera Cosmonaut is musically and instrumentally close to his early compositions and tape-loop work in its use of samples alongside mixed percussion, organ and brass. This slightly dated musical ambience of insistent pounds, atonal rises and crescendos, and radiophonic atmospheres supported by pedal steel is nevertheless consistent with the content, which resonates with Cold War anxieties. The narrative revolves around cosmonaut Viktor Klebnikov, stranded on a Soviet spacecraft while revolution brews on Moscow’s streets, war threatens in Yugoslavia and the Eastern Bloc becomes unstable and fluid.

Though Viktor is implicitly and silently embodied by Grant Smith, he remains an elusive figure, his pre-recorded radio transmissions providing the only direct evidence of his being. Like the media reports of events in the East, Viktor’s vocal presence is both highly tangible in its textured, distorted amplification over the speakers, while also distant, disembodied and uncertain, a mediated personality both of his time and outside of it, stranded beyond the major rotational axes of planetary temporality. It is time to which his terrestrial contact, Angela, appeals in order to free him.

Angela is an amateur mathematician, a chic student in a tartan miniskirt with platinum locks, whose embodiment similarly moves between physical uncertainty and vocal reification. Performer Mel Gray provides an elongated, twitching, hunched, scribbling frame which is literally echoed by 2 non-speaking bodies on either side of her, while her vocal flights of fancy, her screams, high notes, sustained cries and tentative songs to Viktor amplify her presence throughout the space. Chesworth’s instrumental form here is not greatly different from that of his earlier works, but his attention to the voice, to its limits and to its almost scarified, papillary textures and broken rhythms, represents the culmination of techniques he developed in Lacuna (1992) and The Two Executioners (1994).

Real time video projection from a webcam over Angela’s desk, or from underneath its cluttered glass-top (covered with hieroglyphic calculations and speculations), further divide and spread her vocally explosive, fragmentary character beyond normal space. Though such visual effects are not new, director David Pledger’s devotion to symmetry and to a triadic/dyadic, pyramidal stage construction render them superlative. The entire stage structure is bounded above, to the sides, and below by strips of video, dividing the construction into a complex cameral chamber for the sustained projection of image and sound.

At the apex is Smith, variously representing a playful, tenor media-presenter, the mission control director, and Viktor’s uncertain, unlit body; below him Angela obsessively fidgets at her desk; and below her move her two flanking avatars. The final stage level is occupied by Angela’s parents, 2 gorgeously sympathetic, falsetto caricatures (Dan Witton and Jeanne Van de Velde), who literally blend into their armchairs as they rest before the television set. These are not the duped fools of conventional media criticism, since the couple are strongly engaged by the virtual conflicts before them. They are nevertheless ultimately unmotivated by such distant performances, remaining well-informed but unable to conceive of a strategy to resolve their feelings of sympathy and alienation.

Only Angela offers an answer. According to e=mc2, the abolition of time will abolish space—and so history and the very idea of a media event—thus liberating Viktor and collapsing the separation between his capsule and Angela’s home. Angela’s mathematical solution constitutes an ecstatic, hysterical sublimation to the crowd and the historic voices carried upon the airwaves, such that Moscow, Yugoslavia, the past, the present, the spacecraft and all of identity should fold in upon themselves, generating a single, infinitely complex mass. The historicity of Chesworth’s score is therefore eminently appropriate for a work located at the end of History. Sadly, Angela’s computations have remained a dream, the earth’s rotation bringing us back to new cold warrior presidents and repressed, clamorous crowds.

No Hope, No Reason, director/choreographer, Jude Walton, composer Hartley Newnham, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, October 7-10; Failing Kansas, director/performer Mikel Rouse, Beckett Theatre, Malthouse, Melbourne, October 7-10; Wax Sound Media and Danceworks, Cosmonaut: An opera in four orbits, director David Pledger, librettist Tony MacGregor, music David Chesworth, Merlyn, Malthouse, October 20-23

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg. 37

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

Granular Synthesis, modell 5

Granular Synthesis, modell 5

Voices I heard, even seemed to see, in Robyn Archer’s 2004 Melbourne Festival emanated from deep in the body and the psyche, undivided, whether in the primordial and shamanistic agonies of Men in Tribulation; the pulsing, vibratory sonic-video portraits by Granular Synthesis; or in Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s complex embodiment of a 1963 Joan Baez album. In the all too brief 4 days I experienced of this festival, these works entered me and are there to stay. Other works like William Kentridge’s remarkable version of Monteverdi’s The Return of Ulysses, the Victoria company’s Ubung and De Keersmaker and Rosas’ Mozart/Arias added to the festival’s resonance if in less transformative ways, while the tiny, intimate A Quarrelling Pair by Aphids was a quiet revelation with its shifting weave of human and puppet, voice and soundscore.


Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker bares body and soul in Once. She confides in us the power of music over her dancer’s body, calling up the embodiment of Joan Baez in Concert, Part 2 (1963) in de Keersmaeker the child—before she knew English—and showing how that music has stayed with her since she first heard it in 1967. Once opens in silence. De Keersmaeker is still, silent and then slips into a set of small moves, gestures tentatively, looks at us and away, spaces the feet, and drops suddenly. Delineated quietly before lowering the needle onto the record, this is the vocabulary for Once, a silent, informal overture for a body we will get to know very well once we have settled into her time, her space, her hearing of the songs she dwells on, flits through, takes over and loses herself in, and will even sing.

There is a sense of the dancer hearing the songs for both the first and the nth time, knowing them only too well, sometimes impatient, sometimes loving, nearly always drawn into them, gleefully rediscovering them. The shift from track to track, the waiting for the right moment to respond (mouthing words or feeling the beat or tempted to rise to Baez’s soaring soprano), hesitations, doubts, singing We shall overcome quietly and creakily on her own as the record is faded out early into the track. With the feel of improvisation, this is a quest to find what remains in de Keersmaeker’s body of that music, what’s still real about it, what of herself she can still give to it, or it to her. There is much openness and vulnerability here, a casting off of shoes, socks, underwear, going naked to the music and to us. The recurrent long gaze into the audience signals the privacy of her act—as if to ask, ‘are you with me?’ The enigmatic smile as she hovers over the front row, leaning into the audience as if about to fall into their arms, also amplifies this sharing as do the little jokes, the visual banter, the adult-as-child hiding in a blanket.

All the while the tracks roll by, old songs in Spanish and English of murder, jealousy, betrayal and joy. De Keersmaeker announces Long Black Veil as a favourite, abandons herself to Queen of Hearts and melds with the analytical Baez of Bob Dylan’s curt Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right. The Battle Hymn of the Republic is followed by Baez’s polished hymning of Dylan’s With God on Our Side which is suddenly usurped by the singer-songwriter’s street-preaching original, doubling its power in the only departure from the Baez album. De Keersmaeker was given the album as a gift to mark the birth of a sister, fell in love with it and later came to admire Baez the non-violent activist. Part of the power of Once is its capacity to place within one frame an intimate physical and emotional response to a voice and the evocation of a political moment, sadly with much in common with our own. De Keersmaeker puts a body, her own, to a voice, Baez’s; and in doing so gives voice to many.

Modell 5

I remember my astonishment when Meg Stuart’s No One Is Watching opened with a lone dancer standing still, his head was turning rapidly side to side in an incredible blur, a living Francis Bacon smear of a face, and so it was in Modell 5 by the Austrian artists Granular Synthesis presented by Novamedia and ACMI at the Melbourne Festival. One face, that of Japanese performer Akemi Takeya, appears in 4 portrait proportioned frames on a large screen in a small room in ACMI where we stretch out on the floor and keep our earplugs ready—we have been supplied and warned. The head’s movements sideways and up and down are incrementally edited into a furiously paced staccato, a near blur in which, for example, the teeth become everything raking across the screen and the performer mutates into an eyeless creature. Or, as the head rolls up and down the open mouth evolves from Bacon to Giger, utterly Alien, and is that the gurgling of saliva I hear in the sound rush? Liquid sounds certainly, but am I hearing things? The soundscore is immaculately matched to the images, not literally, but as a frantic, shuddering pulse that grows in demanding volume but which has its own layered beauty and is never short of acoustic qualities that belie the synthetic construction. It begins with a high, rattling percussion, thickening out, the beat doubling, layered with sounds like cries, ullulations, machine gunnings, whinnyings, a huge gasp. The body in extremis, like an astronaut heading into space, is matched by a score that puts our vibrating, listening bodies in sync with the performer. What is this? Synthetic performance art? Animated portraiture? Modell 5 is curiously painterly. It screams from ACMI to the Munch exhibition down the road at the NGV.

Men in Tribulation

The performance space contains us, audience and performers. It is filled with fog and framed with high scaffolding. Columns of light stream down. At the centre on a platform made from wooden crates, a man in a swivel chair fitted with a microphone, is having his feet washed by a woman while several men play with small objects that click, clack and rattle and later add up to saxophones. Close by someone is taking these noises into the system, mixing and distributing them into the space. This ritual unfolds into the last hour of Antonin Artaud (Phil Minton), high priest of 20th century performance living out his final agonies and humiliations, reliving his days with the Tarahumara Indians, their drugs and visions and their high priest (Viviane de Muynck), and railing against opera and God.

Minton’s anguished Artaud sits for most of the performance, almost as if clinically restrained, but his state of being is projected through an astonishing vocal performance from shrill calls to guttural basso groans, very real sounds, both treated at the sound desk and not, conveying the rack of metaphysical torment and the decline of the body as he challenges a god he doesn’t believe in but who has turned him into “a seer who cannot see.”

The saxophonists inhabit 3 points in the architecture of Men in Tribulation, De Muynck the fourth. Their sounds (notes, breath, voice,) are both raw and cooked, immediately audible but also transformed, both layers conjuring winds, storms, distant cries, crowds, death rattles, drownings. Just as the musicians open up the aural space so does the architect-generated set transform the world around us with shifting lines of fluorescent light.

Erich Sleichim’s production is Artaudian in its sheer enveloping intensity. Jan Fabre’s text is incantatory (though not, unfortunately revelatory). Minton is magnificent as Artaud, an unactorly performer whose sounds transform his body, from consuming, racking rage to beast-like murmurs and bird whispers, to the final shivering and shuddering of death. His shirt is pulled off, momentarily evoking a strait-jacket, but his release comes as he takes a jug of honey and pours it over his head and body and is slowly washed by his attendant performers.

A Quarrelling Pair

These 3 miniature plays about pairs of sisters are performed with small puppets in and around a magically convertible wooden dressing table that becomes a stage, several worlds and from the drawers of which the heads and limbs of the puppeteer-actors can surreally appear, as if they themselves are manipulated by greater forces. The sisters in American writer Jane Bowles’ A Quarrelling Pair (1945/46) are locked into the tensions of their difference, big-hearted versus small-minded, which escalate into physical violence, all the more alarming coming from puppets, as in Punch and Judy. The onset of evening calms them, but you sense the compulsion of ritual.

In Lally Katz’s Mr Peterson’s Milk, it’s 4 years since 2 sisters gave up smoking and they are now venturing out into the world. The pair in Bowles’ play would never do that. But what a world. Q: “Where do you want to go?” A: “Inside Mr Peterson, the Milkman’s Brain.” What they encounter are fragments of the past, “The monuments of our time are already dying”, odd sights and strange sounds: “The voice of the Dalai Lama begins to speak. It mixes with the terrible wind.” Their brief visit to the bank is a wonderful adventure and they wonder where they will go next: “Somewhere with numbers.” “To forget we are trapped.” “Inside the universe.” The playfulness of the sisters’ re-arranging of the physical world of the dresser alleviates a little their claustrophobic circumstances with a sense of light-hearted insanity.

In And When They Were Good, Cynthia Troup’s pair of sisters are used to being apart but even that is timed to visits every 6 weeks or so. As in the Bowles’ work it is the sense of difference which shapes the sisters’ exchanges, but it is difference that makes for inseparability. Who is more like mother than father (“Does likeness ripen? Then seep, through the skin…), who is warm-blooded, who cold? Who is the older? Who staves things off? These and childhood recollections, the paraphenalia of the dresser (a litany of mother’s cosmetics), cutting a sister’s hair, all constellate to keep these women together and just enough apart—as night comes on.

Bowles’ pair of sisters are presented as puppets with just a suggestion that their manipulators have an investment in the unfolding drama. In the Katz play the sisters reinvent the world, in effect puppeteering themselves into it. Troup’s sisters are puppeteers too, but secondarily so for it is the world of objects around them that is animated, partly it would seem of its own accord, something we particularly apprehend from the sound score (Jethro Woodward) in the eerie final moments of the play. Finely written, directed (Margaret Cameron) and performed (Caroline Lee, Sarah Kriegler), A Quarrelling Pair displaces the voice between bodies and puppets as imaginary pasts and futures are conjured, making us mindful of the emotional manipulations we perpetrate on ourselves and others.

Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, Once, Merlyn Theatre, Oct 9-10; Granular Synthesis, Modell 5, ACMI, Oct 7-Nov 6; Muziktheater Transparent, Men in Tribulation, Forum Theatre, Oct 11-13; Aphids, A Quarrelling Pair, La Mama Theatre, Oct 13-17; Melbourne International Arts Festival, Oct 7-23

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg. 38

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

Outside In

Outside In

Outside In

At the Atherton Gardens Community Centre, the audience is transported back in time 50 years to a space inhabited by a Housing Commission Officer (Stig Wemyss), facing off against members of Melbourne’s Chinese Mandarin Community defiantly performing their traditional dance. Persuaded by the retentive officer, they sing The Road to Gundagai in broken English. Temporal and spatial dislocation, cultural difference and political oppression are the ingredients in this hot pot of housing estate life entitled Outside In.

Flat 1 contains 1940s Estonian immigrant Anne Kirss and her vexed Australian neighbour, John Connolly. Space within and between their flats is minimal. Anne’s welcoming story, song and vodka impinge upon John’s reserved life. He requests silence, yet there is a trait in the rambunctious European woman which is unfamiliar to the straitlaced Australian. Trapped by circumstance, Anne and John mediate their needs and find friendship through the negotiation of a noise level agreement. Cultural collisions initiated by the political upheavals of World War 2 papered upon walls make for interesting reading.

Political oppression and the desire to preserve disintegrating cultures characterise flats 2 and 3. Across 20 years—1970 to 1990—the Vietnamese, Kurdish and Chinese cultures represented in both flats are defined by their differences. In flat 2 the effect of the Vietnam War is starkly expressed in clippings from the defunct Melbourne Herald, war images on a black and white TV, and a mournful song by Liz Than Cao and members of her Vietnamese choir. Loss and sorrow are counterpointed by offers of fried rice and a refreshing jelly dessert served in brightly coloured cups. In flat 3, the brutality of war is further undercut by the lively Kurdish sitar of conscientious objector, Fadil Sunar. The cultural mix within each 20-storey tower has also shifted. No longer just Australian and European, the Middle Eastern and South East Asian cultural fusion is further accentuated by Zao Ming and members of the estate’s Chinese Community. These are just some of the approximately 40 culturally and linguistically diverse groups living at Atherton Gardens.

Time moves forward to 2004, but not before transitional stairwells and foyers are negotiated. A capella singers remind the audience not to “… look anyone in the eye…” in the lift. The grizzly business of syringe disposal is softened by the gentle tone of a cleaning team cum choir. Life at Atherton Gardens may be a celebration of cultural diversity and freedom from political oppression, but high density housing involves its share of violence and drug abuse. In flat 4, these problems fade when compared to the prevailing Australian attitude toward asylum seekers. Vacant, except for several cheap carry bags emitting the recorded voices of people currently in detention, Flat 4 is a curt reminder of the place Australia has become in the 21st Century: smug, mean-spirited and contemptuous of those in need of political asylum.

Outside In showed its audience that joy and optimism are a direct result of the culturally diverse society Australia is, and might continue to be, if governments can find it in themselves to show generosity towards those human beings less fortunate than ourselves.

The Department of Human Services, Mpact Arts, North Yarra Community Health, Outside In, creative director Graham Pitts, music director Jennie Swain; Atherton Gardens Housing Estate; Melbourne International Festival of the Arts, October 15-24

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg. 39

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

Unheard Voices: Invisible by Night (detail, video still), 2004

Unheard Voices: Invisible by Night (detail, video still), 2004

While thousands swarmed to Melbourne’s Federation Square for mass karaoke sessions over the course of this year’s Melbourne International Arts Festival (see p38), a darker and altogether more sombre sort of interaction beckoned just metres away. As rapt members of the public momentarily lost themselves belting out I Will Survive, invoking the kind of heightened, escapist fantasy that only comes with karaoke, every evening Lynette Wallworth’s installation Unheard Voices: Invisible by Night quietly called passers-by to engage with the night in a very different way.

Installed in a rhomboid screen on one side of the Melbourne Visitor’s Centre, an angular, diminutive fragment of a building located on an outer corner of Federation Square, Unheard Voices was so modest in scale as to pass almost unnoticed by the pedestrian traffic. Closer inspection, however, revealed the mist-shrouded spectre of a female figure pacing back and forth, repeatedly approaching and then moving away from the foreground. When the viewer touched a small hand-shaped imprint on the screen, the figure again approached. But instead of turning away, she began to wipe away the mist which obscured the on-screen imagery. Slowly, she cleared a small area, partially revealing her face, looking mournfully out at the viewer before moving away, ending the silent encounter and returning the image to its hazy, ghostlike state.

Unheard Voices was inspired by the Federation Square site and its history as the location of Melbourne’s city morgue between 1871 and 1888, as well as its original function as a pre-colonisation meeting place for the Boonerwrung people. As Wallworth notes in her artist’s statement: “The sense that a site contains emanations of these complex layers, both pre and post colonisation is what intrigued me and the fact that, on this site, it should be linked with a sense of grieving seemed entirely appropriate.”

In a festival which took on the theme of ‘Voice’ and operated in an often celebratory mode, Unheard Voices staked an overt claim for the power of silence, its metaphorical equivalence with repressed or buried histories, and the importance of remembering, engaging, and grieving for the past.

From the haunting, restrained performance of Ivanka Sokol as the ghostly woman, providing an emotional resonance beyond the diminutive scale of the installation, to the intimate, gentle interface Wallworth developed with Daniel Horwood, Unheard Voices overcame its weighty, potentially didactic proposition to create a subtle, understated work. The open-ended nature of the encounter left ample space for viewers to locate themselves within the work as participants, thereby aligning the social and historical with the personal.

Meanwhile, on the eastern edge of Melbourne’s CBD, a similarly gothic work was playing out in a public facility of a different kind: the ladies’ toilet adjacent to Parliament Station. The Gordon Assumption was a collaborative installation by David Chesworth and Sonia Leber which utilised fragments of ‘found’ voices, decontextualising and reconfiguring them into something altogether striking and astounding. Like Unheard Voices, the installation operated under the cover of night when the public lavatory is usually closed. In contrast to Wallworth’s installation, The Gordon Assumption was anything but quiet and understated. Edited into a startlingly loud siren-like barrage, a multitude of voices were fragmented and spliced together with occasional brief choral interjections to create a continuous, modulating stream of sound. Rising and falling in pitch, the otherworldly wails tore out of the underground public conveniences creating a distorted, cacophonous soundscape which resounded through the Parliament Station precinct.

A dense catalogue essay attempted to contextualise The Gordon Assumption in terms of the Biblical Assumption of the Virgin Mary and other literary and theological sources. But the impact of the work was much more visceral, creating a rupture in the familiar, background noise of the city through a powerful sense of the spiritual and the uncanny, startling and fascinating commuters and passers-by. If anyone was game enough to brave descending the stairs the volume increased, and through the locked gate the facility was bathed in an eerie green light with a single bar of white light continually scanning its surfaces.

Like Unheard Voices, The Gordon Assumption powerfully suggested the return of the repressed, albeit in a less literal manner. Both works were deftly woven into the fabric of everyday Melbourne, disrupting the easy flow of city routine in a refreshingly dark, reflexive manner. Their highly considered site specificity enhanced and extended the democratic spirit of festival Director Robyn Archer’s inclusive vision over the past 3 Melbourne Festivals. In our forward-driven, increasingly blinkered culture, these installations made ominous and thought provoking claims for the importance of that which all too often falls out of earshot.

2004 Melbourne International Arts Festival Visual Arts Program: Lynette Wallworth, Unheard Voices: Invisible by Night, Melbourne Visitors Centre, October 5-23; David Chesworth and Sonia Leber, The Gordon Assumption, Gordon Reserve Toilets, October 7-23

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg. 39

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

Janet Cardiff, Forty Part Motet, 2001

Janet Cardiff, Forty Part Motet, 2001

Janet Cardiff, Forty Part Motet, 2001

The 2004 Melbourne International Arts Festival’s refreshingly anti-ocular theme of ‘voice’ provided an opportunity for some creative curatorship. From an allegory featuring Islamic singers to a reconstructed 16th century choral masterpiece and extreme digital manipulations, the visual component of the festival presented a range of important contemporary works as well as a few surprises. If an underlying preoccupation emerged from the visualisation of voice, it was, perhaps inevitably, a sense of awe, often directly evoking religious and transcendental themes and the experience of the sublime.

The Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA), now the official heart of the festival’s visual arts program, staggered a series of performances and exhibitions. Turbulent (1998), by New York based, Iranian born artist Shirin Neshat, provided a dramatic opening. This minimalist work features 2 huge black and white projections facing one another, between which the audience sits. What unfolds is a kind of musical duel between the masculine and feminine, in which we are carried away and torn between the beauty and order of a male singer and the other-worldly, throaty gymnastics of a female singer. It’s a nuanced work, but as curator Juliana Engberg suggests in her catalogue essay, on one level the political message is clear: women have not been able to sing in public in Iran since the Ayatollah Khomeini’s seizure of power after the 1979 revolution. She goes on to propose that the work represents a kind of lament for a culture that has come to be rendered black and white by fundamentalism. Things become even more complex in the post-9/11 context of the so-called ‘clash of civilisations’. Indeed, as the audience we hover in a haze of half-understanding which seems to sum up the West’s contemporary relationship to Islam. A shame the work was only on display for 4 days.

ACCA then hosted a series of sell-out ‘visual opera’ performances by the Melbourne artist Jude Walton entitled No Hope No Reason, which I missed (see Marshall: Voices in and beyond history). Following this was a more conventional but very interesting series of drawings, paintings and a video by the never-before-seen-in-Australia Vienna-based duo Markus Muntean and Adi Rosenblum, entitled Being in and out of love too many times itself makes you harder to love. Their deadpan yet heart-on-the-sleeve portrayal of young, languorous fashionable types is something like a cross between Melbourne artists David Rosetzky and Darren Sylvester. The link to the festival theme was the inner voice; the generic angst of those depicted was presented in paradoxical, downbeat philosophies of love and friendship included within the works as subtitle-style text. In an accompanying video installation, To Die For (2002), a lush 360-degree pan in a shopping centre car park evoked tableaux painting, and the disastrous inertia associated with contemporary individualism.

Muntean’s and Roenblum’s cool existentialism was overshadowed by the adjacent work in the main hall by Canadian artist Janet Cardiff, whose work has also never previously been seen in Melbourne (her 1999 work The Muriel Lake Incident was a highlight of the 2002 Biennale of Sydney). Cardiff was an inspired choice for this festival, given that her work always uses intimate, displaced vocal recordings (she is best known for her usually site-specific ‘audio walks’ in which viewers are taken on a journey guided by a voice on a walkman). Forty-Part Motet (2001) is a ‘reworking’ of Spem in Alium by Thomas Tallis, a classic liturgical work. The 40 individual voices of this soaring composition—written for Queen Elizabeth in 1575—were individually recorded and played back via an arrangement of 40 tall black speakers. Moreover, before and after the 11-minute cycle, there were a few minutes in which we could also hear the young boys and men talking among themselves. In an experience both uncanny and endearing each speaker acquires a personality.

Quite aside from the sheer beauty of the overlapping layers of the rich polyphonic sound, Cardiff’s work brilliantly conspires to encourage participation. Comfortable museum benches located in the middle of the speaker circle encouraged us to be still, but to stay seated without moving would have been to miss the work, which provided a radical opportunity to wander around the voices. Indeed, as we stood up close to the speakers and listened to the individual voices, in a way impossible in a live choral performance, they became faceless personifications of the singers (who always remained elusive presences). Cardiff has said that she wanted to be able to “climb into” the music, and is “interested in how the audience may choose a path through this physical yet virtual space.”

Trite as it sounds, this is a work that has to be experienced. Ostensibly about the intimate experience of extraordinary voices, it is also about being with strangers. Like-minded strangers, no doubt, but strangers all the same. Amidst the generally depressed mood following 2 catastrophic election results, the rapturous state of other visitors was a temporary respite. Within the landscape of spatialised sound, one’s body movements seemed to slow down. Individuals seemed more lonely and beautiful, as did children with fingers in their ears. I was reminded of the scenes in the library early in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1988) where the angels are able to listen to readers’ most intimate private thoughts. It also brought to mind Thomas Struth’s photographs of people in art museums, immersed in private looking. (ACCA’s front-of-house staff apparently also enjoyed their CCTV more than usual, with reports of people doing yoga in the spaces). ACCA provided an ideal venue for this journey of transcendence, reaching heights in its main hall not seen since Susan Norrie’s opening video installation Undertow (2002).

Like Cardiff, Granular Synthesis are also interested in how our bodies are affected by sound, but more in the mode of alienated despair than intimate ecstasy. Two ear-bleeding video installations by the Austrian group were presented for the first time in Australia as part of the SenseSurround exhibition at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI). Granular Synthesis are named after their main aesthetic technique, in which tiny grains of image and sound are broken down, redistributed and reorganised. The ticketed work included as part of the festival was Modell 5 (1994-6), which lived up to its promise of being “an extreme acoustic and visual experience that manipulates video images and sound to create a new machine-generated aesthetic.” What we endure is the continual dissolution, distortion, amplification and reconstruction of a Japanese woman’s head across 3 screens, flickering in ultra-fast strobe-like frequency (think Edvard Munch on speed). An aggressive work, its perceptual rush is generated by the intensity of the sub-sonic sound. Dubbed a “choir of cyborgs”, few would doubt the publicity claim that this is “video art for the techno dance and rave party generation”, but ironically its cold post-humanism feels decidedly historical. To be fair the work is now a decade old, but Form (1999), their more recent work in SenseSurround, remained at the level of formalistic exploration of video grain. Maybe I’m missing something, but these works also seem to reinforce passivity. Still, I look forward to ACMI attempting more historical shows, as the only institution equipped to offer a broad context for new media art.

SenseSurround also included a retrospective of Jon McCormack’s historically significant evolutionary digital works (c. 1990s), and a new commission by Jeffrey Shaw and David Pledger called Eavesdrop (2004). Shaw and Pledger pooled form, content and resources to produce a 360-degree panoramic series of video narratives in another of Shaw’s ongoing cylindrical projection environments. Disappointingly, its high-tech formal innovations amounted to little more than a taste of entertainment to come, and its centralised control requires the kind of sustained solo interaction that is difficult in a gallery context.

Another Festival exhibition, The Gordon Assumption by local artists David Chesworth and Sonia Leber, was staged in one of Melbourne’s old underground public toilets near Parliament House. A distinct screaming could be heard emerging from the depths, and I certainly wouldn’t have ventured down the dingy stairs late at night without knowing there was art to be found. The discovery in the toilet was appropriately minimal—just a rotating beam of light behind the grill. The asynchronous chorus of individual voices was designed to be encountered unexpectedly, and I like to think it might have scared the pants off some unsuspecting pedestrians. The work might seem slight, and rather too theatrical, like a visit to Madame Tussauds’ Chamber of Horrors. But fear, as we’ve recently seen, is the most powerful and conservative emotion of all, and could do with some transforming.

Melbourne International Arts Festival, various venues, Oct 7-23

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg. 40

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

Over recent years, Australia has played host to some of the UK’s most acclaimed artistic innovators: Blast Theory, 32000 Points of Light, Dan Belasco Rogers, Forced Entertainment, Duckie and curious.com. At a time when artists considered to exist on the experimental edges of British culture are being welcomed worldwide, it seems timely to contemplate their origins. What brought them to where they are now? How much further than mere physical distance have they come to meet you? Who will follow in their footsteps and what will they leave in their wake?

In February this year, hot on the heels of recent Edinburgh and London success, Duckie presented C’est Vauxhall in the unlikely surroundings of Sydney’s Opera House Studio. Believe me, to our tired British eyes, it is hardly possible to find a more glamorous location. Duckie’s home from home is a pub in the backstreets of London’s Vauxhall, its regulars used to a bewildering diet of showbiz wannabes and live art show-offs performing amidst the lager and crisps. Over the years, Duckie have produced ice extravaganzas, arty discotheques, sleepovers and sideshows in the nomadic, entrepreneurial spirit of old-style, cockney entertainers. Duckie have earned their stripes! Now they coyly giggle as they are invited into the Pit at the Barbican in London, knowingly kick up their heels as they infiltrate the Opera House, and let out a rude laugh as they accept a string of Fringe Firsts, Olivier and Total Theatre Awards. The truth is Duckie have always been sprinkled liberally with stardust and it is easy to understand why our colleagues in the artistic mainstream are utterly seduced by their dirty turning of tricks. Duckie are sublime because they emanate from that dingy pub in Vauxhall and can’t and won’t deny their roots.

Forced Entertainment have become one of the world’s seminal theatre companies, working from their small studio in the Yorkshire steel town of Sheffield. Their work is often grimly undercut with failure, risk, doubt and questioning. The individuals in the company continue to put themselves in real, awkward, ridiculous situations before an audience who are both attracted and repulsed. As UK Theatreland desperately grasps at survival by shrugging off its conservative mantle, major institutions are on the prowl for elusive innovation. In the wake of this new interest in the radical, Forced Entertainment is a prime target. Artistic Director Tim Etchells has recently said it would be death if they ever allowed themselves to be absorbed into the mainstream. Lucrative residencies at major national venues continue to beckon, but to encase themselves too far within the institution would be to cut off their life blood. They cherish their position as outsiders. Their blend of interdisciplinarity and experimentation belongs in the twilight. Faded theatres, intimate venues and forgotten spaces are their home.

In the UK, on the eve of 2000, as fireworks and street parties celebrated the coming of the new millennium, a remarkable project marked an alternative passing of time. Small Acts for the Millennium brought together artists, producers, curators, scholars and audiences, each with the credentials of the proud innovator coursing through their veins. Co-curated by Lois Keiden and Tim Etchells, and edited by Adrian Heathfield, the project presented a collection of ephemeral acts of passing. In a small town in the British Midlands, in his old primary school hall, Alex Kelly of Third Angel retold the life stories of his fellow classmates of 76. Bully boys squeezed into the front row where they once sat, the chairs now too small for their 30-something backsides. A couple of weeks later, in an unknown city, in the function room of a hotel, Kira O’Reilly celebrated her birthday with a group of strangers, who each received a cup marked with her blood and etched with a different story of survival. These were performances in extraordinary/ordinary, unlikely, uncomfortable and unattractive spaces: collieries, motorway junctions, car parks. Shy and meaningful, intimate and universal, these acts were witnessed only by a few, but they resonate powerfully within the pages of the publication and are set to do this for many years to come.

Innovative work needs an audience instinctively drawn to the singular pleasures of the outsider. In the UK, as in Australia, innovative work is often seen as inaccessible, difficult or challenging. At the recent TBA Festival in Portland, Oregon I was surprised and enlightened by an audience who described themselves as ‘truth seekers’ seeking a restless/unrestful place. In the US, a country that is increasingly seen by the outside world as myopic and arrogant, this audience sought artists who refused to entertain, comfort or shield them, but helped them face up to the difficulties of a shifting world.

How do we create these meeting points for artist and audience? Are they venue, postcode or artform specific? In my view they are not. They come about in a silent contract between artist, producer and public, in the uncertain, in-between spaces. They are created by remarkable, driven individuals, not major institutions. In the UK they can be found in rare contexts such as Inbetween Time, Fierce and the National Review of Live Art. As a Portland audience member memorably explained: “I have been steered to not bother if I like something or I don’t. I don’t have to find what I see beautiful. I have been helped to take risk.” As a regular visitor and collaborator I already know that in Australia you are also lucky enough to have such contexts and people. If you are a fellow innovator, you will know who and where they are.

In their desire to remain outside the mainstream, Duckie, Forced Entertainment and Small Acts sum up for me the essence of the radical act and underline a series of unique collaborations steeped in innovation. If we were to psychometrically test our innovators what would we find? A pinch of deviousness, a drop of provocation and equal measures of tenacity, evangelism and irritation. You can’t buy innovation off the shelf. You cannot engineer the original, you have to invest in its early steps. So Lady Mainstream you can embrace the avant-garde as you always have, you can even have a piece of it, but you can never ever own it. Here in the UK, the roots of innovation, its heart and soul, are alive and kicking in the backstreets of London, Bristol, Birmingham and Bridgwater. Despite the glittering tights and the high kicks, Duckie’s makeup is slipping and the dark room of the pub in Vauxhall is beckoning them to return.

Footnote: Some must-see wannabes, the innovators’ legacy—a non-comprehensive list of some of the new UK generation. Richard Dedemonici’s controversial contemplation on terrorism using the cannons of Edinburgh Castle trained on the site of Scotland’s fledgling independent parliament building. Jon Fawcett drilling a hole in the wall of the Arches in Glasgow and filling it with pure, spun gold. Paul Morley’s series of unbearable, touching works: Becoming Sparrow, Becoming Snail, Becoming Worm. Yara El-Sherbini standing in a public space in Cairo, singing Britney Spears’ Hit Me Baby One More Time into a toy plastic gun with “God Bless America” spelt out in sequins on the back of her burkha. Kate Stannard’s duet with a plucked chicken. Phil Stanier’s opening apology for a bad show we will never see. Grace Surmon’s bunny costume with bracelets made from toasted white bread. Tom Marshman’s bitter chocolate box lament.

Arnolfini/IBT: www.arnolfini.org.uk/inbetween

Duckie: www.duckie.co.uk

Forced Entertainment: www.forced.co.uk

NRLA: www.newmoves.co.uk

LADA: www.thisisliveart.co.uk

Guardians of Doubt: www.guardiansofdoubt.org

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg. 42

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

In the opening of Toni Allayialis’ My Of-Course Life the tropical North is evoked through an appeal to the senses: the description of an “indigo blue Queenslander”, the sight of frangipanis, the scent of garlic being cooked on stage. In weaving the stories of 5 women connected by culture and bloodlines, the central character, Alithea, juggles contemporary motherhood—including the inevitable ‘of course’ days when everything seems to go wrong—with the mythical and the lyrical aspects of her ancestry. Hence we are transported from a far north Queensland backyard to Croatia, England and the shores of Greece through the experiences of many women’s lives and the themes of migration and journeying. These are gutsy, poignant and sometimes bleak tales punctuated by the gentle comedy of Alithea’s everyday adventures with her 2 young children.

‘Alithea’ means truth and the performance revolves around Alithea sharing the collective truths of the lives of her mother, grandmothers and great-grandmothers. In a classic quest narrative she also seeks the truth of her ‘vision’—is it a gift or a curse? The mystical is induced by the words of her gypsy grandfather: “What you can see is real, what you can’t see is very real.” This is further emphasised by an engaging interplay of non-visual elements: the aroma of the simmering hot pot, the sounds of the sea and running water, and Allayialis’ singing of Greek songs, mostly of loss.

The bitter-sweetness of Alithea’s multicultural and refugee heritage is portrayed in these songs and in the many choreographed waves of goodbye. Physically, her ancestors’ stealth in the face of adversity is as prominent in The Dance of Zolongou (which portrays the real life fate of a Greek village of women and children who danced to their death over a cliff to escape murder by the Turkish army) as in the sexy joie de vivre of Alithea’s gypsy mother Luvitsa, who deals with the prospect of an arranged marriage. Although at one level the performance is about family, the phrase “blood is not thicker than water” is repeated often and we also meet a range of other extraordinary women, including 2 very funny Cuban cabaret singers who share in Alithea’s life and passions.

The performance is rich in metaphor and Allayialis displays impressive skill in her transitions from one character to another while keeping the quest narrative and celebratory commemoration of these women’s diverse experiences alive. Importantly, there’s time in the performance to reflect and engage with the depth of feeling in these stories. For instance, after the Zolongou dance Allayialis offers the audience a prolonged moment of devastating revelation, effected by the singular sound of flowing water.

On stage, more water is transferred from bucket to tub as each story is shared and we again return to Alithea, her children and their preparations for New Year ‘s Eve on a humid tropical night. With the new year comes the final breaking of the “Katara curse.” With newfound freedom and insight, Alithea performs a ritual bathing in a flower-strewn tub, indicating that ‘it’s time’ to be fortified by the stories of her past and embrace life anew.

JUTE (Just Us Theatre Ensemble), My Of-Course Life, writer, performer Toni Allayialis, director Maryanne Lynch; Brisbane Festival, Cremorne Theatre, QPAC, September 29-Oct 9

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg. 42

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

Simon Whitehead is a seasoned traveller. His performance work usually involves some sort of journey, mainly undertaken on foot and invariably over several days, if not weeks. I nevertheless have to give him a day to recover from his 24 hour journey from his native Wales to Mareeba, near Cairns in northern Queensland. Rebecca Youdell of Bonemap (the intermedia arts partnership between Youdell and Russell Milledge) gives me the background to the 2 week artist’s exchange project which has brought Whitehead to Australia for the first time.

Entitled Rupture and Residue, the project takes 4 artists on a journey from north to south, leading them through a series of landscapes and communities. Jim Denley, Australian musician and occasional Bonemap collaborator, will join Whitehead, Youdell and Russell Milledge. Lee Wen (well known for his Journey of a Yellow Man performances) will maintain a remote link to the group from his native Singapore. The artists will undertake field work and research and give performative talks at regional venues.

Starting on November 8, the party will be resident at the recently opened Centre for Contemporary Arts in Cairns and at Emerald End in Mareeba. They will then set off in their 4-wheel drive, gathering material for the multimedia creation they intend as the outcome of their peregrinations. Along the route that culminates in another residency, this one with students at Griffith University on the Gold Coast, they will stop to talk at Townsville’s Umbrella Studio and Mackay’s Artspace. They will also collaborate in a talk/artist exchange with the Sandhills Collective, based at Keppel Sands near Rockhampton.

Whitehead found his way to Queensland via the usual 6-degrees-of-separation connections that take artists around the world. The only discombobulating factor in the chain of circumstances was that he had never met Bonemap until he stepped off the plane. When Youdell and Milledge were in Japan performing, they met Welsh producer and Chapter Arts programmer, James Tyson, who immediately recognised the relationships between their work and Whitehead’s. Tyson passed on the relevant information and an email exchange began. When Bonemap arrived the following year at Singapore’s Substation on an Asialink residency, they discovered that Whitehead had recently departed. In Cardiff for Chapter’s Experimentica festival in 2002, they again missed Whitehead by a whisker. Having seen only “the back of his head in a video”, Bonemap were intrigued about how this elusive artist might contribute to their ambitious exchange.

Whitehead studied geography and human movement at university and was an athlete, teacher and professional dancer before consolidating his experience into a place-sensitive, time-based and ‘pedestrian’ performance practice. He has a close relationship with the British sound artist Barnaby Oliver, who has recently moved to Melbourne, and his work incorporates the sensual residue of the places through which he walks. A signature Whitehead performance is stalks#2 (Cardiff, 2001), in which he approached 4 strangers (an elder, adult, teenager and child), and accompanied them on their favourite walks through the streets of Cardiff. Attached to each participant was a steadycam filming only their face and recording their commentary providing a personalised mediated experience of the city. The work was eventually presented as a live video and sound mix and CD-ROM project.

As we recommence our conversation after a long night’s sleep, Whitehead speaks to me with evident pleasure at the sounds and smells of his new environment. He has been sitting around the breakfast table with the other artists, enjoying the familiarity between them and the novelty of his position in the group. “We have been looking at maps of our journey. Rebecca and Russell have been to most of the places we will visit, but for me it is all new. We have not yet discussed how we will approach the trip, but have been sharing questions about what we may make or discover in the project. Unusually for me, I have come with something of a framework. I have brought 6 sticks that I collected on a walk back home in Wales. Sea washed ash. I want to collect sticks from the beaches and woods here and use these to create drawings which I will leave behind in the places of their making. These drawings will form a trace, or map, upon the land made up of material from different continents. They will be drawings of things I see on the journey-of animals perhaps? I have done this before. In Wales I followed a herd of wild ponies for a winter and made drawings of them out of wood as I followed them. It is a familiar process, but one which I am open to puncturing through these circumstances. It could become an interface…with the other artists to record and treat the sound of these drawings. The performative nature of their making will also become part of whatever residue we create for the project.”

I ask Whitehead if he is hoping to incorporate people as well as the environment and other creatures into his work. “Certainly, I would like to ask people to guide me to places. Our conversations might be documented in the sound recordings and become a basis upon which to layer other information.” He is interested in opportunities to present the journey. “I am intrigued by the process of questioning and discussion and the taking of decisions about what to tell and show of the work.”
Whitehead has brought images and videos to show in his talk but is waiting to discover what he will reveal of himself. “How will I translate what has grown in another environment? I am interested to see how people respond to the artifacts and anecdotes which are the residue of this kind of work. These ephemera become their own kind of mythology, which is open to translation and interpretation. Russell and Rebecca mentioned that they had seen a fair bit of my work but had never seen me. I was only an echo in my own work. Yet in much of the work it is the residue which remains in the body which is what interests me. I wonder how much this project will end up as memory. Of course, there will be documents and a digital outcome, but the primary thing is what resonates in the body: the colours, the temperatures, the people and the season. Right now, my body is still in autumn, but only a day after arriving I can feel the leaves growing again.”

Rupture and Residue, Bonemap, Simon Whitehead (www.untitledstates.net), Lee Wen; Queensland, Nov 12-24

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg. 43

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

Emma J Cooper, Plaza Real

Emma J Cooper, Plaza Real

Emma J Cooper, Plaza Real

Eerily self-contained, the newest agoraphobic shopping malls and vertiginous shopping centres are full of reflective surfaces, fine-grained timbers and stone, classy piped post-muzak, and are replete with comforts and choices that shoppers of yore would not recognise. They can be seductive refuges where the faintest of aberrant behaviour leads to removal. There is no place for the homeless, the loiterer or beggar. Security guards and cleaners clear away all detritus. The pleasures of shopping, of promenading, of relaxing, of being untroubled among your kind is at a premium in these palaces of hygiene and style, communal but not of the community.

Plaza Real is one such centre, realised as performance with all the requisite clarity of intent and stylishness but with the most modest of means—sound, bodies, theatre lights shaped into strict lines and sculpted in an ominous cluster, and a sea of uniformly inflated plastic shopping bags. This is no literal recreation of a shopping centre, but an exquisitely surreal evocation of one in which superficial order and fine design will sooner or later surrender to fundamental passions, where the object is not purchase but the other—desired, fondled, embraced, stalked and attacked. These enactments are just what you won’t encounter in the modern mall, nor are the bursts of monologue, of interiority let loose. Their ironies, uglinesses and despairs are the stuff of art, not shopping. In such circumstances the growing imbalance between order and disintegration yields suspense and surprise as introspection is supplanted by brash extroversion, as touch displaces hostility and embrace turns into dance—beauty where there should be none.

Individuals wander the spaces of Plaza Real or sit and observe, constantly graze fast food, address us as confidantes, play at being entertainers, interact with each other in surprising permutations, commandeer the sound system, disappear into or swim through the plastic until the bags fly into an astonishing rising vortex—a kind of catharsis as the order of shopping is obliterated, a dream as good as any. These are individuals marked by sharp differences of physique and physiognomy, colour, accent and stature, the starkness of their separation broken as they come together.

Martin del Amo approaches us first with a long list of desires (mostly of affluence but peppered with sex with football teams etc) but the banality rises to the sharply satirical as he hilariously dresses us, in his imagination, in a totality of contemporary leisure clothing as rigidly coded as any suit. Later in the performance he dances his familiar blend of reflective langour and embodied, unspecified yearning, mapping out this shopping space as if a place never to be arrived at…or left. Emma J Cooper, a potent performer refuses an interrogation that tries to score existential hits. An actor of short stature, she produces brief dances of arching and dipping that suggest in their precision a resolute sense of self and sensuality. Her finely tuned duet with Keith Lim is like a slow mobile pieta of caring and attentiveness between strangers, an unconscious act. NOMise also figures strongly, another fine mover, restless, threatening and sexy, a self-conscious, self-parodying narcissist, a rap poet, finally revealing himself to be “a Palestinian born in Lebanon, raised in the US of Australia…can’t fly a plane, but labelled as a terrorist every single day.” Valerie Berry is as admirable a mover as ever, if less certainly granted a memorable persona. Like Tadeusz Kantor before him, but less subtly interventionist, director Lee Wilson prowls the performance space, watching, questioning, disrupting, forcing submission.

Not surprisingly, given Mirabelle Wouters’ and Lee Wilson’s background, Plaza Real appears to be a child of Belgium’s Les Ballets C de la B. As in that company’s Terminus, the scenario is of figures locked together, yoked in conflict and compassion in a series of associative performance images with suspense at a premium as the line between the apparently real and the fictional constantly shifts. Plaza Real is a gentler work, one without the risks that Les Ballets C de la B embrace, but with its own distinctiveness. I relished the too rare moments of total ensemble here, of the kind that the Belgian company excels at, a great joyful coming together that could have overpowered the relentless anomie of the shopping mall. The old performance standbys of lists and interrogations are tired and Wilson’s role is just too indeterminate, and the work palpably loses its shape towards the end, but Plaza Real adds up to something very special, as disturbing as the very spaces it critiques.

Branch Nebula’s Mirabelle Wouters and Lee Wilson have combined with Urban Theatre Projects and its artistic director Alicia Talbot (as dramaturg) to create a work that, like its plastic bags, threatens to fly away at any moment, airy and mysterious, while at other times doggedly literal, hard-nosed and plainly satirical. Somewhere in between, strong performers, great design and potent images yield a performance language of great power and promise. An ensemble like this, so very different from those of Version 1.0 and De Quincey Co, would be a great asset for Sydney if it became ongoing. Wouters’ design acumen, her lighting and the poetry and precision of Wilson’s directing in tandem with their joint choreography have wrought a memorable work from a strong cast.

Branch Nebula and Urban Theatre Projects, Plaza Real, co-creators Lee Wilson, Mirabelle Wouters, dramaturg Alicia Talbot, sound designer Phil Downing; Performance Space, Sept 30-Oct 10

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg. 44

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

Sacha Horler & Brendan Cowell, Far Away

Sacha Horler & Brendan Cowell, Far Away

Sacha Horler & Brendan Cowell, Far Away

Far Away begins with a familiar scenario. Harper (Gillian Jones) knits while sitting on a rocking chair beneath the stars and reassures a concerned child, Joan (Sophie Irvine/Madelaine Alexander Stedman), perhaps her niece, about something that has alarmed the girl in the night. But the child, perhaps 10 years old, so adroitly unfolds her tale that she catches Harper out. Harper’s lie is that the people the child has witnessed her uncle lock up in the night are being rescued and that those he has beaten and killed are traitors. In the end the child appears to accept her aunt’s account: “…you’re part of a big movement now to make things better. You can look at the stars and think here we are in our little bit of space, and I’m on the side of people who are putting things right and your soul will expand right into the sky.” But the residue of this lie will subconsciously shape the girl’s response to the world in which she grows up and becomes a milliner.

What in the first scene is told in the plain manner of a fable with overtones of everydayness in the horrors of Bosnia and Kosovo, becomes in subsequent scenes increasingly surreal. The girl (now played by Sacha Horler) and her fellow milliner, Todd (Brendan Cowell), speculate on the nepotism and corruption of the organisation that employs them, while never questioning the executions of the many for whom they make spectacular hats. We watch them being made with the tools of the trade, the hats are the real thing (stage milliner Rosie Boylan’s genius). We witness the execution parade as some 30 victims (all volunteers for this production) pace the stage and stare at us without expression in drab prison gear (shades of Abu Ghraib), hands bound with plastic strips, wearing magnificent creations of astonishing invention—hats in the form of orchids, fruit, animals, mimicked artworks. Not a word is spoken for some 10 minutes while the sound score (Max Lyandvert) thumps like a giant heart made anxious by the grating wail of a world at war. We gaze at the ordinary faces of the victims, each made anonymous by the glory of the hat they wear. The headware not only references millinery fantasias of earlier centuries, but also the art of the 20th, right down to Oppenheim’s fur-lined cup and saucer in visual resonance with the set (Ralph Myers), a great squared arch covered, like the floor, in thick black pile. This is a totally self-contained world, its absurdity is its reality; its milliners have no idea of their complicity.

Caryl Churchill’s fashion parade of death is a modern auto-da-fe (Portuguese for ‘act of faith’). The mass executions of heretics and non-believers, especially Jews, were staged in public spaces in Spain and Portugal from the late 15th century and held in South America and in Mexico until the mid-19th century. The victims were dressed in yellow penitential garments and wore tall, 3-pointed caps. We don’t know what crimes Churchill’s victims have committed, but we can guess at it in the play’s final scene, because the playwright’s secular auto-da-fe is embedded in a world not unlike Orwell’s 1984. Todd has come home to Harper looking for Joan because she has run away from her work, an illegal act during war. Harper is terrified that Todd’s presence and Joan’s flight will implicate her. Echoing the first scene, this one is an attempt by Harper to trap her son (if he is that, he’s certainly ‘family’) for not toeing the state line. The country is at war. With whom? Does he know? Has he got it right? In 1984 the shifting allegiances and hostilities between superstates are part of the paranoid apparatus of social control and a perpetual war economy.

However, in Far Away neurosis has turned to psychosis: the whole world, humankind and nature, is imagined to be at war. What at first seem like quirks of nature—wasps attacking horses, butterflies attacking humans—becomes as fecundly and madly inventive as the hat parade: “The cats have come in on the side of the French…”, “but it’s not as if they’re the Moroccans and the ants.” The evils of crocodiles, bears, Latvian dentists and raping, terrorist deer are agreed, but Harper has tricked Todd: “The deer are with us. They have been for 3 weeks.” Todd’s protestations of defence include having worked in an abattoir “stunning pigs and musicians.”
Far Away

Far Away

Far Away

Joan arrives, exhausted, interior, telling the tale of her escape, passing people killed “by coffee…by pins…hairspray, bleach, foxgloves…”, her own murders of “2 cats and a child under 5”, her fear “of the weather, [it’s] on the side of the Japanese”, of the Bolivians who “are working with gravity”:

But we are getting further with noise and there’s thousands dead of light in Madagascar. Who’s going to mobilise darkness and silence?

Joan ends her tale with a simple account of the challenge of entering the river in her desperate search for safety. She has made her escape, but from what? Director Benedict Andrews has Sacha Horler gasp shortly after her final word, but in realisation of what? We’re not to know, but something has been crossed, not just a river. Churchill makes no such indication in her published playscript. But in that extremely brief text there is very little in the way of directions, everything is in spare, unaccented dialogue. In the only stage note she writes of the numbers required for the Parade: “Five is too few and twenty better than ten. A hundred?”

It is the very brevity and openness of the text that will allow for radically different interpretations and inventive stagings. Andrews keeps his distance, the emotional temperature is cool, the characters embodying the hyper-alert and the hypnotised subjects of totalitarianism. Even Todd’s protest to the management about corruption, which he knows could lose him his job, or worse, has an air of unreality about it. Gillian Jones is perfectly cast as Harper with her capacity to convey distraction and acute engagement in the same moment. Horler and Cowell together achieve the right level of naivety, Horler the instinctual shock of unutterable revelation, and the child performer in the first scene the sharp intelligence that will be crushed in the adult.

It is the finely tuned, acutely acted and directorially realised air of the impossible as real that makes Far Away an escalating nightmare of political horror. In the end, the fantastic is not the hat parade or the war with nature and things, but the acceptance of it by the people who live it out. This play, written in 2000, is working its way around the world. Here with the Sydney, Melbourne and Queensland Theatre Companies (the latter 2 in 2005 subscription seasons), it offers a rare moment when state companies engage with a potent political text.

Caryl Churchill, Far Away, director Benedict Andrews, designer Ralph Myers, costumes Tess Schofield, lighting Damien Cooper, composer Max Lyandvert, milliner Rosie Boylan; Wharf 1 Theatre, Sydney Theatre Company, opened Oct 7

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg. 45

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

Phip Murray, Philip Brophy, WE GOTTA GET OUT OF THIS PLACE

Phip Murray, Philip Brophy, WE GOTTA GET OUT OF THIS PLACE

The sound of an ACMI audience shuffling down the steps after enduring yet another short film compilation of technically competent demo-reels, and punchline-drunk half-bakers is decidedly unmusical. Thankfully Descore2 spotlighted a few gems amongst the ho-hummery.

Sustaining a glum note for just a little longer, while some of the shorts were great and Descore2’s aim to link Melbourne animators and sound composers in an exploration of audiovisual possibilities is to be applauded, the collection as a whole fell flat when judged against its stated ambition to create “surround sound experiments in audiovision.” Overall, Descore2 lacked experimentation and audio-visual inter-playfulness, especially considering the composers and animators were commissioned to explore these together. At times it felt like the animators were merely handed a soundtrack and asked to add visual wallpaper video-clip style, or the composers were fed an animation and asked to add mood music and sound effects. For the most part it was difficult to see and hear the cinema that emerged as the fruits of juicy collaboration. Having said that, the gems dazzled.

Long-time domestic fetishist Ian Haig brought some of Descore2’s biggest (and sometimes most awkward) laughs with his zapping to life of a range of eroticised kitchen appliances in a stroboscopic click and purr version of I Was Made for Loving You. Amidst the whirr and stutter of these devices, the film swiftly cut and zoomed to the gyrating and protruding details of Haig’s clean plastic sculptures. The avalanche of sex and turbo-gadgetry had most of the audience convulsing, and more than once a viewer near me burst out laughing, then abruptly covered their mouth. The apt soundtrack for this flashy celebration of vibrating Tupperware genitalia was delivered by Nat Bates with spirited jittery machinations, gradually percolating to a climax of music peppered with female moans; house music indeed. It was also one of the better uses of the ACMI surround sound system.

Young Adult Thinks presented a series of witty and emotive narrative fragments framed by graphics and director Emile Zile’s trademark sloganeering. ‘Fuck The Vampires.’ ‘Gothic Politic.’ ‘Duck My Punchline.’ Intertitles possibly zapped straight from the mobile phone of director and SMS ‘poet’ Zile. Sound was employed laterally and evocatively throughout by Patrick Donlon (DJ Spacey Space) from watery sounds as a girl blows out flames to cheesy synths for the piece’s more game show moments. Capping it nicely was the use of silence and the unrelenting close-up focus on the breath of Old Man Zile to create an intensely personal and electric finish.

In sharp contrast, Devil’s Eyes hurled over-cute pixelated Japanese-style animation in unexpected directions with a crackling soundtrack by Cornel Wilczeck (Qua) adding atmosphere and emotive weight. Directed by Paul Robertson, the clip was composited like some fiendish gamer fairytale where the ultra-cuddlies vomited vast rivers of blood, engaged in vigorous disembowellings and ate entire planets. Wistful moments were swept along by spliced and reversed instrumentation in a tweaked folk manner reminiscent of The Books. Character movements and events were heightened by game-like twinkles and bleepy flourishes. Quite a stunner.

Philip Brophy did the sound and Phip Murray the animation in WE GOTTA GET OUT OF THIS PLACE, appropriately the evening’s last clip and possibly the night’s best interplay of sound and vision. The Skull N bone vector style will be a software preset one day (if it isn’t already) but Murray’s take on it charmed the audience with cartoony electronica bats bringing an array of digi-sound effects down onto a typical suburban haunted house. Inside, the camera lurched over literal TV zombies in AC/DC shirts as guitar riffs chugged. Eventually the sound source was revealed: the zombies were watching a guitarist on television. Later this guitar play was reversed, with a close up of a wolf howling at the moon set against the sound of a wailing guitar solo. A red car dropping from the sky brought not just a layer of sound but a shift to more urban beats. Similarly bats flying over the drums changed the sound, and lightning was built into the song as a sonic element, providing a more engaging and layered viewing experience than many of the other clips.

Descore2, curator Philip Brophy, ACMI, Melbourne Sept 16

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg. 46

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

Chris Shaw, from Life as a Night Porter series, 1999-2000

Chris Shaw, from Life as a Night Porter series, 1999-2000

Bleak, litter-strewn, the Mobil service station of Callum Morton’s New Canaan, Connecticut (2003) hangs in a darkened entrance opposite the gleaming, silver chassis of a Japanese semitrailer under lozenges of white light (Patricia Piccinini’s Tsuaji, Sightings series, 1999). It’s clear on entering the University of Technology Sydney Gallery that we’re to be transported. Written with Darkness is a selection of Australian photographs from Pat Corrigan’s collection that share qualities of darkness and blackness. Ross Gibson, curator and Research Professor at the University, has devised a dynamic, immersive display using a series of dimmed rooms and passages, timed lights and a haunting soundscape by Chris Abrahams. The theatrical quality of this design is a powerful aid to contemplation. Yet paradoxically it limits the viewing time for each work as one light fades and we’re prompted to turn to the next illuminated photograph.

Sometimes this device works most effectively from a distance, as with Annie Hogan’s large-scale interiors, Harmony and Disposition (2002), where windows filter streams of Queensland light into the uninhabited rooms of rental homes. Hogan is concerned with the way the domestic interior is “imprinted” with “past actions and energy…long after its inhabitants have departed.” The gallery light, ushering us closer, fading and blazing, adds a cinematic quality, enhancing our sense of time passing.
Matthew Sleeth, Untitled #26, Rosebud series, 2003/2004, type C photograph

Matthew Sleeth, Untitled #26, Rosebud series, 2003/2004, type C photograph

The most moving space contains contemplative portraits such as Matthew Sleeth’s Rosebud series (2003/2004). In Untitled No. 5 a couple plays cards at a collapsible table on foldable chairs. Shrouded in darkness, the scene floats, seemingly placeless—it could be middle America, but in fact it’s the Mornington Peninsula. There’s something about the night heat (her floral dress, his short sleeves) and the stillness that reminds me of summer blackouts when I was a kid, and the way the neighbours would emerge, blinking into the night to find new ways to kill time till the TV worked again. This couple sit with their jar of coloured sweets, cards fanned out, a sheet of paper to keep score. In Sleeth’s Untitled No. 26, a heavy man in thongs, singlet and shorts staves off the darkness under a string of coloured lights. Is it Christmas? There’s no doubt it’s hot. He’s surrounded by 3 empty chairs outside a mobile home. It’s touching—his solitude and sturdy form under the delicately festive lights.

Nearby, a wall of portraits snare me in deeper thought. It’s 1964 and Robert McFarlane has snapped Charles Perkins travelling to University, 1963, a photograph that prefigures Perkins’ passionate, activist future. He’s young and handsome in black and white, pensively biting his thumbnail. The bus makes me think of the 1966 Freedom Rides to country towns like Moree, where Perkins and a mob of Aboriginal kids were barred from entering the local pool: “Sorry, darkies not allowed in.” (Elsewhere in the exhibition, another historic moment in black/white relations: Mervyn Bishop’s shot of Gough Whitlam granting traditional lands to the Gurindji in a symbolic exchange with elder Vincent Lingiari in 1975 while cameras send off tiny flares in the night.) The Perkins image makes me profoundly melancholy. It’s barely a month after the election—which made no reference to any Indigenous issues—the Coalition dismantling ATSIC and Perkins, once deputy chair of the Commission, has passed away.

My feeling is intensified by the adjacent print—Mervyn Fitzhenry’s Old man with Cat (1996). Man and cat sit on separate armchairs in a bare, formerly grand room. His busted shoes are unlaced, the cat is poised and delicate like an incarnation from another lifetime (but we suspect it was she who ripped the stuffing from the arm of his ragged chair). Another shot by McFarlane shows Robyn Archer in Kold Komfort Kaffee Nimrod Theatre (1978). In full pancake makeup, hair slicked back, Archer reminds me of a broken Liza Minelli at the end of Cabaret. There’s an ephemeral darkness suggested by this line of prints, of politics and fate, of inevitable, imminent moments.

In a cheerier passage, Patrica Piccinini’s glossy prints show tracts of female skin (Subset Green Body, 1997) glowing with a honeyed light, and, of course, the plastic flesh of her hybrid creatures. “I like rats with ears” someone writes of these monsters in the comments book, and “I like female hands.” Someone else declares the exhibit “almost Caravaggio”, probably referring to the Bill Henson prints that fill another room, or Sleeth’s work, which is equally chiaroscuro. Henson’s now famous sultry, sulky adolescents loom out of inky backgrounds that further emphasise their suspension between child and adult. Lights here are faint glows or decorative spangles forming a sequined horizon. Henson’s kids languish beside deeply eerie landscapes where distant industries send flares and swathes of lambent light into night skies (Untitled, 1998/99). His suburbs have a foreboding quality, enhanced by a murky pre-dawn. On Garnett St (Untitled, 1985/6) the Neighbourhood Watch sign seems more ominous than reassuring. Its silhouetted police and citizen heads watch over the sleeping suburb while 3 distant electricity towers appear to advance, like space creatures with steely arms in the air.

Though Ross Gibson knows not everyone likes their modernist white gallery spaces messed with, as curator at a university gallery his job was not just to consider “how best to serve the work”, but given the research context, to experiment. The result compels me to adopt a kind of moving meditation that creates a slipstream of connections, between say the Perkins portrait and the Lingiari shot. It makes me consider all sorts of darkness: from the literally black backgrounds, shadows and chiaroscuro in many of these works, to the void into which significant cultural moments, histories and figures seem to have disappeared.

The decidedly unheimlich colour work of Aboriginal artist Darren Siwes features in both the UTS show and Night Visions at the Australian Centre for Photography. Siwes appears as a masked ghost in the foreground of various sites in London and Australia, suggesting the disappearance or fragility of colonial histories. Night Visions encompasses all kinds of nocturnal preoccupations, from Weegee’s crime scene snaps and Brassai’s romantic pre-war Paris newly illuminated with electricity, to Chris Shaw’s Barton Fink-ish Life as a Night Porter series (1993-2003). Like Siwes’, Shaw’s work is about the unhomely but here it’s the faux-homeyness of hotel lounges, rooms and hallways. Shaw snaps guests and staff in various stages of disrepair against the ubiquitously gaudy wallpaper, carpet and velveteen lounges of London hotels. Beneath each shot, the photographer’s acerbic handwritten observations have the wry, shorthand quality of postcard text. Also featured are some seriously disquieting photos by Corporal Darren Hilder. Taken with military night vision technology, Hilder’s fellow soldiers pose with heavy artillery in dusty landscapes awash with a Martian light.

Written with Darkness, curator Ross Gibson, UTS Gallery, Sydney, Oct 12-Nov 5; Night Visions , curator Alasdair Foster; in partnership with the Australian National Gallery, Australian Centre for Photography, Sydney, Oct 1-Nov 14

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg. 50

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

There is something profoundly adolescent about the works shown in I thought I knew but I was wrong: New Video Art from Australia, at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts Gallery, Singapore. I mean adolescent both as a set of characteristics including hormonal rage, awkward growth and identity crises, as well as a process of transition, a rite of passage from the culturally stable state of childhood to the socially stratified status of adulthood.

This sometimes rather painful process of becoming is best evoked by Amiel Courtin-Wilson’s Adolescent (2002-4) which documents a group of partying teenagers. The video begins and ends with ‘Spin the Bottle’, a game where a player has to kiss another according to the random dictates of a bottle spun. Yet the very mindlessness of this kiss betrays both the inchoate and potentially liberating force of the wild desire simmering beneath adolescent skin. Adolescence is an interval or a caesura between two states. It is simultaneously the no longer and the not-yet; a state of nothing and the possibility of being anything. This is why looking at teenagers can sometimes be such a painful activity—not only because of the horrible things they do but also because of the awareness of the essentially ephemeral nature of their existence. They always seem to be in the process of fading out, knowingly awaiting the eventuality of their incorporation into the airlessness of the social system. This precarious instability is aptly expressed by the hypersensitivity and hyperactivity of Courtin-Wilson’s camera in its oscillations of focus and nervous jump-cuts—an aesthetic sense formed within a nexus of music videos and Dogme films.

Set adrift from childhood, yet not ready for adulthood, adolescence is very often marked by a prevalent need for self-identification through imitation of existing social codes (the punk, the skateboarder, the geek, the rocker, the jock, etc). In a similar way, video art seems to operate via an adoption of the language of various other media—not only conventions of film and the music video, but also the established models of pictorial practices such as painting and photography. Hence, the use of slow-motion in video art can be understood as a breaking down of movement into discrete moments and graspable pictorial frames. To put it another way, the slow motion brings the temporality of video back into the compositional concerns of the painterly. This is exemplified by the slowed-down food fights and skateboarding stunts of Marcus Lyall’s Slow Service (2003) and Shaun Galdwell’s Kickflipper: Fragments Edit (2000-3) respectively. A different form of slowing down occurs with Lyndal Jones’ He Must not Cry (2004), where a number of men (some of whom are actors) are asked to cry on screen. This painfully theatrical exercise thus functions as a series of portrait-like studies. Patricia Piccinini’s Plasmid Region (2003) and In bocca al lupo (2003) can be described as non-human pictorial tableaus, populated by digitally created mutant organs or organisms. However the perfect synchronisation of the soundtrack with the pulsations of these forms also brings this work very close to the modus operandi of a music video.

The music video is activated by Philip Brophy’s Evaporated Music 1(c) & (d) (2000-2004) in a very different way. Here the soundtracks of a series of pop music videos are hijacked and put through a series of punishing, and often hilarious distortions. The habitual sound-image synchronicity that characterises the bulk of commercial audio-visual mass media products is dislocated. The strength of this work depends in large part on the adolescent, anarchic glee of Brophy, and its insidious parasitism upon the readymade form of popular music videos.

This tendency of video art to perpetually appropriate for itself systems of language belonging to other media is analogous to the processes of mimicry that so often marks adolescence—the hysterical imitation of Elvis, Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, etc. In fact, watching the excerpt from Monica Tichacek’s Lineage of the Divine (2002) was like looking at an Elvis, or rather Matthew Barney, impersonator. In their curators’ note, Alexie Glass and Sarah Tutton explain that the work revolves around a “New York personality and ex-Warhol acolyte Amanda Lepore” and is also a tribute to the late performance artist Leigh Bowery. This practice of art-world self-referentiality, and almost everything else about the video—from the sets to the costumes and the purposefully obscure gestures of the characters—constantly invokes the spectre of Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle. This process of doubling is difficult to discuss at greater length as I have neither been able to watch Lineage of the Divine in its entirety nor am I familiar with Tichacek’s oeuvre. Encountering one’s doppelgangers is always an uncanny experience. Moreover, it must be recognised that the line between mimicry and mockery is a very fine one. More precisely, one can also never be quite sure if an attempt at imitation is a strategic one. For mimicry, and its accompanying sense of a certain failure can very often serve as a method of individuation (eg I’m the Chinese ‘Elvis’) or even as an anti-oedipal weapon to subvert and parody one’s very own idol.

A sense of sheer delight and joy in being bad copies characterise the Kingpins’ Welcome to the Jingle (2003) and Versus (2002). In both, the 4 female collaborators appear in an entire ensemble of iconic ‘models.’ In the first, the Spandex-wearing, big-haired rock gods of the 80s, Kiss, are updated with a 90s ‘Jungle’ remix. In the latter, a snarling Steve Tyler from Aerosmith is pitted against Run DMC accompanied by a bevy of bearded ‘bitches.’ Thus the process of cultural colonisation is convulsively affirmed to a point of radical over-dose, and imitation gives way to the production of monsters.

Not unlike the futile task of a schoolmaster trying to keep teenagers in check, attempting to categorise this wild bunch of video artworks must be a nightmare for any curator. Glass and Tutton have gone about it by dividing the works into the categories of Persona, Space and Play, but these are so loose and interchangeable that they border on meaningless. Yet at the same time, I think that the curators are well aware that the very failure of these divisions is what precisely foregrounds the very nature of “New Video Art from Australia” today—a field of practice not yet ossified into the adulthood of discipline and one which, for better or for worse, does not yet possess a language of its own.

There is something terribly embarrassing and painful about adolescence. But also at the same time, something undeniably vital and heartbreaking in the naïveté of its rabid indiscipline—like an as yet unfulfilled potential.

I thought I knew but I was wrong: New Video Art From Australia, curators Alexi Glass and Sarah Tutton, Asialink and Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI); organised by Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts Gallery and MAAP; MAAP in Singapore—GRAVITY, Oct 22-Nov 17

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg.

This 2 hour double bill is a microcosm of contemporary Australian video art practice. More generally it suggests the human body as video art’s inevitable subject, given that the 1960s reconsideration of the human body in respect to issues of race, class, gender and sexuality coincided with the rise of video technology and the development of new art forms such as installation and performance art.

Transforming New Media: Art From Australian Aboriginal Artists features 2 works that question the representation and treatment of Indigenous bodies. Emotional Striptease (2004) by Christian Thompson is a large projection that reconsiders European photographic portraiture of Aboriginal people. A convention of Australian portraiture was the dressing up of Aboriginal people in Western costume, holding Indigenous tools and standing before naturalistic landscapes. Thompson upsets this convention by updating the subjects and backdrops with contemporary faces and architectural monuments. One wonders if the work might have been more effective as large photographs since the use of zooming to animate the otherwise frozen images comes across as a tad gimmicky.

Behind the Mountains (2004) by Jonathan Jones, Darren Dale and David Page is a more powerful and evocative piece. Three open boxes greet the viewer. At the base of each is the projected figure of a naked Aboriginal person in a foetal position. This work is a direct reference to the museological and archival practice of trading Aboriginal bodies for scientific study. Inside boxes that were used to store and transport remains, projected figures appear peaceful, eyes shut, fidgeting and sometimes stretching, leaving the audience to decide if they are having a sweet dream or nightmare, or if they are the phantoms of more than 10,000 Indigenous Australians whose remains are spread across the globe today.

Rather than lamenting loss, Ivan Sen’s Blood (2002), from the show I Thought I knew but I was wrong, celebrates the spirit that binds different generations of Indigenous Australians. Showcasing Australian families in front of their homes with raw camera moves and stylised image effects, the work manages to achieve the exhibition’s primary aim: to encourage viewers to take a “second look, to explore beyond initial assumptions and to experience some of the more transformative aspects of contemporary visual arts” (curators’ catalogue essay).

The show’s 22 single-channel videos are split into 3 thematic sections: Persona, exploring notions of identity and subjectivity; Play, examining modes of representation; and Space, studying relationships with the environment. All but 2 works feature the human body. These are by Daniel Crooks. Tram No. 4 (2002) and Static No. 8 (2003) are digital reconfigurations of a Melbourne tram and foaming surf. Even here the body exists implicitly in the works’ themes of human relations with the urban and natural environments. Crooks’ third piece, Elevator No. 2 (2002), digitally slices the bodies of suited office workers into tendrils, effectively transforming the human work environment into a surreal space more suited to aquatic life.

Several of the works question conventional representations of gender. In Versus (2002) the 4 female collaborators comprising The Kingpins compellingly enact iconic moves from rock and hip hop, music genres usually reserved for men. Mockery through conflation of male and female bodies in Versus makes way for parody through exaggeration in Monica Tichacek’s Lineage of the Divine (2002). The video features a curvaceous performer doing a Marilyn Monroe imitation, at first singing and dancing sensuously, then moving so vigorously that her endowments threaten to dislodge from her body in a comical subversion of men’s fetishisation of female breasts. Dislodgement is also found in Patricia Piccinini’s computer animation In bocca al lupo (2003), which confronts us with seemingly peaceful sack-like appendages, until violent tremors cause one of them to drop off. In Piccinini’s other piece, Plasmid Region (2003), we see breast-like blobs continuously releasing blood-clot growths, a poignant reminder of the body’s vulnerability to damage, disease and deterioration.

Found footage finds its way into the hilarious works of Tracey Moffatt and Philip Brophy. Moffatt’s Love (2003) is a remix of feature film sequences featuring interactions between male and female protagonists pieced together in a rather pessimistic, though at times side-splitting, narrative of human relationships. In Brophy’s Evaporated Music 1 (c) & (d) (2000-4), we see familiar pop icons Billy Joel and Celine Dion singing in unfamiliar croaky voices. Brophy manipulates pop icons into strange beings who hover uncertainly between animal and machine.

Portraiture gets an interesting facelift in several of the works. David Rosetsky’s Without You (2003-4) features a rather morbid illustration of the postmodern concept of the multiplicity and the instability of identity. One perfect-looking face turns into another, not through the clichéd process of morphing, but peeling–a curt reminder that one persona belies and bleeds into another. Less haunting but more emotive is He Must Not Cry (2004) by Lyndal Jones, featuring closeup shots of middle-aged men on the verge of crying. Face meets food in Marcus Lyall’s Slow Service (2003), featuring slow-motion vignettes of subjects being hit by custard, pea soup, flour and other food items, creating visually dynamic baroque patterns while evoking the conflict between making interesting art and wasting precious resources. Ethics and morality are not within the necessary purview of artists. Or are they?

Re-examination of art history continues with Craig Walsh’s Blurring the Boundaries (2001-4). Using a hybrid of sculpture, performance, film and model-making, Walsh successfully creates the illusion of gigantic carp swimming in the window of a Hanoi city building, upsetting everyday commonsensical relations between humans, animals and the environment.

On the other hand, Guy Benfield’s attempt to reinterpret Pollock and performance art is contrived. By the first of 14 minutes in Universal Love Action (2002) the video has already made clear its trick; by canting the camera at a right angle the performers appear to do gravity defying stunts such as dripping paint across, rather than down, the video screen. Suffering a similar fate is Shaun Gladwell’s Kickflipper: Fragments Edit (2000-3), which features the artist attempting to impress with his skateboard stunts. Conciseness remains the key premise of good video art.

By interpreting the representation of bodies in video art, viewers are able to contemplate the multifarious meanings of their own, weigh its potentials against its fragilities and consider the conventions and history of representation. In this regard, Nietzsche’s question of whether “philosophy has not been merely an interpretation of the body and a misunderstanding of the body” could well be considered in relation to video art. Watching a large video projection or walking into a video installation, viewers do not only imbibe the works visually and aurally; their own body’s images, sounds and movements also interact sensorially with those of the video in a kind of mutual haptic exchange.

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg.

© Michael Lee Hong Hwee; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Angela Seng is the Asia Art Archive Librarian, one of 4 full-time staff employed by this unique, not-for-profit, Hong Kong-based organisation. As well there are part-time researchers in Beijing, Taipei, Tokyo and Singapore who conduct interviews, write profiles, attend openings and take photographs. Seng says that this face to face contact is vital for the archive, ensuring a palpable presence and encouraging artists, companies and galleries to contribute materials. At MAAP the archive was certainly making its presence felt, installed in The Substation's gallery space and inviting artists to visit, to meet staff and to donate catalogues, programs, brochures and photographs. Its first and current executive director, Claire Hsu, founded the Asia Art Archive in 2000 in collaboration with Chang Tsong-zung and Ronald Arculli.

The Asia Art Archive (AAA) is both a physical 2,500 square foot office and library in Hong Kong, freely accessible to the public, and a virtual space offering online catalogues (the first became available in March 2003) and a database. For the moment the archive is not collecting videos and DVDs of performance.

Angela Seng herself is responsible for the cataloguing, aided by 2 part-time assistants. Keeping up with the influx of material is hard work, especially given the broad definition adopted by the archive of what comprises Asian art, but Seng is eager for more material, and that's why she's at Substation. AAA covers not only artists working in Asia, but also Asian artists working in Europe, America and elsewhere.

AAA is building its initial collections by region acquiring printed material from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macao and then focusing on two or more new countries each year, to include South East and South Asia.

There's also strong interest in artists from non-Asian countries producing work about Asia or influenced by Asian aesthetics. Australia alone could contribute a substantial amount of material, especially from works of the 1980s onwards.

In Asia, the 1990s have provided a treasure trove of materials, however those of the 1980s, says Seng, are more difficult to collect. The plethora of underground activity in a number of countries in the 80s was more likely to yield ephemeral leaflets rather than catalogues.

How does AAA function financially? Seng explains that the archive was established with a one-year development grant from the Hong Kong government but the majority of funds accrue from a number of sources: sponsorship from the Hong Kong Jockey Club (specifically for the collecting of books and materials on Hong Kong arts), donations, individual and sizeable corporate memberships and annual fundraising events. For the latter an auction is held with donations of works from artists and an accompanying for-sale exhibition catalogue.

The archive's other activities include major symposiums on the collecting and archiving of Asian art, with guests from the region as well as from Australia and New York's MoMA. AAA is also a publisher: its massive catalogue of an exhibition of contemporary, exhilarating and often provocative Chinese art was co-produced with Espace Cardin, Paris. Contemporary Asian Art Forum: Links Platforms Networks (2004) is the published account of the 2003 forum of the same name. It includes papers from Lee Weng Choy (The Substation), Alison Carroll (Asialink) and Heri Dono (Yogyakarta-based artist) among others.

In “Asia: A Collaborative Space 'Under Construction' (Contemporary Asian Art Forum: Links Platforms Networks), Yasuko Furuichi of the Japan Foundation, Tokyo comments on “the relationship of interdependence within the region, as countries broadly and deeply influence each other's societies and cultures.” He sees this as part of “a search…for Asian art that does not represent a western definition…but is defined by Asians themselves.” The Asia Art Archive reaches well beyond Hong Kong to embody both this spirit of positive interdependence and provides the opportunity to grasp the range and particularities of contemporary Asian art.

Asia Art Archive, 2/F no.8 Wah Koon Building, 181-191 Hollywood Road, Sheung Wan, Hong Kong; tel (852) 2815 1112; fax (852) 2815 0032; info@aaa.org.hk; www.aaa.org.hk

SCAN, Asia Art Archive, The Substation, MAAP in Singapore, Oct 27-Nov 13

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg.

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

Katawán, Satti

Katawán, Satti

Katawán, Satti is a MAAP commission, a large scale, visually and aurally rich and complex collaboration between Filipino and Myanmar artists curated and coordinated by Filipino artist and educator in digital media Fatima Lasay. I met Lasay shortly after the opening of Katawán, Satti to discuss her background and the evolution of the work, and to ask about the state of new media art in the Philippines and Mayanmar. Also included here are a detailed description of the work, my response to it and biographies of the artists.

Fatima Lasay

Lasay trained in industrial design at the University of the Philippines, part of the so-called “guinea pig batch”, she said, the first group of students to take the course. And experimental it was, given the paucity of jobs in industrial design in the country, propelling graduates to work overseas.

Taking up stenotyping instead of computing and resisting the use of the camera, focusing on drawing instead, Lasay appeared least likely to develop into a new media artist and educator. After working in industrial design for 2 years and then writing travel news for 4 years (which took her around the Philippines), Lasay was invited to teach at the University of the Philippines where she set up the university's first computer arts elective. While disappointed it remained an elective, nonetheless she appreciated the freedom that the elective structure offered.

The course started with no equipment and then the minimum of equipment–one computer borrowed from administration shared between 20 students. Soon more machines came courtesy of alumni donations.

Lasay's own formative venture into art came in 1998 with a grant to digitally document Spanish Colonial religious images. She stayed 2 weeks in a convent, heavily guarded, she said, for its treasures. Such documentation, she explained, is important for the security of historically precious works. The outcome was a CD-ROM and she subsequently used some of the images in her work in prints and on the web.

Digital Media Festival

In 2000 Lasay set up the Digital Media Festival from within the Fine Arts Department and with assistance of her students and equipment sponsorship from Canon and HP. The first festival focused on local artists and methodologies. The second in 2003 introduced artists from other Asian countries including Singapore and Japan. This program made connections between new media and anthropology, archaeology and medicine through the university's faculties. Lasay pointed out that the artists involved did not necessarily have backgrounds in computing. In a country with few computer artists and new media curators, the pioneers had emerged from printmaking, including Alfredo Manrique who is one of the artists in Katawán, Satti.

While there is plenty of video and a growing body of sound art, Lasay feels that the venture into new media art is only just really beginning in the Philippines.

In 2003, with university support diminishing, Lasay created an interactive CD-ROM with her students on images from the American-Philippines war as the festival project. The work is built on and around a collection of some 400-500 cartoons and other images from newspapers and magazines from 1896 to 1902 which portrayed Filipinos from a deeply racist and imperialist perspective. Lasay described one such cartoon as “depicting US President McKinley bathing the 'baby' Philippines in the waters of civilisation.”

With Lasay leaving the university to pursue a career as a freelance artist, the Digital Media Festival could well be finished unless someone is prepared to take it up.

Teaching media in Myanmar

If new media art is in its early days in the Philippines, its beginnings are very new in Myanmar. While email is relatively accessible, the web is not in that country, being very expensive to use.

Lasay was invited to Myanmar by NICA (Networking and Initiatives for Culture and the Arts), an independent, not-for-profit, resource and development centre for the arts. NICA was established as recently as March 2003 and is located in Yangon. Its objectives are to support arts and cultural development within the country but also to generate access to and exchange between likeminded partners in other countries. The Founding Director was Jay Koh, now resident in Germany, and the Director for Programs is Chu Chu Yan.

The artists (Dewa, Khin Mya Zin, Khin Swe Win, Zeya, Lin Thu and Moozart) in the workshop, said Lasay, were already seriously interested in working with computers. She introduced them to the sorts of materials they could use and the changes computers could make to their art. In sound, she introduced the group to mini-disc, microphone deployment and editing and used recordings of various environments and interview formats to generate work. She was intrigued by the subtle sense of interrogation behind innocent, casual discussions of the single life, young people and hip hop, one's age and more serious subjects like lethal injection executions.

With web design Lasay's approach was based on accessibility, focusing on html, information design and visual style and themes with the group creating a design document and then an interactive design for a gallery. They then made a web art exhibition using rollovers with a binary dynamic–a set of contrasts pulled from clippings about, among other things, age and status, and birth and death notices in newspapers.

Lasay also taught her group how to make CD-ROMs as an alternative art space given. She also encouraged the use of VCDs of which she said there are plenty of players in Myanmar, not to mention regional Philippines.

Making Katawán, Satti

Katawán, Satti includes Filipino artists Tad Ermitaño and Jing Garcia from the group Children of Cathode Ray. They have worked for 15 years in experimental sound and the underground video scene and collaborated on the sound score for this show. Alfredo Manrique, a famous Filipino social realist, is a painter and printmaker who presented his first exhibition of computer prints in 1998. Than Htike Aung and Khin Zaw Latt from Myanmar contributed sound scores as did the group of 7 Myanmar artists whom Lasay had recently tutored.

Among the sound scores (2 play from high above the gallery space, and 2 diagonally opposite from the floor) is a recording of monks chanting a prayer–”well done…, well done…” with dogs barking. Lasay laughed as she explained that when the monks ring a bell every day at 11am all the dogs in the area begin to howl.

Lasay told me that the images projected during Katawán, Satti have been collected from the internet by Alfredo Manrique. They include flowers, the female body, especially the genitals, photographs of American serviceman working at a US airbase in the company of Filipino women, and the region around the base. The photographs appear to range in age from black and white shots in taken in the 1950s to later ones in colour. Side by side with the flowers, the richly coloured and textured images of labia also appear like flowers and fruit and are collaged and kaleidoscoped into very different shapes. Framed versions of the kaleidoscopic images hang on the outside wall of the gallery.

The collaging process is not so much within the images but in their rapid cross-fading juxtaposition on 6 4-metre-long strips of white material (each about a half metre wide) hanging from bamboo bars high above the viewer in the centre of the gallery space. The strip screens can be viewed from both sides so that the 2 projectors placed diagonally opposite each other throw images that are broken by the distance between the strips and by images appearing from behind. The work therefore constantly demands new responses as it loops through images and an asynchronous set of sound scores. The viewer circles the visual installation while being surrounded by a wider circle of sound.

This large, pulsing and demanding work suggests a correlation between the beauties of flowers and bodies, and how they can be multiplied and transformed into even further images of beauty. On the other hand they show the vulnerability of such beauty to political power and sexual exploitation. Lasay explained that the buildings and highways around the base were built as a direct result of the sex trade economy. The kaleidoscopic images made from the women's bodies, she said, suggest the giant lanterns to be found in the province around the base, extending the ambiguity of imagery. In another connection with tradition she notes in her catalogue essay that “Manrique's images recall the prehistoric incisions of pudenda on boulders near the village of Alab in the Mountain province.”

The challenge for Lasay and the artists was how to present and integrate the components of this collaborative work. Cone shapes with the sound coming from inside were considered, but a limited budget led to a decision to hang strips of material purchased in Myanmar from bamboo bars used to dry laundry outside the windows of tall Singapore residential buildings.

For Lasay this design also connoted the plight of Filipino maids working in Singapore–the mysterious deaths of those who perhaps had been forced to clean the outside of windows or had suicided in despair at the lives they were living.

I asked Lasay if she felt like a curator or a contributing artist on Katawán, Satti. Definitely an artist she replied, given her involvement in bringing together the work of the various artists and being part of the decision-making about how to present the whole work.

Experiencing Katawán, Satti

Katawán, Satti is a complex and sensuous work. On a crowded, buzzing opening night it only began to make sense as the audience emptied out of the gallery, leaving just few of us to really hear the sound and to let it rub against the images and around its varied selves. The sound conjured streets and temples, chatter and prayer, and, at its most moving, in a long quiet organ-like ostinato that, with my eyes closed, became deeply meditative or grimly elegaic when the eyes opened to the images of generations of Filipino women in the arms of American service men.

As for the work's meanings as embodied in this interplay of 2 very different cultures and the shifting semantics of Katawán (body in Filipino) and Satti (power or force in Myanmar), you are best referred to Lasay's catalogue essay. For someone unfamiliar with Buddhist Mayanmar's sense of space and being as realised in sound art, and the fecund imagery and overt politics of the Filipino component, Katawán, Satti requires learning as well as openness. The work represents a starting point for a dialogue between distinctive cultures.

Katawán, Satti is an enveloping and rewarding experience, one that constantly pushes you off-centre as you piece together fragmented and transformed images and histories and respond to the complex interplay of body and force. At its most difficult, the competition between the sound scores can bewilder (I would like to hear them on a CD apart from the show at some other time). The chance juxtaposition of sound and image yields surprising and sometimes moving moments and long passages but can also feel un-worked out, too chancey to match or challenge or dialogue with what we are seeing. The number of sound sources and the density and uniform pacing of the projected imagery suggest a sometimes sparer approach with greater rhythmic variation might be more engrossing given the ample distancing effects. But these are minor complaints. Katawán, Satti's haunting visual and aural imagery and its insistent pulse is still with me, even though I am well outside this significant dialogue between Myanmar and Filipino artists.


Tad Ermitaño (b. 1964) holds a Bachelor's degree in Philosophy from the University of the Philippines and studied film/video making at the Mowelfund Film Institute. He currently produces video for projection in a variety of stage/concert contexts, including several productions of Ballet-Philippines. His single-channel works have been screened at the Yamagata International Film Festival and the Hamburg Short Film Festival. The focus of his work has since expanded to the use of computers and other technologies in performance and installation contexts.

Jing Garcia (b. 1965) trained as a journalist and started early in his career by writing reviews of vinyl records released by a variety of local and international music artists in the early 80s. With his exposure to the underground music circle of Manila, he went into music production and earned a number of Gold and Platinum awards as well as several citations including three nominations from Awit Awards as Producer back in the mid-90s. Today, Jing Garcia is a weekly I.T. Columnist for the Manila Standard, PULP, a popular music and lifestyle magazine, and a regular contributor for Speed: High-performance Technology Magazine. Jing Garcia also runs his own experimental project studio effort under the name Dominguez-Shimata.Colony.

Khin Zaw Latt (b. 1980) holds a degree in Painting from the University of Culture in Myanmar, and has exhibited in Yangon, Myanmar and in Hong Kong. He won Second Prize at Myanmar Youth Drawing Contest in 2001 and Honourary Mention at Myanmar Contemporary Art Awards in 2004. Khin Zaw Latt participates actively in programs of the Networking and Initiatives for Culture and the Arts, Yangon (NICA), and was a participant in the the International Symposium “Collaboration, Networking and Resource Sharing: Myanmar” organized by Myanmar artists with the International Forum for the Inter-Media Arts (IFIMA).

Alfredo Manrique (b. 1949) was among the first social realists in the Philippines to consider art as social and political commentary in response to severe economic and social inequality particularly after the imposition of Martial Law in 1972. As painter and printmaker, Manrique uses the human body as landscape for the expression of historical struggle. In the late 80s he shifted to the digital medium. Manrique has served as director of Cyberspace, Inc., and MIS and system integration consultant for both the Manila Standard and the UNDP-PSDN (Philippine Sustainable Development Network).

Fatima Lasay (b. 1969) is an artist, independent curator and educator of digital media. Her work emphasizes a cultural (re)definition of the practice and theory of art and technologies within the context of post-development and neocolonialism. She obtained her degrees in Industrial Design and Master of Fine Arts from the University of the Philippines where she served as senior lecturer (1996-2000) and assistant professor (2001-2004) and also developed its first digital media art elective courses. Fatima is currently a member of the editorial board of the Leonardo Electronic Almanac, and member of International Steering Committee and Chairperson of Committee on Education for Pacific Rim New Media Summit/ISEA 2006 Conference.

Katawán, Satti, The Art Gallery, National Institute of Education, MAAP in Singapore, Oct 22-Nov 24

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg.

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

Wit Pimkanchanapong, Family Portrait (2002),<BR /> 3 screens video, loop, Thailand , 2004″></p>
<p class=Wit Pimkanchanapong, Family Portrait (2002),
3 screens video, loop, Thailand , 2004

Developments in new media inevitably entail new thinking about exhibition spaces and the relationships that they make possible between the work and its audiences. It’s been said before but innovative responses seem painfully slow in coming. Without too much trouble, however, Earl Lu Gallery at LASALLE-SIA College of the Arts provides an accommodating space which all the works in the exhibition, -+- (negative plus negative) happily share. It helps that only Techno Temple (Kamol Phaosavasdi) has a major sound component and that Wit Pimkanchanapong’s impressive feat of suspended animation, A Family Portrait, is so subtly diverting it seduces you to enter this cool, dark room. Once you’re in, the ambience of the room and the modest scale of the 5 works on show from Thailand including UK artists based there combine to hold you happily in thrall. Two (From Here to Eternity Part II and Techno Temple occupy discrete spaces while two others (Circle of Hope and A Song for No Man) share the main gallery space with my favourite of the works, Family Portrait, 2002.

Based on clips made from a single digital snapshot of the artist’s family and using simple Photoshop manipulation, the three large format images of Wit Pamkanchanapon’s piece show us gravity at work in the everyday. There’s nothing especially virtuosic in these slightly washed-out images, just the simple evocation of an idea. An old man holds a garden hose, the animation halting the water mid-flow and sending what should be a downward movement rippling upwards through the body above. In the middle space, three large dogs hold themselves onto their haunches as a woman holds aloft a morsel of food. We suddenly observe the tension in the exchange, the dogs shivering with the weight of bodies near toppling, the tentative hand, the wariness of the woman’s gesture. In the third image, a young woman lifts a box. In the staccato movements that shake both object and body we feel simultaneous weight and effort.

Wit Pimkanchanapong is an emerging artist in Thailand’s new media art movement which is still relatively small. An influential figure in Bangkok’s underground, he has an interest in architecture, in social transformation, urban lifestyle and its landscape. In the notes on his work, he talks about the experience of his middle class family “who encountered the tug of war between old and new, conservative and open minds, calm and dynamic–a phenomenon that most of us experience in every corner of the world.”

Jim Prevett & McArthur, A Song for No Man,<BR /> Video installation, Thailand / UK, 2004″></p>
<p class=Jim Prevett & McArthur, A Song for No Man,
Video installation, Thailand / UK, 2004

Another of the complementary facets of this exhibition space is the inclusion of a table, a light and some stools. I swipe one and place it between the two monitors that comprise Jim Prevett & McArthur’s video dialogue, A Song for No Man. Between one frozen moment (a figure held mid-air on a bridge between Bangkok and Myanmar) and a period of time captured in slow motion (a parade of people laden with luggage arriving in the nowhere zone between airport terminal and destination) is a dialogue that takes time to impart its commentary on the weightless state of border crossings. I watch the work unfold then move to the table where there are books and catalogues from recent exhibitions of other South-East Asian work all of which adds context to the works on show. I take time to read under the watchful gaze of Sakarin Krue-on’s constantly circling mandala, delaying re-entry before taking on the weight of the world again.

-+-(negative plus negative), curator Gridthiya Gaweewong, Project 304, Chiangmai, Thailand; organised by Earl Lu Gallery, LASALLE-SIA College of the Arts and MAAP; MAAP in Singapore-GRAVITY, Oct 7-31

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg.

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

tsunamii.net, alpha3.5crush

tsunamii.net, alpha3.5crush

More artwork should have an odour. alpha3.5crush, the work of Singapore collective tsunamii.net has the smell of fried electronics—the scent of sizzling circuitries and flash-zap ozone. While not strong, it is what draws me closer to the ruin of equipment placed on a low plinth near the doorway of the gallery. Sniffing my way around a flattened Dell computer I am attracted to the mille feuille of materials, wavy lead-like sheets sandwiched between black metallic drive and beige plastic screen; a fine dusting of glass shyly glittering around the edges; wiry entrails just visible through the cracked casing. Above the object there are 2 accompanying projections. The first shows a browser window identifying itself as the webserver–IP address–and an accelerated countdown. As zero approaches the browser flicks to an error message–”This page cannot be found.”

The other screen displays what can eventually be detected as a glass chamber containing a computer—black hard drive, beige monitor displaying the browser window with countdown. The footage has also been accelerated. At zero, a massive piston below the drive rises up and compacts the computer. The footage continues, showing the reflection of the audience in the London Millbank Gallery (Sep 5-12, 2002) peering at the shattered machine.

Frequently sceptical of the documentation of an artwork being recycled into another artwork in itself, I am surprised at how satisfying I find both the video evidence and the artefact of the event that took place in the London. This is perhaps due to the conceptual completeness of the piece. It has a nihilistic beauty like a circle made from a snake eating its own tail. It's even more satisfying when I read in the catalogue (notes in the gallery are minimal) that the computer in the compression chamber not only ran the server but also the press which caused its demise. The machine was programmed to commit suicide. Interestingly this honourable death is witnessed in 2 ways: its spectacular squishing in front of the gallery audience and the deletion of its virtual identity—the web presence run by server
tsunamii.net, alpha3.5crush

tsunamii.net, alpha3.5crush

There is a niggling discomfort in the knowledge that the 2 projections are not synchronous—the countdowns operate at different speeds so that the crunching happens independently of the deletion of the web presence. Similarly the focus on the reflection of the audience in the actual gallery event dissipates the power of the work. Perhaps these are deliberate attempts to undercut the sense of spectacle and linear narrativity.

The catalogue notes indicate that tsunamii.net requested that the London Institute, owner of the IP address, purchase and keep the website in this 'contentless' form, however this never came to pass. Had it been granted it would have made MAAP artistic director Kim Machan very happy. It would have been the ultimate virtual manifestation of Yves Klein's Le Vide (an empty gallery) that Machan had on exhibition in the Singapore Art Museum for a month prior to the current show. But is “This page not found” more akin to a “Gallery Closed” sign? Even without the artefact of the remaining URL (currently brings up a connection failure), alpha3.5crush is a vivid and rewarding realisation of both a past work and a re-visioned piece within itself, challenging notions of real and virtual presence and absence.

Tsunamii.net, alpha3.5crush, GRAVITY, Singapore Art Museum, curator Kim Machan, 27 Oct – 28 Nov; MAAP in Singapore—GRAVITY, Oct 11-Nov 30

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg.

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

Kim Kichul, Sound Drawing

Kim Kichul, Sound Drawing

There is a blaring wall of noise–a kind of heavy metal sound art–emanating from a small room at the back of the gallery. It's hard to imaging what can possibly account for such a barrage as the movement within the sound is quite agile–shifting and turning easily, squealing and grinding in different directions and variations. What is in fact creating this sound is a piece of paper, a graphite pencil, a tone generator and an amplifier which comprise Kim Kichul's Sound Drawing.

On the most basic level the work allows you to manifest sound by drawing on the paper. However, if you play with it for a while you discover it also reads the marks that others have made before you. If you're feeling timid and don't want to add to the black squiggles, you can simply “play” previous illustrations. It is even possible to create an instrument out of scrawls, and play your own illustrated noise symphony.

The 6th version of this work exhibited here at MAAP consists of a long strip of paper on a wooden desk with the pen and speakers suspended from above. From Kichul's artist talk as part of the MAAP International Conference we see that there is also a version in which a large vertical wall can be marked and played. That version suggests more performative possibilities—a kind of sonic action painting.

But what does it sound like? AGHHH! It is an aggressive sound palette (even for a sound art devotee) of grating tones and buzzes, ripping and electronic caterwauls. You can achieve a quiet static with a light touch, though the threshold is low and it is very easy to escalate into noise assault. Interestingly, this makes the cause and effect relationship of the work very clear but it also challenges the participant. There is an initial childlike joy in making very loud noises but the consequences are quite difficult to deal with over a sustained period of time. The work is beguilingly simple, with a spiky sonority.
Kim Kichul, Sound Drawing

Kim Kichul, Sound Drawing

There is an elegant simplicity in much of Kim Kichul's work. In a conversation, he maintained that he sees himself as a sculptor using sound as a material rather than as a composer. His audio sources are field recordings which are not overly manipulated and the strength of the work stems from the integrated physical manifestation in the form of elegant sculptural installations. Kim described how he has always been interested in “what the eye is looking for in sound.” Is it looking for the sound itself or is it simply looking at the object that makes the sound? This is best exemplified by his work Sound Looking—a glass cylinder with a speaker on one end. On the floor of the cylinder are styrofoam balls that vibrate and quiver according to the frequency to form a visual representation of the sound wave. The tube is 250mm long meaning that a tone at 250 Herz creates a jittering wave; at 155 Herz 2 waves are formed and so on. Another work offering this visual parallel is titled Looking Water. On separate, finely executed metallic listening posts are recordings of water: in one version this consists of rain, a mountain stream and the sea, accompanied by glass tubes of collected water samples from each source. Kim has also exhibited a version involving water from North Korea and from Izu Beach in Japan and Seoul, with stunningly designed transparent speakers.

Most of Kim Kichul's pieces involve beautifully crafted speakers, and he admits that dabbling in electronics is a hobby. For his work Quartet, he designed small barrel shaped wooden boxes recreating the look of a timber panelled concert hall. Investigating ideas of monaural sound sources, he composed a piece for string quartet, recording each instrument as a separate mono audio channel which he then re-combined through the 4 speakers, emulating concert hall acoustics and challenging ideas as to the fidelity of stereo (“stereo is a lie”). Another multiple speaker work is Hae in—a circle of custom designed speakers positioned around a Korean wooden bell which is self-playing. The mallet is operated by a wheel which lifts it up and then drops it. The gentle tock sounds very similar to the pre-recorded water drops that are triggered randomly from the bell and play across the speaker array.

With a background in the visual arts and sculpture in particular, Kim is self-taught in matters of electronics and audio production. However since 2003 he has been studying Audio Production at the Art Institute of Seattle. He is currently researching his next work which will involve processing voice via a microphone. This time, instead of the voice being amplified through speakers, the sonic material will activate springs and objects fed by the vibrations. MAAP in Singapore–GRAVITY has given Kim Kichul his first opportunity to exhibit outside of Korea, but judging by the conceptual cohesiveness and restrained grace of his practice (and his prolific output), it will not be long before his work is seen by a wider international audience.

Kim Kichul, Sound Drawing, GRAVITY, Singapore Art Museum, curator Kim Machan, 27 Oct – 28 Nov; MAAP in Singapore—GRAVITY, Oct 27-Nov 28

Parts of this article were taken from a conversation between Kim Kichul, Gail Priest and Virginia Baxter, Oct 29.

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg.

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

Young-Hae Chang Big Heavy Industries, All Fall Down

Young-Hae Chang Big Heavy Industries, All Fall Down

An insistent jazz riff seeps into galleries 3 and 4 of the Singapore Art Museum. It's familiar, but not quite right. Easily classifiable as a species of Dave Brubeck's Take Five it worries at the introductory bars without moving through the body of work. Interestingly though it never seems “looped”, feeling like it has been composed as a cyclic, infinite beginning immediately conjuring images of finger-clickin' cool cats. It succinctly sets the tone for the ultimate new media incarnation of beat poetry, ALL FALL D0WN by Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries.

In the now established Heavy Industries style ALL FALL D0WN is a Flash animation which plays with bold text in familiar Monaco type dashing at just readable speeds in rhythmic formation across a white background. Wary of the epileptic potential of the work I choose to initially engage with the scrolling band of text, white on black at the bottom at the bottom of the screen. It offers a Kerouac reverie of minutiae mixed with glimpses of sensuality: “How could you not slip your hand beneath those wisps and smooth them into place – a painter caring for his brush. You were desire those days.”

Trying to absorb the narrative, my eye begins to catch the rhythmic play of large words pulsing across the upper, larger section of the screen. Gradually I give up on the horizontal text and try to latch onto the mostly 3 word statements that play across the screen, placed one word at a time then shrinking down and disappearing right of centre.








The text is so rich, yet so fast you are never completely sure what you are reading. Each phrase is linked to the one before, the mind grasping for connections and in the gap are rich and profound associations. Watching it a second time I see a whole new element I just couldn't keep up with before. In between each statement are brisk flashes—BIG words that fill the screen, white on black—each a response, an insult, a provocation, a commentary on the previous statement perfectly synchronised with percussive highpoints.











Young-Hae Chang Big Heavy Industries, All Fall Down

Young-Hae Chang Big Heavy Industries, All Fall Down

The longer I stay with this work the more it seeps in and I no longer feel the effort of reading. Riding the rhythms I begin to absorb the words. ALL FALL D0WN is an astounding work of precision and sophistication, redefining (frequently neglected) text as a powerful medium. It is a work to be read over again, like a favourite novel. Fortunately a selection of Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries works are available online at www.yhchang.com.

Opposite is Grant Stevens' Dazed and Praised. While the text of ALL FALL D0WN travels fast while remaining legible, Stevens' text slashes across the monitor at near impossible speed. Only when you don the headphones can you grasp it, the eye catching up with the ear. The text is a cutup of (mostly male) voices talking about some alternative culture with passion and nostalgia: “we were pushed and praised…we took the ruins of the 20th century and made art out of it…”

What exactly they are talking about remains a mystery so it is hard not to get sucked into a guessing game. I was very proud of myself for deciphering the subject as skateboard culture, but on reading the catalogue it seems that it might be a mixture of both 70s and 90s grunge rockumentaries. The absence of subject allows a kind of anthropological focus on the language which, with a flick of a marketing wrist could become an advertising slogan for the latest running shoe: “we were doing it cause we liked doing it…I'm doing it…”

Dazed and Praised is in interesting juxtaposition with ALL FALL D0WN, working with a similar graphic interface yet with very different preoccupations. Young Hae Chang's is about the act of reading and association, while Stevens' is about the spoken word with text as graphic accompaniment.

The final work in the gallery is Paul Lincoln's We the Citizens. Described as an “augmented reality work” it comprises a screen and second mobile LCD screen with mounted video camera. The instructions tell the viewer to point the camera up towards the air conditioning ducts in the gallery. If you hold it just right you can begin to see 3 dimensional red block words falling from the vents—”citizens, united, people, race, language, religion”—words that you later learn (from the catalogue) are taken from the Singapore Pledge of Allegiance. The interface functions well but the set up is awkward. The LCD screen attached to the camera has poor vision so you must either point the camera in one direction and then twist around to the larger monitor to interpret the words, or you need to work with someone.

Anecdotally we hear that there is a developing discourse around air conditioning dealing with westernisation and financial and class aspirations. These tidbits of information make the work far more meaningful. However as it is presented with no artist text (though, thankfully, there are instructions) the effect is underwhelming. This absence of information is a common flaw in the GRAVITY exhibition. While it is not necessary to accompany every artwork with an essay as to its conceptual preoccupations (works like ALL FALL D0WN require no explanation), We The Citizens exemplifies how some pointers about context could allow viewers to orient themselves to make more informed and focussed associations and have more satisfying experiences.

Since the initial Hypertext flurry of the late 90s, text has been a less visible tool for media based artists. However works such as ALL FALL D0WN, Dazed & Praised and to a lesser extent We The Citizens illustrate the power of words. The curatorial choice to present these works together was a good one. Maybe even Kerouac would click his appreciation.

Young Hae Chang's Big Heavy Industries, ALL FALL D0WN, Grant Stevens, Dazed and Praised, Paul Lincoln, We The Citizens, GRAVITY, Singapore Art Museum, curator Kim Machan, Oct 27 – Nov 28 ; MAAP in Singapore—Gravity, Oct 11-Nov 30

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg.

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

Ji-Hoon Byun’s Duk-eum

Ji-Hoon Byun’s Duk-eum

The entrance to GRAVITY, the key exhibition for MAAP04, is minimal, unassuming and distinctly ‘analogue’. It consists of Yves Klein’s photograph Le Saut dans le Vide (Leap into the Void) and his faux newspaper Dimanche 27 November 1960 along with Kim Machan’s curatorial statement in which she proposes Yves Klein as perhaps the forefather of new media—Klein’s visceral blue mirrored by that of a void video projection. The connection between Klein’s leap—representing the enthusiasm for the innovations of the space age—and our present day glorification of the information age feels slippery. However considering the concept of gravity represented by the action, we enter interesting territory.

The potency of the concept is felt as soon as you turn the corner and encounter Ji-Hoon Byun’s Duk-eum (South Korea). On a blank wall a soft textured blue—not quite so vibrant as Klein’s—is filled with falling particles of light. There is a tendency to speed past, afraid of casting a shadow on the artwork. However this is the point. Your movement through the light between projector and screen triggers the falling particles so that they cascade out and around your shadow like a waterfall of crystal light. The response of the particles is so well tuned that you experience a kind of physical displacement or ghosting—almost expecting to feel the weight of the particles on your skin.

The next work is just as playful. Tan Teck Weng’s Panopticon (Australia) consists of a screen showing an empty room with tables and chairs scattered around. If you pick up the small box at the base of the screen the furniture flies around the room as if possessed by a poltergeist. The initial impact of the work comes from trying to establish if it’s a virtual manifestation or real—is this the best 3D rendering ever seen? Having experienced the work several times now (it appears in Experimenta’s House of Tomorrow ) and knowing how it functions (let us say a surveillance camera is involved), the initial magic of the microcosm has diminished for me though the technical appreciation remains. However, the title Panopticon seems incongruous. The work originally involved the viewer’s peering eye projected onto a screen. With only half the work presented, the ramifications of surveillance are minimised and, with the box-interface set below the screen in the dark, many people (including large groups of game and interactive-literate school children when I was in the room) missed the experience of manipulating the furniture, merely glancing at a static image.

Looming over Panopticon is the large-scale projection of Tim Plaisted’s Surface Browser (Australia)—an alternative visual interface for surfing the net. Plaisted and collaborators Ryan Hodge and Anko have created an application that draws in the images from selected websites and re-presents them in a 3 dimensional format instead of the established horizontal/vertical screen. Drawing from the water imagery so frequently associated with the web (‘surfing’, ‘streaming’, ‘data pipes’), the interface features a soft blue pipeline that the viewer travels, with images wrapped around the curves and bends. For sci-fi readers there is a quiver of excitement as the work approaches visual manifestations of the cyber landscapes proposed in William Gibson’s novels. In his artist talk, Plaisted spoke of the different ways in which the work can be presented in the gallery context, including a joystick-driven version and a live-online juke-box system in which people enter websites that are queued for use as future content. Unfortunately Surface Browser is presented in MAAP as an archived, passive screen work so that its value remains conceptual. And in the absence of any accompanying text it is easy to view the work simply as a piece of video animation. You can, however, download a version of the surface browser (thoughtfully designed for cross platform usage) from www.boxc.net in order to experience the full potential of the work.

Offering a fully active interface, Shu Lea Cheang’s Burn is a website interface and installation looking at issues of filesharing and digital music reproduction. Comprising part of her ever expanding Kingdom of Piracy project (http://kop.fact.co.uk/), a curated portal for works dealing with ideas of piracy in all forms across Asia, Burn was inspired by widely broadcast images of pyres of pirated CDs. Offered as a celebration of the freedom offered by internet technologies, the interface allows people to browse through thousands of tracks that are untitled and only categorised by colour, and then to burn their own CDs. The content comes from everywhere, though many sound artists have uploaded their tracks. In a tall tower in the middle of the room are blank CDs with the word “Burn” stamped on them, and the Chinese character for “pirate.” The software application is simple, offering little more than standard audio/CD burning software besides an appealingly colourful and intuitive graphic interface. It is in the flagrant subversiveness of the concept that the work’s strength lies. Depending on legal advice, often the work cannot be presented fully utilising the CD burning capacities of the software. The arts organisation in Taiwan originally involved in commissioning the Kingdom of Piracy project has since withdrawn its support.

Kim Machan’s curatorial emphasis is on re-affirming new media art within the visual art context and history, deftly conveyed in her calling forth the spirit of Yves Klein. This approach has created an exhibition with a cohesive thematic force. However, by actively resisting the pull of cutting edge technologies the exhibition presents a very modest selection of interactive and hybrid installations. Interestingly, 2 South Korean works—Ji-Hoon Byun’s Duk-eum and Kim Kichul’s Sound Drawing (see “An Eye for Sound”, p26) offer the most satisfying experiences. Refreshingly, the discussion generated by Machan’s curation focuses on concepts, with technology playing a supporting role. However there is a danger in approaching new media as just another form of visual art. Such a premise ignores the potentials and the interactions that can only be explored utilising technology, allowing for new and very different rules of engagement. MAAP presents a modest offering of these works amidst some exceptional screen, photomedia and installation works from the Asia Pacific region.

GRAVITY, Singapore Art Museum, curator Kim Machan, Oct 27 – Nov 28; MAAP in Singapore—GRAVITY, Oct 11-Nov 30

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg.

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

Ji-Hoon Byun, Duk-e-um

Ji-Hoon Byun, Duk-e-um

MAAP in Singapore 2004 is a partner in SENI: Singapore 2004, Art and the Contemporary, an exhibition focusing on contemporary art practices of Asia inclusively as well those of artists living away from their countries of origin. While SENI’s focus is not specifically on new media work, inevitably there are connections between these exhibitions and those in MAAP.

The multiple effect within the sedate walls of the Art Museum is of disruption–conceptual and perceptual –invoking Paul Virilio’s museum of accidents, the necessary adjunct to every edifice celebrating technology’s ‘progress.’

“A young woman appears behind a perfectly stacked table contemplating a pile of objects” begins the scenario for Heman Chong and Corrina Kniffki’s video work Divided Tonight (2003). “Give it up now. Don’t think. No more thoughts. Give in tonight.” Suddenly in one simple action she collapses the whole shebang (“everything she has used in the past year”) and down it comes in one almighty crash that resounds through the gallery. “Everything explodes. Tabula Rasa sans irony.” The camera moves in on the subtly smiling face of the perpetrator. The closer it moves, the wider the screen, until the blurred face of the woman is yet another distant memory, her white collar and jacket holding out longest, before everything empties into white. And then, inevitably, in the way of loops, the image is back in our faces with its evidence of conspicuous consumption to be destroyed for us again and again in this small but satisfying act of wish fulfilment.

Next door, Feng Mengbo has set himself the grim narrative task of recording The last three minutes of the earth, a haunting effigy with detritus in close-up and a lone bug documented in grainy, scratched, black and white 16mm film which says something about built-in obsolescence and the new technologies.

Round every corner, through every white-curtained doorway are more hints of the precarious calm of the times in a range of evocative titles. In The 21st Century’s Big Big Sci-Fi Disaster Horror Movie, an indolent group of Japanese workers and apartment dwellers gathers for an earthquake simulation exercise which you hope for their sake, never happens (then, days later it does!). In Baghdad in no particular order, 66 pictures before the fall, a small boy blinks in a room full of casual chatter. An alarm from the work next door invades the temporary calm. In Nothing happens: 8 normal Saturdays in Linz only the viewer’s perception of an otherwise uneventful street scene on the screen is alerted by the sound.

I’m reminded of sound artist Bruce Mowson’s comment at a MAAP artists’ talk at Nanyang University yesterday describing the drawbacks of creating sound works for public places–”only to be attempted if you’re feeling crazy.” He designed a work which included the sounds of buildings being destroyed but found that only the sound of dogs barking and babies crying attracted attention–”which makes sense” he said. Mowson has installed a more subtly insistent work in the Gravities of Sound exhibition in the Tunnel Underpass from City Hall MRT entitled The End of the Tunnel Is Now Approaching, which are just some of the words heard in transit.

Encouragingly, there’s a strong emphasis in the SENI exhibition on political activism and a resurgence of collective responses to the world’s inequities in the work of groups such as Fondation Arabe (Lebanon); 16 Beaver Group (USA) for whose members, many of whom originate from West Asia, “the security obsessed post-9/11 realities in the US have highlighted or brought into question public rights, and in particular the diminishing space for alternative viewpoints”; The Artists' Village (Singapore); Spacecraft (Malaysia); Big Sky Mind (Philippines); Taring Padi (Indonesia); Project 304 (Thailand) and sciSKEW (Singapore). And there’s plenty of playful experiments and dancing among the ruins.

Elsewhere in the Singapore Art Museum and on our way to MAAP’s GRAVITY show, we come upon the work of Tan Swie Hian, one of Singapore’s most celebrated artists. One of his small illustrated fables, entitled Time, prepares our way.

The green moss silently asked the rain water that was draining away if it remembered its form, sound and feeling when, a moment before, it was falling onto the moss-grown ground. 8 Fables by Tan Swie Hian

MAAP in Singapore–GRAVITY

Circuit boards, keyboards, cables take on a life of their own in Xing Danwen’s disCONNECTION. Neatly sorted and seemingly colour coded, technology’s refuse re-assembles itself for its next life. This is pollution, though of a strange new order.

Throughout 2002-3, Xing Danwen documented the huge amounts of ‘e-trash’ shipped from industrialised countries like Japan, Korea and mostly the US and dumped in South China’s Guangdong Province where workers make their living recycling it. A potent “visual representation of 21st century modernity” if ever there was one.
Young-Hae-Chang Heavy Industries, All Fall Down

Young-Hae-Chang Heavy Industries, All Fall Down

Young-Hae-Chang Heavy Industries presents All Fall Down, a beat poem in signage of the billboard and stockmarket readout varieties. Words are metered out in quick-changing black text, the top two-thirds of the white screen heavy on the declamatory, the bottom third discursive, seductive and fluid survives its brisk unfolding. And all rolled out to the opening bar of Dave Brubeck’s Take Five endlessly distended. Using as their materials the bland rhythms of the marketplace and its technologies, the artists produce a human pulse.

Audio voices and video texts (reproduced word for word at the same time) uncannily collide in Grant Stevens’ Dazed and Praised in which the subject (for those like me who don’t read the catalogue till later) is disappeared and any number of possibilities present themselves (as we now know from Bill Clinton, it depends on what you mean by ‘it’) while you simultaneously read and listen to voices and background music reminiscing about the thrill of action, of change and revolutions in popular culture: “We loved doing it. I’m doing it. I can do it!”

Marcus Lyall’s volunteers in Slow Service await the ‘accident’ with the same tremulous nonchalance of Heman Chong’s willing subject in Divided Tonight as a selection of foodstuffs are hurled at their heads. Here, there’s sharp definition in the place of blur but time passes as strangely and evocatively in sumptuous slow-mo splashes of liquid flight.

Merry hell is on offer in Teck Tan Wang’s magical little box of tricks, Pan Opticon, in which you shake a small box and violently rearrange the digital furniture right around the room as you see fit. Shu Lea Cheang’s transgressive web work, Burn takes copyright violation to one logical conclusion, providing a stack of CDs for visitors to play pirate and DIY their own compilation disc from grabs of music which they select by colour (Pink?) and word (Cake?) to take home with them.

Kim Kichul whose background is in sculpture and who sees sound as “structural material which is just not visible” offers a playful if confronting aural experience in Sound Drawing in which the visitor draws a graphite stick across a piece of paper and the movement, the drawing, transforms into the lines, loops and squiggles of raw, squealing and grating accidents sound. (See Gail Priest’s article on Kim Kichul, “An eye for sound”). In contrast, Kim’s work for the Gravities of Sound program has sound raining down on commuters as they pass through the tunnel.

The happiest accident comes in the form of Ji-Hoon Byun’s Duk-e-um which heads up the MAAP exhibition and to which, like other works in the exhibition, I found myself returning. A digital lightfall in Yves Klein blue it mirrors the movement of water but offers pleasures all its own as you walk past or stand within its ambit and it answers the movements of your shadow with radiant sprays of white light against the blue. For a moment, you hold destiny in your hands.

GRAVITY, MAAP at Singapore Art Museum, curator Kim Machan, Oct 27-Nov 28; SENI: Singapore 2004, Art and the Contemporary, Artistic Director Chua Beng Huat, Singapore Art Museum, Oct 1-Nov 28

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg.

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

Gravicells obara

Gravicells obara

MAAP's Artists Talks convene among the ruins of the opening night Zero Gravity party at which members of Singapore's Artists' Village and the web-based tsunamii.net took over Singapore Art Museum's Glass Hall, creating a playfully chaotic celebration of video, sound and performance art with a live broadband link to the Creative Industries Precinct at Brisbane's QUT. The following day, chair of the symposium's first session, Julianne Pierce smiled amid the debris, suggesting that in a city which prides itself on order, one of the functions of a festival like MAAP might be to offer some room for a little mess.

Alexie Glass from the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) described the video exhibition she co-curated, I thought I knew but I was wrong (Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts), as manifesting “uncertainty, permeability, leakage and breakdown in communication.” This project sprang from Asialink's Sarah Tutton's residency at ACMI. As the exhibition tours for 21 weeks around Asia, the curators will collect works from Asian artists for a future reciprocal exhibition in Australia. To install the exhibition, we heard, required the Academy to adapt one of its white spaces to black. Pleased with the result, they're thinking of retaining it. Spaces virtual or real become a significant trend

Like the rest of Australia, most artists at MAAP listen with envy to descriptions of the creative spaces opened up by ACMI. On the other hand, Gridthiya Gaweewong, the dynamic curator of the -+-(negative plus negative) exhibition who these days describes herself as “loosely based in Bangkok” with a homeless gallery, talks up the value of small spaces. At MAAP we're surrounded by “mobilised” artists. In 1996 Gridthiya “accidentally” co-founded a new media art movement when, with a collection of conceptual thinkers and new media artists she set up a small non-profit space with interdisciplinarity as the connecting concept. Many of the participants had been trained outside Thailand in the UK or US and together they established a gallery in an apartment which later moved to a house. The group began to enter the broader new media arena initially via the 2004 Switch Media Art Festival in Chiangmai. Though a number of universities in the region have since opened new media departments, the movement is still small and mobile in Thailand and the place of new media art with its demands for technical support and infrastructure negotiable. In the gallery notes for the negative + negative exhibition, one artist wondered, “if there is no such thing as media art here, do we need to create it?”

For New York-based Zhang Ga, the space of new media art lies in ephemeral domains as well as tangible spaces. His large scale public art work, The Peoples 'Project, sponsored by MAAP and Reuters among others, consists of a number of small photo booths set up in cities including Rotterdam, New York, Linz, Brisbane and now Singapore with links to large projection screens in major venues including the giant screen in Times Square and the biggest video wall in Shanghai. You enter the booth, flick a switch and in an instant you're not quite famous, but visible at least, however fleetingly, across 7000 square feet of digital display around the world. Zhang Ga defines this work as “a dialogue with portraiture” which, in the digital space, he sees as being about scale and speed. This is a project for the “peoples” of the world (not “people”) and aims to satisfy their “urgency for expression” in response to the “overwhelming presence of technology.”

There are now over 3000 people/s on the database and it's hungry for more, as are new media events the world over, presumably for projects to fill their “popular new media art” slot. Zhang Ga, who's a professor at the MFA Design and Technology Program at Parsons School of Design and Technology in New York, reports that space for new media art is closing down in the US with funding reductions and galleries cutting back their commitment. Hence his belief in new possibilities offered by projects which allow ordinary citizens to “subtly insinuate” themselves into the landscape. Zhang Ga is one of a number of artists at MAAP who see themselves as ‘conduits’, defining the parameters of these new spaces in which “the people” create the work. Participants in The Peoples' Project who enter the booths are informed about the trajectory of the photograph but the extent to which they knowingly collaborate in an artwork is less certain. The potential for this project to go beyond the “Look at me!” and open up an uncensored space for pockets of creativity seems more interesting than its loftier aim of “bringing peoples together.” Already in what we see of the public's response, there are signs of messy human interaction in the range of expressiveness and camera angle. And let's face it, at a time when artists are eagerly whipping up 90-second art films for mobile motion capture platforms, 15 seconds of screen time in a major venue is prime creative real estate. I see gradually unfolding manifestos, bodies of work emerging. The sky’s the limit.

Fatima Lasay is among the impressive representation of female artists, curators and organisers at MAAP who are taking on the new media territory and transforming it with their aesthetic and political concerns. Hailing from Manila but, like many artsworkers here, moving across continents, Lasay argues for loose and localised concepts of technology. For her the issue is empowerment and for artists in places like Myanmar this means using whatever medium is at your disposal, technological or otherwise (see Keith Gallasch, “The body between: Fatima Lasay, an interview/review”).

Shu-Lea Cheang is another mobilised digital artist, currently based in Paris. For her, art is all about transgression and public space. She’s interested in “open systems, open culture” and in building collaborative platforms in preferably cross-cultural formats. Initially inspired by those images from Asia which shot around the world of pirated CDs being burned or run over by steamrollers, Shu-Lea created The Kingdom of Piracy (kop.fact.co.uk), a space for a variety of actions including the web interface work on exhibit at MAAP called Burn in which visitors create their own take-home pirated CD. This work was created as part of a residency at FACT Media Centre in Liverpool, UK. For Shu-Lea, a new media pioneer who’s been working the terrain for around 10 years now, the challenge lies in creating structures, new collaborative platforms for people to express their ideas. “What remains of bandwidth must be used as public space,” she declares. In richair.waag.org teams of young women on rollerblades access wireless signals via signal boosters in lunchboxes. In tramjam.net, music is synchronised in a multi-track, multi-driver mix hub designed to intersect with the intricate train timetable network. An Australian in the audience asked what would happen if the trains were late. Surprised at the question, Shu-Lea answered that, in Europe, trains are never late!

Xing Danwen (China) is one of the artists involved in MAAP’s online residency program. For the GRAVITY exhibition, she is displaying in a series of projections, her photographs of the e-trash of Europe and especially the US which is shipped in to China and recycled by local workers (see cover RT#63). Born in the 1960s Danwen invokes dreams of modernity compared to current realities. In another recent piece, Urban Fiction, she works with architectural models of high-rise precincts, inserting within them photographs of human characters (played by herself). In an apartment space, a small cardboard figure lies prone in a pool of red ink, the perpetrator of the “crime” standing over her. The space around the couple is mute, the disaster barely discernible amidst the order of the architecture. Xin Danwen is interested in public space and the private life within it, the fixity of an architectural model and small fictions that challenge it. The idea began when she left her home in China to study in New York and sensed sharply the difference between the 2 places. She challenges the notion that these days “everywhere can be anywhere.” In an earlier work, Sleepwalking , exhibited at the Yokohama Triennale in 2001, she recorded sounds in China and played them as part of a video installation, splitting the images between simple projection onto a wall and simultaneously into a glass trunk full of water.

Currently working in Brisbane, Agnes Hegedüs is also a child of the 60s. Born in Hungary, her background is in the fine arts but she now defines the aesthetic input into her work as “marginal”, an act of creative erasure that unsettles me for some reason. Observing the ways technology has infiltrated our lives, Hegedüs became interested in identifying what it was actually good for and decided that the answer lay in creating opportunities for interactivity –”Art is for people”, she says. As a consequence, having worked her way through complex sensor-based CD-ROMs and DVD-ROMs, she now prefers to use technology for communication with other people, or setting up interfaces with which one person can engage. Watching the process and seeing how people use it drives her next idea. In her work, Memory Theatre (memory.ci.qut.edu.au), visitors are asked to contribute an object which links to a personal memory. It reminded me of Sophie Calle's The Birthday Ceremony in which the artist displayed her birthday gifts in museum cases as tokens of affection. Agnes Hegedüs, however, has moved beyond the personal sphere, photographing and scanning other people's memory objects (artfully, it must be said) and collates them into a taxonomy of objects and ways in which people build identity around them.

Yukiko Shikata (Japan) looks beyond the horizon for more ephemeral possibilities for the internet and new media art projects in public space. A woman who wears at least 3 hats, she has facilitated and collaborated on many installations and accessible artworks that open up new spaces for interactivity. She spoke about the Yamaguchi Center for Arts and New Media (www.ycam.jp), an organisation with a strong investment in new media space in a city likewise committed. In Yamaguchi in 2003 Shikata curated Rafael Lozano-hemmer's Amodal Suspension in which missives from mobile phones were conveyed via searchlight into the sky creating “accidental encounters” and offering “new ways to imagine new people.” In an event in Tokyo, Garden of the Sinewave Orchestra, participants hovered with laptops at communing distance from plants picking up sine waves generated by sensors among the foliage.

Lastly, Shikata showed us documentation of a sublime work entitled Gravicells by Seiko Mikami and Sota Ichikawa. It's an installation in which “realtime movements by participants generate and affect GPS, directional sound, LED light and projection images of geometrical data” (www.G–R.com). As visitors move across the map, self and space merge as the regular pattern of lines curves around them. It reminded me of some of the effects of some of the best work at MAAP–Kim Kichul's elegant sculptural experiments in making sound visible, Ji-Hoon Byun's falling light wall, Duk-eum, Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries' unfolding beat poem in signage, All fall down, and Marcus Lyall's liquid flight, Slow Service. In these works, we are invited into the artist's space to share an imagined world that exists for a time as an open house and if we're lucky we'll have the experience Ji-Hoon Byun has designed with us in mind:

When they arrive at the end
time is so accelerated
that they could not feel their vanishing.
The vanishing is (a) sad but beautiful one.
Here is something invisible
in this short fall.

Symposium: GRAVITY, The Glass Hall, Singapore Art Museum, MAAP in Singapore, Oct 30

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg.

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

The old real/virtual divide that used to spook us at 3am in the new-media-arts formative 90s should worry us no more if this group of artists speaking at the MAAP Conference, “New Media, Arts and Technology”, at Nanyang Technological University is to be believed.

New York-based Zhang Ga sketched a history of his pioneering work in web art (acknowledging the presence at MAAP of Shu Lea Cheang, “one of the sisters of the NY new media dynasty”) having moved from China to Germany to the USA. First he found his work influenced by digitisation but wondered why he was committed to painting when inspired by the possibilities of the web. So he gave up a very good studio in order to “materialise this immaterial reality”, commenting in an aside that he imagined achieving some of the goals that Fluxus had aimed for.

While new media art is still low in economic potential, said Zhang, it has at least found an institutional base in the academy. But more important for him than its financial materiality is new media art's capacity to capture the intangible, “to create a real life art [in which] the virtual and the real become more and more interlocked.” He thinks this “recombinant reality” is becoming so pervasive that we don’t notice it: “it's as real as the physical.”

The outcome for Zhang is not an increase in abstraction but the use of and a new perspective on “the elements of real life.” His People's Portrait, about to be launched on giant screens in Times Square and other public sites and new media venues in various countries, (http//apiece.net) will display images of people from around the world, “humanising the technology” and bringing together, says Zhang, “the home computer and the 7,000 square foot [Times Square] screen.” The thousands of portraits won't offer a few seconds of fame a la Warhol, but presumably a sense of global community. Until we've seen People's Portrait it's difficult to imagine anything other than a cosy sense of togetherness underscored with the unease of anonymity. And just what intangible is being given substance? Let's see.

Brisbane-based artist Tim Plaisted's vision (Surface Browser)is more modest but no less concerned with making the immaterial real. Inspired by Yves Klein's conceptual leaps (Klein is MAAP 2004's patron saint), David Cronenberg's media meltdowns and committed to using accessible software, Plaisted addresses the user's experience of the net, and not simply of its contents.

Plaisted had noticed that the early metaphors applied to the web were liquid ones (data pipes, surfing, streaming) but the actual experience was “far from fluid.” He became determined to “make the metaphors real.” The result, created with stand-alone software, is not the usual book-based web pages but a journey through a curving and enveloping blue tunnel, a curious blend of flight and Alice's tumble into Wonderland. The latter is especially the case in the GRAVITY exhibition at the Singapore Art Museum where a non-interactive version of Plaisted's work takes up a whole gallery wall and can induce vertigo. There are still web pages, but they line the tunnel like billboards in underground railway stations, or a blue rectangle suddenly blocks the way and spins out into floating pages. To see how it works you'll need to go online.

Korean artist Kichul Kim describes his approach to sound and how we experience it as sculptural. His key interest is “in sound, which is not visible, as structural and material.” He creates works which are “not just visual but physical”, giving body to sound. Kim showed us images of an impressive range of works that seemed to achieve this magic, sometimes inviting active participation from gallery-goers as in his noisily engaging work for MAAP (see Gail Priest, “GRAVITY: Kim Kichul, Sound Drawing, “An Eye for Sound.”)

Melbourne-based sound artist Bruce Mowson observed that getting audience attention for art that is a little less than tangible can be a challenge. A public audio work of his involving the sounds of buildings being demolished went largely unnoticed by passersby. Only the sounds of dogs barking and babies crying were likely to grab attention. For the MAAP sound tunnel at the Esplanade Theatres, Mowson has created a work using a mix of public announcements that sound like the real thing but which are tinged with the absurd, even with a sense of mortality: “Passengers for nowhere, please move to gate 5.”

Mowson says that his interest in psycho-acoustics and perception comes in part from a fascination with the materiality of sound, stemming from rock'n'roll days “when the air was thick with sound.” He wants to create works with “a heavy material or soft perceptual form”, giving aural density to what people don't see, but feel.

MAAP's Kim Machan wants to make new media art tangible as art. We meet over lunch and file swapping via memory sticks and burning disks that drain Kim's laptop battery. Meanwhile she eloquently declares that the art-science field, bio-art and other wings of new media have staked their claims and secured their niches but that new media art needs to claim its rightful position in the history of art and in the gallery. It's not surprising then that Yves Klein is the spiritual mentor of MAAP 2004. Not only did he show how to make art out of the intangible (and recent Turner Prizes show that there's still big money in that) but also opened the way to the postmodern (drawing together radical impulses from the first half of the 20th century modernism) and had a sharp eye for mainstream respectability. It's a change from Duchamp and Fluxus as seminal culture heroes. The desire to anchor new media art to an artist, a movement, a tradition (whether in the histories of technology, art, film, literature, media) escalates by the year with multitudinous prefigurings. These serve the academy well and make investment in new media art more institutionally justifiable. What they have to say about the art is debatable beyond short term intellectual and aesthetic pleasure. The very strangeness of much of new media art, the difficulty of categorising it and the impossibility of predicting where it will take us, these are its power. In the meantime, yes to Klein: how and what we perceive as art is an open book, or screen or, better, something intangible made momentarily physical.

Artists' Talk, MAAP Conference, “New Media, Arts and Technology”, Nanyang Executive Centre, Nanyang Technological University, MAAP in Singapore, Oct 2

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg.

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

MAAP04 was an engrossing event, informative, rich in networking and, in its choice of works for exhibition, revealing about the state of new media arts in the region and the curatorial impulse for the event. The exhibitions were spread around the island state of Singapore, making for a sense of inclusion and integrating educational institutions and their galleries into the new media arts picture. Many Singaporeans told me that MAAP's main exhibition, GRAVITY, had played an important role in introducing the Singapore Art Museum to the installation of new media work and achieving it at a high standard. The regional reach of MAAP04 included China, Thailand, Myanmar, Philippines, Korea, Japan and Australia. The presence of Hong Kong's impressive Asia Art Archive with librarian Angela Seng in-residence at Singapore's contemporary artspace, The Substation (see “Archiving history face to face”), indicated a commitment to documenting contemporary art as it happens right across Asia, and including Australian engagements with Asian culture. The new media art in MAAP comprised video, installation, CD-ROM, sound art and a small number of interactive works, accompanied by a conference, a symposium, a party (with video creations by local artists and a live link to QUT) and a end-of-event twilight cruise on a junk on Singapore harbour, lo-tech but high bonding. What became clear across the week were the many different meanings that new media has for artists, curators, educators and activists. For some it is a socio-political tool for change, if a problematic one because it is relatively expensive and inaccessible in parts of Asia. For these people it is just one tool among others. As Fatima Lasay from Manila, who has been teaching CD-ROM and web design in Myanmar, argues, you make art from the technology that is available (see” The body between: an interview/review”). Some artists see themselves as conduits: using new media to allow the public to express themselves (see “Every available space”). Yukiko Shikata's inspiring account of works shown in Japan suggested the possibility of co-developing personal artistic endeavour and sizeable public works. A problematic issue, as Gail Priest argues in “Conceptual leaps”, is the way in which new media art can sometimes be reduced to a category of the visual arts. In a discussion with the RealTime editors, MAAP director Kim Machan eloquently declared that the art-science field, bio-art and other wings of new media had staked their claims and secured their niches but that new media art needed to claim its rightful position in the history of art and in the gallery. It's not surprising then that Yves Klein is the spiritual mentor of MAAP 2004. The desire to anchor new media art to an artist, a movement, a tradition (whether in the histories of technology, art, film, literature, media) escalates by the year with multitudinous prefigurings. These serve the academy well and make investment in new media art more institutionally justifiable. What they have to say about the art is another matter. Given the uneven and early stages of development of new media arts across much of the region, it is not surprising that there are few people writing about it, and those who do tend to come from a visual arts background. These include Ho Tzu Nyen and Michael Lee Hong Hwee (“The Inevitable Body”) whom we welcome to our pages for our MAAP coverage, while writers from Manila and Bangkok will be found in future editions. There's a willingness to write about video, but not new media art. Beyond a small group of committed writers the situation is not that much better in Australia, hence the RealTime-BEAP New Media Arts Writing Workshop last September. A comparison of MAAP with BEAP (Biennial of Electronic Arts Perth) is inevitable, especially given these are the 2 key Australian new media arts event alongside ACMI's ongoing program, Electrofringe, SOOB (Straight Out of Brisbane) and events presented by dLux media arts and ANAT. BEAP, with its UK and American connections, its core support from the university sector and its explorations in 2004 of the frontiers of bio-art, distribution, perception and interactivity make it substantially different from MAAP with its expanding Asia Pacific network, its promotion of work by Asian and Australia artists and its visual arts rationale. There is of course an overlap of interests (including the socio-political), of artists and exhibiting issues (BEAP04 involved some 7 gallery spaces), not to mention a shared sense of experiment and exploration. Both festivals excel at the collaborative and incorporative model, drawing in participation and support from diverse sources. Both are international in scope and offer Australian artists (though few figured in either event in 2004) opportunities to link to networks and to promote their works in new markets. Congratulations to the mercurial and indefatigable MAAP director Kim Machan, her tiny team and her generous and very able young Singaporean volunteers for a memorable event. Thanks too to the New Media Arts Board of the Australia Council for making possible our trip to Singapore, it certainly has expanded RealTime's horizons enabling us to reach a wider audience and initiate what we hope will be a long-term exchange of writing and ideas. KG

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg.

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

RealTime-BEAP Writers Workshop

RealTime’s 9-day gruelling-but-fun intensive workshop for 10 writers at BEAP 2004 yielded some 50 responses to new media artworks, exhibitions and conferences. A small sample of the writing and a glimpse of the epic event can be found in the centre pages of this edition, while the whole of the workshop’s output and a bigger picture of BEAP can be read at www.realtimearts.net/features/beap.

RealTime International

We’ve not trumpeted it but over the years RealTime has run a steady stream of reports on overseas arts events and significant artists. The writers are usually Australian artists or scholars travelling or in-residence and inspired by the work they’ve seen. In this edition we’re expanding our coverage of innovative art with reports from New Zealand, Singapore, Japan, the Baltics (ISEA), the UK and Germany. Our German coverage includes an interview with composer Heiner Goebbels about his latest work, a review of Australian theatre director Benedict Andrew’s debut at Berlin’s Schaubühne and a report on Dresden’s Level 7 gallery, focal point for new work and critical discussion in central Europe. Belgian composer Erich Sleichim talks about his experimental music theatre work on Antonin Artaud for the Melbourne International Arts Festival. We also look forward to MAAP (Multimedia Arts Asia-Pacific) in Singapore where a RealTime team will respond to the exhibitions and conferences online from October 25.


There are more artists to be congratulated than we have space for, but here’s a shortlist. Belated congratulations to Michael Kantor on his appointment as Artistic Director of Playbox: great news for Australian theatre. Kate Murphy (RT 61, p37) was awarded the $40,000, 2004 NSW Ministry for the Arts Helen Lempriere Travelling Art Scholarship for her video work Britney and her proposal to study at the Glasgow School of Art. Multimedia artist Justine Cooper has been granted a 2-year fellowship by the New Media Arts Board of the Australia Council. Independent dancer and choreographer Kay Armstrong (RT 61, p48) has been awarded the 2004 NSW Ministry of the Arts’ Robert Helpman Dance Scholarship which will take her to the UK to work with choreographer Jonathan Burrows and Ruth Zapporrah in Italy. Australian avant garde composer, violinist and writer Jon Rose has been awarded the prestigious $AUS20,000 Karl Sczuka Prize for radio arts for Skeleton in the Museum, a homage to Percy Grainger (broadcast on ABC FM’s The Listening Room before its demise). Marshall Mcguire, virtuoso harpist and new artistic director of Sydney’s contemporary music ensemble, the Seymour Group, has been awarded a well-earned Churchill Fellowship.

Congratulations too to former RealTime Assistant Editor and novelist Mireille Juchau and her partner, screenwriter Blake Ayshford, on the birth of the lovely Evie Inès who made a welcome appearance at the recent launch by Ross Gibson of Michelle Moo’s wonderful, experimental novel about 70s sharpies, Glory This (Local Consumption). RT

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 3

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

Adam Broinowski, Vivisection vision

Adam Broinowski, Vivisection vision

Adam Broinowski, Vivisection vision

As I sit at my laptop, a DVD by Dumb Type composer Ryoji Ikeda purchased in a Tokyo department store plays on another computer nearby, blinking out an austere visual language of precisely located, oscillating blue/white lines and planes, echoed by the sound of Ikeda’s clearly separated, high-pitched tones. It seems strangely ghostly, intangible, abstract and distant; cool yet powerful—like my memory of Japan. A sudden flash of digital readouts in the DVD recalls an LED installation of ones and zeroes which I saw within the awesome, grandly abstract space of the Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo, but much else of my recollection seems difficult to locate. I pour a coffee to break the monotony, and am reminded of the dearth of decent coffee in Japan. I converted to the cold green tea one finds in the omnipresent vending machines, gulping it down during intervals in various theatre foyers to cope with the unseasonably hot July weather.

No wonder I’m starting to get a headache every time I write about Japan. There are so many cliches about the nation. Japan as radically different from the West for instance—and yet it is so imbued with a long tradition of Western arts that one of the major translators of Shakespeare’s complete works, Professor Shoyo Tsubouchi, has become a figure of some veneration within Waseda University’s excellent theatre history museum (the lovely facade of which is a copy of Britain’s Elizabethan Fortune Theatre).

Outsiders are told that Japan is a land of paradoxes, as commentators contrast quiet temples nestled in Kyoto’s hills with the bustling, highly industrialised zones of cities like Osaka. But is this antithesis really any more distinctively Japanese than that between a nunnery in country Victoria and Melbourne’s main shopping drag the day before Christmas? The really significant contrasts of Japan are not to be found in these banal truisms, but rather in the cultural significance attached to such motifs.

From the inside out

In discussions with dance makers in Kyoto and Osaka (Kansai), as well as Tokyo, I found artists were especially keen to connect a model of Japanese contemporary performance and its forms—especially Butoh dance—to the concept of ‘spirit.’ As a central organising choreographic principle, spirit is scarcely unique to Japan, but while in Euro-American culture such inner values tend to be associated with either classic Expressionist choreography or such post-war ecstatic traditions as the Living Theatre, in Japan this idea of dancing from a profound psycho-emotional core outwards seems common to a wide variety of aesthetic modes, ranging from Noh to contemporary dance.

Butoh mutations

When Min Tanaka was in Melbourne in 2001, he told me that there is no clear definition of Butoh, and so the field was open for anyone to do whatever they liked and label it ‘Butoh.’ The members of Hanaarashi, for example, a Kansai (Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe)-based female trio, describe their interpretation as being “about the adventure of the body and the fun of the body” rather than the “darkness” (Ankoku Butoh), which earlier groups like the Kyoto-based Byakko-sha had focussed upon. This is despite the fact that Hanaarashi’s work lacks most of the readily recognisable external features which would mark it as Butoh.

Similar ideas about spirit are espoused outside of Butoh as well. Shigemi Kitamura, for example, is an independent who choreographs for the relaxed, largely comic female ensemble Ca.Ballet. She too stressed that, for her, the actual movement vocabulary is a secondary concern compared to the playful, embodied emotional impulses which underlie both her aesthetic and that of Ca.Ballet.

Moreover, Naoto Moriyama of the Kyoto University of Art and Design reminded me that Japanese theatre and dance has recently experienced a “waning of the dictators”, in which the charismatic absolutists of the 1960s through to the 1980s (Tadashi Suzuki, Tatsumi Hijikata, Akaji Maro etc) have been succeeded by younger artists working within more diffuse ensembles. This has also opened up a greater space for independent female artists who are moving beyond what Hanaarashi’s Chikako Bando describes as Hijikata’s “shamanistic role for women.” For both Bando and Kitamura, this involves treating the body as an eccentric toy, producing in Kitamura’s case a mixture of bouncy, referential games and warm, geometric forms, versus Bando’s varied, somewhat improvised pallet of actorly pedestrianism and long, held moments.

Even so, ‘classic’ Butoh choreography has not disappeared. I saw a great solo by ex-Dai Rakuda Kan member Makiko Kamata which was very much in the style of her old company. All of the trademark signatures were present: various degrees of nakedness, white rice flour makeup, matted hair and wigs, fetishistic play with shoes, moments of daft humour (such as the finale where she upturned a bucket of water over her head and wore it), and suspended pseudo-religiosity. Perhaps most ironically, given Hijikata’s claim that Butoh was adapted for the supposedly squat Japanese body, this ‘classical’ Butoh performer was one of the most statuesque, tall dancers I saw in Japan, contrasting markedly with the short, wonderfully gamin and highly varied members of Ca.Ballet and Hanaarashi.

Kamata and Ca.Ballet performed at DanceBox in Osaka, an institution which acts as something of a centre around which Kansai arts revolves. Though the venue itself is another of the small, black box studios which act as the primary sites for much new performance in Japan, the organisation nevertheless regularly houses Australian guest artists like Phillip Adams, Kate Denborough and Kristine Nilsen Oma, as well as hosting the Asia Contemporary Dance Festival. Set in a shopping centre-cum-theme park, DanceBox is a model of metropolitan Japanese cool, with a tasteful bar at the front and a New York loft-style concrete space upstairs which houses local and international jazz and noise art. I saw US processed guitar guru Elliott Sharp improvising with a number of Kansai jazz musicians, including Yoshikazu Isaki, who stood up and grooved while he was drumming, nodding his head knowingly as if responding to some inner voice.

Other Japan

During Japan’s ‘bubble economy’ boom of the 1980s, Westerners speculated that Osaka represented the future of the world, and parts of Blade Runner were filmed there. Today however, Japan’s cities are visibly marked by the more banal failures of contemporary global capitalism rather than epitomising some kind of utopian (or Gothically dystopian) future. Around the corner from DanceBox one finds the spreading ghettoes of shacks and makeshift tents which crowd the quieter corners of many Japanese public spaces, like parks, riverbanks and railway lines. Here poor rural migrants, unable to find employment upon arrival, settle in the cities, creatively erecting dwellings sewn together from blue plastic sheeting, timber, umbrellas, old electrical equipment and other discarded items. While the polarisation of class and social space within Japan has its own particular national character, this proximity of impoverished homelessness to urban renewal is the same the world over.

For a nation known for its permeable architectural styles (thin screens which slide so as to open the interior to the exterior), there can be a strange sense of separation in which the almost hermetic interiors of both Japan’s tiny subterranean contemporary venues and its larger, monumental state institutions (such as the aptly named Bunka Arts Centre, Shinjuku), contrast with the vivacious social life of the streets and parks. In Hiroshima, I saw an amateur jazz ensemble lug mini-amplifiers and a full drum kit to the riverbank to rehearse in the languid, humid breeze.

Adam Broinowski

It was therefore a pleasant change to find within the work of Australian expatriate and Gekidan Kaitaisha member Adam Broinowski an element of street life. Vivisection Vision concluded with the near-naked, sweat-drenched Broinowski bashing on a tin can with a hammer, recalling those homeless who survive by recycling metal, as well as the street-front workshops of urban Japan. Following Gekidan Kaitaisha’s prevailing aesthetic, Broinowski crafted his solo from a dense weft of such socio-political resonances. In one particularly striking phrase, the artist stretched from his teeth a white plastic bag of water, which shuddered and crawled like an animal, a sequence he justified by noting that his own, equally out-of-place body is nothing more than a white bag of fluid. In the end though, Broinowski’s performance was the most profoundly spiritual piece I saw in Japan. The self flagellation, the striking of blows, the open-eyed collapses and the near orgiastic, back-arched poses, most resembling an ecstatic, almost religious transcendence made manifest both through, and in spite of, the focused performing body.

Street art

Perhaps therefore my dim, ghostly and indiscriminate recollections of Japan are best encapsulated in my encounter with a topless street performer beside Tokyo’s Shinjuku station. Dressed in shredded black pants and a g-string, with red and black makeup similar to that of a Kabuki demon, he leapt, rolled, thrust and jived like a man possessed, while behind him another man clattered a large cubic tin, a near-dead wok and a crushed aluminium tray. This was real guerilla noise art, much more striking than the somewhat pointless recreation of John Cage’s works which I attended at the Kyoto University of Art and Design’s Sangan Space. There are obvious flaws in the Kill Bill-model of Japanese cultural identity, in which Japan is seen as a hyper-fluid admixture of paradoxically contrasting cultural elements: samurai/punk, temple/city, geisha/genki, Zen restraint/manga excess. This way of viewing Japan nevertheless allows one to deconstruct and fragment many essentialist cliches about its national culture. Whatever spirit possessed this public performance artist, it was neither that of an ancient, inscrutable Japan, nor of the hyper-modern, coolly cynical poppy amalgam one finds in the cinema of Quentin Tarantino or Beat Takeshi. Japan is all of these things, and more—or less.

Hanaarashi, Hakoonna, director/performer Chikako Bando; Art Complex 1928, Kyoto, July 22-25; Ca.Ballet, choreographer Shigemi Kitamura; Art Theatre dB, Osaka, July 2-4; Makiko Kamata, part of Dance Independent, Art Theatre dB, Osaka, July 20-21; Elliott Sharp, Yoshikazu Isaki, Keizo Nobori, Yashuhiru Usui; The Bridge, DanceBox, Osaka, July 4; Adam Broinowski, Vivisection Vision; Gekidan Kaitaisha Canvas Studio, Tokyo, July 16-18

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 4-5

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

et al., serial_reform_713L (2003), installation view Govett-Brewster Art gallery, New Plymouth

et al., serial_reform_713L (2003), installation view Govett-Brewster Art gallery, New Plymouth

et al., serial_reform_713L (2003), installation view Govett-Brewster Art gallery, New Plymouth

Prime Ministers in Australia and New Zealand rarely have anything to say about the work of artists. Likewise parliamentary debate hardly ever focuses on contemporary art, let alone individual practices. The memorable exceptions to the rule are the furore surrounding the acquisition of Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles (1952) by the National Gallery of Australia in 1973, the purchase of David Hockney’s A Bigger Grand Canyon (1998) by the NGA in 1999, and the gift of Colin McCahon’s Victory Over Death II (1970) to the same institution by the New Zealand Government in 1978. The latter example sparked debate on both sides of the Tasman about McCahon and his work.

Recently, the selection of the artist collective et al. to represent New Zealand at its national pavilion at the 2005 Venice Biennale provoked a parliamentary and media debate. Despite the rule of “arm’s length funding governance” (common to Creative New Zealand and the Australia Council), in her joint role as Prime Minister of New Zealand and Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage, Helen Clark publicly criticised the selection.

Like Australia, New Zealand is in an election build-up, so any topic can quickly become controversial. And for a murky set of reasons et al. were made over as public enemy number one by a range of competing parties in politics and the media. The collective’s chief offence seemed to be that Joe journalist and Joe parliamentarian just didn’t get it. Clark, who claimed the arts portfolio on the strength of her love of opera and orchestral music even bowdlerised Ad Reinhardt’s ironical ruby: “I don’t know much about art, but I know I don’t like installation.”

Reading between the lines, what united the antagonists was a belief that any artist going to Venice needed to take on an ambassadorial role for the country’s art and to some extent, the nation. By extension the work in question should possess a healthy and identifiable degree of “representative-ness.” Yet et al. refuse interviews and make conceptual, not representational work. Herein lay the problem.

Et al. is a group of some 25 artists including minerva betts, lionel b., marlene cubewell, merit gröting and p mule. Best known to Australian audiences is contributing artist L budd, who presented work at the Bond Store in The readymade boomerang 1990 Biennale of Sydney. That exhibition concentrated on avant-garde movements and makers, with the focus on Dada and Fluxus providing a rich association for et al.’s practice and their emphasis on group production, installation and performativity. The catalogue entry was illustrated by a diagram that formed a target around a cluster of artists’ names. At the bullseye were listed: Tretchikoff, Norman Rockwell and Andrew Wyeth. This page work, which listed, among others, Pro Hart, was a catalogue of kitsch, eliding L budd’s antecedents and producing dummies, not doppelgangers. And the accompanying essay was an extended textual elision, a poem not prose essay containing every bad-faith idea about art that could be crammed onto a catalogue page. We were none the wiser.

This tendency has continued in the 15 years since that Biennale. In 2003 the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery worked with the artists to present the major exhibition et al. abnormal mass delusions?, encapsulating 20 years of work. Rather than take the form of a survey show—that would be too easy—the artists gathered materials from collections, studios and stockrooms around the world to make an environmental installation encompassing the work and re-editing it in new and exciting ways.

To start with the entire museum was painted “budd grey”, a harsh institutional colour prepared especially for the collective, that hovers somewhere between battleship grey and what we might imagine the world of Kafka’s autocrats looks like. (A false floor was laid, and painted, so that the visual effect was totalising.) Restricted access was the first installation encountered when entering the museum. A hurricane fence marked off the gallery in which it was installed from the viewer, and objects were heaped in piles to form a gestalt: there was no easy way of individuating works. The dominating objects were a building site porta-loo, a suitcase turntable playing a symphony and a set of antique speakers blaring a braying donkey (the call sign of the artist p mule). It was disconcerting for viewers to say the least.

The heaping of works in Restricted access was a hegemonic disavowal reflective of the way the collective resists singular identification. As such, it was a perfect introduction to the world of et al. The collective’s work spread, virus like, throughout the building in a concatenation of wires, obsolete audio-visual machinery, computers, scrawled text, furniture, books and aural bombardment.

The exhibition culminated in the new work serial_reform 713L (2003), a chamber filled with rickety institutional office furniture, angry green glowing PCs, a projection of scrolling digits (part random maths, part master code) and panels emblazoned with psycho-babble. With wires trailing across the floor and the harshest and loudest soundtrack within the building, the work emanated a malignant aura. Its referent was the outer limits of Soviet psychiatry and mind control experiments: the stuff that fuelled McCarthy-ite paranoia and films like The Manchurian Candidate (1962). Its subject was (probably) the continuing drift of the telecommunications, computer and media industries, not to mention government, towards mass duping.

Judging from the outcry from politicians and journalists mentioned at the commencement of this article, the tough aesthetic and honed critique touched a nerve. The will towards reiteration and editing has continued since abnormal mass delusions?. The porta-loo had new life breathed into it as Rapture at the Wellington City Gallery in May-August 2004. This time it was a self-contained installation, the major element of which was a massive and subterranean rumbling soundtrack that made the loo and the gallery shake to the core. There was also a small effigy of a mule and a projection of a computer plotting a sine or sound wave. The soundtrack comprised underwater recordings of the 6 under-ground nuclear explosions conducted by the French government in 1996.

Rapture is a cogent reminder of a disaster waiting to happen on our doorstep, and the evil of military technology at a time when threat and fear have been banished to the Middle East. Venice will hopefully provide et al. with another rich vein of architecture and history to tap into, and an opportunity to reconceptualise their shifting practice in even more remarkable and unremitting ways.

et al., the fundamental practice, New Zealand Pavilion, Venice Biennale, Italy; June-Oct 2005

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 6

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

Heiner Goebbels' Eraritjaritjaka

Heiner Goebbels’ Eraritjaritjaka

Heiner Goebbels’ Eraritjaritjaka

German composer and theatre director Heiner Goebbels is always good for a surprise. The first in his latest production, Eraritjaritjaka—Museum of Phrases, is the title. The piece premiered at Théâtre Vidy-Lausanne in April and is based on texts by Elias Canetti, the Bulgarian-born German novelist, essayist, sociologist and winner of the 1981 Nobel Prize for Literature. Eraritjaritjaka is an Indigenous Australian word from the Arunta language, defined by Canetti in The Agony of Flies (1992) as meaning “full of desire for something that has been lost.” Goebbels is clearly pleased with the title’s linguistic challenge: “I like to have a curious audience, not one who knows what to expect. With this title I can be sure of that, and as a nice side effect the audience can make a little musical rhythmical experience by learning to pronounce it.”

Once mastered, Eraritjaritjaka flows off the tongue with the complexity and lightness characteristic of Goebbels’ theatrical landscapes. As with the equally tongue-twisting Hashirigaki, which dazzled Sydney Festival audiences earlier this year, Goebbels delivers a riveting collage of text, music, sound, light and image by gathering what appear to be disparate elements and placing them side by side in a theatrical context: “I try to construct theatre using musical criteria. I hold myself back and respectfully allow the individual parts I use to keep their own identity and to develop.”

Eraritjaritjaka incorporates text from Crowds and Power (1960), Auto-da-fé (1935) and the many notebooks recorded during Canetti’s lifetime. Goebbels first encountered Crowds and Power while studying sociology in the 1970s. “Canetti’s political sense for balances and against hierarchies not only meets with mine”, says Goebbels “but also with my interest in avoiding these structures in the use of the medias of theatre.” However, it was only recently, at the suggestion of a colleague, he picked up the notebooks. “After a few words I knew immediately that here was something for me to work on, but also”, he laughs, “as usual, it took me 6 years to do so.” His favourite of the notebooks is The Human Province (1942-1975) for “its dense combination of perspectives on politics and privacy. It’s short, bitter and full of humour at the same time.”

Goebbels was attracted to the way Canetti uses words: “He observes the structure and architecture of language as much as he does the society as a whole. The language is reduced, not a word too much and he hates adjectives.” However, it was Canetti’s thoughts on the relationship between music and language that really made an impact: “The way he described the relationship between words and music was like a description of something I had been experimenting with already in my work…Most importantly, he leaves space between the words, which can be useful for music, to make the structure of the sentences transparent and powerful at the same time.”

Eraritjaritjaka features the music of 20th century composers Shostakovich, Mossolov, Scelsi, Oswald, Lobanov, Bryars and Crumb performed by Amsterdam’s Mondriaan String Quartet. “The decision to incorporate a string quartet was about the character of the music, which I considered to be on a metaphorical level comparable to Canetti’s texts”, says Goebbels. However, perhaps in keeping with the nostalgic mood of the title, Eraritjaritjaka ends with the only non-20th century piece to be included, Bach’s The Art of Fugue.

Also on stage is the extraordinary French actor André Wilms, who delivers Canetti’s broad ranging speculations on human behaviour, the nature of power, privacy, language, history, music and animals, savouring the words while never drawing attention away from their impact. “He is a superb actor” Goebbels enthuses, “with a great intelligent taste and huge musical abilities, without being a musician himself.” This is their third collaboration following Or the hapless landing (1993) and Max Black (1998), both also based on notes and notebooks. “We are very confident with each other… which is the most important condition to create something, when we both don’t know much about it in advance.”

Eraritjaritjaka begins with a string quartet, a bare stage, and Shostakovich’s moody quartet # 8. As the last note resounds, a white strip of light cuts the stage in half. The reverberating sound is stretched and amplified into scraping and tearing, while the light peels back the black floor, replacing it with a crisp white square. A blank page? A mirror? A suited man enters. He contemplates the nature of words and music, his gestures and movements part of the music, the music part of his thoughts and utterances.

Goebbels has worked with long term collaborators Klaus Grünberg (set and lights), Willi Bopp (sound) and Florence von Gerkan (costumes). The stage is initially an exquisite but recognisable landscape of clean geometry, black and white contrasts and arresting lighting. However, the overall effect of Eraritjaritjaka is one of peeling back layers, and it is at the halfway point that Goebbels delivers his major surprise. The actor puts on his hat and coat, steps from the stage and leaves the theatre. A cameraman follows. Suddenly we see projected, on the façade of the house that fills the stage, the actor crossing the theatre foyer and riding in a cab through the streets of Lausanne, all the while observing the world around him and listing possibilities for an imagined reality: “A society where people laugh instead of eating. A society in which people suddenly vanish, but no one knows they are dead, there is no death, there is no word for it, but they are content with that” (Elias Canetti, The Human Province).

Finally he stops to buy a newspaper and walks to a nearby apartment. When he steps inside, we are transported into the cluttered, private world of Canetti’s Auto-da-fé protagonist, sinology expert Professor Peter Stein, a character who can communicate in ancient languages but has difficulty with contemporary interactions. We see him alone with his private thoughts and tasks, haunted by unseen voices. We see him tear off the day’s date from a wall calendar, peruse his mail, prepare an omelet and listen to the evening news while folding his laundry. From the reality of the stage we have been transported into a film and our sense of reality has been disturbed. This is heightened, when in a remarkable moment, the string quartet is suddenly there in the apartment, playing Ravel, among the professor’s library.

Goebbels never forgets the logic of the stage and in incorporating the use of live video, he weaves the 2 realities of stage and film so that the mediums support and enhance one another. “I was very clear in advance that the use of video had to be a structural decision, which paid attention to the laws and priorities of the medium itself”, he explains. Shot by award winning Belgian film maker Bruno Deville, Goebbels sees the purpose of the live video as “providing 2 perspectives which are difficult to show in the theatre: the reality of the outside world on one hand and a very intimate, isolated private perspective on the other. We cannot pretend to be able to reconstruct something like these on a stage. We reach the limits of representative theatre when we try to achieve that.”

Early critical response to Eraritjaritjaka has been positive, describing it as “genius”, “where nothing is predictable but nevertheless, all entirely convincing.” Recently awarded the Herald Angel Award at the Edinburgh International Festival, the piece has tour dates until late 2005 and will appear next in Berlin, Zurich and The Hague in November. Audience response in particular has pleased Goebbels: “I didn’t know how our construction of the piece would work: the serious beginning, the 20th century string quartet music, the high importance of the live video and the absence of the main character in the second part. But it seems that especially the second part seems to draw audience attention more than I dared to hope. It’s nice to be able to surprise an audience.”

The Mondriaan Quartet, Eraritjaritjaka—Museum of Phrases, created by Heiner Goebbels with André Wilms; Théâtre Vidy-Lausanne, Switzerland; April 20

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 8

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

7th Floor building, Dresden, Germany

7th Floor building, Dresden, Germany

Pirnaischer Platz, an asphalt covered transportscape at the centre of what was once the Baroque city of Dresden, is not exactly the sort of place where a traveller would expect to find solace. Highways intersect around pedestrian islands accessible to each other only via subterranean tunnels. Slowly crumbling Baroque and Communist-era palaces stare down blindly on commuters below, their windows broken. The commuters are waiting despondently for public transport, their bodies puffed out to implausible dimensions by the multiple layers of clothing needed to protect them from the frigid, moist air. They avoid eye contact with each other in a way that evokes the anonymity of cities with much bigger populations than Dresden’s mere half million.

Nor is Dresden the sort of place that one would expect to feature in discussions of the Utopian. In so far as Utopia means “no-place”, Dresden is already Utopia. The city is deep enough in the former German Democratic Republic to feel uneasy with the West, unsettled about its past, insecure about its future. Almost bombed out of existence by the British, occupied by the Soviets, Dresden was not a hotbed of discussion and revolt before the fall of the Berlin Wall. That status is more often accorded to Berlin and Leipzig. If a city, as Freud once observed, can have mental pathologies in the same way as an individual, then Dresden is insecure and depressed, aware that ever since the rise of Prussia, it is a city that has had things done to it rather than doing things itself. Perhaps only sharpening the sense of having fallen, Dresden is also a repository of European high art. The enormous collections of the Alte Meister and Neue Meister galleries would be considered significant by any European capital. These 2 poles, defeatism and conservatism, make one very small movement in Dresden all the more extraordinary.

Standing over Pirnaischer Platz is a single dominant structure. The building is astonishing. An aggressively ugly piece of Stalinist architecture, managing to be both shabby and authoritarian at the same time, its ludicrous stern pebblecrete columns in classical proportions arrayed around a squat tower. Attached to the columns are iron hoops, rusted shut. They used to support flagpoles, dozens of them. In its previous incarnation, the building was a neanderthal bearer of bunting. It gives the impression of being wet and cold even in bright sunlight. Now, at about 8 o’clock in the evening, it seems almost camply sinister.

Our destination is at the top of this building, in the rooms behind the columns. It is here that one of the most interesting ongoing conversations among contemporary artists in Germany is being developed, extended and sometimes mocked. A jour fix is taking place, a regular meeting of artists, theorists, filmmakers and students. Every Friday at about this time people file into the foyer of the tower and ride the elevator up. The lift looks infernal. Either the sprinkler system has been disengaged, or it was never installed, because the air in the elevator compartment is blue with cigarette smoke. The 7th Floor is the only level occupied. In the main room, between 30 and 60 guests sit around a central table, on benches or chairs improvised from various objects. The way in which the furniture has been arranged and the rooms have been left undecorated emphasises the sense that this building has been squatted, and that its rooms are somehow being used without their consent. One half expects to see a picture of Erich Honecker’s disapproving visage on the wall, but he’s been taken down to make space for a video beamer.

There is an artful sense of spontaneity in the decorations here, an attempt to maintain the feeling of always being at a beginning. Nothing is established, nothing is traditional, there are no rituals or codes that cannot be said within a few seconds: everyone gathers around the Stammtisch, the table; someone speaks for an hour; everyone stays and gets drunk. The bar is made of a couple of planks of wood resting on a fridge and some empty beer crates. You have to pay, but beer is sold at one euro a bottle, little more than what it costs in the supermarket. Your opinion is as good as anyone else’s, but a well constructed argument will get more attention, and a new idea raised in the presentation will spark conversations that spin off and propagate themselves for hours.

The concept is unprepossessing, but the 7th Floor has managed to attract speakers and presenters from across the German speaking world, from Hamburg to Zurich and Cologne to Vienna. On the May 14, the Austrian architect Hannes Böck showed his video studies of postwar West German buildings. The videos comprised static shots, painterly composed, with the ambient sound included with the film. Very little happens. A bird sings, a pedestrian walks by, and a cloud scuds over the building, casting its facade in shadow for a few seconds. Böck’s idea is that film left to run captures the aura of a building far more effectively than a single photograph could. The aura is what he most wants to measure. The buildings he films have all been designed by Nazi architects, whose services were desperately needed in reconstructing postwar Germany. Their structures have a heavy authoritarianism about them that cannot be described by discussing their formal properties alone. Hence the need for film, the need to capture how monolithic the structures are in shifting light, and how they dwarf movements of humans, transforming walking into a sort of insectile scuttle. The films could have been seen as a sort of plein airpainting, as micro remakes of Andy Warhol’s film Empire, as architecture documentation, history, or even a form of sociological research. There is no reason to make a choice between these descriptions.

On the 6th of February, the Berlin artist Beatrice Jugert presented attendees with documentation of her rituals of political ceremony. Unlike Böck’s video installation, her event was compellingly interactive, complete with flag raising ceremonies and the singing of fanciful hymns. Beatrice Jugert has been actively investigating conceptions of Utopia in her art since the year 2000, and as part of her project created seven seperate nations and attempted to import them into reality, opening embassies, issuing visas, creating social rituals to allow the citizens of her fictive nations to identify with their new “mother country” or “father land”.

It is also noteworthy, considering the absence of funding for flights or hotels, that there has been a steady stream of international guests. Professor Mary Jo Bole from Columbus, Ohio, presented her sculptural work there on the 30th. The Estonian collective Mooste Külalis Stuudio arrived on the 10th to discuss exactly what it is to be a local art movement in a global world.

And why do you care? Why are you here, when you could be at opening number 4 zillion in Berlin, or at the Kunsthaus in Zurich, or anywhere with decent catering and an identifiable cloakroom? What the 7th Floor offers is the glimpse of a movement in its genesis. It barely matters if it wilts: it could give rise to a new Documenta, a new Fluxus, a new vocabulary in international contemporary art. It may well do so—all the prerequisites are here, including an indifference to failure. Or the 7th Floor could disappear without a trace. In the end, it doesn’t matter. What is significant is that the 7th Floor presents a non-institutional forum for art, a space without the imprimatur of an institution, sponsor or guardian. The core group behind the events consists of graduates and students of the Dresden Academy of Fine Art, Hochschule für Bildende Künste Dresden (HfBK). Their project is delegitimated art, the bastard child of state funded institutions that turn out generations of engaged, critical artists who cannot anticipate any support from the institutions and corporations who define the royal road. The 7th Floor is a statement of autonomy, the right to continue assembling, developing and extending ideas without permission or support, but also without ideological rigidity. The movement undermines the existing institutional order of art, not by denouncing it, but by ignoring it.

But if you want that cloakroom, the building that best embodies that institutional order is less than a kilometre away. The Oktogon, with its glass cupola graced by a golden angel, is the official gallery of the HfBK. Exhibitions here are opened by state ministers, and visited by the chief executives from the local AMD microchip factory, from the Volkswagen plant and from Philip Morris—all of them significant sponsors and collectors. No one ever pays for their drinks at an Oktogon opening; they are always brought, in the internationally recognised manner, by a liveried servant. There’s nothing to fear in being seen there, no rancour or enmity to be suffered from the artist run initiative up the road. Beatrice Jugert, for example, gave her presentation on Utopianism at the 7th Floor even as she prepared her exhibition, sponsored by Philip Morris, at the Oktogon down the road. It’s more an attitude of gentle condescension, a sense that the honoured guests at the Oktogon don’t, well, understand very much. A clever artist tells Philip Morris what they want to hear, but she tells her friends the truth. Speaking the truth to those in power is not always the best idea.

For those travelling through Germany, the 7th Floor publishes its program on the web (www.stock7.de), and welcomes potential contributors. Knowledge of German might make reading the website easier, but is not a prerequisite for contributing, and certainly not one for attending. Rudimentary accommodation is routinely offered to contributors. The organisers can be contacted at: post@stock7.de.

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 9

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

Muziektheater Transparant, Men in Tribulation

Muziektheater Transparant, Men in Tribulation

Muziektheater Transparant, Men in Tribulation

In its enquiring and provocative 2004 program the Melbourne International Festival of the Arts (MIAF) focuses on voice in performance. The apotheosis of this exploration is most likely embodied in Men in Tribulation—A Story of Artaud. Not only does the audience enter the mind of the defeated genius in his last hour (the work’s duration) but Men in Tribulation can lay claim to the realisation of an Artaud dream, a theatre of the voice, of sonic experimentation, with all the ‘cruel’ immediacy he dreamt of for the theatre. Composer and director of Men in Tribulation, Eric Sleichim, spoke to me by phone from Belgium about his creation for innovative opera and music theatre producers Muziektheater Transparant.

I asked Sleichim to what extent the audience enters the mind of Artaud in his production and what role sound and music play in it. Sleichim responded by describing most theatre as illusion, a place where music for example is not perceived directly, but as background, at a distance. For Sleichim, the audience entering the theatre must encounter a totally alien space—”they shouldn’t be able to recognise it, even if they know it.”

To this end the venue is filled with smoke (not recommended for claustrophobes or those with certain medical conditions, Sleichim says) with visibility of no more than 3 metres for the first 20 minutes of the show. “This is alienated space. Like Artaud you are locked up in an asylum; it feels very immediate, fragile and dangerous.” The audience moves about the space, “eyes and bodies adjusting, becoming aware that you are not alone. There are 200 others and you are beginning to feel acquainted with the space, finding the borders of the set, realising that the 5-sided space is theatrical [created by B-architecten, the innovative design studio of Evert Crols, Dirk Engelen and Sven Grooten]. But something strange and ritualistic is happening in the middle, people touching unrecognisable objects, which are in fact the parts of saxophones.” Sleichim is the founder-director of the innovative BL!NDMAN Saxophone Quartet (a name inspired by Marcel Duchamp ‘s 1917 publication expressing the Dadaist idea of a blind guide leading the public around an art exhibition) who perform as part of Men in Tribulation.

A key challenge for Sleichim has been how to deal with the musical instrument—he speaks of alienating, mutilating and manipulating the saxophone. “I have only added electronics in the last 3 or 4 years, but the sound still must come from the body of the instrument.” He sees this as, in part, paralleling Artaud’s desire to be rid of his body. However, the mutilated music of saxophone parts is juxtaposed with a counter tenor—the young Artaud—who sings only melodies.

In devising Men in Tribulation Sleichim drew on the 300 pages of Artaud’s letters to his psychiatrist about the Tarahumaras of Mexico. Sleichim says he’s been privileged to see ethnographic film of these people whom Artaud visited and whose peyote influenced, regenerative rituals had such a profound effect on his thinking. It is the sense of ritual, of the strangeness of objects and sounds, that Sleichim aims for in Men in Tribulation. The audience has to look hard to see; it has to listen, “discovering that all these sounds are created in real time from the parts of saxophones—nothing is sampled.” Very slowly, he says, the audience come to recognise distinct characters who might materialise right next to them and then disappear.

While working on artist/director Jan Fabre’s performance installation The Angel of Death, Sleichim discovered that Fabre had written a piece about Artaud 20 years ago and was keen write a new text. Fabre created a cycle of 7 “metamorphosen” which proved perfect, says Sleichim, for the obsessiveness and sense of ritual and danger that he was seeking.

True to Artaud, the figures in Men in Tribulation represent states of being, aspects of the visionary, projections rather than literal characters. There is an old Artaud (experimental vocalist Phil Minton) and a young Artaud (counter-tenor Hagen Matzeit). The BL!NDMAN Saxophone Quartet become shamans. Sleichim describes the great actress and singer Viviane De Muynck as “playing a Tarahumaras high priest, Artaud as theatre director, as the great actor he was and as opium addict, and Artaud’s mother.” The complexities of Artaud’s relationship with women, he says, is another conversation.

Sleichim describes the experience of the work as “a quite violent hour” shaped by Artaud’s great despair at the withdrawal of his radio work To Have Done with the Judgment of God from broadcast in 1947. He died 2 weeks later. Sleichim says that such is the intensity of the work To Have Done… he can never listen to the whole 40-minutes in one sitting.

I ask Sleichim if he thinks he has realised Artaud’s project. He thinks that some of his audience “arrive at Men in Tribulation with a wish”, their own vision of Artaud. A dramaturg said the show “didn’t meet her expectations of getting further into the literature of Artaud.” Sleichim had to retort that the writing in the production was Fabre’s, not Artaud’s. Fabre has created a text inspired by the visionary’s writing and set to music by the composer. For Sleichim, his own “big starting point” was the dynamic of, on the one hand, the mysterious messianic Artaud and, on the other, the day to day requests of man in an asylum for a warm shower once a week, a shave or some chocolate. But on the bigger issue of accomplishing something Artaud could only dream of, Sleichim says, “without any pretension, I think I have, a little. The actors are not playing characters but being them. It wasn’t until the 1950s that acting schools could understand this. In Men in Tribulation the audience are near the performers, they can smell the emotion. They are surrounded by the set, the action, the totality of the sound and light. Although you can stay in the middle or at a distance, and although you can get out (it’s a very loud work sometimes), you are never only looking.”

Erwin Jans has written that in his later years Artaud was looking for “a theatre of the voice, a theatre of the acoustic space. The theatre of cruelty contemplated by him at the time was a theatre of the word made flesh, the word returned to the voice, to the tongue and to the body. Words are brought back to corporeality and urges” (Holland Festival 2004 Program). Men in Tribulation might just be that theatre of word made flesh.

Muziektheater Transparant, Men in Tribulation, Oct 11-13, Melbourne International Festival of the Arts

On page 47, Tony MacGregor talks about his libretto for the opera Cosmonaut composed by David Chesworth, to be premiered at the 2004 Melbourne International Festival of the Arts.

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 10

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

Mark Waschke and Matthias Matschke, Cleansed

Mark Waschke and Matthias Matschke, Cleansed

Mark Waschke and Matthias Matschke, Cleansed

In the middle of a 3 storey high dark wall, a room appears, sealed off by a pane of glass. A man in a suit enters the room from a concealed door, puts a coin in a slot, and another room next to him lights up. This room is almost identical to the first; a glass cage. In this room, a girl dances in her underwear. In the background a mechanical timer can be heard winding down. The man addresses the girl through the slot. He wants her to sit down. He wants her to show her face. He wants to tell her something. She sits down, she shows her face, but barely does he utter a word before the room snaps to black and he is alone.

The movements of the girl in the peepshow are slow and awkward. She is not exactly beautiful, and the enclosure in which she dances is a bare concrete box. The scene is obscene without being erotic. It is desolate. Depressing.

Depression of the clinical sort is marked by a loss of cathexis in the life of the sufferer, a general withdrawal of interest from the activities and pursuits that had once been diverting, a state known in medical literature as anhedonia. Symptomatic of this darkening of the outside world is a change in language. The depressed speak an atrophied, desiccated language, with words drained of meaning and colour. It is rare to see these words written down, even rarer to see them performed in the theatre. A little artistic melancholy, yes, but clinical depression? What sort of texts can we expect from those who experience no pleasure, from those who have made the gargantuan effort of writing to us at all?

This is the central problem of UK playwright Sarah Kane’s theatre. Shock and brutality made her work famous, but it would be an equally brutal misreading to see her plays as updated Elizabethan bloodbaths. Her work orbits around a question that already has a pedigree: what to do with words when they have no meaning? The language of Sarah Kane’s characters is singularly undramatic. Their speech slows, stumbles and repeats itself, becomes plaintive, begs, wheedles and orders, but rarely jokes. The signature expression is the flat imperative (“Take off your clothes”) or the naked question (“Aren’t we friends?”). The atrophied language of the depressed is absolute and instrumental. It doesn’t play.

It is fidelity to this aspect of Kane’s work that provided the foundation for Benedict Andrews’ staging of Cleansed at the Schaubühne in Berlin. Cleansed is the third of Sarah Kane’s theatre pieces in what became a closed cycle with her suicide at age 28. In contrast to earlier German language productions by Martin Kucej in Stuttgart or Peter Zadek in Berlin, Andrews does everything to take attention away from the blood and gore of the piece, with its multiple amputations and castrations. Instead, he returns the attention of the viewer to the language, to its cold, reified persistence, with words dropped and left like stones upon the floor of the stage.

The play opens with a doctor, Tinker, cooking up heroin for his patient Graham. The dose, injected through the eye, is fatal. Although dead, Graham remains on stage: as corpse, as memory and as interlocutor. He is present without being gruesome. Graham’s sister, Grace, comes to Tinker’s clinic in search of her lost brother. Not finding him, she asks at the very least for his clothes, an act of commitment that results in her taking his place as the chief object of Tinker’s care.

Grace and Graham are not the only inhabitants of the clinic. Alongside them are 3 others: Rod and Carl are lovers, Robin is alone. They form no community. Each character is limited, as if by invisible interdict, to communicating either with the one they love or with Tinker. There is no solidarity amongst those in the sanatorium: they don’t so much refuse to identify with each other as appear completely unaware of each other’s existence. A state that renders them all the more alienated and vulnerable, desperately starved of love and cannibalising each other in search of it.

Grace’s fatal act of love for Graham is mirrored by others, such as the unconditional declaration of love by Carl for Rod. None of these demonstrations goes unpunished, and just as Grace will be sacrificed, Carl will have his tongue and limbs removed by the good Doctor.

Tinker is not so much a character as the force of the world that punishes us for excessive closeness. His acts of violence are carried out without perceivable pleasure. This is crucial to Andrews’ staging because violence itself is always a stimulant, and if overdone it would destroy the precise monotony of the performance. As a result, even the blood that flows during the performance is black.

Tinker is not really a character. At least, no more a character than the set itself—a field of blank concrete, a wall beyond which there is nothing to escape to. In the centre of the stage a circular therapeutic pool is set. It serves as both baptismal font and slaughterhouse drain.

Three storeys above the stage, above the wall, in a mechanical heaven, a giant sprinkler system generates a fine mist that drifts down into the pool below. The set becomes reminiscent of Olafur Eliasson’s weather project in the Tate. The skin of the performers glistens with moisture. The mist becomes outright rain, and as it pours down on the actors below it suggests, perhaps, a path of redemption.

If there is a moral it’s that no one can be saved, but we can be erased. The black fluid that drains from the pool and the slow disappearance of the characters, accompanied by a loss of words, a shrinking vocabulary, leaves an emptiness that is perhaps what it is to be cleansed. It isn’t enough to wash away the filth; the carrier of the filth must be removed as well. The skin, then the flesh and everything underneath.

Cleansed, writer Sarah Kane, director Benedict Andrews; performers Matthias Matschke, Lars Eidinger, Jule Böwe, Christina Geisse, Mark Waschke, Felix Römer; Schaubühne, Berlin; May 28-June 4

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 12

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

Suzanne Treister, Operation Swanlake, <BR />Institute of Militronics and Advanced Time Interventionality 2029″></p>
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Institute of Militronics and Advanced Time Interventionality 2029

I’ve just returned from Incubation 3, the writing and internet symposium where there was much discussion about the difference between fact, fiction and plain lies. In literature these terms are commonly negotiated, but the visual arts does not have such convenient classifications. When Art in America described the researches of Rosalind Brodsky and the Institute of Militronics and Advanced Time Interventionality (IMATI) as “one of the most sustained fantasy trips of contemporary art”, they failed to acknowledge the implicit reality checks and the engaging and often seductive nature of this long-running narrative.

Brodsky has been travelling through time and space for almost 10 years now. Her latest research outcome Operation Swanlake has been on show at London’s prestigious Annely Juda Fine Art gallery. It consists of video, computer prints, photographs and drawings, and reveals a string of previously unsuspected relationships between retirement homes in Florida, black holes, Soviet battleship design, opera and much, much more.

Operation Swanlake took place between 2028 and 29 and used the energy of a black hole located in the constellation Cygnus to develop audio frequencies capable of communicating with the universe. The frequencies were initially developed using recordings of swans that were recovered from specific historical locations and periods. These were broadcast from the sonic missile Swanlake, made in part from a decommissioned Soviet Kirov class missile cruiser. It was at the Kirov Theatre (which was then called the Mariinsky Theatre) in St Petersburg that Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake was first performed in 1895. A recovered recording of this performance, along with one of Wagner’s opera Lohengrin (The Swan Knight), were also utilised in the project. And so it goes…

By the end of the exhibition there’s a definite sense of overload together with a profound admiration for the research and synchronicity that enabled so many disparate strands to be woven together into a single theme. I’m reminded of Kurt Schwitters’ remark: “I am the meaning of the coincidence!”

It would be easy to consider Brodsky’s researches an entertaining fiction. Brodsky herself is the creation of Berlin and London-based artist Suzanne Treister. However, to my mind there seems little difference between Operation Swanlake and the episodes of James Burke’s Scientific American column and TV series Connections, where he linked science and technology across time and space via a relativity that often bordered on the absurd. An increasing number of scientists are now acknowledging the inherent irrationality of their ‘logical’ belief systems and the correspondences with theology. Is Operation Swanlake fact, fiction or just a lie? Can we ever know?

On the train to Incubation I sat next to some visitors from the USA. They were professional, literate, well educated folk. As we passed through fields of ripening wheat they were clearly disappointed not to see some crop circles. We all want to believe.

Operation Swanlake, artist Suzanne Treister; Annely Juda Fine Art, London; May 20-July 17

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 12

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

spell#7, Desire Paths

spell#7, Desire Paths

spell#7, Desire Paths

Walking is a physicalisation of desire. Like a pedestrian walking through a city, desire searches, tastes, feels and smells. Capricious and peripatetic, it changes direction and always moves.

A unique project by spell#7, an experimental performance and new media company based in Singapore, fuses the themes of desire and walking in an ‘audio-tour’ of Little India, one of Singapore’s ethnic enclaves. In Desire Paths, the sole audience member, armed with a CD player, walks through this rich setting of sensory delights, coaxed by the narrating “ghosts or lovers” who act as guides. They speak to the listener-pedestrian over a pastiche of recorded sounds invoking the atmosphere: temple bells, traffic, buffaloes, interviews with locals and tourists, churchgoers worshipping, the sound of hi-tech speed train doors closing, race course noises, market clamour and coffeeshop banter, as well as the sound of bombs falling. Local spices and vegetables are reconfigured as poetry at one point when recited in inspired succession. The stall-lined corridors, streets, shophouses and back alleys offer a random universe of household provisions, textiles, flower garlands etc. All at once, you smell incense, jasmine, curry powders and street debris.

Insinuating itself into the historical and guided tour, you discover, is a story of desire: between your tour guides Jack, a resident wanderer who “knows a bit about Little India”, and an unnamed female lover. The story grows; traces accumulate and you realise that you are in the very intersection where their love operates. The walker is part of the internal logic of their communication of shadows, traces, secrets, scraps and notes left to each other; the tour, designed by him to “lure her out.” With the sparsely lyrical original music by local musician Evan Tan providing a poignant throughline, you almost see their figures emerging in the traffic, hiding from and seeking each other out.

spell7 write: “Desire path is a term used to describe a route or pathway that has been created by the users, not by the street or town planners. Commonly, it is where grass has been torn away by footsteps to make a shortcut not previously anticipated. Jack shows us one along Race Course Road—a ‘mud track on the green patch where the grass has disappeared’” (publicity notes). The range of meanings in the work expands beyond romantic desire and nostalgia to addressing other desires—for space, for authenticity. Desire paths act as metaphors suggesting to us the possibility of creative autonomy in art and life.

Faithful to the logic of the desire path, a transformation by the walker of the environment, the tour encourages you to interact with your surroundings; to leave a mark on the space. Jack invites you to buy a pandan waffle, have your fortune told by a woman with a psychic parrot, buy an iced Milo at the coffee shop, have a curry at Komala’s, etc. You walk inside the temple, witness supplicants praying for the fulfilment of their desires, stand at a crossroads outside the coffee shop and lose yourself in the traffic of ordinary desires, just as Jack and the un-named woman imagine what people in the street are thinking while unfolding their story to you.

Desire Paths brings you to the ‘downtime’ of the city, to alleyways otherwise forgettable in the urban glass and steel sprawl that is Singapore, where urban practice is highly managed, even the bohemias and, though less so now, the average Singaporean’s everyday life. But the work reflects larger shifts in public consciousness and a change of direction in the local art scene towards participatory, non-final art. If you wanted, after all, you could switch the CD player off and get distracted, wander around and abandon the program for a bit. Feel the pulses and feed your curiosity. Forge your desire path.

You become the tourist of a neighbourhood where, as the narrator describes, an older way of life persists: “They say Little India is one part of Singapore that hasn’t changed so much… Something about the spirit of the place that won’t allow change to get in the way”; “here, they breathe that bit more… guess they like to feel the wind in their hair.”

At the end, you are gently thanked and know that the journey is over, leaving Jack to rest in his hotel room with a gin and tonic, while “she” professes an eternal waiting. Jack bids his farewell: “I’ve enjoyed your company. Come back again sometime and walk with me.” If you find yourself in Singapore, I recommend you do exactly that: for an experience that offers not so much the promises of tourist brochures but allows you to enjoy an alternative account of Singapore; contemplating its lower-tech, slower-paced possibilities via a sensitive and far-ranging piece of work.

spell#7, Desire Paths, an audio tour experience of Little India, text & voices Ben Slater, Kaylene Tan, sound Evan Tan; Tuesdays to Sundays, 10am-4.30pm; www.spell7.net/desirepaths

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 13

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

The 2004 Res Artis Conference Knowledge + Dialogue + Exchange: Remapping Cultural Globalisms from the South aimed to be a space for dialogue and engagement in the context of the exchange of art and cultural knowledge. Res Artis itself is a worldwide network of residential arts centres and programs. Taking a critical perspective of “South” and, I assume, Ross Gibson’s characterisation of Australia as “South of the West”, the strong Asian presence at the conference was a reminder that Australia is also “South of Asia” and therefore in a unique geographical position from which to question issues of postcolonialism and globalism.

Program A of the conference, Crisis and Cultural Collisions, was held at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Prominent Asian-Australian cultural theorist Ien Ang opened with a paper entitled “Negotiating Fundamentalisms in a Dangerous World.” Taking as her point of departure Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations, Ang’s paper was concerned with the state of emergency that has gripped the Western world post-September 11. She sought to formulate a more generalised notion of fundamentalism that, following Anthony Giddens, can be thought of as “a refusal of dialogue.” In this definition, George W Bush’s “you are either with us or against us” rhetoric simply posits another kind of fundamentalism against the Islamic version that the USA has been so keen to destroy. Ang argues that these contemporary fundamentalisms are reactionary responses to the cultural crises unleashed by globalisation, which involve defending one’s “identity” against external threats.

Ang’s corrective to this drift towards fundamentalism is to invoke that weary, catch-all rubric of cosmopolitanism, suggesting that a “cosmopolitan way of being in the world” can come by recognising not only the fundamentalisms of the “Other” but also the fundamentalisms within ourselves. We should all become more cosmopolitan, albeit reluctantly and imperfectly. There was no critique of the ‘imperfect’ bases to cosmopolitanism—in particular its elitist underpinnings—nor was there any sense of why we should indeed become more cosmopolitan, or how artistic practice might contribute to this. Given that the term “reluctant cosmopolitan” was used by Daniel Swetschinski to discuss the situation of Portuguese Jews in 17th Century Amsterdam, I was keen to hear more on the version of cosmopolitanism forming the basis of Ang’s political redress.

The second speaker, Lu Jie, delivered a passionate and articulate paper integrating theory with practice. Lu Jie is a founder of the Long March Foundation, an organisational platform and art program that undertook a 2 year, 6000 mile journey from southern to northern China retracing the route of the Long March with 20 site-specific works and exhibitions. Lu’s paper, “Localising the Chinese Context in Contemporary Chinese Art in China and Abroad”, began with the premise that the defining characteristic of Chinese art since the 1990s has been its hypervisibility on the international stage. According to Lu, this has become the most prominent, if not the only, framework for both theoretical debate and artistic creation in the context of contemporary Chinese art. How then is it possible to (re)interpret local context in the face of this internationalisation?

Chinese artists have been exhibited primarily in Biennales and in large group exhibitions. There are fewer Chinese artists benefiting from residency programs or working with communities (perhaps because they are too busy producing work for Biennales!). Contemporary Chinese artists have institutionalised themselves as an elite class, authorised to represent modern-day China. The fear is that art in China has left the (local) audience and that international consumption has come to dominate artistic practice.

Program B of the conference took place at the Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-Operative and was entitled “New Writing, Criticism and Theory.” In the opening paper, “The Real, the Potential, and the Political”, Sydney academic Ghassan Hage argued for a politics of “minor utopias.” Hage drew on the philosophical distinction between actuality and reality whereby reality is constituted not only by actuality (what is) but also what is about to be, what could be, and what ought to be (reality conceived in moral terms). Utopian thought, as manifested either in writing or in artistic practice, is that which can shift what could and ought to be into reality. Hage is arguing against a neo-conservative politics of “realism”, which seeks to prevent us from imagining new potentialities (by asking us to “get real” or to “look at things as they really are”). Instead, we must activate the “potential” as the space from which political change emerges. As with Ien Ang’s paper, I found the densely theoretical nature of Hage’s talk extremely seductive although ultimately unsatisfying, requiring some anchor in the contribution of artistic practice to the possibilities he evoked.

Lee Weng Choy, artistic co-director of the Substation (an independent arts centre in Singapore), gave a very advanced work-in-progress towards an essay in “3 registers”, addressing the epistemological, the practical and the imaginary in the context of regional and global art circuits. Lee is interested in how our knowledge about the art world has changed radically due to the historical eruption of contemporary art from Asia onto the global scene.

Lee discussed a symposium entitled “Comparative Contemporaries” held at the Substation in 2003, which workshopped the idea of producing an anthology of existing writing on contemporary south east Asian art over the last 15 years. At present this writing remains uncollated and poorly disseminated. To deal with the issue of comtemporaneity in the art of different south east Asian nations, Lee suggested using the paradigms of comparative literature (as practiced in America) to define and build dialogues.

What was particularly interesting to me was Lee’s discussion of the state of the contemporary arts in Singapore. The architect Rem Koolhaas argued several years ago that Singapore was characterised by modernisation without modernity; that is, a mechanistic rationality whereby only one temporality exists—that of being on the verge of elsewhere, a restless present always focussed on what’s next. Lee asks, if Singapore is only modernisation without modernity, why would the Singaporean State care about art? Lee suggested that it might be more accurate to characterise Singapore as modernism without modernity (in the sense of requiring historical self-reflexivity). It will be interesting to see how this preliminary dialogue progresses.

Residency programs are so important because of the various exchanges they foster: an international exchange becomes one that is also resolutely local, and the exchange always goes both ways. For example, it has been my great pleasure to get to know 2 artists-in-residence over the past few months: Tan Pin Pin, a filmmaker from Singapore (who was resident at the University of Technology, Sydney), and Tu Shih-hue, a performance artist and director from Taiwan, brought to Sydney through the Taipei Artists’ Village residency program. I welcome such continued dialogues and only wish I could have been in Melbourne to catch the second half of the conference.

Knowledge + Dialogue + Exchange: Remapping Cultural Globalisms from the South, convened by Artspace Visual Arts Centre, Sydney and Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces, Melbourne; 9th General Meeting of Res Artis, Sydney and Melbourne, August 10-16

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 14

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

The 6 day Res Artis conference saw delegates jetting into Australia from north America, Europe, Africa and north and south east Asia, and then shuttling internally between Sydney and Melbourne. The title of the Conference was “Knowledge + Dialogue + Exchange”, and the 2 city locations supposedly provided a mass moving metaphor for a conference “key objective”: that delegates be “exposed to the multidisciplinary infrastructure of Australian art and cultural organisations.”

Notwithstanding the extra eco-burden of vaporising all that jet and diesel fuel, as well as the reinforcing of a global/neoliberal way of life that sees resources as infinite—and notwithstanding the fact that this way of life further marginalises the masses of the South (if not its cultural and artistic select)—the conference represented fossil energy well burned. It actually explored some very pertinent questions about the age of increased mobility (for some) and how artist residencies and the institutions that coordinate them contribute to global cultural production. There was also exploration of the forms this culture takes through its political and ideological expressions.

Institutional exchange programs comprise a powerful element in the dissemination of art and ideas, its practice and theory. The disinterested observer might view many of these programs as a sort of limpid cross-fertilisation, the kind of stuff that academics have been getting away with for a long time, with selected artists now having their day in the sun or the snow (or torrential rain in the case of Melbourne). The same observer might note that, again at its most benign, this process leads to a nebulous global multiculturalism where we all understand and appreciate each other’s perspective, cultures and art. It’s the sort of harmless stuff, in other words, that can go on ad infinitum; a money and-travel-go-round where frequent flyer points accumulate and those jet vapour-trails criss-cross the skies.

However, institutions matter and residencies also matter; art matters, as they say. They help form the centre of gravity for the contemporary art scene in terms of its cutting edge and its future directions. Politics permeate, shape and form them, albeit at an unspoken ideological level. In-your-face political art still exists at certain levels in the hierarchy however. For example, John Berger wrote recently with reference to Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 that it should be “considered as a political act…an historical landmark.” Maybe. But where do we locate institutions in the nexus between art and politics in the age of neoliberal globalisation?

Nikos Papastergiadis considered this key issue in his talk at the Sidney Myer Centre, University of Melbourne. Contemporary art institutions, especially those that have come into being over the last 15 years or so, are very different creatures from “traditional” institutions. In the latter (which still exist everywhere), he argued, art is “housed” and “displayed” for public edification. And what was/is expected of them runs along fairly delineated lines. You go and see the display; or if you are an artist you show your work and participate in exchanges and residencies, all within the comfortable realm of “art and culture.” These are the old-style museums and state art galleries; publicly funded, with no surprises and no controversies.

Papastergiadis observed that with the ICT revolution during the 1980s and 90s, and the transforming free-market neoliberalism that accompanied it, new kinds of institutions mushroomed from the restructured ruin-scapes of the developed North. He listed 6 key institutions, including ACMI in Melbourne and FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology) in Liverpool (UK) as representing, he imagined at the time, exciting developments in the realm of new media art. Exciting new works and artistic exchanges were happening that seemed to be taking art into fresh realms of practice and representation.

The problem is that these institutions were flawed from the beginning. Backed by both public and private funding sources, these new media institutions were dropped into the partial vacuum created by the withdrawal of the state from its role as funder of public art institutions. Moreover, the expectations heaped upon these institutions were enormous. Essentially, public and private sponsors expected them to culturally and economically regenerate a cityscape brought low by 20 years of neglect.

The effect has been that the public respond to their heterogeneity with enthusiasm, but institutional “partners” (sponsors, governments) don’t know how to categorise and feel comfortable with them and their areas of success. Moreover, it became clear that they are not going to revive areas of neglect on their own. Artists’ colonies aren’t going to flock around them spreading positive waves of culturally-inspired entrepreneurialism.

We are left, as Papastergiadis implies, with vast social-cultural anachronisms housed in cutting-edge architecture. The public is swarming to institutions like ACMI, but their very success through new media art jeopardises their future, because it is taking art and the public relationship with art into unknown areas. The artist as producer and public as consumer and creator may begin to think and act politically and question the role and purpose of art, and how it can connect to larger questions and issues—and even influence events! This of course leaves institutional partners somewhat on the sidelines, perplexed about public participation and unplanned organic developments and directions. That this cannot be allowed to endure means that institutions and artists, exchanged or otherwise, thus enter into a deeply compromised logic: success is to be measured by safety and predictability or serious questions will be asked.

One came away from the conference contemplating the dilemma that new media art institutions have never been busier, and expectations of them have never been higher. But also realising they are conceived and born as part of a bigger business plan that has little to do with art and art practice, and a lot to do with being expected to fill the gaps in our cultural life and civil society left by state abandonment. On the global scale all new media art institutions are implicated in this neoliberal project. And of course these are doomed to fail; and the institutions, the artists and the public will be blamed for it.

Knowledge + Dialogue + Exchange: Remapping Cultural Globalisms from the South, convened by Artspace Visual Arts Centre, Sydney and Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces, Melbourne; 9th General Meeting of Res Artis, Sydney and Melbourne, August 10-16

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 15

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

There is a lot about Yuendumu that is secret business, despite its being the most studied place in Australia. How the town looks is secret—there are no pictures of it on the web. Keeping the appearance of the town under wraps is about changing the media’s portrayal of Aboriginal Australians from shantytown victims to a self-determined people.

Warlpiri Media have convinced the urban world that you need their imprimatur before photographing inside Yuendumu. The non-Aboriginal manager Rita Cattoni was born to the role of gatekeeper. Warlpiri Media’s bargaining power is that you need a permit to be there; a visa to visit Aboriginal Australia. For example, one cameraperson was asked to ‘please explain’ an article she wrote on her personal website about her time in Yuendumu. The accuracy of her account was never in question, but her portrayal of the town was exactly of the type that Warlpiri Media are attempting to censor in the public’s image of the place. The offending article was removed and filming continued.

If there is one thing documentary makers and journalists don’t like, it is censorship. Organisations like Warlpiri Media have enormous control. What is amazing is that conflicts between these organisations and the media are fairly minimal. At the heart of any conflict between information gathers (documentary makers) and those who possess the information (subjects or their collective) is control over the material. In the end, a lot of the tension between the subject and filmmaker comes down to 2 things: money and the question of whose story it is—the subject’s or the filmmaker’s?

It is also interesting to flip the coin (the 2 dollar coin with the Warlpiri man on its head side) and say that Warlpiri Media’s power is not, horror of horrors, well-intentioned censorship but an extension of copyright and permission. The 2 are very much intertwined. Let us leave the complex question of censorship open for further debate and move on to the issue of who owns the story.

Many thousands of kilometres away in France the intelligentsia are musing over this very issue. The patient and charming Georges Lopez from the documentary Etre Et Avoir (To Be and To Have, 2003) is suing the film’s makers for 250,000 Euros. “I’ve spent days in cinemas answering questions from the audience, in interviews, travelling abroad, and all they do is thank me nicely”, said Lopez on the BBC website. What he wants is money. His lawyers claim the filmmakers breached copyright and counterfeit laws. Did Mr Lopez give permission? Who owns the image of the teacher and his lessons, and the profits derived from their reproduction?

The issue would not have arisen if Etre had not done so well in the cinemas and made Lopez into a star. But it did. Increasingly, documentary cinema release is inspiring respectable box office returns and generating profit. The probable result of the suit will be an increase in the number of documentary subjects demanding rights to a share of the net income and requiring remuneration for touring with the film. Neither are new ideas to the industry, nor can they be seen as harmful to the filming of documentary. Nor will they pose any drastic dilemma as to who owns the story: profits are shared, creative control remains with the filmmaker or the investors.

Not so thinks the Belgian journalist and filmmaker Hugues Le Paige. He wrote about Mr Lopez’s suit in Dox (March 2004): “To make a documentary is to actually build up a rapport [between the subject and the filmmaker] that excludes any mercantile dealings by its very essence.” This statement is highly romantic. Despite DV technology, documentaries are still expensive to make and distribute. Money is always a part of the story.

One of the claims made in the debate generated by the lawsuit is that paying the subject will make a difference to the truthfulness of the story. It will change the meta-filmic relationship from filmmaker/subject to employer/employee. The subject will feel the need to perform, a need ‘to have’ the money rather than just ‘to be.’ This theory rests on the idea that financial transactions will somehow hide rather than expose the true character of the subject, and further, a fear that documentary makers may bribe their subjects.

The trouble is that in Anglo (and Franco) culture, dealing with Intellectual Property is so foreign to us that we need large contracts and expensive lawyers to nut it out. In contrast, in Warlpiri culture the legality is clear. Ownership of possessions like houses and cars is fluid. But ownership of stories is proscribed. Every retelling requires permission from the people who own that knowledge, and all knowledge is owned.

For instance, when recording the story of the 1928 Coniston Massacre it was necessary to find the people who owned the stories of the landscape in which it happened, as well as those who experienced it. Once access had been granted by Warlpiri Media the storytellers were paid and permission was given for use. On the censorship side, an eyewitness account of a tracker whose family still lives in the community had to be dropped in exchange for continued access to the rest of the story. In this case, sorry business was not resolved and was unlikely to be so. The tracker’s story was not for sale.

If Central Australia is any measure of the effect that money has on truth then it can be said that truthfulness is not lost when you pay the subject. The censorship in the Coniston story had nothing to do with money; it hinged on community cohesiveness and personalities. In Yuendumu the fees are very reasonable; the mercantile dealing is very simple. In 1990s jargon, stories are commodities and Warlpiri culture has recognised this and ‘unionised’ to set wages and conditions. The story remains the property of the teller, but permission is given to use it.

Maybe it is another case of the ‘Empire Writes Back.’ Aboriginal media organisations such as Warlpiri should be invited to European documentary conferences to discuss their model with the French.

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 18

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

Perhaps protesting too much, TS Eliot famously viewed Hamlet as a failure on the grounds that the play was “full of some stuff which the writer could not drag to light, contemplate, or manipulate into art.” While the Melbourne artist and filmmaker James Clayden might well agree with this verdict, he has little or no interest in dragging anything to light. Rather, in his video fantasia Hamlet X, screened at the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF), he strives to add to the ambiguity of his source material on the horror-movie principle that nothing is more terrifying than the unknown. Traditional continuity editing is non-existent; individual shots tend to be shaky, shadowy or out-of-focus; Shakespeare’s lines are shuffled like a pack of cards with other cryptic texts. A larger narrative of mental breakdown is hinted at but never clarified, while glimpsed acts of violence threaten the distinction between a given fictional scenario and ‘real’ life.

Ultimately, the ghost haunting this infernal machine might be that of Shakespeare’s original play—or Shakespeare himself. Clayden may take his inspiration from Hamlet’s reflections on the chaos beneath consensus reality, yet his disjunctive techniques, however sophisticated, are in stark contrast to the amazing fluency of Elizabethan rhetoric. With many of the visual distortions arising directly out of the limitations of video as a medium, what’s both compelling and off-putting about Clayden’s enterprise is its wilfully ‘primitive’ aspect, transforming Hamlet from a noble hero into a mumbling autodidact with a psychotic streak.

Systematic to a fault, Hamlet X threatens to exhaust the most committed viewer’s patience with its monotonous editing rhythms and relentless visual and verbal repetitions over a 2 hour running time. The frisson of dread fades well before the halfway mark, leaving not much to ponder aside from the literal situation being documented—an obliging group of actors doing competent line readings in a warehouse space above the CBD. In putting this mundaneness on record, Clayden leaves it unclear whether he’s conducting a seance or aiming to expose an absence at the heart of the literary canon. Either way, Hamlet X is more impressive for its ambition than its achievement. As the Bard pointed out, it’s not difficult for anyone to call spirits from the deep: “But will they come when you do call for them?”

Clara Law’s Letters to Ali, premiered at this year’s MIFF, is a daylight work by comparison. In opposing the mandatory detention of asylum seekers in Australia, Law is acting more in her capacity as concerned citizen than as an art filmmaker, which is not to say she lacks a personal stake in the subject. Like the fiction features she’s made locally since immigrating from Hong Kong, this independently financed documentary visualises her adopted country as a land of accommodating open space, from “sweeping plains” to wide suburban streets where children can run and tease each other.

Yet for all its openness, the poignancy of Letters to Ali stems from the visual and human absence at its centre. In 2003, when the film was shot, the Afghan teenager known as “Ali” had been imprisoned in the Port Hedland detention centre for the best part of 2 years; for legal reasons, Law can reveal neither his face nor his real name. When he’s finally given temporary release, we see him happily mingling with his ‘adopted’ Australian family, the Kerbis—except that he’s kept permanently out-of-focus, like Robin Williams in Deconstructing Harry.

While it can’t be a total accident that Letters to Ali is getting its general release in the run-up to the federal election, Law’s outrage at the locking-up of children seems innocent of any larger political agenda. Indeed, the Kerbis themselves ought to warm the heart of the most diehard conservative: a very likeable Australian family (Mum, Dad and 4 kids) not visibly unusual except in their capacity for empathy. The more radically-minded might feel that the film relies too heavily on establishing the humanity of “Ali” through his association with these wholesome folk, as if his “normality” by Australian standards had any connection with his right to be treated decently. Certainly, from the pastel titlecards to the Paul Grabowsky score, there’s nothing here to undermine the prevailing belief that a social conscience is a middle-class luxury item. That said, Law deserves kudos for getting the film made, and it’s possible that her softly-softly approach might succeed in changing a few minds, at the ballot box and elsewhere.

Hamlet X, director James Clayden; Letters to Ali, director Clara Law; 53rd Melbourne International Film Festival, July 21-August 8

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 19

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

Michael Lee, The Mystical Rose

Michael Lee, The Mystical Rose

Ah, the Melbourne Underground Film Festival, where blather about Heidegger justifies the screening of yet more porn movies and Uncle Goddam: The Amazing Redneck Torture Tape. Cheap shots aside, at least one strand of this year’s MUFF exemplified Australian film culture at its very best. The Melbourne Independent Filmmakers Retrospective, assembled by Bill Mousoulis under the MUFF banner, was well-served by its programmer’s encyclopaedic local knowledge, as well as his incisive and catholic personal taste (though MUFF’s habitual gender skew remained intact).

The first session alone segued from quasi-narrative city symphony (Forgotten Loneliness, Chris Löfvén, 1965) to free-associating mock-essay (In Search of The Japanese, Solrun Hoaas, 1980), abstract lyric (Light Play, Dirk de Bruyn, 1984), hard-edged conceptual documentary (Someone Looks At Something, Philip Tyndall, 1986) and sledgehammer spoof (Dance of Death, Dennis Tupicoff, 1982). There were just as many surprises at a second miscellaneous session, focused on the 1990s and beyond: one highlight was Jason Turley’s Dirty Work (2003), a half-hour slice of unforced video realism about an outer-suburban teenager who receives a surprising offer from the couple next door.

Watching these films, I began to suspect that for Mousoulis ‘independence’ is as much a spiritual category as a financial or formal one; this conviction was borne out in the 3 remaining sessions, each devoted to a single major filmmaker. Completed in 1976, Michael Lee’s Mystical Rose is unmistakably a document, both anguished and ecstatic, of ‘sexual liberation.’ The desire pent up by Catholicism breaks free in a barely controlled stream of images, as if the very principle of metaphor had been uncovered for the first time and seized upon as a key that might unlock the world. So stones become bread, or in an extraordinary sequence, a woman’s sexual organs are visualised as a steep and slippery mountain path. In his sensual re-envisioning of iconography—the Word made Flesh—Lee brings to mind Sergei Paradjanov, though his symbolism should be comparatively transparent to Australian viewers (when a man’s penis morphs into a serpent, which later becomes the infant Jesus, the meanings are startling but hardly esoteric). Marking Lee’s reconciliation with Christianity, A Contemplation of the Cross (1989) is less intense, but its images have the same bold immediacy, above all in the concluding vision of grace, with thousands of birds set free and flocking across the sky.

Chris Windmill, surely Australia’s most original comic filmmaker, is a visionary of a different order. Though comedy is often equated with playing to a crowd, Windmill plainly has no interest in trying to second-guess audience responses, or in anything that might impede his sober and absolute dedication to whimsy. Practical yet skittish women and good-looking, barely articulate young men abound in his universe, as do handwritten messages, ritualised housekeeping tasks, and maudlin surprise endings. In Mystery Love (1986), a woman falls in love with the Pope, who happens to live next door. Beards of Evil (1984) has a hero who winds up flying away on a pile of suitcases, but crash-lands and is sent to Hell, which turns out to be below St Kilda Beach. Later works are more opaque and have fewer identifiable gags, raising their daggy absurdity to a pitch that’s practically metaphysical, as in The Birds Do a Magnificent Tune (1996), the chronicle of an intimate relationship centred on ironing and Perry Mason re-runs, and his magnum opus to date.

John Cumming, in some ways the most sophisticated of these filmmakers, is also the hardest to characterise. Ranging from industrial Gothic (Obsession, 1985) to trippy allegory (Recognition, 1986), to observational satire (Sabotage, 1987), his films have few common denominators beyond their virtuosic editing and sound design, and their drive to undermine any single consistent reality, offering the fractured impression of a story rather than the story itself. As this suggests, Cumming is unusually aware of the political underpinnings of form; his comments at a subsequent question-and-answer session implicitly showed up the limits of current debates about the state of local filmmaking, which tend to focus unthinkingly on narrative aspects even when success isn’t crudely equated with profit. Indeed, now that avant-garde purism is dead, terms like ‘underground’ and ‘independent’ may have an unnecessary marginalising effect. Lee, Windmill, Cumming and others whose work screened at this retrospective deserve to rank high on any list of notable Australian filmmakers. And in the absence of independence—at least of a spiritual kind—is it really possible for art to exist at all?

Melbourne Independent Filmmakers: A Retrospective; curator Bill Mousoulis; The 5th Melbourne Underground Film Festival; July 8-18

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 19

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

Agheleh Rezaie, At Five in the Afternoon

Agheleh Rezaie, At Five in the Afternoon

Some of the most compelling films to screen at this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival were the features, documentaries and shorts in the Homelands: The Middle East in Focus program. Within Homelands, the New Women Filmmakers (Emergence) sub-section focused on the work of a new generation of female directors through 4 documentaries and a feature film. Although uneven in quality and execution, these 5 films represented a trenchant examination of the social, political, religious, and in particular sexual, constraints to which many women in contemporary Middle Eastern communities remain subject.

Of the 5 filmmakers, Iranian Samira Makhmalbaf was the most prominent. Arguably no longer an ‘emerging’ director given her international profile and a filmography including 3 accomplished features, the selection of Makhmalbaf’s At Five in the Afternoon (2003) was perhaps justified by the accompanying ‘making-of’ documentary Joy of Madness, which detailed the film’s casting process. The documentary was directed by Samira’s younger sister Hana.

Set in Afghanistan following the fall of the Taliban, At Five in the Afternoon centres on Noqreh (Agheleh Rezaie) who, against her extremist father’s wishes, surreptitiously recommences her secondary school studies. Despite her firm convictions about the possibilities for female empowerment in post-Taliban Afghanistan, Noqreh’s nascent leadership ambitions are thwarted by her family’s dire circumstances.

The theme of female autonomy through education is a consistent one in Makhmalbaf’s small but impressive oeuvre, and in this film is expressed in a deliberately didactic form. Discarding the burqa and donning white high heeled shoes when safe from the punitive male gaze, Rezaie makes Noqreh a convincing and outspoken heroine for latter day Afghanistan. But while the feminist sentiments are admirable, Makhmalbaf’s film flags at times. The family’s flight into the desolate countryside feels protracted, depending too heavily on the director’s trademark startling imagery for emotional resonance.

What really invigorates the film is the intriguing insight provided by Joy of Madness. Although only 14 when she wrote and directed the film, Hana’s lively take on Samira’s directorial approach arguably sheds as much light on the state of Afghani society as her sister’s feature film. Shot on DV and frequently in extreme close-up, Hana focuses on several key sequences in her sister’s process of casting non-professional performers.

Samira, whose personal style borders on the tyrannical, is met with suspicion and mistrust. Women are particularly reluctant to participate in her film, still fearful of the social and political repercussions. At one point, the crew reassures a family that contrary to rumour, involvement in the project will not result in the death of their child. Key pieces of dialogue in Samira’s film, including a speech about the role of women in politics, appear in embryonic form during the auditioning seen in Joy of Madness. While the film’s hand-held style and episodic structure lacks finesse, Hana’s interrogation of the filmmaking process (following the venerable example of father Mohsen and other contemporary Iranian filmmakers), and frank depiction of the social, political and economic uncertainty in Afghanistan, made Joy of Madness a fascinating work.

A frank approach to the subject matter was also a hallmark of the other Iranian contribution to the Emergence section. Mitra Farahani’s Zohre and Manouchehr (2003) is a curious mix of poesy and talking heads. Farahani combines excerpts from a well-known 19th century Iranian love poem with comments from interviewees of all ages about the nature of love and sexuality in 21st century Iran. While the dramatic recreations of Iraj Mirza’s poem had a slightly clunky quality at times, the unashamedly erotic 19th century sentiments provided a powerful counter-point to the restriction on expressions of sexuality, particularly female, endured by contemporary Iranians.

Israeli filmmakers also addressed the topic of female sexuality in the remaining 2 documentaries comprising the Emergence section. In Purity (2002), writer-director Ana Zuria used the birth of her fifth child to examine the strict Jewish laws that regulate women’s bodies. Underpinned by a conviction that the female body is impure during menstruation and childbirth, these ancient laws require women to undergo elaborate monthly purification rituals. Zuria explores issues around such subordination, not only from her own position, but also from 2 other, radically opposed perspectives. Natalie has rejected the oppressiveness of the purification rituals and has thus renounced marriage. Happily married Katy struggles with an unfortunate combination of menstrual dysfunction and religious orthodoxy that ensures she is almost continually forbidden physical contact with her husband. The thoughtful and articulate statements from these 2 women, in addition to the insights from a ‘purification agent’ and her defiant daughter, made this film an absorbing and extremely moving work.

Almost There (directors Sigal Yehuda and Joelle Alexis, 2003), offers an equally personal and telling statement about female sexual identity. Unwilling to continue living in strife torn Tel Aviv as an openly gay couple, Yehuda and Alexis turn the camera on themselves, recording their attempt to find a place where they can live peacefully. A no frills travel diary that documents some sublimely beautiful Greek locations, Almost There is a touchingly honest, if occasionally self-indulgent, testament to the peripatetic couple’s devoted relationship.

Issues around female identity also formed the basis of other films in the Homelands program. The heartfelt, if didactic, multi-strand Iranian narrative Bemani (director Dariush Mehrjui, 2002) detailed 3 stories of female oppression. Mahnaz Afzali’s delightfully unstructured Iranian documentary The Ladies (2003), provided a telling portrait of a diverse community of women who patronise a Tehran toilet block. Other documentaries explored the courage and tragedy of individual women’s lives, including 2 genuinely devastating works. In Arna’s Children (2003), Juliano Mer Khamis documented his Israeli mother’s crusade to improve Palestinian children’s lives in the war torn Jenin refugee camp, while the short Maryam’s Sin (director Paris Shehandeh, 2004) dealt in graphic and disturbing detail with the honour killing of a young Iranian girl.

The Homelands program was both a sobering experience and a steep cinematic learning curve, offering a diverse range of films from directors committed to tackling the intractable problems that beset the region. What distinguished all of the films discussed, particularly those in the Emergence category, was the resolute way in which they addressed the complexities of lived female experience. Predominantly low-budget, sometimes stylistically rudimentary, these films constituted a compelling, collective call to arms reminiscent of the forceful feminist polemic of Western female filmmakers in the 1970s and 80s. Not intended as patronising, I mean with this comparison to acknowledge the courage of Middle-Eastern women filmmakers who only now have access, albeit limited, to the resources and freedom of expression enabling them to craft such powerful cinematic statements.

Homelands: The Middle East in Focus, 53rd Melbourne International Film Festival, July 21-August 8

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 20

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

Last Life in the Universe

Last Life in the Universe

It seems that every year we get wind of a new ‘breakthrough’ cinema from Asia. Thailand is this year’s South Korea—a regional cinema that has remade itself and been able to sustain a wide range of production from popular genre films to esoteric arthouse. The Thai Breakers season at this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) dipped a toe in the waters of this diverse and uneven cinema.

Thailand has long had a relatively high volume industry concentrating on the domestic market. The international rise of Thai filmmaking is generally dated from 1997 with the overseas release of Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Fun Bar Karaoke and Nonzee Nimibutr’s Dang Birely and the Young Gangsters. New national cinemas are generally marketed around auteurs as a way of making the unfamiliar familiar, and MIFF’s season centred on Ratanaruang. His Last Life in the Universe has commanded attention on the international festival circuit this year. Shot by Christopher Doyle at his most restrained, the film is a beautifully precise reworking of Ratanaruang’s second feature 6ixtynin9. Asano Tadanobu plays a Japanese librarian continually contemplating suicide, not through any sense of despair, but rather as the ultimate extension of his need for order. His unintentional penchant for causing the deaths of others brings him into contact with Noi, a bar girl who lives in a constant state of domestic chaos. Their relationship is less a case of romantic opposites attracting than the complementary comfort of yin and yang.

The other major Thai filmmaker to emerge internationally is Apitchatpong Weerasethakul, a one-man avant-garde feature film industry. Last year, his Blissfully Yours was either loved or walked out on, and this year’s Tropical Malady similarly divided audiences. Those who appreciated the slow-building intensity of the film were treated to one of the highlights of the festival.

Weerasethakul’s films are fascinating because for all their apparent simplicity and anti-dramatic surface, they are constantly in the process of changing into something else. You can never be quite sure what the film is becoming and they puzzle you in the gentlest of ways. Tropical Malady essentially works in 2 halves. The first deals with a romantic pursuit and flirtatious evasion between 2 men. The second half converts this into an eerie metaphor: the pursuit of a tiger through the jungle. The journey takes you further and further into a stylisation from which there is no turning back. Finally we look into the throbbing darkness to see a tiger gazing back and are asked to contemplate this as an image of desire.

While Thai cinema might be new to us in the West, it has a long history of domestic genres and traditions based on florid melodramas and musicals. Given limited knowledge of these traditions, it’s often difficult to grasp the context the films are addressing. For example, Ratanaruang’s third film, Mon-Rak Transistor is a reworking of luk thung musicals, invoking a brand of Thai country and western music of the 1950s. The hero only wants to be with his true love but events conspire in unlikely ways to frustrate him.

There’s an edge of camp irony which underlies the relation of these new filmmakers to the historical traditions they want to claim as their own. The very ludicrousness of the melodrama can be read as a subversive gesture deriding simplistic moralism and calling into question the supposed certainties of realism and gender. A case in point: The Adventure of Iron Pussy, co-directed by Weerasethakul and the film’s star Michael Showanasai, looks not much more than an extended drag queen romp shot on video. The project has, however, grown out of a video and performance series in which the eponymous heroine functions as a nodal point of trans-gender celebration and satire on the excesses of Thai cinema.

As we inch our way toward the commercial mainstream of Thai filmmaking we come upon The Eye, by Oxide and Danny Pang, Bangkok-based filmmakers who frequently work in Hong Kong. Based on co-production possibilities, The Eye redresses a longstanding situation where south-east Asia has provided only consumers and exotic locations for Hong Kong cinema.

Since Bangkok Dangerous, the Pang Brothers have emerged at the cutting edge of finding new hi-tech ways of blowing holes in people. The Eye is squarely in the post-Sixth Sense/Ringu school of moody horror movie. The game is to keep the first half slow and unsettling, with the audience safe in the knowledge that hell itself will be unleashed in the final reel. This is a genre which has been extremely important in the forging of regional marketing and co-production throughout Asia. Teenagers are increasingly eager to be scared in movie theatres from Seoul to Mumbai as a sign of their cosmopolitan modernity.

With Ong-Bak we’re back to the meat and potatoes of the action film. Forget all this bourgeois Westernised crap that sees a CGI’ed Maggie Cheung moving elegantly through autumn leaves. This film knows the heart of martial arts is still the desire to see a bunch of sweaty guys whopping each other in startling ways. Tony Jaa represents a move back to the pure faith of athletic and senseless violence—and who can complain about that? My favourite moment in the film comes when a bad guy attacks our hero with a chair and is promptly dispatched. The second bad guy tries again with a table. The final villain, having watched and learned, picks up a refrigerator and hits him with that. That’s the kind of narrative logic I can get behind.

I suspect that we’ve seen the peaks of recent Thai cinema in this season, and that from here the standard falls into the abysses of schlock and horror. Even so, Australian audiences need to widen their sense of the production possibilities in Asian film industries. Thailand is yet another nation in the region with the industrial and aesthetic maturity to provide a wide range of answers to the question of what constitutes a national cinema.

Thai Breakers: New Cinema from Thailand, 53rd Melbourne International Film Festival, July 21-Aug 8

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 21

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

For a film culture to remain vibrant it needs figures who break the mould, push our buttons and challenge our unconscious ideas of what is and what should be. So it is heartening in these conservative times to see a group of local academics and filmmakers explicitly celebrating non-conformity as an ethical, aesthetic and political choice. The symposium, Documentary: The Non-Conformists, brought together a diverse, passionate group of thinkers and filmmakers to discuss, debate and interrogate the notion of non-conformity in the documentary realm.

In keeping with the theme, the symposium was structured around the work of 2 brazenly original documentary makers whose films are rarely seen in Australia. Britain’s Brian Hill is best known for films which startlingly combine song, music and poetry in their depiction of contemporary social milieux. The second international guest filmmaker was Kazuo Hara, whose small but highly provocative body of work has made him something of a cult figure in his home country of Japan and beyond.

The symposium opened with a screening of Hill’s Drinking for England, which set the tone for the weekend. His work is so original and so different from other documentary forms that it is difficult to describe. Hill’s methodology gives an indication: he selects a topic, such as Britain’s drinking culture, finds a small group of people on whom to focus and conducts a set of videotaped interviews. His collaborator, British poet Simon Armitage, then listens to the subjects’ speech patterns and phrasing, and composes verse that manages to both express and comment upon their views and way of life. After consultation and occasional rewrites, the subjects then perform Armitage’s words as verse or song in sequences that Hill skilfully inter-cuts with his interview material.

It’s an approach that sounds dubious and almost unworkable on paper, yet across 4 films Hill has managed to create an engrossing and stylistically challenging body of contemporary documentary work. Due to the TV-friendly one-hour length of most of his films, symposium attendees were able to see 4 of Hill’s documentary “musicals” and examine the evolution of his style from the relatively straight observational approach of 1996’s Saturday Night, to the confronting subject matter and highly performative story-telling of 2002’s Feltham Sings and last year’s Pornography—The Musical.

In contrast to Hill’s audacious mixing of styles, Hara’s work initially appears more conventional. Over the course of the 2 films screened at the symposium, however, it became apparent that his approach is a kind of cinema verité gone to hell and back. The filmmaker follows his subjects with such unrelenting intensity that the camera’s gaze itself begins to dissolve all notions of an identifiable line between representational truth and fiction, and reality.

The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (1986) proved a fitting introduction to Hara’s style. The filmmaker followed former Private Okuzaki Kenzo as he tracked down and interrogated members of his old army unit which was left surrounded, abandoned and starving in what is now West Papua during the final months of the Second World War. Okuzaki is an infamous figure in Japan, having served 10 years in prison for hurling a set of pachinko balls at the Emperor during the leader’s New Year address to the nation in 1968. His raison d’être is to force the Emperor and former officers of Japan’s Imperial Army to take responsibility for what was done to private soldiers during the war.

However, Hara’s films are anything but journalistic investigations seeking to uncover the “truth” of the past. Rather, they interrogate the nature of memory, illustrating that all recollection is a discourse written in the mind of the individual. In The Emperor’s Naked Army Okuzaki’s haranguing of old soldiers produces a series of sickening accounts of the events that took place in West Papua, including allegations that Japanese privates were shot to provide food for their starving officers. But we have no way of substantiating the veracity of these stories as the former soldiers equivocate, shift blame, refuse to speak or recount events to which they themselves were not witness. Memories falter as they forget, lie and refuse to admit what they did and saw. When they do speak, it is only with the threat of violence from Okuzaki.

Just as the soldiers’ accounts are full of gaps and elisions, the documentary itself has many ellipses: at one point Hara and Okuzaki visit West Papua, but an intertitle explains the Indonesian authorities who now control the area confiscated all the filmmaker’s footage. Similarly, at the end of the film, Okuzaki takes it upon himself to attempt to murder the officer formally in charge of his unit. After Hara hesitates about filming such an act, Okuzaki goes ahead alone, providing a narrative climax the film is only able to sketch through newspaper headlines. In this way the form of The Emperor’s Naked Army embodies the thematic meditation on the mutability of recollection. At the heart of the film is the notion of absence: the absence of certain scenes, of the old soldiers’ unspoken knowledge and the details they have forgotten. And the entire work is haunted by the absence of Japan’s millions of war dead, evoked in shrines, graves and the sepia photographic portraits of deceased comrades that Okuzaki obsessively clutches throughout much of the film.

Hara’s A Dedicated Life (1994) similarly focuses on a subject to the point where all notions of a stable truth are destroyed. The film began as an account of the life of Japanese novelist Mitsuharu Inoue, but in the course of shooting the writer contracted cancer, physically deteriorated and passed away. We watch him reminisce about his early life as he begins to die, only to realise some two-thirds of the way into the film that the interviews with his childhood acquaintances contradict almost everything Inoue has said. Hara commented after the film that he had nearly finished shooting A Dedicated Life before he realised it was not about Inoue’s life story, but the reality of the fictional world in which the writer lived.

Although markedly different on the surface, the works of Hara and Hill share a crucial common element. For both filmmakers the process of investigating and exploring a subject constitutes the final work. They employ an open, porous process in which their interaction with the subject works its way into the film, not necessarily through overtly reflexive devices, but by guiding the very shape and direction of the work as it is made. During one of the weekend’s many panel discussions, local filmmaker Kriv Stenders described a similar approach in making his award-winning 1995 documentary Motherland.

Film for these directors is a medium through which they subjectively interact with the world, rather than a way of recording a pre-established dramatic or documentary “truth.” The approach is non-conformist to the extent that the filmmaker doesn’t know how the finished work will look, or even what it will ultimately be about.

In providing a forum which brought filmmakers and theorists together to debate questions of form, the organisers of The Non-Conformists symposium marked out a space that is sorely lacking in local film culture. All too often debates about the direction of our industry remain centred on funding structures and the market. Just as we need monetary structures to grease the mechanics of production, we need public forums in which we can ask questions and be surprised, intrigued and provoked by what film can do.

Department of Media, Macquarie University and the Centre for Screen Studies, AFTRS, Documentary: The Non-Conformists, Chauvel Cinema and AFTRS, Sydney; September 10-12

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 22

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

The President Versus David Hicks

The President Versus David Hicks

There’s an air of hopelessness and sad failure permeating the subject matter of this year’s AFI documentaries which, nonetheless, makes for some very good films. At the end of Helen’s War: Portrait of a Dissident (director Anna Broinowski), the war in Iraq is continuing and any sign of peace or imminent worldwide nuclear disarmament seems far-fetched; Lonely Boy Richard (director Trevor Graham) concludes with Richard Wanambi heading for a long stretch in prison (and, depressingly, looking forward to it); and the absent subject of The President Versus David Hicks (directors Bentley Dean and Curtis Levy) is still in limbo at Guantanamo Bay. Then there’s Mart Bakal and Vincent Lee in The Men Who Would Conquer China, (director Nick Torrens) representatives of a new wave of Sino-capitalists who confidently expect their latest venture in China to propel them towards billionairedom. It doesn’t seem fair somehow.

The Men Who Would Conquer China is the outsider in this year’s selection. It has no Australian content; Mart is a New York banker, Vincent is a Hong Kong financier and, by and large, that’s where we see them operating, apart from various excursions to Chinese provinces where they inspect businesses ripe for outside investment/plunder.

Both Mart and Vincent have their own motives for wanting to capitalise on China. Mart wants to make some serious money but he also has a startlingly naïve conviction that globalisation is good and that the world is a better place for being branded and homogenised in an American form. Vincent wants to be rich too, but he must also please his father and establish a position for himself in the upper echelons of the Chinese business and political system. To a degree then, their agendas differ and the film works well when it reveals their personal antagonisms and frustrations with each other.

Equally, it doesn’t seek to glamorise the business of capitalism, which mainly seems to consist of sitting around in boardrooms, on planes, at various dinners and banquets. There is obvious wealth here but it’s not the wealth of consumption. Rather, it’s a restless, blind impulse to find new formations, to buy and sell. Mart and Vincent are nominally in control of this process but are also beholden to it. Torrens’ film benefits from a familiarity with the protagonists but nevertheless maintains a low-key critical distance.

There’s a telling scene early in Helen’s War when Dr Helen Caldicott encounters dozens of copies of Mike Moore’s Stupid White Men in an American bookshop, but only 2 copies of her latest book tucked away on the shelf. The anti-war movement has a new voice, a media-savvy, multi-skilled populist. “We’re saying the same things,” exclaims Caldicott, “except he’s funny. Well, I’m funny too.” Except she’s not. Caldicott doesn’t do funny. She’s driven, passionate, uncompromising, fearless and deadly serious, because these are serious matters: the destruction of the planet, the end of life as we know it and the prospect that Melbourne will end up looking like it does in Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, the book that started it all for Dr Caldicott way back when. She made a name for herself during the big anti-nuclear campaigns of the 1970s and 80s, but is anybody listening now? Does anybody care?

Broinowski’s film follows Caldicott as she tours the US trying to find an audience for her message, fighting for airtime and coverage, drumming up support. Caldicott’s views don’t change, she knows that she’s right and everything that happens is exactly as she predicted, but there are still shifts and new strategies. A book promo tour becomes an email campaign and a think-tank with some heavy-duty sponsors. Caldicott shows she can still cut it and there is poignancy in seeing her rage against the bomb, confronting a mortality that is both personal and global.

Lonely Boy Richard (RT58, p. 17) is a well-measured and considered piece about the impact of alcohol on remote Aboriginal towns in the Northern Territory. Without sensationalising or over-dramatising the subject, the film displays great empathy and patience, taking what could have been a throw-away news story and producing an insightful, albeit painful, portrait of a man, his family and a community.

Dean and Levy’s The President Versus David Hicks has been widely distributed and needs little introduction. It is a chronicle of the times that uses the absent David Hicks as a prism for examining how ordinary lives can be touched and transformed by worldwide events. While everybody is implicated in the conduct of states in the ‘Global War on Terror’, Hicks is at the pointy end where its impact is most stark and pitiless. His father, Terry Hicks, steps into his son’s awful void and the film is as much about his journey as it is about retracing David’s.

Caldicott, Wanambi, Hicks, Bakal and Lee—this year’s documentaries are all about contemporary life stories of personal struggle and endeavour. Its pertinence and pathos should win The President Versus David Hicks this year’s award. Despite their general gloominess, this year’s films see Australian documentary filmmakers intelligently and sometimes provocatively engaging with the key issues affecting all our lives on the planet today.

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 23

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

It's Like That

It's Like That

The nominees for best animation this year for the most part look good, healthily embracing a range of techniques with the computer as only one tool among others. Robert Stephenson’s Lucky for Some (11’10) is the conventional work in the cluster, a clay animation that looks pretty familiar if deftly done—no playing with the limits of clay here. Locations shift between beach, casino and police station as the principals are interrogated by police. So too our opinions of these seeming innocents transform dramatically as the convoluted plot about chance discoveries and murderous outcomes unfolds. Perhaps the selectors for the award were taken by the short story twist and the grim seriousness underlying comic appearances. I found it hard to locate the film’s tone and was more attracted to the other contenders who put narrative aside, as in Pia Borg’s Footnote, or kept it in its place in the interplay between moment and momentum as in Sejong Park’s Birthday Boy and It’s Like That (7’15) by the Southern Ladies Animation Group.

Birthday Boy (9’30) is, as Dan Edwards has described it in OnScreen (RT 62, p21), a simple tale resonating with many meanings. A child in a Korean village ruined by war and devoid of community himself plays at war, making military toys and wearing his father’s dog tags, unaware of the soldier’s death. In an early chilling moment the boy hurls a stone at and hits a distant cyclist. The film’s great strength is in its evocation of an innocent interiority, alternating the animation equivalents of long shots with extreme closeups that not only focus on what obsesses the boy but bring him face to face, almost full screen, with the viewer, a curious and affecting mirror experience. Birthday Boy is an intense and beautifully crafted film in the anime style, nuancing its anti-war premise with questions about innocence and learning. The film won the Yoram Gross Animation award at this year’s Dendy Awards for Short Films at the Sydney Film Festival; Siggraph Art Show, Best Animated short 2003, USA; and the Prix Ars Electronica 2004 Award of Distinction for Computer Animation/visual effects, Austria.

Pia Borg’s Footnote (6’00) is an eccentric modernist fantasia harking back in style and content to Max Ernst and the worlds conjured by the likes of Franz Kafka and Bruno Schulz. But here the layering is mobile, rhythmically alternating between the levels of a house and also the codes of writing, musical notation and dance that propel and obsess its mechanistic characters. The animation reveals a contemporary virtuosity here and there by escaping the flatness of much collage with, for example, some striking depth of field as we are swept around the driven pianist. Antony Pateras’ score for piano both heightens and threatens to rupture the metronomic pulse of this alien world of constrained creativity. Footnote was one of the 20 student films from around the world to be shown in the CinÃ(c)fondation section at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

The mix of animation styles in It’s Like That (7’15) by the Southern Ladies Animation Group (SLAG) at first sight suggests ungainliness, but somehow it all hangs together and to powerful effect. The editing of sound and image and the almost documentary narrative structure (built around the recorded voices of child refugees in Australian detention centres) integrate the linear shifts between and occasional overlays of stop animation, flash and cell drawings. A horizontal line becomes a ship, it squiggles into fire and snakes out to become an outline of Australia —simple enough artistry but juxtaposed with a child’s voice it’s disturbing. Similarly the portrayal of the children as knitted bird puppets seems coy at first but the limited means and our attentive-ness to the voices keeps sentimentality well at bay. It’s Like That was invited to the International Documentary Festival in Amsterdam in 2003.

Park and Borg are recent graduates of AFTRS and VCA respectively. Melbourne-based SLAG is a collaborative venture, a model freshly emergent in film here and there around the country. All 3 have already made successful forays into the international festival scene, justifying the AFI Awards selection and a sign yet again of the strengths of Australian animation. As for a winner, for me it’s a tie between Birthday Boy and It’s Like That, between a fully visually realised psychological acuity on the one hand and an agitprop deployment of the means to hand, but with great sensitivity, on the other.

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 23

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

Ten films? After perusing the entries of the 46th Australian Film Institute Awards, it becomes immediately apparent that the chief concern regarding domestic cinema is no longer the quality but the quantity of films. The sparse field (there were 20 entries in 2003 and 14 in 2002) is more in keeping with the glamour and scope of a greyhound race than a prestigious showcase of a national industry. Despite this significant problem, for the first time in some years there are positive signs when it comes to content. Against the backdrop of a severe production downturn, 2 trends are revealed: it appears that we have seen the last of misfiring conservative comedies, and a stronger art cinema presence means that we can face the future with cautious optimism rather than outright fear.

In the slew of attacks on recent Australian cinema, the critical knives have been most often brandished against the ocker comedies—not only because of their triteness, but because they fail to meet their ambitious box office targets. They are created as popular entertainment but, because of marketing resources and domineering international competitors, cannot be promoted as such. Critics and punters will sleep easier in the knowledge that the run is finally closing, with a small but ignoble class of 2004: the dismal The Honourable Wally Norman (director Ted Emery) lamely attempts to translate small screen talent to theatres; Thunderstruck (Darren Ashton) is an AC/DC film with no AC/DC music; and the ironically titled Under the Radar (Evan Clarry) completely avoided detection during its theatrical release. In the wake of the Film Finance Corporation establishing its new funding process, in which creative merit has become the chief criterion, the ‘popular’ comedy will surely become the most endangered species in our cinematic landscape.

Now to the glimmers of hope. Among the few films in contention for this year’s awards, there are some notable entries from both new players and old hands. Though Somersault (Cate Shortland, RT62, p. 19) is suffering from the syndrome of over-praise from quality-starved film reviewers, it is an impressive work with a style and subject matter which is assuring its success at European festivals: moody cinematography, sparse dialogue and a teenage girl’s sexual journey. Somersault, Shortland and lead Abbie Cornish (giving a memorable performance in a year otherwise bereft of important female roles) are all frontrunners in their respective categories.

Other members of this year’s art cinema contingent are a flawed yet interesting cache. Rolf De Heer’s annual offering will be remembered as a genuine curiosity of Australian cinema. The Old Man Who Read Love Stories was made 4 years ago with a Hollywood cast in Guyana as a French co-production, which meant it only just scraped into eligibility for the AFI Awards. It is one of the director’s most personal and sensitive works. In contrast to De Heer’s magic realism is The Finished People (Khoa Do, RT59, p. 16). This film’s digital grittiness is borne of a production, financing and development process ostracised by the industry, interestingly reflecting the alienated lives of the Cabramatta youths which the film depicts.

Similarly, Alkinos Tsilimidos is a graduate of the ‘shoot first, finance later’ film school, and his first fully-funded feature Tom White is another modest yet poetic look at the disenfranchised. Not all of the 2004 art house projects are as successfully realised. Beneath the meticulous production design of Love’s Brother (Jan Sardi) is a conservative, flimsy romantic comedy.

In the face of damning box office figures and vitriolic critical analysis, the immediate (and understandable) response of the marketplace has been to offer fewer products. Amongst this small collection, the more impressive projects are downsized, personal pieces about society’s fringe dwellers, aimed squarely at the middle-class art house market. This more boutique approach will perhaps raise the quality of the Australian slate, but it is worth noting the wider industrial effect: many freelance crewmembers and postproduction houses will become redundant, there will be shrinking professional and technological resources and attempts at other genre films will become more difficult. And there are further, even graver risks in this approach. In the current rationalist environment, if gross receipts do not significantly increase, it will take a hell of a lot of international awards to convince the wider public that Australia possesses a sustainable, worthy industry, and production opportunities will dwindle even further.

We are at a crucial junction where the next 2 years will dictate the further viability of cinematic expression in this country. It will be interesting to see whether filmmakers rise to the occasion, financers display vision, and audiences pay any attention at all.

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 24

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

While the range of feature films eligible for this year’s AFI Awards signals some potentially important new directions for Australian cinema, the short film nominees are a less inspiring, more predictable bunch. Judging by the shorts I’ve seen at festivals in the past 12 months, this is probably more indicative of a general malaise in Australian dramatic short filmmaking than a fault in the selection process.

Three of the 4 short nominees are ‘mini-features’, part of the wave of 50 minute films that have dominated the AFI selections since the AFC launched its ‘short feature’ initiative several years ago. As I noted in my piece on the program last year (RT57, p. 15), the potential offered by the form for experimentation without the financial risk of a feature has generally not been taken up. Two of the mini-features nominated this year are straight, naturalistic dramas, while the third is another in the long line of Australian crime films.

So Close To Home (director Jessica Hobbs) is an engaging tale of a young refugee (Arbenita Fejzullahu) adrift in Australia, who is taken under the wing of a young local professional named Maggie (Kerry Fox). The girl appears in Maggie’s train compartment in the dead of night as a silent, slightly unnerving presence. Especially in its early scenes, So Close To Home effectively conveys the alien nature of the refugee presence for most Australians living comfortably in the suburbs. As the story progresses, however, the air of mystery gradually dissipates and the narrative becomes a conventional tragic scenario climaxing in an appropriately weepy conclusion. So Close To Home is a heartfelt if unadventurous film, that nevertheless looks beyond the individual concerns of white, middle class Australians that often dominate our cinema.

Floodhouse (Miro Bilbrough) is a less successful mini-feature centring on Mara (Victoria Thaine), an adolescent dumped by her self-obsessed ‘artistic’ mother on her hippie father, who lives in a primitive shack in what appears to be northern NSW. The film offers an insight into the contemporary vestiges of Australia’s counter culture of the 1970s, a social milieu that receives scant attention on our screens. The portrayal of the suffering endured by many children whose parents have uncompromisingly pursued an ‘alternative’ lifestyle is also a subject rich in potential. While the sense of cultural and geographical isolation endured by these kids is well conveyed, the drama is badly undermined by a saccharine guitar soundtrack, intermittent doses of forced humour and a reliance on cliched dramatic devices. Having successfully evoked the dank semi-tropical environment and primitive conditions Mara and her father live in, Bilbrough falls back on the themes of alienation, loneliness and awkward sexual awakening that characterise countless coming-of-age films the world over. The story ends predictably with the young protagonist moving out into the world, all the wiser for having endured and transcended her restrictive childhood.

The one stylistic surprise in this year’s short nominees is Paul McDermott’s The Scree, a suitably grim fairytale about a group of travellers stranded on an island and being devoured, one-by-one, by the formless horror named in the title. The images are an imaginative mix of drawings on paper cut-outs and live actors. While it was refreshing to see an Australian short operating outside the conventions of psychological drama, The Scree is essentially an illustrated poem in which the images add little to the words delivered in voice-over. The poem itself is rather childish one-dimensional verse lacking any metaphorical or symbolic resonance. Despite the simplistic tone, the fates meted out to the travellers are genuinely gruesome, making it difficult to tell whether the The Scree is intended as a children’s film or an adult story in fairytale form.

The final nominee is Lennie Cahill Shoots Through (Charlie Doane), a sub-Blue Murder depiction of Sydney’s changing crime scene. Unlike Blue Murder, Lennie Cahill unashamedly romanticises Sydney’s criminal past. Although set in the present, the characters are left-overs from a time when the city was populated by grizzled, straight-talking cops and a gallery of lovable roguish villains. These crims may occasionally knock off an innocent bystander in the pursuit of an honest day’s crime, but they always feel bad about it afterwards. The film does effectively capture the few remaining physical traces of pre-Olympics inner-Sydney, and offers some wry comments on the contemporary shift from blue to white collar crime. But the style is marred by an uneasy combination of gritty realism and ill-conceived comedy which at times makes it feel like a group of aging Keystone Cops have stumbled into an episode of Wild Side.

The nominated short films reflect a broader bind facing the industry. We are too culturally timid and hamstrung by economic rationalist notions of creating a ‘sustainable industry’ to unequivocally embrace a cinema of adult themes and/or experimentation. As a result, our dramatic films, feature length, mini-feature or short, tend to fall into one of 2 categories: unprovocative, middle-of-the-road dramas that even with strong material pull their punches, or populist films that take on genres while sending up their conventions. Neither seems to resonate with committed cinema goers or the broader public.

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 24

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

Monika Tichacek, The Shadowers

Monika Tichacek, The Shadowers

Monika Tichacek, The Shadowers

Art exhibitions come and go. Some are remembered and achieve iconic status while others vanish into anonymity. The year 2004 will be memorable for the confluence of 2 blockbuster exhibitions that, in their own way, promised glimpses of what contemporary art is all about. The 2004 Biennale of Sydney and 2004: Australian Culture Now were virtually in sync and apparently in competition as well, each striving to outdo the other in terms of being ‘contemporary.’ The Biennale of Sydney presented the “best of contemporary international and Australian art”, art “about today… about everything that is happening and shaping our lives.” 2004 offered a “snapshot of the most exciting things happening in Australian art today”, “a spectacular survey of work at the edge of current artistic practice.” In drawing attention to the coincidence of these 2 exhibitions I want to highlight the priority that both invested in innovative artistic practice, and the perception that to be really contemporary is to be, in jazz argot, “something else”; spectacular, groundbreaking.

From the point of view of digital media arts, the Biennale of Sydney was a huge disappointment. If you went there specifically looking for the stuff you would have to conclude that it is no longer on the agenda. Apart from a number of interactive works by Mario Rizzi (The Sofa of Jung) and Catherine Richards (I was scared to death/I could have died of joy), the Biennale seems to have forgotten that media art is a focal index of the effect that digital technologies have in shaping our lives.

What of 2004: Australian Culture Now? The exhibition declared its innovative nature from the outset. For starters, it was an ambitious collaborative venture, 2 years in the making, between the Australian Centre for the Moving Image and the Ian Potter Centre of the National Gallery of Victoria. In contrast to the Biennale of Sydney, digital media was placed prominently on the exhibition’s map of emerging trends in Australian video, television, painting, networked media, sculpture, installation, photography, craft, design and fashion. Indeed, the spectacular Federation Square atrium that separates the Ian Potter Centre and ACMI could be regarded as a symbol of the complex and vibrant convergences taking place within contemporary Australian art. Senior NGV curator Charles Green drew specific attention to this in his catalogue essay, describing the fluency and openness of the boundaries between previously discrete forms such as cinema, architecture, painting and the internet. This convergence was also cannily reflected in the organisation of the exhibition around broad categories such as image, fashion, object and installation. Furthermore, the accompanying website cross-referenced different artists’ works across categories, reinforcing the blurring of formal boundaries so central to the entire exhibition. Screen-based media art and painting might not occupy the same physical space, but in 2004 they certainly occupy the same conceptual space, in conversation with, and informing, one another. Moreover, as Green astutely observes, ACMI’s foregrounding of interactive and time-based screen arts strategically heightens their curatorial place, in contrast to most art institutions where they are relegated to “the same peripheral spaces allocated during the 1970s to video.”

Although the role of digital media and its associated art forms was prioritised in the curatorial vision of 2004, the highlighting of convergence was not without contradictions and qualifications. There is a strong sense in the promotional literature produced by the NGV that while important conversations are clearly taking place between the visual arts and ‘new media’, we are also witnessing a resurgence of traditional forms. It is painting, not the moving image, that is “moving back towards centre stage”, situating itself “as a reference point for other media.”

One prominent didactic panel at the entrance to the NGV component of 2004 declared, somewhat sulkily, that as a result of “years of digitised technological change” art hasn’t been defined in recent times by its traditional, eponymous forms such as painting and sculpture. Consequently, traditional forms have had to re-define and re-invent themselves through overlaps with the likes of new cinema forms, games and web authoring. This sentiment seems to contradict the 2004 vision of generating a new kind of work that transcends the old divisions between digital and more traditional ‘analogue’ forms of art. Parochialism never dies. Perhaps the removal of Christopher Langton’s triumphal bubble arch, installed as a kind of unifying membrane in the atrium for the exhibition launch, is suggestive of an historical divide in the arts that even 2004 couldn’t hope to resolve. And the principal corporate sponsor had such high hopes for the exhibition: “It will change art…and everyone near the cutting-edge will be affected.” Pity if you don’t live near the cutting edge.

Not to conceal my own parochialism, it was in the ACMI component of 2004 that I encountered 2 works that stood out as innovative. Unfortunately neither Monika Tichacek’s The Shadowers (2004) nor Philip Brophy’s The Body Malleable (2002-2004) evidenced the intermedia “creolisation” celebrated in the catalogue, nor did they represent the coming into the world of a hybrid, as yet unnamed contemporary art form spawned from encounters between unlikely things. While it must be conceded that both these works attracted the carping kind of “your taxes paid for this” diatribe often meted out to contemporary art, neither could compete in the moral outrage stakes with Nat and Ali’s not only but also, honk for art (2004) installation at the NGV. This work of excessive scrapbook ephemera, which covered entire walls, was an extravagant exploration of what is and isn’t topical in contemporary art. However, it primarily received attention for its controversial and eventually censored slur on Ian Thorpe (from gay to gold icon with a single thumbtack).

Sydney-based artist Monika Tichacek’s multi-channel video work The Shadowers immediately caused a ruckus in terms of where it should go. Originally to be installed in the Screen Gallery with the rest of the ACMI component of 2004, it was eventually exhibited separately in the ACMI Studio and restricted to patrons over 18 years of age. The Shadowers is an overwhelming experience virtually impossible to describe. Situated within its tight triangular arrangement of screens, I felt completely enveloped. Tichacek inventively exploited the proximity of the 3 screens to create a claustrophobic, audio-visual space of immersion. The sense of entrapment was a weird corollary of the bizarre role-playing scenarios depicted on the screens, involving 3 ambiguous characters and surreal procedures of bondage and confinement. Far from being erotic or sexualised, it was the abstraction of their interactions that made this work so beguiling and riveting. In this sense the least shocking aspect of The Shadowers was the much-publicised tongue-nailing sequence. It was the meticulous, geometrical rigour with which elaborately artificial prosthetic connections of string, nails, jewels and saliva enmesh the protagonists that was totally engaging and disturbing: a dream logic worthy of Kafka on an absinthe binge. Loud, unnerving and visceral, yet strangely quiescent, The Shadowers brought to mind remarks made about David Lynch’s Eraserhead in 1977: “Ever have a dream while sleeping face down, with your mouth and nose buried in your pillow? In your discomfort you might have conjured up something that approximates Eraserhead.”

Philip Brophy’s The Body Malleable is the first work of media art to finally and emphatically tell it like it is: interacting with computers is a completely embodied experience. With its penetrative and very literal digital interface, The Body Malleable is an ironic and playful exploration of the human-computer interface that dares us to be squeamish (“The colon and its polysexual route to infinite Otherness beckons you”). The theme of the body malleable is a familiar one in Brophy’s work, only here the transformations of vaginal and penile forms and sounds are in the hand, or rather finger, of the beholder. The Body Malleable is the kind of work many people, including myself, have been waiting for at ACMI. It is striking and memorable, pushing the possibilities of interaction beyond the familiar point and click interface associated with computer-based works. It is welcome and important in that it extends ACMI’s curatorial history of presenting relatively safe and non-threatening work.

Whether we like it or not, we are required to physically relate to the work in a totally unprecedented, unfamiliar way: “You want to stick your finger in, but once you do, it gets messy.” The more rigorous your attack on the beautifully sculptural, yet organically ambiguous interface (is this a vagina or a colon I see before me?), the more suggestive and palpable the transformations on screen, and the more stimulated the surround sound becomes. But make no mistake, Brophy isn’t out to offend public taste, to shock or dramatically blot the contemporary arts map with a memorable success de scandale. It is the total indifference to either appeasing or transgressing aesthetic or moral codes that makes The Body Malleable stand out as an engaging and thoroughly worked over experience. When I went back to check it out prior to the closing of the show, that sphincter was well and truly spent. Another ruptured membrane in the 2004 experience. Spectacular.

2004: Australian Culture Now, Australian Centre for the Moving Image and National Gallery of Victoria, June 8-Sept 12; Biennale of Sydney, various venues, June 5-Aug 15

Darren Tofts’ essay on media arts at the Biennale of Sydney is published in Artspace’s Criticism+Engagement+ Thought, edited by Blair French, Adam Geczy and Nicholas Tsoutas. He is currently working on a book about Australian media arts to be published by Thames and Hudson.

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 32

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

There is a persistent trope of disembodiment that frames many investigations into the impact of new media technologies on culture. When we sit in chat rooms or immerse ourselves in virtual worlds, our bodies are supposed to lapse into redundancy—meat, as William Gibson called it. Despite the aching necks and backs and chronic RSI suffered by those who engage heavily with computing technologies, this trope persistently surfaces. So it was interesting to note that the body, in all its glorious corporeality, emerged as a loose theme binding the works exhibited as part of the ACMI Screen Gallery component of 2004: Australian Culture Now.

2004 was billed as “one of the most ambitious surveys of contemporary Australian art and culture in recent history.” The Screen Gallery component of the exhibition was made up of 9 works curated by Alexie Glass. There was, however, some overlap with the Networked component of the exhibition, curated by Melinda Rackham and featuring 22 works, ranging from Flash animations through to websites for online communities such as Empyre and Fibreculture.

Despite being a survey show, the works specifically curated for the Screen Gallery all manifest an interest in some part of the body or bodies. It’s hard to say whether this was a curatorial preference or a sign of some kind of emerging trend in new media arts. Nevertheless, gendered bodies, ephemeral bodies and malleable bodies all made their presence felt.

behind the mountain (2004) by Darren Dale, Jonathan Jones and David Page focuses on the colonisation of Indigenous bodies by early white settlers in Australia. Drawing its title from Truganini’s poignant plea to be buried behind the mountain rather than have her remains distributed to European museums, as happened to many of her people, the work serves as a reminder of the brutality that thousands of Indigenous Australians endured at the hands of colonial governments. Even after death, their bodies were forced to succumb to the rule of the European invaders, their graves robbed and their remains removed without permission so as to be bought and sold for exhibition and experimentation. The work consists of 6 short films projected into 6 cardboard boxes laid out on the gallery floor. Each film shows a body, shot so as to appear contained and constrained by the box. The bodies are naked, silent and vulnerable. It is a quiet, thoughtful work that eloquently evokes a sorry past.

While behind the mountain positions the viewer as a spectator of the captive body, Alex Davies’ Swarm (2003) captures spectators and incorporates them into the work. As viewers move into the installation space, their image is tracked, captured and projected back to them on the screen. The captured image data is stored in a database and re-emerges to create an evolving mediascape. Ghostly traces of past visitors join with viewers currently in the space, at times leading to swarms of activity. The visual activity is linked to a soundtrack which swells to fill the space or recedes to silence, depending on the activity on screen. Swarm reminds us of the public nature of our bodies in an age of surveillance.

Despite the work being contingent on the physical presence of participants, Swarm asks very little of that presence. Philip Brophy’s The Body Malleable, in contrast, demands that we use our bodies, or rather our fingers, in a far more active way. The interface consists of an orb about the size of a bowling bowl in front of a screen. Putting your fingers into the orifice of the orb produces changes in the animation on the screen in front of you. The faster you move your fingers in and out of the orifice, the greater the changes produced (there was a term for it when I was in high school but I won’t use it here). The animation itself is a playful commentary on the mutability of gender. Some finger thrusts produce a mutating penile form while others a similarly mobile vagina. In Brophy’s words, “The penile and the vaginal roll and flutter like a series of hot flushes but they are degendered by their incessant drive to become the other…The colon and its polysexual route to infinite Otherness beckons you. There is no turning back once the body becomes malleable.”

Malleable bodies also feature strongly in the work of Sydney-based collective the Kingpins. In Dark Side of the Mall (2004), they continue their exploration of performance-based interventions into public and popular spaces. The work, which taps into the aesthetics of the rock video, the shopping mall and drag, is made up of a series of videos projected onto 3 screens, set to The Angels’ tune Am I Ever Gonna See Your Face Again?. The screens force the viewer to move between disparate scenes featuring pirates in a car park (strangely reminiscent of West Side Story) and teenage beauty queens in a faux classical shopping mall. This amplifies the sense of disjuncture created within the scenes themselves. Given how little we’ve seen of the Kingpins in Melbourne, I think the inclusion of some of their earlier works may have helped provide a stronger context for this piece.

Other works included in the ACMI Screen Gallery were Troy Innocent’s lifeSigns (2004), which continues the artist’s always interesting probes into the nature of language and iconography; Symbiotica’s MEART: the semi-living artist (2001); Shaun Gladwell’s godspeed verticals (2004); David Rosetzky’s Maniac de Luxe (2004) and the much discussed work by Monika Tichacek, The Shadowers (2004). The only worrying aspect of the show was the absence of artists from outside Sydney or Melbourne, and the retreat into a strong emphasis on video/cinematic works after what I felt was a positive move by ACMI in last year’s Transfigure exhibition towards media art installations.

2004: Australian Culture Now, Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne, June 8-Sept 12

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 33

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

Leon Cmielewski and Josephine Starrs, Floating Territories game card

Leon Cmielewski and Josephine Starrs, Floating Territories game card

I am standing in the departure hall of the Helsinki ferry terminal. Long lines of new media artists, theorists, curators and funders queue alphabetically to check-in for the ISEA2004 (Inter-Society for the Electronic Arts) Baltic cruise. Among the passengers are many well-known names whose thoughts dominate the email discussion lists and websites that underpin the new media art community’s sense of identity. And here they all are in the flesh; the network embodied.

At 4 o’clock we set off. Outside it is pouring with rain. Those artists with work on the ‘sundeck’ look hassled and soggy; they’ve had 3 hours to install their complex artworks from scratch. Inside water is pouring in from the roof onto the DJs and slopping out of the hot tub over the floor. Surely it is not a good idea to mix so much electronic art with so much water. There is art everywhere; on the ferry’s television system, in the lifts, in the gym, even in the pool. But at this point it’s difficult to tell the difference between what is working, what has been broken by the rain, and what is still being set up.

The first artwork that makes an impact on me is Josephine Starrs and Leon Cmielewski’s Floating Territories. Each passenger has received in their conference pack a small card with instructions. I’ve got “Petition: sway opinion towards your own position—buy an influential person a drink.” I compare with someone else nearby, who has: “Converge: meet on safe ground—invite someone to collaborate.” There is a computer component to the work that maps personal family migratory history, but it is the cards themselves that are most interesting in this context. In their self-referential irony our instructions expose the solipsism of the new media art world, in which the behaviours we value—networking, collaborating and theorising—have become a kind of tribal dogma and a recipe for isolation, rather than engagement with people outside our field (or boat). The work alludes to the “floating world” prints which celebrated the sensual and artistic pleasures of 19th century Tokyo during its period of isolation from the rest of the world. In our own floating world we are getting our fair share of sensual pleasures as the evening wears on.

On deck 10 at Club Stardust, artists have taken over the karaoke machine. By midnight everyone is dancing in the ballroom and people are diving in the hot-tubs; the passengers are partying like it’s 1999. As I watch the new media art world frolic I wonder what this surreal knees-up says about this community’s self-image right now. It has an air of grand folly that implies self-confidence and a sense of reaching a certain zenith in development. Has new media culture reached, as Tapio Makela, Program Chair, writes in his rationale for organising this big party: “a stage where it has the maturity to be both sensual, technically advanced and critically aware”?

The major theme of the event, “Histories of the new”, also indicates an arrival at a key evolutionary moment, a point from which we must look back and take stock. New media art is canonising its heroes, pointing to its past, claiming its hard fought right to be taken seriously. As if to prove this point, that evening at the performance of Séa.nce, by Norie Neumark, Maria Miranda and Greg Turner, we summon our collective laptop emotion to conjure up the spirit of Marshall McLuhan. “Who wants to ask Marshall a question?” asks Neumark. Someone types into the chat space: “Marshall, can the network save your life?”

On day 2, I begin to try and plan the speakers and events I would like to see. The event is enormously ambitious, over programmed and complex. Apart from the overarching history theme there are 7 others: “Wearable experience”, “Wireless experience”, “Networked experience”, “Interfacing sounds”, “Geopolitics of media”, “Critical interaction design” and “Open source and software as culture”. There are more than 300 presentations, picked from 1,300 entries by an international programming committee of 40. Once I have cross-referenced the theme I’m interested in against its timeslot and location, I begin to see the uselessness of planning in the face of such chaos. I decide to follow my nose and take my chances.

The networking, at least, has become more systematic. There are official times for African, Asian, French and New Zealand network meetings. My nose-following strategy proves successful, leading me to the interesting Asia-Pacific session which highlights the problems and tactics of networking within a massively disparate region where many governments are either indifferent, or hostile, to collaboration with their neighbours.

The discussion foregrounds the topic of the “Geopolitics of media”, which really comes into its own in Estonia. We arrive in Tallinn on day 3, partied out and sleep deprived. Program co-chair Mare Tralle welcomes us with a reminder of how Estonian access to media and technology has been affected by politics. She describes the “void of media” left in the wake of the Soviet era, followed by the “e-euphoria” of 1990s Estonia, which was mixed with the “ultra right-wing political turmoil of regained independence.” She hopes that ISEA2004 will engage the Estonian public and provide “international reference points for re-assessing our local situation.”

We have 2 days in Tallinn. The conference venues are a 30 minute walk from each other, with simultaneous programs, and there are 4 exhibitions around the city. This leg of the journey is more like a hit-and-run collision than a profound engagement with Estonian culture.

I steal an afternoon from conferencing to pay some attention to the major exhibition, which explores the “Geopolitics” theme. Many of the works create or expose undercurrents of social and political exchange, such as Sarai Media Lab’s Network of No_Des, an absorbing hypertext world of found material from the new media street culture of Delhi. The show is an interesting portrait of international practice, but all the texts are in English—none are in Estonian.

The last leg of our journey brings us back to Helsinki and the opening of the major “Wireless experience” exhibition at Kiasma. I am weary of this wanton mobility. I don’t feel wireless and networked—I have never felt so encumbered, leaden and difficult to transport. In spite of myself I am cheered up by the first piece I see: Rebecca Cummings and Paul Demarinis’ Light Rain. My umbrella, which has been an unhappily overused companion on this trip, becomes a delightfully imaginative interface, resonating with melodies transmitted by an artificial rain shower.

One piece in the show goes down particularly well with the audience. Bubl Space by Arthur Elsenaar and Taco Stolk is a “concept device” that blocks mobile phone signals for 3 metres around the user. People queue up to try making a call near the device and are delighted when they can’t. What a good idea: poor us, all we want is a little bit of personal, communication-free space in the urban landscape.

Day 6 dawns and the adventure is nearly over. I am looking for synthesis, a way to draw meaning from this chaotic experience. Of course, when you go looking for synthesis you usually find it, but a keynote speech from Sarai Media Lab’s Shuddhabrata Sengupta called “The remains of tomorrow’s past, speculations on the antiquity of new media practice in South Asia”, gives me something richer. He begins charmingly, self deprecatingly, by telling us that if you put an Indian behind a lectern he will tell you he invented the world. It is a timely reminder that any view of anything can be only partial. His talk offers “speculations about the possibility of constructing alternative, non-transatlantic histories of ‘new’ media practice.” He draws together the threads of history and geopolitics and puts his finger on the source of what has been worrying me since we set off on this journey, what he calls the “immature solipsism of the North American and European media scene” and the making of an historical grand narrative of new media art. He weaves a story of the development of a touch-based system of telegraph in 19th century India with the internet, giving them a common point of inspiration in the Buddhist texts of “Indra’s Net”, a legend of a net with a jewel on each intersection that creates an “infinite reflection process.” His point is not to suggest this is the origin of modern communication technologies, but rather, to show the viability of alternative stories to prove the opposite: “nothing comes from just one place.”

Sengupta offers a solution: the proliferation of stories and versions, “an open source alternative history.” A resistance to the synthesis I am seeking. Suddenly the chaos of the past few days seems a positive quality, and I don’t feel the need to search for answers or order any more. It has been a crossing of divergent paths that can be grasped only subjectively by each person present. I’m content to go home with my own story of what happened at ISEA 2004, to read the catalogue and marvel at the things I missed, to hear the stories of others who seemed to have gone to a completely different event.

ISEA2004, Baltic Sea; Tallinn, Estonia; Helsinki, Finland; Aug 14-22

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 34

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

In a keynote address at ISEA2004 (Inter-Society for the Electronic Arts), French sociologist Michael Malfesoli argued that postmodern culture is in part defined by the play of experimentation, rather than rationalised technology. This tension between toys and tools provides an interesting context for two ISEA2004 exhibits for which games and play form an important background: Leon Cmielewski and Josephine Starrs’ Floating Territories and Jason Davidson’s Aboriginal Imagination: Ngulliyangi.

ISEA2004 saw exhibitions and conferences in 3 locations: initially the Baltic Sea cruise ship The Opera, then Tallinn (Estonia) and finally Helsinki (Finland). For Floating Territories a game card was slipped in with each passenger’s ship boarding pass. The card could be swiped at a terminal on board to access a game or swapped with other passengers. And it provided a portal for players to map their own migratory histories.

In this and previous work such as Dream Kitchen, Cmielewski and Starrs engage with the cultural force of games as opposed to say, filmic forms. Games provide opportunities for immediate engagement. “Play is an important strategy so we use that. We want people to enjoy the work, to play with it but play is also a fantastic way to allow expression and disseminate meaning” says Starrs. In this instance they had a captive community of savvy ISEA participants sailing the Baltic Sea. There may never be a better group of boat people to test this research project.

Floating Territories is a response to recent migration debates in Australia: “We wanted to do something about territory, about immigration, and started to consider if we could work out a game. We didn’t want to have representations of people because once you start doing that you enter a minefield of stereotypes. So we went back to the Atari abstract games: we liked the aesthetic in those games and we could talk about movements of people in an abstract way.”

The work required a series of simple exercises, yet finally presented a powerful, complex message that visualised the previously invisible traces of migration. Each boarding pass card had a theme, such as “Defend”, “Colonise” and “Petition”, with ironic instructions (the “Petition” card suggested that you buy a drink for an important ISEA delegate). Players deployed their assigned strategy, or one they had chosen after swapping cards. After, the game players arrived at a site programmed in to the computer where they could map their migration history by drawing lines connecting their family’s migration, their own domicile and their current position. In Tallinn the artists projected an animated graphic of the results. It was a powerful experience to see the Mercator map disappearing behind a series of superimposed lines linking points across space, creating a new map of interconnections.

The ‘play’ of the work reflected the production processes employed by Cmielewski and Starrs. They collaborate without necessarily assigning specific roles, while programming tasks on this project were undertaken by Adam Hinshaw. Floating Territories itself was conducted as a form of research. The on-board installation gathered migratory data which was fed back to participants in the presentation.

The open nature of the research strategy meant the feedback raised new possibilities. Cmielewski noted that the mapping process prompted people to put in their own personal stories: “If you were standing next to them they’d start reflecting on their migration history and so a lot of suggestions have come from people who’d like to add more information and build up a network of stories.” Starrs added that the strategy of incorporating play and mapping had potential for spin-off modules for workshops and other festivals. But Cmielewski mused that a “demographically correct” mapping of the entire movements of people may take this work too far in an instrumental form.

The diagram may be a banal example of the instrumental tension in art, yet its mundanity belies its danger as a form of knowledge. These days a sketched map is enough to have you labelled a terrorist. The danger of diagrams prompted Jason Davidson’s contributions to ISEA2004, but his motivation was to release the play of Aboriginal knowledge into health education. His work was presented at the City Gallery in Tallinn.

Davidson was completing a Masters degree in cross cultural health communication when he was asked to view health promotion images for an Aboriginal program. He was appalled: “The pictures [showing the kidney filtering waste from the blood] were so simplified it was psychologically saying that you mob are too stupid to learn from anything harder than kindergarten drawings. So I decided to design a drawing of the kidney to prove that Aboriginal artists and culture can be used scientifically in health and in education to tell a proper story for how the kidney does its job.” This print was recently purchased by Janet Holmes a Court.

Davidson’s work travelled from health intervention to valued art through Aboriginal knowledge systems. He says he is applying existing knowledge in a new way so that “Indigenous people get recognised and supported to control things in this area [health education] for themselves and for their communities.” This socially engaged ‘art as information’ challenges instrumental health promotion. Davidson spent hours reading anatomy books, reworking their drawings and later testing his material back in his communities in Gurindji country in the Northern Territory.

His images are hand drawn with acid free felt tip pen, manipulated with Photoshop, and printed on canvas and etching paper. Davidson plays with Western images of the body by using an “x-ray style.” As well as the mounted images there is a similar multimedia animation, produced with After Effects, that unpacks a human body to demonstrate relations between organs and movements of forces and fluids.

Aboriginal Imagination also includes Davidson’s “hunting videos”: handheld digital video images of hunts and food preparation. The videos are a kind of reworked diagram, taking the viewer through each phase of the process from hunt to feast. They challenge the boundary between health, bodies and knowledge, by linking killing and feasting to health.

Despite being based in an educational institution, Davidson was unable to get access to a laptop for his field research. So he took A4 prints and video copies of the animation back with him to trial with communities. The multimedia includes a number of the original songs (written and performed by the Wildwater Band) that were recorded live as “lounge room and kitchen” voice-overs.

As well as attracting attention from art collectors, his work has caught the eye of business developers. Davidson had to fight for intellectual property rights when a company marketing health products appeared interested. This is reflected in a number of prints in the Tallinn exhibition which he has titled Fight for your rights.

Leon Cmielewski and Josephine Starrs, Floating Territories, programming Adam Hinshaw; ISEA2004; The Opera cruise ship, Baltic Sea, August 15-17; Jason Davidson, Aboriginal Imagination: Ngulliyangi; ISEA2004; City Gallery, Tallinn, Estonia; August 17-19

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 35

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

MAAP not only locates Australia’s new media art firmly in the Asia-Pacific, as it first did from its Brisbane base, but now as a unique off-shore event (Beijing 2003, Singapore 2004 and Seoul next) it makes its meetings and collaborations between artists a truly regional exchange. MAAP defies the conventional gravity of place. In fact ‘gravity’ is the event’s 2004 theme and is manifest in many ways, lo-tech and high, as conceptual and new media art, and in a plethora of images—aural and visual—of bodies floating, leaping and being transmitted.

For 2004 Yves Klein’s le peintre de l’espace se jette dans le vide, (‘leap into the void’, 1960) has been adopted as a visual thematic, reflecting not only MAAP’s daring and mobility but also Klein’s influence in “the shift from ‘object based’ to ‘system based’ art making” (MAAP press release). Klein’s visual sleight of hand is also in tune with new media art’s great capacity for illusion.

MAAP’s key exhibition at the Singapore Art Museum is titled Gravity and “seeks to consider the explorations of artists working through the conceptual weight of their expression and the paradox of weightless digital code.” Curated by MAAP director Kim Machan, Gravity (Oct 1-Nov 28) features works by Yves Klein (France), of course, and artists working inventively on many new media fronts: Candy Factory (Japan) and YOUNG-HAE CHANG HEAVY INDUSTRIES (Seoul); Shu Lea Cheang (New York); Marcus Lyall (Melbourne); Ji-Hoon Byun (Seoul); Kim Kichul (Seoul/Seattle); Tsunamii.net (Singapore); Paul Lincoln (Singapore); Tim Plaisted (Brisbane); Paul Bai (Brisbane); Tan Teck Weng (Perth) and Xing Dan Wen (Beijing).

The associated Zero Gravity Party on October 29 will feature a live broadband link between the museum and the Creative Industries Precinct, QUT, Brisbane, directed by Tien Woon of Tsuanmii.net. The DJ/VJ culture jam will celebrate the link’s providing of a site for intensive cross-artform dialogue.

In Scan (Oct 27-Nov 13), Singapore’s experimental arts hub, The Substation, will house Hong Kong’s Asia Art Archives (AAA) as it gathers new media data for its collection—putting the archivist on show. Artists are invited to drop in and contribute material. Substation will also show a Videotage program from Hong Kong and screen some eagerly anticipated Korean video art.

Ear Lu Gallery (LA SALLE SIA College of Fine Arts) will show -+- negative plus negative (Oct 2-31). It’s compiled by Gridthiya Gaweewong, co-director and curator of Project 304, a homeless art organisation founded in Bangkok in 1996. He is also a guest curator at Chiangmai University Art Museum, Chiangmai, and Art Center, Jim Thompson House Museum, Bangkok. This relatively lo-tech, conceptual show includes artists working in installation, performance, digital video and sound, exploring the law of gravity aesthetically, socially and politically—and there are not a few images of suspension. Kamol Phaosavasdi, Sakarin Krue-on and Wit Pimkarnchanapong are from Thailand and Anthony Gross and Jim Prevett & McArthur from the UK.

Australian video art is featured in the touring exhibition I thought I knew but I was wrong at The Gallery, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (Oct 22-Nov 17). Curated by Sarah Tutton (Asialink) and Alexie Glass (Australian Centre for the Moving Image) the impressive collection includes works by Guy Benfield, Phillip Brophy, Amiel Courtin-Wilson, Daniel Crooks, DAMP, Destiny Deacon, Virginia Fraser, Shaun Gladwell, Lyndal Jones, The Kingpins, Marcus Lyall, James Lynch, Tracey Moffatt, TV Moore, Patricia Piccinini, David Rosetsky, Ivan Sen, Monika Tichacek and Craig Walsh.

Brisbane-based sound artist Lawrence English is curating The Gravities of Sound (Oct 11-28) in the Esplanade Theatres on the Bay pedestrian tunnel that links to the vast underground arcades and rail network of central Singapore. Sound equipment will be installed in the ceiling to provide an immersive audio experience for pedestrians as they pass through the 80 metre tunnel, a space where listening is usually not a priority. The artists include Kim Kichul (Korea), who will explore natural sounds in unnatural settings, and Candy Factory (Japan), Melatonin (an international compilation of works selected by English), Bruce Mowson (Australia) and Khin Zaw Latt (Myanmar). In Gravity Extended, curated by Kim Machan and Experimenta, an exhibition space at the end of the audio tunnel will visually extend the gravity theme with a work by Bruce Mowson, and Annie Wilson’s Fight or Flight digital video of streaming bodies falling through a void (Oct 11-Nov 31).

Another exhibition with sound at its centre brings Filipino and Myanmar artists with backgrounds in music, sound art, experimental video and digital imaging together to investigate “the corporeal and incorporeal qualities of sound, the body and force elements of sound.” Katawán, Satti (Body [Filipino], Force [Myanmar]) at The Gallery, National Institute of Education (Oct 27-Nov 28) is curated by Filipino artist, curator and digital media educator Fatima Lasay. It features Tad Ermitaño, Jing Garcia, Alfredo Manrique from the Philipines and Than Htike Aung and Khin Zaw Latt from Myanmar. The exhibition asks, “How do we learn to hear and understand each other across the differences of the spaces and the forces that we have built within and without our bodies? And when does the body ever really begin to feel comfort in foreign space?” The projected images and sounds in Katawán, Satti are presented “as ‘suspensions’—like bodies floating in space.”

For the latest word on new media art there are 2 key events: the 2004 MAAP conference, titled “New Media Art, Technology & Education” (Nanyang Technological University, Oct 27-28) and a symposium titled “Gravity” with speakers Fatima Lasay, Gridthiya Gaweewong, Kim Machan, Lee Weng Choy, Lawrence English and visiting artists (Singapore Art Museum, Oct 30).

Extending the reach of MAAP 2004 well beyond Singapore and the Asia-Pacific is an online and public video wall installation, People’s Portrait by Zhang Ga: “a global portrait of people rendered in real time and displayed instantly and simultaneously on various cultural websites and grand video walls.” The work will appear in Singapore, Brisbane (Creative Industries Precinct), New York (Reuters, Time Square), Linz (Ars Electronica Museum) and Rotterdam (DEAF Festival) from October 27. People’s Portrait has been produced in partnership with the dynamic, large scale SENI contemporary visual art event of which MAAP is a part.

RealTime will be at MAAP 04 in Singapore working with local and visiting writers, responding to exhibitions and conferences daily online. Keep track of MAAP with us as it unfolds. Defy gravity—join us at www.realtimearts.net/features

MAAP 2004 in Singapore, www.maap.org.au; SENI: Art and the Contemporary; Oct 1-Nov 28

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 36

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

<img src="http://www.realtime.org.au/wp-content/uploads/art/8/875_party1.jpg" alt="RealTime 10th Birthday Party,
Keith, Virginia, Gail and Martin del Amo”>

RealTime 10th Birthday Party,
Keith, Virginia, Gail and Martin del Amo

RealTime 10th Birthday Party,
Keith, Virginia, Gail and Martin del Amo

RealTime 10th Birthday Party, Morganics

RealTime 10th Birthday Party, Morganics

RealTime 10th Birthday Party, Morganics

Gifts came in the form of well-wishes from around the country and, at the packed party at Performance Space on June 12, in 3 minutes each of real-time performance from Martin del Amo, Nalina Wait, Emma Saunders and Lizzie Thomson, Julie-Anne Long, Chris Abrahams, Michael Hooper, Frumpus, Morganics, Version 1.0, Louise Curham and Stasis Duo. Nigel Kellaway favoured us with 30 seconds from each of his oPera Project works (in full costume) to be set upon in the 31st second by an audience wielding plastic baseball bats. The editors (Keith, Virginia and Gail) hosted the event from Pierre Thibaudeau’s boomerang table, their vocal/sound score backed by Sam James’ verité video capturing an uneventful hour (if you don’t count violent disagreements over punctuation) in the life of the RealTime office featuring OnScreen editor Dan Edwards and our proofreading team. There were wise and witty words from Open City Chair, Tony MacGregor, Performance Space’s Fiona Winning, Karilyn Brown and Andrew Donovan from the Australia Council, AFC’s Sabina Wynn and NSW Government’s Deputy Director-General of Arts, Jennifer Lindsay. Heidrun Löhr constructed a wild video poem to the magazine as well as shooting the images on this page from the front row. Adrian Ward and the team from Pulse fed the multitudes with sublime Persian & Ayurvedic-inspired dishes and Nikki Heywood rounded off the evening spelling out in 10 letters made from rolled-up copies of RealTime the words:

T H E S E B O N E S.

RealTime 10th Birthday Party, Nigel Kellaway

RealTime 10th Birthday Party, Nigel Kellaway

RealTime 10th Birthday Party, Nigel Kellaway

RealTime 10th Birthday Party, Michael Hooper

RealTime 10th Birthday Party, Michael Hooper

RealTime 10th Birthday Party, Michael Hooper

RealTime thanks everyone who has contributed to the life of the magazine and to Australia’s innovative arts over this past decade.
<img src="http://www.realtime.org.au/wp-content/uploads/art/8/880_party4.jpg" alt="RealTime 10th Birthday Party,
Keith, Virginia, Gail “>

RealTime 10th Birthday Party,
Keith, Virginia, Gail

RealTime 10th Birthday Party,
Keith, Virginia, Gail

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 37

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

Since partying in June, we’ve discovered that RealTime is not alone in celebrating a significant birthday this year. Our congratulations go to the Australian Centre for Photography (30), Goethe Insitut Sydney (30), Performance Space (21), parallelo (20), STEPS Youth Dance (15), Ranters (10), Aphids (10) and NYID (10).


Aphids, the distinctive and quite unpredictable Melbourne-based multimedia performance company, celebrates its 10th year with A Quarreling Pair, a triptych of miniature puppet plays for adults in the Melbourne International Arts Festival. The plays, by the American avant garde writer Jane Bowles (1917-1973) and Melbourne’s Lally Katz and Cynthia Troup, are directed by Margaret Cameron and performed by Caroline Lee and puppeteer Sarah Kriegler. Lee will also sing the wonderful, rarely-performed art songs by Paul Bowles (1910-1999).

2004 has also been a year for creative travelling for the company. In March David Young, composer and artistic director of Aphids, commenced a 3-month Asialink residency in Java, Bali and Sumatra working with Rendra, Indonesia’s foremost poet and playwright. In July, Aphids went to Europe to develop a new work, Scale, with MUSiCLAB at Les Bains::Connective, a socio-artistic laboratory based in a disused art-deco indoor swimming pool, located in the Moroccan quarter of Brussels. This is another of Aphid’s international collaborations: in 2001 a joint production, Maps, with Copenhagen’s Kokon took them to Denmark after the Australian premiere in 2000.

The multimedia Skin Quartet (RT58, pp. 5-6) premiered at the Anna Schwarz Gallery in the 2003 Melbourne Festival and now lives again on DVD and CD. These are very busy and very constructive aphids! The company celebrates its tenth birthday at North Melbourne’s Lithuanian Club, 44 Errol Street, with a free party on the evening of October 21, featuring a retrospective of performances and installations. David Young writes: “Aphids began with a composer, a fashion designer and a visual artist exploring ways of working together. Since then we have collaborated with literally hundreds of artists from nearly every artform, creating work that has continued to surprise and intrigue us.”

Aphids, A Quarreling Pair, Melbourne International Arts Festival, La Mama, October 13-17, www.aphids.net

A very busy NYID (Not Yet It’s Difficult) artistic director David Pledger zennishly quipped “to be 10 is to be not yet 11” when asked for a word or 2 on his feelings about the company reaching 10 years of age. Presumably the “difficult” bit is as tough as ever, especially with Pledger having directed the performances in the Jeffrey Shaw new media installation Eavesdrop, currently directing the David Chesworth-Tony MacGregor Cosmonaut for Chamber Made (see p. 47) and preparing for a brand new NYID work in November.

Like Aphids, NYID manifests in a number of exciting ways. Alternatives: debating theatre culture in the age of con-fusion (PIE Peter Lang, Belgium, 2004) is an invaluable collection of essays edited by NYID’s dramaturg Peter Eckersall and academic Moriyama Naoto. It was inspired by the intercultural performance collaboration between NYID and Japan’s Gekidan Kaitaisha (Journey To Confusion, 1999-2002). At last we have a much needed account of the significant cultural exchange between Australian and Japanese performance since the early 1980s, one that has shaped much of the contemporary performance scene in this country.

For the Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney Festivals, David Pledger has been working with interactive cinema pioneer Jeffrey Shaw on Eavesdrop. On a 360 degree screen, 10 people repeat 9 minutes of their lives, driven by a member of the audience searching out the meanings in their stories. Eavesdrop seems logical terrain for Pledger after creating the surveillance nightmare of K for the 2002 Melbourne Festival.

NYID’s much anticipated new work for 2004, Blowback, is a further exploration of the implications of social control in an inter-disciplinary work gleefully described by the company as “a kind of gestural, agit-prop, horror movie; part science fiction, part documentary, part absurdist metaphor.” Now that sounds celebratory!

Eavesdrop, ACMI Screen Gallery, Federation Square, Melbourne International Arts Festival, Oct 7- Nov 7; Blowback, Melbourne, Nov 26 – Dec 5; www.notyet.com.au


Under the vigorous and adroit directorship of Alasdair Foster the Australian Centre for Photography has embraced contemporary photomedia with a passion (to the despair of ‘human condition’ hardliners), mixed local and international talents in a series of provocative, themed exhibitions and, through a revamped Photofile, has furthered the reach of Australian photography around the world. Foster knows how to party and no more effectively and generously than with the 30 events celebrating the organisation’s 30 years this September.

The wide-ranging program included panel discussions on photojournalism (Rex Dupain, Jon Lewis, Robyn Stacey), documentary practice, publishing, pornography vs art (Scott Redford), Indigenous photomedia (Djon Mundine, Merv Bishop, Christian Thompson, Gary Lee) and popular culture. There were films on Bill Henson (Tony Wyzenbeek), David Moore and Wolfgang Sievers (David Perry); a Brendan Lee compilation of 30 years of Australian video; a celebration of the work of Carol Jerrems and a new performance work by William Yang. The ACP celebrated not only its own birthday but the history and not a little of the present and future of an expanded vision of Australian photography.


parallelo is 20. Once it was Doppio Teatro, then Doppio Parallelo and now para//elo, a name emblematic of its integrative vision of distinct cultures linked through art and new communication systems. In July the Adelaide-based company celebrated its birthday with a retrospective exhibition titled 20 years on… and still gorgeous at the Pepper St Art Gallery, Magill. Doppio Teatro, formed in 1984, had a distinguished history as Australia’s first professional bi-cultural theatre company. In 1997 the company expanded its charter under the parallelo banner to enable it to work on a cross cultural platform, “drawing [on our] Italian heritage as needed and as one of many ingredients in a contemporary global perspective.” The company creates multimedia performances, installations, online cultural exchanges and through its Open Platform performance project supports and presents the work of independent artists.

Works in the ongoing Distance Project include Tarantella Project (contributing artists Antonino Gorgone, Anthony Leppa, Claudio Pompili) and Lontano Blu Project (Australia: Teresa Crea, Peter Heydrich, Claudio Pompili, Tony Mitchell; Argentina: Marta Martinez, Alejandro Romanutti).

STEPS Youth Dance Company

In May this year STEPS celebrated its 15 years with the retrospective season, FIFTEEN, with previous artistic directors Ruth Osborne, Claudia Alessi and Felicity Bott, and general manager Michelle Saunders presenting excerpts from their favourite works. STEP’s new show, Powdermonkey is part of this year’s Urban Edge Festival (Oct 22 – 23). It examines child subjectivity with a cast of children and professional artists. “Nine days before the first performance the cast of 18 children aged 9-12 years of age will enter an installation, commencing a journey of collaboration and exploration into the issues that concern them, both serious and light-hearted, from the funny rumblings of their guts to feelings of ownership and power over their adult collaborators.”

STEPS Youth Dance Company, Powdermonkey, director Felicity Bott. Midland Town Hall, WA, Oct 22-23, tel 08 9226 2133

Goethe-Institut Sydney

Cultural exchange has played a visibly key role in the evolution of the arts in Australia in recent years. In fact it has a long history nowhere better exemplified than in Goethe Institut Sydney’s encouragement of artists not only to travel to Germany or to meet visiting German artists but also to enter into joint projects and collaborations across the whole range of the arts. Former director Wolfgang Meisner and the current incumbent Dr Roland Goll have played pivotal roles in developing adventurous relationships in contemporary arts practices. The 30th birthday edition of Kultur (Edition #9, Sept), the Goethe-Institut-Australia magazine, is packed with admiring testimonials from musicians, writers, visual artists, composers and the directors of galleries, theatre companies and arts organisations. As one writer puts it, the relationship with Goethe-Institut Sydney “has never been a one-way process”, the Institut has helped Australian artists take their work to Germany. This 2-way process is evident in the Goethe-Institut’s support for the programming of new German plays directed by Benedict Andrews for the Sydney Theatre Company giving this city some its most disturbing and insightful theatre. The Institut then assisted Andrews on his way to the Schaubühne, Berlin where he will soon direct again (see p12). A model of cultural exchange, long may the Goethe-Institut Sydney keep Germans and Australians in creative partnership.

Performance Space

What can we say? Performance Space has been a vital part of Sydney cultural life (and well beyond) for all its 21 years, providing a focal point for hybrid arts and critical discussion. Best of all, from its earliest years Performance Space has generated a sense of community among some of the state’s most idiosyncratic artists supported and encouraged by the distinctive visions of founder Mike Mullins and subsequent directors, Nicholas Tsoutas, Alan Vizents, Noelle Janaczewska, Sarah Miller, Angharad Wynne Jones, Zane Trow and current director Fiona Winning. Performance Space has always played a national role through visiting artists, conferences and events and is now an integral part of significant national initiatives, Mobile States and Time_Place_Space (see p43). And it’s preparing for relocation to a new home at the former Eveleigh St railway yards. Celebrations will be held at the beginning of November with performances, exhibitions, a conference and the party of parties. We’ll be there. More in RealTime 64.

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 38

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

Haunting Douglas

Haunting Douglas

There is a certain confidence in ReelDance’s focus on “everyday movement” in its selections for the Dance on Screen festival this year. The confidence comes out of ReelDance’s own success in the last 4 years, as well as the incredible energy pouring forth nationally and internationally in dance film. The digital video revolution is letting choreographers think into and move onto the screen, creating ideas about the art of moving images that go beyond the limitations of live dance. Dancemakers and ReelDance have left the tired old debate about whether dance film is “really dance” so far behind that they can focus on finding dance in the real.

In fact, at its best moments, the dance on screen in ReelDance was more “real” than live dancing. In Gold (director Rachel Davies, choreographer Hanna Gillgren), a British film in the first program of international shorts, the slam of shots and edits have the kinesthetic impact of what back flips really feel like, not just what they look like on a distant stage. This film uses devices of cinema with breathtaking ease. The brilliant editor and cinematographer formed a partnership with the bodies in motion that made one forget that cinema-dance might be a hybrid. They collaborated with time, finessed the overlapping rhythms of falling and flying, and made space contain stillness and struggle in the one frame.

In the same program, Snow (David Hinton, choreographer Rosemary Lee) also made a dance of moving images, using editing as the basis of its choreographic art. In the first ‘movement’ of this little symphony, tightly edited archival shots of people skating and sliding in a frozen city make lithe, slyly choreographed patterns. In the second half, sleet flings people brutally through storms so extreme that their bodies flail and collide, and the dance is made by the collaboration of the cool handed editor and the whiplash physicality of winter. We feel our own bodies pummelled even in the safety of our warm Southern Hemisphere seats.

In contrast to this choreography by montage, On a Wednesday Night in Tokyo (Jan Verbeek, Germany) made dance with almost no edits. A locked off camera in front of the doors of a commuter train persistently observed the polite, inexpressive faces of people stepping in backwards and shoving hard to make room for themselves. As in the best slapstick comedies, the culture of pressing and positioning while appearing to stay upright and uninvolved is full of both pathos and absurdity.

Sprue (director/choreographer The Five Andrews, UK) achieved comedy through brevity and singularity of focus. Men with red hats imitated time-lapse nature photography by performing a stop-frame animation of flowers blooming. At under one minute it works and is gone. A Function at the Junction (Patrick Newton, choreographer Robert Tannion, UK) spent most of its budget on production design, realising to perfection the faux wood and faux hair of the 1970s. But the low budget faux 70s music was a disappointment, as was the not quite remembered feel of the 70s dancing. In Crazy Beat (John Hardwick, choreographer Carol Brown, UK), 4 tapping teen dominatrixes in blond wigs and knee socks seem to be trying for an ‘Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker meets Quentin Tarantino’ effect. They have the beat but not the bite. Dance Floor (Daniel Mulloy, choreographer Irven Lewis, UK) lovingly integrates life and dance, juxtaposing the complex thoughts and telling images of a female washroom attendant with the complex rhythms of a tap dancer set loose in the adjacent art deco men’s room.

While the opening night program was dominated by Britain and the USA, the following afternoon’s program of international shorts represented the European with productions from the Netherlands, Germany and France. Uzès Quintet (Catherine Maximoff, various choreographers, France) is a montage of 5 works that had been performed separately, and certain aspects of it are thrilling. Each of the choreographers involved represents a different aesthetic strand of French contemporary dance. Playful and passionate dance theatre images are juxtaposed with determinedly formal post-Cunningham dancers, quasi-mystical homoerotic whirling, and a body transformed into a wiry arachnoid. Cutting these dance languages together put them in a conversation about the larger project of contemporary dance. However, the producer’s hand is also visible in this construction: 26 minutes is all the rage in Europe now, being the standard ‘half hour’ for broadcast. But it’s about twice as long as this potential gem needed to be.

Length was an issue in the other 2 ‘shorts’ on this program too. Clara van Gool, whose brilliant productions have featured in both of the previous ReelDance festivals, sets the standard for cinematic dance films that seamlessly mix dance and unspoken drama; real emotion expressed in motion. However, in Lucky (choreographer Jordi Cortès Molina, The Netherlands), the film’s distended setup dissipates the impact of the dizzying kinesthetic and emotional vortexes created by some later sequences.

(Left) Between Us (director Luc Dunberry, various choreographers, Germany) looses cinematic time and energy in sticky sequences that obfuscate some strong images. Luis Buñuel would probably never have thought that he could make a dance without learning technique, just because he had a body. So why would dancers make a “surreal” film about getting stuck in social and communicative conventions without appreciating the work of Buñuel? This is the flip side of the confidence engendered by the DV revolution—the naivety of choreographers who move onto the screen without exposure to cinematic history or ideas.

By the last night of ReelDance, when the finalists for best Australian/New Zealand dance film are screened, it is tempting to look at the dance films on display and start drawing conclusions about national dance film cultures. The British have in common their sometimes cute, sometimes poignant obsession with their lower middle class and its kitsch or inner beauty. The Europeans are preoccupied with mood and saturated images. What of the Australians? In this batch of 10, relationships and loneliness dominated.

Sue Healey’s take on relationships in the prize-winning Fine Line is coolly detached. People caress but not tenderly, they prod but don’t provoke, they dance around each other and the lines that define their dark space. Toy Boy by Fiona Cameron is a stylishly daggy take on relationships: a couch frames the absurd dancing of hungry, feral, and clumsy lust in a singles bar and a blanket in a park makes fairy wings for a fantasy sequence. Cameron’s Sink (co-director Rohan Jones) looks at loneliness or the breakdown of a woman alone, a theme shared by When You’re Alone by Anton and Vacillating by Cameron and Louise Taube. Sink, the third-prize winner, exploits image, colour saturation, framing and editing to create rhythms and ideas. The 3 other works that actively integrated cinematic techniques were Graphic and Rhythmic Study (directors/choreographers Louise Taube and Sue Healey), which is just what it says, but is also pretty wry and stylish; Together (director Madeleine Hetherton, choreographer Rowan Marchingo), which I won’t comment on because my company, Physical TV, co-wrote and executive produced it, and Narelle Benjamin’s second-place winning On a Wing and a Prayer. This succinct and sexy bon bon puts movement inside a simple story structure that allows the performance to mean much more than it seems. On a Wing is sure to do well on the international festival circuit and shows Benjamin’s filmmaking, which could perhaps use a little more focus on space and rhythm, growing in skill and confidence.

I hope ReelDance’s confidence is not diminished by low attendance at its documentary sessions in Sydney. Dance as an art form struggles with a lack of access to its history and cultural context. ReelDance offers a cinematic antidote with dance films that traverse countries and times. It’s a shame for our art form that so few took up the offer.

In Dancing Under the Swastika (director Annette von Wangenheim, Germany) we hear stories that have undoubtedly had an impact on the development of dance in Australia, and experience images of dance escaping tyrannies far more dire than those of distance. The film didn’t just reveal alarming collaborations between the development of our art and the Nazis, but subtextually confronted us with questions about why we dance, and who we dance for.

Even more immediately urgent for the development of dance in our region is the story in Haunting Douglas (director Leanne Pooley, NZ). Douglas Wright returned home to the Antipodes from a substantial international career to find his subsequent work quietly falling off the world map. Sound familiar? Haunting Douglas finds the poetic in this journey and resuscitates the dance before it is lost. Wright’s recalcitrant compliance with the personal interview process is a bittersweet contrast to the emotional daring and physical vividness of his dancing and the graceful generosity of the quotes from his autobiography. He calls his recounting of his personal life, the “pound of flesh” he has to give in order to get his work more widely seen. Together, this ‘blood money’ and his dancing give a rare insight into the harrowing, unsettling, confusing, riveting, searing, satisfying and strange experience of being an artist.

At one point Wright quotes Martha Graham, who said that “a dancer dies twice, once when they stop dancing, and this first death is the more painful.” Wright may have been reluctant to be interviewed, but he did it because he is wise to the gift that dance film, through festivals like ReelDance, gives to dance: life after death.

ReelDance international dance on screen festival 2004, Sydney, Canberra, Brisbane, Adelaide, Melbourne, Perth, Newcastle, Auckland; July 30-Oct 9

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 39

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

Frances d'Ath, extermination

Frances d’Ath, extermination

Frances d’Ath, extermination

In the 1970s and 80s, theorists such as Jean Baudrillard identified a “crisis of reality”: the death of real authorship, real individual subjectivity, real art, real criticism and real politics. One could no longer reach out and touch the world in a truly meaningful way. Some artists responded by attempting to rekindle reality and affect by searching for some-thing primal, timeless and hard, probing in detail physical sensations and sexual taboos. Others, in the vein of Andy Warhol, revelled in this deathly situation, renouncing “reality” altogether, proclaiming it to be a “fiction” consisting of recurrent motifs, codes and parodic references.

Phillip Adams’ choreography replays these cultural tensions. He has produced intense, cerebral-spiritual works such as Amplification (1999), in which bodies entwined, went splat, were undressed and revealed, before crawling over each other in a coolly extended meditation on the automobile’s terminal eroticism. He has also produced less conceptually deep yet more extravagant performative studies, forged from wondrously random, surreal associations, inspired by props, fabrics and design (Upholster, 2001; Endling, 2002).

Adams’ latest piece, Fiction, represents an attempt to blend these approaches, producing a curious coldness within an ostensibly lightweight parody of Orientalist filmic fantasies. The performers mouth phrases from a bad British comedy of manners before dropping to all fours and arching their backs, evoking a fraught passage across the hot sands of exotic Arabia. The movement itself seesaws between Adams’ typically sharp, bone-crunching and highly interweaving choreography, versus faux Hanya-Holme-esque jazz ballet inspired by Hollywood Orientalist musicals such as Kismet (1944, 1955).

This contrast between Adams’ characteristically visceral physical vocabulary and the cheerful superficiality of the parody is arresting, but Fiction ultimately lacks the crucial element of both Orientalist fiction and Warholesque parody—namely excess: the Technicolor glow of musicals, the extravagantly large casts of Spartacus (1960), Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and the cinema of Cecil B de Mille. To lose oneself in depthless superficiality and derivative art, one requires the orgasmic excess of Warhol’s favourite subject, Marilyn Monroe; an almost sickening profusion of external, sensorial qualities like flesh, colour, lips, pout and voluptuousness. With 6 dancers, no costume changes and subdued, largely front-on lighting, Fiction lacked this overripe gorgeousness.

Frances d’Ath’s extermination was characterised by a comparable stylistic duplicity, featuring violent, ritualistic posing inspired by Baudrillard’s Symbolism, Exchange and Death (1976), set amongst an indiscriminate bricolage of classy design elements and crass cultural references. The piece consisted of various distinct sequences or acts between which performers casually moved. The combination of increasingly extreme imagery with a nonchalant, stop/start execution produced a discomforting sense of both deep, primal violation and unconcerned superficiality. The sexed, fleshy, pulsating, whacking and finally decaying body served as the work’s focus, with these slight female forms being repeatedly adorned, stripped, attacked, defiled and discarded.

The show began with a cool version of a male wet dream—5 lithe, bikini-clad women jumping on the spot—before a phonograph needle was dropped, heavy metal music intruded, and an almost deliberately slapdash, frenetic daisy-chain of crashing torsos ensued. In the first of many such acts, the women undressed and carefully placed their underwear in neat piles at the front of the brightly wallpapered space. Bodies were adorned with 19th century aristocratic costume (including gloves and feathered headpieces) and placed within a rough, semi-improvised, melodramatic tableau of mutual murder. They killed one of their own, stripped her, and harshly probed and tugged at the elasticity of flesh, skin, buttock and mouth, covered her with dirt, and then excavated the scene to produce more forensic castoffs for the forestage (swabs, hair samples, nail clippings, heavy dresses, underwear, spotted bikinis and weapons). Iron spades pushed at teeth before the blood-dripping corpse reanimated itself, standing before the other performers. These murderers are naked from the waist up, wearing long, black dresses, with red stains running from their chins to their waists as testimony to a previous ritual at the ornately carved wooden table at the rear of the space, where bowls of blood were slowly upturned before the mouths of each.

Parallels for d’Ath’s dark, primeval religiosity lie in Hermann Nitsch’s ritualistic body art, while the garish, poppy juxtapositions of these motifs recalled Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain (1973) or Melbourne’s Chapel of Change. Indeed, d’Ath’s invocation of Baudrillard’s now 28 year old manifesto on the need for a grotesque, taboo-breaking language allied to death as a strategy for the subversion of all taboos, hierarchies and domination, brought d’Ath’s dramaturgy close to Nitsch’s dated melange of psychoanalysis, Catholic practice and myths of an ancient Dionysian cult. D’Ath’s offhand evocation of these concepts, however, encased within Hamish Bartle’s gorgeous set, ensured that the choreographer’s aesthetic most resembled Jan Fabre’s recent I Am Blood (Melbourne Festival, 2003). Both d’Ath and Fabre alternate between obsessing over bodies and their qualities, and a mystifying inability to hold this concentration before moving on, and then returning to them again.

extermination‘s weakness lay not in referencing the history of performance art, but rather in d’Ath’s ignoring of the gender implications of a work created by a young man sadomasochistically manipulating 5 young, athletic and largely nude women. Rebecca Hilton’s Non-Fiction—which was presented with Adams’ Fiction—can therefore be seen as a riposte to both d’Ath and Adams. Hilton engaged with surfaces in the sense that Non-Fiction revolved around various common cultural tropes of gendered relations and living in close proximity to each other. Fractures of generic physical gestures and commonplace theatrical sequences were repeated, hinting at suburban life. There were sexualised, choreographed couplings, across-the-fence flirtations, and moments of isolated, physical self-withdrawal, both with and without a porn magazine as a prop. This effected a sense of complicated, hothouse melodrama and family romance. Yet by merely sketching these dramas using readily identifiable nuances (rather than by directly parodying them, as Adams did), Hilton created an uncertainty about whether Non-Fiction represented a Chekhovian world of deep, existential longings, or something closer to a montage of populist cinesonic soap operas such as Big Brother or American Beauty.

At one point, Hilton split the dancers on either side of an orange picket fence. On the left, Joanne White sequentially collapsed her body into the venue’s tangerine rear wall. Her robotic execution and the stretched underwear which flashed from beneath her dress recalled the damaged ‘girl-childs’ choreographed by Lucy Guerin, Gideon Obarzanek and Adams too. Carlee Mellow also performed this phraseology beside White, but Mellow’s more emotionally-present, intentional execution suggested that her character was engaged in a cynical game with others’ expectations of her, rather than being programmatically overwhelmed by her own, internalised sexual corruption. This pairing of dancers thus provided an implicit critique of Melbourne choreographic trends. Hilton’s Non-Fiction lacked d’Ath’s dense theoretical underpinnings, yet her deft measuring of banalities, space and movement effected a subtle political message.

balletlab, Fiction, choreographer Phillip Adams; Non-Fiction, choreographer Rebecca Hilton; Chunky Move Studios, Melbourne, Aug 19-29; extermination, choreographer Frances d’Ath; Dancehouse, Melbourne, Aug 5-15

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 40

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

Danceworks, The Point Hotel

Danceworks, The Point Hotel

Danceworks, The Point Hotel

The scene is tan, oatmeal and fawn, the dancers wear cream, their flesh a pale beige against the sepia floor. There is a sense that we are not in the present. The atmosphere is 1950s, its colours evoke John Brack’s signature work, Collins St, 5pm (1955). Benny Goodman’s music and Serge Gainsbourg’s songs are redolent of the past. Minimal furniture—a line of outdoor chairs—suggests a lawn descending towards a windswept beach. A woman sits on one of the chairs, a girl periodically cycles across the stage.

Two young women enter the space. They mirror each other’s moves. It is possible that they are 2 halves of the one self. When they look at each other, it is not clear who or what they see. They may be as one. Eventually a third element breaks up this duet or solo times two. A young man joins the dance and a series of 3-way interactions ensues.

A great deal of their movement consists of gestures, found movements which are formed then discarded. There is a fairly consistent tempo to their performance, almost staccato. Not in a mechanical sense. It is as if their original import has been lost: they are literally going through the motions. These gestures are emptied of meaning, suggesting also that once they were fulsome actions of the sort that might be found in everyday life. This gestural palette does not appear to be the result of kinaesthetic investigation but indicates a reworking of ordinary life into dance.

There is an element of theatre about this work. Not the tanztheater of Pina Bausch perhaps, but it is nevertheless about something. It represents a human drama. Its mode of representation is partly naturalistic (chairs, bicycle, girl, woman) and partly abstract, in the manner of silent movement. If it is a drama, it is also pared down. The subtitle of The Point Hotel identifies a “fleeting world of human connection.” So far as there is human connection in this world, it is momentary. The human interaction which occurs is somehow not sustained. It does not penetrate the subjectivity of its participants. Approaches are rejected, dependencies are intimated through limbs, hands, arms, the distal regions of corporeal being. Weight does not pass from one centre through the core of another.

This is not to say that there isn’t a good deal of activity, particularly among and between the trio. It is just that no-one appears to be genuinely ‘touched’ by the other. This is both a physical and emotional observation; that bodily boundaries are maintained leaving subjects intact, emotions held close. This would seem to be one of the statements of the work. The Point Hotel depicts an order of human relationships which is highly individualised.

The atomism of The Point Hotel is reflected in Dianne Butterworth’s presence throughout the work. She enters, and sits on a chair behind the danced action. She is not a participant in the action but rather oversees it. Is this her life? Is the girl on the bicycle her former self? We don’t really know. She is not the site of the action herself. We are not drawn to watch her for what is happening in the now. Her connection to the activity of the work may be through memory. If she does signify a temporal perspective, her feelings are enigmatic. It is not clear how she feels about the past. Any emotional import has to be found within the dancing figures. And they too are enigmatic. For all their sound and fury, they offer a canvas of exterior selves. This is why the ambience of The Point Hotel is, as the program note suggests, “dislocated.” The woman who sits as the action occurs, the young woman who wheels her bicycle, the 3 dancing figures and the audience are all dislocated with respect to one another. Is this dislocation an emotional lack of connection, or is it a lack of coherence over time, a split within the self over a lifetime?

The Point Hotel is a restrained piece. Its use of gesture is something of a hallmark of Sandra Parker’s work. As a work of memory, and in terms of its impact as memory, it is highly visual. Its colours, the minimal but evocative props, including its use of Butterworth as a human prop, leave one with a picture of a human landscape, one whose terms strive to connect but ultimately leave each other intact.

Dance Works, The Point Hotel, choreographor Sandra Parker; performers Deanne Butterworth, Katy MacDonald, Phoebe Robinson, Nick Somerville, Diana Pjenke; Space 28, VCA Drama Studio, Melbourne, July 15-24

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 41

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

1. Slept in a strange bed where time had shifted.
2. Dreamt of a place where the inmates broke out.
3. Shouting, banging and honking filled the twilight space of the dawn.
4. Sometime in the night the Greeks won the Cup.Oh, it’s all starting to become clear.
5. A shark silently circled the bay.
6. A switch was flicked, a butterfly effect.
7. In an apartment somewhere in downtown Adelaide I breakfasted in the company of another artist I didn’t know but who was strangely familiar.
8. 19 other artists awoke to have similar, slightly dislocated experiences.
9. Entered a large, modern building situated on the perimeter of a wide, open square. It was bright and stainless steel shiny.
10 Realised I had entered Art Boot Camp and this was just the beginning. “And now I would like you to list 10 things that happened when you woke up,” directs a confident, cajoling Clare Grant as she steers her writing workshop.

This was Time_Place_Space 3 at Adelaide AIT Arts, July 2004. Twenty diverse, ‘hybrid’ artists, 6 facilitators (4 Australian, 2 international), 3 curators, 2 technicians, 1 superwoman project manager together with numerous volunteers, gathered for an intense 2 weeks of provocation, challenge, inspiration and community.

In 2002, I was one of the artists chosen to attend the first Time_Place_Space at Charles Sturt University in Wagga Wagga (RT53 p. 32), an event still rippling through my life, personally and collaboratively ever-present. Now in 2004, I find myself re-visiting this space, though in a different place, drawn by a desire to dig beneath the surface that had been scratched 2 years ago, in a process about to become an excavation, a rigorous, internal archaeology.

Our first day begins. The facilitators can’t wait to set the first task. Ready, Set, Go! You have a day to create for presentation a 5-minute solo work. Here are your starting points, choose one, choose all 3. “Be conscious of your process and your intention,” says Marianne Weems (Director of New York’s The Builders’ Association). “Write the frame, delineate the space, look at what is really there,” advises video artist John Gillies. “Dislocate a niche, what is its passage?” asks John Cleater (designer from The Builders’ Association). “At your service,” booms technician Simon Wise. “Now, go!”

We don’t question. We’re too hyped. Everyone is excited but a little scared. We have to do this well, get it right. This is what we’re here for. Now, go!

Day 2. Some are quietly confident, others procrastinate. All are feeling tentative. This is our first revelation of who we are to the group and it’s intimidating. How will we be judged? The visual artist Lyndal Jones is at the helm. She has an agenda and will not be moved. This is serious! There’s no way out.

Presentations are made in groups after which each work is discussed. We adopt the soon to be familiar talking circle in which everyone has a say. “I am not interested in what you liked. How did what you like make you feel?” Lyndal is conciliatory but firm. She is sharp and there are no lukewarm responses allowed. “What did you see?” This is not about cold, analytical dissections or non-committal responses. This is about creating a language for viewer and maker. It’s about giving the artist a new space to work. It’s about being conscious.

This long day established a firm springboard for the rest of the laboratory. There was a sigh of relief and a renewed energy as new possibilities were entertained. Nobody felt like a stranger any more. A sense of solidarity prevailed. We were on course.

We are in Week 2. Water under the bridge. Collaborations have been made and not quite made. We have followed our intentions carefully. We have kept track of the content, grasped the floating thread, found the map and followed the compass. We have made the balance unstable, sought to illuminate and then, just as we were thinking we had reached the pinnacle, we threw it all away. Why? Because we had discovered how to “Kill our darlings.” No this is not some postmodern garage band but a dramaturgical device to rid you of that favourite thing you’ve been holding on to, that which is holding you back. Oh, what fun to be had. How many darlings can you kill? The game takes on a sinister edge. Kill the Darling! Kill the Darling! Where’s Piggy?

Time is running out. There’s been so much work made. 40 performances in 2 weeks, and yet we want more. Not only have we created but we have discussed, analysed, dissected, proposed, engaged, shared—“riffed” (the word of the laboratory, declares John Gillies on the last day) in the various forums and workshops on the nature of dramaturgy, collaborative practice, new media, sustainability, models of practice, future directions. There have been smaller, more intimate salons to tease out even more of the fundamentals. There have been salons with red wine in the Apothecary bar, salons in the Kava Hut, salons in the strip joint down the road, the karaoke joint, the gym. There have been progressive late night salons in apartments. There’s no stopping, no end to the discussion being generated, documented, laid down, laid bare.

It’s interesting to compare the forum on sustainability with the one held at T_P_S 1. In 2002, the angle was very much from a practical, pragmatic point of view—how do artists sustain themselves, what strategies can be put in place to acquire space, time and money to create work, to function as an artist? At T_P_S 3, although these practicalities were touched on, there was a lot more discussion about how artists might sustain their practice on a purely intrinsic level. First there is a quintessential need to create work and then there is the support of the artistic community and peers that buoys the individual. This community and generosity of peers, along with a sense of being part of a history or lineage within arts practice is what gives us a place, which is sustaining both physically and metaphysically.

T_P_S offers the time to find our place within a broader community of artists who are working, playing with, analysing, discovering and creating new frontiers of a hybrid nature. It is this action, this bringing together that allows threads to be woven, bonds to be tied, practice to be supported, artistic rejuvenation and passion to be sustained.

“You have 10 minutes to write down what you want to say, starting now.” It’s Clare Grant again. I write: “I want to say, I want to know what finding a place means and whether it means ‘to belong, to be part of’ or ‘to be apart’. I want to say that we are all trying to find our place and sometimes that place is uncomfortable and sometimes it is very comfortable. I want to say that sometimes to find our place we have to let others into our place. I want to say that the other is sometimes where we want to be but cannot…”

T_P_S 3 has been intense. A laboratory is intensive by nature. There has been little room for anything else. It has been a luxury. It should be a necessity.

Time_Place_Space_3, PICA, Performance Space, ANAT; AIT Arts, Adelaide, July 4-17

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 43

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

Productions such as The Pearler are rare. Evocative and sensual, it had the strong basis of a well researched story, steeped in anecdote, memories and lives lived and lost. Set in the 1940s and using stories, historical references and photographic imagery, The Pearler explores the lucrative pearling industry that linked Darwin with neighbouring Asian cities such as Singapore, Kupang, Dili and Manila. Scenes playfully establish the cut and thrust of life on pearling luggers, the colourful onshore shenanigans and the danger and loneliness of the ocean’s depths. Gradually the lives of 3 characters—an Anglo Saxon woman and 2 pearlers, one Japanese and the other Aboriginal—become inextricably entwined.

As the show unfolds it reveals a little known episode in Australian history, depicting the internment of Japanese-Australian pearlers in southern camps during World War II. This experience shattered the lives of those involved and destroyed the racial tolerance of cities such as Darwin during that era. Juxtaposing the drama with historical photographic montages and eerie, wailing sirens, the tension and despair of the bombing of Darwin and detainment of the pearlers is strongly and poignantly conveyed.

The Pearler’s numerous whimsical scenes are founded on an engaging interplay of heightened physical characterisation, nuanced gesture and bold, oversized facial masks. Performers Nicky Fearn, Samantha Chalmers and Ben Tyler adeptly convey an array of emotions through physical characterisation and gesture. Exceptionally well crafted puppets enact ships in storms, birds in flight and underwater scenes conveying the other-worldliness of the ocean’s depths.

Tina Parker’s production design is striking: large cloth sails are manoeuvered to create a range of architectural forms while incidental design elements are sparingly employed, complementing the grandeur of the sail cloths and reinforcing the story’s historical setting. Kim Baston’s atmospheric, original musical score and an audio-visual montage by Elka Kerkoffs added substance to the tale as it unfolded.

Sarah Cathcart’s direction seamlessly harnessed all the elements of story, physical performance, design, music and montage to create a sophisticated production which adeptly revealed personal and social aspects of north Australia’s rich racial and labour history. Congratulations to Darwin’s independent production house Business Unusual Theatre for bringing this highly theatrical and socially relevant production to fruition.

Business Unusual Theatre, The Pearler, concept Nicky Fearn, director Sarah Cathcart; Brown’s Mart Theatre, Darwin, July 6-17

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 44

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

On one level, Circa’s A Man in a Room, Juggling is just that. For over an hour, the extraordinary David Sampford juggles in the Cremorne Theatre. The audacity of the idea surprises and delights. But on another level this performance is far from ‘just that.’ Sampford is accompanied by the equally extraordinary composer-pianist, Erik Griswold, and together they are supported by lighting designer Jason Organ, who provides texture for this intimate and remarkable spectacle of a body in cahoots with an ensemble of squishy balls. While the impressive skill and bold experimentation of Yaron Lifschitz’s direction are to be expected, the wry comedy, finesse and striking improvisational integrity of sound and body make this show quite special. Unlike Circa’s earlier full-company work, A Love Supreme (RT61, p. 8), A Man in a Room, Juggling pares back the busyness to enable a magnified reflection on the complexity of this all too familiar but most bewitching of circus arts.

The 3 part performance begins with the sound of bouncing balls in darkness, underscoring the perception of juggling as a solitary art. Yet as we tune into the aural elements of the performance, it is clear that Sampford is not the only one juggling. Throughout the piece Griswold’s deft handling of, among other things, a grand piano keyboard, rubber hose, miniature toy piano and squeezy bath-time dolphin, has the effect of chasing, leading and articulating the mood of Sampford’s work in a kind of musical juggle of its own.

The first extended improvisation is a funny and self-deprecating look at the juggling craft. Each “Short Reflection on Juggling” provides opportunities to marvel at both the serious skill and the silliness of throwing and catching things in midair. A series of demonstrations of cascade and column juggling becomes an inspiring study of body position and movement. These transform into poetic ruminations on the physics of speed and gravity, and on the ability to be alert and always looking. Sampford loosens up and enjoys himself here, playing up potentially awkward errors, using them as opportunities for new tangents, comic release and the merging of different patterns and tricks.

The second part, “A Routine to Music by Satie”, is more measured, taking the juggling patterns into a clearly choreographed relationship with the music. Griswold’s eclectic instrumental devices still surprise, but are well-suited to evoking the moodiness of Satie. At times, Sampford choreographs the balls to bounce, lift and drop in synch with the music. At others, he rolls a single ball up his arm, squashes it within his elbow, performing an abstracted narrative about the lone soul on an intimate exploration. As Sampford’s experiments get playfully more expansive (soon including a large red construction ladder), the voice-over instructor gently details the unique solitude of “a man in his room, juggling”, with no companions, no ceiling fans, no lamp shades and no gaps under the bed.

But it is in the third section of this performance that Sampford and Griswold hit their stride. The improvisational chemistry between these 2 wizards of juggling—one physical, one musical—enables a beautiful insight into the art of being alone with others. Backed by video footage of pigeons and pedestrians, Sampford enters into a mesmerising solo ball-play, picking up and dropping balls from the hundred or so which he has placed randomly on the stage floor. Simultaneously, Griswold immerses himself in a feat of multi-tasking, his “hands describing patterns in sound.” And together, through a kind of spirited jamming, they achieve a brilliant integration of sound and movement—and a most fitting climax to a mind-expanding show.

Circa Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus Ensemble, A Man in a Room, Juggling, concept/director Yaron Lifschitz, choreographer/juggler David Sampford, music Erik Griswold, lighting design Jason Organ; Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Cremorne Theatre, July 14-24

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 44

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

Ballad of Boldenblee

Ballad of Boldenblee

Ballad of Boldenblee

Heavy doors swing open and a rhythmic procession enters the cavernous Boiler Shop at Newcastle’s Honeysuckle Rail Yards. The performers are lit by fire poi; balls on strings swung in patterns around the body. Their movements are accompanied by blazing electric guitar. Moving with the percussive sounds of drums, vocalisations, hand clapping and ‘pants slapping’, these exotic others suggest a ritual from somewhere in south east Asia and seem curiously at odds with the icy blast they have brought with them, as though the night wind has blown them in across Newcastle harbour. As they take the performance area—a little circle of sand inside a huge yawning space—2 hooded singers invite us to listen to The Ballad of Boldenblee, director Indija Mahjoeddin’s latest production in her ongoing investigation into the cross-cultural transference of Randai-based performance to Australia.

A popular folk theatre form from West Sumatra, Randai has maintained elements of the martial art Silat as an essential component of its movement repertoire, while evolving into a composite theatre form which embraces storytelling, acting, dance, music and song. The narratives of Randai are in the mythic vein of “hero on an epic quest of good versus bad”, and so it is with Boldenblee, a brave and ambitious Lara Croft-style heroine who sets out to release her brother and town from the clutches of the evil property developer, Munnysuckle. Multiple obstacles line her path, some mental, some spiritual and some physical, such as the elemental figures who engage in an exciting aerial ballet battle for supremacy over the heads of the audience.

The hooded balladeers of the show’s title delivered the bulk of the narrative in songs which shifted across an eclectic range of music idioms, from hip hop beats to rap and blues. It was the live soundtrack of musician Mike Burns (harp and guitars), by turns haunting and strident, which provided a cohesiveness to the storytelling which otherwise became tangled and lacked clarity as it moved to its conclusion.

As with Mahjoeddin’s previous Randai projects, Boldenblee was a community project which drew upon the skills and enthusiasm of its young performers. The outcome was an ensemble work from creation through to performance. The story, the words of the songs and episodic vignettes, and their integration with contemporary verbal styles such as rap, were generated from within the group and helped to shape the piece as much as the physicality of the Randai folk form at its base.

It is the ‘container like’ nature of Randai and its ability to renew and adapt which Mahjoeddin is making use of in her investigation into the cross-fertilisation of this form with contemporary Western music and forms of physical play. References were made to mask, Hapkido and Capoeira. However, I came away feeling that in this production the form had been overloaded, the company undertaking too difficult a task in its allotted preparation time, despite the work’s engaging physicality and visual excitement.

Musik Kabau, The Ballad of Boldenblee, director Indija Mahjoeddin, original songs developed by John Papanis and arranged by Mike Burns; The Boiler Shop at Honeysuckle, Newcastle, Aug 6-14

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 45

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

‘Down’, ‘slow’ and ‘cold’ and their kin, ‘low’, ‘sluggish’ and ‘chill’ are not, for the most part, words with positive connotations. Our semantics traditionally incline to things warming up, looking up and moving on. There are ample exceptions of course. But we live in a time when slow is becoming a virtue, when cool is ubiquitous and down is on the up and up. There are books on the life-saving merits of slowness in the age of speed. There’s the slow food movement and the therapeutic activities of our downtime—yoga, meditation and tai chi, not to mention the wildly proliferating spa resort. ‘Cool’ is also big—the return of a key attitudinal term from the Beat Generation but now universally applied: you like it, it’s cool. More recently, ‘chill-out’ has passed through dance club doors into general use. ‘Down’ meanwhile is getting a new lease of life in downshifting (paradoxically a luxury for those who have the reserves with which to live on less) but still looks bad in downsizing and that popular phenomenon embodied in everything from the mass media to a US President—dumbing down.

However ‘down’ doesn’t get any better than when “chilled out tracks take you on a downtempo journey” as in One World Music’s Zen Connection 3, a 2-CD “global beats” compilation of 27 tracks of highly integrated musical diversity. This is music to slow you down, a carefully orchestrated invitation to relax and reflect from a former DJ with a penchant for World Music and an ear for a market where, curiously, it’s the enveloping interplay of tracks and not the individual artists who stimulate the purchasing urge. It’s the DJ thing on another plane and in another market. Or a market in the making.

Leigh Wood is the General Manager of Sydney-based One World Music and he’s very conscious that he is responding to a need while creating a market. Wood’s background is in the London music scene. He says he stopped DJ-ing only recently to focus on the time-consuming job of managing One World. Wood arrived in Australia about 10 years ago and worked for Pulse, part of SBA Music who produce videos and DVDs. “I helped set up the CD side of things, putting compilations together on a monthly basis—Top 40 and one of Australia’s first dance compilations produced on a regular basis. I used to get music from all the major companies and independents, quite a nice little job to have…a huge job actually—a pile of 200 CDs on the desk. You soon get an ear for choosing in a split second. I fine-tuned my hearing for what might work in the mass market. One of the early compilations I did was a chill-out CD called The Cool Room, about the time Café del Mar started. It never became mainstream because it was sold directly to the entertainment sector. But it made me realise that there was a huge market where people just liked music as a sort of background or to help them work, something to tune in and out to—energy in the background. It was spawned from the dance club era when it was winding down.”

What’s the association with Zen in the labelling of the CD series? “It’s a holistic element, a lifestyle thing. When I use the Zen notion it’s just about the music and how it reacts with you, how you use it. How does it make you feel? Do you realise that these vibrations can have a positive effect in your life? Do you realise that when you’re in a bad mood and you put that thrash track on it’s going to make you even more aggressive? I don’t think people think about this in Western culture.”

Wood discovered that people liked the music he was compiling but “didn’t know where to go to find it, because it’s probably not so much about the artists but about the music. From my perspective I’ve built One World on a certain sound rather than specific artists.” He sees this as fitting with the widespread principle of branding. But artists are still very important, most obviously in having a key name or 2 on a compilation along with lesser known but high calibre musicians from around the world. UK world music artist Nitin Sawhney, a guest of the 2004 Melbourne International Arts Festival, appears on Zen Connection 1 and 3. Wood sees this as important if the compilation happens to go into a store: “the name might be just enough to encourage people to have a listen.”

Supporting local talent is also important. Two Australian groups, Amanaska and Small Defence, have individual CDs out through One World and they appear on Zen Connection. Bamboo Soup is a CD collaboration between Small Defence (Kristian Hill and Robert Staines) and shakuhachi master Riley Lee (a collaborator with the Taikoz drumming ensemble and a recording artist for New World); “a fun exercise for Riley to try something new with some beats, a nice blend with electronica.” Panorama by Amanaska (Simon Lewis and Stephen Joyce) is blessed with quite upbeat ‘global beats’, very distinctive cross-cultural guest voices (but no translations) and very classy instrumental playing. The over-arching ambience of One World Music CDs evokes reflection and invites relaxation, especially on Zen Connection, but the ‘slow’ effect is often gently counterpointed with layers of brisk beats electronically or acoustically realised.

Market and branding acumen aside, Wood sees his compilation skills as rooted in the love of music and an intuitive feel for where music is going. That involves a lot of listening. But passion has to be balanced with the need to generate new markets. Wood says “we’re moving into another area with the Elysian Vibes compilation, downtempo music for the growing spa market”, specifically “the spa resorts for getting away from a world that is getting faster and faster. There’s a sense in which people can use the music within their treatment environments. We’re finding that a lot of spa resorts are buying our music, which is really healthy for us!”

These niche markets are critical for One World Music: “We’re not a major record company in the traditional sense, so record shops can’t be so important to us. We’re major in what we do but it’s very much outside the norm. We need to find alternative markets.”

The project came about when Wood “got together with New World Music which had been going some 20 odd years in Australia and around the world. They had a huge market with a very traditional base—I mean by that music for relaxation and music that is non-electronic. Some of the music was dated or tagged with the new age label. How many times can you reinvent pan pipes? New World Music started in 1982 and has been hugely successful. But my aim was to put the music first, take the best from the past and bring it up to date and appeal to the younger market as well as the existing one. One World Music is more progressive in its sound, though that might not be the right term to use, but certainly more original…and I won’t go where certain music has been over-used.”

Although Wood does not invest directly in the production costs of tracks—the operation is royalty-based—he does seek out musicians. As the label’s reputation grows, artists send Wood their music and he’s begun to move in the direction of commissioning tracks. This approach has been made much easier by the development of cheaper, computer-based recording techniques. Recalling the over investment in the synthesizer sound in the 80s, Wood’s only wariness is of tracks that are totally electronic: “they date too quickly. The computer is an instrument and not the only one. The whole dance music thing is sometimes so disposable.” Wood is after the analogue-digital, acoustic-electronic mix, with “computer-based artists adding musicians to give their music an organic flavour that appeals to a broader market.”

Although niche markets are vital to One World, Wood still has his eye on the big picture. Where were those 25,000 copies of Zen Connection sold? Wood explains, “They were originally distributed through New World. We immediately sold 8-9,000 copies in Australia, 5,000 in the US and the rest to Europe, including some major store chains. We have been knocking on the doors of major retailers here; Sanity has a selection of our stuff .” Web sales are also important, as are lifestyle (formerly new age or health food) stores.

“Individual CD sales are developing nicely”, says Wood, “but the compilations are the key thing, very cost effective and allow me to channel money back to artists.” He sees himself as providing left of field quality music, as being open to new developments and “not putting up any barriers.” As the compilations get better known he finds himself coralling better sounds, “the pool of sounds is opening up.” Compilations used to be a by-product of the music industry— “now they can come first, introducing music and artists people have never heard before. It’s a part of global connectivity.” And Wood sees it as very much a matter of how he puts compilations together, the DJ mentality, he says with a smile, of “taking you on a journey where you haven’t been before. People can easily make their own compilations these days but I offer the integrity of my selection.” And it’s downtempo, chill-out cool and good-for-you slow.

One World Music, www.oneworldmusic.com.au

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 46

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

Language dominates the planet, but even though “the ears have no ear-lids” (as Murray Schafer puts it) they are deaf to the language of data. Our ears listen for someone approaching, to the car pulling into the driveway, to that special silence between the child getting hurt and the child crying, but we don’t listen to data—we look at it. We see what we mean in pie-charts, bar graphs, scatter plots, box plots, histograms, fly-throughs, diagrams, schematics, blueprints, head maps, x-rays and brain scans.

Bringing data to our ears was the theme of Sonif(y), a day-long public forum of talks and panel discussions held as part of ICAD 2004 (International Conference on Auditory Display), a conference exploring “the art, science and design of audible information.” The forum was followed by Listening to the Mind Listening, a concert of sonifications (data turned into sound) in the Opera House Studio. Cards on the table—I have to declare my participation in both the concert and the composers’ panel discussion.

There were 2 keynote speeches, one by sonification pioneer Gregory Kramer, and another by sound artist Ros Bandt. Both Kramer and Bandt spoke of the need to bring aesthetics into auditory design. Kramer spoke on how the aesthetics of the sounds we make influence our perceptions, emotions and decision making. In his view we are still a long way from understanding how to usefully sound out information about the world.

Bandt’s approach to auditory design builds on her considerable experience as a sound artist and her work on the history of Australian sound design. For Bandt, Australia is a “sung country”, and this has profound ethical consequences for those practicing sound design. She asked that we question our right to add sound into the landscape, only doing so with care and concern and showing “good manners.”

The ethics of auditory design also featured in a panel discussion on the art/science mix of “Data Aesthetics”. There was a divide on the existence or otherwise of aesthetic universals—the old nature/nurture debate that sounds a bit pre-biological nowadays. However, most of the speakers agreed that auditory designs shouldn’t swamp the data, that the data should be allowed to speak for itself and find an objective expression in sound. Can’t see it myself. To be heard, data has to be mapped onto sound and that mapping has to be chosen in what is, at least in part, a cultural act. What’s a good mapping? One that appeals to the people you’re appealing to I guess.

Mapping stock market data to natural sounds was the focus of Brad Mauney’s presentation of some experimental work. The idea was to present changes in share prices as an ambient soundscape of nature sounds that would sit out on the periphery, waiting for some action in the data stream. More thunder meant the market was moving down, birds singing meant salad days were here again. The stockmarket traders who checked it out thought there could be a place for this sort of ambient soundscape in the hurly burly of striving for squillions.

Thilo Hinterberger spoke of using auditory feedback and a brain/computer interface to help people with paralysis communicate. For someone who can’t even shift focus or gaze, auditory feedback provides a mechanism for learning to control brain activity and pick out letters and yes/no-type answers on a computer. Blind and visually impaired people also use sound for environmental feedback. The standard story is that going blind is like a magic potion that gives you super hearing. Unfortunately that’s not true, and a group of researchers spoke of the extensive training needed to give a blind or visually impaired person the skills to navigate something as commonplace as a busy intersection.

The forum finished, people wandered out and waited for the evening and Listening to the Mind Listening, a concert of music based directly on the brain activity (EEG) of someone listening to a piece of music. The recording was taken from 26 electrodes spaced across the head, so the music for the concert was designed to be heard spatially, as if you were inside the head and listening to what was going on at all those electrodes. There were also some restrictions on how the music could be composed. Firstly, the pieces had to be in time with the activity of the brain, so each piece was 5 minutes long just like the brain recording. The pieces also had to be based directly and moment by moment on the data, such that changes in the music represented changes in the brain’s activity.

The concert was packed out. People wandered among the speakers, listening to what the brain was up to on this or that side of the head. EEG data is not that regular or simple—often in the neuro literature EEG is described as noise, so most pieces had a semi-random quality to their rhythms. Almost all of the work could be classified as ‘difficult listening’. The biggest surprise for me was a piece that sounded like a small jazz ensemble. Mostly though, the sounds were synthetic drones and washes, overlaid with various chirps and blips. Some pieces had recognisable sections, others were much the same throughout. Each piece was surprisingly different given that every composer used the same data. The audience response varied from puzzled tolerance to almost reverential eyes-closed contemplation. Some people moved around a lot, others sat still. Some left early.

How did the music operate as a window onto the brain? Hard to tell from just one listen, but for me it was great and the audience were as enthusiastic as I’ve heard for a concert of electronica. A great example of public engagement with research.

Sonif(y) and Listening to the Mind Listening, composers Guillame Potard, Greg Schiemer, Gordon Monroe, Hans Van Raaij, Tim Barrass, John A Dribus, David Payling, Roger Dean, Greg White, David Worrall, John Sanderson, Tom Heuzenroeder, Thomas Hermann, Gerold Baier, Markus Muller, Greg Hooper; The Studio, Sydney Opera House, July 8

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 47

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

Opera and music theatre works often endure the longest of gestations in the arts, let alone extended agonies of birth and often the shortest of lives. The on-off history of composer David Chesworth and librettist Tony MacGregor’s Cosmonaut (commissioned and workshopped but not taken up by OzOpera) entails waves of inspiration, excitement and frustration, radical editing of the libretto (determined by the scale of the forces available at various times), and finally realisation at the 2004 Melbourne International Arts Festival. I spoke to Tony MacGregor, writer and Executive Producer of Radio National’s Radio Eye and The Night Air about his sources for Cosmonaut.

MacGregor is a great admirer of the writer Elias Canetti (see Janice Muller, “In the space between words”, p. 8), particularly his seminal Crowds and Power. In the mid 1990s MacGregor had wanted to write something about the People Power of the 1980s in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and the Philippines. David Chesworth called to say there was a commission in the offing. One of the stories MacGregor put to the composer was about the cosmonaut, Sergei Krikalev. When the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991, Krikalev was left stranded for 6 months in the space station Mir, “circling the world and immersed in media reports while his fellow Russians took history into their hands.” The librettist sees Krikalev’s situation “as a metaphor for ourselves. We know a lot about what’s happening in the world, but we are largely isolated from it.”

The Russian futurist Velimir Khlebnikov (1885-1922) was another inspiration. A mathematician and “President of the Planet Earth and King of Time”, Khlebnikov believed that “with the right formula you could get inside light and see history.” The “magical sci-fi” possibility of being able to unpick history in a world where “we are saturated by media rays” excited MacGregor. The scenario he invented has a cosmonaut, Viktor, circling the earth but with no likelihood of rescue. In her Melbourne home, Angela, possibly autistic, perhaps schizophrenic, and gifted with mathematical brilliance, accidently tunes her radio to the cosmonaut’s wavelength and communicates with him. With the prospect of him falling into the earth’s atmosphere and burning up “Angela divines the right numbers that will translate Vladimir into light.”

A radio documentary from Poland was another important source for MacGregor’s texturing of his libretto. Constructed from the diaries of cosmonauts, it detailed the banalities of life in outer space, the physical decay and the endless exercise cycling, as if pedalling around the planet. Visions were not uncommon—reports that they had seen Gagarin’s capsule float past, or they’d heard him whistling. There was a sense of the cosmonauts being “simultaneously in the past and the present…travelling through electronic waves of media, through Gaston Bachelard’s ‘logosphere’.” Consequently MacGregor’s proposals for the sound design of Cosmonaut suggested not only the sounds of the historical moment of Viktor’s plight in 1991 but also the crowds of 1989 in Berlin and earlier in Prague, Belgrade and elsewhere. The opening ‘aria’, he says, is a setting of Monica Attard’s report for the ABC of crowds pulling down statues of Lenin and Stalin in Red Square.

MacGregor is resolute that his “magical sci-fi” libretto is not a love story: Angela and the cosmonaut are 2 very different people. Vladimir would prefer to be on the street, in the crowd; while radio contact is probably the only kind that Angela can sustain. But they do connect, far away from the power of crowds and the motion of history, and are transformed, perhaps flowing into history itself. As MacGregor says, if you want to tell this kind of story, how else but through opera. Curiously this Australian work with its Russian sources makes one mindful of the long line of Russian fantasists—including the Futurists, Bulgakov, the Strugatsky Brothers, Pelevin—and the Poles Bruno Schulz and cyberneticist Stanislav Lem (just the kind of writer who might turn out a story like MacGregor’s). The absence of their kind of magic in much writing here suggests that Cosmonaut offers new promise for Australian opera.

Cosmonaut, Oct 20-23; Melbourne International Festival of the Arts, www.melbournefestival.com.au

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 47

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

Among the hotly anticipated acts at this year’s Liquid Architecture annual feast of sound art was France’s Pierre Bastien, whose unique mechanical metier has guaranteed him a special place in the canon of experimental music makers. Nearly 20 years ago, he constructed his ‘Meccanium’ orchestra, musical automatons constructed from Meccano parts, activated by electro-motors, and designed to play a range of acoustic instruments.

At Liquid Architecture 5 (LA5) Bastien showcased a number of inventions honed over his years as a prominent sound artist. One of these self-playing instruments was a home jukebox set-up with an arm modified to drop at regular intervals to produce short, tactile loops. Another resembled a pianola: a rotating cylinder with specially moulded fingers which, on each revolution, struck the keyboard to melodic effect. Video cameras and projectors relayed the actions of the instruments to the audience, a necessary intervention to explain and mediate the performance.

Bastien’s mech-orchestra produced some beautiful sounds—scratchy, light-industrial Meccano clicks, melodic tinkling from the tiny piano and tactile wheezes from the record player. When coupled with his nonchalantly played pocket trumpet, the proceedings took on a distinctly acid-jazz tone. However, despite the imaginative construction of the orchestra and the beauty of the individual sounds, when listened to with closed eyes the end result resembled the unremarkable fare dished up in cool cafés around the world: polished, smooth and studiously inoffensive. There is also the critical question of length. The works seemed overlong; the execution reminding, again and again, of Stravinsky’s famous comment: “Too many pieces of music finish too long after the end.”

More substantial, theoretically exploratory music making occurred at the hands of the German duo Reinhold Friedl and Michael Vorfeld. In a haptic collision of improvisation and composition, the duo exploited body mechanics to create a series of soundscapes challenging conventional notions of rhythm and performance. The usual listing of Vorfeld on drums and Friedl on piano occludes one of the most significant aspects of their art: their practice of playing instruments in unconventional ways. Vorfeld’s highly sensual stroking motions are delivered in an extremely physical performance that involves leaping, crouching and generally spasmodic movements. In the world of sound art, where anti-spectacular effacement is usually the order of the day, Vorfeld’s agonised facial expressions, physical contortions and dapper appearance in a red satin shirt are especially memorable. Friedl’s interest in playing instruments in unconventional ways was manifested in his use of the inside of the grand piano where he played the strings with a long violin bow. Unexpectedly beautiful sounds emerged from this recontextualisation of a familiar instrument that doesn’t feature significantly in the work of current Australian experimental music. For Friedl, “the invention of new technics is a normal thing for an instrumentalist.”

The duo’s performance opened with quiet, precise introspection, moving through a variety of sounds to a very dense, highly intense noise palette. Vorfeld’s hyper-kinetic movements were counterbalanced by the image of the intensely concentrating Friedl, whose every move was reflected in the brilliant veneer of the piano lid. Both rigorously formal and utterly sensual, the performance built up tremendous power. After Bastien’s mechanised complexity, their radical reductionism resulted in a minimalistic sound experience that was, at times, still overwhelming.

As fascinating as the Germans’ project was, the real thrill of the night was in the first performance by Tim Catlin and Rod Cooper. Catlin played a guitar laid flat on a table with a series of vibrating objects, producing a range of unusual clanging and twanging sounds. Melbourne sculptor Cooper has been building instruments for the past few years and showcased the ‘Frogmouth’ at LA5, an intriguing instrument named after the birds around his home and designed for portability. A reworked hurdy-gurdy design with a metal body, this eye-catching concoction bristled with springs, rods and adapted household items. Pieces of metal doweling cut to tuned lengths produced an extraordinarily hypnotic sound when plucked, as did the bowing effect created by turning the fishing wheel. Cooper’s fondness for found objects shows up in the use of scrap items sourced at the performance location, and in the captivatingly aleatory nature of the sounds created. On the darkened stage, minimally lit with reds, and complemented by Catlin’s sensitive playing, these unearthly, exquisite sounds acquired a devotional edge. Cooper’s intelligent, inventive inquiry into acoustic music served as a necessary reminder that the auratic greatness of celebrities shouldn’t be allowed to overpower the true sui generis when it emerges.

Liquid Architecture 5, Tim Catlin and Rod Cooper; Reinhold Friedel and Michael Vorfeld; Pierre Bastien; Brisbane Powerhouse, July 23

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 48

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

Marshall McGuire has been appointed as The Seymour Group’s new artistic director, and on July 23 the ensemble performed a repertoire representing past, present and future directions. As one might expect from a group with over 27 years of history, the performance incorporated a diverse range of styles.

The majority of the concert lingered in the past with works by Pierre Boulez, Harrison Birtwistle, Barry Conyngham, Eliot Carter, and Michael Smetanin—the kind of repertoire I would have expected from The Seymour Group in the mid-1980s. One of Luciano Berio’s final compositions, Cello Sequenza, represented the present, while the future rested squarely on the shoulders of Cyrus Meurant with the premiere of Transience. Assuming that The Seymour Group is not dedicated to retrospectives, what remained unclear was the direction in which McGuire might take the ensemble. Though the switch from the group’s recent collaborative projects might suggest one path.

Boulez’s Dérive 1 made a splendid opening to the concert. The difficulties of producing a warm, vibrant sound with perfect dynamic balance were easily accounted for. The result was beautiful, calm and urbane. Guest conductor Simon Hewett (best known for his work with Brisbane’s Elision) proved a great asset in achieving this end. I hope that his clear and careful manner will be utilised by an increasing number of Sydney’s new music ensembles.

Unfortunately, the juxtaposition with the second work on the program, Birtwistle’s Tombeau in memoriam Igor Stravinsky, was jarring. This is a small work of only a few minutes’ duration written in 1971 and scored for flute, clarinet, harp and string quartet. Its inclusion in this program seems to have been based on the fact that it fitted the available players rather than artistic criteria. Nonetheless it was well performed, its simple repeated-verse structure recalling Stravinsky’s own penchant for repetition.

Like Boulez, Barry Conyngham is a composer who understands combinations of colour. Streams, for flute (Christine Draeger), viola (Benedict Hames) and harp (Marshall McGuire), treats the voices as a single multi-faceted unit, with gestures moving fluidly between the players. But this is also a work of contrasts. Gorgeously clear harmonics juxtapose harsh articulations. Legato lines are interrupted by a violently rattling harp. The writing for harp is particularly subtle with some notes quietly inflected koto-style and pedal positions altered mid-resonance. All 3 performers were in fine form; guest artist Hames will be missed with his impending departure for Germany.

The highlight of the concert was Carter’s Esprit Rude/Esprit Doux, written for Boulez’s 60th birthday and representing the music of North America. This is a wonderful piece dramatically performed by Draeger and Margery Smith (clarinet). Each instrument had a distinct personality, enabling a real dialogue between flute and clarinet. The speech metaphor is not entirely extraneous considering the composition’s attention to different types of breath: rude (rough) and doux (smooth).

For the Australian première of Berio’s Sequenza XIV for solo cello and as a homage to the composer, the cellist Adrian Wallis was backed with green, white and red. For a composer so concerned with the folk traditions of his homeland it was a nice idea, though it obscured the lower half of the instrument, which meant, sadly, that the visual aspect of this exciting performance was lost. The opening gestures are performed without the bow, the left hand activating the strings, and the right hand intricately striking the body of the instrument. Like the best of Berio’s sequenzas, the separation of hands immediately revealed the noisiness of cello technique. Thankfully, Wallis embodies the noisier of the 2 traditions. This is a thoroughly eccentric composition—one moment percussive, the next lyrical.

Meurant’s Transience was the evening’s sole new work and, like the pieces earlier in the night, was interesting for its application of colour. However, in 20 years time I doubt Transience will be regarded as the composer’s finest work. The same could be said of the following piece, Smetanin’s Lichtpunt.

In his closing remarks Marshall McGuire hinted at some exciting projects for next year. Hopefully these will come to fruition, especially if it helps attract a younger audience for the ensemble.

The Seymour Group, conductor Marshall McGuire, guest conductor Simon Hewett; Sydney Conservatorium of Music, July 23

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 48

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

One of the great delights for a composer, and indeed any music lover, is to hear a great work of art live, having previously only heard it on CD. Ensemble Offspring’s fine Australian premiere performances of Phillip Glass’ early work at their concert at The Studio are a case in point. To hear the sheer beauty of these sounds live is an exhilarating experience. Imagine electric keyboard, vibes, flutes, clarinets, soprano saxophone, viola and marimba all played with enormous drive and precision to create a great whirlwind of pulsing, organic energy.

Roland Peelman did a masterful job in putting the ensemble members through their paces, himself playing electric keyboards and nodding the group through the many repetitions. Music in Fifths (1969) for electric organ, soprano saxophone, viola and 2 vibraphones created the unique sound world of repeating parallel fifths. This process is derived from 2 melodic lines moving at the musical interval of a fifth. The aural result is somewhat like a very fast Gregorian chant and creates an open, abstract, contemplative quality. Here the musicians listened, felt together and worked like the best Olympic team. One slip and you’ve lost your place in this process. This kind of physical playing reminded me of the best modern jazz from the same era as the composition; John Coltranes’ famous Quartet and the Miles Davis band of the late 1960s come to mind.

Piece in the Shape of a Square (1968) for 2 flutes worked like a kind of installation piece. Musicians Kathleen Gallagher and Michael Sitsky walked slowly around a square made from erected music stands, slowly following each other and ending where they had begun, all the time reading and playing the many musical patterns that make up the piece. The work had the whimsy of the best of Erik Satie’s work, but lacked the precision and drive of the other 2 Glass compositions performed on the night.

Music in Similar Motion (1969) for electric organ, 2 flutes, soprano saxophone, clarinet, viola and marimba was the piece de resistance. One has to give oneself to this music to get something in return. Here the rewards are many: an incredible sense of life and affirming power, drive and energy, all in the service of a greater logic.

Like Music in Fifths, the music is based primarily on repeated, added and subtracted melodic patterns in parallel motion. The musicians gave of themselves to create a wonderful throbbing engine, motoring to a sudden stop at the end. Having Roland Peelman on keyboard out front to nod in the pattern changes created a concentration that only intensified the groove.

This Ensemble Offspring Concert was a tribute to the foresight of the director/programmer in choosing these highly influential early minimalist works. It is hard to listen to these compositions in 2004 and not be reminded of Brian Eno, David Bowie, Robert Fripp and other composers who caught this bug from 1970 onwards and made it their own, helping to build a whole genre of creative, accessible new music that we now take for granted.

To complement the 3 Glass pieces, in the first half of the concert, we were treated to glass playing of a different kind. Sydney composer Damien Ricketson’s A Line Has Two for soprano, aulos, 2 clarinets, 2 percussion and electronics, also included the exquisite sound of bowed wine glasses. A Line Has Two explored the beauty and very sensual nature of created sounds. Watching this performance reminded me of wonderful nights in the theatre seeing the plays of the French absurdist writer Eugene Ionesco, where actors move chairs around from place to place, much like the musicians moved around in shoeless feet, bowing wine glasses and vibraphones. The work had a very static quality and many sounds seemed to hover in the air before they landed exquisitely in one’s ear. Of particular richness here was the voice of soprano Alison Morgan and the sound of the aulos, a nasal sounding reed instrument that created a sense of erotic longing, blending with the more contemporary metal vibes, wine glasses and electronics.

Written in collaboration with the Australian poet Christopher Wallace-Crabbe and based on the poem The Alignments, A Line Has Two created a spaciousness and an ever-elusive sense of resolution. This work is like a wooden box of very small compartments full of delicious treats for the ears and eyes.

Ensemble Offspring Play Glass, The Studio, Sydney Opera House, July 29

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 50

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

It’s dark, the room lights are off. On stage there’s a semi-circular battery of large speakers. Stolid and flat, each speaker has a tiny green light saying “I’m on, just don’t expect a conversation.” Sounds start to come out, scratchy end-of-record noises, fade-ins and outs, bird hoots and budgie rants. The occasional chord pops in as a reminder of music for hands and fingers all working together. Cymbals run backwards, drainpipes gurgle; the piece finishes with some plinky drip sounds that exploit the spatial array of the speakers more than most of the previous material.

There’s always been a problem with the live presentation of ‘device’ music compared to ‘motor action’ music. Whether it’s a cassette player, reel-to-reel, CD player or a computer up on stage, it’s tricky. Just the machines? Or maybe some visuals as an accompaniment? Tonight, Lloyd Barrett comes in and sits behind the speakers. I can glimpse his legs through the metal of the speaker stands. Every so often his hand reaches down for the plastic water bottle. I’d like to think that he’s had a good night up there on stage, behind those speakers.

After the interval comes Trigger Mortis. COMPOST, the composition team of Damian Barbeler, Julian Day, Luke Jaaniste, Freeman McGrath and Toby Wren have joined up with drummer Grant Collins to write “drumless drum music.” For tonight’s performance Collins plays rubber pads plugged into a computer. The computer is programmed to pump out different sounds according to things like “which of 8 levels of hardness has Grant hit pad A this time”, or “it’s beat 173, time for the little pad on the left to have a completely different function.” This collaboration of performer and composers produces music for the sensibility and skill set that a virtuoso drummer like Collins possesses, as against music that might just as well be played on a keyboard.

Cowboys in Pain, by Julian Day, starts the show. It’s conceptually tight. Corny snaps of sound are structured in a simple rise and fall. Filters open and close, delay times are cramped to distortion, vocals peek out. Damian Barbeler is next up with There’s a snare in there—music for a world run by high functioning autists and obsessive compulsives. Plinky wood blocks and watery rushes make for a candy floss world-music that even gets a bit funky. Collins stops and chats to the audience about having to work against the clock and keep up with the computer changes so that the sounds come out right.

Freeman McGrath (Momentus Torque) then supplies the Collins virtuoso machine with samples from the profiteering worthies and victims of the asylum seeker/border protection hysteria. There’s lots of great rhythm playing—we can hear the drumsticks hitting the rubber pads over the top of the programmed sound, but we don’t hear the rhythms in the music itself. In this piece it’s as if a simple triggering system would have worked just as well as drums, and the compositional goals don’t seem as tightly linked to the means of production.

Toby Wren’s 2 pieces use samples of his own guitar playing as the sound material. The first piece returns us to the classics of compositional technique, guitar sounding like guitar, guitar sounding like zither. Collins then alerts us to the fact that there is tricky playing ahead. He now has to play ratios of 3, 4, 5 and 7 beats into each pulse, requiring a different speed for each leg and arm. He says he has to have “the limbs enter at different rates”, like his head is calling out to a body that hangs down from his neck: “I choose to activate the right lower limb now. Ready, set, go!”, and Collins becomes 4 human tape loops. You could use this guy’s playing to calibrate a physics experiment. Elephant bass, kazoo trumpet: the music sounds like some hideous machine learning how to strangle.

Jaaniste brings up the rear. His first piece comes on like a rapid-fire remix of the William Tell Overture. It’s actually samples of Swan Lake ordered into a martial disco music where snatches of melody thump and grind, inspiring the troops to put on the polyester and dance out to war.

Program ends. Applause is huge. Encore with another Jaaniste piece, this time sounding like a toyshop monkey playing the calliope. Program ends again. Applause is huge again.

COMPOST, Trigger Mortis, Liquid Architecture 5, Brisbane Powerhouse, July 22

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 50

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

Lisa Harms, circle-work_keep courtesy the artist

Lisa Harms, circle-work_keep courtesy the artist

Lisa Harms, circle-work_keep courtesy the artist

Two recent artist-initiated exhibitions in Adelaide pay careful attention to the operations of language. The point where language fails is the place where art (sometimes) takes chances and risks failure. Both Manifesto and Interval: proximity are concerned with relationships, action and the possibility of generating something unexpected, or even new, from the most intimate familial relations to wider social agendas.

Queens Theatre provides a chance for installation artists to consider the dimensions of spatial atmospherics offered by a building that appears ruined. The artists are there to greet visitors, offering tea, coffee, biscuits and a floor plan. The hospitality is a great idea and provides a perfect entrance. Video/DVD projection, though ubiquitous in the last few years, is used here to good effect by Julie Henderson and Lisa Harms. Tucked around the first corner is Harms’ circle-work_keep, a DVD projection and soundscape footnoted with assembled objects barely lit by flashlights. Upturned preserving jars and a goldfish bowl recall experiments in the measurement of sensation. The primary image is projected as a circle. I get a sense of movement, of hair perhaps. The soundscape is low, of the body, at a distance yet close. The text moves from left to right, a simple loop, eloquent fragments from the middle of things: “Story number two: I keep/ I keep the wolf from the door with velvet strip/ & gossamer thread I keep/ a bare & approximate distance.” Line breaks become intervals, the font is Nuptial Script. Designed by Edwin W Shaar in about 1952, Nuptial was developed especially for wedding invitations. Here it signifies the baroque: excess, loss and hope.

The click, click, click from Henderson’s video work in the next room resonates in this one, calling me in. he drinks only when thirsty uses the intransitive verb—a verb with no object. And there he is, the naked man, running. We see him from behind as he runs away from the camera down the centre of 2 tyre tracks that mark a green field. Via jump cuts and fades he moves backwards, forwards and runs on the spot. It’s as though he is always trying to catch up with himself. The image appears large on the wall, and twice more on a television and video camera monitor. These are assembled inside a large packing crate along with the rest of the technology used in the work. Everything is bound roughly with rope, as if all at sea.

Around the corner of the same space is Anna Hughes’ installation Drawing on the particular. The choice of materials is deliberate and sure: “Steamed European Beech” is used to make the frame for an image of an old woman’s hands, palms opened toward the one who watches. “One thousand metres” of thread punctures the image (a “digital print on trace”), a precise stitching that hangs like hair between the arthritic fingers of the old woman, marking the simultaneous distance and proximity of death—death as a passage. The frame is made heavier by the addition of coffin screws and the whole is suspended from a small circular sieve-like object at the back of the room. Or is it a drum? The object, in turn, is held tight by the structure of the building.

Together these works operate like a refrain. They suggest stories—of sadness, of aging or death, of puberty and fear, of melancholy and love. There are aleatory resonances between sound and image from one work to another. The alliance here is both intimate and distant. (A daughter, a lover, a grandmother.) “This distance is never covered, always to be passed through, and even to be started anew” (Luce Irigaray, The Way of Love, Continuum, London, 2002).

Manifesto operates around the impossibility of the declarative statement as an effective political agent. As a group show it is a good example of the kinds of work and questions the new Downtown gallery, Adelaide’s only artist-run space at the moment, is attracting and generating. Curator Bridget Currie wrote in an email: “Downtown Art Space is really the only forum for such an exhibition in Adelaide. Manifesto was a bit of a wild unpredictable beast of an exhibition, too broad and spontaneous for the CAOS [Contemporary Art Organisations of Australia] galleries. An artist-run space is the ideal venue for trying out ideas, without the surety of a ‘result.’ Artist-run initiatives have an important role in making artists’ voices heard. Downtown provided an informal and supportive space to air some (one’s) opinions.”

The exhibition grew from Currie’s fascination with the crazy manifestos of the Futurists, written when a ‘statement’ carried the strength of demand and action: a possible future. I asked Currie about the impetus for the show: “Well I think that the easy road as an artist is to avoid making statements (other than the ubiquitous grant application). This protects you in a way. Political art with a capital P has been frowned on in recent years and I wanted to explore ways in which diverse artists could approach this area. It was important to me to curate artists who didn’t necessarily use text or were overtly political in their practice. In developing this show I was interested in eliciting a response that went deeper than art practice, that was about seeing something underlying—what would you say if you needed to declare something to the world? Because the manifesto is a declamatory form. In a modernist sense this can mean a didactic, propagandist mode, but now I feel people have a much warier relationship with grand statements.

“The works in this show ended up being so varied, from a real world protest manifesto (Sydney Art Seen) to tongue in cheek (Marcin Kobelecki) to personal and poetic (Louise Flaherty). Also, as an artist who makes work that has been described as obscure, I wanted to challenge myself to let other people into my brain a little more. The works were incredibly idiosyncratic in approach and very generous in the end. Looking at the show was for me like being lost in many little worlds (or world views), stories with different narrators. Perhaps it was slightly confronting for some viewers; as you interacted with most works like they were short books—texts in a way. I noticed that some viewers looked at the text as though it was just an aesthetic visual thing, not engaging with its content at all. Glancing briefly at a page of typewritten text, what could they hope to understand?”

Bridget is currently collating all the works into a book and downloadable PDF file which will foreground the “reading” aspect of the works and also serve as a reference.

Lisa Harms, Julie Henderson, Anna Hughes, Interval: proximity, Queens Theatre, Adelaide, August 21-22; Manifesto, curator Bridget Currie, various artists, Downtown Art Space, July 14-24

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 51

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

Margaret Roberts, Red check (2004)

Margaret Roberts, Red check (2004)

Margaret Roberts, Red check (2004)

Margaret Roberts’ Red check closed the old Tin Sheds Gallery with a final, moving exhibition. Roberts’ practice focuses on the less than obvious aspects of architectural environments, and makes building/site and visitor movement/ interactivity integral to her artwork. Tin Sheds Director Jan Fieldsend writes that Roberts’ process is one of recognition and remembering. While the new space was being prepared, Roberts was simultaneously undoing the old gallery: re-touching surfaces, removing 40 spotlights, tracking and skylight covers, demolishing exhibition walls, returning the space to an earlier state. This unseen activity represented a dismantling of elements and meanings, a delving into perception that lies at the core of Roberts’ concerns. Here achieving an astute political sublime, she keeps a reactionary era in mind while returning the building to itself, removing the contrivances of trite gallery-ness, allowing something else to hover in that space between floor and roof.

From the seesaw to the swings that Roberts suspended from the rafters, and coat hooks installed along both walls, there was an eerie sense of absence suggestive of possibly sinister events. (In a schoolyard? The Old Darlington School lies just behind, a relic of a vanished local community.) Swinging and seesawing through such history, her trademark pigment powders marked out large red iron oxide squares over a grey painted floor. A throw of this mystic powder causes a through-the-looking-glass picnic cloth, a flag, a semaphore, a non-sense distortion to settle over the former garage floor. People who enter may or may not take up the invitation to swing, but still have no option but to leave evidence: footprints, scrapes, smears, as the oxide spread and it was no longer clear whether the floor underneath was red or grey.

Roberts says: “Opening night visitors went berserk, disintegrating the checks—red went walking out of the building like the long-past left wing politics of the 1960s and 70s: shifting red sentiment to red sediment.” A comment on the passing on of a tradition at the Tin Sheds, Roberts speaks of loss, death, disappearance. “The red of the checks is like blood or tears. It’s an invitation to the public to jump in and make a commitment.” She reflects: “How do you document site-specific art, where the main thing deleted is the site itself?” Here, where the erasure of site will be doubly final, she provided cameras as a means for the public to record traces of their visit.

Roberts, a lap-swimmer, also modelled the installation on her local pool’s change-rooms: 13 white handtowels hanging on dowelling hooks (she notes one towel disappeared). Towels to wipe hands or feet, to clean walls, and disposable cameras to document the chaos. People’s soiled shoes carried imprints of the artwork and traces of the disappearing gallery out into the street beyond and on to the new space in the Wilkinson Building (School of Architecture, University of Sydney): a bloody analogy, murder or transfusion? Alongside the cameras the towels also gathered imprints, tiny shrouds, dry, blood-stained. To the side a small white storeroom was staffed by 3 attendants on the opening night, wearing aprons, wiping and removing pigment from visitors’ shoes, reverential, biblical, yet futile. These cloth traces remain, recent relics placed on shelves, a photo-archive.

The change-room was an analogy for social change, but not always for the best. Good intention and commitment are sometimes lost and defeated in the process of evolution. Margaret Roberts perhaps alludes to a slower world, but also to a grim past, to death camps and gas chambers, a final solution, giving up: “Take your clothes off, take a shower, swing and die.” Red check, as an action for and by the public, was ultimately a requiem, not a celebration: it put bodies, place and memory into the whirling mixing-bowl of history, and strewed the batter up City Road.

Margaret Roberts, Red check, Tin Sheds Gallery, University of Sydney, June 11-July 3

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 52

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

Feathers float—so do clouds, and dreams. Three weeks ago, a dream didn’t die but certainly dimmed when Aboriginal filmmaker-photographer Michael Riley lost the fight against renal disease after a number of years. That he enjoyed life there is no doubt, as he had fought his affliction and the odds right to the end. It inspired me, and will inspire me into the future.

Michael Riley was born on the Talbragar mission but lived in Dubbo until he finished school. His mother was a Gamilleroi woman from Moree and his father a Wiradjuri man from the Dubbo area. By his mid-teens, he was already making and printing black and white photos using a developing kit from the local chemist. “I was interested in the process—I was inquisitive. I just knew there were images I wanted to do.”

A line of sophisticated Aboriginal people come from the Dubbo and Talbragar ‘mission’ area on the junction of the Talbrager and Macquarie Rivers. They fall between, in Michael’s words, “the Rad Ab and the Trad Ab”, between those politically active marchers of the streets and the spiritual people sought out by new-agers and visiting backpackers. It was these Aboriginal people that Michael strove to highlight. He would count himself among them. His male relatives and friends nicknamed him ‘Elvis’ because of his slicked-back hair and stylish dress. This was a worldly art practitioner and person. His quiet, seemingly aloof manner actually belied a deep-thinking person of extreme warmth, humour and generosity. There were periods of silence where he was present physically but also as a strong and positive spirit—a very masculine thing.

One of my fondest memories is of visiting him early in his illness, when he’d come home from hospital. He asked me to stay for dinner. Even though invalid and on crutches, 10 minutes of shuffles produced a beautiful risotto meal.

From Dubbo, he became a carpenter’s apprentice in outer Sydney and went on to a photography course run by Bruce Hart at the Tin Sheds at Sydney University in the early 1980s. He followed Hart to be his technical assistant at Sydney College of the Arts. At this time he appeared in the groundbreaking Koori 84 exhibition. Spending the next few years at Rapport Agency in Sydney, he produced the Portraits by a Window series of his friends who were part of the amazingly creative Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists’ scene he moved in.

His work was first really exhibited in the Aboriginal and Islander Photographers Exhibition at the Aboriginal Artists Gallery in Sydney in 1986. These ‘urban’ Aboriginal artists who came to socialise and work together would go on to form the Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Ko-operative, dispelling stereotypes of Aboriginal art as being only apolitical, spiritual narratives by old men living in the centre and north of Australia. All would go on to lead remarkable careers in the visual arts.

Michael’s first film, made in 1987 whilst he was completing a traineeship at Film Australia, was Boomalli: Five Koori Artists, an innovative exposé of a set of his co-members (Jeffrey Samuels, Arone Raymond Meeks, Tracey Moffatt, Bronwyn Bancroft and Fiona Foley). In 1987, he worked as a trainee on Tracey Moffatt’s first film, Nice Coloured Girls.

From here he took off with the photo-filmic essays Sacrifice (1993), Fly Blown (1998) and his evocative short film Empire (1997). All these films deal with the broad but brutal issues of ‘black armband’-white blindfold, true facts of Australian colonial history—a colonialism beginning with cursory sightings, then violent exchanges, wars and massacres, followed by the saving and assimilation of the survivors by Christian missionaries. It is a history of ‘clearing the land’, of wiping clean and re-writing, of Aboriginal people being murdered or forced from the land and onto missions and reserves. The gun or the crucifix. Crosses, prayers, stigmata, dark fish, Bibles, water, cracked earth. The death of the environment with Christian overtones. Biblical plagues—droughts, locusts—a poisoning of the water. As rural industry physically takes the land, Christian zeal takes the soul.

Once you get beyond the coastal belt, your vision is divided between a wide horizon that you’d swear actually curves, and a sky so big you think you’re going to fall into it. In most of Michael Riley’s later work he would return to his community and this landscape again and again. This is the same landscape that Ivan Sen of the next generation of Aboriginal filmmakers would explore. Although travelling the world, Michael had a strong sense of community, often working with relatives and friends as subjects and assistants. He was an Aboriginal man through and through and always thought of his art as Aboriginal art.

He kept his life in separate compartments: his time with his son, his time with his family, his time with his friends and time with the art world. The work that was to be his last, Clouds, appears to be more personal and free. A floating feather, a sweeping wing, a vigilant angel, the cows from ‘the mission’ farm, a single Australian plague locust in flight, a comforting Bible and a graceful emblematic returning boomerang. The boomerang is really the only overtly Aboriginal image in the set and the locust one of the few native animals left that is visible and cannot be swept aside. It persists.

It is still a fact in some Aboriginal communities that by the time the generations of sons have reached 30 they have no male role models to guide them, owing to their fathers dying. To lose someone so gifted is a loss for all of us who knew him, and a loss to all who appreciate art. It’s interesting that Michael chose to avoid the word ‘dream’ in naming the series, avoiding glib connections to ‘Dreamtime’. What we see and sense in his work is the culmination of self-examination, a series of poetic photographic texts, increasingly poignant because of events in his personal life; these are dreams of childhood memories of Dubbo, of floating—release.

He will be sadly missed but leaves behind for us his incredible mark.

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 53

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

Victoria Cattoni, Through the Kebaya,<BR /> video installation performance,<BR /> Bandung, Indonesia, 2003″></p>
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video installation performance,
Bandung, Indonesia, 2003

“We give meaning to the kebaya but the kebaya also gives meaning to us.”
Suryakusuma, JI, catalogue essay, Membaca Kebaya: Reading the Kebaya, Denpasar, Bali, 2003

The blouse-like Indonesian kebaya is a ‘doorway’ for Darwin-based artist Victoria Cattoni, an entry into the possibility and performance of a transcultural space. It is the paradoxical medium and message for her video performance-based Masters research project Through the Kebaya at Charles Darwin University. This project comprises a 5 year journey in which she mastered Bahasa Indonesian and developed a widespread program and network of collaborative performer communities. Though Cattoni explores the kebaya as a new media/installation artist, the project also makes for fascinating visual anthropology, supported by a methodology and interactive focus that would make any self-respecting anthropologist proud.

My first experience of Through the Kebaya was in Darwin in November 2002. Cattoni had returned from Denpasar, Bali, where she has spent most of the last 5 years. The wound of Bali’s ‘Black October’ bombings was still raw, with Darwin Hospital’s emergency unit working round-the-clock as the nearest port for ‘First World’ medical treatment. The gauze-like look of the kebaya evoked news footage of serious burn victims arriving at Darwin airport. Even aside from such macabre associations, the exhibition was highly charged given the temper of Indonesian-Australian and Muslim-West relations. The timing then, as now (post-Australian Embassy bombing), could not be more poignant for Cattoni’s deceptively simple vehicle for cultural affinity and critique.

Tamasya Kebaya, the initial Darwin exhibition at Charles Darwin University Gallery, established the video, performance and installation elements Cattoni later utilised in a range of workshop/exhibition venues throughout Bali and Java. According to Cattoni, these are the parts of Indonesia where the kebaya is most visible in daily life. Part of the national costume for Indonesian women (worn traditionally as the kain-kebaya, the kain being the unstitched cloth around the lower half of the body), the kebaya as a cultural phenomenon is rich in paradox. Despite its nationalist symbolism the kebaya is not pan-Indonesian. It was shaped from foreign origins, an amalgam of Arabic, Chinese and European influences dating from the 16th century. Balinese women adopted the kebaya as late as the 20th century (ostensibly under Dutch orders), but are now among its staunchest advocates, with some of the more modern, transparent Balinese variations adding to the garment’s paradoxical quality of concealment and revelation.

The revelation of Cattoni’s initial Darwin workshop and exhibition was in its discreet layering of still and moving imagery, text and performance. The workshop involved voluntary participants choosing a kebaya (or 2) from a well-stocked rack, to try on in front of a mirror, behind which was a camera. Cattoni, herself a participant-performer, was on hand to guide the process, as was a 2 minute video loop, Bali stills, which contextualised the kebaya in Balinese/Indonesian society. The edited footage of Darwinites (including Indonesians) (un)dressing and speaking to the mirror/camera was projected onto the gallery wall in the exhibition. Video stills, the video-loop and rack of kebayas completed the exhibition’s installation, with the attendance of workshop performers on opening night further magnifying the self-reflexive and multifaceted poetry of Cattoni’s project.

Each manifestation of Through the Kebaya throughout Bali and Java, and again in Darwin (2004), was a layer-building process in itself, particularly in the cumulative potency of varied workshops feeding into other workshops and exhibitions. Cattoni used the initial footage from Darwin, for example, as workshop material in Indonesia. The ‘action-based’ nature of the research, as outlined in her thesis, is fundamental to the project’s intuitive and discursive documentation, and to Cattoni’s artistic strategy. Describing herself as “an artist working outside the comfort zones of my own culture”, Cattoni’s personal readings of the kebaya matter little here. Wary of exoticising the garment, and the political climate surrounding her work, she maintains the utmost distance from the project’s ‘centre of meaning.’

It is the voices and gestures of a sizeable cast of mostly Indonesians and some Australians who give form and meaning to the kebaya—girls, women and men who share a transcultural and, to a certain degree, transgendered liminality. This is “more than an exchange of culture”, argues Cattoni; “this is culture making—it demonstrates in an emphatic way how it is we all add value, create meaning, construct identity.” The sense of ‘play’ in the process is apparent in other work by Cattoni, such as her award-winning entry in Darwin’s recent “Sculpture in the Park” exhibition, The art of buoyancy, a 2 minute film screened in a tourist shop window.

Through the Kebaya represents the first comprehensive exploration of a garment close to the heart of Indonesian femininity and sense of tradition, yet largely overlooked as a unique historical or cultural object. In the loaded realisation of her lace-brocade medium, the underlying paradox is Cattoni’s creative ‘absence.’

Victoria Cattoni, Through the Kebaya, a cross-cultural project; Indonesia and Australia (2002-2004)

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 54

© Maurice O'Riordan; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

A Place to Tremble is a site-specific installation which continues and expands the techniques, themes and philosophical preoccupations of Matt Warren’s ongoing practice. Warren is a reflective art-maker best known as a multimedia/new media artist. He is indisputably one of Tasmania’s most important young practitioners and has received numerous grants and awards, including many for international projects.

Warren’s work explores concepts such as spirituality, the soul and transcendence, ‘fragile’ topics for which there is little or no real evidence to support personal theories and opinions. A Place to Tremble works with memories and reports of experiences and encounters with the transcendental, the sublime and spiritual elation—in short, ecstasy.

As one enters the gallery space, there is a sensation of hypnotic calm. It is deceptively easy to apprehend the elements of the installation: 2 gauze ‘screens’ hang in diagonally opposite corners of the room and 2 projectors are placed so as to cast black and white handwritten and printed text onto the gauze, which billows slightly in the ambient air, somewhat distorting the script. A soft soundscape fills the gallery, consisting of snippets of different voices hardly intelligible over a rumbling buzz. The sound, Warren explains in his artist’s statement, can be seen as an attempt to induce the epiphany-like sensations of the spiritual: “a combination of well-being, melancholy, fear and elation; a strange, contradictory combination.” The text, shown overlapping, layered and backwards, is a mix of personal writing, quotes and interviews on the “otherworldly.”

The unknowability of the work’s subject matter is echoed in its presentation: minimalist installation style, the gallery obscured, the ambient sound difficult to pinpoint, the projected text mostly impossible to decipher. For this viewer, the work, with its ‘sensurround’ atmosphere, is not only entirely engaging but simultaneously complex and elegantly simple. The aesthetics of the work are masterful, the sheer, rippling fabric with its stark, white patterned text contrasting with the dark of the gallery space. The sound is both soothing and frustrating in its incomprehensibility. A Place to Tremble envelops the gallery-goer with its seductive allure.

Warren’s show was one of the many highlights of the recent, rather curiously titled Living Artists’ Week, a festival of open studios, exhibitions, demonstrations, talks and other special events. The major group exhibition [in]stall(s), in Hobart’s Long Gallery, featured another work by Matt Warren, which again used light, sound and ambient space (“a multi-CD installation”) to explore metaphysical considerations—this time the nature of truth and the fallibility of the mind. This talented artist does not shy away from the big questions, and the results are always intriguing.

Matt Warren, A Place to Tremble, Inflight Gallery, Hobart, August 7-28

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 54

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

David Vadiveloo

David Vadiveloo

David Vadiveloo

The latest film from Alice Springs-based filmmaker David Vadiveloo may be a documentary about the Stolen Generations, but the director recounts a behind-the-scenes story that could easily be dismissed as contrived if included in a fiction film. Having self-funded the shooting of Beyond Sorry, he showed a rough-cut to a number of broadcasters in an attempt to obtain further financing. In a depressingly familiar scenario for Australian documentary makers, a local broadcaster offered a significant pre-sale deal on one, non-negotiable condition: the level of conflict between black and white Australia in the film had to be notched up.

Vadiveloo had no trouble walking away from the broadcaster’s offer, given that Beyond Sorry is a portrait of Zita Wallace, described by Vadiveloo as: “A living incarnation of the true nature of forgiveness and the true nature of reconciliation.” This is despite the fact that Wallace was removed from her family in the Arrente country of Central Australia at age 8. Assistance with finishing Beyond Sorry ultimately came, without strings attached, from the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA). Vadiveloo acknowledges his good fortune at being given a free hand, noting: “Many young filmmakers in Australia seem to be hamstrung by what they think broadcasters want to see.”

Working both as a lawyer and a filmmaker, Vadiveloo’s career has been inextricably linked with Indigenous issues. At the Central Lands Council, he was involved in a successful Native Title claim incorporating Alice Springs. Since graduating from the documentary program at the Victorian College of the Arts, he has made a number of films depicting aspects of Aboriginal life, most notably the shorts Trespass (2001) and Bush Bikes (2002; RT59, p19), both of which have enjoyed considerable success on the festival circuit in Australia and overseas.

His new film is a study of the Stolen Generations from a fresh, non-sensational angle. Beyond Sorry treats the Howard Government’s inertia as irrelevant, looking instead, like Dhakiyarr vs The King (directors Tom Murray and Allan Collins, 2003, RT61, p22), at grassroots reconciliation. Indeed, the title suggests the need to move past the well-rehearsed arguments, buck-passing and entrenched positions of national politics by focusing on the micro level of interaction between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

Rather than looking at the dramatic moment of child snatching that haunts the popular imagination post-Rabbit Proof Fence, Vadiveloo says he “wanted to focus on the extent of the aftershock, the ripples that these policies caused through generation after generation.” He examines the decades after Zita’s removal from her family, including her upbringing in Catholic missions and her pragmatic decision to become a nun working in New Guinea, before she returned to education, married and raised a family. Bringing us up to the present, the film charts Zita’s decision to leave behind her suburban existence in Alice Springs to return to her grandfather’s country.

Two other voices also provide perspectives on Zita’s life. Aggie Abbott, like Zita branded a ‘half-caste’, escaped capture on that fateful day by following her mother’s advice to hide in the bush. As a witness to Zita’s former life, and now a respected Arrente elder, Aggie provides a counterpoint to Zita’s story. Zita’s non-indigenous husband Ron rounds out the portrait, testifying to the difficulties they have faced as a couple straddling the white and Aboriginal worlds.

There are no easy, happy endings in Beyond Sorry. Zita recalls how she was initially rejected when she returned to her family, a fate shared by many of the Stolen Generations. Having been told by nuns that the children were dead, Arrente culture prohibited the community from speaking about them. Unsurprisingly, her mother then found it difficult to accept her daughter was alive. It was only Zita’s persistence in pursuing her heritage that allowed them to eventually become close.

Praising Zita as a “voice without complaint”, Vadiveloo says she wanted people to understand that “there’s more to reconciliation than just saying sorry or scribbling in a book.” The film shows Zita as a living embodiment of the very real contradictions at work in contemporary Australia. She is a woman who will one minute quote John Laws in her pride at not “bludging off Australia” and the next rhapsodise about returning to her grandfather’s dreaming.

As well as examining complex questions of identity through the documentary form, David Vadiveloo has been central in putting together an ambitious new multi-platform project. UsMob, which began production in August, is set in Hidden Valley, the town camp outside Alice Springs where Aggie Abbott lives. It will include appearances by Aggie and other locals, but unlike Beyond Sorry, UsMob has received production funding under the AFC and ABC New Media and Digital Services Broadband Production Initiative. The SAFC, Telstra and Adelaide Film Festival have also invested. Spanning documentary, interactive new media and docudrama, it will centre on teenage characters in the Hidden Valley community.

An interactive series with multi-path storylines, UsMob includes plans for online, television and theatrical exhibition. Vadiveloo describes the project as “unique and logistically challenging…it attempts to focus on cross-platform delivery that encourages everybody to engage with the story, and in doing so, to engage with the culture.” He sees UsMob as setting a new benchmark in working with the local community. All the actors and storylines come from the town camps, and every single phase has been checked and approved by relevant elders, traditional owners and the peak Indigenous organisation, Tangentyere Council. All participants are paid and a percentage of any profit will go to town camp communities.

The interactive component of UsMob includes 2 games. The first is time- and skills-based, with echoes of Bush Bikes. It requires competitors to build a bike and move through terrain. The second game will test bush survival instincts through the acquisition and application of knowledge about the harsh outback environment.

For Vadiveloo the common strand linking the UsMob components is the aim of creating a non-didactic learning tool that avoids stereotypes about black and white lifestyles and allows participants to engage and become familiar with the environment of Hidden Valley. On the evidence of his film work thus far, David Vadiveloo’s future projects will no doubt make their own vital contribution to grass-roots reconciliation by furthering understanding between the frequently distant worlds of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

Beyond Sorry, director/producer David Vadiveloo, 2004

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004

© Tim O’Farrell; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

This year's Brisbane International Film Festival (BIFF) continued the event's interest in Argentinian cinema with a set of features and documentaries illustrating the extent to which the nation's turbulent political history has had an overwhelming impact on its filmmaking. This can be seen in both a recurring thematic backdrop of economic chaos and in the direct, murderous oppression of dissident filmmakers.

Billed as comedies, the feature films The Magic Gloves (director Martin Rejtman) and Buena Vida Delivery (Leonardo di Cesare) deal with escalating social situations resulting from chance encounters. In The Magic Gloves, taxi driver Alejandro endures a series of humiliations after being drawn by an entrepreneurial former school friend into an unwise investment. Buena Vida Delivery centres on the trials of Hernan: the family of his new housemate move their biscuit-making operation into his home and eventually have to be removed by force. In both these films, the backdrop of Argentina's successive economic disasters looms large. The famed Argentine magic realism is replaced by heavy-handed metaphor and screwball situation comedy as protagonists struggle with disappointment and betrayal by those in whom they place their trust.

Raymundo is more explicitly concerned with Argentina's history, detailing the life and work of political filmmaker Raymundo Gleyzer. Using archival footage, extensive interviews, diary extracts, home Super 8 and Gleyzer's own films, this documentary builds a picture of a filmmaker whose commitment to the struggle for social and economic justice for the people of Latin America ultimately cost him his life. The filmmakers say they “don't intend to mystify Raymundo's figure, nor to enclose him in a time capsule, but to act as a bridge for others to continue the struggle. That's why this re-discovery is so important for the continuation of this kind of cinema.”

Raymundo charts Gleyzer's life against Argentina's continual political upheaval, starting with his emergence amidst the revolutionary spirit of the Free Cinema movement of the 1960s, through extensive work with idealistic documentary collectives, to his first, and last, dramatic film. Gleyzer's son, Diego, narrates much of the story, reading his father's diary extracts. Diego's image is revealed only late in the documentary, leaving the audience, by now familiar with Gleyzer's visage, to gasp at the incredible likeness-a tribute to the power of intelligent, thoughtful editing. By the time Gleyzer's inevitable capture and torture is revealed after the completion of his film The Traitors, a barely fictionalised account of treachery by union leaders, the documentary had gathered so much emotional momentum that there were few dry eyes in the cinema. From an overwhelming amount of material, makers Virna Molina and Ernesto Ardito have assembled an arresting masterwork.

After the documentary, a screening of The Traitors was made all the more poignant by learning that Raymundo Gleyzer toured the film in Australia shortly before his murder. Based on actual people and events, The Traitors traces the deterioration of a unionist's principles as he initially fights for workers' rights, is co-opted and bought by the system, and finally ends up one of those against whom he once fought. Twin narratives, 20 years apart, are intercut to contrast the story of the young idealist (the lover) and the cynical incumbent (the killer). The collocation of the screenings greatly enhanced the viewing of The Traitors and created a reflexive climate; the documentary establishes the film's tragic significance in Raymundo's oeuvre, and includes footage from the production process shot by Raymundo and the radical documentary group Grupo de Cine.

Further intensifying the retrospective's reflection on Argentine filmmaking was the inclusion of Fernando 'Pino' Solanas' latest film, Memoria de Saqueo, translated as A Social Genocide, though History of a Plundering is closer. The film takes the 2001 freezing of all bank accounts and subsequent popular revolt as the starting point for its investigation of Argentina's current situation. The pillaging of Argentina parallels that of many Latin American countries, exploited first by Spain and Europe and then by the USA and multinational business interests. It is against these ongoing forms of colonisation that Memoria de Saqueo remonstrates so forcefully. The documentary is an example of “Third Cinema”-neither Hollywood nor arthouse-which, in the famous manifesto, Solanas declared “a cinema of decolonisation.”

Solanas updates the metaphor and literary allusions of his incendiary 1969 experimental polemic La Hora De Los Hornos with a deeply cinematic video essay that places the blame for Argentina's continuing economic crises on the treachery of governments, banks and other institutions. Los Hornos' powerful intercutting between workers and slaughtered livestock is reworked in Memoria de Saqueo through sweeping tracking shots of gleaming mahogany boardrooms counterposed with graphic images of poverty, scavenging children and an unforgettable image of a starving baby. The film's nationalist agenda is central to Solanas' theory, as “Third Cinema is also aligned with national culture…that of the ensemble of the popular classes.”

Memoria de Saqueo, together with Raymundo and The Traitors, constitute a body of contemporary Third Cinema works galvanised by injustice and shot through with common themes of treachery and betrayal. At a time when political documentary filmmaking inhabits a position of public visibility, popularity and participation like never before, the power and beauty of the Argentine focus at BIFF is highly significant. Argentina's future remains uncertain and despite the inordinate difficulties and the penurious climate for filmmaking, agitational works remain as important as ever. In Raymundo Gleyzer's words: “Filmmakers who work towards a revolutionary cinema in South America must not limit themselves to denouncing, or to the appeal for reflection; it must be a summons for action. It must appeal to our people's capacity for tears and anger, enthusiasm and faith…We must therefore serve as the stone which breaks silence, or the bullet which starts the battle. Poetry is not a goal in itself. Among us, poetry is a tool to transform the world.”

Argentinian Spotlight, 13th Brisbane International Film Festival, Regent Cinemas, July 27-August 8

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg.

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

Artists reflect on their education

The articles on training in dance, sound art, theatre, film (animation), performance and new media art in our education feature are based on interviews with artists who graduated in the last 3 to 7 years. Already some of the courses they completed have changed substantially, others not. However, discrete new media art and especially sound art courses had barely begun in this period. It’s not surprising then to find that the articles about sound art and new media art are largely about visual art school experiences.

That a considerable number of new media and sound artists have emerged from art schools says something about the way in the 1990s those schools were responding to and even initiating changes in the art world around them. For that reason, these articles should be read in conjunction with the spirited appraisal by Su Baker (Head, School of Art, Victorian College of the Arts) of students and their relationships with art schools. Given the assumptions of some critics that students are being duped and that Australian art is therefore in a sorry state, it’s heartening to read former students reflecting on the many advantages, challenges and occasional conflicts in their training. Access to equipment, the importance of theory and multidisciplinary skilling, the significance of mentoring (formal or informal) and the introductions to invaluable networks all rate highly in their assessment of their education.

What is also regarded highly is a certain flexibility, the need sometimes for the student artist to change direction and for courses to be responsive. A number of the interviewed artists found their professional careers by circuitous means or sudden shifts of interest. Some worry that in the age of the pragmatic approach “targeting and attempting to second guess ‘industry’ may perhaps backfire, producing a glut of artists doing what is already being done, instead of producing artists who can provide new ideas and ways of thinking” (p34).

There is a difference between training students in terms of industry and the university entering a relationship with industry. In her article on music education, Helen Lancaster, while appreciating the career opportunities that are expanding beyond performance and composition for graduates, writes that “there is still little evidence of effective collaboration between institutions and industries. Few universities take seriously their potential to assist graduate placement.” She also reports that, unlike their UK counterparts “Australian institutions are not required to maintain a long-term professional profile of their graduates—and they don’t.” What she does applaud in a number of courses is “the trend toward collaborative practice offer[ing] access to a wider range of opportunities, encouraging students to become responsible for their own learning, a positive quality for musicians who must build their own careers.” It is that sense of independence which is most often felt when the artists in this edition reflect on the impact of their education. One factor that might have a negative impact in this respect is the problem growing around teacher-student ratios.

The arts, ecologically

My thanks to those of you who responded to my article on the problematic relationship between the ABC and the arts community and, more particularly, on developing a new way of thinking about the arts, one not predicated on the prevailing business model. There’ll be more about this in RealTime 63 with a report on the forthcoming seminar “Culture and creativity in Australia: the role of arts and cultural organisations in innovation in the arts.” This is to be held on August 27 at the University of Technology Sydney and is organised by UTS (Writing Centre and Transforming Cultures Centre) and Currency House.

Innovation and the arts

RealTime 63 will focus on innovation in new media arts and hybrid performance. The term ‘innovation’ is increasingly deployed as a claim for significance, it’s a common criterion for arts funding and part of the justification for the arts-science-industry nexus. What does innovation mean, when does it happen, in what kind of work and who are the innovators?


A RealTime writing team will be responding to the exhibitions and conferences in the 2004 Biennial of Electronic Arts Perth, September 7-12. Log on to our website for daily coverage of the event. KG

RealTime issue #62 Aug-Sept 2004 pg. 3

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

Lucy Taylor, Margaret Mills, Still Angela

Lucy Taylor, Margaret Mills, Still Angela

Lucy Taylor, Margaret Mills, Still Angela

Three theatre practitioners, Lucy Taylor, Benjamin Winspear and Katherine Tonkin, who have graduated from actor training schools in the last 7 years have had very different experiences since leaving their respective institutions. Each provides important insights on their training.

Taylor, who graduated from the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) acting course in 1999, says that although she has worked in film and television, most of her employment has come from theatre: “My training at VCA prepared me extremely well. Of course when I graduated I realised there was a huge amount to be learned on the job, but I’d say the training I received has been like a strong but flexible backbone in the body of my work so far.”

Tonkin, a graduate of the West Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA), believes the course provided sound training and gave her the opportunity to “meet and work with some pretty amazing people.”

Winspear graduated from the NIDA actors’ course in 1997. He believes: “The important thing to get from actor training is the beginning of a process.” He stresses that this happened for him through connections with guest tutors Barrie Kosky and Leisa Shelton, as well as the straight drama training he was doing at NIDA. After graduating he responded to the physical work of Nikki Heywood, Benedict Andrews and Kate Champion.

Winspear is now a Resident Director at the Sydney Theatre Company: “I never dared to imagine directing anything while I was at NIDA. I thought that directing was something you came to later in life once you had developed a body of work in another field. My desire to direct came through a vague dissatisfaction with the types of work available to me as an actor.”


Being a collaborator in the creation of work for the theatre, contributing to conception, writing and other aspects of a production have all become important parts of the creative lives of many actors.

After graduating, Benjamin Winspear worked as a performer in shows that toured to the Adelaide and Sydney Festivals and the Weimar Festival in Germany. It was meeting people with a strong sense of continuity in their work and a rigorous, exploratory approach to theatre-making that led to a decision to “consciously pursue partnerships with people I really wanted to work with.” Barrie Kosky was really important for Benjamin in this phase of his career.

Lucy Taylor has also responded to the notion of theatre-making, a philosophical and practical approach for which VCA is well-known. “VCA’s commitment to theatre-making has been the best foundation for the work I have been engaged with in the past 3 years. The training in this area encouraged a creative autonomy that has made my recent work as a performer really satisfying and challenging. It’s been invaluable in my experience working with a director like Jenny Kemp, who encourages the theatre-making process with her collaborators.” Taylor appeared in the premiere of Kemp’s Still Angela and is in the Mobile States national tour of the work.

Winspear found the process of performing in shows at NIDA frustrating at times: “Drama schools can often be quite limited…There are a whole lot of interesting plays that never get up. The restriction of that approach was shown when Barrie Kosky came in and we devised a piece that was so fantastically like building theatre from scratch. That’s when I felt most empowered as a performer.” At times it was a struggle to remain in the pressured environment of the school. What kept him there was friends and collaborators. He enjoyed the “passionate disagreement” with his fellow students as well as the sense of a developing ensemble. In 2003 Winspear received a Fellowship from the Gloria Payten and Gloria Dawn Foundations which enabled him to travel to Europe for 3 months to work with Barrie Kosky: “To be immersed in a process and to see so many different kinds of work was as valuable as 3 whole years at NIDA.”


In terms of skills, Katherine Tonkin says there isn’t any one single thing that she keeps using: “All the aspects of the training are inside me, and have been absolutely instrumental in building an autonomous process.” She quotes a teacher who told her: “Technique is only something you fall back on if your instincts fail you.” She enjoyed the diversity of approaches at WAAPA: “I have had the good fortune of being able to do a range of different things since graduating—from working with the MTC to doing a show in a 40 foot shipping container [Gilgamesh, Next Wave]—and I feel grateful for the openness of my training in preparing me for these experiences.”

Lucy Taylor draws heavily on the physical training she received at VCA: “Even though the classes nearly drove me demented at the time, the skills I learnt with Valeria di Campo in Commedia dell’Arte in first year have proved invaluable…Precision, timing and the ability to find freedom and high energy within a strict frame have been really useful.”

The actor as director

Benjamin Winspear alternated between performing and directing in his first years out of drama school. The directing helped illuminate the acting. Soon after graduating he was working in the MTC production of Great Expectations: “If I hadn’t the directing experience I wouldn’t have understood why all the technical requirements were necessary—it was a very technically demanding show.” He also found that as an actor, the directing experience made him much more accepting of the role of the director.” He now thinks it should be “mandatory for all actors in drama school to direct something so that they understand what a difference it makes to have actors who say ‘yes’ rather than ‘no’.”

Making bad text sing

Lucy Taylor is aware that there is debate about the very particular approach to text that is currently taught at VCA: “Unless you happen to work with a director who employs this method, it’s rare to use the technique in all its stages and detail. I suppose that might lead many to question its usefulness…I may use aspects of it in preparation for a role, or if I am stuck with a piece of text I can’t make move. But then I always did think that, as with any aspect of my training, it could be interpreted and accessed as required.”

The luxury of delving into great texts, which is so intrinsic to the actor training experience, can create another set of challenges once the acting graduate is released into the world. Katherine Tonkin notes: “Whereas at drama school you get to sink your teeth into really great roles from complex and well-crafted texts, you soon realise that the reality in the industry—especially for actors my age—is that these types of roles are really few and far between.”

Taylor also speaks about a similar problem: “It’s a strange thing to say but one thing I wasn’t taught at VCA is how to deal with really bad text. I haven’t breathed a word of Shakespeare since I left 5 years ago, but I’ve had to deliver some really rotten dialogue, mostly for television and I’ve found it a challenge to make text like that sing. This is critical, especially when newly trained actors find themselves in an audition and this ability means the difference between getting the job or not. In hindsight, perhaps some different approaches to text, other than the core method employed might have been to my advantage.”


Benjamin Winspear was able to revisit and perhaps resolve some of the difficulties he experienced in his actor training when NIDA employed him 2 years after he graduated to direct a third year production. “I remembered vividly the difficulties of the process of working on a show, and I tried to guide the students past the sticking points I had found in myself when I was a student there.” He acknowledges he is in a privileged position and is grateful to Robyn Nevin, Artistic Director of the STC where he is currently directing Seneca’s Thyestes: “She has a great capacity for picking people up and offering them impossible opportunities. She’s acutely aware that larger companies should be offering opportunities to new and emerging artists.”

Lucy Taylor’s hopes and wishes for work in the industry have changed relatively little: “When I graduated I was really clear about the work I wanted to do and the people and companies I hoped to work with.” In the past 3 years she has realised many of her goals, working with Jenny Kemp, Neil Armfield and Michael Kantor. However, she has had to learn to diversify as well: “I’ve learnt that to do the work I love, I have to do a lot of work I don’t. Like a lot of grads I came out of VCA thinking I wouldn’t do bad television or be in an ad. Five years on and several ads later I’d advise any young graduate to take the money and run.”

“I always knew it was a competitive industry”, says Katherine Tonkin “but it’s been a hard road discovering just how little work there is out there, and yet I count myself as having been very fortunate.” Lucy Taylor believes the training institutions “shouldn’t be in the business of preparing the actor not to be employed, but instead providing the tools and inspiration to remain active in the craft when paid work or work that is artistically gratifying is scarce.” This challenge is central to the theatre practitioner’s working life. Says Lucy: “You are never as busy out of school as you were in. This can be hard when you are committing yourself to a career you feel passionate about, and your working week consists of an audition for a washing machine commercial. It’s a challenge sometimes to stay creatively charged and engaged.”

RealTime issue #62 Aug-Sept 2004 pg. 4

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